VON TRIER'S ANTICHRIST
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The Mythic Energies of Von Trier's Antichrist
– June 23, 2013
A Note of Warning for those who have not seen Antichrist: while it is not officially rated, it would without a doubt be NC-17. It is sexually explicit; and, while violence is not rampant in the movie, when it appears it is occasionally very intense. It is, after all, a horror film. However, the violence is not in the vein of either the tortue sub-genre or the slasher sub-genre. There is not one moment of gratuitous anything in this film.
Let me say up front, I am not offering here what is generally called "a reading" of Antichrist.[FN] What I want to do here is merely lay out the ideational threads and energies that I see at play, so as to make the film more accessible to others. In no small sense, what I am trying to do is to lay out the ideational substructure of the film. I will try to avoid any action-specific spoilers. But, obviously, it will impossible to avoid ideational spoilers.
[FN] Indeed, the traditional notion of "a reading" goes against the nature and modality of the film.
Now that that's said: a moment on terminology. In the credits, the two characters in the film are identified as "he" and "she." To avoid complications, I am going to rename them TheMan and TheWoman.
Off the top I want to make a couple clarifications, and then three key ideational points. These latter three points will set up the tracings to follow.
As for clarifications: in the film, both in TheWoman's thesis and in TheMan's comments the European witch craze is characterized as being a massive cultural movement directed against women. (Thus the title of TheWoman's thesis, Gynocide.) This idea rather blossomed out of Margaret Murray's 1921 The God of the WItches. Beginning (if I remember right) in the 50s, historians started hunting down and number-crunching the actual records of the period, and found that while it is true that the majority of the victims were women, there is no overarching rhyme or reason behind what happened. At one city, they would be all women, at another they would be primarily men; at one only very old, at another primarily young. Every city and region, every different outburst, has its own demographics of victims. And so it can be said that every city and region went through its own event(s), the particular motivations of which (except for where it was obviously political in nature) are mostly matters of conjecture. If there can be found a generally overarching theme, it probably has far more to do with the "who can out-conservative the other" nature of post-Reformation Protestantism and Catholicism than with witchcraft or paganism.[FN]
[FN] It has been a while since I was deep within this; but if I may refer you to one scholar, it would offer Jeffrey Burton Russell, one of the majors in the area. His Witchcraft in the Middle Ages may be starting to feel its age, but it is nonetheless a good launching point.)
Also on the historical side, in part out of TheWoman's studies of the witch craze, the movie equates Satan with Nature. I am not sure if this really happens in the history of ideas until the likes of Aleister Crowley. Though, I think this is forgivable in context, as the equating could be happening primarily in TheWoman's mind -- and, indeed, she is doing such.
Now to my three, primary points.
First: to watch this film you have to recognize it is not simply a story. The film is and functions as a myth. It is an aesthetic text, not a nomic. If you try to reduce the plot to rational, linear causality, you will not only get to wholly the wrong place, but be falling right under the critique the movie levels at TheMan.
Second: it can be said that there are actually four characters in this myth: TheMan and TheWoman each in either a possessed and unpossessed state. ("Possessed" seems to be an appropriate term, though I do not mean it in the sense of demonic possession.)Though, to me, the difference of the two states of TheWoman are easier to discern than those of TheMan: by halfway though the film she is visually bouncing back and forth.
Third: do not try to simplify the film into bad guy-good guy dynamics. There are no good guys, per se, in this film. There are two negative characters -- TheMan possessed and TheWoman possessed -- and there are so also two positive characters -- each unpossessed. Though, to call them or consider them "good guys" or "bad guys" is completely off base.
The reason for that lies in that the film is mythic in character. In fact, as is pretty much declared by the cabin being called "Eden," the myths here are primordial. TheMan is the actor and speaker of the energies of the archetypal masculine; TheWoman is the actor and speaker of the archetypal feminine. As is it seen in many theogenies, the archetypal feminine is the idea of the infinite posibility of form; the archetypal masculine is the energies of the realization form (or, the infinite potential for form). In a rather crude sense, feminine is matter without structure, while masculine is structure without matter. In the mythical, first, cosmos-creating meeting of masculine and feminine, this cosmos -- one potential cosmos out of infinite possibilities -- comes into being. Within that cosmos, the archetypes are in union, in embrace.
What is important there is to recognize, however, is that there are now the two aspects of the masculine and feminine: that within and that without of the cosmos-creating union. The masculine within the cosmos is governed by the nature of the already established cosmos, and tempered by its engagement with the feminine. Outside the cosmos, the masculine exists to its primary nature of structure without matter: to wit, divine law. The feminine, within the cosmos, is likewise governed by the nature of the created cosmos and organized by the engagement with the masculine. The feminine outside the cosmos, outside engagement with the masculine, returns to primordial chaos. (Thus the depiction in so many mythologies of the archstypal feminine as a dragon always threatening to consume the comsos, or, as in the Poimandres, as a dark coiling snake; and the masculine, also as in the Poimandres as pure light.)
Thus you have two natures of TheMan and TheWoman. The unpossessed nature of the man is seen mostly in the beginning, with the opening scenes, through to the funeral. But once he decides he needs to start taking over TheWoman's care, that he knows best how to care for TheWoman, that he needs to organize and structure TheWoman's life and healing, he starts to become possessed with the archetypal masculine in its independent aspect. TheWoman, it must be noted, starts the film already possessed by the chaos of the archetypal feminine, the event of which happens in the previous summer, when she was alone at Eden with their son working on her thesis. Though, TheWoman does still move in and out of possessed and unpossessed state (or, primarily possessed and primarily unpossessed state).
I would say that much of the sex in the movie is either (in its more playful moments) speaking that aspect of the engagement between the masculine and feminine that still exists, or (in its more desperate moments) speaking the need and want of the two to re-engage and creat a new cosmos.
Unfortunately, the two can't engage except through sex. And, as seen by TheMan's rejection of sex at one point, and TheWoman's biting of TheMan, that is not exactly ever wholly successful: the energies of dissolution are already present from the start. TheMan retreats into his rationality, turning his therapeutic practice into a weapon for ordering the universe. It is not unimportant that TheWoman glancingly mocks TheMan in saying there is no longer a place for dreams in psychology, and the Freud is dead. Which, by the by, could be called the greatest and most damning critique against contemporary psychology, that it has abandoned the unconscious in favor of rationality: thus the path TheMan takes in the film, and the inability of TheMan to engage TheWoman in words: she is speaking her a-rational reality, and he can only answer by constantly attempting to recast her reality in his law-governed rationality. (It should be added, it is equally important that the man starts to have strange dreams and waking visions.)
But the same can be said for TheWoman: she refuses to engage his attempts to find order in and put order in reality. A key scene is at the bridge where he is asking her to stay put on the bridge so that she can experience and thus get a grasp on her anxiety. But she rejects the energies of ordering and lets the emotions overwhelm her and runs for the cabin. This movie is not a one-way street: the two primary energies of the archetypal masculine and the archetypal feminine are separating by equal measure, according to their own natures.
Thus the opening scene in the movie: the cosmic sex scene. The union of masculine and feminine. (That scene is complicated later on.) And such scenes as the "walk between the rocks," where the woman is willing to play the cosmically-ordering game of the walk, and the man is willing to recognize the reality of the experience of her anxiety.
And I think that pretty much sets up the primary energies of the movie. Rather than a Eden myth about the creation of the world, this is a reversed myth about the destruction of the world. (And, thus, one way it ties in to Melancholia -- and, perhaps, Nymphomaniac, the final film of the "Trilogy of Depression".) The primary energies of the film are thus the two axes of masculine-feminine and engagement-possession(diengagement). The events of the film mark the movements along the engagement-possession line as they play out in the masculine and feminine natures. I believe that once you understand that rather simple framework of the film, you can come to understand what is happening in the individual events in the film. Just keep in mind they these are not to been seen as people: they are to be seen as ideas, as myth.
From here on, I just want to address a few specific elements of the film.
• Nature--Satan: Through the thought of Aleister Crowley and such, the being of Satan can be identified as a supreme nature god. The idea is that if there is a god of this cosmos, a god that humans can actually engage in any way, it would have to be of this cosmos: i.e., created with it. A god existing outside the created-cosmos can not be part of the cosmos without limiting itself -- in which case it is no longer that outside-the-cosmos-deity, but a created thing, a part of Nature. (So you're back to the first situation: any god outside the cosmos can not have effect on the cosmos, nor can it be accessed from within. But a god within the cosmos is in the cosmos, engaging the cosmos and able to be engaged through the cosmos.)
Obviously, there lies within the history of witchcraft and paganism in Europe the idea of Nature worship, and of deities and spirits and such that are of the cosmos, not beyond it.[FN1] But equating those gods, spirits, etc. is not part of that tradition. It is a definition/identificaion applied to paganism by the Catholics, and then later conflated with it by Satanism. Nonetheless, I see within Antichrist something more than mere identity of Satan and Nature. It has to be seen through TheWoman's eyes, the eyes of a woman who has been possessed by the archetypal feminine. "Satan," to me, does not stand for the archetypal feminine in general; rather "Satan" stands for the all consuming chaos of the archetypal feminine disengaged from the archetypal masculine: the primordial nature of the feminine.[FN2] As such, I think you need to let the film do the work of giving definition to the word "Satan" rather than feed with with meaning from religious or pagan traditions. In doing such I think you can give fullest energies to the final equating, that made by TheMan seconds before TheWoman attacks him (and the end is assured): i.e., equating Nature and Satan with "Me," who is TheWoman possessed. In turn, that is why it is at the top of the fear pyramid, for TheWoman fears the all-consuming chaos that is inherent to her feminine nature.
[FN1] In the Greek myth, the Olympian pantheon were of the cosmos and of the material world; the Titans were of the cosmos but pre-existed the material world; and the protogenoi were those who pre-existed the cosmos.
[FN2] Just as the Christian God, pure law, stands for the primordial archetypal masculine.
• The Inherent Evil of Women: When TheWoman is returning to a primarily possessed state, she speaks of how women are inherently evil. This is for me a key moment, where TheMan's analytical rationality wholly fails him: if he at all could re-engage the unconscious of the woman, the moment would have made total sense to him, because "evil" would not have meant moral evil, but rather the chaos of the archetypal feminine, the surfacing of the deepest parts of the unconscious. In some on-line articles on Antichrist there are attempts to turn the film into a commentary on Christian dogma, within which the corruption of the world comes through the woman. Now, mythically speaking, of course it is going to come through the woman: it is within the feminine that there exists the energies of destruction (and rebirth). (After all, Kali is a female god.)
But, whether that "corruption" is a good or a bad thing depends on the nature of your theology. Christianity as it exists today (even, since Paul) is a pessimistic theology: because of the corruption of the apple, the world is now flawed, and humankind must strive to return to the pure state of God -- which is to say, to the archetypal masculine. In an optimistic theology, however, that moment of corruption is instead a re-enactment of the original, cosmic sex act, the engagement of masculine and feminine that created the cosmos, only now within the material reality: that is, the will to divine order of the masculine-man is brought to engagement with the physical reality of the cosmos. Thus the naming of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: to understand reality, you need both the masculine and feminine working together. Rather than material reality coming to corruption, it comes to fruition, and the act stands not as example of sin, but example of spiritual awakening within the cosmos and of the cosmos. (To note, the reason these currents no longer really exist in Christianity is because they were snuffed out by the archetypal-masculine-oriented Church.[FN1] Indeed, the Renaissance can be seen in part as a re-awakening to an optimistic theology: something destroyed by the Reformation.[FN2])
[FN1] Not, to note, by an archetypal-masculine-oriented Christ. In fact, if read out of his time, Jesus is speaking out of a masculine-feminine balance; not to a pessimistic prioritization of the masculine. In fact, he is continurally critiquing the Judaic love of law.
[FN2] Though, in that the Reformation period consisted of two religions trying to out-conservative each other, it is legitimate to say that the history of post-Renaissance Christianity is the history of a religion turning wholly back to the archetypal masculine in rejection of the archetypal feminine. And the Enlightment, after, is then the apotheosis of that idea into a philosophical ideal. So there is an unavoidable, ideational connection between the archetypal energies of Antichrist and the history of Christianity. In turn, one would then naturally think that you could, in fact, see the witch craze as an assault upon the archetypal feminine. That is what Murray tried to do. The historical data, however, doesn't bear it out.
So I have a little difficulty permitting a Christian framework to be glued to Antichrist. I think the ideation and themes here work at deeper, more mythic, more spiritual level.
• The Three Beggars: This is, as far as I can find, something original to the film. In fact, I have found where von Trier has said himself they are personal images brought to the screen. How they work primarily in the film are to give structure to the film (the first three parts are in turn one of the Three Beggars, and the fourth the three together.) They are identified (in the title cards and in the image of the constellations found by TheMan) as Grief, Pain, and Despair. Now, personally, I do not want to put too much energies into these names other than having them be a structure upon which the decreation-myth is being told. Something like grief marks the beginning, grief for loss in the material world; Pain marks the experience of the beginnings of de-creating; and Despair speaks the recognition of inevitability. Now, these are all emotional, and as such oriented within the feminine rather than the masculine. So they also speak the story primarily from TheWoman's viewpoint -- thus how the animals gather next to her before the final sequences.
But, to be honest, I don't want to take them much farther beyond that, except perhaps to permit the idea that they are also the very energies of disollution made manifest. But even that idea I want keep free and loose, and subservient (if you will) to the primary energies.
• Final Scene -- the Women: I do not see this scene as a kind of final, moral statement. Rather, I see it merely as a scene where TheMan is seeing the archetypal feminine in the world, envisioned through women walking through the (primeval) forest. We the viewers have already seen them twice before. Throughout the film, I do not see the women of the forest as negative: but merely as depictions of the relationship of Nature and the archetypal feminine. Perhaps something rather like the flipside of what is happening to TheWoman: she is being consumed by the primordial feminine chaos, and at the same time that archetypal feminine is emerging out of Nature. Though, in that in the film the feminine is moving to away from engagement and toward its chaos-aspect, perhaps those women are particularly a representation of that side: of the primordial-feminine emerging out of the masculine-feminine unity: the resurrection of the chaos-dragon, but in the form of women. This, to me, is why the one scene of the women lying around the woods looks like something out of a Bosch painting. (Though, I would not at all go to equating the scenes with a hell of any sort.)
• The Hobbling of TheMan: and the child. Simply, the primary energy of the masculine is toward order, toward law, toward control of the external reality. However, the primary energy of the archetypal feminine is to embrace, to experience, to bring to the bosom, to consume, to internalize. The masculine extends out; the feminine pulls in. For me, the hobbling of the two males of the film are excellent touch on the part of von Trier, a way to thicken the mythic ideation without betraying the mythic nature of the film. (As well, an ingenious way to link the present with the summer past.