From Darkness to Light, on violence, change, and being bionic

22 08 2012

How do we experience violence? When we write, how do our characters experience violence. I must admit, until recently I gave that subject only token thought. I think I was guilty of “ghost intellectualism,” and by that I mean that I constantly heard the low level boil in the main-stream media second-string social commentary shows. Once a month or so some psychology prof from Rutgers, a preacher, and a spokes-model from EA games would sit down in three different studios (this is not a set-up for a joke) while the show’s host ramrods his/her agenda right through them. Well maybe it was a set-up for a joke. What I’m getting at is simply this: there is a constant blathering rumble about what violence in “The Media” does to our culture, kids, pets etc. and I slowly became desensitized to (discussions of) violence (in the media). Now how’s that for futuristic problems.

My stories run the gamut subject-wise, therefore the presence of violence is not at all  certain. I have stories where n’er a hand is raised in anger, but I also have written tales that are quite red in tooth and claw. It is the latter stories that I want to think about, because I believe that I have been cheating some of my characters. When Mr. Barium gets his ass turned into pulp for trying to hide the secret, Mr. Barium’s next morning shouldn’t be easily confused with a hangover. Getting beaten, tortured, these are things that can quite literally fracture the personality of the victim, and if we ignore such consequences we risk cheapening our storytelling. Violence has consequences. Don’t ignore them.

Obviously i have this perspective because of my own experience with violence and torture. It has been a long road back and some way it is a Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox in that you can never, ever truly arrive. And that is the point I want to make: beat up your characters all you want, but remember that to do so is to kill the original character.

I wondered about reactions to violence in a culture where violence is an every-day if not ubiquitous circumstance. I happen to have a fairly substantial medieval history library and I am hard pressed to find a more violent time and place than late 14th century Italy. It is also a time and place that are well documented (Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the letters of Petrarch, and of course Dante). Though nine out of ten medieval books are nothing more than king kissing, more recent scholarship has tended to seek out the commonplace and if you are careful and thorough, the day to day can be found in primary sources. (The Monk of Saint Denis spends about a thousand words on who was at King Charles’ tournament and what they were wearing, then spends three lines about how a peasant was beaten to death for winning a game of dice with a knight, and then another thousand words about God’s judgement on the vanity of villains (peasant’s in this context). So how did people surrounded by violence, infused with it, react in their day to day lives? Poorly. Late 14th century social behavior reads like a check list for post traumatic stress disorder. Never was humanity so inhumane. The average person, in between ablutions to The Father, Son and Holy Ghost is generally engaging in a life that the DSM would define as psychopathic. Then there are the legion examples of the truly monstrous.

Violence matters. Whether it happens to a cuddly little Eloi or a brute-necked Morlock, human beings react to violence, and it doesn’t matter if you spend the next six months watching endless sessions of The Bourne Franchise, the day you find yourself with someones boot on your throat and your future becomes measured in minutes the person that was you is no more.

post script

A friend read through this for me just to give me pointers and he mentioned the Vikings as a culture of violence that did not seem to suffer adverse effects if judged by their own moral criteria as opposed to a Christian world view. I will not debate this as I lack the tools for an informed commentary. The Vikings were pre-literate (runes aside) and frankly did not have the existential drive to self-reflection. But if Tim Robbin’s Eric the Viking is accurate, as I am certain it is, then they didn’t feel good about what they were doing. Thanks T

The Science of Fiction

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