The term melancholia has served many uses in literature and poetry. It is perhaps particularly useful as a semantic device in English language writing, where few nouns exist to describe a state of mind which is at once calm, fearful, despairing, restless, hollow, and longing for something inexpressible. In Von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011) he attempts to capture this set of emotions. In the film, Melancholia is the name of a rogue planet that crashes into earth, causing its destruction. The story depicts the lives and relationships of a handful of people in the lead-up to this Armageddon. It centres upon the sisters Justine and Claire, who are portrayed as each other’s conceptual opposites. We see Justine sink further and further into the throes depression whilst Claire tries harder and harder to care for her.
The three terms melancholy, melancholia, and depression have overlapped throughout history, and in a broad, general sense the use of the latter has grown increasingly popular as the former two have declined. This does not mean, however, that ‘depression’ has simply replaced melancholy and/or melancholia. That there exist such a vast number of different historical narratives about melancholia, melancholy, and depression is not simply a result of different perspectives among today’s historians. Rather, it is a testament to the vast and shifting meanings that these terms have possessed over time. When it comes to melancholia in particular, the word has been used at least since antiquity to describe illness, but not one uniform disease. Thus, rather than speaking about melancholia as a single concept, the word is best understood as corresponding to a number of different – though often overlapping concepts.
In psychoanalysis, Hanna Seagal describes melancholic depression as a defence mechanism devised by the body to fight the depressive state of the mind. This defence is known as manic-schizoid. Freud went further and was the first person to use melancholic to describe depression.
Freud compares the phenomenon of mourning after the loss and death of a close loved one to the idea of melancholia. Freud explains, they both share a similar outward affect on the subject and are both due to similar environmental influences. The inhibition, “absorbedness” of the ego, and the disinterest in the external world is evident in both, mourning and melancholia equally.
Despite their similarities, Freud states, there are some fundamental differences; mourning is recognized as a healthy and normal process that is necessary for the recovery of the loss and would not be seen as a pathology nor a need for medical intervention. However, melancholia, is an abnormal pathology, and a dangerous illness due to its suicidal tendency. In ‘healthy’ mourning we slowly detach ourselves from our loss whether that be through death or heartache, in melancholia we attach ourselves to it, creating the empty space within our psyches. Crucially with melancholia, it is the impasse that is created in the impossibility of expressing the true extent of the feeling that overwhelms. In melancholia the capacity to link the thoughts with words that provide catharsis has been lost. The purpose and rituals that we adopt to find meaning lose significance and no longer provide a symbolic capacity to hold our mental and physical selves together. We can see the depiction of this in the film ‘Melancholia’ as the lead characters depression stems from her inability to seek comfort and relevance in the ritualistic behaviours that humans engage in. She becomes more and more absorbed by the meaningless and insincerity of life, loosing the capacity to find the words to connect her feelings to those around her, there is an absence of inherent value both in her self and in living. However, as Justine begins to accept the inevitability of utter sorrow and unhappiness, the sense of longing melancholia produces is so great that it is concurrently painful and sweet as it provides the possibility of escape.
While many of us will have never experienced melancholia to the depth that Justine exhibits it, we can understand her emotions in part by drawing on what we may have experienced of sadness and longing. The film demonstrates that emotion doesn’t have to be rational to be true. In fact, it speaks to the idea that emotion is never rational, but, in contrast to the cultural view, it is not necessarily bad for emotion to be irrational. We can find a kind of optimism in the peace that Justine is ultimately able to find in her melancholia. In the words of the philosopher Slavoj Žižek:
‘If you really want to do something good for society, if you want to avoid all totalitarian threats and so on… accepting that at some day everything will finish, that at any point the end may be near. I think that, quite on the contrary of what may appear, this can be a deep experience which pushes you to strengthen ethical activity.” The result is not fatalistic hedonism, but a kind of profound engagement with the meaning and significance of life’.