Most of the theories and narratives we use to understand social reality assume that the material world is the main shaping influence over that reality—economics with its emphasis on goods; evolution with its emphasis on physical survival; or think even of the recent presidential campaign with its emphasis on jobs as the defining issue in determining how people will vote. I don’t deny the obvious importance of the material dimension of existence, but I find that theories such as these are often blind to the spiritual dimension of social life: by focusing wholly on humans’ desire for things, they fail to perceive the power of humans’ desire for love, community, solidarity, and connection with others, or as I will explain shortly, for “mutual recognition” of our common humanity as authentic Presence.
Where we place our emphasis in interpreting the world is critical to being able to act together to influence historical events in a positive way and help to create a better world—a world more capable of realizing the yearnings of the human soul. Or in other words, our “social theory” is central to our capacity for effective and meaningful social action, in the sense that social theory is really nothing more than a way of seeing, and in order to do the right thing, to devote our energies in the time that we are here to worthwhile projects that are most likely to improve our collective lives and the world that we collectively inhabit, we must learn to see what is going on in front of us in a way that allows us to interpret its social meaning as accurately as possible.
Freud and Melancholia
The stakes involved in choosing between different social theories and narratives can be illustrated by a discussion of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—a movie that has received a great deal of attention from critics and moviegoers. In this remarkable film, a woman named Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, gets married in a wedding ceremony that is both extraordinarily opulent (vast sums of money are spent by her brother-in-law to assure that this is the happiest day of her life) and yet profoundly alienating in the sense that virtually all the characters, including Justine’s parents and other family members, are represented as unhappy, selfish, and preoccupied with the details of the wedding ritual over the substance of any profound human bond.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of the guests but somewhat mystically understood by Justine and less mystically and more scientifically so by her brother-in-law, a planet that has been hidden behind the sun has somehow shifted in its alignment and is rapidly heading toward earth. Although Justine is obviously deeply disturbed and disengaged while enduring the experience of her own wedding, she becomes more centered and present in the days following the wedding as the danger of collision with the errant planet—named Melancholia—becomes more likely. In the final scene, as Justine sits holding hands with her frightened sister and innocent young nephew in a hastily constructed “magic cave” that Justine has told the boy will protect them all, it is Justine who seems spiritually prepared for the apocalyptic end that awaits them and all of the world. While during the early part of the film, Justine appeared to be the one doomed to disorientation and debilitating melancholia, at the end it is she who becomes at one with the profound and sudden ending of both the collective life and the collective history and culture of the human experience, of human existence itself.
The theory that has informed most of the reviews of Melancholia has been quite explicitly Freudian, perhaps because Freud wrote a very famous book called Mourning and Melancholia that addressed the way that loss—in particular unmourned loss—can create a pathological attachment to the lost object that leads one to become in-dwelling and withdrawn, to lose all interest in life, and to become quite literally vitiated of human vitality. This meaning of the word “melancholia,” drawn from Freud’s good work on the subject, has then been projected into the movie, so that Justine is identified as deeply “depressed” by the disturbed nature of her conditioned upbringing, which reaches a kind of apotheosis in the dysfunctional and dysphoric wedding ceremony. This depression is interpreted as a manifestation of her melancholia, her loss of vitality and interest in life. In Freud’s analysis, the failure to work through the experience of loss through the process of mourning both expresses and reinforces an infantile belief on the part of the sufferer that he or she is responsible for the loss of the loved object, and this guilt not only becomes a primary cause of the sufferer’s unrelenting attachment to the lost object, but also engenders an unconscious need for punishment to partially expiate the guilt, or better, to satisfy the guilt fixation.
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