The Philosopher’s POV: Melancholia

October 3, 2012 No Comments

Melancholia: Hope in a Godless Universe


“I’m trudging through this gray woolly yarn, it’s clinging to my legs, it’s really heavy to drag along.” So says Justine to her sister, Claire, and the images at the beginning of the film show her doing just that in her wedding dress. Life seems so heavy. Why is Justine so depressed? She is smart and beautiful and has a new husband who adores her and a sister who loves and cares for her. She acknowledges that she “should be god damned happy,” as her brother-in-law says to her. But she isn’t. She “smiles, and smiles, and smiles” all evening, but she is not happy.

Perhaps it is due to her upbringing. We get a glimpse of this at the wedding when her father rises to give a speech and then feels compelled to talk about his ex-wife, whom he calls domineering. This prompts the ex-wife, Gabby, to jump to her feet and denounce what was just said as “a load of crap.” She then insults her ex- by saying that he has no ambition and shows partiality to Justine’s sister, Claire. She disparages marriage at her daughter’s wedding and tells Justine to “just get the hell out of here” when Justine comes seeking comfort and assurance. Justine’s father seems to be an alcoholic.  She wants to have a serious talk with him, but he leaves instead of meeting with her in the morning as she had planned because he got a ride home that he couldn’t refuse (probably with the two Betty’s he had brought to the wedding). Perhaps being raised by cold and inconsiderate parents who hated each other, and by a mother who favored her sister, contributed to Justine’s melancholy. And, no doubt, her brain chemistry is a major factor in her depression.

Some moods and emotions are rational, they make sense given the circumstances, and some are not. It is not rational to be angry with the messenger who brings bad news, for he did not cause the events that constitute the bad news. But it can be rational to be angry at the people in the news, for the news might be that some lover or good friend has betrayed you. It can be rational to feel glum. Perhaps your favorite dog has died or your last child has just gone off to college. But it doesn’t make sense to feel glum on your wedding night when you are marrying a wonderful man who adores you. In that case, the feeling has a cause but there is no reason behind it, unlike when someone feels glum because their dog has died or their youngest child has just left for college.

When Claire googles “Melancholia,” two definitions appear on her screen, one from Wikipedia, the other from Wikepedia defines it as “sadness” (though you will not find that definition in the real Wikipedia); as,  “A mental disorder characterized by severe depression, guilt, hopelessness.” defines “endogenous depression” as “a severe form of depression usually characterized by insomnia, weight loss, and inability to experience pleasure, thought to be of internal origin and not influenced by external events” (my italics). Perhaps depression, like feeling glum, can be rational because sometimes it is a fitting response to external events. Doesn’t it make sense to feel glum and be depressed if the world is going to end soon because another planet (called “Melancholia”) is going to crash into the earth and destroy it? And what if it’s true as Justine claims that “the earth is evil; we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it…, we’re alone, life is only on earth [there is no afterlife],” and that it “is not for long”? If that were true, wouldn’t there be good reason for anyone to feel depressed?

The two parts of Melancholia can be seen as representing the two faces of melancholy. On the one hand, it can be a mood that has causes but is not rational, in the sense that there is no good reason in the person’s circumstances to feel depressed. On the other hand, it can be a fitting response to a situation, say, to a person’s imminent demise, and the demise of the whole human race, in a universe with no afterlife. Justine’s mood at the wedding does not make sense given her circumstances, even if it has a psychological and neurological cause that we can understand. Her depression subsides in the second half of the film through her sister’s nurturing and her love for her nephew. This is ironic because we see that the external circumstances warrant her feeling depressed, even though she does not, while in the first half of the film her personal life did not seem to warrant her feeling depressed, even though she did.

Bertrand Russell thought that there is no God, no afterlife, and that eventually the earth will crash into the sun. So his view of how things are is similar to Justine’s, though he did not think that the destruction of the earth was imminent. He says that man is powerless before Nature. That disease, disasters, and death are inescapable. While we can find cures for some diseases, it seems unrealistic to expect disease to be eradicated. While we can extend life, no one really thinks we can conquer death. Death and pain and despair are inevitable given how powerless we are before the indifferent forces of Natures. Not only is each individual going to perish, but the whole human race will eventually become extinct. He writes the following in his early essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,”

All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.

He says of the inevitability of death for every human individual, the eventual extinction of the human race, and the inevitability of pain and despair while we are alive,

All these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Despite this gloomy view of how the world is, Russell thought that people can lead meaningful lives that are well worth living. What is his prescription for leading that sort of life in the bleak circumstances he assumes prevail? He writes,

To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things–this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by the contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

Russell thinks that through imagination and reason humans can create beauty and discover truths through music, art, literature, philosophy and the like. These are the more eternal things to which Russell thinks we should turn. But in the Preface to his autobiography he notes how he was also always brought back to earth by pity for the suffering of mankind. Even in his early essay he thought that,

 Lightening the sorrows of our fellow travelers, bringing them joy, bolstering their courage, trying to instill hope in their hours of despair, and tending to their needs can make life worth living. We can express encouragement, sympathy, and bravery in our lives even though they will end and even though the human race will eventually go extinct.

In the Preface to his autobiography titled, “What I have lived for,” Russell writes,

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

He does not mention love in his early essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” but in the Preface he writes,

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy–ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that the saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

Justine and Bertrand Russell share a world view.  Russell thinks that life can be meaningful and well worth living despite the bleakness of that world view. There are signs at the end of Melancholia that suggest that Justine might agree. Justine seems to be liberated by her contemplation of Fate, which Russell believes is the origin of a free man’s worship. And she seems to find meaning and happiness, even if only fleeting, through her love for her nephew and her sister. The film does not show how relieving the suffering of strangers or turning to eternal things can give meaning to life, but we can see how those could also give meaning to life even in a Russellian world.            

Melancholia offers a condensed portrait of Russell’s worldview, for it packs into a few days what he thinks will happen to each of us individually, and eventually to the entire human race. And in its last scene where Claire, Justine, and her nephew, Leo, huddle beneath a teepee without walls, exposed to the elements, without protection, it offers a condensed view of the hope that is still possible in a Russellian world.

Russell ends his Preface on an upbeat note,

 This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

There is reason to be melancholy, and there is reason to have hope, even in a world without God and an afterlife.


Bruce Russell
Department of Philosophy
Wayne State University

The Philosopher's POV

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