Absurdity and the Emptiness of Ritual
On her wedding night, the bride tells her husband that she needs a minute. She goes outside to the golf course. A young man follows her. She turns to face him, pushes him down, and sits on top of him. He tries to get up, but she pushes him back down, unzipping his pants and splaying her wedding gown so she can vehemently hump him.
This scene from Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) surprises and slightly confuses me. Earlier during the reception, the bride Justine (Kirstin Dunst) and her new husband playfully kiss and fondle one another in a secluded room. But when the wedding night officially begins and he carries her over the threshold, she finds herself incapable of having sex with him. Why? And what prompts her to commit an act of infidelity on the day of her wedding?
Although von Trier’s depiction of the wedding reception makes it clear that Justine is a deeply depressed individual—overwhelmed by the reception, she repeatedly slips away and isolates herself, at one point taking a bath during which she falls into a catatonic stupor—still, I couldn’t quite figure out Justine’s motives. Initially, she struck me as self-involved, disrespectful, and cruel. I wasn’t sure that I could sympathize with her.
Yet when I read an interview with von Trier on “The Empty Rituals of Reality,” something clicked, and I understood this scene perfectly. Lars von Trier says of Justine, “She’s a melancholic by the grace of God, she has a hard time finding her place in the world . . . [and] assum[es] all its empty rituals.” As von Trier goes on to explain, “A wedding, after all, is a ritual. But is there something beyond the ritual at all? There isn’t. Not to her.”
Although we might commonly associate ritual with religious customs or elaborate ceremonies such as weddings, we can also understand ritual to pertain to almost anything that’s a social custom or norm. Justine’s depression stems from the perspective that most behavior that we engage in is ritualistic, as well as from her inability to see worth in such ritualistic behavior. If behavior is ritualistic, it’s done in accordance with custom, rather than out of genuine feeling. Actions, then, lack sincerity and are empty (according to Justine). But the emptiness for Justine goes beyond the absence of sincerity. She believes that this emptiness encompasses all of life. What does emptiness signify? An absence of inherent value.
This isn’t our commonsense understanding of the world for most of us, though, is it? We tend to imbue all life—family, friends, enemies, weddings, education, graduations, work, sex, attraction, and on and on—with value, positive or negative. It’s easy to think that many of these things inherently contain value.
We tend to treat sex, for example, as though it’s inherently sacred, don’t we? The disdain with which our mainstream society views adultery and infidelity indicates that sex is a sacred, meaningful act that we must respect. And maybe it is. But Justine’s understanding of the world suggests that it isn’t. To her, sex is simply an arbitrary act that contains no more significance than holding someone’s hand (although, for most people, it’s of course more enjoyable; but that doesn’t make it more significant to Justine). Infidelity, then, is meaningless—it’s not inherently immoral as we tend to believe (nothing is immoral to Justine; immorality does not exist).
So sex only has value because we’ve given it value. The value doesn’t come from within; rather, it comes from an external imposition. And because of this, because we imbue various aspects of our lives with meaning, because these aspects don’t contain meaning without us, Justine can’t appreciate life. For her, value is only true if it’s inherent. And, unfortunately, inherent value does not exist for her—or at least, it’s hard to come by. She believes it’s a myth that most people have mistakenly and ignorantly subscribed to.
Justine’s attitude toward life echoes Albert Camus’s “stranger,” which he describes in The Myth of Sisyphus: “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. . . . This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
This perfectly defines Justine’s view. This world is completely unfamiliar to her and “divested of illusions and lights”—of any notion of inherent value. Mentally and emotionally she feels a severance from this life, making her feel utterly alone, an alien, a stranger on Earth, and she thus feels both she and life, are utterly absurd:
Absurdity: 1. Utterly or obviously senseless, illogical or untrue, contrary to all reason or common sense, laughably foolish or false of life. 2. The quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.
For melancholics such as Justine, the absurdity of ritual is painstakingly clear, and absurdity threatens to consume them. With this in mind, it’s perhaps easier to understand why Justine feels incapable of consummating her marriage. It’s a ritual, and ritual makes her feel sick, nauseous, terrified, isolated, and thus uncertain of herself. Consummating a marriage on a wedding night is a societal custom. Millions of women and men have done it prior to Justine. It’s what everyone expects a bride and groom to do. So if Justine were to consummate her marriage on her wedding night, she would be fulfilling a role that has been set out for her. If a ritual is empty, engaging in it makes her complicit in perpetuating that emptiness.
In a way, being unfaithful allows Justine to temporarily avoid being swallowed by absurdity. She’s not fulfilling a role. No one told her to cheat on her husband; she decided it on her own. It’s an act of defiance, defiance against what everyone tells her she is supposed to think, feel, and believe. Through infidelity, she vehemently rejects a value system that has always alienated her.
Longing for Death
Justine’s depression deepens as the film progresses until it becomes utterly debilitating. She can’t even do something as simple as getting into a cab and needs to call her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) for encouragement. Her depression is so severe that Claire asks her to move in and looks after her. She lies in bed all day, only getting up when her sister coerces her to get up so she can eat and bathe. Yet, even bathing is a difficult task, and Justine has an emotional breakdown when Claire tries to get her in the bathtub. In an attempt to cheer up Justine, Claire makes meatloaf for dinner—Justine’s favorite—but upon her first bite, Justine starts sobbing because “it tastes like ashes.”
Yet Justine seems to get ahold of herself when she learns about Melancholia—a planet ten times the size of Earth on course to collide with it. Von Trier explains that Justine, who has undoubtedly always felt “a stranger” on Earth, “feels more at home when the world draws near its end.” He goes on to say, “If you ask me, she is longing for shipwrecks and sudden death, as Tom Kristensen wrote. And she gets it, too. In a way, she succeeds in pulling this planet from behind the sun and she surrenders to it.”
This resonates perfectly with Camus’ philosophy, which says of absurdity, “there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.”
But what exactly is this connection? To say that a depressed individual such as Justine longs for death simply because she hates life is too simple. Consider the fact that she doesn’t kill herself, and, as far as we know, has not tried to kill herself. In a certain respect, she embraces her depression. Although she thinks most of life lacks value, she clearly hasn’t given up hope that some value exists. She chooses depression because she prefers depression, because she sees value in it—it is, perhaps, the only things she sees value in. As von Trier explains,
“She is longing for something of true value. And true values entail suffering. That’s the way we think. All in all, we tend to view melancholia as more true. We prefer music and art to contain a touch of melancholia. So melancholia in itself is a value. Unhappy and unrequited love is more romantic than happy love. For we don’t think they are completely real, do we?”
Through her depression and insistent indulgence in her pain, Justine believes she elevates herself above others and imbues her own life with meaning. Because for her, perhaps, the pain is the only thing that feels real.
Consider that emotional pain comes from within. That pain, unlike most other things, is inherent because it is felt internally. And for some reason, containing any quality inherently seems to contain real value, value Justine is more able to accept, than value externally ascribed. The internal life feels more tangible to her than the external world. So she longs for “shipwrecks and sudden death” because of the pain and sorrow irrevocably tied to them.
When the external world finally presents something—namely, the impending collision of Melancholia with Earth—that matches the internal chaos that has plagued Justine for so long, her depression begins to lift. She no longer has to revel in her pain because the external world has finally presented her with a tragedy that supersedes her own. What could be more devastating and ultimately more meaningful, than the apocalypse, the destruction of civilization, to be a part of something so magnificent?
The Comics Have All the Answers (Understanding Melancholia through Louie)
I finished Melancholia feeling ill-at-ease and despondent. I can understand the thoughts and feelings of someone like Justine or von Trier (who admits, “Justine is very much me. She is based a lot on my person and my experiences with doomsday prophecies and depression”). I would go so far as to say I was once a melancholic and still have a proclivity towards such melancholy. This film then, raised old feelings of absurdity and emptiness I try everyday to disavow.
The film implies that melancholics perhaps, have no choice but to be melancholics. As von Trier said, Justine is a melancholic “by the grace of God,” suggesting that melancholia is something bestowed upon her over which she has no control. Justine’s attempt to forsake her melancholia by engaging in social norms (i.e. her wedding) fails, which further indicates that Justine simply cannot adjust to our society’s value system. She has no choice but to live a pained existence, to wander the earth without ever seeing significance or beauty in it.
But I reject that melancholics have no choice but to be melancholics. And that kind of thinking—that there is no choice—is juvenile. Melancholia, in itself, contains, inherently, seeds of juvenility. To be juvenile is to be self-involved. To think you are bigger than the world. That you are completely separate from others and that no one has experienced or felt the things that you have experienced.
To be clear, I am not criticizing anyone for ever having experienced depression. I’m criticizing the preference for depression. The longing “for shipwrecks and sudden death.” The belief that feeling pain about your life makes you superior to other people and somehow makes your life more valuable. I’m criticizing the masochism that goes hand-in-hand with such beliefs.
All of this makes me think of Louie C.K., who I am convinced contains all the secrets of the universe in that wonderful brain of his. In the episode “Eddie” of Louie (2010- ), Louie runs into his old comedian friend who in some ways is similar to von Trier’s Justine. Eddie seems to disdain life and the emptiness behind everything. What does it matter what he does? Who he offends? Everything is empty anyway.
So he tells Louie that he’s going to kill himself. “I got nothing. I got nobody. I don’t want anything. I don’t want anybody. And that’s the worst part, when the want goes. That’s, that’s bad. I mean suffering is one thing, or not having is one thing. But when you just don’t care anymore. I’ve gone soft in the last three pussies I’ve been in.”
Like Justine, there’s nothing in this life Eddie believes can bring him happiness. Slowly, the meaning we ascribe to things erodes—even sex becomes inconsequential, no different than something as mundane as brushing your teeth. He, too, has become a stranger. Life has been divested of illusions and lights. He explains his intent to commit suicide matter-of-factly. He sees nothing tragic in death, or even in suicide. Rather, death can only be liberating, just as Justine believes.
But Louie’s response to Eddie reflects the juvenility of melancholia:
“I got my reasons to live. I worked hard to figure out what they are. I’m not just handing them to you. Okay, you want a reason to live, have a drink of water and get some sleep, wake up in the morning and try again like everyone else does. (Eddie: “Tough love.”) No, no love. More like tough not giving a shit anymore, Eddie. If you wanna tap out cause your life is shit, you know what, it’s not your life, it’s life. It’s, life is bigger than you, if you can imagine that. Life isn’t something that you possess. It’s something that you take part in, and you witness.”
Eddie laughs at Louie, finding his stake in life comical. Because of course imbuing something with meaning that inherently lacks it is absurd to melancholics.
It seems to me that many comedians—Louie C.K. is a prime example—are melancholics too. They must feel that “divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting,” the feeling of absurdity. Many comedians’ jokes and bits highlight this absurdity. But if comedians like Louie C.K. are melancholics, they differ from Justine (and Eddie) because they don’t actively choose melancholia. They create their own meaning in life and find value in that meaning, perhaps more value than they would find in any inherent purpose to life if one exists, simply because they created it. Although Louie seems to make no headway with Eddie, he’s right.
Here’s the point: Contrary to what von Trier says, even if “rituals are worth nothing,” that does not go for everything. Even if you have a proclivity to believe that all of life inherently lacks value, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with externally imposing value upon life. Life can be and often is shit for everybody. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find joy in it, or that we can’t extract value from it. Ascribing worth to life is simply part of the struggle of being human. Because life is not something you are given, but rather something you participate in, it’s your responsibility to take part, to wake up every day and try again to find value. And von Trier would do well to acknowledge that.