Melancholia (2011)

“The Latitudes of Home”


Southern Illinois is abuzz with anticipation of two total solar eclipses, the first to take place on August 21, 2017. Indeed, the greatest duration of this eclipse will pass almost directly above my house in Makanda. I am just as excited as anyone else, but perhaps for very different reasons. Southern Illinois University’s Eclipse Committee is comprised of scientists and tourism marketers, which is all well and good. The astronomical event will be the motor for a massive influx of visitors to our beautiful region, a much needed cause for celebration.

What gets lost in this is the notion that the eclipse is more a cultural event than a scientific one. What does one learn about physics from watching an eclipse that one could not learn from afar? Instead of such rationalism, the power of an eclipse is precisely its irrational effect on human beings. Mark Twain understood this when he builds an early section of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) around an eclipse. Mysteriously transported back in time to the year 528, Hank Morgan is about to be burned at the stake by Merlin, who is threatened by Hank’s otherworldly ways. Hank pretends to King Arthur that he has caused the solar eclipse, who spares his life for fear of the magician’s superior powers.

In “Total Eclipse,” writer Annie Dillard expresses most powerfully the transcendent power of the eclipse on human beings. She begins: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread.” Like Twain parodying the Romance, Dillard tricks us into thinking she is writing a piece of travel literature, describing the trip to inland Washington State to witness an eclipse. What she ends up producing is an astonishing articulation of human beings and their relationship to the natural world around them.

Dillard paints a portrait of the total eclipse every bit as powerful as the swirling storm that looms in the background of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. She sets up her description of the event with a loss of rational thought: “…and that was the last sane moment I remember” (9). As the total eclipse occurs: “The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum” (9). Punning on Twain’s earlier conceit, Dillard observes: “I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages… I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day” (10). In the irrational tradition of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who argues anachronistically that James Joyce is the first author of nuclear culture, Dillard leaves behind rational historicism for a different kind of human experience: “Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud… It obliterated meaning itself” (13).

Dillard stresses the totality of the eclipse with an odd metaphor: “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane” (7). Lurking in the background of Dillard’s essay is her husband Gary, with whom she travels to see the eclipse. However, he never speaks. As the eclipse proceeds, the descriptions of Gary recede parallel to Annie’s insanity: “you see your husband’s face looking like an early black-and-white film” (15). When Annie a short while later observes, “The dead had forgotten those they loved” (17), we begin to wonder what Gary’s status is altogether. Is he dead? Is their relationship dead? Is the metaphor of totality eclipsing something entirely different than the astronomical?

The film that best captures this tension between the astronomical and the interpersonal is Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has arranged for the wedding of her sister (Kirsten Dunst) at her husband’s palatial golf resort. A planet, Melancholia is streaking toward a collision with the Earth. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) assures his family that all will be well. He builds with his son an optical toy: one places the circular metal ring in front of one’s face, measuring the relative size of Melancholia. For days, the planet gets bigger relative to the ring. All seems well again when the planet begins to shrink in size again, receding as it purportedly proceeds safely past Earth’s orbit. However, when Melancholia once again gets bigger in the toy’s frame, John knows all is lost. He commits suicide in the mansion’s horse barn.

This leaves Claire alone with her son and her sister. Of the three, the one who remains calm is Justine, whom the film has positioned for its first two hours as mentally unstable. In the rational world, her melancholia has proven a tremendous hindrance: in the middle of her wedding ceremony, she retreats to take a bath. However, as the celestial object begins to obliterate the sky, Justine comes into her own. She calms her nephew by gathering sticks with him in the forest. They build a makeshift teepee out on the manicured lawn, with Melancholia looming hugely in the background. Justine sits calmly with her nephew, now joined by her sister Claire, as the Earth is obliterated.

Set to the musical overture of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865), Von Trier’s film is an exquisite cinematic rendering of eclipse literature. Von Trier parodies the Romantic belief in the peacefulness of nature, much as Twain did in the 19th century. Melancholia follows Dillard into seeing the celestial event as a time, not for scientific rationalism, but insanity. Like Dillard’s prose, Von Trier’s film takes an eclipse to its logical extent, not just temporarily destroying reason in the world, but permanently obliterating it.

At the end of her essay, Dillard retreats to “the latitudes of home” (24), in physics terms the safety of linear optics and the permanence of time. On August 21, 2017, I shall embrace that which Dillard so beautifully describes in her prose, and Von Trier so elegantly images, the moment when nature ceases to function, exposing a different view of human relationships, one not protected by our rational ordering of the world.

–Walter Metz