Take that, William T. Vollmann!

Movie critic tries to delve into psychology of violent spectacle, doesn’t get very far. It seems to me that there may be a confusion of aesthetic and moral response here. Super-realistic violence is always going to be more fundamentally revolting than Kill Bill-esque carnage, but that doesn’t mean that the reaction is the fruit of some articulate moral principle. Holocaust art is probably where this divergence is most evident–the violence is by its nature atrocious, but people generally feel that the very portrayal of it is just as innately moral. But the issue arises from the fact that extremely realistic violence doesn’t always nor in everyone induce the sort of generalized aversion that it does in pacifist movie critics. If we were to divide this sort of artistic production according to what sort of effect it tends to elicit, it might break down something like this: 1. Realistic violence which induces both aesthetic and ethical recoil 2. “Stylized” violence which is so unrealistic that it may be exciting but at heart doesn’t evoke real violence 3. Realistic violence presented in a rather blasé fashion (i.e. movies with Bruce Willis in them) 4. Realistic violence which tends to provoke the crusading spirit–Revenge! Justice! This might at first appear to correspond to an order of acceptability, with #1 having the benevolent effect of discouraging violence, all the way down to #4 which dangerously stirs people up. This is, however, questionable as a universal. The heroic aspect of violence after all, as facile as it may appear to our jaded culture, should not however be underestimated. I can’t believe that, even in the case of Holocaust art, provoking complete disgust and abhorrence of violence is desirable any more than I can believe the slogan I saw in a park in London, near a statue of Winston Churchill no less, that said: “There has never been a good war or a bad peace.” Well, actually it might be true descriptively, but not proscriptively because, as Edward Gibbon recognized, “peace cannot be honourable or secure, if the sovereign betrays a pusillanimous aversion to war” (emphasis mine), and the point could be generalized. The idea is that pacifism, paradoxically, does not even lead to non-violence, because it removes the restraints on the violent–bearing in mind, of course, that this truth can always be over-extended. Nevertheless, if the Holocaust and the related disasters of the war had only inspired a loathing of violence and a resolution not to engage in it, we would still be living in their thrall.

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