“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Matthew 6:22-23“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”
1 Corinthians 6:12
What follows are some further thoughts on this issue
of fright, disgust, and the modern tale of terror.
Nothing is more common today in popular films and novels than finding a storyteller using sexuality to titillate or using violence to tease our primitive instinct for aggression. And interestingly enough, the lowbrow perversity of contemporary entertainment has its roots in the elitist art movements of late 19th century Europe - the Decadence, fin de siècle
, and Aesthetic movements - in which art was set against (and above) nature and morality. The Decadence movement was the bridge between Romanticism (to which it was partly a reaction against) and Modernism. Writers who typified the Decadence scene were Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysman, and Oscar Wilde.
Decadence is the extreme result of an over-prosperous society in which an aristocracy and an elite art class are so isolated from the basic necessities of life and the sort of communal interdependence shared by the lower classes, that they are actually able to celebrate “art for art’s sake” as well as immorality, pain and misery. One literary outgrowth of Decadence was the conte cruel
, the “cruel tale,” a precursor to one facet of the modern horror genre. The conte cruel
is a story in which fate plays a cat-and-mouse game with the protagonist, finally killing him off only when he believes he might be spared.
The influence of Decadence and literary phenomena like the conte cruel
can be readily seen in today’s entertainment world. However, now this taste for immorality, cruelty, and violence has been democratized. The entertainment industry has enshrined it as a right (perhaps even a duty), and it is something the consumer demands. This is a worrying trend, as John Gardner notes in his book On Moral Fiction
:“We would not put up with a debauched king, but in a democracy all of us are kings, and we praise debauchery as pluralism. This book is of course no condemnation of pluralism; but it is true that art is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not.”
However, as previously noted, Flannery O’Connor has also made the case for using disturbing matter for a moral purpose in stories. And we allow artists their use of extreme matter on certain conditions because, of course, there is an actual (if unspoken) contract between artist and audience, when the artist is a serious one. We - if we, likewise, are a serious audience - expect such an artist never simply to titillate or feed our lower instincts. We expect this artist never to apply cruelty, either to character or audience, as an end in itself. Such an artist will always allow his suffering character - and audience - a portion of dignity. Moreover, we expect the artist never to place himself above the suffering he describes; we must believe he feels a fellowship with the sufferer.
True, artists that work this way are rare today. However, they can be found in the classics, the Great Books. The stories of Flannery O’Connor show her to be such an artist. Dostoyevsky’s novels show him to be another. We even find these artists occasionally in modern genre fiction; Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
is a series of fantasy novels that is one of my favorite examples of this. It may be even more difficult to find contemporary film directors that deal honorably - and in a consistent way - with extreme subject matter, since they are tied to an economy of non-artistic pressures and are also exposed to the incessant, numbing chatter of our popular culture. Still, certain directors do follow reliable, inner, aesthetic guidelines and, as a result, often (but not always) get things right.
On a personal note, I confess that though I am very interested in the horror genre, I can read very little of what is written today, and most of the horror films in existence leave me cold. Much of this has to do with decadent influences and the purposeless use of violence, perversion and cruelty.
As a final point, I must say that the films and stories that have most frightened me are also ones that I can’t recommend to many people. How can I be sure that a person, without knowing him or her extremely well, would be able to endure and benefit from such a thing? To me, it seems almost pure chance that I’ve stumbled onto the literary resources that have increased my “digestive capability” for such stories - Gardner’s On Moral Fiction
, Robert Bly's A Little Book on the Human Shadow
, Flannery O’Connor’s essays, interviews and lectures, etc. And I’m not even certain that I am truly able to take only the good
away from these things. Also, recommending disturbing and frightening films is something to be undertaken with extreme caution, but how can one even willy-nilly recommend, say, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
, Flannery O’Connor’s “A View of the Woods,” or Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell
Still, if there’s one thing I know of that is worth considering in relation to this topic, it is the following passage from John Milton’s Areopagitica
, written while his fellow Parliamentarians were instituting a major censorship order during the English Civil War:"He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd virtue, unexcersied and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness"