Thursday, June 24, 2004

Golgotha, Abu Ghraib and rage

Don't sneer, and don't look shocked. I'm going to suggest that you read a paper by Walter A. Davis, a English professor with Marxist pretensions. (And here it is.) This long, somewhat repetitious piece occasionally lapses into impenetrable lit-crit lingo. (Example: "in keeping with the power of the image and the challenge it poses to traditional ways of thinking, I will follow a procedure based primarily on presenting the reader with images aphoristically apprehended.")

Yeah, I know. You gave up on that sort of thing when you left college. But I urge you to read the piece anyways: Davis addresses the linkage between Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the ghastliness at Abu Ghraib, two events that say much about the American psyche. Much of what he has to say is spot on.

A few excerpts:

Gibson's film is for many Christians a high point in the emotional expression of their religion. Abu Ghraib is equally extreme in its attempt to attack and belittle another religion. The two acts derive, however, from the same psychodynamic: sado-masochistic activity, extreme images of brutalization and suffering repeated, maximized in order to create in a mass audience the only feeling of which they are capable: the overwrought glee that comes from spectacles of cruelty.

The goal of Gibson's film is not purification or faith or love or piety. His goal is the sado-masochistic bludgeoning of the audience so that they will become abject subjects on their knees, but full of rage, eager to find some way to 'do unto others' the violence that has been done unto them. There is no contradiction here; rather an insight into the way in which eros and thanatos become one in Gibson's film. The libidinous and the violently aggressive are fused in a new constellation. Sado-masochistic spectacle is now the condition of cinematic pleasure. Contra Laura Mulvey the gaze of the camera is now fixated not on eroticized (though passive) women but on suffering male bodies in extremes of excruciating pain. The Nazi pleasure dome is achieved. In the Christ Gibson finds the homoerotic ur-text behind the Nazi love of the beautiful blonde boy his taut body blossoming with his own blood at each bite of the whip.

In Abu Ghraib sexual debasement is staged as an act of violence on a passive victim who is forced to perform perverse actions for the sexual satisfaction of a power that makes no attempt to hide its perversity nor the glee it derives from that perversity. As such Abu Ghraib is not the staging of sexuality but a perverse parody of it. The attempt of these soldiers is to convince themselves that they have what the photographs reveal they lack: an autonomous sexual identity. The empty mindless looks on the faces is the most revealing thing about these photographs. Like Gibson's Passion, Abu Ghraib is the actions that must be taken to escape the void, to escape a condition in which the death of affect is the truth of subjectivity. Sado-masochism again strides forth to fill the breach because it is the one expression adequate to the fascism of the heart: the attempt to reduce the other to the conditions of a thing in order to celebrate a feeling of power free of and contemptuous of all moral and human restraints.
The key concept here, I think, is rage.

The staging of the crucifixion in Passion reveals much about Mel Gibson. He adds something new to the Gospel account of the co-crucifixees who alternately insult and praise Jesus: A raven swoops from the sky and pecks out the eye of the "bad" thief. This moment reveals the depths of the director's rage. Gibson may be rich, famous, good-looking -- but somehow, that's not enough. He knows an inchoate fury. He wants to maim those who anger him. He wants blood.

True, the film soon thereafter cuts to flashbacks of Christ in better days, speaking of the need for forgiveness. Gibson's last-minute decision to include this brief scene reminded me of Richard Nixon -- who, as he suddenly recalled that the mikes were hot, hastily added "But it would be wrong." In the same spirit, a pre-Passion Christ reminds us "But you should forgive." These words don't matter. Images speak louder than words, and Gibson's imagery screams of bloodlust.

Rage was the operative principle at Abu Ghraib as well. On some level, the soldiers must have believed that the randomly-acquired Iraqis in their power were the evil schemers responsible for the WTC attack. While I believe the "interrogators" did what they did under orders, or at least under official sanction, few can deny that they acted with a genuine glee -- a glee born of fury.

This foundation of this fury reaches a surprising depth.

The soldiers now facing charges are mostly southern, religious, conservative -- and far from affluent. I am sure that they've understood for quite some time that the lives they face will probably be less comfortable, less rewarding, less free than were the lives of their parents and grandparents. But they've been carefully taught not to blame unfettered large corporations. They've been taught to despise the progressive tax rates and pro-labor legislation that made America so prosperous in the years between 1945 and 1970. They've been taught to love their oppressors and hate those whom their oppressors hate.

Anyone so indoctrinated will know rage -- intimately. And when rage cannot find the proper target, it will discover substitutes: The foreign, the powerless, the outsider, the non-Christian, the Other. Ironically, the fury expressed by Lyndee England and comrades parallels that of the young Saudi Arabians who have turned to Salafism because no other form of anti-establishment thought is permissible.

Davis suggests the perfect antidote to religious rage: "Listen to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion repeatedly, for an entire week, until your heart becomes one with the spirit of charity that breathes through every note of it." As an alternative, you might want to try the Mahler Resurrection symphony, or a Bruckner adagio.

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