As a poetry teacher, I loved Melancholia. I’m always telling my students that in poetry (as in all literature), the best interpretations are the ones phrased in terms of “both/and” rather than in terms of “either/or” — and that’s exactly how Lars Von Trier’s film begs to be read. The film is divided in two parts: in the first half, Kirsten Dunst’s crippling depression threatens to sabotage her fairy-tale wedding, and in the second half, a rogue planet called “Melancholia” threatens to obliterate the earth. The absurdly obvious symbolism of a planet actually called “Melancholia” that might actually destroy the earth is so ludicrous as to demand further interpretation. “Yes,” I can hear myself saying to my imaginary poetry-and-film students, “the planet stands for depression. But are you satisfied with that? What else might it mean?”
The first thing I should point out is that the second half of the film — when the actual end of the world is nigh — feels like a relief. The first half is tense and awkward and upsetting: you sympathize with Justine (Dunst’s character), because you realize that depression is a medical condition and she can’t just think herself out of it, but you also wonder along with her relatives why she can’t just, on this one joyous day, actually be happy. When her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells her to at least put on a smile and go through the motions for the benefit of everybody in attendance — including the groom — it sounds both reasonable and insensitive. This dilemma cuts to the heart of what is, for me, the central problem with weddings: they are supposed to be about things sincerely and deeply felt by the bride and groom, but they generally take the form of elaborate, complicated ceremonies followed by elaborate, complicated parties that seem to exist much more for the benefit of family and friends than for the actual people getting married. What if you wake up in the morning on your wedding day and you’re just not in the mood to deal with all that nonsense? What if you agreed to deal with all that nonsense because your fiancé and your family want it, but you are medically unable to enjoy it? The right thing to do in both cases seems to be to soldier on and pretend to be happy, because ruining your wedding might ruin your marriage and/or hurt or upset your family members. But then, suddenly, there is a troubling absence at the center of the ritual.
American mainstream culture seems able to tolerate “empty ritual” in just about every case EXCEPT weddings. At funerals, we recognize a wide range of “stages of grief,” and it’s perfectly okay if you feel numb or angry instead of properly melancholy. If you are a regular churchgoer, you will sometimes feel religiously moved by your Sunday services, but it’s okay if some weeks you’re there more in body than in spirit. And there are hundreds of less-religious rituals where the divorce between practice and feeling is widely recognized and accepted: my mother, for example, is planning a retirement party for a woman who, it turns out, really doesn’t want a retirement party but is probably going to get one anyway — and she will probably smile her way through it. But the idea of just smiling one’s way through one’s own wedding is unthinkable — whenever a bride in a movie is a tiny bit less than ecstatic about her wedding, it’s taken as a sign that the love in question is not “true” and Dustin Hoffman is likely to pound on the glass shouting her name at any moment, grinding the “false” ceremony to a halt. (My favorite version of this, incidentally, is when Patrick Dempsey literally busts into the chapel on a white horse at the end of the dreadful film Made of Honor. Um, spoiler alert.) And the other side of the coin is that whenever a groom is less than enthusiastic about his impending wedding, he will inevitably “grow up” just in time to undergo the ceremony with wholehearted and authentic feeling. Clearly there are gender dynamics that might be investigated here — the bride has been pushed into something she doesn’t feel, while the groom has been pushed into something he DOES feel — but I’m less interested in that problem than in the way that both these clichés are rooted in a fantasy of absolute authenticity.
One of the most troubling things about Melancholia for me was that Justine’s groom actually does leave her, right in the middle of the wedding reception, because of how unenthused and disengaged she is about the proceedings. He seems to buy into the Hoffman/Dempsey movie-logic that the rest of the film is trying to put into question, which at first just felt like a misstep on Von Trier’s part to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s actually not so inconceivable that an otherwise loving fiancé might back out of a wedding under these circumstances — because we are so conditioned by film to think of weddings as absolutely authentic experiences.
In the second half of the film, the question of ritual again resurfaces in the face of the end of the world. This is a circumstance that we have no ready rituals for, because it has never happened before, so we have to make them up. Claire proposes a glass of wine on the terrace, which Justine violently rejects. Instead, Justine gathers up Claire’s child (who would, of course, not have been able to enjoy the bourgeois ritual of the glass of wine) and runs to the forest to gather wood, which they fashion into a makeshift teepee, where Claire eventually joins them. The teepee is an invented ritual: it looks like a ritual, because of its primitivism, and it is endowed by Justine’s performative fiat with magical protective properties. This ritual, unlike the one Claire proposed, was clearly designed with the child in mind: it was meant to include and to comfort him. It also feels more authentic than either the wedding was or the glass of wine would be, because it was tailored to this specific purpose — a unique ritual for an unrepeatable event.
J.L. Austin, of course, has argued that it is precisely the fact of their historical repetition that gives utterances such as “with this ring, I thee wed” their power to make things true in the world. But since at least Wordsworth, we’ve expected “powerful feeling” to take the form of “spontaneous overflows,” which seem difficult to square with the iterative nature of most rituals. This is the kind of inauthenticity that the first half of Melancholia deals with: Justine’s desire to feel authentically leads her to wander out on the golf course in the dark instead of staying at her wedding reception and cutting the cake. But the second half of the film presents a more Durkheimian view of ritual as something that permits, structures, contains, and maybe even produces powerful feelings.
One of the answers I expect my imaginary poetry-and-film students might give if I asked them “what else does the planet stand for?” is “Justine’s wedding.” At first, the prevailing opinion of Melancholia is that it will pass by the earth at an incredibly close distance and provide an exciting (but safe) astronomical spectacle. It seems, itself, like a rite of passage: humanity will have its brush with death but will emerge unharmed. It is eagerly anticipated by Claire’s husband and son, and presumably by many other people around the world. But, like Justine’s wedding, what was supposed to be a transformative “close encounter” turns slowly and agonizingly into a catastrophic collision.
It’s the very externality of the end of the world that makes the second half of the film feel less awful than the first half: unlike Justine’s depression, the planet Melancholia is a real, observable physical object that everybody (eventually) agrees is a huge bummer. Rituals to greet it therefore stand on far less ambiguous emotional ground than Justine’s wedding did. Both Claire’s proposed glass of wine and Justine’s teepee have specific situational goals and reflect specific attitudes toward the end of the world: Claire proposes a classic bourgeois down-with-the-ship attitude, akin to the orchestra on the Titanic, while what Justine offers is something both more imaginative and more sacred. But I don’t think the film comes solidly down on the side of either formal ritual (like the wedding) or spontaneous personal ritual (like the teepee). The wedding scenes are utterly gorgeous, and I think ultimately Von Trier presents the wedding not as a straitjacket from which Justine needs to escape but as an ambitious failed project: both this glamorous, complicated event and the very idea of marital bliss are enormously difficult feats for a person with severe depression. What is easy for such a person is, of course, the end of the world: it seems like something Justine has been expecting. The planet stands for both depression and ritual, then — among other things — and Von Trier asks us to consider the disconnect between situation and emotion in both cases. If ritual is supposed to structure and produce powerful feelings, it certainly presents problems for people whose feelings don’t function in the usual way.
I recently saw the film All About Eve, and today I posted on Facebook that I’d noticed significant structural similarities between its plot and that of Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, but that I was resisting the urge to write a blog post about it because I was pretty sure that nobody cared. Some friends assured me that they did, in fact, care, so I am now writing that blog post. Note that this post will be full of spoilers, especially of the film, but both works have plenty to recommend them even if you know the broad contours of their plots already.
Basically, the similarity I see is this: both plots are divided into two distinct halves, and what happens at the turn in the middle is that we are given a new perspective on the situation which causes different characters to become sympathetic. This summary will be pretty rough-hewn, as it’s been years since I read The Golden Bowl, but it goes something like this: the first half of the book is from the perspective of the prince, who is in love with Charlotte, a plucky young American, but has to marry the princess because she has money and he, though of noble blood, is destitute. Charlotte (who is the princess’s best friend) marries the princess’s father so that she can continue to be near the prince, and she and the prince unsurprisingly begin to have an affair — but the princess and her father seem not to notice; they are homebodies and enjoy each other’s company immensely, and don’t mind that Charlotte and the prince are always going out to balls together. Throughout the first half of the book, we are basically rooting for Charlotte and the prince, since they have love on their side and it doesn’t hurt that they’re the only characters doing anything interesting. The princess strikes us as a pretty flat and pretty naive character who has failed to outgrow her attachment to her father, and thus her claim on the prince’s affections seems to be not nearly as urgent or genuine as Charlotte’s. But in the second half of the novel, we see things from the princess’s perspective, and we realize that she does know what is going on, and is genuinely wounded, and moreover has every right to be wounded. Is it so wrong for a woman to enjoy her father’s company? Is it so wrong for her to be a homebody? Does that really give her husband the right to have a semi-public affair with her best friend? We are left somewhat chagrined by having written her off so early, and we cheer her on as she finally gains some agency and deals with the situation.
In the first half of All About Eve, Eve is given to us as a slavish admirer of Margot Channing, a celebrated but aging star of the theater played by Bette Davis. Eve works tirelessly as Margot’s assistant — and though we know that she has acting aspirations of her own, Eve seems so genuinely selfless that when Margot turns on her, all we can see is crazy old Bette Davis getting drunk and having a persecution complex. But in the second half of the movie, something strange happens: Margot apologizes. Not to Eve, granted — she doesn’t get the chance — but to their mutual friends, she says something along the lines of “yeah, I’m sorry I acted so crazy the other day; I guess I’m just past my prime and starting to realize it, and it makes me flip out sometimes.” Sunset Boulevard came out just two months before All About Eve (in August and October of 1950, respectively), but I think I’m not wrong when I say that in 1950, the idea that a character who seemed so firmly in a downward, crazy, destructive spiral — especially one who was a woman and no longer young — could just turn around and apologize and start acting like a human being again must have been kind of surprising. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire hit the stage in 1947, though it wouldn’t be adapted to film until 1951, and I admit that a lot of the examples of the “crazy aging woman” plot that I was going to cite here turn out to be later — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane of course features an even older and even crazier Bette Davis. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that a 1950s audience would not have expected Margot to be able to do anything but get older and drunker and crazier.
But that’s not what happens at all — not only does Margot stop acting crazy, but it turns out she was right about Eve all along: Eve was trying to undermine her, to take over her dramatic roles and her romantic relationships, and it’s Eve who turns out to be the crazy one. What I’m proposing here is that the shift that happens in the middle of the film is similar to the one that happens in the middle of The Golden Bowl — our understanding of Margot for the first half of the film is shaped (quite deliberately, I think) by our preconceived notions of what a “crazy aging woman” plot looks like, much like our understanding of the princess is shaped by our preconceived notions about this sort of “love triangle” plot should look like. The suitor who offers wealth and stability is inevitably the “false” suitor; we assume that this person cannot also be offering true love, because if he or she were, then it would be a lot more difficult for our hero to feel noble about rejecting wealth and privilege in order to run off with his/her “true” lover. The Golden Bowl reminds us that our hero is never just rejecting wealth and privilege; he or she is also rejecting a human being. For the first half of the book, the princess is, if not a villain, at least a hapless victim who basically deserves her bad fortune — similarly, in the first half of All About Eve, we figure that even if Margot is right and Eve is scheming to further her own career, Eve deserves to further her own career and Margot ought to graciously step aside and let the next generation of actresses have their turn in the spotlight.
What both plots show us, then, is the power of plots themselves. At the turning point, they reveal the constructedness and contrivance of the first half, and the characters initially portrayed as unsympathetic get to have their say. There’s a lesson here about literature (and film), but there’s also a lesson about life, as there tends to be in this blog: pay close attention to the “plots” you impose on the things that happen to you — you may be the protagonist of your story, but everybody is their own protagonist, and if somebody looks like a flat character from where you’re sitting, that’s only because you are a poor writer.
“Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.”
— Wallace Stevens, from “Sunday Morning”
Hello again dear readers. I had a post in mind about Robert Frost that was actually going to be relevant to the topics I was exploring last time, but that will have to wait because today my heart cries out to write about Sappho. I was dutifully reading some Amy Lowell for my upcoming Ph.D. exams, when I came across the following passage in her poem “The Sisters”:
There’s Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.
I know a single slender thing about her:
That, loving, she was like a burning birch tree
All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.
Holy Jesus, I thought. Amy Lowell, sometimes you really do succeed at Imagism no matter what Ezra Pound says. This image, it’s perfect. That is Sappho exactly. Observe Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s Fragment 31 from her beautiful, necessary book If Not, Winter:
He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.
People have been translating Sappho for centuries, and these translations reflect the poetic styles of the time. My books are all packed away in boxes, with the exception of my poetry shelf, but otherwise I’d whip out Yopie Prins’ Victorian Sappho and share with you some of the florid, iambic-pentameter ways the above has been rendered. I love the sparseness of Carson’s Sappho, because the fragmentary nature of her text is essential to our experience of it today. It’s interesting to think about: Sappho was presumably not, herself, a reticent riddler, but because her manuscripts were scattered by the winds of time (and torn into strips to wrap corpses in Egypt!), her poems today exist only in scraps and tatters. She has been a huge influence on verse, particularly verse by women, inspiring a whole ideal of sparse, cryptic, reticent lyric, without herself ever quite having been any of those things.
Part of what people are inspired by, then, must be the action of history on Sappho’s text. When H.D. writes her fragmentary verse, she is imitating not Sappho, but what time has done to Sappho. She inscribes the violence of forgetting into her poems. Anne Carson, in turn, is influenced by H.D. and others like her; her own verse has a similar sparseness. When she applies this style to her translations of Sappho, what we get is loss squared. 75% of Carson’s book is white space; she puts only one fragment on each page, even if it is only three words long. The words cry out to be understood, and incite the imagination to try to figure out what is missing.
But Lowell is right: the glimpses we get are of a magnificently strange voice, speaking of powerful love. Even the smallest of fragments sing. For example, Fragment 125:
I used to weave crowns
The silence surrounding this becomes profound, even if Sappho didn’t write it that way. Well, and what now? Who did you weave them for? Why have you stopped? Why is this no longer a world made for crowns?
Today I discovered what has instantly become my favorite love poem ever. Are you ready for it? Fragment 45:
as long as you want
What do you think? Should I get it tattooed between my shoulderblades? Maybe in the Greek, so I don’t quite give myself away.