Saturday, June 18, 2011

Coarse Pattern

 Himmler and his daughter, Gudrun

This is the kind of photograph I can look at for hours. And after those hours I am no closer to comprehending the image than when I started. It's the proximity of contraries that troubles--the fact that a young girl sits on the knee of a man who helped redefine humanity's capacity for evil. And that she loves him. And that he loves her. It disturbs. Fate hangs heavy in this photograph. Was she always doomed to receive her father's coarse pattern and have traced upon her soul, "practically blank as snow as yet," the legacy of his evil?    

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


   He had left the theatre after the first kill. She had said she wanted to stay and see the rest. Something dark, something that lies hidden in most of us, had been activated in her, and she said she needed to see it to the end. It was important that she did. He had looked at her, more sad than upset, and said okay, but he wasn’t staying. He’d seen enough and knew where it was going and he didn’t want to see it. She nodded distractedly, eyes fixed on the screen. He had waited looking at her. She had turned and looked at him and then turned back to the screen quickly. Her eyes were big, taking in much. He said he’d be waiting outside. She nodded and he left. He wasn’t alone. Several others had got up and left with him, as if emboldened by his act to say they too had had enough and didn’t desire to go where the film was taking them.
   He stepped outside the theatre and lit a cigarette. He had seen his share of horror and knew enough about himself to feel himself balancing along the edge of something deep, something he had fallen into before and didn’t want to fall into again. He thought of some of the things he had seen, some of the things he had wished he hadn’t seen but that he had sought out anyway while in that trance that lasts only until the thing is done. What was it, he wondered, that called to them through these images? Because it certainly was calling.
   It was late and dark outside. It was a midnight screening. There were not many people out. The few that were moved quickly and with apparent purpose, as if wanting to get where they were going as fast as possible. Several other people were standing outside a bar down the street. They weren’t going anywhere quickly. He heard them laughing and it seemed genuine and he wanted to go over to them and join them. A few more people came out of the theatre, their eyes tightened aggressively. One of them was apologizing. 
   He kept hoping she would be among the fed-up but she wasn't. His leaving had probably only provoked her to endure what he thought she shouldn’t see. Down the street the people went back into the bar and he was left alone. He would wait. If she decided to come out he wanted to be here, waiting.
   They had read about the film on the internet. It was generating quite a bit of controversy and people were talking about it. Some were calling it brave, important, a searing allegory of contemporary society and its need to consume. Others called it trash, exploitation, not so much a flirting with but an actual courting of evil and a celebration of violence, humiliation, and degradation. On both sides, the same things that were always said were repeated. Things about censorship and freedom of expression; things about deterioration of morals and slippery slopes. Both sides sounded trite and tired to him and nothing anyone actually said comprehended the wounds such things could inflict. He didn't want such things banned. But he did wish they didn't exist. 
   She had convinced him they should see it. They were both students of literature, and both of them thought they should be committed to ideas of metaphor and transgression. He remembered she had said something about social justice but he couldn't remember why she had said it or how it could possibly apply. Someone had to say these things, had to shout these things to a dulled audience. It was important. The blood of it all was just a vehicle for the message. That’s what she told him and tried to tell herself. He had agreed, partly not to disagree with her but also because something inside him was tugging him towards it as well.
   But he should have known better. He had absorbed much of what horror as a genre could give to him. Most of it was nonsense, the ephemeral visions of violence that momentarily flash brightly over the eyes—attempts to provoke a primal reaction for a fleeting, almost narcotic experience of detached abstract feeling; a transgressive jolt of electricity pumped into an audience comfortably living without a day-to-day taste of real violence. To those who live without the constant threat of death or rape, both can be aesthetically pleasing exercises. Most of what he had seen had washed over him without leaving much of a trace, emotional or psychic. But then there were the other sorts of films, the kind that try to hurt you. Some of the images, some of the things he had seen, had scorched deep into him and become a part of him the same way a wound is a part of the body.
   He lit another cigarette. She hadn’t come out yet.
   He should have known better, should have warned her about what being hurt like this would mean and how these images linger. He liked to think he had learned a few things already. But she had wanted to see it, had sought it out, and he, having sought it out himself in the past, felt he couldn’t say anything, even as the worst of the things he’d seen played again in front of his eyes.
   He was a student of literature, like her. The movement from innocence to experience is one of those themes that recurs, he knew this. He had come to think that this movement could be forced without any actual event but vicariously, by witnessing it, even by witnessing it only at second-hand, or through the fictional visions of others.
   He thought of all the things he had seen and tried to remember something beautiful. But he was worried about her and suddenly all he could remember where horrible things, things that she might be seeing right now. He wanted to go in and get her, at least sit with her, but he didn't.
   In the abstract, he wasn’t opposed to horrible, violent images. They served a purpose; or, at least they could serve a purpose when they are harnessed to some sort of moral vision; or, lacking that, when they were at least presented as wrong. The world could be a genuinely horrible place. For people around the world this was true. Lives and bodies were consumed daily to gratify the appetites of those for whom people were not people, but things to be played with, chewed up, consumed and discarded. He remembered reading a news story about a dictator that kept a house of virgins he had taken who he would rape and then murder. People should be reminded about this because often they forget the cruelty humans are capable of. And stories, he thought, and especially images, are strong ways of reminding people. He tried to think of an example of this moral horror. But all he could think of was how in the most extreme cases, such as what she was watching now, death transcended whatever message that had provided the pretence, which now lay soaked underneath the blood. Nihilism would be one thing. But the lurid gaze transfixed by blood does not believe in nothing; it believes in blood.
   Maybe it was different in books where you didn’t actually have to see it, where terrible images remain blurry in the imagination and so can be more readily arrested by more intellectual concerns. But he knew that books could wound, too.
   The film was over and people were coming out of the theatre. Most of them were silent. Some were joking and laughing too loudly. The silent ones left quickly. He recognized two people from the university, a professor and a student. They were discussing the film’s political metaphor. The professor was excitedly elaborating his ideas of rape and murder as social metaphor.
   “Society both celebrates and condemns sex, see, glorifying it at the same time as it condemns those that dare to enjoy it, a vicious, nasty practice that kills what it loves. Humans are often fundamentally ambivalent about these things. And did you notice the way she stopped screaming after the first couple of minutes? Or rather, how her screams of pain becomes screams of pleasure? That’s important, see. At some point, she gave in to the pleasure of it despite what society says of such things, enjoying a rape, see, indulging the natural impulses that society had forced her to sublimate, that’s important. But at the very moment that she gave herself over to the natural drive and came, see—it’s important that she had an orgasm, you see that?—at that very moment, he begins to stab her over and over again, a penetration that punishes her enjoyment of the other penetration. She had been made a sexual object. But at the moment when she refused to accept objectification for another’s pleasure and chose to enjoy the experience for herself, he again objectifies her, this time in a literal sense, making her a corpse. But she’s still coming as she bleeds, as if refusing to accept his punishment. Even when she's finally dead she still has an expression of bliss on her face. It’s rather beautiful, see, when you think of it. It’s a refusal to be what society tried to make her be. And, of course, it must all end in death, because that’s what society does, it kills.”
   The student was nodding, but perhaps too vigorously, as if she wasn’t convinced but wanted to appear more sophisticated about these things than she felt at the moment. She was trying to fit together the things he was saying with the images she had seen. But the allegory of it all wasn’t what she remembered. She remembered individual shots, the way the camera lingered too long, the twists of pain and terror that spiral through the soul. She remembered the humiliation. Her face was white and there was a nervousness about her eyes. He caught her eye and she recognized him but didn't acknowledge him. The professor hailed a cab and they got into it together, the professor still talking about how beautiful it was. Every time I see it, he was saying, I’m more and more convinced that it’s important.
   He watched them drive away and felt depressed.
   Finally she came out. She was one of the last and he knew she had sat through the credits as those around her had left until finally she was alone. She looked smaller now but maybe that was only his imagination. She came up to him and didn’t say anything. He asked her how she was and she shrugged. She stood in front of him not saying anything and looking at his shoes. Finally he put his arms around her and she leaned into him and started to cry softly, just small little tears, nothing excessive or sharp. Then she was quiet and he kissed the top of her head, saying that he was sorry. She had received the wound she’d wanted, and it had hurt more than she thought it would.
   He took her hand and they walked silently to the car and drove home.

   I have a long history with horror films, much of which I have enjoyed. There are, however, things I wish I had never seen but that can't be scrubbed out of my mind. There are things that I refuse to see but that, nevertheless, still activate an impulse inside me that desires to see them. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Noon in the Hayfield, detail (1897) by Sir George Clausen

     "Tess was no insignificant creature to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life--a life which, to herself who endured or enjoyed it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest to himself. Upon her sensations the whole world depended to Tess; through her existence all her fellow-creatures existed, to her. The universe itself only came into being for Tess on the particular day in the particular year in which she was born.
     This consciousness upon which he had intruded was the single opportunity of existence ever vouchsafed to Tess by an unsympathetic First Cause--her all; her every and only chance."