Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Terrible Beauty is Not Reborn: Is Catharsis, or Tragedy, Still Possible?

Random Notes Toward an Understanding of Violence and Catharsis

Part I. A Time to Kill [Bill]

My current issue of Entertainment Weekly [28 Sep. 2007] announces that "Violence is in the air as Hollywood comes out blazing with a season of brutal and bloody movies." To whit:
In Sweeny Todd, a murderous barber's victims are baked into pies. Go see Rendition, and you'll be treated to the story of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer who gets intercepted in a D.C. airport, taken to a secret detention facility, and tortured. And then there's Agent 47, the genetically enhanced assasin-for-hire and star of Hitman, who's always down for blowing out some brains. . . . "These are dark, disturbing times," says director Neil Jordan, whose vigilante drama The Brave One debuted at $13.5 million last weekend. "Movies have to reflect the times we live in. [The Brave One] is about violence, pure and simple. It struck me as the appropriate theme at the moment."
And what is "the moment," exactly? Apparently, according to the gurus at EW, these movies [which also include the recently released Eastern Promises, which includes a delightful "naked fight" scene with a buff and bruised Viggio Mortensen--yay! say some, but not me--3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Resident Evil: Extinction, The Kingdom, and No Country for Old Men, among others] are some kind of artistic reaction to our collective frustration with the war in Iraq. According to Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, "It has to be tied to Iraq. These are furious times. People feel impotent. People are resigned to the system not working, and that manifests itself in these violent fantasies." Another screenwriter, John Logan, explains, "Audiences have always been drawn to the catharsis of violence."

I want to set aside for a moment the fact that the current season of new releases is somehow more drenched in blood than previous seasons or has reached some kind of critical mass of killing and drilling [um, let's see: Sin City, every other Resident Evil film, The Hostel, The Saw trilogy, FOX's 24, HBO's Rome and The Sopranos and Deadwood, F/X's The Shield and Nip/Tuck, insert your Quentin Tarantino or John Woo or David Cronenberg or Robert Rodriguez or Brian de Palma film here, Fight Club, Gladiator, 300, The History of Violence, Grindhouse, Casino Royale, Pan's Labyrinth, the Mission Impossible trilogy, the Bourne trilogy, etc. etc.], and turn to the question of what kind or type of violence might be important here, and how that contributes [or doesn't] to catharsis, and whether we even know what we mean anymore when we talk about catharsis [or even, tragedy]. I mean, seriously, is The Brave One or Rendition really going to help me achieve catharsis for our collective sins in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? Wouldn't that be like saying these films would help me accomplish a kind of metaphorical revenge, and against who or what, exactly? I'm already drenched in fear and anxiety and despair over what's happening in the cells at Guantanamo Bay: how does Jodie Foster holstering up as a vigilante killer on the streets of New York City help me?

Since I am currently teaching, in my British Literature survey course a trilogy of Shakespeare plays--Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and King Lear--that I specifically chose to teach as a trilogy because of their emphasis on both the spectacle and trauma of violence [especially in relation to issues of the polis and politics], I think it is worth considering with my students what Aristotle might have thought about catharsis in relation to what Entertainment Weekly, and by extension, we, think about it now. I want to start with the provocative statement that catharsis, through the staged spectacle of "beautiful" and "tragic" violence, may no longer be possible [partly because we don't "get" beauty in the same terms that Aristotle did when he was talking about tragedy, and furthermore, we don't "get" tragedy, either, or rather, we prefer violence shorn of any tragic dimension that might "touch" us]. Tarantino's Kill Bill double-feature is, by any account, a gorgeous and extremely violent and lushly designed and shot film which made me feel when I watched it . . . . absolutely nothing. It washed over me like a stunning shower of cherry blossoms tinged with blood and hacked, flying limbs whirling all around me in a gorgeous steely tableau of crisp snow-flecked . . . nothingness.

What does it mean to say a film's violence is beautiful, yet unmoving, and why might that matter? In the current climate, where we can watch, one right after the other, a streaming online video of a real beheading, devoid of a narrative frame, in Iraq or Pakistan, a film like The Hostel where people pay money to watch abducted women being tortured in private rooms, and the fictitious Jack Bauer [played by Kiefer Sutherland] on 24 power-drill a terrorist suspect in the groin, is it still possible to be moved, through fear and pity, by the beautiful spectacle of violence, and to what end? The key for me, is to refocus on the function of beauty [often overlooked when many of us are teaching tragedy, I think, in favor of concentrating on the related functions of fear and pity], especially as Aristotle relates that term, not just to catharis, but to wonder [rhaumaston].

Part II. Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange

One of the most beautiful scenes in film, that is also violent and tragic, is Julie Taymor's staging of the final banquet scene in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus [a "revenge tragedy," which puts it in the same class as Tarantino's Kill Bill; at least, that's what I tell my students]. The original play cannot be called great art--it is an early effort on Shakespeare's part and may have even had a co-author. On the page, it isn't very powerful and is also overly contrived, but in Taymor's hands, and largely due to the superb acting of Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, and Alan Cummings in the chief roles, it is elevated [I believe] to high [and moving] art. From the serving to the empress Tamora of her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, who have had their throats cut by Titus and baked into two meat pies, to Titus breaking the neck of his own daughter, the ravished and mutilated Lavinia, in front of his dinner guests, saying, "die, Lavinia, die, and thy shame with thee," and then, after telling Tamora what she has just eaten, stabbing her in the neck with her own cutlery, after which the emperor Saturnine leaps across the long table and plunges the sharp ends of a candelabra into Titus's chest, after which Titus's son Lucius slides Saturnine backwards along the table to his chair and then plunges a long spoon down his throat, spits on him, and shoots him in the head, we witness a gorgeous and highly stylized sequence of the eruption of violence and despair. Taymor chooses to freeze the frame--a la the style of the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix--just at the moment Lucius' spittle is flying, in slow motion, toward Saturnine's face, after which semi-still moment, the camera pulls sharply back to reveal Titus's villa dining room transported to the center of the ruins of the Roman coliseum, in the seats of which sit modern spectators [in other words, you and me]. My students love this scene, and some even cheer at the moments when Tamora is stabbed and Saturnine is spit upon, but they are also in completely quiet and dumbfounded shock when Titus breaks the neck of his daughter, Lavinia, while embracing and kissing her.

No matter how many times I myself have watched this scene, I never cease to marvel at it, and also be moved. [And, as Taymor, stages Lavinia's murder, everyone at the dinner table is also struck with wonder.] Indeed, I would argue, that my students and I are struck with wonder at this scene, a wonder which, in the words of Joe Sachs [who teaches Aristotle's Poetics at St. John's College in Annapolis, and who is also a translator of Aristotle's works], places us "in the power of another for awhile" and "the sight of an illusion works real and durable changes in us" as "we merge into something rich and strange." Quite obviously, by pulling back to show the corpses littered around the dinner table in the middle of the coliseum in which the spectators of the aftermath are, in essence, the contemporary moviegoers, Taymor asks us to ask ourselves, "why are we watching this, astonished and rapt in silence?"

It is difficult, I must say, for either I or my students to "connect," through pity, with the characters in Shakespeare's play. They are just too remote from our world and speak in a manner that is overly formal and archaic [never mind the occasional flights of beautiful poetry, which to our students' ears is often just "greek"]. I typically have a hard time getting my students to, say, empathize with an Oedipus or a Macbeth, such that they could palpably feel their fear and worry about their predicaments and lament their violent ends [and then somehow feel "purged" by the image of Oedipus weeping through bloody eyes as he embraces his daughters or by Macbeth's decapitated head landing on the ground]. And yet, again, the murder of Lavinia, and also the scene in which Taymor stages Lavinia after she has been raped and had her hands and tongue cut off by Chiron and Demetrius, who have also placed twigs into the stumps of her arms [the image of Lavinia, standing on a tree stump, branches crossed over her breasts and bending forward into the camera with blood flowing out of her speechless mouth is stunning], always arrests them. Somehow, more than the scenes they have watched over and over again in films like Saw and Grindhouse and Kill Bill [movies they love, and can even laugh at], these scenes both frighten them and make them sit still with astonishment. Somehow, and I can't put my finger on it exactly, both pity and fear suddenly rush in at these moments. They have to arrive together, because fear without pity is a cheap thrill, and pity without the recognition of the possibility of shared pain, is simply an empty sentiment. The idea that the violation done to another person is somehow also a violation to ourselves is the beginning of the true understanding of pity [or perhaps we should say, empathy, or compassion]. Something magic is at work in the film that it could have the capacity to grab my students' attention in this way [it happens every semester, believe me], and that magic is Taymor's art--more precisely, it is her ability to render violence in a way that is so beautiful, while also being so rawly intimate [let's give the actors credit here], that we cannot look away nor pretend it isn't us. And this is fiction, right?

To try to explain what I think is happening here, I turn [again] to Joe Sachs, who has generously shared his thoughts on tragedy and catharsis, via Aristotle's Poetics, on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In his notes there [not all of which I agree with], he writes,
The character Alonso, in the power of the magician Prospero, spends the length of the play in the illusion that his son has drowned. To have him alive again, Alonso says, "I wish Myself were muddled in that oozy bed / Where my son lies" (V.i.150-52). But he has already been there for three hours in his imagination; he says earlier "my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded / And with him there lie mudded" (III.iii.100-2). What is this muddy ooze? It is Alonso's grief, and his regret for exposing his son to danger, and his self-reproach for his own past crime against Prospero and Prospero's baby daughter, which made his son a just target for divine retribution; the ooze is Alonso's repentance, which feels futile to him since it only comes after he has lost the thing he cares about the most. But the spirit Ariel sings a song to Alonso's son: "Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange" (I.ii.397-402). Alonso's grief is aroused by an illusion, an imitation of an action, but his repentance is real, and is slowly trasnforming him into a different man. Who is this new man? Let us take counsel from the "honest old councilor" Gonzalo, who always has the clearest sight in the play. He tells us that on this voyage, when so much seemed lost, every traveller found himself "When no man was his own" (V.i.206-13).
The way in which the beautiful spectacle of violence, artfully staged and performed, could bring us to this revelation, voiced by Shakespeare's Gonzalo, seems crucial to me if we want to understand how, in the contemporary movie theater, catharsis could ever be possible. But what sorts of violent and so-called tragic films do this today? According to the political theorist Jane Bennett, the enactment of ethical aspirations “requires bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions,” and further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is the argument of Bennett’s book, The Enchantment of Modern Life, that the contemporary world, contrary to certain narratives of a disenchanted world, does “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” As regards either medieval or contemporary art [which includes film], what sites of enchantment are available to us, and to our students, that would help them, through various beautiful [and sometimes terrible] spectacles, to be moved, through wonder, out of and back to themselves in a way that would help them to see, they were never just themselves, after all? And neither were we.


dan remein said...

All of this makes me think about the dead shark in a tank discussion from the summer.

Before I mention violence, I want to ask again, and this time with no hostility, but only interest: is this a religious question?

How much is chatharsis, even if possible--even in the context of say, Physchoanalysis, really a religious ritual. And a further question then on secularization in general--can a ritual be emptied of the mystical enough to ever be secular and still a ritual? What is the mechanism in there?

Lastly: a discussion going on for the past 20 years or so in theology, following Mary Boise, concerns the problem with the myth of redemptive suffering for women in modernity. I mention this, because, in a state under W Bush, I wonder if violence of this sort is always to going to reinscribe itself and its effects in the language of Christianity, as redeemed or unredeemed along the lines of its ability to fit or not fit into the narrative of time and morality set forth by fall, redemption, end-times.??

Also, you all may notice that I've added a photo name--on the occasion of my new attempt at a weblog...just thought I'd try to snag a reader or two.

Anonymous said...

Titus breaks the neck of his daughter, Lavinia, while embracing and kissing her

This reminds me of a review in the Guardian by Mark Fisher of a current staging of Hamlet at the Citizens, Glasgow. He writes the play is interpreted as “one generation denying the next generation its place” and concludes: “Centre stage from the start, [Hamlet] is less a character hellbent on revenge than a man trying to claim his rightful place in the world. It means when the play reaches its bloody end, it is not Hamlet we mourn but a whole generation denied its potential.”

His review, a recent viewing of Cymbeline and your comments suggest that the key to tragedy is the role of Violence (and the justification of violence) not as a glittering, beautiful quasi-chivalric display which we have forgotten, but as part of the emotional bond between generations and perhaps the primary way in which social hierarchies between parents and their children are traditionally maintained in modern societies built on medieval mores. You may protest – I am pretty sure from the way he writes that JJC does not beat up kids1 and 2 – but still violence against children is (in most countries) still a parental right and a right that is maintained even by those parents who consciously withhold it and oppose its use (because even by refusing to use it they recognize its power). The use of violence – and its intimate, tragic, relationship to love and loss, growth and maturity - is a lesson we learn in infancy and take into all our adult relationships, both individual and collective. ‘Mature’ states define their maturity in relation in their right to monopolise superior instruments of violence – and seek to deny it to their ‘immature’ neighbours, if necessary by force. ‘Mature’ governments define ‘rogue’ elements by beating them up (as in Myanmor today).

At least so we have all learnt from Aristotle (and Lateran IV) onwards …

I’m no expert on Hollywood. I did watch the first 20 minutes of Sin City recently – but found it boring (stylish but boring) not because of the violence (the week before it was Pulp Fiction) but because of that lack of empathy – the lack of familial or any relationships between the characters. I probably should have stuck with it longer. Maybe what is really being reforged here is not the tragedy of violence per se, but the social framework in which we have been taught to locate it. So the catharsis is of a different kind, aimed at a different audience, with a different, less medieval and literally less familiar social ethic? I feel I am floundering. Does this make any sense? Can MOR help here?

Anonymous said...

Quite an obscure example, but My Summer Of Love has some possibly cathartic violence in it. It's not exactly a violent film, and there's nothing beautiful about the violence, but that just makes it more moving. Also the violence is between people who clearly love each other, and it arguably helps to restore balance, getting things back to normal.

Eileen Joy said...

Isn't this part of the semester a bitch and a half? I start a thread and then I can't back to it because I'm so overwhelmed with teaching/grading, dept. meetings, and the like. Ugh!

First, yes, Dan, I think it *might* be a religious question: this "question of catharsis," in the same way that ethics [which is connected to catharsis on some level] might ultimately be a religious question [despite all the hard work of some philosophers, like Zygmunt Bauman or Owen Flanagan, to make ethics pre-foundational or pragmatic or pre-ontological]. And I suppose that, to ask how violence might always be "religious" on some level would also bring us to Rene Gerard's "Violence and the Sacred"?

Or, perhaps, catharsis is closer to mysticism, as you indicate, without being a fully "religious" experience [meaning it has something to do with being *outside* one's body, or believing one is, and not in a way that has to have anything to do with Christian tropes/states of "being"/becoming]. But along these lines and also vis-a-vis your comments on certain types of violence always, maybe, being reinscribed in the language of Christianity [which is clearly problematic for those of us who reject Christianity, or at least reject the versions most often deployed by the most morally corrupt and politically despotic advocates], I find that I am also wrestling a bit now, following on the heels with what I wrote here initially, of how self-sameness and identification operate in most conventional descriptions of catharsis, following Aristotle and often using the classical tragedians and Shakespeare as its primary cultural touchstones.

While I love some of the commentary on the "Poetics" by Joe Sachs, which I referenced in my original post, I ultimately recoil a little bit from the idea that the ultimate point of catharsis is to "see myself" in the person who is suffering and therefore to understand that when any one "unit"/person who can be invoked under the term "humanity" has been harmed or is suffering, we are all harmed and are suffering [i.e., catharsis is always about deepening our experience of our collective "humanity"]. So, even though Oedipus is a mighty [and let's face it, fictional/mythic] king, ultimately he's "just a man," and I can put myself in his place, and that sort of thing. How, in place of this, might we redefine catharis--again, returning to Aristotle, but by that "Other" path of wonder at things "strange"--as something that happens when, through the power of art [which could be human or inhuman] we are moved out of ourselves toward, not a recognition that the Other is suffering "like-us," but that the Other is simply *there*/present and demanding our attention, our regard, perhaps our pity, perhaps our love, or perhaps just . . . regard [in the French sense of the word, especially as deployed by, say, Sartre in "Being and Nothingness"]. Anyway, this is just something I'm trying to figure out.

srj--this is really weird, but Fisher's recent review of "Hamlet" is exactly how a friend of mine explained to me this summer *she* teaches "Hamlet," after I was complaining to her that I don't like to teach "Hamlet" because I ultimately just don't care one way or another about Hamlet, and why should my students? Indeed, Fisher's idea that, "when the play reaches its bloody end, it is not Hamlet we mourn but a whole generation denied its potential," provides a pretty cool opening for how to begin to see how this play could be really relevant to our [younger] students.

Further, srj, your comments that,

"the key to tragedy is the role of Violence (and the justification of violence) not as a glittering, beautiful quasi-chivalric display which we have forgotten, but as part of the emotional bond between generations and perhaps the primary way in which social hierarchies between parents and their children are traditionally maintained in modern societies built on medieval mores,"

really strikes me as something we should think about further. Precisely *because* of your comment, in class yesterday I decided to devote the whole discussion to the idea of revenge and its relation to family bonds and ideas of "honor" that attach to family hierarchies. It was a great discussion, so thanks! But don't ask me to offer any distilled wisdom from this class yet: it's still percolating through my brain. But we ended up talking about the "South Park" episode, "Scott Tenorman Must Die," as well as about the Philomena/Procne myth, "The Sopranos," "Titus" [of course], "honor" killings, fairy tales that involve parents being violently cruel to children, and a news-show series I watched a few years ago that was devoted to the subject of capital punishment, specifically in relation to what the "families" of murder victims often "want" from the justice system [but never feel they "get" even after the execution and the repeated statements of remorse on the part of the "offender"]. In any case, thanks for helping me to have a "fresh" class.

And now I have to also check out "My Summer of Love."

Is it possible, too, that catharsis for "we moderns" has become more narrowly minimalized, more personal, tied in somehow to our more intimate foibles and hurts, our more therapeutic age? I can tell you that the movies that, more recently, have just broken me apart into pieces, included just those types of films, such as "We Don't Live Here Anymore," "House of Sand and Fog," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Little Children," just to name some more recent examples. But then, at the same time, certain films that bear *no* resemblance to my private world, such as "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Magdalene Sisters" and "Breaking the Waves" and "Farewell, My Concubine" just about killed me, too--in the sense that I truly believe I underwent some kind of cathartic experience [at least, I *think* so].