January 8, 2012

Melancholia the Film – and Psychological Responses to Planetary Crisis.


The Film: Have you seen Melancholia the 2011 film by Lars von Trier? Don’t worry I’m not going to give away the plot and ruin it for you.  The narrative revolves around two sisters during and shortly after the wedding party of one of them, while the Earth is in danger of colliding with an approaching rogue planet (this much you could have learned from the poster).  As I watched the film it occurred to me that the crisis I was seeing on the screen, and in particular the unique ways that each of the central characters relate to it, provided a not-so-metaphorical template for the ecological mega-crisis of own times, as well as our individual emotional responses to it. I use the term “psychological” loosely here. I’m not a psychologist but a keen observer of human beings and a person who has ardently sought for solutions of social transformation that would lead us to a sustainable and harmonious coexistence with nature. My explorations have led me deeply into Buddhist and indigenous world views, as well as an exploration of environmental science. I write this as one who as plumbed the dark depths of their own psyche in search of answers to coping with “end of the world” scenarios. This is not intended to be one of those relentlessly negative blogs that make your eyes glaze over with despair. It is rather an encouragement to look at our states of mind that are like lenses through which we perceive what we believe to be “the world.” On one day we might radiate in a positive way that affects everyone around us and on another day it might be the complete opposite. It’s not necessarily that external conditions (the world) changed, or even that we have different information, but our resilience and our ability to process information changes due to our own emotional state.  

Facing the real world crisis: 

 Bill McKibben writes in eaarth: making a life on a tough new planet “The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t know it yet”. He goes on to say ” so how did it happen that the threat to our fairly far off descendants, which required that we heed an alarm and adopt precautionary principles and begin to take measured action lest we have a crisis for future generations, et cetera – how did that suddenly turn into the arctic melting away , the tropics expanding, and the oceans turning acid”. In other words we can no longer speak of or prevent the “threat of climate change”  we can only focus on strategies to cope with the possibly irreversibly changes that have already taken place and work to minimize future changes due to greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, however, our collective response to climate change has been very little, virtually nothing. I believe that the reason for this, at least in part, is because debilitating emotional states, vividly portrayed by the characters in Melancholia, renders us incapable of responding effectively.          

 The Movie Characters: 

Justine – suffers from severe depression to the point of being catatonic at times. Later we learn that she has had vivid premonitions of the future. Ultimately, we see her nihilistic tendencies come into focus as she declares “life on Earth is evil, it should be destroyed”. Justine’s nihilism defines her character and a permeates the film with a relentlessly dark edge yet at the same time the film is cinematically beautiful and like Justine has a haunting quality that lingers with the viewer. As the situation grows darker and the external world begins to correspond more closely with her inner vision Justine becomes increasingly cheerful.  

The following is an excerpt from an interview with the film’s director posted on the official Melancholia website… “I think that Justine is very much me. She is based a lot on my person and my experiences with doomsday prophecies and depression. Whereas Claire is meant to be a … normal person,” laughs Lars von Trier, who has been haunted by anxieties all through his life and believed that the Third World War was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.

 Claire – is focused on meeting the needs of her other family members and in particular her troubled sister, Justine. She tries to pacify the conflicts she sees around her and accommodate everyone. As the film progresses and the situation degenerates Claire seeks the reassurance of her husband, tries desperately to protect her son, and in the end tries to honor the immensity of witnessing the last moments of life on Earth. Continuing the ecological metaphor, Claire is Emotionalism itself, caring so much about people, birds, plants and animals that are suffering and then disappearing that she become immobilized with fear and pain. Interestingly the two characters, Claire and Justine, are sisters. There seems to be a strong relationship between these two states, caring too much, possibly reaching a state of overwhelm and not caring at all or even welcoming destruction as a final resolution.     

 John – Claire’s husband enjoys all the advantages of wealth.  He represents the privileged and the power minority in society.  His response to the crisis of Melancholia is to deny that there is any threat, perpetuating his denial until the bitter end, deny, deny, deny, deny and then DESPAIR. When the crisis becomes undeniable the ego of this character cannot cope with the reality of the loss of privilege and ultimately with its  own annihilation. We have elected members of the federal government who still flatly deny the existence of climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence. Why? Because to admit the catastrophic potential of our situation would be to admit knowing and doing nothing. And because people in advantaged positions rarely welcome abrupt and dramatic changes in the status quo.   

 Leo – Claire’s young son responds in a predictable childlike way. Children can be incredibly resourceful in coping with stress and trauma because they can imagine powerful protectors and magical solutions. Having faith can be helpful and healthy but when it becomes a reliance on magical solutions such as “God will just make another world” it can be an abdication of responsibility.       

Transforming neurosis into wisdom

There is unrealized wisdom potential in each of these character types. The film highlights the neurotic aspects of each character. When I use the word “neurotic” I’m not so much referring to the western psychology definition so much as the Buddhist psychology definition where the word implies, egocentric clinging, self obsession, favoring oneself over others with the misguided notion that we exist as an eternal, non-interdependant “self”. The opposite of neurosis in this case would be enlightenment or a viewpoint of wisdom. So, if you picture a continuum like a dial that goes from 1 (neurotic) to 10 (wisdom) you could crank up the dial on anyone of these characters and discover qualities that could potentially save our world.

Leo – Magical thinking can be limiting and ignorant. However no one, not scientists, religious leaders, politicians or pundits, can predict with any certainty what will happen tomorrow let alone 100 years from now. I once heard H.H. Karmapa, one of the world’s most revered Buddhist teachers respond to a very aggressive question about Peak Oil by saying ” we should not get caught up in fantasies about the future.” He went on to say that we should relate to the situation that currently exists and what happens next will arise from our present actions.  

No one can say with any certainty that there are or are not unseen forces in our world. It has been scientifically demonstrated that praying for people who are sick or undergoing surgery hastens recovery so why not pray for our planet? In any case relying on the “known” has led us to the present state so ruling out the “unknown” would seem to be a mistake. And if, as the mystics tell us, reality is not so much a solid and fixed state of being but instead a collective dream (or nightmare as the case may be) we should choose to dream something better for the future. Lastly, and not insignificantly, from the point of view of the individual who will live their lifetime in a positive or negative state of mind, as in the case of the film characters, prayer and contemplation can cut through fear and chaos and produce a state of calm and clarity.      

 Claire – Emotionalism can lead to intense agitation and suffering but Claire’s character also points to the basis of empathy. We need to develop a more empathic society where the suffering of other beings carries real weight. Powerful and wealthy countries can no longer go to world climate summits, look poorer countries in the eye, and say your drought, your famine, your homelessness, your lands under the rising sea levels are not our problem. We can’t say “birds and animals who needs em” because we are stupidly cutting our own throats. The notion that others matter, that suffering anywhere touches us, that the end of any life, even an evil one, is not cause for celebration points to the best parts of our nature. I would argue, like Jeremy Rifkin in The Compassionate Civilization, that human beings are an inherently empathic species. We laugh when we see others laugh. When others cry it touches our heart. Compassion is one of our enlightened qualities maybe even the basis of enlightenment itself.   

 John – On the neurotic side John’s fixation on materialism keeps him trapped in a world of craving for more and fearing the loss of his privileged state. Science and technology, the progenitors of all modern comfort and convenience, have been the cause of a lot of destruction but may also hold potential solutions to climate change such as reduced emissions and carbon sequestration, etc.  Intellect itself isn’t good or bad but when it’s not joined with compassion and reflecting on the well-being of others we have the industrial revolution that got us into this mess. Many of our current religious and political institutions seem to positively sanction a wanton disregard for the common good in favor of self-fulfilling greed. But again, technology and the desire for a more comfortable and fulfilling life are not in themselves the problem.       

 Justine – Nihilistic, given to jolts of radical and unpredictable behaviors, Justine represent the potential for radical adaptation to change in ways that are completely unforeseen, un-premeditated, erratic, intuitive. In order to survive  human societies are going to have to take a fearless leap from the known, or at least the conventionally accepted modes of living, and radically adapt to unknown conditions, very likely adopting new models for what it means to have a fulfilling human existence (which is probably not a bad thing).   

 Make what you will of the analogy, the central point here is that we need to work with ourselves to sort out our own confusion,  frustration, fear and anger that we project on “the world” and make ourselves useful for the work at hand. It is clear that our existing institutions are unwilling or unable to cope with the global environmental problems that exist. To bring about the necessary changes we are going to need to have high functioning societies made up of high functioning individuals. Human beings need to grow up and take their rightful place as the consciousness of our planet, responsible for maintaining equilibrium, starting with our own. 




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