As one final foreword before entering the review, the medium of this film, which is essentially a pornographic film with an actual narrative built into it, automatically inspires apprehension on the part of viewers with a stronger moral sense than myself. Without defending this style of presentation, I will only say that the aesthetics of the Middle Ages, while superior in the most meaningful ways, with its sense of beauty built directly into a piece's moral and intellectual worth, is not the aesthetics of the Modern Ages; we must in certain respects live according to the times, and this may mean, at least to the ironical, undisciplined, unserious aesthete, surrendering some of our ethical condemnations of things which speak of more important things than even morality. It is a given, then, that, in order to properly enjoy this film (in a way other than one would enjoy a more purposefully pornographic film, that is), it is necessary to silence all moral sensibilities, and to view this film in as detached and desensitized way as possible.
So, while a 'purification of the means' may have indeed been preferable (the penis montage in V.I and the miscegenation in V.II were especially unsavoury), I am not going to utilize a moralistic judgment of this film when I knew all about it going into the film. Moreover, I actually sensed a strong familiarity between the film's pornography and the explicit imagery that any quality horror movie uses in achieving its own end goals; both of which ultimately aim at repulsing the viewer (even if this sometimes manages the opposite effect), because what they are showing is supposed to be repulsive. Infact I think that showing the realistic murder such as you see in any high-budget war film is just as 'pornographic' in a sense as anything you see in Nymphomaniac: somehow the sexual attains an added portion of scandal when it is shown. At any rate, the purpose of such 'shocking' scenery is not to simply shock the viewer, but to demonstrate something shocking about it, to show why it is shocking. With that in mind, I hope that I myself have demonstrated what makes Nymphomaniac worth viewing in respect to the human, and specifically the female condition.... adieu.
Introduction to Weininger and Lars von Trier
Perhaps the only difference between me and the other people, is that I have always demanded more from the sunset....
In the now hugely accomplished filmography of the Danish director Lars von Trier, there are a multitude of themes that are continuously explored; the baseless, meddling idealism, for example, that characterizes the protagonists of Europa and Manderlay, or the almost invariable resolution of any which story into something satisfyingly tragic, or the tremendous individualism that pits a person alone against the world in order to show at once his or her humanity, in a depraved sense or otherwise. There are a myriad of such ways in which LvT conveys his distinctly German grasp of romanticism, but there is perhaps no stronger one than his persistent investigations of the female character, chiefly in the manner in which these investigations are performed. This is true principally in the burning duality that presents itself over the course of LvT's work: woman is at one point elevated to Byronic heights while at another she comes crashing down to depths more familiar to the scribbling of Schopenhauer. LvT is not interested in sentimental generalizations or abstract scientific theorems; he is interested in the actual reality of womanhood, of how woman is in the essential, and of how Woman is defined as a type (W), segregated from that of Man (M).
There is one philosopher more than any other of whom we are reminded in this connection: Otto Weininger. Ostensibly more of a psychologist than a philosopher, out of respect for the man it would be wiser to name him by the latter vocation (as we would C.G. Jung), especially considering his contributions were of far greater worth in the more universal fields of philosophy than in any technical, scientific one. Otto Weininger was the man of whom August Strindberg had said 'solved the hardest of all life's problems', and in a letter to Weininger himself he expressed gratitude for solving the 'Woman Problem'. Weininger's opus Sex and Character has been widely interpreted as a radical episode in misogyny and misunderstanding, and not without reason: at one point Weininger supposes women to be ontologically inferior to animal and even plant life, while at another he claims that it is impossible to conceive of a female counterpart to the criminal, since woman is not even on the moral spectrum - she is capable of being neither moral nor immoral, for she is entirely non-moral. Notwithstanding such hyperbole or nonsense, Weininger's primary endeavour, simply that of understanding W (Woman) as she is, removed of all bias and prejudice, goes a long distance in this regard, and helps shed light on other phenomena as well. That he does exaggerate sometimes should not distract the discerning reader so much as to help delineate the diametrically opposed definitions of W and M in themselves, despite how commingled they appear in our immediate reality, in particular men and women.
'[There is] an ideal Man M and an ideal Woman W, neither of whom exist, as sexual types.... The type, the platonic idea, is not only the object of art but also that of science.... [There] are any number of intermediate stages, between the complete Man and the complete Woman, which may both be approximated but which are never experienced as such in reality.'(Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, p.13)LvT shares much of this ambiguity (at least on the surface), and this comes from his methodology: rather than studying W as a whole in any individual film, or conversely studying women as removed from any understanding of W, LvT studies the various facets of W through many of her different representations. Katherina, the powerful, oddly rational 'heroine' of Europa, for instance, has as little to do with the sweet naivety of Dogville's Grace as the loving Bess of Breaking the Waves has to do with the initial bourgeois rigour of Melancholia's Claire. These are hardly contradictions of LvT's comprehension of W; they are the different avenues through which W is manifested, the different forms that she shapes herself in. Together they create a unified vision into the deepest parts of W by examining her at her most extreme, by isolating certain of her subtypes (idealist, governess, maiden, femme fatale, mother, gorgon, etc) to expose who she is essentially. It is quite likely impossible to unravel the unfathomable vastness of W at all, nevermind all at once; but in searching through the various ways she makes herself known we can identify patterns and underlying commonalities that at least hint at their source.
Weininger understood more than most the typological classifications of humanity, and exemplifies this understanding in his decisive split of the two F archetypes: Mother and Prostitute. Like M and W, the Mother and the Prostitute are platonic ideas, and therefore impossible to encounter in themselves in ordinary reality; but, like M and W, they are organic defaults imprinted on this woman or that woman, and so also impossible to be neither one nor the other: 'a being is a man or a woman in a physical way only because a being is either masculine or feminine in a transcendental way; sexual differentiation, far from being an irrelevant factor in relation to the spirit, is the sign that points to a particular vocation and to a distinctive dharma' (Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 158). Just as, excepting extraordinary circumstances, one is born either as a man or a woman, so too is a woman born as either a Mother or a Prostitute, though always containing a complementary portion of whichever she is not. Briefly summarized, the Mother in Weininger's eyes was the optimistic preserver of the race whose primary instincts consisted of serving the child first and foremost; she also has the tendency to treat her man as another child, which lends her a matronly disposition in whatever relationship she finds herself in. The Mother is commonly held as more estimable, but Weininger deems that her love for her family and especially her children is conditional on their being hers; she is, in other words, a slave to her maternal instincts, and thus deserves no ethical credit in the way that a man might in showing courage on the battlefield: 'Maternal love is non-moral because it has no relation to the individuality of the being on which it is bestowed, and there can be an ethical relation only between two individualities. The relation between mother and child is always a kind of physical reflex' (Weininger, p.225). The Prostitute, on the other hand, is equally selfish, but whose instincts are to please the man instead of the child. She is of a greater intellectual calibre, and she is someone who tends toward cowardice and fear rather than the maternal hope; she is moreover prone to electing socially unfavourable or dissipated men as opposed to the more political, opportunistic Mother type who chooses men based on how far they can advance her family in the world. While both, being W, are wholly sexual in their nature (more on that immediately), it is naturally the Prostitute who is more intimately associated with sexual energy, as her raison d'être is to please herself in pleasing men rather than being motivated by the procreative necessity as is that of the Mother.
Nymphomaniac is quite naturally, then, a film about the Prostitute type, and of a highly advanced instance of it. According to Weininger, W is, unlike M who is driven by ethical, artistic, and religious motivations, possessed purely by sexual inclinations, which define her entire existence: 'For Woman the state of sexual arousal only means the greatest intensification of her whole existence, which is always and absolutely sexual. W's existence revolves entirely around her sexual life, the sphere of copulation and reproduction, i.e., in her relationship with a man and her children, and her existence is totally absorbed by these things, while M is not only sexual' (Ibid., p.79). While M is individuated and capable of self-consciousness, W is ruled firmly by the cosmic organization that demands the persistence of our species; she is at once tied to the infallible order of nature and the chaotic acts of spontaneity that often define the realm of nature. W is incapable of real order, for that means transcending the purely natural in an act only the personal, masculine spirit can achieve, so she is by turns taken by an organic rhythm and by the chaos affiliated with nature and therefore with her sex.
Body (only minor spoilers henceforth)
The secret ingredient to sex, is love....
Nymphomaniac is the third film in LvT's 'Depression' trilogy; it is its triumphant conclusion, incorporating themes from the first two but striking more resolutely, more comprehensively into the inner workings of the female psyche. We will not say that it is better than or even the equal of the two prior parts, but we will say that it offers the more complete angle for looking into W. There is also, rather than the limited, compact social dynamics of the previous two, the additional advantage of covering a greater range of characters, allowing them a hitherto unenjoyed freedom of expression which opens up many different aspects. More to the point, Nymphomaniac is concerned above all else with the erotic impulses of W, her most pressing demands, rather than the other two which prioritized more incidental factors.
The first film in the trilogy, Antichrist, gained notoriety for its unashamed discovery of W's connection to nature, specifically the sinister side of nature: frequent invocations of witchcraft and devilry emerge as the wife (superbly played by the inimitable Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a central role in each of these three films) submits to the same 'misogyny' she was supposed to refute. Overcome by the death of her son, the wife falls apart; whatever rational fibres she had developed over the years implode on her, twisting into a new destructive current that bring her nearer and nearer to the beastly barbarism of the natural world: that surreal, unforgettable moment when the fox says into the screen, Chaos reigns, epitomizes in no uncertain terms the truth of what was happening. Subsequently, the symbol of masculinity par excellence is literally smashed in a telluric, earthly revolt against the intellectual and spiritual organization that would 'shackle' the natural world, that would make order from chaos. Antichrist is basically the articulation of the overwhelming emotional trauma that occurs when nature's logical patterns (that of a mother raising the next generation) are suddenly undermined; upon this occurrence nature's spontaneity overturns whatever rational shields woman has built, and so chaos reigns.
The second film, Melancholia, inspects an inner apocalypse in the face of an outer apocalypse. The different responses to the world's impending death represent the different psychic states on the part of the two women, Justine and Claire. The former is the more obviously disorderly, unable to maintain any kind of reasonable social discourse, mocking the nuptial rituals, even scorning her newly married husband for a lay with a coworker who means practically nothing to her - not in any bed, either, but directly on the grass. Severely depressed from the beginning, she is unable to enjoy her favourite food: 'It tastes like ashes'. At one point she goes down to the river in the night, completely naked, and in that moment she becomes identified with the raw beauty of nature, becoming one with her as though she were the silver moon shining brilliantly on an open, cloudless, Summer night; this is a reflection of her immersion into a conscious longing for unconsciousness, the desperate desire to cease sentience. Claire, on the other hand, at first displays a normalcy becoming to any bourgeois lady of the house, but this gives way to a nervous frailty that quivers in the face of impending global destruction; associated with the outer world, she falls apart as the world falls apart. Justine, meanwhile, handles this much more readily, suggesting not merely her delight in the prospect of her own death, but of the death of the whole exterior realm with which she can no longer relate at all. Melancholia is basically an interview between the internal and external positions of self, a glimpse into the psychological tremors felt throughout one's being upon the collapse of either/or. Justine could not find any field in which to plant her teeming inner energy, while Claire in the absence of any seed possessed only the field. The destruction of the world releases both of them from their isolation, and combines them together: '[The two sisters] melt together', LvT says, 'they have been two, and they become one'.
So while Antichrist is concerned with the emotional and matronly values of W corrupted into a defiant organic impulse, and Melancholia with the more mental difficulties that emerge from a failure to synthesize W's inner and outer lives (note: Weininger would likely recognize in Justine more qualities of M rather than of W), Nymphomaniac completes the circle by its concentration on the locus of femininity, the plot of psychic space wherein all of W's motivations are said to derive: the erotic centre. This is not to say that the other elements are not present (as we will see), but that the focus is now absolutely on the sexual quotient; W is now approached where she is at her most honest, her most typical state, because she is now the closest as any individual in ordinary reality can get to the 'platonic idea' of W. This, as much as anything else, is why Nymphomaniac should be the final part, because it contains all other parts in its witnessing to the actual identity of W, for everything in her is produced from her sexual aspect, which is to say her entire self.
Joe the nymphomaniac is indubitably of the Prostitute type; so far as our knowledge goes, there is no clearer instance of this type in all of film. She fulfills not only the obvious physical necessities, such as the chronic masturbation as a youth and the early discovery of ways to please herself (such as 'playing frogs' in the bathroom), but virtually every other as well. The scene on the train, for example, after the decidedly anti-romantic loss of her virginity at age 15, displays Joe's completely promiscuous nature, her complete disavowal of all social standards in her pursuit of pleasure ('she is not ashamed of her shamelessness' (Ibid., p.228)). The competition between her and her friend 'B' is to copulate with as many men as possible until the train reached its destination, and the winner receives the rather meaningless prize of a bag of candy, which is meaningless because the sex is the end in itself: 'The [Prostitute] is ready to yield herself to any man who stimulates her erotic desires; that is her only object'. (Ibid., p.220) Joe manifests her deceitful nature most openly and cleverly through her manipulation of her sexual lovers, just as a Mother type would manipulate a more accomplished man into marriage purely for the benefit of her children; Joe continually fakes having 'first orgasms', pretends to love men, and even decides on how to respond to her various lovers based on the throwing of dice ('Cunning, calculation, "cleverness", are much more usual and constant in the woman than in the man, if there is a personal, selfish end in view.... One of the deepest problems of woman is her absolute duplicity' (Ibid., p. 253, 260)). There is no individuality, no personal relations in her affairs; everything is conditioned by her insatiable appetite, which prevents her from attaining real personhood.
'[The results of woman's emancipation] have been the degeneration of the feminine type even in her somatic characteristics, the atrophy of her natural possibilities, the suppression of her unique inner life. Hence the types of the woman-garconne and the shallow and vain woman, incapable of any elan beyond herself, utterly inadequate so far as sensuality and sinfulness are concerned because to the modern woman the possibilities of physical love are not as interesting to the narcissistic cult of her body.... Now when a woman, before consecrating herself to a man, pretends that he belongs to her body and soul, not only has she already "humanized" and impoverished her offering, but worse yet, she has begun to betray the pure essence of femininity in order to borrow characteristics of the male nature - and possibly the lowest of these: the yearning to possess and lay claims over another person, and the pride of the ego... Eventually, because of woman's increased egocentrism, men will no longer be of interest to her; she will only care about what they will be able to offer to satisfy her pleasure or her vanity.' (Evola, p. 164-5)Joe therefore also typifies the 'modern, emancipated woman', which we will have to discuss in some other article, as what LvT might be saying about modern society as a whole rather than one particular human being is too vague at this point. What Evola remarks on comes true for Joe, as her incessant sexual adventures have rendered her joyless and loveless. Leaving college, Joe happens to work for the man to whom she lost her virginity some years ago, Jerôme. After an initial, surprising, and highly meaningful rejection, Joe comes to feel something for Jerôme, and it is essential to recall exactly what she says of him: 'I could suddenly see a kind of order in the mess.... I wanted to be one of Jerôme's things. I wanted to be picked up, and put down, again and again. I wanted to be treated by his hands according to some sophisticated principle that I could not understand'. This is one of those rare moments in the film where Joe shows her positive femininity, that is femininity undisturbed by its own cthonic nature, femininity ameliorated by its relation with masculinity. Joe finally succumbs to something higher; she, as matter is defined by form, succumbs to Jerôme who, most likely due to the fact that he was the one who took her virginity and therefore 'owned her' in a certain primal sense, enacts the male principle of order, 'some sophisticated principle that [woman] could not understand'.
By the wildest coincidence (LvT frequently foregoes realism to present a more pressing point, such as Uma Thurman's cameo role as a hyperbolic mother character whose family has been destroyed by Joe's manipulations: 'Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?'), Joe comes across Jerôme again some time later, and they instantly become intimate. The sex scene is the most intensely romantic of the film so far; there is passionate kissing, and a frenetic energy that suggests a will to union beyond the physical. The problem, however, is that Joe soon realizes that she 'doesn't feel anything'. Her constant infidelity and unremitting pursuit of satisfying her desire has entirely desensitized her to the act, and precisely when it is most important: B's final words, the secret ingredient, become impractical because sex has become utterly compromised by its physical aspect. There can be no synthesis of love and lust upon the isolation of one from the other: 'The external union, earthly and in particular physical, does not possess any specific relation to love.... It is necessary for love, not as its indispensable condition and independent end, but only as its final realization. If this realization is set as the end in itself, ahead of the ideal concern of love, it ruins the love' (Vladimir Solovyov, The Meaning of Love, p. 64). In Joe's case, she cannot obey both masters, because she is already enslaved to the one by her youthful consecrations to purely somatic delights. When she finally does experience something resembling love, she cannot fully enjoy it because of her disconnect between the two masters; the 'secret ingredient' means nothing to her, because she has already severed the link between love and sex, and therefore precluded the potentiality of their ever being truly entwined. This is perfectly epitomized in the scene after she tries to make love with Jerôme in which Joe tries to masturbate and, still feeling nothing, proceeds to hit her vagina as though it were a physical problem and not a psycho-spiritual one.
'The [Prostitute], for whom the act is everything, the compression and end of all life, is never satisfied, never to be satisfied, were she visited by all the men in the world'. (Weininger, p. 232)
This was the turning point of Joe's story at which she finally has some elementary level of introspection; 'fill all my holes', she says to Jerôme during sex, craving not only physical fulfillment, of course, but complete existential fulfillment as she realizes her emptiness more and more. Unable to keep up with her, Jerôme actually comes up with the idea of getting him 'some help with the feeding'. Joe soon returns to her polyamorous lifestyle, even as she births Jerôme's son, Marcel. Then, still unsatisfied, she searches for more extreme alternatives to restore her earlier sensations, like the drug addict who takes stronger and stronger doses in the futile effort to recreate his original high. This leads eventually to masochism, which is the nadir of W's sexual devolution insofar as she can no longer acquire pleasure through pleasure, but through indirect, demented means, namely pleasure through pain. Joe lubricates before even getting struck, which, as the film clearly explains, is meaningful in that her body thinks that it will be having intercourse when she knows in her mind that she will not be. Any pretense of love, even the vaguest pretense which the simple act of man copulating with women provides, is now dispensed with in her descent into perversion, which is the complete denial of the other: 'At the root of all forms of perversion is self-love, the utilization of another, who... is seen as no more than an instrument for one's pleasure (or pain)' (Vladimir Moss, The Theology of Eros, p. 123). The perception of Joe as Prostitute is also at its most transparent at this time. As she must go out at night, staying at the sadist's place between 2 and 6 A.M., Joe is sometimes forced to abandon her son. One night, Jerôme comes home to find Marcel exposed on the apartment balcony and then confronts Joe when she returns; reminiscent of Antichrist, the mother is again distracted by sex as her child is at risk. Faced with Jerôme's ultimatum of choosing her family or her sexual longings, Joe has no choice at all, and rips herself from her son in a wash of tears. In the choice between stimulating her own wants and those of her blood, there is zero confusion on the part of the Prostitute:
'The absolute mother, who thinks only about the child, would become a mother by any man.... The absolute prostitute, on the other hand, even when she is still a child, dislikes children; later on, she may pretend to care for them as a means to attract men through the idea of mother and child. She is the woman whose desire is to please all men....' (Weininger, p. 221)Now constantly bleeding from her orifices due to the constant beatings and other abuse she subjected herself to over the years, Joe eventually puts her sexual experience and knowledge to use as a debt collector. This is where she perfects her sadistic side, though it is doubtful that she enjoys it like she did any of her earlier exploits; this new, more direct power over men is not unwelcome, but it fails to excite her in the same way that subtly ruling men excited her by means of more feminine devices. This is as far as we can go in the plot for the present, and the main ways in which Joe exemplifies the Woman and Prostitute types are, at any rate, now exhausted.
So far all that we have told does not occur in the present, but in the form of a series of flashbacks that the present Joe is telling as her life story. The film actually opens with an atheistic Jew by the name of Seligman finding Joe, who is unconscious and lying in the street. Though covered in cuts and bruises, she denies Seligman's offer to call an ambulance, though not his invitation to come to his place for tea. So, while Joe is telling the story we just highlighted to Seligman (who happens to be a virgin), the film continually cuts back to the present to reveal how both of them think of what is happening. LvT normally makes his male characters auxiliary pieces in the drama, and that is no different here, as Seligman's role is simply to offer learned digressions that sometimes help us understand Joe's narrative in a mythical and symbolic light, or are simply that, useless digressions that mean nothing, that are simply the virginal Seligman's attempts to contextualize in a way that he understands things in which he has zero experience. So, digressions like making apt but apparently meaningless fishing allegories out of Joe's train ride seductions, or relating the knots which the sadist K used to tie Joe up to a random invention where a mountaineer creates a knot that saves his life ('that was your weakest digression yet', Joe says), add nothing to our understanding of Joe, but they do add something to our understanding of Seligman, whose life seemingly consists of nothing but learning and loneliness.
'You are the devil's gateway; you are she who violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die.... Woman, you are the gate to hell.' (Tertullian, *On the Apparel of Women*)This connection is hardly unintended. Through all of the implications and references made thus far, LvT clearly designed that we should conceive of woman's diabolical potential. In Weininger's dualistic system, though he explicitly denies that women have any spiritual agency ('the prostitute is no diabolic destroyer of the idea, but only a corrupter of empirical phenomena' (Weininger, p. 234), that woman is related with object and matter is to equate her with the 'demiurgic' reality, that is to say the temporal realm that has no actuality except inasmuch as it receives actuality from the eternal realm, the 'world of ideas'. This is symbolically construed in satanic terms, for Satan represents the rebellion of non-being against being, of nothingness against somethingness; W's negative nature, her intrinsically material nature, precludes her from the life of the spirit and associates her with the anti-life of the adversary. Joe continually reflects these imaginations as she refuses to desist in the wild embrace of her lowest impulses, despite the obvious harm that she is causing amongst those around her and eventually even herself.
Simply because they are peripheral, however, does not mean that LvT's male characters are not essential. Joe's father, for instance, provides an important part of the drama in that he is virtually the only thing about her that is untainted by her sexual feelings. When he is teaching her about the trees in the forest, about how the ash trees are the most beautiful of all the trees, there is a fragment of
Seligman, too, offers something besides both his useful and his useless learning. As Joe unleashes her existential burdens upon him, unafraid now to admit guilt and responsibility for all the hurt that she has inflicted, Seligman offers a sounding board for Joe's confessions; he does more than listen and bolster what she says with intellectual insights, he tries to soften her shame (for it is shame at the present, shame at her lifetime of shamelessness) with the sentimentality of the modern ethos which ultimately deems no one morally culpable. Whenever Joe explains how much evil she has done, how much others have suffered on her account, Seligman tries to counter with an unconvincing apology for her. In an early scene, for instance, after a passenger on the train (who bails the two girls out from paying for their train tickets) denies their initial seductions, Joe presses him further, learns that the man is saving his semen for this particular night, when the doctor says it is likeliest for his wife to be able to conceive. Joe presses him further, oblivious to the man's greater arc, and he is unable to resist as she gives him head, thereby stealing that precious energy which he was preserving for this very night. Seligman supplies the half-witted argument that the semen dies if it stays within for too long, and so the couple might very well have a thriving child of their own after all. This is typical of his persistent attempts to wean away her guilt, and it is typical of our modern irresponsibility, of our utter failure to assume accountability, regardless of what the other circumstances might involve.
Finale (major spoilers henceforth)
At this moment, my addiction is very clear to me....
LvT does not make obscure his own conviction as to which is superior, to try and fail or to not try at all, and he publishes it in two dramatic ways. The first consists of Joe's first attempts to cure her addiction, which, according to the addicts anonymous club she is forced to attend, do not make her different from them; they are all the same insofar as they are all addicts, that they are all alike. She is told by the leader to rid herself of anything which reminds her of sex, which of course includes just about everything; we see her tape all of the door knobs, the tub handles, plaster the windows with newspapers, paint over the mirror, wearing heavy mittens. She turns to her book of leaves to distract herself from anything sexual, to remind of her only innocent memories, but she fails when she licks her fingers to turn the pages. When she returns to one of the meetings, prepared to tell of how she is a sex addict and how she has achieved abstinence for a few weeks, she suddenly sees herself as a child in the mirror, and is reminded of her real nature. She tears up her notes, and furiously erupts as her real self comes to the foreground: 'I am definitely not like you', she says to the leader, 'That empathy you claim is a lie. Because all you are is society's morality police, whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth so that the bourgeoisie won't feel sick. I am not like you. I am a nymphomaniac, and I love myself for being one.' Beyond this added validation of her shamelessness in the manner of the Prostitute, she identifies strongly with her nature at the expense of conforming to social standards; the false morality projected by an AA authority scratches merely the surface of the problem, when what is needed is a sincerely interior transformation. The AA leader is a believer in abstractions like Seligman, while Joe, the human subject, has to live on the front lines.
The second way that LvT shows this happens when Joe is doing her debt collecting work. There is this one man who will not pay, no matter how much he is threatened or how much of his property is destroyed. So Joe tries to infiltrate his sexual life, tries to detect some kind of vulnerability. She removes his pants and launches a series of particularly perverted sexual stories, seeing which might arouse him and therefore expose his weakness. It is only on the last effort, however, as Joe tells of a little boy who wants to go home with the man, that his member starts to ascend. Joe moves in for the kill, and finally forces him to concede, saying that he will pay if she simply stops talking about it. Then Joe astonishingly performs fellatio on the man, at which point Seligman interjects, utterly bemused: 'You did what?' (This is one of the rare occasions where he comes close to judging her.) 'I took pity on him', she responds. 'This is a man who succeeded in repressing his own desire.... He had lived a life full of denial, and had never hurt a soul.' Seligman refuses to comprehend this, while Joe, with her own experiences, is perfectly capable of empathising with a man who was able to do what she could not: control his sexual desire. She shows him genuine empathy, while the AA 'morality police' leader and the bookish Seligman cannot because they only know what they are taught in abstractions, removed from human existence.
As he says himself at one point, Seligman's name means 'happiness', something which is obviously not irrelevant; that there is also a behavioural psychologist by the same name who teaches a kind of therapeutic happiness is possibly also of importance. The irony is that, despite his saying otherwise, Seligman is not happy; he cannot be happy because he cannot broach the outside world. Having retreated inside his own personal space, lacking family and friends, he has not even really explored his inner life either. He is not happy, but he is not exactly unhappy either: he does not know happiness as either an affirmation or a negation because his fear of uncharted territory prevents him from learning about it. So he learns about life from the safety of a library. So he forms the opposite end of the dialectic with Joe, whose intense unhappiness is the result of demanding more from life, from demanding 'more from the sunset'.
Joe says that her path does not, as Seligman said of the one leaving Rome, grow in joy and light, but the opposite, toward the suffering of the Western Church, and so it does. In her position as a debt collector, Joe is compelled to take on a successor, 'P', a young, lonely girl with a deformed ear who she must love as a daughter in order to maximize her protege's love for her. They end up sharing a homosexual relationship in a perverted mockery of a real mother-daughter connection, or of real friendship. To accelerate the plot, on one bit of business, another one of LvT's unbelievable coincidences materializes: the debtor whom they must collect from is none other than Jerôme. Taken by surprise, both at the fact that it was Jerôme and the bubbling forth of some feeling for him, she insists that P do her first job, and that she doesn't 'want anybody hurt'. Moving along, Joe discovers Jerôme and P have arranged their own sexual partnership, and she removes herself from the city, travelling through nature alone. It is winter now, both seasonally and existentially: Joe finds her soul-tree. It is crooked, narrow, and slanted with minimal limbs - and it is alone. Atop the mountain, her soul tree stands aloof from everything else, precisely as she has been her entire life. We recall when Joe tells of a childhood operation: 'It was as if I had to pass through an impenetrable gate all by myself. It was as if I was completely alone in the universe, as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears.' Now that her old lover and her pseudo-daughter were involved together, Joe feels more alone than ever, and she enters her winter, when the soul becomes visible - in all of its defects.
Returning to the city, Joe plans to kill Jerôme, and possibly P as well; having found her soul tree and come face to face with her inmost self, she decides that she has no option now but to follow through on her newest desire, which is the destruction of a human being. In failing to rack her gun, however, which Seligman supposes was indicative of her subconscious desire to not murder her former love, Jerôme beats Joe in the street, then humiliates her by making love to P in the exact same way as he took her virginity: thrusting three times in the front, five times from the rear (both numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, Seligman uselessly points out). P then completes the embarrassment by urinating on Joe, who lies there until Seligman finds her. Whether Seligman is right in that Joe never truly meant to kill Jerôme or that it was simply chance, in either event she is unable to achieve what she thought she desired; for once she has come up empty, and it means everything.
The problem with Weininger, for all of the genius shown here and elsewhere, is that his is not the full vision of the Christian Church, but something closer to the dualistic worldview of the Manichean; he cannot view matter as something inherently good as the orthodox Christian does, so in his equation of W with matter she is also equated with something inherently negative. Nikolai Berdyaev, though full of praise for Weininger, also corrects him: 'If Weininger were to have come to the Christian consciousness through modern philosophy, he would then have surmounted this dualism, and his spiritualism would become monistic, not denying the flesh, but spiritising rather the flesh'. The truth is that M and W are opposed as principles, but not as mortal enemies; W has a reality of her own, separate from that of M, even if she can never have the same subjective and intellectual strength and his level of individuation. Woman is still matter, but matter that has the potential for growth and redemption, matter that is good; she is not necessarily the 'gateway to hell', as Tertullian would have it, but often one's help to heaven; W is not only Medusa or Calypso, but Penelope and Beatrice as well. Weininger says: 'No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them' (Weininger, p.236). It is clear that LvT has thought a lot about woman, and while he certainly shares a a good deal of Weininger's pessimism about the sex, he also posits her as possessing a resolute independence, certainly different from that of man, but also having her own qualities that are not purely negative. Actually, so far as Nymphomaniac is concerned, Weininger's maxim is reversed: we are initially repulsed by the actions of Joe as we would be repulsed by those of the lowest, most deceitful and blasphemous whore, but as the story progresses, and as we learn more of her inner character, we finally come to sympathize or possibly empathize with her in a way which would never have thought possible. We have seen woman, and we rejoice with her as fellow tragic pilgrims in the human experiment.
'At this moment, my addiction is very clear to me, and I have come to a decision: even though only one in a million, as my dubious therapist said, succeed in mentally, bodily, and in her heart ridding herself of her sexuality, this is now my goal.... It's the only way I can live [my life]. I will struggle against all odds, just like a deformed tree on a hill.'This is the ultimate confession of the Prostitute turned into the Forgiven, or more simply the Sinner turned into the Redeemed. That she really means this is obvious, for, immediately after expressing her burning gratitude for not being a murderer, she kills Seligman for trying to steal what thousands had already tasted. She would rather be a murderer than surrender what is now her only reason to live. Seligman, for once in his life, strayed outside of his comfort zone, and was abruptly punished for it: he cannot have what he has not been allowed to have. While his story ends in the swift flash of a gunshot, Joe's story, in which her newfound sanctification and precious sense of self-worth have given her a reason to live, is just beginning. For the human life, even the woman's life, starts not with a corrupted nature and ends in it; we live in sin, but we are redeemed by grace. This is what makes Nymphomaniac a more hopeful film, and this is what makes it a more than satisfying conclusion to the 'Depression' trilogy. LvT leaves us not with something unbearably distressing; he leaves us with the surprising prospects of recovery and redemption; he leaves us with the possibility that even those who demand more from the sunset might actually receive it, even if it comes in surprising new forms.