Poetic metaphysics: the reification of mood in Kieslowski’s Blue and von Trier’s Melancholia
At the end of his essay “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language”, part of which is devoted to going after Martin Heidegger’s “meaningless” language, Rudolf Carnap writes the following (Arthur Pap translation):
Our conjecture that metaphysics is a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for art, seems to be further confirmed by the fact that the metaphysician who perhaps had artistic talent to the highest degree, viz. Nietzsche, almost entirely avoided the error of that confusion. A large part of his work has predominantly empirical content. We find there, for instance, historical analyses of specific artistic phenomena, or an historical-psychological analysis of morals. In the work, however, in which he expresses most strongly that which others express through metaphysics or ethics, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he does not choose the misleading theoretical form, but openly the form of art, of poetry.
This thesis, that metaphysics is a form of reified poetry, has fascinated me before I found it in Carnap, but even more after seeing it expressed so cogently. In many philosophical systems, the metaphysics is taken as legitimating the ethics (Stoic and Spinozan philosophy come immediately to mind, though they are hardly the only offenders). The thought is that, once we know the supra-empirical nature of the world, we can understand our purpose. But I have been tempted, as Carnap was, to see the ethics as coming first, the vision of humanity’s task as primary, and the metaphysics as coalescing around this.
I don’t know if this is an accurate psychological/sociological picture of the origin of past metaphysical systems, but I think the idea that metaphysics is a task of poetry and the arts is a powerful one. For, as I understand art, it is fundamentally directed at addressing the question, “What am I/are we doing here?”—at illuminating what David Foster Wallace called the possibilities for believing alive and human in the world as we find it. In addressing this question, the artist creates a world with a particular metaphysics: of self; of necessity, fate, and freedom; of language-world relations; etc. And these metaphysics follow from and serve to illuminate the ethics, to create a picture of humanity that provides some response to the question of our place in the world.
For Carnap, this question was a “riddle of life” with no cognitive content. I cannot agree with Carnap here, insofar as I think that our honorifics ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ can and must be applied to our ways of answering this riddle. (I explained my position here in my Aesthetics and Objectivity II.) Our answer to this riddle is ultimately given in the way we live our lives, and thus, insofar as a metaphysical view (of the sort being considered) can be true, its truthmaker is some life. I specify, “of the sort being considered,” because I am agnostic about whether there are any supra-empirical truths of metaphysics (about e.g. the nature of causality) as studied by contemporary philosophers, though I lean toward empiricist skepticism.
The purpose of this longish preamble is to set the stage for an exploration of the way that two films—Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—illustrate how the arts may use metaphysics to illuminate a particular facet of human life. The phenomenon I want to focus on is the objectivity claims we sometimes (generally implicitly) make for our moods. This occurs when, for instance, we are gripped by some strong emotion, and take offense when we see other people inhabiting some contrary mood. I suspect this happens most often when we are upset, perhaps over a small thing, or perhaps in real grief, and the happiness of others seems an affront. What right do those others have to be happy—the whole world should mourn my dead lover/my stubbed toe.
But, of course, empirically speaking, moods are local things, and do reach out to infuse the entire world and make a claim on everyone within it. The death of my lover colors, to a greater or lesser extent, not just me but the nexus of her family, friends, and acquaintances. My stubbed toe is even more localized—it reaches out only to me. When we demand that the entire world fall in line with our moods, and take affront when the world inevitably doesn’t comply, we are implicitly adopting a particular metaphysics, one in which our moods reach out to color the whole of the world, and hence impose an ethical obligation on all its inhabitants. To hold others to this standard is illegitimate, but may seem eminently reasonable when we are the grips of the mood.
This is exemplified by a striking scene in Kieslowski’s Blue, the first film in his French trilogy. Julie has been in a car crash in which her husband and daughter both died, and the film follows her throughout the grieving process. The husband left behind an unfinished concerto celebrating the forthcoming unification of Europe, which he had supposedly been writing. I say ‘supposedly’ because, in fact, the film suggests and I believe confirms that it was in fact Julie who had been writing it. At various points in the film, when the reality of her family’s death threatens to suffocate her, the screen goes black and the opening bars of the piece play.
I want to focus on one particular instance of this. Julie has made friends with a stripper, Lucille. This friendship was occasioned by Julie refusing to sign a petition to get her thrown out of their apartment complex—not out of any good will, necessarily, but rather, I suspect, out of apathy. (At various points, the film makes prominent this apathy.) Julie is swimming in the apartment complex’s pool when Lucille joins her for a brief conversation. She asks Julie, “Are you crying?” and the screen goes black, the music playing again. When the blackness ends, Julie deflects: “It’s the water.” This deflection doesn’t last, and Julie explains how she used a neighbor’s cat to kill a mouse (with pups) that was living in her apartment. Lucille promises to clean up. As she leaves, a group of kids in gaudy pink bathing suits and floaters run onscreen and jump into the pool, laughing and yelling.
At this point, we have been so immersed into Julie’s grief that we find this childish joy to be an affront, an obscenity. Even though we might recognize, at an abstract, intellectual level, that such a response is not warranted (for why should they be beholden to Julie’s grief), nonetheless we still feel it viscerally. The world presented in the film has been Julie’s world, where the salient features all reinforce the omnipresence and extra-personal reality of her grief. When the kids enter the scene, it feels like a violation of divine law. And yet it is not any such violation—and it is this very fact that grief is not necessitated, not the true moral order, that makes Julie’s eventual redemption possible.
The metaphysical reification of this phenomenon is even more pronounced in Lars von Trier’s recent Melancholia. The film follows Justine, a depressed woman as she struggles with depression and the world ends. As the film progresses, optimistic outlooks are gradually thrown by the wayside as it becomes clear that the planet Melancholia will collide with the earth, killing everyone. What this does is create a context in which Justine’s depression enables her to be the hero, comforting her sister and nephew as they await their deaths. At one and the same time, the end of the world serves to (a) justify her depression, because the underlying order of the entire world affirms the meaninglessness of everything, (b) create a context in which she is not only a functional human being, but the most functional human being left, the only one equipped to handle the world as it really is. The very metaphysics of Melancholia is a reification of Justine’s illness. To her, it seems inescapable that she must exist in this terrible state, and the world confirms her judgment. Metaphysics follows after ethics.
One of the more interesting discussions about Melancholia I’ve been a part of is whether it advocates depression as a worldview. Insofar as the metaphysics of the world serves to legitimate and elevate depression, such a judgment might seem ineluctable, and indeed once did to me. But it is also possible the film is exploring the way that, for a depressed person, her depression seems to reach out and fill the entirety of the world, until all happiness is a vice, against the very nature of things. I still go back and forth between these interpretations, and I don’t know which is correct—perhaps the film does not itself say. I hope, however, that I have shown how Melancholia—and Blue—explore a powerful and ubiquitous phenomenon through the very metaphysics of their films.