CULTURE: by Brian J. ComanNews Weekly
Pathology as entertainment
, September 18, 2010
Still falls the Rain-
Dark as the world of man,
black as our loss-
Blind as the nineteen hundred
and forty nails
Upon the Cross
Edith Sitwell, The Raids, 1940
.Violent death is hardly a new spectacle on the entertainment scene. Showbiz in Nero's day certainly knew how to pull the crowds with entertainment of that sort. The Greek tragedies, too, contained a bit of it, but here it is possible to argue that it wasn't quite the same species of entertainment. Indeed, there is an argument which would have it as something almost the opposite of entertainment.
When I was a schoolboy, The Victorian Readers Eighth Book
had a story about the Coliseum. It was entitled The Last Fight in the Coliseum
and the general lesson to be drawn from the tale was that taking pleasure in another person's suffering and death was not civilised. That was then. Silent Witness, CSI, Cold Case, Waking the Dead
... this is now.
The speciality of this particular type of crime show is the detached pathologist examining the aftermath of a particularly violent crime. He or she (usually she) always has a cup of coffee and a bun in hand when examining the stomach contents or the tortured flesh of a dismembered corpse. They exchange small talk as the electric saw cuts its way through the ribcage and into the thorax of the rotting or half-roasted corpse.
The story ostensibly revolves around tracking down the killer in the time-honoured way of the classic detective yarn or "thriller", substituting DNA analysis for the spyglass and the "clues".
But these new shows aren't really about that at all. Everything revolves around the manner of the death and the suffering involved. Usually, there are numerous flashbacks, enabling the viewer to savour the horror again and again. You get maximum blood for your buck.
But if you thought that this sadism, piped in full "living colour" to millions of lounge-rooms each night, was the worst of it, you are wrong. The worst of it is the depiction of the pathologists in these shows.
Think, for a moment, of the depiction of heroes and heroines in bygone ages. Their elevation was due precisely to their feelings for others - patriotism, pity, compassion, love - these provided the motivation for noble action. In Homer's Iliad
there is plenty of suffering and violent death, but the reader is never entertained
. Quite the opposite. Those lines fill us with a mixture of pity and horror and a sense of the terrible reality of human weakness.
The treatment of Hector's dead body, in particular, is seen as an appalling thing. Homer, a sort of pathologist of the human condition, sees the battlefield through the eyes of mothers, wives and children.
But the TV pathologists are heroines for exactly the opposite reason. It is their lack of any
respect for the victim's corpse which is held up as a great virtue. They work with lumps of meat and bleached bones - the human as specimen
, not the bodies of creatures that for two thousand years were considered as imago Dei
. These are Nietzschean figures, beyond good and evil.
Here's the paradox. We live in a society which prides itself as being enlightened. It looks back over a vista of three thousand years and congratulates itself on having risen above the barbarism of past ages - slavery, witch-burning, Crusades, Inquisitions, floggings. Having put all that behind us, so we think, we can now settle back in peace and comfort with a sense of the "universal brotherhood of man", to watch unspeakable violence every night on the television. But that's OK, because it's not "for real".
In fact, every effort is made to convey the reality of suffering and slow death in these shows - the screams, the squirts of arterial blood, the terror in the dimming eyes. The violence is not just "stylised". It needs to be realistic or we won't watch it.
As Nero's mob realised, if you want to keep pulling the crowds, you need to "up" the violence each time. And, like the pathologists on these shows, a big part of the TV viewers' satisfaction is the knowledge that "we can take this sort of stuff".
This gets to the heart of the matter. In a world bereft of meaning, only the Übermench
can take it on the chin. If you can gaze upon a violent, meaningless world and not be terrified, you've made it. Even better, if you enjoy it then it is not a sign of your depravity but of your ability, as a superior mind, to convert everything to an aesthetic experience.
Good and evil as concepts have been so relativised as to render them wholly inert. Life, like the pathology report, is simply a process that one goes through.
Pathology as spectacle is of a piece with another type of TV entertainment - the hospital reality spectacle. Here, you can watch actual operations and see the human body cut, manipulated and sewn. This emphasises the idea of the body as a machine. It takes Le Corbusier one step further.
A related but less confronting example is the TV weight-loss show. Here, the "pathology" of obesity is turned into a contest. No-one seems to note the incongruity of having a weight-loss contest vying for prime-time viewing with a "good food" show.
Indeed, the usual spectacle is to start the evening with news reports showing starving children from somewhere in Africa. This is followed by a weight-loss show, then a food show (or vice-versa). The evening's viewing can then be topped off with the pathology show. If it happens to be a commercial TV station, you will almost certainly have your program interrupted by an ad from Free TV Australia telling you how much that organisation is concerned about ethics and standards. It's a great comfort to know this.
But, at a much broader level, the pathology show brings us to yet another paradox. Suffering and violent death have, for two thousand years, been at the centre of the Christian belief in the Incarnation and Redemption.
Whether you believe in these things or not, it is a fact that the very idea of Western Civilisation is historically bound up with the religion of Christianity. Christianity was both the midwife and the nurse of that entity which arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire to become Europe.
The image of a tortured man hanging on a cross is, arguably, the most widespread and influential symbol in the whole of recorded history. On behalf of the ideas it conveys, this image has inspired some of the greatest music, art, architecture and literature that we have.
The Catholic Church, in particular, has focussed on the Passion in a most intense way. The Stations of the Cross actually require believers to meditate on the suffering and hideous death of a single human person. Moreover, the notion of the Atonement - an intersection between the temporal and the eternal - brings with it the sense of ongoing
suffering and sacrifice. Hence Sitwell's poem.
It was this death that provided the exemplar for the martyr. Martyrdom, in its turn, fuelled the spread of the faith and, in the Catholic centuries of Europe, the transformation of human hardship became the great path to salvation.
Even earlier, this inspiration drove thousands of people out from the relative prosperity of the Empire to a life of extreme hardship in the Western desert. In worldly terms, it was utterly inexplicable. Here is W.E.H. Lecky, writing in the 19th century, giving us an "enlightened" view of the Desert Fathers:
"There is perhaps no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato."
Ah, yes! He even surpasses Gibbon - and that's saying something. What is missing in Lecky and Gibbon, of course, is the matter of intention. The torture and killing, nay even the imposition of hardships, on any other
human beings was, for these early Christians, something to be abhorred. It was an unqualified evil.
But, just as their Saviour had died for them, their own
suffering or hardship was a thing greatly to be commended as an imitation of the Divine model. It was all about compassion for others and love for Him who had been crucified. In the early monasteries, the visitor was usually given every comfort possible, whilst the monks themselves lived in poverty and hardship.
And it is here, I think, that we can find an explanation for the popularity of the TV pathology shows. In this post-Christian era, a great part of the motivation for human compassion and respect for the human body has disappeared. The replacement of a religious morality (with all of its historical shortcomings and aberrations) with a secular alternative has transformed the traditional notion of "person".
All attempts to provide a secularised model, from Kant to John Rawls, lack the necessary conviction to make them work. If we really did take up the challenge of the Categorical Imperative or "the Veil of Ignorance", the TV pathology show would never have got off the ground. But it has, and we are less human as a result.Brian J. Coman, PhD, a former agricultural scientist, is a widely published author and essayist. His book, A Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition, is available from News Weekly books (see this webpage).