Violence, Give Me Violence
“Violence isn’t always evil. What’s evil is the infatuation with violence.”
– Jim Morrison
Violence is part of human nature, from conquering nations in the name of ideas, to the way animals are slaughtered for food, to the instinctual response to a perceived threat or retort to jealousy. Violence permeates the landscapes from literature to film to music but there was a point where art dealing with this part of the human condition served a purpose. Violence now, seems only to exist for it’s own sake. Entertainment. Is it entertaining? Of course it is, there isn’t much better than watching Rick Grimes blow the head off a zombie, or a black man get curb stomped in Malcolm X, is there?
At the end of it all, Jim Morrison was right, and what seems to be the issue here is that violence for the sake of it is rife and deftly irritating. I’m not talking about the skill it takes to orchestrate an effective violent scene (V for Vendetta, The Lord Of The Rings) but that violence is any sort of entertainment is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself. Iago is famously the personification of jealousy, it’s his love for Desdemona that brings out the first usage of “the green eyed monster”, but it’s Othello that’s driven to perform the ultimate act of violence. The Moor attacks and kills his love out of a response to Iago’s meddling. Shakespeare uses this violence as a means to an end, in conjunction with Iago’s earlier tactics. Desdemona’s death is the result and it is also the means to fatally discredit the Moor.
Death and destruction serving a purpose isn’t confined to Shakespeare. It’s all across the literary landscape. Dante’s Divine Comedy uses some of the most horrific scenes of violence in any form of literature. The nine circles of hell are full of cruel and unusual punishments that involve sinners suffering rains of fire or being buried upside down with their feet set alight. The Schismatics are slashed by demons, the Flatters plunged into excrement, and the Heretics are forever punished in tombs of flame. Dante, with Virgil as his guide, walks through the horrors, each one a means to a final message: commit sin and be confined to your punishment for eternity.
Throughout the centuries we have depended on violence in our tales and our arts to steer us away from the dark sides of humanity. In theatre, in books and even since the dawn of film, violence has been a warning of the different, the strange, the ungodly. For as long as it has existed in art, it has been important and now, as the world seems to erupt into ever greater orgies of violence, it seems pointless. Utterly pointless. Generally speaking there seems to be no literary or cultural value left in violence. It has become a culture itself, a culture of bloodied porno’s, zombie films, far too many Resident Evil films and summer blockbusters with no premise other than to blow up sets.
We relish it, of course we do. Violence is delicious, devious, primal, the sadists and the masochists will agree with me. The pretty girls with their make-up and violent sexual fantasies. Who doesn’t like to be bitten, scratched, pinned down? The guys with their for show muscles that revel in the sexual submission, keen, eager, drooling to dominate for all their worth. Violence is about power, power in relationships and increasingly, power play in the televised world. Nils Bjurman violently rapes Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, why? Because he can. Salander has been declared mentally incompetent by the state and Bjurman, as her guardian and manager of her funds, holds the power and attempts to strip Salander of the last she possesses.
Larsson’s use of rape in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of the most effective uses of violence for a literary purpose in a long time. There are of course an abundance of violent novels, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Harris have both made a living off it. But their uses of violence are among the many that use it to entertain. Hannibal is terrifying, but Hannibal isn’t literary, he isn’t the symbols of Animal Farm, McCarthy’s nameless man and boy characters in The Road experience the truly horrific side of human nature, but they too are no Tell Tale Heart.
Violence will never lose its joy and its ability to shock. But it is increasingly losing its literary value, as long as its sole purpose is to entertain, then it will continue to become irrelevant in our culture. Instead, its culture will continue to grow and it will prosper. We’ll lose something that has been an important part of the human condition and examining the human condition all to the name of cheap entertainment.