April 29, 2007

The Genealogy of Amorality


Now that enough time has passed since the Virginia Tech shootings—long enough anyway, for most people to start forgetting about it—let’s consider something.

      Following an incident like this, people are shocked—more than shocked, really; they’re dismayed, they simple cannot comprehend that there are other people in the world who would look upon figures like Cho Seung Hui or Columbine’s Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris with a certain degree of admiration and respect. That these murderers, these unbalanced destroyers of innocent lives—would be embraced as heroes is simply beyond most people. Moreover, those of us who do think in such a way are not just considered strange or different, but sick, insane, and quite possibly dangerous in our own right. But you know, unbelievable as it may seem, there are a lot of us out there.

      It’s a very primal anti-authoritarian impulse. We need our anti-heroes. And that drive is hardly something new. It’s not a symptom of video game culture, violent movies, or the disintegration of the American family. It’s always been with us, and always will be. In fact, considering history, this fascination is much less common and much more taboo nowadays than it used to be.

      Personally, I got over my own youthful obsession with serial killers and the like some time back, but I can still certainly understand and appreciate where that fascination comes from.

      In the case of Cho Seung-Hui, for instance, those tapes and pictures he sent to NBC were a stroke of marketing genius. The pundits can describe how “incoherent” and “rambling” those videos are until they’re blue in the face—but they make perfect sense to me, and they make perfect sense to the people I discussed them with. And the pictures he shot posing with guns and a hammer are already becoming iconic—fodder for t-shirts and album covers for years to come.

      If you think I’m sick, insane or dangerous for saying such a thing, let’s back up a bit. Some 2,500 years or more. Some of the greatest heroes of legend and literature did the same thing those kids at Columbine and Virginia Tech did, but to this day we perceive them in a very different way.

      Take the case of Odysseus. In The Odyssey he wanders around for twenty years after pissing off the gods. And when he finally returns home, what does he find? A houseful of suitors making the moves on his wife. Now, were these guys really doing anything wrong? It had been twenty years, for godsakes! They were all assuming—and logically so—that Odysseus was dead. Well, he wasn’t. But instead of merely explaining the situation and kindly asking them to leave, he slaughtered the lot of them.

      In the Old Testament, how many people does Samson kill? And why? Because he was going all Rodney King, and they were just trying to hold him until he calmed down. Yet who’s the villain in that story? The chick who gave him a haircut.

      Both of those characters are considered “heroes”!

      And then there’s Satan. Granted, Satan isn’t considered a hero by most, but he does remain perhaps our first and greatest literary antihero. Whether he’s in the Bible, or Paradise Lost, or The Divine Comedy, or Faust, Satan remains—face it—a charismatic, compelling character. Much more so than God in most instances, who usually comes off like an old fuddy-duddy.

      We’ve always embraced our antiheroes, real or imagined, no matter what they’ve done.

      In more recent times, consider the gunslingers of the late 19th century, or the gangsters of the 1920s (both real and imagined). They robbed banks and shot people, but the James Brothers, Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde were folk heroes in their day. Early gangster films like Scarface and Little Caesar were released with disclaimers stating that these people were monsters who should never be lionized. Why were the disclaimers necessary? Because without something telling audiences how they’re supposed to react to these characters, they’d be cheering for them. They were charismatic, they had fun, and they did what they wanted.

      (Most audiences and filmmakers were smart enough to see through the disclaimers anyway.)

      I think the late ‘60s through the 1970s was the last era that saw real antiheroes coming out of Hollywood. It was the last time filmgoers were encouraged to root for killers and the deranged—a response, I’m guessing, which arose from the prevailing mood in the country at the time.

      Martin Sheen’s take on Charlie Starkweather in Badlands was certainly sympathetic, as were the Corleones, and Bonnie and Clyde. Audiences fell in love with Butch and Sundance, and even though Travis Bickle wasn’t supposed to be a heroic figure, millions of people saw themselves in him. Still do.

      During the Reagan years, a funny thing happened. There was some kind of cultural purge going on, and the heroes were suddenly becoming cops and Rambo and Chuck Norris. They still killed plenty of people—but only Bad People.

      So in response, a generation that was growing up without proper antiheroes turned to the slasher films. Suddenly characters who weren’t supposed to be anything more than despicable and terrifying—Freddy Kreuger, Jason, Michael Meyers from the Halloween series—were being cheered on by millions of people. Audiences weren’t mourning the innocent teenage victims on the screen—they were rooting for the killers to rip open a few more.

      And that mentality didn’t go away, no matter how much the Powers That Be tried to program it out of us. If you think it was just stoned, dissolute teenagers who were rooting for the killers in these films, consider the popularity of Hannibal Lecter.

      It’s sort of a Nietzschean Genealogy, if you think about it. The more they try to take it away from us, the more we’ll seek it out—and believe you me, the sources will become much more disturbing.

      In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, it was Morgan who first pointed out that these days the movies, television, everything has been all but scrubbed clean of major antiheroic figures, (Even Archie Bunker, if you think about it, could never get on TV nowadays.) As a result, we’re forced to turn to the world itself. Now, the serial killer business is one thing, but if you have some pathetic geek enunciating his anger and alienation, his rage at the rich kids or the jocks or the bullies before going out and killing a bunch of folks, he’ll find himself speaking directly to millions of other pathetic geeks out there. And what’s more, he’ll be living out the fantasies that millions of youngsters (like I was) toy with every day. Hell, there’s a reason why Columbine spawned (at least) four feature films and a couple video games.

      The simple point being this: You can try to clean up the media, you can try and protect kids from the bad influences and disturbing ideas, you can try as you might to make everything nice and clean and shiny and happy and Right—but we’ll still find the darkness. And if we have to find it in some real nutcase with a gun instead of some fictional characters in a book or on the screen, well then, so be it.

      Here’s my prediction, in fact. Consider the number of things over the past fifteen years that have taken place within a week of April 20th (Hitler’s birthday, by the way)—Virginia Tech, Columbine, Oklahoma City and Waco. Some of the nation’s most memorable tragedies, all in the same week.

      While the day may never come when we finally accept the darkness in our hearts, I still think that within fifty years, April 20th will be made a national holiday. “Slaughter Day,” they could call it, maybe.

      And won’t that be a time? Imagine the picnics!


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