Monday, January 27, 2014

The Philosophy of Writing: Violence and the Grotesque

Last week was a very sexy conversation. I made 4 cents off of it from ad revenue, which makes me a whore, I think. Anyways, I promised that this week we could discuss the use of violence in literature. Far be it from me to deny you!

There, I think, are two types of violence that may be employed in narrative. The first is traumatic violence, which is informed by survivor narratives such as holocaust literature and trauma literature. The emphasis on this sort of graphic violence is meant to viscerally enforce the the psychological and emotional trauma that underlies the experiences. All of us have seen Schindler's List.(If you haven't, you ought to.) My impression from the film gives me reason to believe that the directorial process on the part of Steven Spielgberg was very literary, in that he used particular imagery to enhance the travesties of the Holocaust. In writing, we use tropes and themes to bring attention to particular moments of the story, specifically the ones we desire to be remembered. So it's not surprising that the girl in the red dress featured in the film, first alive, then as a corpse being carried out to be burned in a funeral pyre, is a particularly visceral and explicitly violent image. As a spotlight it is vile, yet tasteful and informative.

There are many other examples of trauma violence in literature, perhaps too many to document. My familiarity of trauma narratives as being explicitly violent is limited to my experiences with genocide memoir, specifically the Holocaust, Rwanda, and futuristic allegorical descriptions of South African apartheid (I'm referring to Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians). Therefore I will leave you with that to think on.

The second category, perhaps the type of violence the general readership is more aware of, is what I would designate as grotesque violence. From Voltaire's Candide to Johnathan Swift's A Modest Proposal to Matt Stone and Trey Parker's television program South Park, grotesque violence is employed usually to enhance absurdity, to mock the precedent of society. In Voltaire's work, the horrible acts of violence perpetrated against CunĂ©gonde are passed off satirically to lampoon certain errant theological presuppositions of the the age, namely righteous suffering. South Park errs on crass, but a few moments in the show's history stands out as satire par excellence. The first one that comes to mind is from Whale Whores,an episode which brings to light the barbaric and largely criticized whaling industry still ongoing in Japan. It features the wholesale slaughter of dozens of dolphins on screen, rendered viscerally to mimic the actual images of dolphin slaughter that occurs habitually every year. (Much of this imagery was pulled from the documentary film The Cove.) What is "funny" about this is how the violence is employed to show the absurdity of the violence being perpetrated. The height of the humor isn't fully realized until the conclusion of the episode, when the Japanese storm a farm in the Midwest and kill dozens of chickens and cows. As the violence reaches it's crescendo, Randy, Stan's father, turns to his son and remarks that now the Japanese are "normal, like us."  

Each of these branches of violence, as always, are to be used tactfully. How one transgresses these types of depictions varies. Clearly, because of the objectives for this style of narrative, these tropes  are featured only in a few genres.

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