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 am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150’s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.
First of all, this is old news to most of you who know me personally, but all of you in blog-land might be interested to know that I’ve got an article published on H.D.’s Trilogy, her WWII epic poem, and her seances in which she talked to dead RAF pilots. It’s in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory’s most recent issue, and it’s called “‘An Unusual Way to Think’: Trilogy‘s Oracular Poetics.” You can download & read the PDF for free. Yay for the information age!
If you’ve been starved for my friendlier, less academic prose (and what follows below is not enough to slake your thirst), you can also check out the poetry reviews that I recently did for Noö Journal — mine are the first two pieces in the magazine, actually, linked there on the upper right.
Okay, on with the show. In what follows, as the title of this post promises, I will talk about Gertrude Stein for awhile and then I will make some connections to the series finale of Lost, because I am a dork. I will put that section behind the fold, for the spoiler-conscious, and I will endeavor to make the first part of the post worthwhile in and of itself. I will also try to make the section on Lost as general and thematic as possible, so that you can read it and get something out of it even if you haven’t watched the series.
Because I am an immensely unwise person, I have decided that my dissertation requires me to read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a 925-page-long reputedly incoherent tome which is actually blurbed with the following line from the New Yorker: “The first stunningly original disaster of modernism.” But to my great surprise, I am enjoying the hell out of it. Here is part of the section with which I am currently madly in love. I quote at some length so you can get the effect of her prose, but please do try to read this attentively, because the nuances are important:
Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding. This is now a description, of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving, repetition.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Mostly everyone, then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. There are some who love everybody’s repeating, this is now a description of such loving in one.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Everyone always is repeating the whole of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that always is coming out of them as a complete history of them. This is now a description of learning to listen to all repeating that every one is always making of the whole of them.
A large part of The Making of Americans is essentially a typology of characters — Stein attempts to describe different “types” of people who live in America. This concept is what she is introducing at the end of this passage; the narrator is someone “who love[s] everybody’s repeating,” and has listened sufficiently to everybody so as to piece together a “complete history” of all of them.
But let’s back up. What does it mean to say that “every one is always repeating the whole of them”? First of all, there’s the sense of verbal “repetition,” which of course this text itself enacts. We all have favorite stories about ourselves to tell, favorite topics to discuss, frequent refrains in our daily accounts of ourselves. I presently have a semi-regular non-appointment with a friend of mine for what generally turn out to be quite long conversations about our presents and pasts. He is a relatively new acquaintance, which means I get to trot out some of my “greatest hits,” and have thus had the opportunity to examine this particular(ly narcissistic) pleasure. It’s the pleasure of a well-told story as much as of a well-lived life; I admire myself for both the events and their recounting equally. Because of course for me, these stories are already repetitions, benefiting from earlier tellings. But I worry that some of these stories have stopped being “authentic” because they have been told so many times, and that I might not be giving my interlocutor as much attention as he deserves by launching into these rhapsodies as often as I do. (Speaking of favorite themes, see this post for an earlier meditation of mine on personal anecdotes and the authenticity thereof.) But Stein loves repetition. She would tell me, I think, that repetition makes my stories more authentic, in the sense that as I refine them, they become more perfect expressions of myself. Not only do they become better vehicles for conveying whatever truth about myself inheres in stories about — for example — my summer jobs in high school, but they become better entertainment for my interlocutor, and I think this latter function should not be overlooked.
So there is verbal repetition — but there is also, like, life repetition. In a mundane sense, we all have schedules. We all have approximately set times when we wake up and when we go to sleep, most of us have some kind of official work schedule we have to abide by, and many of us have more or less ritualized ways that we use our spare time: we go to the same couple of lunch places, we unwind at the end of the day with a beer and The Daily Show, whatever. In a more profound sense, most of our lives are shaped by broader patterns of repetition: the same damn relationship hang-ups playing out again and again, the same nonsense day in and day out from your mother that you thought you both would have outgrown by now, etc. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is also about repetition — according to this theory, certain traumatic events leave us numb because we are unable to process them, but then later (often much later) in life, a seemingly unrelated stimulus can set off an emotional reaction out of all proportion with the stiumulus itself, because this reaction is the result of much-belated emotions connected to the original traumatic event.
What I like about Stein’s formulation (“every one is always repeating the whole of them”) is that it levels all these senses of repetition, from the echoing effect of profound emotional trauma to your verbal tics and your morning coffee ritual, and says that in all of these repetitions you are repeating “the whole of [you].” It reminds me of fractals, geometric drawings made up of pieces that are each smaller-sized copies of the whole. We all, I think, worry about the degree to which our lives our repetitive. Most of us have escape fantasies, whether or not we have any actual desire to act on them. Maybe I read too much Jack Kerouac as a teenager, but I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes fancies that she could be living a better and freer and more authentic life if she could just summon the courage to quit her job and hit the open road. What Stein does here is show us that repetition is authenticity — we can’t escape it even if we try. If we didn’t have desires that lead us to the same perfectly-calibrated cup of coffee every morning, or habitual turns of phrase that are uniquely our own, then who would we be?
The counterpart to this is the theory of love that Stein espouses here: “Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating.” This is, by necessity, a theory of long-term love. She reminds us that “sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding.” If repetition is authenticity, then repetition demands attention — not boredom or disengagement, which might be our more automatic responses. Importantly, Stein recognizes that the repetition in our lives is never exact repetition, though it may look that way to outsiders. Love, for Stein, becomes paying attention to the nuances of somebody’s repetitions. Change does not always happen drastically — in fact, most change in our lives probably occurs at a gradual pace, as a matter of drift in a series of repetitions rather than as a radical break. And what is sharing your life with someone if not the process of gradually letting your repetitions overlap and shape one another?
This is the part where I’m going to start talking about the television show Lost. If you’ve been watching the show but haven’t seen the finale yet, you should probably stop reading. If you’ve never seen it and/or have only vague plans to watch it someday, you can go ahead and continue, because I will not reveal any answers to any mysteries; I’m just going to describe the kind of emotional closure that the show gives us while avoiding specifics as much as possible.