Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

Last night I was home alone during an odd storm which beat on my windows all night. It started as a thunderstorm of rain and developed into a thunderstorm of sleet/hail and then eventually into a thunderstorm of snow; fully equipped with lightening all the way through. It was the perfect setting within which to watch the dazzling Lars Von Trier film “Melancholia”, which portrays the strained relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire, as an unforeseen rogue planet barrels into the solar system and heads straight for Planet Earth. The purpose of this short essay is not to give a review or a summary of the film (I am assuming readers will have already watched the film), but rather to explore a philosophical aspect of the film that I have not heard others comment on (although perhaps some have). It is my contention that this film, which examines the depths of depression, isolation, nihilism, and annihilation, is heavily influenced by Nietzschean philosophy.

During the first half of the film, Justine is suffering from a particularly intense episode of near catatonic depression, while her sister Claire, sober and stoic, helps her through it. Half way through the film though, Justine begins to slowly emerge out of her depression, just as Claire slowly descends into a chaotic panic as it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue planet “Melancholia” is on a collision course with the Earth. The sisters effectively switch emotional positions. What marks this stark role reversal is a scene in which the two sisters are out riding horses together and Justine, still depressed at this point, tries to urge her horse to cross a bridge which it refuses to cross. In a frenzy of anger, Justine beats the horse with her whip and kicks it with her feet until the horse collapses; she continues to beat him as her sister Claire, riding around in small circles on her horse, yells desperately at Justine to stop. This scene sets into motion the emotional role reverasal between the sisters. Claire, from this point forward, slowly gets more and more anxious and eventually descends into full blown panic attacks as well as completely irrational (and utterly futile) attempts to flee with her son in the face of oncoming armageddon.

The scene with the horse is eerily reminiscent of the famous story of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes that one day while walking in streets of Turin, Nietzsche came upon a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche, in an emotional frenzy, ran over to the horse screaming, draped his arms around it desperately, and then collapsed onto the cobblestone streets. He was arrested by two nearby policemen for causing a public disturbance. But this event signaled his complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He lived the rest of his life under the watch of his sister, and never contributed to philosophy or literature again.

The connection seems obvious to me: just as Nietzsche went crazy after seeing the beating of the horse, so did Claire. Her usual calm and commanding demeanor slowly evaporated away (not unlike the atmosphere of Earth as Melancholia approached) until she was left in emotional ruin. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy centered around the problems of a post-god world, and the subsequent creep of nihilism into the human psyche, which Nietzsche saw as a terrible thing that humanity had to overcome; not by reverting back to the old religions, but by pushing through nihilism and transcending it (for those that were strong enough to do so). The relentless approach of the rogue planet Melancholia can be seen as a loose symbol for the approaching nihilism that Nietzsche was so concerned about: both representing the total destruction of all human values and meaning.

The connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the themes of the movie is made even more explicit by Von Trier’s use of Richard Wagner’s music to underscore the film; namely Wagner’s famous opera, “Tristan Und Isolde” (which was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, who was famous for his philosophical pessimism and was a huge influence on Nietzsche). Richard Wagner was a famous German composer and contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche and Wagner were, at one time, very close friends, and Nietzsche wrote one of his most famous works, “The Birth of Tragedy”, which trumpeted Wagner’s music as the “rebirth” of European high culture. Soon, though, their friendship became strained, and then ended bitterly, as Wagner moved his music in a new direction that Nietzsche hated. It is not accident, then, that Wagner’s music would be used in a film that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. The assertion, were it to be made, that this is all mere coincidence strains credulity.

To take my theory about the connection between Nietzschean philosophy and this film a step further, I think it is worth noting that another fundamental element of Nietzsche’s philosophy (which was thematized in “Melancholia”) was a skepticism of scientific truth and human reason. He appreciated science and he clearly used reason, but he was intimately aware of their innate limitations and criticized those who had too much faith in them. This is reflected in the film in the form of Claire’s husband, John, a rationalist, who is hyper-confident throughout the entire film that “the scientists” are certain that the rouge planet will not collide with Earth, but rather perform a safe fly-by; it will appear beautifully in the sky, but humanity is not in danger. He carries a telescope, a scientific instrument and a symbol of the scientific method and worldview, around with him most of the film, through which he gazes at Melancholia amusedly and excitedly. For him, it is just a spectacle of science. Later, when he realizes that the scientists were wrong, and that Planet Melancholia is in fact going to collide with Earth, he commits suicide by swallowing poison in the horse’s stable. The certainty that science and reason had provided for him evaporates, and the existentially destabilizing pain caused by the catastrophic failure of his faith in science proves too much to cope with. His very identity was tied up in his belief in science, reason, and order, and when those broke down, so did his entire sense of self. When his wife, Claire, finds his dead body, she covers him with a thin layer of straw from the floor of the horse stable. He dies an animals death.

To conclude, the beating of the horse which leads to Claire’s emotional breakdown, the exploration of nihilism and the (literal) destruction of all values, the use of Richard Wagner’s music throughout the film, and the depiction of a dogmatic faith-in-science, and its tragically complete failure, all stand as strong evidence that there is, in fact, a clear and distinct strain of Nietzschean philosophy that Von Trier consciously put into his film.

I love this gorgeous and melancholy film. It is, like all of Von Trier’s work, as beautiful and emotional as it is intellectual. It is a true masterpiece of cinema and of art generally.

 

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Climate Change, Mass Migration, and the Rise of the Far Right

At first glance, it might not be obvious as to how climate change and the far right are causally connected, but in this short article I aim to illustrate that connection and explicate how the two seemingly unrelated phenomena are actually in a frightening cause-and-effect relationship which will only increase over time.

The Relationship Between Climate Change and Mass Migration

The main thread that connects climate change and the rise of the far right is mass migration. As climate change intensifies it will create concentrated droughts, alterations in vegetation zones, and rising sea levels. Concerning rising sea levels specifically, its worth noting that 2/3rds of all human beings on Earth live within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of a coastline, and over 630 million people live below the ’30 feet above sea level’ line. This means that tens of millions of people, at least, will be forced to re-locate over the next half century. Wealthier countries might be able build infrastructure that prevents those rising sea levels from ruining entire cities, but less developed nations will not have that option. Add to that fact the already alarming food shortages caused by draughts, and shifting agricultural zones, and you are looking at hundreds of millions of people around the world being forced to migrate.

In fact, the Syrian civil war was influenced, to some extent, by a horrible draught in Syria in 2006 that led to massive food shortages. Climate change, and the Syrian draught likely caused by it, wasn’t the sole (or even the primary) reason for the civil war, but it added fuel to an already combustible situation. In fact, a study released in March of 2015 suggests this is exactly what happened in Syria after the severe drought of 2006. As the study’s co-author, Professor Richard Seager, explains, “We’re not saying drought caused the [Syrian conflict]. We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.” (sources below)

So, as we can see, climate change is already having an impact on the stability of nations around the world, and this instability is causing mass migrations. As Syrians flee their war-torn country they are flooding into Europe seeking refuge. This has already caused a sharp rise in far-right wing political parties and organizations as the native populations of these European countries react (in every sense of that word) to the influx of refugees.

The Relationship Between Mass Migration and the Rise of the Far Right

A sad fact about human beings is that we have a strong tribalistic instinct, and in the context of nation states in the 20th and 21st century, this instinct takes the form of nativism, nationalism, and xenophobia. When any population is met with a dramatic spike in immigrants, elements of that population will react in a chauvinistic, angry, and even violent way. Furthermore, the bigger and faster the influx is, the more rabid and darkly bigoted the reaction by the far right will be. This is already happening around the world, and especially in Europe. In the U.S. its barely happening at all (we are, after all, largely protected from the effects of mass migration on most other continents by virtue of the two oceans off each of our coasts) but the reaction by the far right in the U.S. is already extremely vile. The rise of Donald Trump was due, in large part, to fears provoked by the migration crisis in Europe (which is only a taste of what is to come), and Trump cynically played up that threat in order to win votes. Fear is a powerful motivator in politics, and far right wing populists have always used it to their advantage.

It should be obvious to anyone with even an elementary grasp of history and geo-politics that massive influxes of foreigners into a given population often results in chauvinistic and even fascistic backlash. This was true in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century as immigrants from eastern and southern Europe came to the United States en masse, and its true today in the U.S. with the influx of immigrants over the past few decades coming from central and southern America. The problems we see in Europe right now, and the startling rise of the far right all over the West, are merely the prelude to what will become the norm over the next few decades as the effects of climate change become even more acute.

Conclusion

The connection between climate change and mass migration is clear.
The connection between mass migration and the rise of the far right is clear.
Therefore, the connection between climate change and the rise of the far right is clear.

As climate change intensifies it will create conditions that will force tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people to relocate. This relocation will put unprecedented strains on other countries, and elements of the population within those countries will react in predictably bigoted and hyper-nationalistic ways.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue; or rather it is, and given the foundational importance of the environment to every aspect of human existence, its destabilization will inevitably result in the destabilization of our political systems, our economies, and of our societies in general. It is a moral imperative for human beings who understand this to organize, mobilize, and fight back against any and every policy (or lack of policy) that fails to adequately address the threat posed by climate change. Given its deep and intrinsic connection to every facet of our lives, climate change is the single biggest issue of our lifetimes, of the century, and perhaps of all of human history. The clock has been ticking for a very long time, and we are way past the point of prevention; but we still have choices to make. We can still mitigate the more dire effects of climate change and prevent worst case scenarios. But it will require a strong, international, organized, grassroots resistance movement putting pressure on governments in every major country. It will also include taking part in direct action aimed at increasing the social and economic cost for corporations and governments who refuse to address climate change or who actively seek to intensify it through the continued development of fossil fuels.

Its time to fight!

 

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