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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, August 24, 2013


I read USES [OF ENCHANTMENT] many years ago and thought it was a fair premise, albeit marked by a certain utilitarianism. While I would never deny that readers may internalize the subject matter of fiction so as to give the subject some personally-proactive theme, it's certainly not the principal quality of fiction, nor do I think most readers, children or adults, are thinking to themselves, even unconsciously, "How can I 'use' this?" Much of the charm of fiction, be it 'fantastic' or 'realistic,' resides in the way those elements most similar to everyday experience can be inverted, transvalued, or reinterpreted in assorted ways.-- me, BETTLEHEIM, BETTELHEIM, BETTELHEIM!

Mark Millar's remarks about rape, superficial though they were, stirred up what amounted to a pretty small hornet's nest, given that the swarm already seems to be settling down, to judge from the one or two comics news-sites I visit. 

Regarding Millar's original remarks, the only thing I had to add is that while he was correct to say that the act of rape could be used in fiction simply to denote "badness," he was incorrect to say that the act had no difference from (to use his example) a bad guy's decapitating a victim.  Various online critics, such as the one I cited in Part One, attacked Millar for not privileging the use of rape to connote the need for social and cultural reform.  This misses the point as to the universal-- i.e., non-political-- ways in which sex and violence overlap and yet remain distinct.  My own view, not reducible to pure utilitarian terms yet not irrelevant to those concerns, was expressed in the essays entitled VIOLENCE *AIN'T* NUTHIN' BUT SEX MISSPELLED:

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other, though in rare cases fighters may simply spar with no intent of proving thymotic superiority.
I want to make clear, too, that my objections to a utilitarian reading of violence are not confined to the arguments of those who don't like violence in certain contexts.  My quotation re: Bettleheim  shows that I'm equally opposed to the views of an author who saw violence in a positive light, because he too professed a narrow utilitarianism that overlooked the broader context of fiction: 

Much of the charm of fiction, be it 'fantastic' or 'realistic,' resides in the way those elements most similar to everyday experience can be inverted, transvalued, or reinterpreted in assorted ways.

The battle of these two equally utilitarian viewpoints is highlighted in THE BEAT's new cause celebre, two posts-- one closed to comments, one designed to exclude them from the first-- on the subject of Avatar Comics' use of torture-porn comic book covers.

Here's the first, in which author Heidi McDonald vents her spleen against Avatar for marketing "torture porn."  From her opening remarks she's apparently not the first to do so, but her politicized views are made clear at the conclusion of what is a pretty civil thread overall, replete with many thoughtful remarks about the nature of the horror genre:

...I’ll leave you with this: why does so much “horror” involve sadistic misogyny against women? And are you okay with that?

I've already refuted similar McDonald views here, so I'll confine myself to mentioning that she never responds to one poster's claim that Avatar tortures quite a few male characters as well.  Heidi then offers a summation of the controversy on her newsblog and elsewhere, with a pertinent link to an essay by Warren Ellis.

Ellis' defense of violent stories frames its argument in equally utilitarian principles, not unlike Bruno Bettelheim's defense of violent fairy tales. 

The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence. My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.

I don't disagree that violence in fiction CAN be used for this "conversation on violence."  My objection is that Ellis-- and the book editor he quotes-- are extending this potential use of violence further than it deserves to be extended.  Basically, Ellis simply attempts to turn the "desensitization" view of violence on its head: instead of making readers/viewers less sensitive to violence, violent fiction makes them more empathetic.

The truth is that violence can have either effect, and that the effect on the audience can be totally at odds with respect to the intent of the author.   In the terminology of Hume, the only "is" one can state with certainty is that most if not all human cultures are fascinated with fictional violence.  To impose any "ought" upon it, as Ellis does above, is mere wishful thinking, as is his claim toward the essay's conclusion that "fiction is how we both study and de-fang our monsters."  Camille Paglia is more forthright in this famous quote from SEXUAL PERSONAE, which grounds human behavior as a ongoing struggle between a fantasy principle and a reality principle:

We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.

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