Saturday, November 21, 2009

Treasures of Darkness: Part I


Blackbird fly
into the light of the dark black night.
~ The Beatles

I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places.
~Isaiah 45:3

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 CandymanThis 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.


  1. I am eager to read your next post and want to save my comments until then.

  2. I was shocked at how at-first horrified I was to be watching the UFC fights with my friends last night and then-second kind of interested in it. Who pays to watch that kind of stuff? But man! There was a crowd. Dunno. I'm horrified and entertained at the same time.

  3. Hi Polli,

    What an amazing essay. I give you an A!

    I'm not sure that I agree with all of Clive's statements (as a matter of fact, I'm sure that I don't) but appreciate so much that you are asking the questions.

    Dualism and lack thereof are interesting concepts, and you are right, it is almost impossible to have very many "deep thoughts" or shallow thoughts for that matter, without it sneaking in there. But, I am aware that even the Buddhists (maybe not Zen) deal in dualism. They definitely speak about what is skillful and what is unskillful.

    I wonder if we must live in dualism at this stage of our development. Knowing what side we are on gives us some stability, some grounding. We know which direction in which to go. I think that only very highly developed beings could be truly non-dualistic.

    I, too, am able to see things from the other point of view, though it has been an acquired practice. It didn't come to me naturally. I remember experiencing it very deeply with the divisions that I felt going on around the last presidential election and in some ways that has just gotten worse. But, I was able to understand the fear that the "other" side was feeling if their side didn't win. But, still, I had chosen a side and I worked actively to help that side win.

    I was over at Barefoot Toward the Light today (do you go there? You would love Barbara, I think) and she had this piece of writing from John O'Donohue:

    The most profound statement that can be made about something is the statement that 'it is.' The word is is the most magical word. It is a short, inconsequential little word and does not even sound special. Yet the word is is the greatest hymn to the 'thereness' of things. We are so thoroughly entangled in the web of the world that we are blind to the unfolding world being there before us. Our sleep of unknowing is often disturbed by suffering. Abruptly we awaken to the devastating realization that the givenness of things is utterly tenuous. Even mountains hang on strings. The 'isness' of things is miraculous: that there is something rather than nothing."

    I see you standing in the is-ness of this world. It is all tangled up. It is all tenuous. And it is all a miracle.



  4. Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful, philosophical and well-written post. I also tend toward the perpetual ponderer end of the spectrum but over the years have taught (spurred) myself to take positions. I still am careful not to do so until I feel I at least have a handle on the sides of the argument, and I try to keep an open mind as new sides and facts are presented. However, one can ponder so much as to never have an opinion about anything, and I don't think that is pragmatic, since how can we better society if we do not choose a path to solve problems.

    On the issue of violence, I first came across the argument about "letting out our native violence" through play when trying to decide if my young son should be allowed to play with guns. I strongly thought not, but he made guns out of everything he could find for about a year, from sticks to eating out the shape of a gun in his sandwich(!). He is now almost 23, and though he played a fair share of competitive sports in his growing-up years, he is as peaceful and non-combative a person (well, make that male) as I know. He is very much a peace-maker, get along, try to understand all sides kind of person. So, maybe there is something to that argument. (I know, anecdotal evidence, but seems meaningful.)

    I also have thought about the incongruity of pro-lifers/death penalty advocates and pro-choice/anti-death penalty; anti-war advocates. Yes, there are some inconsistencies. Since I fall mostly in the latter group, I can say with clarity that while yes, abortion is a violent act and one never to be entered into lightly, a fetus also ( in my mind) is not yet a person. It is a potential person. It does not have the same rights as a fully formed, viable human being. This is how I make my distinctions. I do see that others do not make the same definition of fetus as I do and so I respect their opinion on that. But that does not mean they are free to make me choose their definition.

    I also disagree with the Barker theory if he is saying that seeing evil is the only way to know goodness. As an ethicist, I don't think we need to see everything bad to know what is right and good. Does this come from God or a god? That, I cannot say.

    Again, thank you for your thought-provoking essay. I look forward to reading more!

  5. One way to make some sense of the apparent paradox in the anti-gun/pro-choice and pro-gun/anti-abortion (they cannot call themselves pro-life if they're pro war, can they?) positions is to see that pacifists on the left tend towards the nurturing parent model; folks on the right tends to favor the authoritarian father parenting model.

  6. You know, there's a scene in one "Simpsons" episode where Bart and Lisa are at a scary, gory movie. Lisa is covering her eyes. Bart says to her, "You know, if you don't watch the violence, you'll never become desensitized to it."

    I think there's value in contemplating violence too. Better than sticking your head underground like they once thought ostriches did. All the same, I'm kind of glad (ten years ex post facto) that Mom prohibited me from watching "Jurassic Park" until I was of age. After reading this post I immediately looked up "Candyman" and I think I must've looked up the wrong one, because THAT ending doesn't seem redemptive at all.

    So there's a term for this concept, is there? Keat's concept of Negative Capability? I'd always thought the idea was unnamed (yet nonetheless extant).

    That's the heart of the matter, right there, as you pointed out: "learning to walk the line between unconditional openness and the setting and maintaining of useful boundaries."

    As an atheist, I often get drawn into debates with my Christian friends. They leave these discussions unoffended and even cheerful, because I walk that line. I stick to my beliefs, maintain my boundaries, but I make it clear to them, given enough evidence, I'd be open-minded enough to change my views. I'm not a militant. I think they find that refreshing. You have a rare gift, madam. The ability to walk this line between stone walls and being so open-minded that your brains fall out (as Richard Dawkins says) is something deplorably few people in this world have.

    Amazing post. Excellent and stimulating ideas presented here quite clearly. I like the quotes, too.

  7. Thank you for all of your thoughtful comments. Before I begin answering them individually, I have to say that this post series is challenging me in ways that go beyond my blogging life. I'm finding inner resistance I didn't even know was there. I guess because I'm tapping into something that's at the core of me and exposing it publicly. Which is absolutely wonderful and also deeply difficult. I hope you'll all bear with me as I continue in this vein with my next post - and my next.

    Kate - I've never watched UFC fights, but it fits right in to that catharsis category, I'm guessing. I hadn't even though about "actual" violence as differentiated from fictional violence when I wrote this, but even though we don't burn witches anymore, we do still have UFC, and even America's Funniest Home Videos.

    Rebecca - You make an excellent point about the grounding aspect of picking a side. You have to stand somewhere.

    Another brilliant interlacing - I just yesterday visited Barefoot Toward the Light for the first time and read that quote before you posted it here. As you'll see in Part III of this discussion, that quote is significant for another reason as well.

    Dreamfarm Girl - Thanks for visiting! I appreciate you sharing your views, and the thought processes you've gone through to get to them. They make sense to me.

    The story about your son is interesting, too, and makes me want to delve into gender differences in this topic - but I just can't go there! I've already got too much material that I'm having to spread out over three posts.

    That story also confirms to me (anecdotal as it might be) that it's not so much what we let our kids play with or be exposed to as it is what we transmit to them through our way of living with them.

    Dan - That's a very interesting insight. I'd never thought of it that way, but it makes a heck of a lot of sense.

    Postman - Well, the very last scene of Candyman is not so redemptive, but the climax is.

    I love that Dawkins quote; I hadn't heard it before. It reminds me of a (violent, incidentally) drawing a friend of mine did once of a head with an axe slicing through it. The caption was "Open Your Mind."

    The Beatles quote came about because I was driving and thinking about this discussion when a cover of that song came on the radio, and it just seemed perfect.

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  9. I have been considering this post now for several days and taken some time to think about viewing violence and its therapeutic value. At first I thought, well I cannot consider my own self because I NEVER watch violence without a "cause". This isn't true...I've STOPPED and reached deep and what has happened is my awareness of violence in media (fiction/non-fiction) has escalated tremendously.

    It seems from the "innocent" kabonk on the head to all out war fictionally speaking we are watching a form of violence almost all the time. As I was considering movies such as The Little Mermaid for example I hadn't pieced this together, but IT IS THERE...

    As an adult the only movie I can recall recently that had violence without purpose was the Pirates of the Carribean series and I LOVE THE HUMOR, so...does it somehow give me something I NEED??? Does it lead me to light to expose myself to dark???

    I watch other movies that are violent, but almost always it is "based" on a true story, or has a purpose of awareness of the real end of violence. I had to watch Slum Dog Millionaire through my fingers...depiction in such realistic forms is hard for me.

    What I know is that seeing violence in terms such as Slum Dog or Schindler's List...etc. give me a feeling of compassion. The most profound impact I have had from media is Hotel Rwanda and the documentary: As We Forgive about the Rwanda reconciliation since the genocide. Is this somehow fulfilling a need I have?

    It truly baffles me that the human species exterminates itself. That actually seems insane.


    I suppose it is hard for me to separate real violence and violence as entertainment internally as I discuss it. As I function in life however I seem to be able to watch it and not even be aware, OH, THAT FAIRY TALE IS VIOLENT. hmmmmm

    I would like to also say that I appreciate the work you are doing within yourself and this is an excellent post and discussion. I have experienced SERIOUS resistance since beginning to write publicly and have even recently thought I may need to stop blogging altogether. Is this somehow our resistance to finding light within a dark place? I wonder...

  10. Oh, Jennifer, I sincerely hope you don't stop blogging! Your presence in the blogosphere enriches my life.

    It's interesting that you say watching violence can lead you to compassion, because that's the direction I'll be going with this, if I can ever get my next post edited to my satisfaction.

  11. Again...about the blogging I feel that the side of me that considers stopping is the side that is resisting. I am definitely NOT giving into it, but the writing and the dealing with it all is tough stuff and has given me a DEEP respect for writers in every arena and on every level.

    Looking forward to this next post.

  12. I guess I'm going to have to watch it then, to know for sure. The only horror movie I've ever really liked (for the premise, the concept, the out-and-out horror of it) was John Carpenter's "The Thing." Let's see if "Candyman" can break that record.

    Who did a cover of "Blackbird"?? Though you're right, that was both serendipitous and fitting.

  13. It was the lovely Sarah MacLachlan. A great cover.

    Let me know what you think of Candyman.

  14. Hi Pollinatrix,

    I wondered if perhaps I should have begun my reading here instead of Part II but it is often the way I do (begin where I am).

    My first thoughts are that we cannot parse human violent acts into good, bad, acceptable and unacceptable. Our acts of violence teach, encourage and justify violent acts; but they do not commit them.

    It is human to form a basis, establish a conclusion; to take a position (whether right or wrong). It is within each of us to form an opinion, even an opinion on violence. The unborn child, the holocaust victim, the victim of genocide and the driveby victim all have their life stolen by another. What is Choice when it means another decides whether I live or die?

    Truth taken to an extreme will result in error. The man who brandishes a weapon at a political gathering proclaiming, "his right to bear arms", is no different than the thug who would pull a gun on me.

    Are violent tendencies in humanity dissuaded by violent entertainment? Does comedy hinder a person from laughing? Do romantic movies disable my capacity to be loving?

    I believe it is within each of us to commit terrible acts of violence, just as we have the capacity to do good towards others. Each of us chooses how we will live our lives, what are my core values and beliefs and how I view others in my society.

    A hundred and fifty years ago, many in this country would see me and form an opinion that I was less than human; a philosophy which enabled violence against people of color in this country.

    When I think about violence, I always reflect to how it affected me. I can tell you it is personal.


  15. U - I deeply appreciate you sharing all of these thoughtful responses. Thank you for your insights.



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