I was driving from Indiana PA to Erie one night not a few weeks ago, my mind enmeshed in rapid succession of thoughts. It was dark outside, and I noticed little except for fleeting, flickering glimpses of surreal roadside images, ambiguous shadow outlines in the night, as my car coasted across 422, and then across 1-79, headed north. My CD player has been broken for months, so I was flipping through the channels, trying to settle on a song even vaguely satisfying, a melody that didn’t wink out into a barrage of static thirty seconds after I found it. Reliable radio stations are difficult to come by in some parts of Western Pennsylvania.
It’s funny, when you flip through radio stations and find something you’re not expecting. I am relatively quick to pass by country stations, and I’m not much a fan of Christian music. Recently I stumbled on an in-depth discussion of St. Augustine as an early precursor to Christian Existentialism, and I thought, wow, this is really interesting. And don’t even get me started on “Nights with Alice Cooper,” which is, quite possibly, the best classic rock show on the radio. It usually comes on as I drive by Meadville, about 45 minutes outside of Erie, and I love hearing Alice’s sort of deep, speculative, rock n’ roller voice comment on bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream before he picks a favorite track to play.
But the night I’m talking about – the night when, as has been the case lately, my mind wouldn’t stop racing – and the night when I was driving in a navy-black vortex, a sort of disruptive void between Indiana and Erie speckled with the intermittent headlights of other cars, I heard an interview on the radio. And the interviewee was a woman charged with interviewing and psychologically evaluating death row inmates, with the goal of reversing their death sentence and replacing it with a different punishment. The interviewee was a survivor of abuse who made the pointed argument that death row inmates, however flawed and troubled they might be, are not “monsters.” “Yes,” she answered in response to one of the interviewer’s questions, “I very much think that death row inmates have souls.”
What I’m certainly not here to do is argue too meticulously about whether or not any one person has a soul, a movement which would be too problematic for a variety of reasons. But what consistently fascinates me, especially as I study the so-called monster, is how we conceive of the monster – who is the monster? – and how we react to the so-called monstrosity. Death Row inmates, I think, are an important example when we explore this question. I in no way contend that death row inmates – a group too broad and diverse to make many generalizations about – are monsters, but they are often regarded as such by society. They are regarded, in other words, as abysmal and abject. Death Row inmates might be seen by some people as these sorts of scum-of-the-earth killing machines who don’t merit our understanding. And of course, that is the assumption the woman on the radio was trying to debunk. To her, if we can interview the “monster” to see what he or she had been through, how he or she became the person who committed a horrific crime, we can understand the killer. If we don’t have empathy for the killer – which might be a tall order, for some who consider the issue – we can at least regard the death row inmate as “human,” – a sort of catch-all category in contemporary society for a being who is worthy of respect and dignity.
As I will reiterate, though, I don’t think there exists a considerable amount of empathy for death row inmates among the population, and this raises a lot of questions about what it means to empathize with something we may deem “evil,” – what the consequences are, be they good or bad, of such empathy. What’s more, what are the consequences of not just a lack of empathy, but the contention that death row inmates are “soul-less” or inhuman, that from the standpoint of inter-subjectivity (treating people as subjective individuals) the death row inmates are not subjects, but (thus, by default) objects who we’ve conceptually stripped of their humanity because of their crimes? And then, why don’t we do that for fictional signifiers of evil, cultural icons like “the devil” that have been depicted various ways throughout time and space. The devil, after all, is often delicious, seductive, subversive, in contemporary imaginings.
In fact, in thinking about the interview that I heard on that fateful, sort of jet-black drive with bright flashing lights that I took a week or two ago, the rather iconic Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” came to mind. It occurred to me that I didn’t know the entirety of the song’s lyrics, only the lines “Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste.” So of course I googled the lyrics, and read them, and it occurred to me that the Rolling Stones didn’t seem to suggest that we should have any sympathy for the devil – at least, not as he’s constructed in their song. The devil is, to the Rolling Stones, an ancient entity with infinite privilege and no conscience or conscientiousness. He has an acute awareness of the insidiousness of his acts – at least, as I read the song – but he doesn’t much care, and in fact he takes pride in the chaos he provokes. Each stanza of the song is split between the devil talking about how classy and tasteful he is, and the devil bragging about the horrific world events he’s been a part of. He is unapologetic arrogance with no scintilla of remorse – at least, according to The Rolling Stones. Ironically, this seductive, grandiose demonic entity keeps telling us – as if he knows, for sure – that “what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.” Except, “the nature” of his “game” isn’t puzzling at all in this song. Like the culturally iconic Joker who I’ve written about on this blog, the devil is the sort of person who gets his kicks out of “watching the world burn.” Unlike the Joker, the stones song would suggest that he’s far more refined, far more aesthetically and affectively appealing.
What is problematic, then, is the sort of paradox that derives from juxtaposing two versions of the monstrous. The monstrous, in regard to human beings who commit evil acts, become something of the “abject,” worthy, in cultural eyes, of dehumanization and debasement. Conversely, our embodiment of pure evil – while it can take the forms of bodily invasion, exorcism, or historical figures like Adolf Hitler – is often dazzling, attractive, and charismatic – in Sympathy for the Devil, The Devil’s Advocate, Paradise Lost, and probably myriad other examples. It seems, oddly enough, that society often deems monstrosity as evil, but I wonder if society really deems that which is regarded as “pure evil” as monstrous. One might argue that it does not. The decision, I think, depends on how evil “pure evil,” really is. The argument could be made that our society has little place for images and symbols that represent “pure” evil—at least, when we look at how alleged symbols of pure evil are constructed in media or discursive practices.
In any case, we glorify and glamorize so-called “pure evil,” or the demonic (at least, when we’re not fearing it) and we make monsters out of human beings who have done bad things. There is the sense, as I write this, that the tendency – one that a Western metaphysical vantage point tends to support – stems from a subversive mindset that is exhausted by dogma and typical conceptions of the “good” even as our cultural narrative tells us to reach it, to strive, each day, to be a better human being, in some genuinely important ways but also in ways that may be tiring and unhelpful. If we start with the premise that, at least until recently (perhaps until the 20th century, or even post-modernity) Western culture – at least much of it – was clinging on to overtly moralistic, borderline ascetic narratives (and perhaps this happens still, today), then it makes sense that we paint evil in a hyperbolically scintillating light, because it becomes the proverbial red button, that which we cannot push, and therefore, that which we covet the most. As Batman’s Joker suggests, there is little glamour in embodying culture’s ontological construction of evil, but we construct attractive cultural symbols of evil because the idea of being “bad,” becomes attractive when we’re told we can’t do it. As Rhianna says, “I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it.” Bad is so bad, but it’s also so good – so, so good, and so desirable. Herein lies what Jacques Derrida would call “differance” I think – evil is at once that which is abject, filthy, immoral, and perhaps inhuman – a sort of negation of humanity (at least in the eyes of culture). Evil is, on the other hand, highly appealing and, at the same time, the embodiment of what culture sometimes idealizes in the so-called human – a “man of wealth and taste” with energy and vivacity. Perhaps this “differance” reflects our ambivalence with a necessarily difficult category – a sort of cultural construct that we may have created ourselves, and that we no longer know what to do with.
To that end, it’s no surprise that I have trouble, as a literature student, responding to highly unsympathetic characters. One might say that highly Western-ized categories like “good” and “evil” are themselves limiting. After all, there may be much inherent danger in labeling someone, anyone, as the embodiment of evil. At the very least, I think it’s safe to conclude that when we’re dealing with “the monster,” a cultural being who disrupts cultural categories and who’s treated as something subversive and inhuman, one of the most dangerous habits we can fall into is the habit of justified dehumanization. It is dangerous enough to use the signifier “human” to describe things, for doing so always yields consequences to those who are not placed in that category. And it seems the ultimate act of hubris to claim that someone, anyone, any monster, demon, or the like, isn’t human, simply because we feel we’re in a position to make that call. This line of inquiry is interesting, I think, in the context of horror – a genre that takes varied and multitudinous approaches to depicting the so-called “bad guy.” But it’s also vitally important when considering how to exist with other people on this earth: who have we, as an individual, as a culture, turned into a monster? How do we regard that so-called “monster,” and what the ramifications of this decision? Points to ponder, indeed.