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Catharsis and the imitation of evil

November 20, 2011

My younger brother recently wrote about songs like, e.g., “Be Prepared” from The Lion King or “The Bunny Song” from Veggie Tales that are catchy but run contrary to the moral of the story. He thinks they’re bad, but I’m not so sure.

After all, if you’re going to show heroes acting heroically, you need compelling villains, and compelling villains need to be allowed to present their case as convincingly as possible. “Be Prepared” is no different from, say, Macbeth’s speeches in his eponymous play, or Edmund’s in King Lear, or, to make more contemporary references, the Operative’s in Serenity, or the Joker’s in The Dark Knight. (I mention only films and plays because this seems more an issue with them than with written works, but it is not entirely inapplicable to novels.)

Perhaps the fact that “Be Prepared” and “The Bunny Song” are in works written for children makes them somehow more dangerous, because children are more susceptible to bad influences. Well, consider “Where the Wild Things Are.” The Wild Things aren’t the good guys; they’re manifestations of Max’s rage. By the end he’s left them and reconciled himself to his family. But when kids think of the story they’re still going to think mainly of how cool the Wild Things are, and for Halloween they will perhaps dress as one, and they’ll enjoy the romping and stomping around and pretending to be dangerous.

Does this make the book somehow a bad influence? I don’t think so. It’s been suggested to me that the book actually portrays a kind of catharsis, and effects the same catharsis in its readers. That sounds right to me, though I don’t have a clear idea of how catharsis is supposed to work so I’m not going to try to defend it. To return to my more mature examples, people like quoting the Joker too, but I don’t think that make showing his wittily nihilistic lines evil. It doesn’t even make quoting them evil, I think, so long as you don’t sincerely hold them.

But there are lots of respectable people who disagree with this. Tolkien didn’t want to show anything from Sauron’s point of view in The Lord of the Rings because he saw imitating pure evil for artistic purposes as dangerous. Even Aristotle’s Poetics, which is where we get our idea of catharsis, talks about how only heroic action should be represented on-stage, how vicious action should be only reported. I don’t know quite how to counter their arguments or assimilate them into a non-moralistic aesthetics. But if the moralists are right then much of literature must be discarded.

One approach I’ve seen is to say that any action portrayed should be virtuous in some sense, even if on the whole wrong. So we would not want to show Sauron rejecting all that is good, but showing Mr. Nezzer’s idolatry leading him to evil, when wanting to worship a god that is not completely invisible is not wrong (and in fact is central to Christianity), or Scar’s excessive own ambition leading him to evil, when ambition is not itself wrong, or the Operative’s utopian totalitarianism leading him to evil, when wanting a better world is not wrong, or the Joker’s nihilism leading him to evil, when wanting to demonstrate that man has free will is not wrong, would be acceptable. But is the Joker really that different from Sauron?

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