The cringe. Of natural human reactions, it is among the most visceral. Eyes narrow, teeth grind, shoulders hunch in expectation. The cringe could mean fearful anticipation, though—in my experience—it more often signifies some wish to “unsee”. The cringe is equal parts regret and fascination. We are drawn to and repelled by the horrors of an image, and that impulse reveals no small element of our humanity.
The cultural discourse on violence exists on a unique spectrum, a discourse inextricably tied to tiresome considerations of politics and religion (two topics I recommend breaching with extreme caution in any audience). Contemporary society is markedly preoccupied with a search for causation and, on the whole, regards our thirst for violence as a response to cultural provisions of violence in our media.
This, in my opinion, is a clear case of post hoc ergo propter hoc: since we see violence in film and literature, we must therefore crave it all the more. Although I don’t want to discredit this line of reasoning completely, for certainly there is something cyclical to trends of violence and assault, I would also like to suggest that violence is desperately intrinsic, a lens into the workings of a providence mandating violence in order to justify peace.
I believe there is deep spiritual evidence to support these claims, but a quote from the Fourth Book of Plato’s Republic, concerning desire, could offer a germane introduction.
Well, [Socrates] said, there is a story which I remember to have heard, and in which I put faith. The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.
Here, Plato suggests that natural appetite wars with a more sociologically developed sense of repulsion. Leontius cringes. “It’s like watching a train wreck,” as the adage goes. His instinct is to view the scene, whereas socially acceptable behavior would dictate resistance. He is supposed to look upon their bodies peripherally with pity and depart. But instead, feeding his seemingly sick desire, he runs to the bodies and examines their features at close range, basking in violence.
Violence terrifies us, and rightfully so. Its devices, war and bloodshed, are properly methods of last resort, though—as we know—that is not always the case. Nevertheless, and I do not mean to underestimate how much discord this might cause, violence is not necessarily wrong. Violence is a force like anger: it is a natural impulse, buried within us, inborn, and it is only what we do with those forces that attribute to them their moral value.
The Latin violentia most nearly means “aggressiveness,” which implies a more significant level of moral ambiguity. There are situations when aggressiveness is called for, even required. There are, of course, also situations in which one should turn the other cheek. The difficulty is knowing when each course of action is appropriate. Violence for its own sake, for instance, is a sick perversion. But a violence which issues peace, like Christ crucified, is the only hope for humanity. The atonement for a broken people requires an aggressive solution, a violent sacrifice.
Rare is a violence that leads to peace, however. That violent impetus within us, that fascination with the sublime elements of death and destruction, is designed to point us toward the most violent act to ever be committed against a man, a man who undeservedly suffered physical agony beyond comprehension.
The challenge for the contemporary individual is to learn how to suitably address violence. It is undoubtedly a problem of our time, distinctly of our time many argue. Never have portrayals of violence been so accessible. In cinemas last year, “Drive” pushed the envelope with unprecedented visual and auditory violence. On television, Fox’s new show, “The Following”, has garnered criticism for its primetime gore, parents condemning its ease of access. We watch these things, we cringe, and yet, we keep watching. There is a mystery here, some fatal attraction that cannot be solved by a simple allusion to sin nature, or written off as a byproduct of an imperfect culture.
At the Curator, David Taylor has wrestled with that fatal attraction, and a trenchant review of Cormac McCarthy’s work by Margaret Pless appeared shortly thereafter. Like Margaret, I too sometimes struggle to explain why McCarthy’s fiction haunts and amazes me. Perhaps he, unlike any writer save Faulkner, grasps the significance of violence, which in his prose becomes a contagion, a cancer.
McCarthy’s work can be hard to access, and I have heard many say they were unable to digest the violence in its pages. Blood Meridian, considered by most to be his masterpiece, explores the expansion of the West and the white man’s war with the Native population, which is depicted with devastating realism. His stark, apocalyptic tone has stayed with me, and I have the feeling that I will find myself reading Blood Meridian many times throughout the course of my life. Take this passage, of death and of a strange kindness”
“He made his way among the corpses and stood before her. She was very old and her face was gray and leathery and sand had collected in the folds of her clothing. She did not look up…He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her country people who would welcome her and that she would join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die…He reached into the little cove and touched her arm. She moved slightly, her whole body, light and rigid. She weighed nothing. She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years.”
The protagonist of Blood Meridian, known only as The Kid, walks among bodies like Plato’s Leontius. Hardened by the brutality of war, The Kid normally avoids human interaction, heeds little speech and offers even less. In this one moment, McCarthy allows the reader to see a shift. The Kid offers compassion and is met with death. Man’s violence has killed his opportunity to love another human being. Violence issued by the unjust is a plague, desensitizing masses and feeding the horror that drive many men to desperate measures.
Violence in the hands of God, however, is complicit with his providence. God did not introduce pain and suffering into the world; man sought the knowledge of these things, and within the context of a fallen creation, God is compelled to complete his work. He turns our misdirected violence upon himself, upon his Son, and thus ends the cycle of harm once and for all. Unlike McCarthy’s Kid, we are granted the ability to show kindness in the face of violence because no harm we receive will ever compare to the physical and emotional betrayal we supervised.
So, this cringe, this simultaneous attraction and abhorrence: what to make of it? It is a paradox, to be sure. I sincerely believe that our visceral reaction to violence is a profound revelation. The contradiction Leontius expresses, the strange kindness of The Kid: these characters are ignorant of the cosmic settling of accounts, of the Maker’s answer to our warring and strife. And yet we cringe because in violence there is both hope and despair.
In that split-second response is mankind’s subconscious recognition of a need for atonement by way of violence and his concomitant regret for having caused violence in the first place. Christ on the Cross is the violence to end all violence, for it is in his suffering that these present trials are answered and in his bitter agony that we are given hope beyond this broken world.
It is vital to be well-versed in the cultural discussion of violence. Certainly there are basic considerations in order, such as working to limit the amount of violence that we—and especially our children—digest. But, at the same time, violence rightfully reveals something about our longing for true justice and true peace. To interpret violence as a strictly black-and-white matter is to simplify the full portrait of reconciliation, a canvas both beautiful and terrible.
A good article on the violence of Fox’s “The Following”.
Blog post on Blood Meridian on the University of Notre Dame’s site.
An interesting albeit far from biased Wikipedia entry of Christianity and violence.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
image: album artwork from the “Blood Meridian” Soundtrack