Re. Darkness, Part 1: in which your emo phase might not have been as dumb as you thought
About a week ago I finished re-reading Watchmen, which, if you don’t know, is an epic (I mean to use that word more or less literally) graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, published in the late ’80s but still maintaining pivotal influence over its medium today. The back cover of my edition displays a somewhat fanatical quote from Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, who hails the novel as “the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” Well, okay. I’d like to see Lindelof’s defense of that particular statement; I bet it would be amusing. Hyperbole aside, however, I would have to grant that Watchmen is definitely a great — as in big, bold, important — piece of so-called “popular fiction,” even if it’s not, um, the greatest. When I read it the first time four or five years ago, I was definitely impressed, and now having read it again I’m frankly bowled over by the virtuosity of both its art and its storytelling. As someone who has always been captivated by the combination of images and words, I find the novel to be kind of like a giant piece of cheesecake.
An attraction to darkness
Watchmen’s popularity, virtuosity aside, is a little puzzling in view of the relentless nihilism underpinning its story. Although it is essentially a superhero story, it is also essentially the opposite of a superhero story in that it refuses to be in any way escapist, at least as far as its plot is concerned. Despite their impressive skills, gadgets and abilities, the heroes of the story find themselves powerless against evils that are too faceless and pervasive for them to fight. So if the novel is a luscious piece of cheesecake in many ways, this is cheesecake that has been, like, soaked in whiskey or something. Even as the stuff of it is sweet and creamy and pleasing (I mean damn, every single spread does wonders with color…), the whole is suffused with bitterness.
And yet I, like, really like it. Not in spite of its dark themes, by the way; in many ways because of them. And apparently lots of other people have really liked it too. So why is that? Are we all just victims of a sort of philosophical masochism? Do we actually just think the world is gonna burn and thereby find a kindred spirit in Moore’s bleakness?
Well, kiiiiinda. That might be part of it. But I think it’s more complex than cynicism and masochism. My love for Watchmen (along with my love for Stephen King, Black Mirror and mumbly depressed dreampop, among other things) exemplifies a certain aspect of my pop-culture taste that I am fairly certain I share with thousands if not millions of others. There are entire genres of art built on anger, scariness, confusion and melancholy that isn’t redeemed or solved (I’ll lump all that stuff under the term “darkness” from here on out). And some of these genres and movements are immensely popular, not just fringey postmodern experiments. It all seems to suggest that many people, myself included, have a weird attraction to that darkness: an inclination to spend time in it for its own sake, not just as a means of cathartically solving their own icky feels.
This attraction is obviously puzzling, and for a Christian such as myself it appears downright problematic, perfectly backwards. The traditional moral philosophy of Christianity holds that we humans are attracted to goodness, essentially. If we find something attractive it is because we see some sort of goodness in it. Now whether that goodness is really there, or if it something that will be good for us in particular, right here right now, or if it is really the greatest good in relation to other choices available to us — those are all different questions.
So in view of this, it’s strange that horror movies, war coverage, or even mopey breakup songs are as popular as they are. What is attractive, that is to say good, about murderous psychos or shelled-out buildings or another person’s heartbreak? I would venture three reasons, non-exclusive, frequently cohabiting to some degree or other, that weave in and out of the attraction to darkness and apply to some of its instances but not others. First would be a big scary word, familiar to the aforementioned Christian philosophy but not heard much of anywhere else: concupiscence. Second would be mystery. Third would be the cross, as in the Jesus one. For now, I’m just going to look at the first of these reasons.
There are no bad people, there’s only bad taste
Depending on your outlook, concupiscence is either the simplest and most obvious answer to our question, or the most improbable and perplexing. It depends on whether you believe in evil or not. Word on the street is that a lot of people nowadays don’t, because apparently said lot of people don’t believe in objective truth, so then how can they believe in objective good, and then of course how can they believe in objective evil? If you think you might be one of those people, you probably won’t like my writing all that much. JSYK. But maybe we can still get along — in fact I’d kind of like to hear your scoop on the matter. Mmmhrrmm anyway…
Right. Concupiscence. This word essentially means that all humans are at least a little messed up, and so as a consequence our tastes and attractions are at least a little messed up as well. I’ll just jump right into it here and give bestiality as an extreme example. I think most of us can agree that, if you’re into that, something is wrong with you. But Christian moral theology won’t grant us the luxury of looking down our noses at the animal fetishist or the pedophile — we’re all messed up, often in ways too sneaky and commonplace to earn themselves a page in the DSM-V. Which, if anything, makes them more insidious.
For a somewhat more realistic example, let’s say I fantasize about the humiliating downfall of those more successful than myself because of a subtle but pernicious sense of my own inadequacy. And I may excuse myself because I “don’t actually hurt anyone;” I don’t realize these fantasies. But I keep rolling them around in my head anyway, because I find it feels good to imagine the tables turning like that, and then that black knot of hatred starts to seep out and taint my actions in a hundred tiny ways. Eventually I find myself resentful and bitter and alienated, wondering what the hell happened. It’s important to note that this mess started with a desire for my own self-actualization, which is good, but then I got the screwed-up idea that the failure of others will somehow bring that about, which then causes me to find the idea of their failure attractive. So while I am ultimately still attracted to a good thing, that attraction has gone through a sort of acid bath and become toxic. 99% of the time, sin is the result of this warped perception of what’s good, this concupiscence.
So. Now for application to the topic at hand! Take this uber-depressing example of Say Anything’s flaming emo glory, if you feel you can stomach a vulgar and nihilistic portrait of modern life at the moment (and if you don’t, skip it — you’ll be fine). Even if that song is oh-so-2006 and a hell of a downer, I’ve always liked it, and I would not consider it or any of Say Anything’s oeuvre to necessarily be a “guilty pleasure.” Necessarily. Contrary to mainstream hipster belief, there are still some good reasons to be had for listening to early-aughts emo. Contrary to most everybody’s belief, however, wallowing in crippling pessimism isn’t one of them. It’s highly likely that at times I might want to listen to Max Bemis’s salty tirade simply because it echoes my own epic sense of futility at the moment. “Grrr, this song tells it like it is, hashtag lifesuxx,” I may say to myself and morosely crack open the lone hard cider that’s sitting in the back of the fridge because I’m too absent-minded and poor to maintain a stash of liquor.
In such a moment, that would be concupiscence talking. Concupiscence leads me to wallow in a lousy worldview because I have the mistaken impression that it is “truth,” that I’m “just being realistic.” That and, obviously, it’s gratifying to feel sorry for myself. And in that case, well, my attraction to the darkness is an instance of bad taste, essentially, and therefore bad for me. When the “darkness” leads us to self-pity, anger, despair and the like, we’re misusing it.
There are other uses, however, other ways in which our attraction to darkness is not a bad thing. Concupiscence may be the cause of it some of the time, even a lot of the time, but to always eschew horror flicks or emo music or slam poetry for that reason would be to throw many babies out with the bathwater. But anyway…this is taking a lot longer than I initially expected, so stay tuned for part 2, in which I hope to demonstrate the theological significance of a throwaway line in Donnie Darko. Among other things. We’ll see what happens.