Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Melancholia: Life as a Wicked Idea

"The human race is just chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies."  
- Stephen Hawking, 1995, in "Reality on the Rocks: Beyond our Ken."

 Melancholia, a highly praised film from Lars Von Trier, follows the imploding lives of the characters as the earth awaits imminent destruction from the planet Melancholia. While stunningly beautiful in its cinematography, it is hauntingly hopeless in its depiction of a life without meaning.
Perhaps appropriately, none of the main characters are compelling. Justine is the melancholic whose longing for nothingness ushers in the rogue planet that will destroy earth.  She cares for no one but herself: she dumps her groom on the night of their wedding; she is casually cruel to everything around her; she can't stand the rituals of normal life.  Since nothing matters, the arrival of the doomsday planet  is not something she fears at all.  One of Cormac McCarthy's characters in the Sunset Limited could have been her spokesperson:
 “The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, lost, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness... and all of it with a single conclusion. For you and everyone and everything you have ever chosen to care for… And there's no going back, there's no setting things right, there's only the hope of nothingness.”
Her sister, Claire, is perhaps as unstable as Justine though their personalities could not be more different. "I hate you so much," she says more than once to Justine.  Claire is married and has a child; she cares too much what others think, and follows convention with a commitment that threatens to wind her so tight she seems always to be on the verge of breaking.  Justine rejects the apparent shallowness of every social convention; Claire embraces them all to infuse them with a level of meaning they were not meant to bear.
Claire and Justine's parents are morally and socially vacuous. Claire's husband is a man of science and convention who places all his trust in order and predictability, with tragic results. Their friends are shallow; their servants are pawns; her boss is an ogre. In this story, there is no one for whom to cheer.

The director intended to ask a particular kind of question with this film: Is everything hollow?  Does anything matter?  Money, possessions, science, family, careers, friends, and tradition all fail in the end. Justine muses that "life is a wicked idea," a sentiment the director seems to share.  In this kind of reality, the hero (if there is one) is the person who recognizes that Macbeth was right: all is but toys.  Since our end is despair and destruction, the less we value, the less we stand to lose.

In the valley of the melancholy, the detached, uncaring man is king.  And so the world ends with a bang, validating Bertrand Russell's perspective: 
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
There is a sense in which I understand the appeal of films like Melancholia.  There is a gravitas, a weight to the truth that the world is not always happy, and that not every story ends well.  To not acknowledge that is to avoid reality.  But a view that believes the unrelenting weight of truth will eventually crush us fails to tell the whole story.
Here is where Christianity brings a robust picture of truth. The weight of truth can also be a counterweight that raises us to realms of hope and light. There are some kinds of truth that also set us free.  Not every ritual is empty; not every relationship is destructive; not every hope has been obliterated in the cold light of a hostile universe; not every story ends in despair.
If Bertrand Russell,  Cormac McCarthy, Stephen Hawking, and Lars Von Trier are correct, then we truly are hollow people in an hollow world. But if God is present, infusing truth with a nobility and purpose that transcends our fragile existence, then the story changes completely.
There are those who look at the universe and see only that which will destroy us. There are others who look at the same universe and see that which will save us.
"I lift up my eyes to the mountains— 
where does my help come from? 
My help comes from the LORD, 
the Maker of heaven and earth."  Psalm 121:1-2 
"Unto you I lift up my eyes, O God who dwells in the heavens… our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.” Psalm 123:1-2 
"My voice you will hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto you, and will look up.”  Psalm 5:3

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