The aesthetics of cruelty.

We tend to associate art with beauty, although there are in fact many compelling works (Picasso's Guernica being a random example that springs to mind) that are anything but beautiful.  But what about the association of aesthetics and cruelty?  


I read recently about food customs in France throughout the ages; and in the medieval period the upper classes used to take the aesthetics of food preparation to extraordinary, if not repellent, levels.  For example, an obsession about eating food freshly cooked developed, to the extent that in Avignon, geese were sometimes cooked alive.  This was accomplished by placing them in specially constructed ovens with their heads sticking out, so that during the cooking process they could be fed and given water.  The idea was to make the time of death and the time of being perfectly cooked coincide as closely as possible.  

Such a story is of course revolting: but there is also, I think, something darkly amusing about it.  But now try a slightly different, and even more sinister one.  Many years ago now, I read an article about a professional torturer: it was based around an interview with him.  He rather shrugged off the suffering he caused with a "just doing a job" sort of defence, which is not to say he did not have any sympathy with his victims.  He said that, in extremis, as the torment became unbearable, the people he tortured all cried out for their mothers; and yet "they all died, slowly, slowly".  This story has stayed with me for a long time now, but it is hard to unravel the response it evokes.  Of course, there is a chill of horror associated with it, as one imagines being in that situation.  But there is something else too; a sense of revelation.  From such scenes of horror, we learn something about the "human condition", and there is indeed something profoundly moving about the primitive cry to the absent mother that harks back to studies on attachment behaviour that I have already referred to elsewhere.  We are all made one by suffering, it seems to suggest; and while this is largely by diminution (defecating yourself with fear in front of a maniac with red hot torture instruments is not a revelation of the common nobility of humans) there is nevertheless something noble too.

For we have a complex picture: the torturer, proud of his "art"; the dreadful image of the man reduced to the child, and the endless sympathy this evokes in us.  There is indeed beauty here, in the dreadful interplay between these.  In some obscure way, I find something comforting here as well, although I am not sure what: I suspect that it is that in such a situation, we cannot but help feel a sense of empathy and indeed community with the victim.  No matter who that person was - even your worst enemy, or even a torturer himself - in ultimate suffering that person is revealed as "one of us", crying out for his mother into the coming dark. But - is it not also true, if we are honest, that there is some hint of dark attraction about the intense cruelty of the torturer too - that there is really an aesthetic of the cruelty?  To be in a situation where every taboo about the value of human is being broken, and by you, is there not some sort of dreadful dark joy involved in such a thing?  Of course, it was Nietzsche - who else?  - who investigated this in the Genealogy of Morals; claiming that watching others being tortured - or better still, doing it yourself - is an ancient celebratory act, an expression of the will to power, and he points to the "entertainments" that people had:

    "In any case, it's not so long ago that people wouldn't think of an aristocratic wedding and folk festival in the grandest style without executions, tortures, or something like an auto-da-fé [burning at the stake], and similarly no noble household lacked creatures on whom people could vent their malice and cruel taunts without a second thought".  

And he goes on to say: 

   "Watching suffering is good for people, making someone suffer is even better - that is a harsh principle, but an old, powerful, and human, all-too-human major principle, which, by the way, even the apes might perhaps agree with. For people say that, in thinking up bizarre cruelties, the apes already anticipate a great many human actions and are, as it were, an "audition." Without cruelty there is no celebration: that's what the oldest and longest era of human history teaches us -and with punishment, too, there is so much celebration! -".

Any account of humans and what drives them must, I think, take into account something like this.  Which will not be without further implications.

Postat av: johannes jäger

A short essay, as profound as it is beautifully written. This will linger: in ultimate suffering that person is revealed as "one of us", crying out for his mother into the coming dark.
thank you beda

2008-01-15 @ 00:40:33
Postat av: Jäger

"Provided certain physical conditions are equal and a certain physical burden shared, so long as an equal physical stress is savored and an identical intoxication overtakes all alike, then differences of individual sensibility are restricted by countless factors to an absolute minimum. If, in addition, the introspective element is removed almost completely - then one is safe in asserting that what I had witnessed was no individual illusion, but one fragment of a well-defined group vision. My 'poetic intuition' did not become a personal privilege until later, when I used words to recall and reconstruct that vision; my eyes, in their meeting with the blue sky, had penetrated to the essential pathos of the doer.
And in that swaying blue sky that, like a fierce bird of prey with wings outstretched, alternately swept down and soared upwards to infinity, I perceived the true nature of what I had long referred to as 'tragic'.[...]" Mishima, Sun and Steel (Tokyo 2003, originally published in 1970). Translated from the Japanese by John Bester.

2008-01-15 @ 00:51:21

Kommentera inlägget här:

Kom ihåg mig?

E-postadress: (publiceras ej)



RSS 2.0