Bright Lights Film Journal

Selma: Or the Absence of God

“It is a face that has ‘glimpsed into the abyss’ and never recovered from it.”

Note: This essay examines the notion of “serenity” as it appears in section 9 of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and section 4 of Adorno’s Minima Moralia.This notion is at the base of both philosophers’ definition of truth as a “moral category.” The argument is presented with reference to Dancer in the Dark, the 2000 film written and directed by Lars Von Trier.


Many of us think of a successful life as one that starts when we are unwillingly thrust into its midst, terrified, kicking and screaming, and ends when one readily faces death, consoled, quieted down, and finally tolerant of self and of the world. Such a desirable state we call serenity.

We seek advice and comfort from our elders because we believe that, closer to their death, and emptied of all the passions that still move us, they can reflect upon us a peacefulness we crave, and a wisdom that will confirm our assent to the world. Similarly, and because we believe that serenity is a form of redemption, we faithfully and meticulously record the last words of those who are on death row awaiting their execution. We never deny them the help of a last confession or the presence of a chaplain in their final moments. For we are loath to deny even the most evil amongst us, with whom we share our humanity, that final reconciliation, and we look at their words of repentance and their acceptance of death as a ray of salvation in a dark life. Somehow, we feel that such a life was not totally wasted, if it ended with a man repenting, seeking reconciliation with himself and society. It was Baudelaire who said that those who opposed the death penalty on the basis that it could never work as a deterrent missed the point: “Its goal is to save (spiritually) both society and the guilty. In order for the sacrifice to be perfect, there has to be assent and joy on the part of the victim.”1

But the one thing we look most forward to with the advent of old age, is the absence of anger. For a face that is both angry and young is a face whose knowledge of the world is still a vision; it is a face that still hopes to right a wrong, whereas an old angry face is a terrible thing to see. It is a face that has “glimpsed into the abyss” and never recovered from it.2 The glimpse has turned into a gaze, hardening the traits into a mask that has blended with the face itself so as to take it over completely and become it. It is the mask of truth, unredeemed and scorching. It is a face, unconsoled and inconsolable.

When a man dies with a face like this, we call his life a failure. And yet, and yet, what if the opposite was true? What if an angry face was the only one that kept the promise of a dignified life within the deepest recesses of one’s soul? What if what we call serenity was but a travesty for that dirty word, “compromise,” a compromise with a corrupt world we have come to tolerate because suddenly we can mirror ourselves in it? What if we were actually meant to arrive into this world kicking and screaming, and leave howling and fighting? What if that peacefulness in our elders was nothing but the ruse of the helpless? What if the inmate who is able to retain some humanity in him and the one who makes a last show of his dignity is not the one who repents and asks for society’s forgiveness, but Frank Garrett who, before his execution in 1992, had only those words to say: “To my mother and sister I give my love. The rest of the world can kiss my ass.” What if anger was the price a man pays for knowledge and for reaching the truth? What if that face was the only possible one, after looking into the abyss?

Two philosophers, in the same tradition but from conflicting perspectives, have forcefully laid bare, in one case the cowardice, and in the other the lies, with which a serene state of mind is pregnant.

Nietzsche’s Greek Serenity and the Resolve to Live

In The Birth of Tragedy, his first masterpiece published at the age of twenty-three, Nietzsche opposes the rosy-colored, Alexandrian serenity of the slave class, “a condition of undisturbed complacence,”3 to the Greek serenity of the tragic hero. Whereas the first one is the pure product of a Socratic tradition that has put its faith in science and believes that logic holds the keys to the world, Greek serenity is an almost unearthly state of mind brought about by an ecstatic and mystical communion with nature without the intermediary of intelligence, but with the help of beauty and harmony. Whereas Alexandrian serenity reeks of logical optimism and is grounded in the “worthlessness of life,”4 Greek serenity is based on pessimism, but pessimism brought about by the “fullness of life.”5 Such serenity is pessimistic, because although it has conquered unspeakable terrors, it remains tenuous and is constantly being re-set. It is pessimistic because although it affirms life, it affirms it without the illusion of ever taming it by rational or religious justification. But such serenity is also a joyous pessimism because it forcefully embraces life’s orphic darkness where, true, death rules, but also from where life will spring back again, forever young and limpid.

In this juvenile work, Greek serenity is born out of the reconciliation of Dionysus, the God of feverish music, raving dances, drunken excesses; and Apollo, the god of harmony, plastic art, and measured mores. Through Dionysus, we forget ourselves and flee our daily lives, plunging into a new reality where the laws of gravity do not apply. Dionysus ushers the remembrance of, and the return to, that broken unity, when man and the universe were one. Dionysian reality, says Nietzsche, is the “abolishment of the individual and his restoration through a mystic feeling of collective unity.”6 The role of Apollo, on the other hand, is to prevent us from falling into the abyss that every Dionysian rhythm creates under our steps. By presenting us with images that we can fix upon and gaze, by providing us with beauty, harmony, and moderation, the plastic arts prevent us from falling victim to our passions, horrors, and pain, and being destroyed by them. It is the “Apollonian consolation in illusions” where the Apollonian state, says Nietzsche, is like the healing vision full of little black specks that one has after looking too long into the sun.7 It is the “joy that is created at the illuminated image which nature as healer holds up before us after a glimpse into the abyss.”8

For Nietzsche, the moment after the glimpse into the abyss is the moment par excellence when man knows by that single glimpse, almost mystically, without the need of logic, proofs, or signs. It is the moment when the truth is finally uncovered, pure, simple, and unavoidable. Man has “had a real glimpse into the essence of things.”9 This is when a deep disgust and a profound despair take hold of man, for now he comprehends the vanity of all action, and the “eternal nature of things.”10 Two choices now face him: either he slips slowly into his disgust (or nausea) and accepts death, or he takes refuge in art, the world of beauty, and remodels his life itself into a work of art. “Art saves him, and through art, life claims him back,” says Nietzsche.11 Thus, whereas Alexandrian serenity strengthens in us the desire to die, Greek serenity fortifies in us the resolve to live.

Adorno: Why Serenity Is Not an Option

In the same tradition but from a conflicting perspective, Theodor Adorno, in section 4 of his book Minima Moralia, “fragments of a damaged life,” uncovers the mechanism at work behind words like tolerance and serenity. “If a man of advanced years is praised for his exceptional serenity, his life can be assumed to comprise a succession of infamies . . . Breadth of conscience is passed off as . . . all forgiving because all-too-understanding.”12 The serene man is the inauthentic man, in Adorno’s terminology — — inauthentic not in terms of being unoriginal but rather in terms of not holding in himself any truthfulness. The authentic man, by contrast, is one who has been able to maintain a demand of sincerity and rigor not only towards the world, but also, and primarily, towards himself. The difference between the authentic and inauthentic man is best expressed in the difference between a man conscious of himself and a self-conscious man. The first category refers to the Hegelian consciousness, that is consciousness as being-for-itself, or consciousness’ ability to reflect not only on an external object but on itself, to study concepts as they appear abstractly in thought without reference to an outside entity. This ability of consciousness to think, primarily against itself, is what makes of it, says Adorno quoting Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit, “the kingdom where truth is at home.”13 Such consciousness is the basis of an autonomous reason, a reason that can think for itself, and as such, the basis of a strong individual that is free, strong, and secure enough to resist its surroundings and the pressures of other minds. In the era of late capitalism, under a social rhythm that is imposed on him by capitalistic production and its ever-increasing appetite for profit, modern man no longer defines himself through this consciousness, but merely through social consumption — the car he drives, the neighborhood he lives in, and other things. The loss of the consciousness-for-itself is the loss of a free and autonomous reason. As reason abdicates, the “I” weakens and falls easy prey to all kinds of ideologies, secular or religious. Reason, says Adorno, is transformed into a mutilated and instrumental reason, at the service of a profit-driven society, leading to the most perfect irrationality, and the fall of society into sheer barbarism, mostly exemplified by the erection of the Nazi concentration camps.

For Adorno, a contemporary of the Second World War, explaining Auschwitz, surviving it, and making sure it will never occur again will become his main if not exclusive preoccupation after the war. He saw in late capitalism the same elements at work that could lead to a new Auschwitz, meaning a servile reason in accordance with its surroundings, a slipping into sheer irrationality by individuals who have become servants of an industrial and social order that has its own logic, its own rationality, and that perpetuates itself blindly and feeds off itself, without reference to a human consciousness. “In many people it is already an impertinence to say I . . .”14 From an individual who was a consciousness-for-itself, man becomes a self-conscious individual, that is a self-consciousness that reflects on the ego as “embarrassment, as realization of impotence knowing that one is nothing.”15 From a Skeptic who reserves for himself the right to question his own thoughts, he turns now into a Stoic and accepts “things as they are.” From Uncompromising, man becomes Serene.

The authentic man lives with a “peculiarly chaste hardness and intolerance,” says Adorno.16 He is an inconsolable man. For Adorno, art cannot console us from reality in life. His famous declaration that after Auschwitz, poetry was no longer possible means exactly this: that art cannot be a legitimate refuge; it cannot even be a possible refuge in the face of radical evil. To the concentration camps and the Holocaust, Adorno claims that only one answer is possible: unacceptable. Man’s suffering cannot be tolerated, nor incorporated and made into a work of art. Evil has to be confronted, and eradicated. The Apollonian consolation is not an option.

What then? What is it that for Adorno fortifies in us the resolve for life after the “glimpse into the abyss”? How can one live after Auschwitz? I will attempt to present Adorno’s answer to this question in the remainder of this essay, and illustrate my point by referring to Lars von Trier’s musical, Dancer in the Dark (2000).

Selma, or the Absence of God

Dancer in the Dark depicts Selma, a young woman who is fighting to avoid for her thirteen-year-old son the hereditary blindness that is slowly closing in on him. She works tirelessly to save enough money for the eye surgery that will allow him to keep his vision. However, her neighbor, until then a most helpful friend, and in a fit of unconsciousness, steals the money she has painfully saved. She ends up killing him in a fit of anger after he begs her for his death, after which she is put on trial and executed for her crime.

The movie tackles themes the way they present themselves in a raw and uncouth world, and in this sense it is not realistic: Motherhood, Death, Sacrifice, Hope, Time, and a plethora of life categories, spelled in capital letters. And yet such excess in the plots, intensity in the characters, and crudeness in the presentation are exactly what makes the movie reach a truth that would be denied to us if the themes had been diluted by realistic details.

If the film depicts most elements at play in a human destiny, it shines by one absence: God. At no time during the movie, does Selma, or any other character in the plot, turn to God for solace, guidance, endorsement, or help. She never glances toward heaven, never utters a single prayer, even at the end, when she marches towards her execution. On the contrary, there is a strikingly human and earthly quality to Selma best depicted by her utter and total solitude, both when facing her life and her death. This is, however, not an empty solitude, for it is filled with music and dancing — Selma’s utter joy in life. Even when Selma works at the factory, her time is not spent in the endlessly repetitive gesture of her work, but rather in the joyous and wild rhythm of her singing and dancing. It is only when she hears the music, and dances, that Selma’s humanity bursts into full bloom.

Music as the “Thing-in-Itself”

And yet, if the movie is god-less, it is far from being godless, if one could ascribe such a quality to what David Kaufmann in his essay “Adorno and the Name of God” calls “transcendence without faith,”17 or what Nietzsche described as the metaphysical complement of all physical things in the world: music. Because music, contrary to language, is a medium purified from intentionality, and because it does not intend to “communicate” anything, music stands superior to language. Contrary to words that can so wane as to become totally meaningless, or carry meanings that are so far from their original meanings as to become compromised, music retains its integrity and stands as the revelation of transcendence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche defines music as being the “thing in itself, unmediated.”18 It is through the God of music, Dionysus, that Greek tragedy is able to express truth and to allow immanent knowledge, because it is through music that the individual is able to abolish the self and become one with the primordial being.

Amor Fati, the Highest Expression of Greek Serenity

Greek serenity, this consolation in illusion, is possible only because the first act that precedes it, the Dionysian, brings about reconciliation between man and nature. In this act, man finally accepts the natural “cruelty of things” and a world “unadorned by civilization,” and along with these, he accepts his fate.19 For what is reconciliation with nature if not man’s reconciliation with the self as part of this raw and unrefined nature? So one could say that the highest expression of Nietzsche’s Greek serenity is man’s amor fati(love of fate) — that is, a total identification between one’s self and one’s destiny.

Nietzsche introduced this concept for the first time in The Gay Science when he wrote: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things: then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor Fati . . . Looking away shall be my only negation . . . some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”20Amor fati is the cornerstone of Nietzsche’s definition of truth. Although both he and Adorno look at truth as a moral category, they differ on how knowledge of the world can be reached and what its characteristic are. For Nietzsche, true knowledge is dependent on one thing: courage, that is the courage to accept the world as it is, in all its cruelty and rawness. A life seeking truth will be “yes saying without reservation even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence.”21 And the more courageous we are, the more truth we can absorb: “For precisely as courage may venture forward, precisely according to that measure of strength one approaches the truth.”22 Situating himself at the antipode of Plato, Nietzsche declares in “What I Owe to the Ancients” in The Twilight of the Idols: “[I]n the end it is courage in the face of reality that distinguishes a man like Thucydides from Plato: Plato is a coward before reality, consequently he flees into the ideal.”23

In Greek tragedy, the death of the Greek hero is never a deliverance from life’s sorrows, but rather an embrace of those sorrows: it is a love of one’s misfortune that is different from resignation. For resignation to fate comes to people as a result of the “worthlessness of life,” whereas amor fati is a love that flows out of the “fullness of life.” The more a man is able to overcome himself, looking for meanings within the deepest recesses of his soul, and courageously endorsing them, the more he knows. The link between courage and knowledge is at the heart of Nietzsche’s definition of truth in The Birth of Tragedy: Excess is revealed as Truth.24

Adorno: Amor Fati, an Enormous Lie

For Adorno, writing against the backdrop of the Holocaust, such words must have seemed, at the least, disturbing. For how could a Jew entering Auschwitz “look away,” or be a “yes sayer”? For the contemporary of the Nazi concentration camps, that component without which there is no true knowledge is Hope. In Minima Moralia,Adorno wrote: “Without hope, the idea of truth would be scarcely even thinkable, and it is the cardinal untruth having recognized existence to be bad, to present it as truth simply because it has been recognized.”25 It is hope and only hope that allows us to deny a destiny that is thrust upon us; it is hope that drives us to act against it, and allows us to change it according to our personal will. “Truth is inseparable from the illusory belief that from the figures of the unreal, one day, in spite of all, real deliverance will come.”26

If Nietzsche’s courage requires us to meet the gods on their own territory, so to speak, to embrace the inevitability of crime, and in a way abolish the distance that separates us from them, hope can only flourish in the absence of God. For a god that is present in the world, a god that witnesses the world can only be an accomplice of this world. He is a god who condones this world and as such, can never be a source of redemption. In the above-mentioned article, Kaufmann quotes Adorno as saying in Negative Dialectics, “The Jewish religion will not endure a single word that would grant comfort to the despair of all that is mortal.”27

The only god that man can bear, if he is to hope for a different world, is not a merciful god, not even a just god, but a god appalled, who has recoiled in horror at the state of the world. By his absence, he has withdrawn his approval of the world. And it is this very absence which is the condition of man’s freedom, and the basis of his hope for a transformed world.

In “Adorno and the Name of God,” Kaufmann shows how although Adorno’s writing present a messianic message, God himself is never mentioned and never called upon. And it is this non mentioning, this non naming which is the basis for a definition of truth that has not retreated into mythology — a truth where transcendence is still linked to man’s hope for change and his victory over evil.

Why the Anarchist Is Closest to Heaven

If music is the essence of the world, it is because it is still an edenic language that does not aim at communicating, but at presenting an immanent knowledge the way proper names are grasped without the need of mediation. It was Walter Benjamin who, in a small essay “Language As Such and the Language of God,” linked the fall of man to the fall of language, and it is through this theory that Adorno’s definition of truth as utopia can be best comprehended. The language of God, which is the pre-Original Sin language, was like music, unmediated, presenting itself simply as truth. With the fall of man, language has become a means of communication and acquires a usage value. This usage is arbitrary and reflects the corrupt state of the world, where man’s domination of man is the ultimate goal. Words have been emptied of their original, “messianic “content and more often than not, have become totally meaningless. So that the pursuit of truth is a pursuit of the restoration of those original meanings. And for Adorno, this restoration cannot take place outside the human context of hope, for it would then relapse into a total mythological context, exactly the same one it is trying to wrest language from. A language that would be only a means of communication, a practical language, is the language of a society that put the merchandise value beyond any other one, so that all is reduced to a common denominator: money. Everything can be exchanged for money, and money can be exchanged for money. But a language that would relapse into a purely metaphysical or religious language is not much different in that it relapses into myth if it fails to reconnect to a praxis aimed at changing the world. This restoration, society entrusts to its philosophers, and its social anarchists, those delightful enemies of a self-righteous and anemic bourgeoisie. The first ones, because they seek to wrest hope out of words, and the second ones because they do the same thing, along with an unbeatable sense for style.

When John Lennon staged a sit-in for “peace in the world “in 1969, he conducted the press conference naked in bed with his wife. The link between nakedness and a call for peace in the world is not a fortuitous one. Lennon’s attempt to wrest the word peace from worthless politicians, inept committees, and corrupt leaders is an attempt to restore an original meaning to the word, a meaning that existed in a pre-Original Sin world, before that fateful morning when Cain killed Abel, and when the word “peace” meant exactly this: identification between humanity and environment, a world totally free of all calculations, manipulations and lies that have later given birth in mankind to this sense of shame that led to cover-up. That this meaning of the word peace is utopist, impractical, unreal, is totally beside the point. It is the true, unmediated, incommunicable meaning of the word peace. Or to put it more precisely, it is what in the word peace is true. All other meanings are but pale, pathetic, and petty reflections of this original meaning.

Back to Selma

If truth is restoration of utopia in the world, this sense of blissfulness that man had at his origins, then it is the negation of unredeemed reality, and a life that seeks truth is a life that seeks and longs for this blissfulness, and would not accept any reality that does not explicitly seek it. For a world that would equate truth with reality, a world that has given up, is a world where people would die of sadness, it is a world where resignation and eternal death would prevail.

Which brings us straight back to Selma’s face before her execution. At the moment of death, the mask that one wears and dies with is revealing of how much complacency we have been able to avoid in our life, and by the same token, how much truth we have been able to endure.

Selma who is able to recreate music in her prison cell just from the very distant sounds that she can barely hear, Selma who marches to her death and is unable to calm her terror — what mask is she wearing? Selma is executed and dies while singing. But her singing is not a celebration of her life. Selma sings in defiance of society and she sings in defiance of death. She does not die resigned to her destiny, and she does not die in an ecstatic communion with her fate. Rather Selma dies revolted, unwilling till the end to let go of a life that did not resolve itself into happiness.


  1. Baudelaire, Mon Coeur mis a nu (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1972), fragment 100. []
  2. Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ian C. Johnson, (, fragment 9. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid, fragment 10. []
  5. Ibid, fragment 1. []
  6. Ibid, fragment 2, “Preface to Richard Wagner” []
  7. Ibid, fragment 2. []
  8. Ibid, fragment 9. []
  9. Ibid, fragment 7. []
  10. Ibid, fragment 7. []
  11. Ibid, fragment 7. []
  12. Minima Moralia, trans. E.F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2002, 13th ed.), #4. []
  13. Ibid, fragment 29. []
  14. Ibid. []
  15. Ibid, #29. []
  16. Ibid, #4. []
  17. []
  18. Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, #16. []
  19. Ibid, #18. []
  20. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), #276. []
  21. Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo” in The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1969), fragment 2. []
  22. Ibid. []
  23. Nietzsche, “What I owe to the Ancients,” in Twilight of the Gods, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1974), fragment 2. []
  24. Birth of Tragedy, fragment 4. []
  25. Minima Moralia, fragment 61. []
  26. Ibid, fragment 78. []
  27. See footnote 17 above. []