31 October: Damnable Practices?

Damnable Practices, 1619, Pepys collection, via English Broadside Ballad Archive, EBBA 20058.

Google has changed its interface to feature an owl with a witch hat perched on something (dishwasher?), so it’s Halloween, apparently. My wonderful weekly psychology digest included a brilliant gem on why we like being scared – in a safe way. As expected, we learn to manage danger and our responses to it (emotional, cognitive, motor), by seeking out situations of imitation. It’s all a question of preparing for the worst case scenario while not being in the worst case scenario.

The article pointed towards some fascinating knee-jerk responses by our bodies to danger, such as something looking like a spider over-riding inattentional blindness, that is, us not noticing something obvious if we are focussing on something else (that gorilla-basketball experiment). We’ve had to be careful of spiders back in the days, a.k.a. hundreds of thousands of years ago, so it makes sense that the body reacts before consciousness does. Only that spiders and tigers don’t pose real threats to us anymore (at least most of the time, at least in urbanized parts of the world) doesn’t mean our biological warning system changes, particularly considering cities of current sizes are such a recent phenomenon in human history.

The article describes how situations of alternating stress and unstress (trochee, anyone?) develop swift physical responses such as running away when being startled as in peek-a-boo play. We are being made to like those simulations and seek them out in order to prep us. There’s nothing new as such here, but it is worth to keep thinking about the why behind our pleasure for horror.

I’ve been thinking about that in the past couple of days, since I’m teaching Volpone next week, and the tutors of the Renaissance seminar decided to give out a trigger warning for the play, relating to the attempted rape of Celia by Volpone in 3.7. Dubious consent and men trying to persuade reluctant women to sleep with them seemed to be a thread through the set texts as much as humanism and rhetoric were – all thrillingly connected, of course, pedagogy, persuasion, and sex. But reverting to force when words fail really comes home in Volpone. And it’s not easy.

It’s not easy to decide about censuring that scene because it may upset some people, people who have made horrible experiences, or who are particularly sensitive to descriptions of violence.

But then again, how graphic is the description?

Then again, who am I to decide what is graphic and what not?

It’s not easy to explain the choice against censuring. Or maybe it is, but it comes with an acknowledgement that, yes, we as readers and spectators do, somehow or other, like watching a woman in distress. Amend that: watching the representation of a woman in distress. Simulation, imitation, mimesis, again. Katharsis. Tragedy.

I ended up writing to my students about how art, good art, is supposed to include things which we may encounter in life, and which are traumatic, and which we condemn. It does that so that we engage, and condemn, and not ignore. It does that so that we step out of ourselves, and give attention to the plight of someone else, however fictional. Attention, again. Tragedy.

And like a ghost behind all of that the unsettling suggestion that…sweet violence.

For no reason whatsoever.