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.
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.