How Safe Is It To Watch A Cautionary Tale?

If the characters are not wicked, the book is. Thus spake GK Chesterton in All Things Considered. Often enough, the quote is a little mangled. I grew up hearing it thus: A story without wicked characters is a wicked story. Granting for the moment that the quote is true, let us admit that the maxim is subject to the law of diminishing returns. If a story without wicked characters is a wicked story, it is not conversely true that the story with the wickedest characters is the least wicked story. The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom should not be treated as a guide to right moral action.

On occasion, I hear Christians justify this or that lurid movie on the grounds that licentiousness or vice is condemned in the story, and that in order to condemn a vicious man that man must be believably vicious. Trainspotting is a film which condemns heroin use. Leaving Las Vegas shows drunkenness to condemn it. The extent of the graphic evisceration of the wicked in Rambo is commensurate to their wickedness. Are the persons in Dante’s Inferno not believable sinners inasmuch as they are believably grotesque? The greatest law of storytelling, “Show, don’t tell,” should be applied to sin. Don’t tell the audience the characters are evil, show their evil and let the audience be repulsed by the ugliness of evil.

I would submit there is a point at which the depiction of evil crescendos and everything after that point begins devouring whatever progress might have been made in revealing the ugliness of evil. At a certain volume, sound becomes noise. Conversely, when the lights are dimmed too much, the ambiance of an elegant dinner party becomes confusing and embarrassing darkness. When too much attention is lavished on evil, evil takes on the appearance of an object, not a corruption of an object.

Who can say what anthropologists a thousand years from now will make of prescription drug warning labels of the early 21st century? When I had cable television, I often wondered how drugs a billion dollars in-the-making turned a profit given the cautions given to potential customers in their advertisements. Taking ADHD drug Atomexetine “may lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors, depression, agitation, panic attacks and aggressiveness, especially when the dose is adjusted.” Accutane gives clear skin, but also might cause “depression, psychosis and, rarely, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, suicide, and aggressive and/or violent behaviors.” The birth control pill Yaz admonishes users to:

CONTACT YOUR DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY if you experience a missed menstrual period; breast lump or discharge; calf or leg pain, swelling, or tenderness; change in amount of urine produced; chest pain or heaviness; confusion; coughing up blood; fainting; irregular heartbeat; left-sided jaw, neck, shoulder, or arm pain; mental or mood changes (such as depression); numbness of an arm or leg; one-sided weakness; persistent, severe, or recurring headache or dizziness; severe stomach pain or tenderness; slurred speech; sudden severe vomiting; sudden shortness of breath; symptoms of liver problems (such as yellowing of the skin or eyes, fever, dark urine, pale stools, loss of appetite); unusual or severe vaginal bleeding; or vision changes (such as sudden vision loss, double vision).

I have yet to see an advertisement for an antidepressant which does not warn of an increased possibility of suicide for those who take it, though more than ten percent of Americans over the age of 12 take an antidepressant. Even if half of those taking antidepressants had suicidal ideations before starting the drug, there’s still an astounding number of people who are told, “There’s a chance this drug may make you want to kill yourself” and respond, simply, “I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen to me.” Yaz is still sold, and apparently still profitable, even after manufacturer Bayer paid out nearly half a billion dollars to around two thousand users of the pill in a class action lawsuit in 2012.

All of this to say, human beings have an odd and very complex relationships with cautionary labels, and perhaps they have odd and very complex relationships with cautionary tales, as well. I’ll hazard a guess that the more extreme the potential side effect, the less likely the warning will deter customers. How many Yaz users who were unfazed by the possibility of “sudden severe vomiting” regularly turn down a cup of coffee after seven in the evening because “it might keep me up”?

The apparent logic of the cautionary tale is that the more awful the effects of the sin, so much the less the audience will be tempted by those sins. However, as the storyteller affords more and more time to reveal what is tempting and apparently reasonable about the vice, by the time the tables are turned and the vice bites back, several realizations will have likely occurred in the mind of the viewer. First, the character whose vice is being investigated has made several mistakes in their pursuit of vice which the viewer now knows how to avoid. Second, the character who suffers the repercussions of vice is likely an example from the far end of a spectrum, and the viewer will have begun to wonder if some of the pleasure of the vice can be enjoyed if he simply does not go to such extremes. “Sudden severe vomiting” just sounds like something which happens to someone else.

But these are really secondary objections. We live in an age when personal experience trumps philosophical claim, and so anyone who claims “abortion is evil” or “feminism is destructive” or “creationists are weird” or “Lutherans drink quite a bit” in a room of more than ten people will invariably hear, in return, “I used to think [this or that abstract concept] was evil, and then I met someone who believed [this or that abstract concept] and let me tell you, it all seems very different once you get to know one.”Whether or not it is good that “it all seems very different once you get to know one,” the fact remains that an interior, sympathetic knowledge of anyone grants sympathy for that person, and no one is easily disconnected from the things they do, even if those things are evil. Film allows for just such an interior knowledge. If you watch a movie about GI Joe trying to defeat Cobra and, in some one- off moment, a character inadvertently touches a hot stove and burns his hands and nothing is made of the matter for the rest of the run time, I suspect exactly nobody would be tempted to go home and put their hand on a hot stove. However, if someone were to watch a two hour drama called Burn about a sad man who periodically burns his hand on a hot stove to remind himself he is alive— and in the course of the film discovers an entire discreet society of persons who do likewise, write literature about placing their hands on hot stoves, grade degrees of burns and wonder about some day doing a level nine— whether or not the main character’s wife left him and he killed himself in the end, I imagine at least a few people would leave the theater and regard the range a little differently after they walked in the door.

What matters is seeing, gazing.

Sight is often regarded as the king of the senses given the preeminent place of light within Christian metaphors for God. The Son is “true light of true light,” not “true sound of true sound,” and light is appropriate to the eyes. Sight is unique among the five senses in that the eyes can perceive from a great distance like hearing and smelling; unlike hearing and smelling, sight requires direct orientation toward the thing (although you can hear and smell things behind you). Taste requires direct orientation (you always eat a thing which is in front of you), but taste cannot grant knowledge of things which are far away. Similarly, touch requires proximity, but is not limited to direct orientation, as it is possible to feel something behind you. Only sight spans distance and requires direct orientation. Sight is our standard for truth. Sight grants us the ultimate boon of God’s life (the beatific vision, not the beatific sound). Sight is the theological sense of a human being. St. Augustine taught that love was movement towards  thing, and so sight is also the sense which most closely mimics love. We orient ourselves toward that which we love and travel a great distance to be near the beloved.

For these reasons, to gaze on an image is to orient the self toward that thing in a posture of love, no matter how repugnant or absurd the image. We do not return to awful smells just for kicks, neither do we return to terrible sounds or disgusting tastes or uncomfortable contortions of the body for pleasure, but human beings have a habit of looking at things which cause them pain, and then returning to look at them over and over again. In The Confessions, St. Augustine tells the story of a friend who could not be persuaded to go to the theater and watch animals tear criminals apart, and yet one day his friends shamed him into going to a show, but the man sat with his back toward the gore, protesting and refusing to look. When the audience suddenly gasped in excitement, the man nearly instinctively looked over his shoulder at what it was. He left the theater later that day overwhelmed and sadly returned many times after this. I think it fair to assume that what he saw when he looked was no less gruesome than what he imagined. It was all as bad as he thought it would be, though this matter little because he looked. The image is seductive, no matter the words beneath the image which attempt to explain away the appeal.

You saw Trainspotting. You didn’t become a heroin addict. And neither did I and neither did most people who saw the film. And you saw Unfaithful and didn’t cheat on your wife and you saw American Psycho and didn’t start listening to Chris de Burgh. Neither did I. However, Christ’s teaching that the man who hates his brother in his heart is already guilty of murder suggests that Christianity values the moral weight of fantasy in a way few other religions do. Secularists of our day have made fantasizing about manifestly awful things (rape, murder) into a virtue, on the other hand. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. While Trainspotting didn’t convince me to try heroin, it certainly opened me up to the sway of Dionysian things in a way few other films have. This is often the effect of the lurid image, the ostentatious evil, the long and patient look inside the life of a vicious man.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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