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Depressed and Looking Forward to the End of the World?

Centaur planets, Saturn, melancholy, staying good natured, and Lars von Trier

Wikimedia Commons
Planetoid crashing into primordial earth.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Centaurs are balls of ice and dust. They are 30 to 60 miles wide and they whirl well beyond the planet Neptune. There are hundreds of these comet-like planets. Their orbits can sometimes cut through those of Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn. When this happens the big planets’ gravity fields can deflect a centaur towards the earth. This can take place approximately once every 40,000 to 100,000 years. As the centaurs move closer to the sun they break up. Disintegration can lead to “intermittent but prolonged periods of bombardment” for the earth, according to Bill Napier of the University of Buckingham whose co-authored research report was published recently in Astronomy and Geophysics, the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. The bombardment can last up to 100,000 years. Some researchers maintain that such a bombardment may have originated “life on earth by bringing water and organic molecules.” Such an attack may also have ended the “the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.”

Wikimedia Commons

The path of the planet Melancholia in Lars von Trier's movie.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker, was maybe more prophetic than he ever realized. In his science fiction movie, Melancholia, von Trier depicts the planetary destruction of the earth more realistically than he might have been expected. Bill Napier demonstrates that humans live under a cloud of threat from malevolent, wandering extraterrestrial bodies. In von Trier’s 2011 art-house film, a huge planet, the size of Saturn (but named Melancholia – it vastly bigger than a centaur), gradually swings past the earth. It misses our planetary home, but loops back to wipe us out along with the impressive but depressive Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst), her patient sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr).
Jacques de Gheyn, Saturn and Melancholia, 1595/6.

Melancholia, the movie's newly discovered planet, isn't just a story teller's vision of heavenly menace, a vaster version of the centaur. The name isn’t accidental. Lars von Trier has in mind the long historical tradition of associating planets with emotional states and moods. The giant planet Saturn has been linked regularly with melancholia, the old fashioned term for depression. It must have been Saturn that von Trier had in the back of his mind when he made Melancholia. The link of Saturn with depression is not the most well known of associations for most viewers and it needs some explanation. You can see the connection most clearly in medieval and in Renaissance art. Here the great planet appears as a sphere alongside a melancholy astronomer or mathematician or scholar (whose status as a melancholic is made clear by the usual depressive posture of head leaned on the hand and the elbow rested on a flat surface). You can get an idea of what I mean in the illustration to follow. The melancholy astronomer (his posture gives the game away) clasps a globe of the heavens that he idly measures with a compass. The globe on which he is extravagantly seated is probably the planet Saturn.

The earth is engulfed by Depression in Melancholia. If it’s the case that between 4 and 8 per cent of the population suffer from depression, from the depressive effects of the imaginary planet Melancholia, then Lars von Trier’s vision of human life is a little exaggerated. But, as a self-confessed depressive - and he uses the planet as a traditional symbol for his gloomy view of life - it may appear to von Trier that we’re all in the same melancholy boat as him. Justine, the film’s lead character, certainly is and she’s characterized as a severe depressive. Is she Lars von Tier’s typical human being? Justine’s wedding, which takes up the first half of the movie, is a disaster brought about by her depression. She arrives late for the wedding reception, insults the guests, disappears from the reception to take a bath, falls out with her mother, her brother-in-law, her boss, and has sex on the lawn with her boss’ assistant, and drives away her new young husband. Some wedding. Next day she tells her patient sister Claire “But I tried, Claire, I really did.” To her angry husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), Claire lamely defends her sister by saying “She’s ill”. At that point Justine is suffering a bad panic attack in the nearby village and can’t get home. Is Justine really von Trier’s typical human being? She seems to me to have all the kindness of one of Bill Napier’s centaurs. Are humans like centaurs for von Trier?

Lars von Trier at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Lars von Trier at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Wikimedia Commons.

The depressive Justine rejoices in the end of the world that Melancholia brings on. This happens in the second half of the movie. Justine believes that “humans are evil.” They have the planet Melancholia coming. It’s a punishment that we all deserve. She doesn’t say why. At the end of Melancholia Justine gets her revenge on the whole of the human race when the world goes up in smoke. As depressives go Justine is a most mean spirited type. The closer the earth comes to destruction the more content and less depressed she becomes. For most of the film she’s been like a centaur planet and she’s been trying to destroy everything around her (husband, boss, business, sister and new husband, young Tim). Finally the universe helps her out. Then she can relax. Is this von Trier’s vision of a vengeful melancholy consuming he earth? Can this be how he feels about how it is to suffer depression? Perhaps he’s like this when he’s depressed.

Are all depressives like this? Are they all mean spirited and wildly vengeful? Are they all like Bill Napier’s centaurs? You’ll have your own opinion, just like Lars von Trier. But it seems to me that there’s no especial link to be made between Justine’s selfish vengefulness and her depression and her looking forward to the end of the world. Lars von Trier may think we’re all like Justine, but that may just be how he feels when he’s in the thick of it. Here's my main point. It appears that selfish people make selfish depressives, but that unselfish people make unselfish depressives. Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon, is, as I pointed out here recently, the most unselfish of melancholics. And, to add a bit of history to the mix, so was Robert Burton (1577-1640), the famous author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (who, though a profound depressive, was "very merry, facete, and juvenile", and a person of "great honesty, plain dealing, and charity".) Most of my depressive friends are not at all like the centaurish Justine. They are good hearted, though nobbled like Robert Burton by severe illness. Many of them view their fellow humans with the greatest of affection even when they’d prefer to have nothing to do with them at all. How do I know this? Well, they tell me this themselves. And I guess that I have some acquaintance with the mood myself.

It’s not always like Lars von Trier’s movie. The world isn’t coming to a depressive end and lots of people seem to suffer something that has a very old fashioned, if inexplicable name, one long fallen out of psychological literature. This is melancholia hilaris or good-tempered depression - improbable as this may seem to many of you. Perhaps the term needs to be reintroduced and the centaurs should be treated with wariness. And Melancholia, though a beautiful movie, should be treated with caution. But, really, I wouldn’t want to press the issue too hard. Melancholia hilaris will have its turn. There’ll be time for it. After all, it’s not the end of the world.

January 1, 2016

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