Monday, November 25, 2013

The Disturbing Aesthetic Draw of Inner Demons

"The writer is the engineer of the human soul."
--Joseph Stalin

When I was in High School, I was among a fairly large crowd of students for whom Lord of the Flies was the crown of literature. "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, for the darkness of man's heart..." For the emotionally smoldering adolescent with the embers of a newly kindling intellect, Golding simultaneously captured the evil we saw in the world, the dark side of the supposedly good people in our lives--often the ones we had just discovered weren't as saintly as we had been taught to believe--and, most importantly, our own inner demons. There was good, as we'd been shown in childhood, but our own darker desires, a new mix of sexual and violent instincts, had seemed like a tabboo subject, not to be broached with parents, teachers, or any other adult. Or friend, for that matter. Here was everyone pretending to be good and perfect, but they weren't. I wasn't. "No one understands me," is so universal a sentiment it's become an cliche. In my own teenage years, the irony of such generic uniqueness was lost on me.

Of course, teenage hormone-induced angst is not the same as the good and evil duality of human nature, but for many of us who grew up in good neighborhoods, it was our first glimpse at this idea, and it coincides (perhaps for reasons beyond chance?) with a genre of art that made us feel that someone really did see the world through the same lens as we did.

As I grew older, more literature spoke out in the same way. Macbeth: "Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires." From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both." And, getting older still, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being..." This artistic expression isn't limited to literature either: it creeps into painting, to tattoos, graffiti, even fashion. Movies like the infamous, black-humored "Full Metal Jacket" illustrate the point in a more major form of media.

Possibly even more powerfully for young people, it comes through in music: "In the land of the killers, a sinner's mind is a sanctum" (Eminem).

Indeed, what we know of human psychology, primarily through the eerie experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, support this intuition. People are good... but good people can and do turn evil in strange and terrifyingly predictable ways. Perhaps we aren't even really good, just a convoluted mix of good and evil, or just good and bad instincts that lead to outcomes we divide into good an evil. In any case, the voice of science has spoken, and there are no angels. Or demons.

But there is an aesthetic question that is unanswered by psychology: why the fascination? What draws us to art that dwells upon this fact about ourselves and holds us there, in ways our tendencies to love, to hate, and to err don't quite manage? This very fascination has a kind of meta-draw in itself, as brilliantly illustrated by Tool in a song I can't help but feel incredibly attached to: (lyrics)

In saying all of this, I am breaking one of my own cardinal rules of discussion by singing along with the lyrics: you all feel the same, don't lie.

As is fitting to the tone of the art itself, there is a danger of opportunistic thinking in our dwelling on these dark expressions of human nature so tenaciously, with results that can be very consequential in the world outside of mere aesthetic appreciation. I think that part of the grip of these dark works is their taboo nature, like the dirty secret of everyone you ever knew, and yourself, all in one statement. But that simply begs the follow-up question of why that is so incredibly interesting, and the answer, I think, belies the larger attraction of art like Tool's "Vicarious," and also its hidden danger: it says that not only are those previously idolized role models for proper living not so great, but also that such aspirations may be impossible. The most gripping works almost seem to sneak the thought into your mind for you that perhaps... well, maybe it's a good thing? Well, no of course not, that's horrible. Oh wow, look at the news, there's a body...

It cannot be helped--the entertaining fascination with death feeds on the inaction of the forces of good.

Not terribly long ago, people used to look at idealistic, noble heroes as their role models. If one was religiously or mythically inclined, the selection was obvious and straightforward; Jesus, perhaps, or king Arthur and the knights of Camelot. If not, or perhaps in addition, there were a variety of others to choose from, depending on one's values: Kant, Mill, Socrates, Trotsky, Currie, Darwin, and countless others. The stories of chivalry, honor, of living by a code and striving to do right were the stuff of children's stories and bred principled and moral individuals with enough regularity to shape the culture of the generation. When the cutting and cynical perception of not just human weakness, but the corruptibility of even the greatest among us became de rigueur, the bar was set quite a bit lower for personal standards than it was for previous generation. And it's so easy; it's a get-out-of-moral-responsibility-free card that can be waived in the face of even the most righteous and humble agitator for public virtue. Our hypocrite-alarms are like spinning radars, ready to swivel round and level our gorgon gaze at anyone who appears to make us look ethically lazy by comparison. They drive us not only to be critics by incentive, but also by extension to be conformists by threat.

The best, the worst, part: it's all true. We really are fallen angels with the capacity buried within us to do great acts of compassion as well as horrific evil and violence.

Does this immediately turn us into self-conceited sociopaths? Obviously not, but in my observation, this mindset makes little things like littering a bit easier, and stills our uneasy conscious about not donating money to things we might actually care about. The ratcheting of this pattern, as data inevitably brings these trends to light, could become a self-feeding cycle of cynicism and moral apathy. Universalizing works in both ways after all; just as the old "what if everybody did that?" question can be used to convince people not to throw that empty pop can out the window, it would hardly seem worth the effort to not litter if everyone actually was doing that. If solving the problems of the world rely on people's voluntary efforts, there's a danger of failure, however slight and mild, built into these paintings and novels and songs. It's so evil, and it feels so good!

Can this all come about by art? Yes, of course it can. An end of the world scenario of nihilistic zombies caused by an exceptional haiku is, indeed "unlikely," but it's worth remembering that a novel created the FDA, and a movie launched the KKK into a position of enormous political power and influence for decades. Think about the effect that the Bible, what amounts to a collection of mythological stories, has had on human history. As Robin Williams said in his nearly anachronistic role as poetry teacher, "no matter what people tell you, word and ideas can change the world."

Fortunately it is possible to appreciate the works of Golding and Shakespeare, and even the research of Zimbardo and Milgram, without letting it lower our bar for higher moral aspirations. We can sing along with Tool without letting the uncomfortable knowledge of our fascination with death and suffering prevent us from actively working to fight against it, even if it sometimes feels like we're the only ones. The fallibility, or fall-ability in the catholic-myth tradition, of human nature need not be a justification to stay on the ground when we fall. But this way of thinking, upon which the rate of our civilization's advancement rests, takes awareness and conscious effort. The art of inner demons sells well because it speaks to an inner truth about us that we aren't really used to hearing and tempts us with an offer of evening out the social ladder by morally tearing down everybody else, instead of doing the hard work of actually climbing it by living a life of principle and honor (there's a word you don't hear very often).

Ultimately, the failures of other people and the corruptibility of the soul are not a valid reason for apathy in important matters, and a wonderfully paradoxical justification is that we're imperfect. The impossibility of sainthood, to anyone or anything, is a kind of freedom to live the life we want to live. Close examination of this question, when we really look at what makes us feel happy, and not just secure, points to the idealist life in pursuit of truth, beauty, justice, and virtue that the music of the angsty and adolescent split human spirit draws us away from. One could say the aesthetic of outward-looking but self-focused idealism is the opposite of the inward-looking and projecting art of cynicism. It is proactive self-reliance instead of reactive denigration. Conscious decision in the dualism of art, in other words, is the answer to our internalized disquiet on the dualism of man.

"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude ."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

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