into the light of the dark black night.
~ The Beatles
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places.
My new friend Rebecca recently posted here about her experience with viewing media violence and realizing that it can be debilitating for her. A rather intense discussion ensued in which I admitted that I think violence is built in to human nature and that we may have a need for the kind of catharsis that watching violence can provide. We used to throw people to the lions or attend lynchings or witch burnings, but now we witness violence through movies and TV.
As I confess these thoughts, I feel now, as I did when I said them on Rebecca's blog, diffident and almost ashamed. In the spiritual circles that I primarily move, both in my church life and in the blogosphere, there is a definite emphasis on non-violence and pacifism. It's interesting that Christians, as portrayed more often than not in the media, are associated with the extreme right and pro-war, but in liberal churches, which tend to be much quieter and therefore less visible than fundamentalist ones, there is often an equally extreme pacifism. This puts them closer in some ways to Buddhism than to other branches of Christianity.
It's interesting to me that those who are anti-war also tend to be pro-choice, as abortion is undeniably a violent act. Equally interesting is that those who are pro-life tend to be anti-environment: It's not ok to end the life of a fetus but it's ok to end the life of the planet. What I see in this is that inconsistency is a human trait, and extreme positions tend to create hypocrisy. This is why I'm skeptical of extremes and "isms," whether they take the form of fundamentalism or pacifism or judgmentalism. And for me, being "anti" something is not the way to make good things happen.
I seem to have been born with a natural tendency to see more than one side of an issue. Any time there's a lot of alarmist hype about something, I'm automatically interested in hearing what the other side has to say. You may say I'm a devil's advocate, but it's not just for the sake of being ornery. As I've mentioned before on my blog, I try to live by the poet Keats' concept of Negative Capability: "The ability to rest in mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason." One aspect of this is to resist "dividing things up and taking sides," as author Tom Robbins once put it.
But the fact is, most things are divided up, because that's what we humans tend to do. Dualistic thinking is so pervasive it's almost impossible to imagine life without it. Many ancient cultures were not like this. However, dualistic thinking is a mode that once introduced cannot be undone. You can't unscramble the egg. But what you can do is contemplate images and concepts of the whole egg, as it is in perfection, in its "virgin" state, in its entire process from conception to being eaten, in the results and effects of this process.
My point is that I find value in contemplating violence. When things are divided up I need to look at as many sides as I can and balance them, try not to be attached to one way, in order to get back to that place of mystery. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker, who is known primarily as a "horror" writer, says: "Look at what you should not look at. A feeling of anxiety is the sure and certain evidence that you should do this."
One of my favorite movies is Barker's Candyman. This movie definitely falls into the horror genre, replete with gore and terror, but there is intelligence and substance to the story. The ending is actually quite redemptive and moving; my ex-husband and I both cried when we saw it in the theater.
The character of the Candyman, whose existence is the subject of an urban legend, is fascinating in his blend of human and mythical qualities, a common construction in Barker's work. At one point Candyman says, "I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing." He sees his role as essential to the people who have created him by believing in him: "What do the good know except what the bad teach them by their excesses?" While I don't completely agree with the rigid logic of this, I do find it a worthy question to explore, which is one of the many reasons I appreciate this movie.
And yet, Candyman is one of the few horror movies I've ever seen. I tend to avoid them because I resonate deeply with Rebecca's statement about being debilitated by watching certain things. There is a need for discernment.
I feel that my whole life, from adolescence on, has been a project in learning to walk the line between unconditional openness and the setting and maintaining of useful boundaries. There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I tried to stay completely open to anything that crossed my path. While many interesting experiences occurred this way, the overall effect was that I scared myself silly, ultimately to the point of near-paralysis.
So I'm not going to go picking up hitchhikers at night on the dark side of town, as I once did. But I will still look as deeply into violence and other dark things as I can without debilitating myself, and ask difficult questions. I will be exploring these questions and issues further in my next post.