Melancholia: Apocalypse in Culture
My mother says, “I’m so glad I’m not young.” She says it peacefully with humor responding to her children’s lover’s spats and jealous quarrels. But the only thing that separates young from old is how mature your attitude toward death is. There’s no appropriate attitude. In Melancholia, there’s only one that makes you collapse in a nervous fit like Claire, or shrug with haunting calmness—a depression that turns into resentment so hot you’re numb—like Justine. The latter is an understanding. The former is resistance forced into an unfortunate confrontation.
Apocalypse today is everywhere and I’m often lured into death speculation against my better judgment. It’s the holidays. We’re a family off to dinner: “What if a drunk driver hits us and we all just die. Brains on the pavement. Limbs in the trees.” In bed at night: “What if a robbery goes wrong and the petty punk thief rapes and shoots us with an unregistered handgun. Runs off stupidly, pants down, into the night.”
The idea of apocalypse is both an interior death assured but also a death at large, stalking in the sky, complete and sublime. I’m drawn to the satire in White Noise: Jack Gladney’s diagnosis—“…you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that”—coupled with the black billowing cloud that appears suddenly and becomes a foreboding and perplexing fixture in everybody’s lives. Witness suburban rapture. Consumer mini-doom.
Actual apocalypse, I think, would be quite different. It supposes total death. Not simply my death or your death or the death of our community. Actual apocalypse promises the obliteration of everything. I die, my family dies, and so does DeLillo, Jack Gladney, Rasputin, Raskolnikov, Carmelo Anthony, and Keith and Mick, the Glimmer Twins. No more Sympathy for the Devil. No more “No more Sympathy for the Devil.”
It’s impossible to grasp how complete that destruction is. Hemingway in Midnight in Paris thinks it’s amusing that anyone would fear death. After all, it’s something all men will do and all men before us have done. The Marquis de Sade expands: Juliette’s mentor asks, How could you be afraid of death? You’ve been nothing before. Why fear being nothing again?
These are good points. You can argue (as much as you can argue about something like death) that we’ve all been dead before. The answer to the koan is that your face was nothing before you were born just like it’s nothing after you die. The most comforting thing about this attitude is that there’s something left behind.
That’s what sentiment is. We attach ourselves to things because it’s comforting to know those things will still be there even if we’re not. I love my city because it’ll still be awake, loud and busy when I’m dead. Cities outlive men. The Dakota outlived Lennon. And if one day I move into that building I won’t mind joining those ranks.
But apocalypse is a big fuck you to all of that. Everything must go. Is that comforting in a different way? No matter how individually alienated, apocalypse assures us that we’re in this together. Even if “this” is simply an admittance of what a small and insignificant mass we all make up. Last year, I watched Carmelo and the Knicks on Christmas and thought, if the apocalypse happens, it’s happening to those guys too. That’s fucking weird!
Lars Von Trier’s opinion of human nature is grim. Excessively grim. But nothing is more pathetic than John’s suicide in Melancholia when he realizes his calculations are all wrong. Oh my God. Tip my hat to Jack Bauer for that performance.
Apocalypse is an intriguing genre not because there’s any chance the world is going to end. That’s ridiculous. When and if that happens we’ll have no control in the matter and it certainly won’t be worth writing about. Apocalypse is intriguing because it expands our scope of death and makes us think about it in an unfamiliar context. It’s a more pure and abstract death. Trier capitalizes on the new possibilities created by Apocalypse-in-Vogue in a way I haven’t seen before. I look forward to film and literature that follow his lead.
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