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Ineffable evil

April 9, 2013

I always enjoy the film analyses of Noah Millman, who writes at The American Conservative. A few days ago he wrote another excellent piece, this time about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: about how the overdetermined causal explanations for the film’s evils are meant to make us experience an evil that cannot be explained, and how some people cannot accept that.

The same is true of the source of the horror in “The Shining.” If we look for it, we find it with alarming ease – indeed, we find a plethora of plausible sources. Which makes us doubt that any of them can be it. After all, if Jack’s alcoholism is to blame, then why tell us about the Indian burial ground? And, as with Iago in Othello, this should lead us to conclude that this movie isn’t playing by horror rules; that the search for a cause of the horror is to miss the point. It is the cause.

“The Shining” is a very cold film, rarely putting us “with” the victim or creating the pulse-quickening suspense of seeing the knife as it approaches the victim from behind (there is one such shot, and it’s a notable exception). Shots tend to be long and symmetric; geometry predominates over anything organic. The hedge maze is the emblem of the film.

But it’s not a puzzle to be solved, and its unsolvability is what engenders the intellectual horror. …

Millman’s piece goes together quite well with an article by Ben Adams posted recently, this one about how super-villain origin stories usually aren’t any good, and may be immoral:

The underlying motivation of these origin stories is that evil must have a readily identifiable cause. This is of course a comforting story – we want to believe that it’s something we can harness or control. We want to believe that it’s something that we can avoid – if you don’t want to be wicked don’t eat the golden apple. If your boss asks you to murder a bunch of younglings, he’s probably a Sith Lord. We see otherwise good people turn completely evil at the drop of a hat; but that’s just not how evil works. Even the most evil people are almost certainly not that way because of any one identifiable cause; it’s a death by inches, made up of years of little choices and injustices.

What’s fascinating, I think, is that these both sound somehow “right,” and at first glance they sound like they’re saying the same thing: we can’t understand evil, and art is good when it highlights this, bad when it gives it a ready explanation. But Millman’s piece is about evil that has no causal explanation, evil that just is, while Adams’ is about evil that has a causal explanation, just one that fails to really explain anything. Millman’s is about evil errupting into reality, while Adams’ is about reality slowly sliding towards it.

Of course, both may be true; evil is flexible enough, I imagine, for it to surface in different ways depending on the situation.

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