Distorted Reality and FX’s Taboo

trafalgar square by leonard bentley on flickrIt’s been said that human beings warp everything that they touch as a consequence of original sin. Like Midas, whatever we come in contact with, we distort, however slightly, either through some degree of ignoble intention or some incapacity to effectuate what is pure. In other words, even our best achievements are tainted by motives that always ring with a tad bit of pride, self-interest, or spite, or are not as fine as they might have been because those self-same things stunt our ability to conceive of a better form.

And if that is true of our more virtuous accomplishments, how much more is it so of our less altruistic endeavors. Only the great saints can sing hymns, having disappeared to themselves in the quotient. Only they can lift a pure, true note, and it may be that they have to wait until they are within the halls of God to lift it; for this world itself is too warped to provide the necessary acoustics.

But most of us cannot concern ourselves with the saints too much. We know our limitations.

One way this warping effect manifests is through our opinion of the world. Of what is possible. We make it a kind of physics that uses as its laws and constants the abilities of our own hearts.

I’ve been watching a show on the FX network lately that has put this point in relief. The show is called Taboo. I teach late on Tuesdays, and wanted to have something to watch when I got home that would be entertaining. It seemed like an historical piece, set in pre-Dickensian England but with Dickens’s Bleak House edge running through the tale. I saw that Ridley Scott was an executive producer, so it would be worth a see.

In the tale, a weird adventurer, played by Tom Hardy, returns to England after a mysterious life abroad. He seeks secrets his mad father, recently deceased, has kept, all with an eye towards a fortune coveted by both crown and corporation (the East India Company, naturally). Filling out the cast of characters are butchers, chemists, brothel keepers, medicine men, tawdry stage performers, and quisling spies. The filming is shot through some kind of blue and black filter, and practically all of the scenes are muddy, bloody, and gore-filled.

To Hollywood filmmakers (is it right to call all of the film-making industry “Hollywood”? whether it occurs there or not? Suffice it to say, I’m using the word as metonymy), it seems that there is a particular formula for seriousness. The more grisly, ghoulish, and ghastly the depiction, the more likely the piece is to be seen as a realistic, serious drama. The work might not be any good, but at least they won’t laugh at your efforts if you gut someone from belly to throat and have someone eat the entrails.

It’s rather like a twelve-year old boy who aims to be taken for older by acting as vulgar as possible. After a while, the effect just doesn’t work anymore; either people’s stomachs get stronger or they begin to roll their eyes at the banality.

Another tired approach to coopting “gravitas” is what I call the “Let’s shock the Baptists” routine. Trying to outdo the last guy, filmmakers edge out a little bit farther on the limb of what is depictable, believing that the ratio of kink to worth is indicative of artistic merit. If they can get the bourgeoisie to clutch their pearls by portraying a little more flagrantly episodes of incest, sadomasochism, masturbatory indulgence, and sacrilegious sorcery, they’re doing their job.

The trouble is, just like the gore porn described above, the kink porn obeys the law of diminishing returns too. The Romans got so bored with yet another throat-slitting in the Coliseum that they took to mass throat-slittings, hoping that the multiplier effect would achieve an increasingly ever-elusive euphoria.

Like most drugs though, the appetite becomes resistant to the new dosage; more and more is required and eventually the level of physical tolerance is taxed beyond limit. The stomach and crotch may not be sated, but the heart has had its fill and collapses under the strain.

So in this way, such efforts as Taboo only wind up being rather boring, blood-bloated and semen-soaked as they are. But there’s something else going on in a work like this that is sadder, and it has to do with an equally juvenile attitude towards the world alluded to above.

It is the cynical posture that says there can be no goodness beyond the level known to a particular person’s consciousness (usually this is the filmmaker, who gives his outlook to the main character). It is the comforting assessment that says all priests, lawmen, soldiers, police, etc. are corrupt at heart, hypocrites and charlatans; it judges the world through a solipsistic lens, and says of it—“the level of goodness cannot be greater than my own, and therefore there is no need to aspire to greater than I am.”

What need has the criminal to reform when the society that has made him a criminal is vile itself, down to the very last person, save not one? If it is as ugly a world as all that, then there is reassurance in staying the course with venality. Such a posture towards life can only lead to the temporary enjoyment of what power one’s own gifts at exploitation can win, and then comes the grave.

That is the rather tedious tale we are told again and again, as though what we are viewing is a homemade graphic novel, penned by adolescents stuck in a fugue-obsessed gear, trying to shock their parents into taking them seriously. Pitiful, cold comfort indeed.

GL banner

A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

Above image by Leonard Bentley, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

Listening to Beautiful Darkness

Waking from the Nightmare

auroradescendingintomaturity

A little girl awakens in an autumn wood. She stands, looks up through the red-orange fire of the leaves to see a small patch of white sky. Then she brushes the leaves from her cardigan and walks out of the frame.

Someone screams.

The idyll is broken. We’re back in the nightmare forest in the middle of Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness, where a host of tiny creatures struggle for survival.

The scream came from one of the creatures, a feral sort of china doll with an enlarged head, who eats maggots and eventually comes to live in the rotting skull of the very girl from the dream. Feral china doll wakes up grunting, “Nightmare . . . Nightmare!” as if we’re the weirdos for having hoped that the book thus far had been the dream, that the girl was not dead but dreaming the graphic novel’s bizarre horrors.

I’ll admit that the first time I read Beautiful Darkness, I found it morbidly fascinating but too unpleasant to enjoy. I granted, with many online, that the artwork was gorgeous and dramatic, and that the plot was a kind of feminist anti-fairy tale. Still, I felt it demonstrated a kind of casual nihilism I see in lots of contemporary horror.

Then we had a presidential election, and half the country thought they were in a nightmare. The other half said they’d been in a nightmare, themselves, for too long. A host of conservatives screamed, “I told you so” to a liberal consensus. With deep pain and frustration in their voices, they moaned, “You didn’t listen!”

I don’t know how to process the complexities of the divide in this country. I don’t know that I listened well enough, or that, with what light I was given, I used what platforms I had to advocate enough for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or that it would have made any difference.

But I know I want to listen better, for what it’s worth. And I can start not only with those around me but with this book. How can it change me?

Inside Out

nightmareI have come around to believing Beautiful Darkness works as a disturbing critique and warning about the primitive evil that lingers beneath our trite civilities.

The bizarre premise involves the humanoid citizens of a young girl’s imagination escaping her body after she dies, mysteriously, in the woods. Aurora, the fantasy embodiment of the girl herself, takes charge of feeding and housing the refugees, blithely promoting principles of fairness and generosity.

It soon becomes apparent that everyone is prepared to profit from Aurora’s leadership, but no one really shares her values. Rather, each character proves a creature of whim, appetite, and even violent instinct. Those that show any ability to deliberate use their reasoning powers to manipulate others for their own gain.

In the end, Aurora has to decide how best to deal with this host of dangerously destructive imps that seem to keep following her around.

The book is all about people’s blithe indifference to one another’s suffering. Worse, it’s sometimes about direct violence and society’s willingness to shrug it off if there’s something more entertaining to do. One large character literally eats a smaller one. A bystander says, “What did you just do?” but the large creature says, “Wanna play? Look, it’s like I’m pregnant!” and a person’s death becomes a perverse joke.

Characters steal from one another. They torture insects. They kill animals that had previously helped them, then eat their raw flesh. Betrayal is casual, murder is the stuff of games. It’s Lord of the Flies meets Strawberry Shortcake. Except all the Pastry People keep smiling and playing their baked-goods games.

It’s disturbing to think that the “big” folks in our society might consume the “little” ones, in more subtle ways, and somehow the rest of us would be complicit in laughing at it.

Teach Your Children Well

sohungryThis book does not try to force a message, and there’s no happily ever after in sight. The death and loss are too isolating, and Aurora’s hope seems to lie in a large human male who is associated with many violent images and may have caused the death of the human Aurora.

One way you can read it is as the human Aurora’s imagination living on after her, and her ego, the creature Aurora, doing her best to negotiate growing up in a world made dangerous by nature and cruel by people. If she overcomes, it is not by remaining purely good but by making hard choices maybe we’d rather she didn’t have to make.

Without anyone to teach her better, Aurora learns to “do what it takes” to survive. That’s a phrase used by self-proclaimed realists to justify morally questionable actions, and Aurora, eventually donning the pelt of a former mouse ally, is en route to becoming a tiny dictator of a world of one.

To see justice in the individual, Plato imagined the person as a city and the parts of the self as its citizens. Here, a child dies before maturing, so the parts of herself are arrested in pre-adolescence. If Beautiful Darkness is a parable of human evil, then it takes a rather banal view of original sin as a child’s lack of empathy, distractibility, and reflexive violence without conscience.

The book thus indicts those traits in ourselves as shamefully immature. How, after all, can we hope to train our children in doing good if we continue to act in any way like children? In an age of parents pouting about their children on social media while police shoot black parents’ children, there may be an audience that needs to feel the grotesque but profound disturbance of a book like this.

And may we each take the fanciful Auroras in our lives by the hand and, rejecting vengeance and rage, lead them down paths of righteousness.

GL banner

Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.

The above images are from the text reviewed here: Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness.

Creative Tension in the White Imagination

selma_to_montgomery_marchesTension Isn’t Usually Pretty

A Facebook video shows a deputy sheriff getting in the face of a young black protester attempting to access the courthouse lawn in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The young man keeps his cool, insisting their intentions are merely to pray peacefully, but the deputy isn’t interested. He just wants them to leave.

“You take your prayers back to your church,” he sneers. “That’s the proper place to pray.”

I’ve been thinking about creative tension. Not because I’m into conflict; I’m not—particularly when it comes to the self-righteous rhetoric of our polarized politics.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of creative tension, he meant the kind of existential social crisis that prophetic actions can produce. He meant drawing out latent aggressions and biases by peacefully holding the higher moral ground. [Read more…]

Dead People: Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009)

kolakowskiFor Gregory Wolfe 

The following is an excerpt from Meis’s new book Dead People, published June 24 by Zero Books.

 

Leszek Kolakowski died July 17, 2009. He was a philosopher, a man of letters, historian of ideas. He lived the twentieth century life. It sucked. But like many a Pole, he made the best of a bad situation. The opening lines of the Polish National Anthem are, after all, “Poland has not yet perished.” Poles know that everything will turn out for the worst. It always does. [Read more…]

Eden at the Indy 500

SONY DSC

I managed to live in Indiana for forty years before visiting the Indianapolis 500. A friend offered my husband and me tickets on our anniversary weekend, which also happened to be the 100th anniversary of the race itself, an event that was expected to draw half a million people.

“Oh, why do you want to do that?” My family has used this rhetorical question for many years to discourage wanton desires.

We have shared a long-standing prejudice against the race, because it is a place people go to sit in the sun too long while consuming too much alcohol, and my family largely consists of fair-skinned people who do not drink. We have also casually directed this disdain at amusement parks, cruises and the state of Florida for the same reasons.

My dark secret is that I sort of like drinking in the sun. Like nearly all the forbidden things I’ve tried, it feels quite good, until it’s horrible. [Read more…]