Melancholy and Prophecy

Scene from Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

I woke up with Melancholia on my mind. Six days after watching it, I cannot shake the airless world of this film that lives in the eerie twilight between calamity and silence. The Earth is about to collide into a mammoth planet hiding behind the sun, yet the volume is turned down to a whisper. There are no news reports here, no fighter jets or people yelling in the streets. Instead we listen to the murmuring of two sisters as they wander the immaculate lawn of a plush country home. When Melancholia was released in 2011, I mistakenly dismissed it as one of Lars von Trier’s exercises in hype and masochism. But that was a time when the world still felt relatively stable.

Now this story of cataclysmic extinction feels like prophecy. Nearly every weather-related headline contains words like unprecedented and record-breaking: Floods across America. Reservoirs evaporating in India. Europe in the grip of a heatwave that forced Germany to curb speeds on the Autobahn to prevent the pavement from cracking and buckling. Last week Alaska hit ninety degrees. And fires burn everywhere.

How does one face the end of the world? One sister maintains faith in the daily rituals of breakfast, lunch, and bedtime stories; the other withdraws into the fog of depression until her favorite meal tastes like ashes. In Melancholia, the ennui that can wreck any hope of managing a relationship, a career, or a smile becomes a valuable asset when obliteration arrives. Detachment becomes the sturdy voice of reason. This is a film about reckoning with “toxic knowledge,” the environmentalist Richard Heinberg’s term for information that forever colors our perception. “Once you know about overpopulation, overshoot, depletion, climate change, and the dynamics of societal collapse, you can’t unknow it,” he says, “and your every subsequent thought is tinted.”

This tinting leads to the image of a woman lying naked in the grass at midnight, gazing at an alien planet with desire in her eye, daring the apocalypse to come closer. “The Earth is evil,” she says. “We don’t need to grieve for it.” The lines between stoicism, detachment, and nihilism can be blurry. At its heart, pessimism is self-congratulatory because it suggests we are too good for this world. And as our world begins to heat up and turn strange, I find myself chilled—and occasionally invigorated—by this centuries-old adage from Leibniz: we live in the best of all possible worlds.

Further reading: Melancholia; notes on “toxic knowledge” and David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth; Gottfried Leibniz on the best of all possible worlds (a stance that Voltaire considered idiotic in light of the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon where tens of thousands were killed while praying on All Saints’ Day. This inspired him to write Candide).

Leyland Kirby - Plastic False World

We, So Tired of All the Darkness in Our Lives | History Always Favours the Winners, 2017 | Download from Bandcamp

Slow-motion optimism in the gloom. From Leyland Kirby: “It’s about the fact that not everything need be angry, distorted, or bombastic to show defiance.”

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