THE BLOG
11/28/2011 05:51 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

Psychotics Survive With Imagination

It would seem counter-intuitive, even antithetical, to link mental illness to Darwin's idea of the survival of the fittest. After all, many people assume that the mentally ill are either violent criminals or spiritually weak individuals, prone to the margins of society.

Yet, as I have pointed out since my L.A. Times op-ed in 2005, titled "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket," the vast majority of those with mental disorders are not violent, and many of us are highly productive citizens, holding down jobs in a variety of fields.

Benedict Carey demonstrates this in his New York Times series, "Lives Restored: Managing Severe Mental Illness," the fourth part of which ran in the paper on November 26. The series began on June 23 of this year, two days, as it turns out, after I had critiqued the Times for its front-page coverage of a schizophrenic who had committed murder. That latter piece, although nuanced, adhered to a clichéd storyline of violence and mental illness that we all know from Jared Loughner and his predecessors.

Carey deserves credit for helping to demystify mental illness with his profiles of a psychologist, two computer programmers and a nonprofit chief executive, all of whom have tamed their psychosis.

But Carey has not made another point, one I have touted before, that mental illness is often linked to imagination, and that a fertile imagination, arguably a form of psychosis, can be an evolutionary adaptation that aids us in surviving our darkest moments.

An example of this occurs in Lars von Trier's recent film, Melancholia. This film may be long and a bit too schematic, featuring the now-familiar tropes of a Trier work -- a psychotic woman, whose demise is hastened by a well-meaning sister/surrogate sister as well as a well-meaning male friend. Nonetheless, Melancholia offers one of the most luminous and ultimately heart-warming portrayals of mental illness that I have seen in a film and is likely to receive Oscar nominations for Trier and for his star, Kirsten Dunst, both of whom have reportedly suffered from depression.

Like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark before it, Melancholia revolves around a mentally ill or disabled protagonist, in this case played by Dunst, who, oppressed by an overwhelming depression, seems to be a burden to herself and to society. And yet when a planet, named Melancholia, vectors in on Earth, suggesting that the end of the world is near, it is Justine, Dunst's character, not her supposedly sane sister or brother-in-law, who has the courage and ingenuity to save herself and her family. That is the brilliant insight of this film and indeed of this trilogy of films.

Her brother-in-law, the most rational one, whose precursors are the doctor in Breaking the Waves and the legal professionals in Dancer in the Dark, ends up committing suicide. The sister in Melancholia, just like the sister in Breaking the Waves and the sister figure, played by Catherine Deneuve in Dancer in the Dark, tries to help the protagonist only to harm her, in this case by organizing a lavish wedding for a woman who has seen up close the devastation wrought by the marriage of their parents.

When Melancholia descends on our planet, the sister, in a deep panic and a poverty of the imagination, offers a feeble attempt to deflect tragedy by proposing that they drink wine and listen to a favorite piece of music.

Dunst's character, on the other hand, lashes out at her sister, then comes up with the idea of hiding in a "magic cave," a wigwam of sorts, that she and her nephew, a child, construct for the three of them. With humanity on the verge of extinction, she holds the hands of her nephew and sister as they close their eyes.

Trier has illustrated the power of the imagination before, when Bjork's character in Dancer in the Dark shields herself from blindness by entering the alternative reality of musicals, and when Emily Watson's character in Breaking the Waves heals her husband by taking on the role of sexual misfit, a role hitherto unknown to her.

But the image of Justine, Dunst's heroine, and her family hiding amidst the twigs of the magic cave, with an ominous planet looming in the sky, presents Trier's most sublime response yet to surviving peril.

It reminds me of the ending of André Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just, when Ernie Levy, the last just man, turns himself in to the Nazis. He must be insane, everyone assumes, yet he is the one who has the spark of genius to tell the children, who are about to be killed in the gas chambers, that he now has the opportunity to enter the kingdom of heaven with them.

Like Schwarz-Bart's novel, Trier's trilogy of films all end ironically with the presumed death of the mentally ill protagonists. Yet they are the victors, the ones who live on after death through the power of imagination.