These are some thoughts that followed musing on the recent posts by Josh Nadeau and Michael Rennier on why we are re-making classics Darker; Josh particularly defends the remake, among other things. I would like to suggest a fable about literary Dark, and what it is Really For.
Perhaps you have heard of Jordan Peterson? Jordan “Clean Up Your Room!” Peterson? One particular Peterson video reintroduced to me the survival advantage in Looking at People’s Faces*, and especially the face of the enemy. From the enemy’s face in particular you can learn the most useful things, such as where to stand and when to chuck your spear. One can even learn (the first few times, at least) from studying how various hunters take and handle other prey than you. In watching cheetahs, for example, one eventually learns that they cannot grip; that they cannot bite nearly so hard as a lion; that they rely on making their prey run fast enough to fall hard and break things when tripped. We don’t want the cheetah to take our goats, so we make sure our goats do not run from them — and we are careful not to run from them ourselves.
Indeed the fascination of the panther or the trainwreck is almost as instinctual in humans as it seems not to be in zebras and pigeons. I would even go so far as to say that the horrible** is as integral to human experience and human survival as the adorable, the delicious, and the erotic. Dan Dennet, in a TED talk*** and elsewhere sought to add the humorous to that trio, suggesting
[the sense of the Funny] is a neural system evolved to reward the brain for doing a grubby clerical job: “funny” is The Joy of Debugging!
his presentation is susceptible of many objections, but that idea is . . . fascinating **. And figuring out What The Enemy is up to is an even more pressing, and sometimes messier job than just figuring out What’s Gone Wrong!
The thing is, as we have turned the delicious into dessert, the adorable into pets and dolls, the humorous into farce, and . . . er . . . etc. . . ., the horrible we have turned into a whole catalog of diversions, from Tragedy to Boxing Ring to Blood-soaked Summer Blockbuster. It is an entertainment that rewards us before we even think about it, so that we can think about it. But one can use sugar, or salt, or irony so much that he looses the taste of them; and so it is with narrative villains and narrative darkness.
Anyways, there is my contention: the horrible — the villain, the predator and avalanche — are all fascinating, and viscerally so, because sometimes we have needed to know. Indeed, we are admonished by Our Lord that we must be “cunning as serpents”, at the very least to become skilled in slaying those serpents that sneak into our Gardens. Therefore, O Ye Writers, write striking villains! But write them true, write them so that we learn what we must know of them, how to protect ourselves against them, and when and how to fight them. But do not let them, like serpents, entrance and bewilder us (nor you yourselves). Let us have cream and coffee, sweet and bitter to drink; let us have light and shadow in our paintings. Show us something of the Dark, but shine Light into it.
Let me point out an example. In a comment on Josh’s “Defense,” Stephen mentions Dostoevsky’s suggestion that writing characters who are both Interesting and Good is so difficult that it seems we have to write them as just a bit ridiculous, citing don Quixote and Prince Myshkin. I should like to add to that list Chesterton’s character Father Michael from The Ball and the Cross; not because Father Michael is ridiculous or foolish (he is neither), but because we can see why Turnbull and MacIan might think him so.
Father Michael is engaging in part because he is so simple you have to keep looking to be sure there isn’t more to him; in part because he appears so seldom; and finally because his faith itself is almost visible. He is set against Professor Lucifer (Chesterton was not given to needless subtlety) who is also fascinating, for opposed reasons: he acts an awful lot, he appears an awful lot, and he is a complicated character given to complicated schemes and inventions, schemes and inventions that seem to work. And yet for all these arts his only faith is his self-confidence, and for all his scheming success he is, out of all the world, afraid most of two silly Scottsmen and a monk who doesn’t seem to do anything. A fascinating and indeed a dangerous villain, but not made greater nor more enticing than a villain should. So let your villains be!
* I have little difficulty looking at peoples’ faces, so I don’t much think about it, you see. … I am a bit odd in person, though, in that I usually haven’t much to say.
** something akin to the Sublime, but also distinct
*** Dennet seems to delight in making fun of Creationists almost as much as I like a good chocolate cake. For myself, I do believe, as Church and Scripture tell me, that God Formed Adam of the Slime of the Earth, and since “forming” is a process, one can reasonably ask what Adam looked like when that was half-done, before God breathed Spirit into his nostrils: and that look just might have been something like an ape.
Jesse C. McKeown is a mathematician of sorts, a lover of words, and sings Gregorian Chant on Sundays.