Posts Tagged ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

The carnival fee for peeping at misery

November 4, 2012

Laughing at extreme violence that is purely fictional is the more innocent side of the attraction of paradox. The less innocent side is promoted as grand and challenging in a novel like The Heart of Darkness. But when the shock is procured on a petty stage, it is called “prurient” and “base” – mere excitability in the presence of blood, which we fear in ourselves and associate with the murderer’s exultation in wickedness.

Hence the conflict in the story of Leontius, told in Plato’s Republic:

“On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‘There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.’”

The human carnival of humiliations is an interesting indulgence, not that different from the more unflattering options in today’s reality TV line-up. It is a trigger we will pay to pull in our hearts, though we may be embarrassed in polite company to admit to the appetite we don’t know how to explain. Yet that very potential to be embarrassed by one’s desire to look is part of the excitement that draws the crowd.

Poster for the 1932 carnival horror film “Freaks”

Perhaps it is exactly that, in fact – an appetite for permissible venues to plunge ourselves in the experience of shame, known to translators of the Greek word aidos as a word of many connotations (including awe, respect, self-respect, sense of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the helpless, compassion, shyness, scandal, and dignity), some of which are pleasures ranging from the delicate (coyness) to the sublime (reverence).

Anne Caron discusses these possibilities in connection with the plays of Euripides, a body of work in which already “the real” is an evasive subject, the unconstructed life of the audience a controversial point of departure for dramatizing their favorite myths. Misery, and a shame that serves no redeeming plot device within the action of the play, is what makes tragedy obvious as a genre, as a transaction between values and audiences.

Here pain is already beginning to look like the great challenge in aesthetics that legitimizes street-wise speakers’ disrespect for ethics held to be conventional, the metaphor for the intransigent real that will not be kept off the stage even if it beggars description.

A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of commonsense fact and tries if he cannot understand other areas in terms of this one.

This original area becomes then his basic analogy or root metaphor.

He describes as best he can the characteristics .. discriminates its structure. A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description.

Thus far the conventional textbook on aesthetic elements by Stephen Pepper. Archetypes are hardly fit to mention among the details of oral tradition and its mundane asides, without being drenched in blood. What do we love about this stuff for images?

Blood rhetoric is as old as story telling conventions come, full of florid literalisms like the Pangs of Ulster and the wine-dark sea under an army of triremes moving on Troy.


When we tire of the iron in suspension, we set all on fire, and the dogged phoenix abducts what we held dear when we wanted only blood. Does recent wresting from the body’s interior implied in colored blood give sexual energy to its description? A trace of an invasion that succeeded in taking down a vivid obstacle, a making of an impression on a living form?

“Beauty is a dreadful and awe-inspiring thing! It is dreadful because it has not been unriddled and never can be unriddled, for God gives us nothing but mysteries …

Beauty! I cannot bear the idea that a man of exalted mind and heart starts with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. Yet even more shocking is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not give up the ideal of the Madonna and his heart may be afire with that ideal, truly afire, just as in his days of childhood and innocence.”

– Dmitry in The Brothers Karamazov

This is not the artist speaking but his subject, a sardonic one. A Russian who reads Schiller and identifies with the sentimental manic depressive episodes of productive melancholy in the writer’s life ironically.

I came across the above passage on a similar mood from Plato in Regarding the Pain of Others, where Susan Sontag reflects on the dark side of the photojournalism mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.” She discusses a desktop photo of death by a thousand cuts in portrait. We are none too pleased with ourselves as social animals when pity gives way to a rather naked enjoyment of the sight of misery or death as spectacle.

We have no rationale for the impulse to look, no excuse for the felt gratification at finding out what we were turning toward.

Sontag also quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest, noting that when Trinculo notices Caliban, he immediately pegs him for an excellent candidate for a carnival exhibition: “not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver … When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Even these duller dimensions of shame may be enjoyable in a sense, when we have sought out the confrontation, mentally prepared to meet the enemy within just so. A little control, a casual way to exit, and we pay to go in. We vibrate with its power over our desires, a complex web of pains through which it binds us to others, selectively but not without sacrifice.

Cities without death

October 9, 2012

Despite the reputation of our government for militarist imperialism, Americans are, by and large, people who feel reasonable and fair-minded and pay no attention to foreign policy. They are self assured about practicing non-violence without incident in their own private lives.

When it works for each of those who practice it, the exceptions made by our peers have not touched us yet.

Americans mean no violence by the indifference of isolationism. They entertain a bright eyed curiosity about the far away and its easily hidden unknowns.

They want picture postcards.

They are perplexed by the intermittent news of further genocides, since the introduction of the refrain “Never again,” concerning the atrocities ended by victory in World War II. Susan Sontag puts forward a strange explanation for the unique impression the Nazi Holocaust made on post-war generations in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, a short volume on the photojournalism of atrocities.

She cites the exceptional conditions under which the death camps were liberated and photographed by Allied soldiers and journalists. Remnant camp guards maintained order in camps cut off by retreat from supplies, and watched the captives slowly succumb to the most horrifying extremes of starvation and disease while waiting on the arrival of the Allied forces. Then pictures were taken.


Capuchin crypt, maintained since before World War II

Starving is a slow and gruesome death. In a living sufferer it is a depraved condition, so unnatural that a naïve observer of a photographed starving child with a lilting head, outstretched eyes and a distended belly may give an involuntary laugh.

The grotesque effect hunger has on the body gives the image a surreal quality and provokes the laughter of astonishment and disbelief, cold in an innocent sense, reacting but not comprehending.

On Devenish I heard
.. the keeper’s recital of elegies
Under the tower. Carved monastic heads
.. crumbling like bread on water.

gravedigger’s poem, “At the Water’s Edge”

The emotional recoil effect is instinctive, and to withdraw one’s sympathy from the human form when it is reduced to such a morbid spectacle of vulnerability is not even properly evil, for it is done without cruelty unintentionally.

But dissonance fills the brain regardless of how quickly one recoils from the sight in search of disbelief, as if the old habit of denial is instinctively refused in the face of a dire image of dying underway.

Your fear outweighs your unsteady hand’s remorse looking on the phenomenon of death, silently testifying to its own history of making steady progress, like a ferryman threatening to accept your fare since you are there, and requiring no more particular reason.

Americans like to live in the manner of the inhabitants of the mythical city where the Buddha was raised, the city where death was made invisible by sending the old, the infirm, and the sick outside the walls, so that suffering was literally unknown to those not yet expelled from the charmed life inside. It was only when he ventured outside the walls that the Buddha found cause for seeking and teaching enlightenment.

The Nazis who guarded the death camps are said to have pitied themselves for what they had to see in carrying out their duties, for the fact that they had to observe the suffering of their captives first hand.

What about those last weeks of war? The concentration camps had not been their idea in the first place. Would they have thought it was not their responsibility to decide their aftermath in the chaos of an unraveling war effort?


Kieran, a Seeker of Truth and war wizard (episode Revenant)

Shakespeare dramatizes the “double-blinding” of organizational conscience in a monologue given by Henry V, about passing down or following objectionable orders. It is a celestial abstraction from cause for war to say such things of politic violence, and yet it is never untimely in the meditations of a commander the night before battle can be fully expected, whatever the odds to be revealed by the full light of day.

A king may privately absolve himself of the crimes of his followers, but all followers sleep more peacefully knowing the fault in their actions, if ordered upon them, originates in the intentions of another. Their peace of mind in the privacy of sleep is as much an artifice as his, and reflects on his, so that those with blood on their hands and those without live the same lies and disavow the same burdens.

There is always a disgraceful hesitation to break ranks when group behavior goes wrong.

It is the illusion of security in being given orders, a regression into childish trust and like a minor protected from criminal courts, the moral impunity of the follower if the intentions of the leader are misguided or impure. Coetzee’s prison guard in Waiting for the Barbarians says merely, “I cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself.”

“There is nothing to link me with torturers, people who sit waiting like beetles in dark cellars. .. I must assert my distance .. I will not suffer for his crimes!”

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the experience of collusion in those Germans who avoided getting blood on their own hands. That phrase alone seems to have popularized reference to “the banal” for distinguishing condoned and commonplace evils from the other kind, since the writing of her Eichmann case study.


Art disapproval aside (episode Sanctuary)

We are bored with the banal. We would like to hear about something else. We decide we would like to be tourists on days that remind us of the word banal.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation .. every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.

Every native would like to find a way out, .. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. .. they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom [and] turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

– Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

If it comes to that, we would rather develop a fascination with the hand-me-downs of the torturers we know, their broken ankles, and repress the guilt that spills over into the lives of bystanders like ourselves, for excitement.

This is a refusal to be punished by failure with an unsolicited education, the comfortable habit of ours that keeps attacking the obvious ineffectually as if intending cruelty, as if waiting for it to get out of the way.