'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

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This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Like a juror about to pass judgement on a famous celebrity, it seems impossible for a discussion of Melancholia not to drag into their analysis pre-existing prejudices. In this case, the director, Lars von Trier. This is a shame as we are often in danger of getting into such an excited frenzy over the controversial artist that we overlook the work he has produced.

Von Trier! Von Trier! Who is this Von Trier? I would argue that it does not matter. Artists, however self obsessed, are very rarely – Beethoven like – putting themselves fully and consciously at the centre of their works. In truth, most are simply vocal or visual symptoms of a wider zeitgeist; unwittingly amplifying the white noise around them. Others simply present a part of themselves – often in graphic detail – for us all to wince at, never knowing – or daring – to fully immerse themselves in their project.

Occasionally, as I believe with Melancholia, the artist reaches a half-way house – not quite immersing, they nevertheless produce a whole-work of art; a work wrought from a mind aware and suddenly conscious of the spirit of the age it inhabits.

So what then does Melancholia say of the spirit of the age now? The film is not, despite superficial observations, an idyllic one. There is wealth and comfort, but underlying spiritual unease. Throughout, the film is beautiful but it is an uneasy, often unbearable beauty that pervades; the sight of a naked Justine lying by the river side and bathed in cool blue moonlight seems to consume the showy superficiality of the wedding dress, cake and flowers. The consuming beauty is stark and ravishing. It is threatening to onlookers; stunning in its delivery. It is not an easy beauty.

It’s from scenes like this – which reference Ophelia – that our gleefully hacks have jumped on the theme of Germanic culture. The clues are everywhere. The Kandinsky’s are unceremoniously dumped in this film, replaced by Brueghel the Elder and Millias. The strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde reoccur throughout, and the striking Dunst is seen riding horses through misty pine forests. 

Yet this is simplistic at best, and fails to look beneath the sparkling surface of the Germanic aesthetic. What lurks beneath? Misty pine trees, sparkling blue eyes and castles on remote outcrops: we know what the Germanic ideal looks like, but what does it mean?

As with the ‘Northern’ Renaissance and the later outpouring of Teutonic creativity in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, Von Trier is reacting against an overly scientific, organised and analytical view of reality which pervades modern culture. The film is an intellectual invasion of a slumbering paradigm of progress, science and reason. Here, perhaps, is the significance of the film.

The key here is not the more obvious Wagner, but Dürer’s woodcut Melancholia. Like the film, Dürer shows a distraught and depressed figure, surrounded by the clutter of science and progress. The apparent triumph of progress and reason is no triumph at all. In the distance hangs a hazy hopeful semi-reality of horizon merging with sea and beyond that a bright light in the sky. As with the film, the bean counting, scientific instruments and refrain of ‘trusting the scientists’ counts for nought here. The world is a creation of the self; external reasoning and logic have little influence on it. It attacks the view – espoused by eighteenth-century French philosophers – that ‘a work of politics, of morality, of criticism, perhaps even of literature, will be fine, all things considered, if made by the hands of a geometer.’  
It’s this obsession with mathematical models, numbering and categorising that the film stands against. The sort of philosophy that, for Isaiah Berlin, ‘operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible conclusion; that it is possible to attain to this kind of absolute wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world....’ 

What Dürer recognised, as with Wagner, Goethe and later Carlyle in Britain, is the fundamental failure of progress and mechanistic thought to address the problem of the spiritual vacuum they create. Where to turn to for inspiration or wonder? For Carlyle, who reacted strongly against the emotional desert progress had created, the consequences were clear to see and in need of remedy:

We Boasted ourselves a Rational University; in the highest degree hostile to Mysticism; thus was the young vacant mind furnished with much talk about Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like; so that all were quickly enough blown out into a state of windy argumentativeness; whereby the better sort had soon to end in sick, impotent Scepticism; the worser sort explode in finished Self-conceit, and to all spiritual intents become dead. But this too is portion of mankind's lot. If our era is the Era of Unbelief, why murmur under it; is there not a better coming, nay come? As in long-drawn systole and long-drawn diastole, must the period of Faith alternate with the period of Denial; must the vernal growth, the summer luxuriance of all Opinions, Spiritual Representations and Creations, be followed by, and again follow, the autumnal decay, the winter dissolution.

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