Thursday, January 15, 2015

On beautiful violence

When people ask me why I'm sitting in on an upper-level art history class called "Art and Violence" this semester, I generally don't say "Because I'm still trying to resolve an argument that's been bugging me since grad school." It's much easier to say something vague like "The topic interests me"; anything close to the truth requires a quick trip back to a time when a grad-school professor put a book on the syllabus without having first read it himself.

I'm not entirely sure why he did that. He was a brand-new professor teaching his first graduate-level course and a senior faculty member in his department strongly urged him to put this book on the syllabus so he may have thought he had no choice, but for whatever reason, there the book sat like a bomb timed to go off in the fourth or fifth week of the semester.

The week before the book was due, the professor made a sheepish announcement: he hadn't read the book before; he'd assigned it under duress; he apologized in advance if anyone found it offensive and he wouldn't penalize students for failing to finish the book since he (the professor!) hadn't made it past page 57.

Of the 12 or 15 students in the class, how many admitted to having read the whole book? Two. The rest pronounced it offensive and appalling and horrific and proudly proclaimed that they couldn't possibly read past page 57.

The book was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Page 57 is where you'll find the dead-baby bush--an admittedly gruesome scene in a book full of gruesome scenes.

The class had an impassioned discussion of the ethics of making violence beautiful, and I found myself in the awkward position of defending a book that the professor had declared unreadable. I admitted that the violence was gruesome but argued that it served a larger purpose in McCarthy's exploration of the human condition, but it's really hard to make an argument about a book when only one other person in the room has read it all the way through. 

I've re-read the book several times since then and I still find it compelling (and beautiful!) despite the ugly behavior it describes, but I've never assigned it to an undergraduate classroom. I've assigned other books containing equally disturbing scenes, like Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Jose Saramago's Blindness, and I would have no qualms about assigning McCarthy's novel The Road.

But not the movie. The movie gave me nightmares. In fact, I resist watching films portraying violence because they disturb my sleep and distress my soul--even when equally disturbing written portrayals of violence don't make me bat an eye.

I realize that there's something wrong with that attitude. If I have no ethical qualms about literature that makes beauty from violence, why do I shy away from visual portrayals of violence? If violence in literature can serve a larger purpose, why won't I allow violence in visual art to do the same thing? If I'm not horrified by the written description of the dead-baby bush, why would I refuse to watch it on film?

These are the topics I'd like to explore this semester, and I welcome the opportunity to do it in the company of people who know a whole lot more about art than I do. I want to learn things and think deeply about an interesting topic, and I hope it will enrich my teaching on those occasions when I introduce students to violent texts.

Like this morning, when my honors students begin discussing The Odyssey. Skewer those suitors, Odysseus! (Just don't ask me to watch the carnage on screen.)

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