This article forms part of the series Rapture & Decay: The New Eschatological Cinema:
"Try as they may to savour the taste of eternity, their thoughts still twist and turn upon the ebb and flow of things in past and future time. But if only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would be still for a while and, for that short moment, they would glimpse the splendour of eternity, which is forever still". - Augustine of Hippo, c. 400 AD.
It is no secret that the initial idea for Melancholia came to Lars von Trier whilst the filmmaker was being treated for severe depression. More specifically, von Trier was inspired by a theory gleaned from one of his therapists at the time- that depressives and melancholics are more likely to act calmly in violent situations than "happy" people, who have a tendency towards panic. As the Danish film critic Per Juun Carlsen writes in a 2011 interview with von Trier, "Melancholics are ready for it. They know everything is going to hell". Carlsen also observes that von Trier "does not consider Melancholia to be about the end of the world and the human race but about humans acting and reacting under pressure".
Indeed Von Trier openly rejects the way in which Melancholia has been marketed by Hollywood, right down to his own PR department's tagline - "a beautiful film about the end of the world". Instead he makes clear that the film's entire plotline - of a distant planet colliding with Earth and bringing about the end of human life - serves as metaphor for depression and the melancholic state. This is evident particularly with regards to the relationships between characters, the ways in which they interact with one another and the very different ways in which they attempt to cope with the coming apocalypse.
I have already described in a previous article the way in which there is a rising sense, within cultural theory and the cinema of the past few decades, of being on the brink of what some have termed "inertial destiny". This sense is particularly prevalent if you are of what we shall call a "melancholic" disposition (and judging by the statistics we're all depressed nowadays so that probably includes you), if you're a left-wing activist or ponderer, or if you have a stockpile of tinned baked beans in the basement for when 2012 hits hard. But what exactly is it that we are holding out for? Nuclear holocaust? Mass flooding? A supervolcano? An alien invasion? Or, perhaps, planetary collision...? Contemporary financial crisis porn might drive us wild with its motifs of chaos on the streets and daily despatches from the most recent pockets of doom but as far as wiping us from the face of the planet goes, as yet, it's not much of a contender. Oh yes, we're going to need something much bigger than the end of capital to satisfy our eschatological yearnings...
What melancholics really crave is a permanent release from the perpetual state of depression, boredom and lack of meaning in which they are trapped. That is, to say, a reprive from feeling obliged to put on a brave face, pretending that everything is ok, that you're happy, you're participating, you're "normal" and you most definitely, definitely, do not want to go back to bed and sleep for a year or worse, die.
In short, the best thing that could possibly happen would be for the world to end and for everyone you know and love, nay, everyone in the whole entire living world, to be wiped out. That way (a) you don't miss out on anything because all of the vital actors and reactors within your life are dead too; and (b) it's not your fault.
For the melancholic the worst thing that can possibly happen is for the clock to just keep ticking with no skips, delays or major cataclysms. As David Ewing Duncan so eloquently describes,
"This is our blessing and our curse: to count the days and weeks and years, to calculate the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and to capture them all in a grid of small squares that spread out like a net cast over time: thousands of little squares for each lifetime".
It is no coincidence that a painful life mapped out in small squares can be a life of extreme creative action. Von Trier stands out as one of thousands of examples of artists whose depressive inclinations have inspired artistic greatness. This I shall take as given. What I'm more interested in is the possibility which this creative sensibility gives rise to - that melancholics do not long for nothingness in their cravings for Thanatos, their taste for oblivion. Instead I posit that they long for something much more ambitious - immortality.
In an interview from 2004, Zizek claims that "[Freud's concept of the] death drive has nothing to do, as Lacan points out, convincingly, with this so-called Nirvana principle where everything wants to disappear, and so on. If anything (and because of this I like to read Richard Wagner's operas where you have this), death drive is that which prevents you from dying. Death drive is that which persists beyond life and death".
Viewed as a drive towards immortality rather than inertia, the death drive (Thanatos) becomes a macro version of the will to survive, create and procreate (Eros) which can only ever exist on a mortal, finite scale. It is well documented that in completing his work on the drives, Freud was very much aware of the parallels between his investigations and those of the philosopher Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer the misery inherent in the world stems from the gap between the world as we see it (Phenomenon) and the reality of the world (Noumenon) which is, rather irritatingly, unknowable to us. Desires (unfulfilled) and our Will (thwarted) form the greatest sources of suffering and so it follows that the only way in which one can attain peace is to forego all desire, to negate the Will. Such negation of the Will, of Eros, is necessarily this longing for death, expressed most satisfactorily by the savvy melancholic's desire for the end of the world.
It is no coincidence that the composer Wagner, whose Prelude from Tristan und Isolde is used to overbearing effect in Melancholia, was greatly influenced by the work of Schopenhauer. It also no coincidence that like von Trier and Freud, Wagner was chiefly interested in expressing ideas about sex and death. Whilst Isolde's Aria in Act III is often referred to as Liebestod, Wagner himself used this term (meaning love-death) to refer to the Prelude. His ecstatic visions of suffering, longing for what one cannot have, the juxtaposition of creation and termination, of sex and death; the beauty inherent in suffering; such visions looms heavily in von Trier's work. In many ways it is possible to view Melancholia and the earlier Antichrist as parts of the same whole - the Thanatos to the latter's Eros. Tod und Leben.
The rapture and melodrama inherent in the works of Wagner and von Trier stands in stark contrast to the shades of grey in which the melancholic sees existence. Both von Trier's Melancholia and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde painfully build towards their ecstatic crescendos - the narrative points of no return which the depressive mind so desperately longs for. But real life is not like the movies; there's that gap which Schopenhauer was so devastatingly fond of. Love is never sweet enough, pain is never agonising enough and the Prelude never does strike up in the background of those cathartic moments.
Yvette Biro writes of the way in which cinema "redeems" physical reality by charging the everyday with the emotional content of ceremonies. So surely it is worth stopping to question why it is that we seek out these extremities of emotion and why it is that human beings have, throughout history and the world over, grappled with and been drawn to eschatologies as ideals.
In the next article in this series I shall outline the history of such thinking, tracing its roots back to the time of Zoroaster, in an attempt to determine where this taste for the apocalypse, this fascination with the End Times, came from. I shall examine the possibility that such eschatological hopes and suspicions are in fact variants of a vast socially constructed myth; the fallout from thousands of minor political, religious and military decisions, taken hundreds of years ago in a land very far away from here...