While interpreting Albert Dürer’s engraving Melancolia I, professor of art history Bonnie Noble writes: “Dürer’s intellect, introspection, and unrelenting perfectionism may have driven him to a state of melancholia—what is now known as depression. Dürer’s famed Melencolia I engraving of 1514 has been called the artist’s psychological self-portrait, and indeed the image does convey the terrible struggle of high expectations and debilitating inertia, when excessive introspection paralyzes the imagination.”
Yet, some who interpreted the engraving, hold that the angel in question is in fact waiting for inspiration – his melancholic state is a prelude to a creative act. Around the angel, building tools are scattered about, signifying chaos. Nietzsche once wrote that one must have chaos within himself, to give birth to a dancing star. In this case, chaos surrounds the angel, and to give birth to a work of art, this chaos needs to be transformed.
Plato was a melancholic and it inspired him into creation of philosophical works. The Greek understanding of such states was that of divination, of the very thing we the moderns perceive only as illness. Some modern writers suffered from depression and were unable to be artistically productive during such states (Boudelaire’s spleen is not even imaginable in ancient times). It may very well be that we are, to some degree estranged from our being, and that our physiological states are severely affected by this estrangement.
At this point, one can make a distinguishment between melancholy and depression, the first one being a state in which one can create and the second the one which is severe, pathological and the person in question cannot create – in this introduction we are concerned only with the possibility of artistic creation. It is interesting that Freud distinguished between depression and melancholy, and thought of the latter as a much more severe state. He defined melancholy as a “postponed grievance”. In this article, several films will be presented, all of them of melancholic nature, which could inspire the reader to creativity, since the viewer watches and contemplates the melancholic states and settings which lead to creation or authenticity.
1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
I wrote an article about Melancholia elsewhere; a few years later I would subtract some parts of the analysis and add some important aspects to the interpretation, but in this overview, I am not interested in the analysis of the film, but the moments in which Kirsten Dunst’s character Justine, acts in a creative way due to her melancholic state. The film is divided into two chapters. The first follows Justine and her wedding, while the second follows Claire and the impending destruction of Earth by the planet symptomatically called Melancholia. The second chapter portrays Claire’s anxiety due to the imminent destruction; Lars von Trier said that both Claire and Justine can be seen merging into one character – possibly because depression and anxiety often go hand in hand.
At the wedding, an enormous amount of pressure is put on Justine, she is forced to smile and smile although she is ill. Her boss demands a tagline for an ad, her husband, Michael, consistently wants her to be happy and her sister’s husband talks about the cost of the wedding without end. At first Justine’s response to this situation is a withdrawal, flight, but soon she creatively takes control of the situation.
She rearranges the artistic monographs on the shelves in a way that Bruegel’s famous painting of the village and the hunters in the snow is visible, as well as the other paintings subversive to the context (the marriage ceremony). She cynically responds to her boss, calls him a despicable power-hungry human being and manages to escape the marriage she just got into, since she does not feel capable of sustaining it. She uses different tactics to achieve this, and not all of them are ethical, but does it in a creative fashion nonetheless.
In the second chapter, when it is obvious that Melancholia will collide with Earth and destroy it, her depression turns into a well-functioning melancholia and she takes control of the situation. Thus, the distinction made in the introduction to this essay is suggested; depression is a state of being “torn” by the illness, and melancholy a state which allows the person to communicate himself or herself with the world in a stream of creativity. In one scene, she is shown naked, illuminated by Melancholia’s blue light.
This scene is harrowingly beautiful and we can see her responding to the impending destruction with an act of aesthetic value. When her sister’s husband commits suicide (by observing this character, we can see von Trier’s critique of naïve scientific optimism), Claire suggests that they drink wine together. Justine responds with laughter, again showing she is in complete control of the situation showing signs of impending destruction.
She says to Claire that there is no life in the universe except on planet Earth and shows that she has clairvoyant abilities (this is illustrated at the beginning of the film when some kind of electricity is shown radiating from her fingers). She talks about human condition, that life on Earth is evil and does not deserve to survive; her horse is named Abraham and it seems that God sacrifices mankind as Abraham had to sacrifice his own son. According to the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, in ancient cultures horses were associated with death.
Black horse is shown in the prelude to the film; von Trier is making fun of the usual apocalyptic motifs but in the figure of a black horse, here is an obvious allusion to the impending annihilation. When the very end comes, Justine performs a creative act in itself; she tells her nephew that they will build a magical cave out of branches which will protect them from the collision. I cannot think of a more creative way to reduce the suffering of a child (the boy is calm as the end approaches, with closed eyes he awaits the destruction), and be victorious over death, if only for a moment.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)
The Coen Brothers’ film follows Llewyn, a folk singer, as he struggles to survive by performing in Greenwich Village in the early 60s. His character is loosely based on the folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Llewyn had lost a friend due to suicide; Van Ronk’s friend and a folk musician Phil Ochs died of suicide as well. He sang a song about him, titled He Was A Friend of Mine.
In the film, Llewyn goes through a grieving process, he sleeps on friends’ couches and is “homeless”, both in a literal and a Heideggerian way. He is a “rootless” individual, he has no home, something to hold on to. His late friend Mike’s middle-aged friends take care of him from time to time, and tolerate his rude and sometimes erratic behaviour. His friend and a casual lover Jean (who is also his friend’s girflriend) believes that she might be pregnant with him, so she decides to have an abortion. He believed that his former girlfriend had an abortion as well, but she decided to keep the child without telling him. The child is 2 years old and he/she has no connection with his/her father whatsoever.
At the beginning of the film, Llewyn loses the Gorfeins’ orange cat, and later he finds a similar one believing it is his friends’ cat. The cat is as we find out at the end of the film, called Ulysses. This ancient hero, who is obviously important for the Coen Brothers since they made a film based on Odyssey earlier, struggles and overcomes many dangers on his way home. Ulysses, in fact, does have a home, Ithaca, a son and wife waiting for him. Llewyn has nothing. While Ulysses the cat returns home, he is still without a home, literally and symbolically. When he tries to rejoin the Merchant’s Marine, a job which is the very definition of rootlessness, he cannot do this either.
After this short adumbration of the philosophical issues in the film, one must emphasize that the film’s great strengths are, of course, music and cinematography. The photography has a “milky” quality, it is clear as it can be, but also “slushy”, as the Coen Brothers wanted it to be. The film itself resembles a folk song, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel said: “I thought that the script is like a folk song.” and that “an American folk song is usually sad and depressing with very little hope.” The film is basically the same, it is sad, melancholic, and there is little hope, but the hope lies in the journey itself, the journey to conquer suffering (grievance for the lost friend).
When Llewyn performs the song Fare thee Well at the Gorfeins’, Lillian starts to sing Mike’s part of the song, and Llewyn bursts in anger. At the beginning of the film he plays a melancholic song Hang Me, Oh Hang Me and at the end he plays Fare thee Well at the Gaslight. Although it is the same performance, the Coens wanted to emphasize the melancholic journey aiming to be victorious over suffering. At the beginning, there is great pain and as the film progresses, there is acceptance.
The music chosen as the film progresses follows that journey, there is pain, sadness (The Death of Queen Jane), there is humor (mostly black humor), a brief return to childhood (The Shoals of Herring) and in the end a song is sung to bid farewell. There is still pain, but it is not as sharp, devastating as the pain which accompanies great loss, it is the pain of being-in-the-world without an anchor, but it is also anxiety (angst) which provokes the protagonist to strive for authenticity.
3. Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)
I have already written about this film, sketched out the most important motifs with an emphasis of Julie’s dealing with traumatic loss, death of husband and child in a car accident. I would recommend the previous article as an introduction for the following reflections considering melancholy and the path toward acceptance of loss, and the beginning of the mourning process, through creation of art. Three Colors: Blue, although notably different from Inside Llewyn Davis, shares some similarities with the latter.
Llewyn is struggling through the mourning process and music is an important part of his healing path, while on the other hand, Julie simply cannot mourn both husband and child and has no will to create, or at least, consider the completion of Song for the Unification of Europe. She throws the music sheets into garbage, and as we can induce, a homeless person who plays flute finds it and plays it on the street. Parts of the Song… are playing when it seems that Julie is experiencing moments of sadness and luckily, the musical sheets are not completely lost, but kept as a copy.
Julie is experiencing the symptoms of trauma, and the biggest issue is her incapability to mourn. The Greeks believed that mourning is essential for us being human, deep sorrow is the essential emotion. Julie is incapable of that, but only when the man who is in love with her, also a composer, taunts her with the idea that he will finish the composition, and when she finds out that her husband had a mistress who is pregnant with him, she starts to experience emotions she previously could not, since she receded into a shell.
In other words, the film does not deal with melancholy, although the ambient is melancholic, but deals with the path toward acceptance, the beginning oof mourning through artistic creation. When Julie agrees to finish the Song for the Unification, only then we realize that she is starting to come to terms with her husband and daughter’s death, that she is starting to leave the shell she receded into after the loss.
Julie can be truly inspiring, since we gradually observe her tactics to come to terms with a traumatic loss, but only through creation and completion of the endeavor which was halted, she can start to mourn and regain herself again. The tears we see falling are a victory, not a defeat, and her transformation is a sign of hope that through creation, brotherhood of people, we can defeat our collective desire for atomization and isolation from other human beings, grieve one another, love one another and ultimately achieve the true connections which define us. Art is one way of expressing these tendencies, but only mutual acceptance offers a way to transcend the forces which keep us apart. This is the moral of Three Colors: Blue, and an inspiration for all of us who want to create works which will bring us closer together.
You can read the second part of this list (Melancolia II) here …