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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Beauty, truth, nature, and Lars von Trier

I'm wary of Natural Law theory where what is natural is considered inherently good or right (see David Hart and Nature). What brings this up is Lars von Trier"s new movie, Antichrist, in which a couple who, after the death of their child, retreat to a cabin in the woods where they encounter strange and terrifying occurrences.. I haven't seen the movie, and after watching the trailer I'm pretty sure I never will .... it looks both scary and extremely disturbing on a whole number of levels ..... but I did see an interesting review of it at Religion Dispatches. Here's just a bit of the (pretty long) review, Mother (Nature) Will Eat You: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, by S. Brent Plate:


[...] The ancients, as well as many moderns, have concerned themselves with beauty and its attendant formal dimensions of symmetry, wholism, and proper ratios. In the third century CE, Plotinus suggested that all beautiful things produce “awe and a shock of delight, passionate longing, love and a shudder of rapture.” These words could easily be applied to many parts of Antichrist, just as modern day renditions of “shock” and “awe,” and “shudder” are far beyond what the ancients were imagining. Even so, the ancient Greeks, and groups like the National Socialists who pretended to be unearthing an ancient tradition, saw beauty as a property that prompts holiness and ultimately salvation, purifies its recipients, and promotes social harmony and prosperity. Which is why Riefenstahl employed it and Hitler enjoyed it. Beauty, it has been thought, leads to goodness and truth.

Throughout Western philosophical and theological history, one of the key sources for the encounter with beauty has been found in nature. The father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), was big on it, as are many in the Germanic and English philosophical traditions: nature is awe-inspiring, overwhelming even, leading to an encounter with the sublime, something uncontrollable, something that makes us realize the tremendous (making us tremble) forces that are beyond our human grasp, leading us to believe there might be gods and goddesses behind it all.

Von Trier seems to know this and in Antichrist we get nature in a big, bad way: leeches sucking blood off a hand, dead and dying animals, falling trees, falling acorns, and falling birds from nests (mimicking falling children, the “Fall” from original grace), and, finally, animals who prey on their young. Nature here isn’t the pristine, verdant world revered by eco-warriors. Von Trier and his production designers make sure that trees and grass may be “green,” but they are simultaneously rotting, decaying, and falling.

The film’s natural world is not unlike that described by Annie Dillard in her marvelous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Early on in her reflections, Dillard describes her experience walking along a shoreline in a beautiful environment and coming across a frog that was moving very slowly:

And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag... his skin emptied and drooped. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football... I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

Dillard goes on to realize that this “shadow” was a giant water bug that bites its victim, piercing its skin, and then proceeds to suck its prey dry. The image given is gruesome, and Dillard goes on to think of the theological implications: “Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created.” In the end, Dillard affirms a creation theology that appalls von Trier. For the latter, God is the malicious water bug ......

In this light, Antichrist is full of paradoxes, a confusion of opposing forces. Nature and nurture are toyed with, just as left and right shoes are mixed up—perhaps having something to do with the son’s death. Left and right, right and wrong, are nowhere delineated in the film, but confused throughout, and grand mythologies are intertwined with children’s stories and fairy tales. Mythos has a showdown with logos once again, but now in the dead of night instead of high noon. As is usual in von Trier’s films, there is a key character who is a doctor, a medicine man (and it is always a man), and a female character who disbelieves the logos of the medical establishment. They are pitted against each other again and again.

In Antichrist, He (the unnamed character played by Willem Dafoe), the pedantic therapist, lays on the wooden floor of the shack in the woods in Eden, emasculated and half dead, yet even so cannot give up his so-called rational outlook. He looks up at the stars exclaiming, “There’s no such constellation,” regarding the purported “three beggars” from “her” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) research, even though He seems to see them. What He overlooks is the fact that there is no such thing as a constellation anyway. Stars do not somehow “choose” to be together, do not immediately coagulate with each other. Constellations are always created by the observers, a subjective deciding process. There is no logical reason to link one star to the next, and from what we know via modern astronomy, some of those stars might not even exist anymore since their light takes so many years to reach us. What is thought to be natural is nothing of the sort ...........


Blogger Mike L said...

I don't think I will be watching that movie either :). I think the large part of beauty does indeed lie in the eye of the beholder. Strangely enough, for me one of the most beautiful sights is that of a shark swimming. To me there is grace, power, and something that is almost perfectly adapted to its world. That it is a violent predator does not seem to bother me. I have also looked at the picture of Trinity (first nuclear explosion) fireball at 50 milliseconds, and I also see beauty, along with power and awe. I cannot conceive of all the power confined in that rather small space striving to grow and balance itself with the other energies of the world. But then I am a physicist :).

I look up and see constellations, and even if they do not exist in reality, but only in my mind, I am awed by the beauty, the distances, the power of a mind to associate the stars and perceive the patterns there.

Sometimes beauty is also bittersweet, perhaps the stories of loving couples that love and grow old, and one is left behind.

I also remember once in a group meeting when I shared a feeling of hurt and sadness, and was told I shouldn't feel that way. And I realized that it was a privilege to feel anything, that my feeling were a part of my beauty, no matter what they were. And I realized that I could also get rid of them by going back to drinking.

Beauty is where we look for it.


Mike L

11:33 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

I like the beauty of big cats even though they are predators (not so much sharks :). Even insects are beautiful. Maybe this weirdness about beauty is why some think it's the least trustworthy of the transcendentals.

I also remember once in a group meeting when I shared a feeling of hurt and sadness, and was told I shouldn't feel that way. And I realized that it was a privilege to feel anything, that my feeling were a part of my beauty, no matter what they were. And I realized that I could also get rid of them by going back to drinking.

In some ways I think beauty is being more and more authentically ourselves.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Hi Crystal --

Loved this post. I got into it with the opening lines about a couple suffering the death of a child (which in my line of work I'm all too familiar with), who retreated to a cabin in the woods -- which immediately reminded me of the book, The Shack -- and couldn't help but read on.

Of course the review went other places, but fascinating ones. I'm inclined to the scientific, like Mike; my son is a even a physicist at NYU. And I love the stars, especially the summer sky. So what if constellations are just points of view ... in fact, the cosmic reality is so much grander than a two-dimensional picture of constellations.

You bring lots of points of view into your posts. It's good to be reading them again.

4:55 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

It's good to hear from you again :) I'll have to check and see if you're back to blogging.

Yeah, I theink Antichrist would be sort of the anti-Shack :)

5:02 PM  
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