Wheel of Sleep by Steve Mitchell
“The only things I could rely on during my forty days in the desert were those I’d already acquired and the voices—in music, in film, in books—of those who fashioned something from their darkness and joy.” In Steve Mitchell’s essay “Wheel of Sleep,” Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia becomes a lens for insights into a period of darkness and “unrelenting heaviness” in the writer’s life. Almost forty, his marriage over, he was barely making it from paycheck to paycheck, temporarily forced to sleep in his car after falling behind on his rent. “The darkness is always there. It brushes my bare skin. It sends a chill. It fogs my vision. I lose feature to it, limbs heavy, fingers thick and numb.”
In “The Essay in Parts,” co-authored with Steven Harvey, Ana Maria Spagna describes using allusions to “object[s] of culture” such as films “like a backboard,” or even a “framework” to an essay, as Mitchell has done here. Spagna suggests that allusions “infused…with commentary and personality” serve as “illustrations of a larger idea,” which can build bridges for readers to approach the writing. Alternating between descriptions of von Trier’s film and his own experience, Mitchell approaches the indescribable, a time when he surrendered words. “In my darkness, I felt I was dying. I felt that—in the same way I had to give up words in order to come to writing again—I had to relinquish hope.” The film moves inexorably toward the collision of the planet Melancholia with planet Earth and the void that follows. At the close of the essay the writer is poised on the brink of expression, waiting for words to emerge from the shadows. See Mitchell’s author’s note where he employs another film—Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (based on the Michael Cunningham novel)—to dramatize the moment where the writer “stand[s] at the threshold of a new piece,” a moment of possibility and joy. —CRAFT
Justine’s gaze is forward, eyes narrowed. Her blond hair hangs limp, wet or unwashed. Her face is puffy. She might have been crying all night, but her eyes are not red, her cheeks aren’t wet. It’s dawn or dusk, the sky behind her has threads of pink. Her mouth is set, lips together, in what might be the beginning of a grimace or a sneer. Justine has seen something we haven’t, knows something we don’t, and she has no faith we will ever understand.
She stares forward at us for a long time. Until birds begin to drop from the sky behind her. We are unsure whether she has willed this death or is a dispassionate witness. She takes no real notice, holding us within her gaze. Her gaze is trying to tell us something, though she knows it’s futile. She doesn’t beseech or explain; she places herself as an obstacle in our path. She wants us to know that what she sees is devastating and impossible and if we can’t see it, we must, at least, see her.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) opens without credits on this straightforward shot of Justine in close-up. At first, her eyes are closed. We hear the opening strains of Wagner’s Overture to Tristan and Isolde. Her eyes slowly open. Her expression might be contempt, cynicism, or exhaustion. The images we see for the next eight minutes resemble paintings in motion, figures pushing through a gelled atmosphere or against great restraint with an impossible slowness.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in a wedding dress stalking through a dark forest—one that might appear in a Grimm’s tale—roots wrapped around her legs and ankles while tendrils from nearby trees reach out to capture her. Her older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), carrying her young son across a golf course, legs sinking into the earth nearly to the knees. We realize there are two objects in the sky, each casting distinct shadows. We see the Earth in the path of an approaching planet, one moving inexorably toward the other.
In this sequence, the major events of the upcoming film unfold in a painterly abstract. Von Trier said he wanted the audience to be forewarned there would be no happy ending. The Overture crescendos as the larger planet strikes the Earth in a singular flash of light, our planet so small that it cannot impede Melancholia’s forward motion. It enters the surface like a foreign body penetrating an eye. As it is completely absorbed, the screen fades to black and we see a single title card, on a white screen, with only von Trier’s name and the title of the film.
In 2000, I sleep in my car for three nights waiting for my Friday paycheck so I can get back into my apartment. I’ve fallen behind on rent because I had to fix my car and I had to fix my car so I can get to work. I don’t tell anyone I’m sleeping in my car. I have a decent job, but with the debts of my marriage, divorce, and child support, I have no money. A small two-room apartment is all I can manage and, even then, I’m a breath away from homelessness.
It can be said it’s my own fault. I made a conscious decision not to get a second job, but to devote that time to writing. It seemed the only way to maintain sanity, to keep the black shroud around me from closing entirely. I don’t know how to accomplish this writing, or exactly what the writing might look like. It’s a shadowy, nearly imaginary pull I feel as proof of life.
The darkness is always there. It brushes my bare skin. It sends a chill. It fogs my vision. I lose features to it, limbs heavy, fingers thick and numb. It’s a weight, a pressure, everywhere at once: in my neck and shoulders like a bulk I’m carrying, in my muscles and joints as a black freeze. I lose form, feeling somehow both vacant and weighted.
This unrelenting heaviness is always present; it’s inside and outside. With friends and family. At night and in the morning. I force myself to get out of bed, go to work, to eat, but I can’t find a crevice in my life where I can take a deep breath or stretch my twisted limbs, every space too tight and constrained. I see the world outside, but it’s difficult to believe in its solidity and impossible to touch through the opaque membrane surrounding me.
I draw my formless thoughts together and come to believe that writing might—not save me or bring salvation but—open some tiny space in the hard, smooth shell forming around me. Like the prisoner digging into stone with a spoon, I see writing as the only chance I have.
My previous years were spent in an intentional spiritual community. I practiced Buddhist meditation, Sufi zikr, eating vegetarian, working the farm, in search of something holy. All of this only revealed my absolute lack of faith in God. I had no sense of guidance or divine necessity; I never realized that I clung to these vague notions until they dissolved. I’m unsure of any faith. I don’t believe the world cycles toward progress, that it rewards the just. I don’t believe much of anything. My self was worn away there, and my marriage dissolved soon after.
In my spiritual years, I found myself almost completely wordless, without language to describe or explain what was happening within me. I didn’t immediately translate a feeling or an experience into language; instead, it might drift, undefined and undescribed, taking its own shape. Curiously, it was during this time I began to consider writing anew, to think of it in fresh ways as if, in order to begin, I first needed to be free of words.
My apartment has only one window, like a prison cell in old movies it’s dark and silent. I feel very alone. I miss my children, suffering withdrawal from their daily touch, from the occasional bump or caress, the leap into my lap.
The dark convinces me touch is no longer possible, the distance too great, the skin too calcified, the circuits of feeling frayed within, impulses sparking into dead air. The apartment is small, my life is small and narrowing still. My life is a closed coffin I’ve been buried inside.
It’s Justine’s wedding day and an extravagant reception has been planned at the opulent estate of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). After Melancholia’s prelude, the film is divided into two sections, one focusing on Justine, the second upon Claire. The colors in the first section are warm, browns and golds. Von Trier uses a handheld camera to float between the guests at the party and push in tight on the faces. There’s a marked division between the declarations and speeches made as part of the reception and the whispered conversations, mostly between Claire and Justine.
We see Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), her new husband, in a moment of tenderness before they arrive. This tenderness evaporates over the next hour of the film as her long-standing depression becomes apparent, her façade worn away by the demands of family, work, and the convoluted rituals devised by the wedding planner. Justine is marooned; she doesn’t appear to know anyone at this party other than her immediate family and employer. They are men and women twenty years older who smile, but never speak to her.
“Don’t tell him,” Claire counsels, when she finds Justine crying. Somehow, Michael hasn’t yet discovered her depression but now she’s losing the ability to function, to maintain appearances, to play her role. She apologizes, over and over, and we feel she has spent much of her life apologizing for her illness.
The reception is endless, one staged event or speech after another, and Justine keeps vanishing. Claire, John, and Michael are alternately sent to fetch her. They often find her asleep. At one point, she disappears to take a bath. Throughout, she approaches her sister, her new husband, her mother, her father, pleading to talk; but this isn’t a time to talk, it’s a wedding reception after all.
The camera stays tight on Justine as she struggles, then pulls back to show the opulent world she cannot enter. Even when she escapes to the expansive grounds of the estate, there is nowhere to go. Meanwhile, Claire attempts to keep a space open for Justine in this world, like someone saving a seat for the friend they hope will soon arrive. She apologizes, cajoles, advises, nags; it’s a role she’s obviously accustomed to.
Everyone is happy for Justine. Everything is beautiful. She has a wonderful husband, she’s just been promoted, her family has thrown her a great party. She isn’t miserable; misery has too much feature. She is numb. She knows she’s ruining it for everyone else and she’d thought that today—maybe just today—she could be happy and, in her happiness, make them happy too.
She’s trapped and her only level of control is in how she destroys the world around her, whether she accomplishes it consciously or simply allows it to happen. By dawn, the destruction will be near complete.
It’s an open, jagged wound to live without money—rent money, food money—a gnawing ache that takes residence in the mind and body with the flinch response of abuse at an unexpected expense or returned check charge. I have returned check charges because I operate on such a tight budget that a bank draft taken a day early means months of recovery.
Every unfamiliar rattle in the car brings a prickly heat to my skin. A service fee, an illness, disrupts a delicate balance, a wavering house of cards. A sinus infection becomes pneumonia because I don’t want to go to the doctor, and pneumonia is even more expensive. I sell things, I pawn things. There is no hope of change. Even a dollar more an hour at work barely shifts the dial. Only a miracle would help, and there are no miracles.
The slightest purchase outside of necessity brings on fear and guilt. It’s the guilt of failure—a particularly American sin—the failure revealing an innate unworthiness. Our delusion of meritocracy means those who don’t rise aren’t worthwhile, and it is of course our own fault. In the same way, we believe deeply that illness, especially mental illness, arises also from a lack of character, a moral failing. The Puritan blood infects us all.
I explain this so you might understand how extravagant, even sinful, it feels to buy a large four-foot by five-foot whiteboard to hang on my wall. It costs probably a week-and-a-half of groceries. Somehow, it seems essential to me, this whiteboard. Essential for my writing. I can’t explain why. I shouldn’t have done it. In the same way I shouldn’t be taking time to write. I should be working instead.
I break the board free of its cardboard box and mount it. It’s an empty, unblemished white. When I hang it, I realize I’ve placed another window into the wall of my apartment. I line the colored markers in the tray at the bottom. Weeks pass before I’m ready to write on it.
There are nights, however, when I dance before the empty white frame. A little Scotch. Loud music: maybe Bowie, maybe Television, “The Fire.” Songs in praise of emptiness with keening layers of guitar.
Or Patti Smith’s “Spell”:
Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy! Every day is in eternity!
The guitars swell and roar around Smith’s setting of Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” threatening to drown the words, but she is quietly relentless. She defines the holy all around her; she doesn’t feel the need to convince.
There’s a thrill when music enters the body and takes residence, becomes a physical presence it moves with. My arms pinwheel around my head and I’m crying—joy or despair or some forever unfathomable emotion—and something rustles in me like a ghost, or a gear turning, spinning freely then slipping into place, setting a mechanism to motion.
Now and then, I pick up a marker and put it down.
In Part Two of Melancholia, Justine appears at Claire and John’s nearly catatonic with depression. Claire attempts to care for her, but she is lost. She can’t eat, can’t lift her foot to enter the bath, can hardly stand. She is slowly collapsing into herself. All she wants to do is sleep, a sleep which is the beginning of death.
It is, perhaps, obligation that arouses her, to her sister, to the family around her. She begins to drift through the house—shambling gait, eyes lowered—to collapse in a new location: at the window seat, on the terrace. She has to be shaken to respond to conversation.
Where the first half of the film takes place mostly in nighttime interiors, the second half unfolds outside, on the terrace or the grounds of the estate. The previous gold and brown tones are replaced here with blues and grays and the camera, while still pushing in for close-ups, keeps mostly to mid-shots composed of more than one person.
Everyone is excited by a planetary fly-by: Melancholia (always referred to as a planet) will pass very close to the earth and there’s a short-lived euphoria in anticipation of the event. This vanishes as it becomes apparent the planet will double back to strike the Earth. Claire struggles for some kind of reconciliation, while Justine finds a grim confidence. This is, after all, the world she has always inhabited; a world of gears turning inexorably toward destruction.
Soon, only Justine, Claire, and Claire’s son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), remain in the enormous house, waiting out the days until their destruction. Now it is Claire who finds there is no escape. When she seeks comfort toward the end of the film, Justine has no sympathy. In fact, she can’t resist twisting the knife a little, only because she’s known for a long time there is no comfort to be had, only momentary reprieves.
“The Earth is evil,” she tells Claire. “No one will miss it.”
“But there must be something after,” Claire pleads. “Life somewhere else…”
“There isn’t.” Justine replies, with a finality defying argument.
Justine has sympathy only for Leo. She decides to soften his experience by constructing a “magic cave.” The two cut sticks together to build it, and that is where the three huddle—within a nonsensical artifice offering no real protection—when Melancholia strikes.
I walk in a nearby park. Few go there, and it’s far enough from heavily traveled roads I can sometimes believe I’m in deep forest. There’s a creek and nesting birds, cicadas, frogs and for a moment the din of the outdoors calms me. But mostly, it’s the walking.
There are times when it seems rage might burst this isolating membrane, break through this darkness. Times I invite the rage and let it possess me. There are times rage is unavoidable. But the rage just leaves me in tears and I collapse, huddled in a corner of my apartment.
I struggle against the impulse to burn down my world: stop going to work, stop paying rent. It seems, sooner or later, it will burn anyway. It might be a relief to get it over with.
The wheel of sleep turns constantly, attempting to draw me under in its churn—this sleep, always present in the numbness of my body and the thickening cloud in my mind, making it so easy to just close my eyes and deny the world—to close my eyes, let it go, and simply fade.
There are moments I stop breathing—or feel I’ve stopped breathing—convinced each breath might become a thing I’ll have to will myself to accomplish, that I might simply forget to take the next breath. And the one after. I gasp then, and attempt to fill my lungs.
I ache for a physical manifestation, a sign of any progress or hope. I’d accept a vision. In the spiritual community, people were constantly receiving visions, signs from God or their abiding angels. There, people seemed to believe they were loved, and every sign was a gentle prompt in the best direction. The world constantly urged them toward their true selves. I had my doubts this was their actual experience. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to call out in pain for a sign.
Then, sometimes, on my walks in the park I simply come to a stop. It’s not a thing I decide, it’s a thing I find happening. I arrive to myself in the center of the path not knowing how long I’ve been standing still and feel my breath spinning through my limbs and the pressure of the air on my skin and the scent of honeysuckle or the squall of cicadas and I know I’ve never felt as alive as in this moment—the moment a scent or a sound breaks through my dark carapace.
It isn’t a revelation, or an epiphany. It’s simply a glimpse of normalcy, stunning in its mundane depth. It’s the grace of a larger world.
I have no desire to write about it. I don’t draw the notepad I always carry from my pocket. I don’t fondle my pen. I have no sense of responsibility. These moments are wordless. Then, they pass.
Thinking, as I’ve known it, doesn’t work anymore. I try to listen and sometimes listening terrifies me. I don’t know what I’m listening to, in my head, in my body. I don’t know what I’m hearing. My mind has to do something. I keep bringing it back to writing. I bring it back to the whiteboard, the empty frame on my wall waiting to be filled.
I walk for hours in the park. I return to my job and my apartment and my anxiety about money and my terror that my life may never change, that I may awaken one morning to find myself in the same place, thinking the same thoughts ten, twenty years from now, my history pressed and dried like a flower in the pages of a book.
It’s always invoked mystically: the forty days in the wilderness, the dark night of the soul, but mysticism is just a language for discerning inner processes and the dark night of the soul is simply what happens when you choose to leave old selves behind.
Change feels like death, because it is. When it burns deeply enough, there is no sense of a future, no assurance of a next phase or a new life. There is no promise of salvation, there is only the flame. The only certainty is that everything is falling away. Deep change is not a gilded glide up an evolutionary staircase to another level of being. It feels like death in the body; it’s a hard stop with no apparent promise of a restart.
When I first saw Melancholia, years after my divorce, I was well past my forty days in the wilderness but I recognized the world of depression—the sorrow and the helplessness. It is arguably the best film ever made about chronic depression, a disease von Trier himself struggles with. From the grim reality of her disease, von Trier allows Justine to ease the suffering of someone near her. This is not a redemption, but it is a conscious act.
In my darkness, I felt I was dying. I felt that—in the same way I had to give up words in order to come to writing again—I had to relinquish hope. Hope was a feint, preventing me from facing the truth.
This is what Justine means when she says the earth is evil. This is what she means when she says there is no other life.
It wasn’t much of a choice. I couldn’t imagine hope, what a new life might be. My desires were vague. My ambitions were impossible.
The only things I could rely on during my forty days in the desert were those I’d already acquired and the voices—in music, in film, in books—of those who fashioned something from their darkness and joy. These are things I’d plucked unknowingly for my own possible future. I recognized the sanctity of the world in Patti Smith’s “Spell,” Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” all those years before Melancholia. I simply hadn’t experienced it yet. It was the pull drawing me forward.
I chose this path, without having any idea what it might mean. I chose it because, for all of my contentment, I’d felt constricted within myself; not by others, but by my own ideas, thoughts and histories. I’d wanted something apocalyptic though I couldn’t have said what, and I’d remained on that path and it destroyed my life.
The film slowly fades as Melancholia strikes the Earth and there’s a good ten seconds of darkness before the credits begin. That’s where I felt I was: in the complete darkness after the destruction, and that darkness was endless. I’m sure I managed occasional gestures against the void. I’m sure they were very small. I couldn’t accomplish more. The one I remember is buying the whiteboard.
It’s late, and the August night is hot and maybe the raucous, chaotic screeching in the trees outside one window means I’m overcome with sound and scent until a tiny silence forms, a quiet space that’s an opening. My shirt sticks to my back in the heat and the Scotch is warm, passing through me like a humid, golden light. I sway side to side. My second window is a viscous white and I imagine the press of the pen to its surface will send ripples far past the frame.
I’m waiting for something to arrive from the darkness. It’s grown less dense and, now and then, I imagine movement. I feel a presence or a pressure, a feathery rustle just outside my vision. I’m waiting for something to happen, not in my head but in my body. I’m nearly forty and I feel I’m running out of time.
The whiteboard doesn’t save me, but it’s important. I want words larger than those scribbled in my notebook, the words I can put away, even hide. I want inescapable words, calling out, making demands. Some nights they brush my fingers.
It’s late, or it’s early. The music is loud and someone is playing guitar and my feet are pressing into the floor and I’ve put down my glass and there’s a jittery voltage in my arm that tingles in my fingers and I’ve picked up the pen and I move forward toward the wall, then back away again and—
—I write a word. It doesn’t matter the word. It hangs on the white flag of the board. I step back to stare and the guitar gutters out then roars back. There’s a shadow I can almost bring to vision.
I write another. The word doesn’t matter. All words are holy.
STEVE MITCHELL is an award-winning writer and journalist, published in december magazine, Southeast Review, and Contrary, among others. His novel, Cloud Diary, is published by C&R Press. His book of short stories is The Naming of Ghosts from Press 53. He is a winner of the Curt Johnson Prose Prize and the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Prize. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. Find him at: clouddiary.org.
“Wheel of Sleep” is part of a series, titled “Mirrorbox,” which combines memoir with film criticism by examining films important to the author at different points in his life. “Exorcism by Proxy” (Billy Jack) appeared in Drunk Monkeys, “Never Far Enough” (Bonnie and Clyde) appeared in Red Fez. He is currently working on an essay which incorporates Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Featured image by Gemma Evans courtesy of Unsplash