American Beauty. Monstrous Men.
Reckoning Monstrosity with Beauty… and Ourselves…
Recently a question was posed:
It seems the right question to ask what with all that has come to light in recent weeks.
In the context of her own favorite works of art, the author considers the transgressions of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby and how these are now cognitively inseparable from their work. The author is torn between her love of the work and her disgust with the reality surrounding its creators.
“Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t.”
However, need this be such a source of cognitive dissonance?
Can something not be both monstrous… and beautiful?
With particularly self-referential irony, my own thoughts lingered to a single beautifully cinematic scene which wrestles with this very concept of dissonance in a masterfully layered fashion. The scene itself depicts a horribly violent end to its protagonist in an at once grotesquely violent and yet visually striking way.
Following a gunshot wound to the head, as the character’s life literally spills from his brain onto a stark white table top, we see his own countenance reflected serenely, meditatively in the expanding pool of his own blood.
Without a single utterance of dialogue, the scene and the twisting events that led to it pushes our minds to struggle with what just happened, it forces the cognitive dissonance knowingly upon us and challenges us to ask ourselves,
“Is this monstrous or is it beautiful?”
And while our rational, law-abiding side retracts instinctively from the horror of the scene and what has just transpired, our creative, artistic side is drawn to the curious juxtapositions of color, reflection, material and meaning in the hauntingly still frames before our eyes.
We know it is monstrous. And yet we know it is beautiful as well. It can be both, and yet we feel our mind struggle with this.
That this character was played by one of reality’s monsters dujour, i.e. Kevin Spacey, now brings us hurtling through time and space back to the present day of bizarre events.
Our mind must now struggle with a secondary or even tertiary layer of contradictions. Should this scene which brings monstrosity and beauty together now be eschewed or forever tainted due to the actor that portrayed it?
The answer I believe lies both in the scene itself and how the Paris Review author has tried to analyze it. As she describes the crux of her question:
“They did or said something awful, and made something great.
The awful thing disrupts the great work.
We can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing.”
In my opinion, her analysis is on track and on the scent for two of those three sentences. Then it veers disconcertingly but unsurprisingly of course. Let’s break it down…
“They did or said something awful, and made something great.”
Yes! These are undoubtedly true. Each of the names she considers have made horrible transgressions and yet they have also made great works of art.
“The awful thing disrupts the great work.”
Yes! Also true, particularly when said horrible transgression becomes public knowledge, it creates a great disruption in the work, but…
“We can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing.”
No! This is where the author takes a great thesis and inverts it towards her own patterns and preferences of consumption.
This is not the disruption nor the consumption we should be analyzing!
In contrast, what we should be considering is to what degree each of these monstrous men’s transgressions was due to their own uncontrolled consumption and how this ultimately disrupted their own lives and the lives of their victims.
Roman Polanski remains in exile. Bill Cosby continues his humiliating public trials. Woody Allen, while still producing, has never approached his prior level of mastery. To this list we add, the increasing list of recent high profile layoffs.
In the context of this, the more pressing philosophical question to be asked is:
“What greater art could these men have produced had they never succumbed to their monsters?”
With great fame and success, comes equally great temptations. The question we should all be asking ourselves is not whether we should be willing to take monstrosity with beauty as if considering whether ingesting chocolate is in turn worth the calories that comes with it. What we should be asking ourselves is,
“If we were to aspire to greatness and be fortunate enough to achieve it, how could we best resist the monsters that inevitably come with that?”
Many great men (and women) have encountered this very question in their lives and have succeeded or failed to varying degrees. For those that have failed, the greatest pity for us as the beneficiaries of their creations is not around the now debatable worth of their creations in the public eye but on what could have been.
Step back and view this at a larger scale, and you can perhaps see how humanity as a whole is now going through its own reckoning of monstrosity and beauty across so many seemingly unprecedented axes be it art, politics, wealth, power, class, religion or, of course, gender.
As we had collectively achieved our own measures of success on national and historical scales, we now see the inevitable monsters that have risen in turn.
We can take some comfort that this rise need not negate or devalue our prior achievements. However, unless we have the strength of will and certitude of spirit to face these monsters down and not succumb to their sundry temptations, it can certainly threaten our soon-to-be what-could-have-been.
So what do we do with the art of monstrous men?
Take heed of the monsters that devoured them… and fight.