Back in the fall of 2011 I was asked by a friend to try to provide a definition of evil. It was something I often talked about. What follows here is my rather sketchy attempt, notes merely, to delineate what is in truth an extraordinarily complex subject. To do justice, even to my own thoughts, on this subject would require much more time.
Furthermore I am going only going to discuss human evil and leave aside troubling questions about the incidental evils of earthquakes, mosquitoes and viruses. These natural evils do ultimately have to fit into a comprehensive answer to the question of evil, but I believe the real question here relates to that which we find in humanity. The capacity to choose to do evil things.
I have met a few people who actually don’t believe in evil. One woman, an established New York Times bestselling writer, told me that she felt that most things that were considered evils were really just extreme misunderstandings. In other words if people had just had more knowledge evil wouldn’t occur. My response to her… She lives in an incredibly sheltered world.
Let me enlarge that world a teeny bit with a couple of examples of what can only be described as evil.
The first comes from World War Two. In Poland, in late summer of 1944, the Russians were chasing the Nazis as they arrived at the banks of the Vistula River, which runs along the eastern edge of Warsaw. The Poles sensing that the Soviet Army was close rose up to overthrow their oppressors on August 1st. The Nazis were given such a bad time that they actually began to leave… That is until they realized that the Russians were not going to across the river. The Nazis then turned around. Then the city was leveled and more than 200,000 people died before the Poles capitulated near the end of September. The Soviet Army did not help, because they wanted to control Poland after the war. The atrocities got so bad inside Warsaw that troops under the German command even raided a cancer ward of Polish female patients. They were raped in their beds, burned alive and shot if they tried to escape. Illustrations of evil during wartime are endless some much worse than this.
A second illustration comes from the world of science. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted a series of experiments that showed that average people would administer what they were told were lethal electric shocks to unseen strangers at the behest of an authority figure. So focused were they on completing their tasks that they would violate their own consciences to order to perform their instructions. These tests have been replicated in various countries around the world with fairly consistent results.
Finally something from my own life. In the mid-Seventies I worked in a mental institution in California. It was a locked facility. When I first started working there I would come across one inmate named Bryan. I couldn’t tell if he was forty or sixty. He’d always greet me in the same manner. “Hi” he’d say in a high whiny voice. “Hi” I’d reply. “What’s your sign?” he’d ask. I told him I didn’t really follow astrology. “Oh…” he would sound dejected for an instant.“Is my mother coming today?” he’d finally ask. After a few days of this repetitious behavior I thought I’d respond a little differently. “Do you want me to find out whether your mother’s coming Bryan?” He beamed. “Could you?” “Yeah I’ll look into it for you.” “Thanks.” He smiled. I walked over to the nurses station and asked one of the other orderlies if Bryan’s mother was coming soon. He looked at me with a smirk. “Oh you don’t know…” “What?” I said. “Look in the patients record book.” He pointed to a stainless steel folder. I flipped it back, scanned down the page and read the following: “Bryan’s mother had him castrated at the age of six.” And the evil here is not only in the mother’s choice, but also in the ironic smirk of the orderly.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about evil ever since then… And I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First of all evil is connected to choice. It is not merely an ignorance of crucial bits of moral knowledge, but there is something actively added to the mix.
Secondly evil is a relationship. Or rather evil is a breaking of relationships. With Our family, our loves, our children, our friends, our animals, and land, our country, ourselves, and ultimately God. The lie is evil because it severs a relationship, even if only one side of the equation knows it. Likewise stealing, envy, prejudice, etc. are all breakers of relationships. Sex seems to be a zone that breeds strange forms of evil. It is not sex that is evil, rather it is the breaking of that bond of trust which is the real problem, especially when it is inevitable. And there is too much in our age that encourages a narcissistic selfishness with regard to fulfilling one’s “needs”.
One evil often breeds another. To damage a child is to create a crucible of dark possibilities. The abused child doesn’t necessarily become sympathetic with other abused souls. Au contraire, some do go on to abuse their own children.
Evil is often done when we are protecting ourselves. In other words our own pain is the justification for committing acts against others. I’m convinced that no evil is done in the name of being an evil badass. Everyone has a good excuse. Everyone is right in their own eyes. The distance between being a victim and a victimizer is narrow indeed.
The distance between great evil (war atrocities, rape, etc) and everyday evil (drunkenness, gossip, etc) is not very far at all. It could be argued that the smallest act of evil could unleash incredibly dark scenarios. A stupid fumbling advance at a house party sends a girl home on icy roads with too much alcohol in her veins. She crashes and dies on black ice. The boy later kills himself. The community is angrily divided about what to do about the town’s drinking problem. (This is a story I witnessed.)
Evil also tries to eliminate the effects of time. Evil wants it now. The most evil person would be the one who had the will and the means to get whatever was desired as near to the moment desired as possible.
Or look at it this way. You are walking down a busy city street. What can you do that will effect someone for the rest of their life in terms of evil? The options are nearly limitless. You can trip them, punch them, shoot them, push them into the path of an oncoming car, spit at them, yell at them, make derogatory remarks about their body, threaten them, even just laugh at them. And whatever you do will be remembered.
If you reverse this thought experiment and ask what can you do that is truly good to any person on that same street, the options are few. Because any action you do might be misunderstood, or inflame problems that you know nothing about, even a smile at the wrong moment could be construed as cruel. If you gave money to a homeless person, you don’t know if they’ll just go out and buy drugs or booze with it. The only positive thing I can think of would be to save the person from a car accident or a mugging. In other words to stop an active evil. To do real good takes time. You have to know a person’s needs. Good rarely happens instantly, unequivocally.
And so ultimately all questions about evil come back to ourselves, to our own desires, to what we are willing to do to get what we want. If life is only about having fun, feeling good, staying safe, then evil is already at our door. It will manifest itself in hundreds of small but insidious ways. And then the question is what to do about it?
That brings up the question of redemption… but that’s another much longer discussion. Maybe someday I’ll get to it here.
December 8th 2019
(This one was for Vanessa.)
I am currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Far from everything I have known, living the Anadromous Life on the edge. And hey! You can support our work here and for The Anadromist channels by through in some coin at PayPal. Click THIS LINK HERE! And if you give $!0 per month or more than $50 you’ll get audio lectures. Thanks!
Yes let’s have some fun.
And if by fun you mean let’s enjoy a few pleasurable amusements, a game of hide-and-go-seek with flashlights in the dark, spitting watermelon seeds at a picnic, a roller coaster ride at a carnival, I say why not. I don’t mind gales of laughter, bad jokes told well or rolling down a slope covered in snow. But incorporated in this traditional idea of ‘fun’ is the notion that these are occasional temporal diversions. They are not a standard feature to be achieved in daily life. They are separate moments not representative of the whole. These little moments of pleasure are like the bubbles blown by children. One pinprick and they are are gone. Thus a phrase like “Life is fun.’ would be totally meaningless in almost any traditional view of human culture that you could summon up.
Yeah but who still holds a traditional view… Therein lies the sacred cow that I intend to roast. In a world pickled in ever changing technologies and rapidly evolving variations on narcissism and nihilism disguised as individualism, anything smacking of tradition is pretty much castigated and mocked as unevolved and, even more tellingly, as boring.
It’s curious to me how many times in my life I have heard people justify pretty much any activity in the name of ‘Fun’. Everything supposed to be Fun: Music is Fun. Food is Fun. Sports are Fun. Driving can be Fun. Sex, of course, is Fun. Flirting is Fun. Cheating is Fun. (Till the tears begin.) Dogs are Fun. Movies are Fun. Videos of bestiality are Fun. (This is not an exaggeration.) Boxing is Fun. Fighting is Fun. Drunk driving is Fun. (Until you wrap the car around tree.) Yoga is Fun. Christianity is Fun. Shouldn’t politics be Fun? Travel is Fun. Italy is Fun. Bosnia is now Fun. Fun is whatever you define as Fun. Everything is Fun!
Except things that are the antithesis of Fun. Things that are boring. Classical music? Ballet? Mid-20th Century art films? Boredom. Reading a long book about the history of the Gulag is just plain work. Heck picking up a physical book and lugging it around is is a lot more boring than watching YouTube videos of car crashes in Russia.
And over time I have heard any number of apologias for life’s meaning involving Fun with a capital ‘F’. “Don’t be so serious, let’s just have some Fun.”, “As long as everyone’s having Fun, right?”, “As long as you are having Fun, that’s the key.”, “You gotta have Fun.”, “As long as I’m having Fun, I’ll do it.” or as Heath Ledger once said “I only do this because I’m having fun. The day I stop having fun, I’ll just walk away.” And then he did.
But what is this new conception of Fun? It is indeed very illusive. It has become a state of being so wide as to incorporate our etiolated sense of meaning itself. If I translate the unfocused usage of my peers I come up with a something that is perhaps pleasant and largely free of pain, though even variations of stupid injury can be roped into this new idea of Fun. I think it has to do with laughing a lot, smiling, a kind of no risk low level ecstatic experience. Maybe we can just call it the Big Wow. A sensation filled existence without the tedium of logic or rehearsal. The entertainment industry is key here. And it most certainly is an anti-intellectual creature. You really can’t question it.
Yet it doesn’t take very long in considering this teleological concept of Fun to see the massive gaping holes in such a worldview. Both raising children and caring for the elderly are situations where things get a whole lot less than Fun very quickly. It takes a commitment that moves far beyond the laughter of a moment to get you through these relationships. In fact most of life takes a kind of tenacity to get beyond the pain, the repetitions, the fears, the misunderstandings, the endless practice it takes to be truly good at anything. Yet somehow this wireless dreamworld we call contemporary existence has deluded us that all of the traditions are invalid as we pay our tickets for our very own personalized fun houses.
How did we get here?
(To be continued…)
July 4th 2013
The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990’s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.
A woman, dressed in rags and furs, carelessly filthy, black stringy and presumably lousy hair, teeth unsubjected to any dentistry and poisonous as a hyena’s, her face cocked like a gun preparing to explode, enters the lair of a wolf. The animal growls. The human brute growls back even more ferociously. The camera does not show us but we hear the beating and the tearing of those human teeth. In a moment we see her running, perhaps it is a dream. But in this story the woman who runs with the wolves is no sub-Jungian New Age empowerment fantasy. This is a fearful thing.
The film is The Woman. It was released in 2011 and more recently for home digestion. Directed by Lucky McKee, who also directed the brilliant watch-at-your-own-risk May back in 2002, The Woman has been vilified as misogynist, far too gory and just plain nerve-wracking and simultaneously praised for it’s feminist undertones and unique character portrayal by Pollyanna McIntosh. It is indeed quite hard to believe that Pollyanna (Has anyone ever been more paradoxically named?) is actually a statuesque Scottish beauty. But all of this contradiction delineates clearly the manner of beast we have here.
And as I watched this grisly work of art I was struck by many details that resonated far beyond the confines of this inexpensive little indie film. The screenwriter, novelist Jack Ketchum, had continued his novel, The Offspring, with special emphasis on the Woman at the suggestion of producer Andrew van den Houten, who had directed a version of the earlier book. The film of The Offspring also starred Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, leader of a tribe of feral humans in the American Northeast. And it is in fact this notion of feral humanity that really jumped out at me with such force in both films.
Feral is a curious word. (By the bye it can be pronounced in two ways. One, the more standard, makes it sound like fair-al. The other less common pronunciation is more like fear-al.) It suggest not merely wild, or wildness, but of the domesticated thing returning to the wild. For instance if you showed up on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean you would find a healthy population of feral cats that had been left behind by sailors from centuries back to eradicate the rat infestation accidentally bestowed upon the islands. I am claimed by a feral cat myself here in Alaska. They can go in and out a feral state. And that is very different from the human race. This could have something to do with the fact that domestication depends entirely on an animal’s relationship to mankind. We are not tamed by our pets or cattle. Now before I tread too far into some politically incorrect screed let’s return to ferality.
So to be feral is to revert to a wild state. Now at this point we bump into a raft of cultural issues that have their primary origins back in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized most famously that ‘L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.‘, which translated says that, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.‘ It was clear from his writings that Rousseau lamented the state of society that had enslaved us. All those compromises! All that book learning! All of that conformity! The individual must be free as an individual! Vive la Revolution!
Another related idea is that of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau did not invent the concept nor was he as primitivist as it sometimes claimed. Yet the somehow a reduction of his idea comes down to us like this; that the most free folks on earth are those most free from civilization, those closest to nature and the earth. Rousseau praised children for their purity, primitive tribes when they had achieved the stage of the savage. Regardless of the subtleties of Rousseau’s very influential works, the concepts of the ‘noble savage’ eventually merged with the art movements of 19th Century French Bohemia.
French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin followed a quest for this kind of wild life when he left behind everything and followed his muse to Tahiti. There was vision at the time that the Tahitians and many other tribes were more liberated than the stale old bourgeois European world that he had left behind, along with his failed marriage and children and the sense of depression that led him to attempt suicide. He wanted to find something in Tahiti. Something he was missing. Yet it could not be found. When he did eventually paint his masterpiece, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (trans. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), this was not the work of a man who had found his boho dreams come true. Death and futility are writ large. Paradise, not a paradisaical as the dream. A great painting had been made but the Tahitians were pretty much stuck on the same earth as everyone else.
Nevertheless more and more souls began to empty themselves out into various jungles of the mind in search of the perfect primitive conditions of liberation. Expressionist movements like Les Fauves, the very word meaning wild beasts, followed Gauguin into the primitivist wilds. In fact so much of modern art can be seen as a various forms of rejection of the things that make up the a dull conformist society: a return to nature, a rejection of nature, the artist as prophet, the artist as shaman, the artist as outlaw, the artist as madman, the artist as barbarian, the artist as explorer at the edges and the artist as denizen of the dregs. And all the while the dream of a feral sort of existence haunts the proceedings.
The Surrealists perfected perhaps the most intellectual version of this dream… which is of course an oxymoron. Yet one has to hand it to the Surrealists, whom I have a great deal of respect for. Following Symbolist dream theory and folding into it a strong dose of early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s reduction of human psychology to the libido, the Surrealists sought among the detritus of tainted experience in childhood, the metal institution and other outsiders for a way to connect, beyond reason, to the meaning of Art and Life. Later artists would discover Carl Jung.
But finally a movement would come along that would bubble up higher than the demimonde of the arts. The Beat Generation were by the late 1940’s pickled in Rousseau’s individualistic liberation dream. All that matters is to be true to yourself. That is the final statement. (With the proviso ‘as long as you don’t hurt anybody’ whatever that means. Actually that is the nail in the noble savage’s coffin.) But the Beats had a few nice twists in the lime of Rousseau’s gin and tonic. One, sex, and lots more of it. Two, drugs, and lot’s more of them. And finally music, or should I say Jazz, with Charlie Parker, (Oops! Sorry! Dead from primitive aid number two!) or Miles Davis in the role of the prophetic noble savage. We’ll overlook the hidden racism in considering black jazz players as noble savages with a pipeline to the primitive urges and demiurges. Did anyone ever at the time notice that being black did not equate to being more in touch with the mysteries of the savage universe? Great musicians? Yes. Fresh from the jungle? Um? Not quite. Pretty damned intellectual actually. So let’s change that addition from Jazz, just cross that out, to let’s look around a little… Oh! Wait! What’s this wild primitive stuff over here? Oh yeah! Rock ‘n’ Roll! And voila sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (!) equals another variation on the noble savagery theme.
Okay. I’m well aware that white American asses in the 1950’s had gotten damned tight and needed some musical loosening. But in plain fact, find one 1950’s rock ‘n’ roller that was truly in Rousseau’s camp. This was a case of the noble savage interpretation of what was actually fairly standard electric folk music in the traditional American vein. Had Postwar America not been quite so somnambulistically square it would not have been seen as such a radical departure from Jazz or the Blues. Nevertheless by the late 1960’s this Rousseau interpretation of Rock music was standard. (See the burgeoning field of Rock criticism.) Rock had indeed become a revolt against civilization. LSD was the psychosomatic magic which would effect the liberation of desire. Down with Christian prudery! Down with humanistic rationalism! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go! Vive la Revolution!
And now the feral dream was out of the intellectual closet.
(Next time we continue our little survey of the wilderness from Woodstock to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Virgin Prunes)
Also here’s another Anadromous essay on a similar theme…
There are questions and implications that I have left dangling during this survey of various aspects of American Gothic Culture. And undoubtedly I have left a few confusions uncovered. Since this has been essentially an introduction to a subject that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with before I’m well aware of how many other examples I could pull from a hat. There many discussions left to be had about what is and isn’t American Gothic Culture. There is also a fairly serious delineation to be made between this nascent American Gothic sensibility and what is often called Goth. I will attempt a little of that now.
One question that has been left unexplored is this: Why did American Gothic Music take so long to come into being? The short answer goes like this. Music has always been a part of that which links people together. Thus there has often been an underlying sense of confidence that often pervades the music. Music often has a joyful component to it. Or at least a simulacrum of joy as in the sterile ‘fun’ of so much pop music. Even the blues, as painful as they can be, often has an aspect of hope buried in the implications: The idea that “the sun will shine on my back door someday”. Or even the notion that by hearing the pain of these lyrics someone will change somehow.
As a result music hasn’t been the best vessel for expressing real darkness… until fairly recently. After years of exploring various musical phenomena I think I can fairly confidently state that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a certain kind of philosophical darkness entered popular music with groups like Love and The Doors. This existential dread festered into real anomie with Iggy and the Stooges. (It is curious to note that all of these bands were on Elektra Records.) And finally the music erupted into explicit rage with the Sex Pistols in 1976. And this rage was new. I don’t just mean it was a new musical trend. I mean in all of the history of music there was absolutely no precedent for such blood curdling scabrous anguish as to be found in, say, The Birthday Party’s Fears of Gun where Nick Cave vomits out the word ‘Love’ as if being disemboweled. You can search all you want, I have, for anything that sounds remotely that angry… you will never find it, prior to that point in human history.
It takes that sort of bleak intensity to comprehend the American Gothic vision. And it is not Nick Cave’s spewing forth that is his American Gothic work. It came when he started to try to find answers for the questions he had posed about the nature of humanity. And this is one reason why American Gothic Culture is vastly different than the usual Euro-Goth scene. Goth is about the darkness. Goth is about vampires, funerary motifs, ghosts. It finds these images to be helpful as some sort of anodyne to the blandness of contemporary culture. Goth also dips into fetishes quite liberally; leather, rubber, corsets, etc. Goth Culture seems to say I am the darkness. I want to be a vampire. I want to be as spectral as a ghost. I want to be cool. Don’t dream it, be it.
American Gothic Culture seems quite Other, by comparison. Even the darkest of the dark within the American Gothic spectrum, for instance Ambrose Bierce or Joe Coleman seem to have other fish to fry. Instead of being cool, their work seems to scream, “Why is it so dark? Huh!” Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fever pitched cry of black despair fuelled more by cosmic anger at the insanity surrounding him than by any desire to laugh at the rubes. Even the extremely sardonic and gory humor of EC Comics can be seen as a series of serious questions. The man who pulls the face off of an ugly woman with a hot body trying to get her to unmask says more about the mysteries and problems of beauty in this dark world than has ever been written in a fashion magazine.
In fact the hallmark of real American Gothic work is a recognition of the evil, the bleakness, the absurdity, the darkness of the human condition. And that’s the answer to another implication: Why don’t folks with an American Gothic perspective sell out to the commercial forces the way Hippies, Beats, Punks, Rappers, etc ad nauseum seem to do? It’s because there is no point in becoming huge. There is no progressive utopian Romantic goal to achieve. The end is already seen in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy or other successful American Gothic folks aren’t happy to be selling a few books and discs. But the truth is they aren’t driven by commercial imperatives. If they didn’t sell a thing their viewpoint wouldn’t really change.
Fascinatingly American Gothic Culture houses both Christians and Atheists quite comfortably. But by Christians I don’t mean the contemporary commercial mega-church consumers. I mean folks like Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, David Eugene Edwards. Nick Cave has been seemingly close to Christian faith at times. And by atheists I don’t mean the Richard Dawkins variety of confident hucksters, I mean the bleaker, more honest souls like an Ambrose Bierce or H.P. Lovecraft. And it was Lovecraft who admired the Puritans for their darkness.
But the point is this: These aren’t the gullible folks. These folks don’t seem to have nice positive attitudes. They aren’t trying to boost anyone’s self-esteem. They aren’t Romantic in any sense of the word. (Another big difference with Goth Culture.) There is no collusion between Disney and American Goth. There is no cute version of American Gothic Culture. And most interestingly American Gothic sensibility is in no way Postmodern.
Postmodern Culture thrives on postmodern irony. It lives on the deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe into Madonna into Lady Gaga. It lives on surfaces, since surfaces are deemed to be the only reality. It takes style as substance, content as merely social conditioning. It laughs at seriousness as pretension. The old Modernism was way too serious, though in disassembling everything they paved the way for the ironic hordes. Who to say that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t as good as James Joyce?
American Gothic trumps postmodern irony with bitter irony. And bitter irony is fairly impervious to deconstruction. Who can deconstruct the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I don’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Sure you can. But you have to get into the dark EC Comics mode to do it. But I mean put the DVD into your machine tonight. See who wins? Leatherface or postmodern irony? There is no contest. Your most postmodern child will wither before such an onslaught. Why? Because although there is humor to be found there, ultimately this thing is too damned serious to be turned into a deconstruction of itself. Tobe Hooper really believed in the power of the chainsaw. The same goes for The Road (film or book), Winter’s Bone (ditto), Nick Cave wailing Saint Huck or Tom Waits who uses humor all the time, yet really can’t be touched be postmodern irony.
The reason that academic theoretical babble about appropriation or deconstruction don’t get to far down the American Gothic road is because instead of ironic appropriation you have junkyard salvage, instead of deconstruction, you are faced with a much older stronger concept: destruction. American Gothic Culture is entropic. It sees the limits of a culture, our own, that is based upon endless progress and positive vibes. American Gothic Culture sees the good effects of negativity: The meaning behind the word No.
This isn’t to say that every artist I’ve mentioned was consciously saying No to the mindless optimism of the larger culture. But I do believe a good many of them have. There is a sense of realism in the face of the endless facades. American Gothic Culture is not an active movement. There is no town I could recommend for you to hang out in for American Goth trappings. There is intelligence, sorrow, black humor, history and even sometimes deeper strands of questioning and faith to be found in American Gothic outlook. At it’s best the American Gothic sensibility is a lot like the character of Ree in Winter’s Bone or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is grit and integrity in the face of the American nightmare, which it projects as the growing dimming entropic reality of the American future.
We’ll leave this introduction to American Gothic Culture here. But it is obviously one form of Anadromous Life being birthed in our times, one culture going against the stream of endless propaganda and the hype, a real question mark in the face the growing fiction of the 21st Century.
Now we come to the infant of this breed: American Gothic Music. Compared to fiction, art and even film American Gothic Music is a recent phenomenon indeed, going back at most to the late 60’s, and even then only as a hint in the musical wing of this American Gothic museum, which is still under-construction.
It’s interesting to ask why. Why would the music take such a long time to develop when the literature began in the late 1700’s? One would imagine that with all of the other work that had been done in American Gothic Culture by 1950 that there would have been a serious attempt to construct some sort of decayed variation on the themes in American Music. In classical music only Charles Ives Unanswered Question seems to have any Gothic links, yet that seems somewhat incidental. Certainly there are spooky blues and country tunes just ripe for use in an American Gothic context. Think of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ or Hank William’s Ramblin’ Man or especially Tommy Johnson’s strange falsetto in Cool Drink of Water Blues. The context of these songs make them potent compost for the roots of an American Gothic Music, but they are only visions of personal trouble not the broader, sadder, vision of an America in decay. But make no mistake about it these are the roots of the tone of American Gothic Music to come.
Perhaps we can point to something in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crazed Fifties sounds: Frenzy or I Put a Spell On You. He started his stage show by emerging from a coffin with a skull scepter and a cape. But this was more Halloween than American Gothic. He certainly is an influence. You can feel Hawkins in Tom Waits’ Eighties oeuvre.
The first real sense of American Gothic probably comes from what would also be considered the first band with real Gothic overtones: The Doors. Although one can indeed hear a Gothic funereal quality in their music, nevertheless most of the Doors references are philosophically European, only tinged by the blues. Nevertheless I think we have to consider their dark epic, The End, a true milestone in American Gothic Music. Lyrically Morrison refers to Greyhound buses, ‘the West is the best’, ‘weird scenes inside the goldmine’ all of which puts us directly in California and the ghost towns and hippie dreams of a golden consciousness. But the biggest shock in the song isn’t the Oedipal violence, rather it is the growing revelation that the singer is the killer and that the listener is the next victim of this Manson-like figure. The message of the song essentially boils down to this: Come to the West and be killed. And this was a huge record in 1967, during the hyped Summer of Love, two years before Manson’s cult followers would slaughter several Californians.
But musically the Doors are rarely American Gothic. They borrow from Modern Jazz, German Cabaret, Indian Ragas and Spanish Flamenco. And, of course, often borrow from the blues. But we will have to look elsewhere for a real American Gothic style.
The first American Gothic album has to go to the man who is seemingly so often first: Bob Dylan. After his motorcycle accident Dylan stepped back from the cultural upheavals partly unleashed by his own work. I have gotten the feeling that he never could quite stare into the heart of those changes. Many of them seemed repellent to him later on. So during the media fabricated Summer of Love Dylan hid out in Woodstock and played a lot of country-flavored songs with The Band. Eventually these recordings would come out in the 1970’s as The Basement Tapes. And one can hear a growing American Gothicism in songs like This Wheel’s on Fire.
But the real American Gothic Music was what came out next: his most enigmatic album, John Wesley Harding. An odd sort of country music, biblical allusions and a sense of humility haunted the album, which was released without much hullabaloo in December 1967. In a moment of psychedelic excess Dylan released this strange record of autumnally oblique fables: All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine and the extraordinarily puzzling The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I think we can call this the first true work in the musical wing of American Gothic.
The Eagles bordered on American Gothic territory with songs like the Hotel California, which has a bit more of a rootsy approach to the music than the Doors. And of course lyrically Hotel California is nearly as fascinating as The End, especially the lines about not having had ‘that spirit here since 1969’. But the Eagles are far too commercial a band to really be considered an American Gothic band.
A mention must be made here of Ry Cooder’s haunted slide guitar sound, especially as heard in his scores for films like Southern Comfort and Paris, Texas. This is not a sound found directly in the blues. Cooder’s specialty was to translate the older slide guitar sound into something much more capable of capturing the desolation of the vast American landscape.
Tom Waits, an Asylum Records stable mate of the Eagles, meanwhile had been known mostly for his songwriting skills and his neo-Beat persona on stage. But evidently something else had been brewing beneath the surface. In 1983 for his first recording on Island Records Waits came out with the LP Swordfishtrombones. This was something quite else with a vengeance. With Waits in a carnival scenario on the cover, complete with midget, the album was a new template for a new kind of music that would take years for anyone to really emulate: This was a fully realized American Gothic album. The sense of musical decay was palpable. The dark carnival pervades the album as well as a sense of undefined queasiness. The music hovers between traveling sideshow and film noir with bits of rural morbidity thrown in for good measure: 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. The album occasionally detours towards pop standards and odes to bacon and eggs yet the central impression is of a lizard’s blue belly to the American dream. ‘I’m goin’ to whittle you into kindling’!
From here on Waits is never far from the seedy vision of a carnivalesque American nightmare. Albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine are drenched in the same sensibility. His carnival barker introduction to The Black Rider is as pure American Gothic as Nightmare Alley or the art of Bernie Wrightson.
Another of the pioneers of American Gothic Music was Australian Nick Cave. After the demise of the rabid Birthday Party, Cave moved into a style all his own. One can hear Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten in there. But one can also hear the deep blues and chain gang music as well. After songs like Saint Huck showed up on From Her To Eternity Cave then released The First Born Is Dead: Perhaps the least appreciated of his Bad Seeds albums. I find it to be an American Gothic cornerstone. Scarecrows, blind blues singers, Mississippi flood’s and the myth of Elvis Presley all show up in heartfelt and heart burnt songs ranging from Knocking On Joe, Tupelo, The Black Crow King and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Stunning stuff.
And Cave, like Waits, no matter where else he wandered was ever too far from Gothic Americana. Even his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, was pure American Gothic. That he would align himself with filmmaker John Hillcoat for Australian Gothic film The Proposition and later The Road underscores this.
The 80’s gave birth to another sound that would be instrumental to the growth of American Gothic Music. And that would be Folk Punk. What the Pogues glued together, traditional folk music and punk, has proved to be a rather hardy plant giving birth to bands like The Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Devotchka, and more germane to our point American bands like O’Death playing a kind of Country Punk. The fusing of traditional music with a punk spirit has done more than all the Folkies from the 1960’s to propagate the music of the past.
And in this spirit I think the work of Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes deserve a special citation as well. Much of the current crop of American Gothic bands can be seen as a triangulation between Tom Waits, Gordon Gano and Folk Punk. Gano’s reedy voice and occasional forays into traditional American music played with manic acoustic guitars have been highly influential.
And yes, dear reader, there is indeed a current crop of American Gothic bands. And it is that fact alone that caused me to write this whole American Gothic series. In fact, for those with ears to hear this is the moment for American Gothic Music. No it isn’t flavor du jour at what remains of the pop charts. (Interestingly it does come during a period where Americana is also one of the reigning trends.) But much of the most exciting music of the hour is coming from a decaying vision of America. Artists like the Blind Willies, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Nicole Atkins, Liz Tormes, The Born Again Floozies, The Black Heart Procession, Harmonious Wail, Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons, the astounding Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas and the great Reverend Glasseye have been making vital music for this lost American time.
I believe it was the bands forming in Denver in the mid-90’s that kicked off this wave (the first wave really) of American Gothic Music. 16 Horsepower and Devotchka were both quite influential. David Eugene Edwards from 16 Horsepower and more recently Woven Hand deserves real recognition here. Like a circuit riding preacher in a storm, his musical talents connect the worlds of antique Western Music, Christian hymns, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the early American Gothic Music to the many bands of the present. His use of the unusual instrumentation, following Tom Waits, would become a hallmark of the new American Gothic bands. Listen to any of his versions of American Wheeze. Tubas, harmonicas, accordions, musical saws, trombones, violins and many other instruments not found in standard rock bands permeate the new music.
While all of these artists are worth a paragraph two stand out and need special attention: Reverend Glasseye and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Glasseye has two albums to his name. His music is located somewhere between a Wild West saloon, a circus tent and a revival meeting. (Ry Cooder’s music for The Long Riders is a worthy antecedent.) His archaic lyrics and jaunty tunes have a demented Shakespearean grandeur to them. Sleep Sweet Countrymen is an American Gothic masterpiece.
Jessica Hernandez, from the Detroit area, is fairly obscure as of this writing. But I doubt she will remain that way. A combination of Mexican heritage (Detroit also gave us ? Mark & the Mysterians), a deep dose of Tom Waits and a swooping passionate vocal style, not to mention killer instincts in the dynamic tune department, cause Jessica’s music to pop out in 3-D. Find a recording of her singing Gone in Two Seconds or Moonstruck. She’s so good I hate to think of her getting discovered by the commercial machinery that so loves to suck the life from everything till dead. But I suspect she’s got as much musical integrity as she does talent.
Curiously not one artist who has ever made American Gothic Music has ever sold their soul for success. I wonder why? It might have something to do with the worldview that has to accompany the style to some degree.
Allow me the indulgence of trying to summarize this American Gothic sensibility… next time.
(Oh… I thought about connecting this to musical links. But you know your way around. Go listen!)
As one could imagine, after looking at both American Gothic Fiction and Art, American Gothic Film was a bit of a latecomer on the scene, a strange child benefiting from the depths of the serious works and reveling in the excesses of the style.
Although it takes quite a bit of cinematic time to get to an actual American Gothic Cinema, nevertheless the roots of the genre begin to poke out quite early in film history. The primitive cinema of Thomas Edison, William K.L. Dickson, Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith is rife with imagery that easily corrodes into the American Gothic sensibility. Part of it is simply the way these pre-World War I films flicker and dance before our rather jaded contemporary eyes. Having seen everything, it seems, these motion glimpses from the furthest recesses of filmic memory show a very lost world: An America obsessed with cockfights and strangely hypnotic dancers, of boxing matches and circuses.
Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) is a very real and frightening bit of darkness for an amnesiac 21st Century America. Topsy, an abused killer circus elephant, is led to a large steel plate and then killed in plain view with 6,000 volts of AC current, supplied by Edison. The starkness of the scene and the carnival milieu are pure American Gothic, although unintentionally.
Lillian Gish still stands as an emblem of Gothic Americana with her haunted eyes and inner strength. And later when Charles Laughton chose to feature her in Night of the Hunter there was no denying her deep American Gothic Roots.
Likewise the early Westerns have crude qualities that speak in a way very different from mid-20th Century Hollywood Westerns. The films of a William S. Hart have a dark essence that is quite foreign in the Western until the 1950’s. Hart, an actual cowboy himself and an unromantic Christian who understood a West much closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Roy Roger’s Happy Trails, delivers a palpable sense of decay and necessary judgment in Hell’s Hinges (1916).
Lon Chaney, our great shape shifting character actor, often drifted towards the American Gothic when playing contemporary characters, as in The Penalty (1920). This is particularly true of his collaborations with film legend Tod Browning. Besides directing the 1931 version of Dracula, Browning directed several seminal pieces of American Gothic that deal with the darker side of the traveling carnival, a world he knew from inside out. Among these films are The Unknown, The Unholy Three and, crucially, the infamous Freaks (1932), which Browning stocked with every sideshow oddity he could get his hands on, including limbless wonders, midgets and a pair of Siamese twins. Tod Browning was indeed the man who truly opened the American Gothic door in film.
And it is this fascination with carnivals that ties Browning in with Gresham’s book, Nightmare Alley and the filmed version from 1947 starring Tyrone Power, which introduced the true meaning of the word geek to popular culture.
Nightmare Alley is also the intersection between American Gothic and Film Noir. And I believe a good case can be made that Film Noir is a variant of American Gothic, not just a neighbor. It is Gothic Americana in a dark urban setting. Here the paintings of Edward Hopper come back into focus. Compare his famous Nighthawks with the opening scenes of The Killers (1946): The emptiness of small town America as big city thugs enter their streets. Noir is much too large a territory to explore here and I do believe that it is difficult to see as American Gothic while it is still subject to postmodern irony (see Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir). Yet I do believe that to see Film Noir and Hardboiled Detective fiction as a species of American Gothic is a rewarding avenue for further research.
Also bridging the world’s of Film Noir, German Expressionism and American Gothic, Night of the Hunter (1955) stands as a monument of this developing sensibility.
By the late 1950’s a quieter, more dramatically disturbing brand, of American Gothic had arrived at the cinema. Films like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Miracle Worker and especially To Kill a Mockingbird portrayed with great sensitivity a darkened world where often the crippled soul was put in direct contrast to the damaged body. Deaf, blind and emotionally broken, the mysterious characters who haunt these black and white films are often miraculous beings compared with the uncomprehending world, usually the degraded South of Southern Gothic Fiction. Boo Radley is the archetype here.
Then came the Sixties and an explosion of new cultural precedents. Easy Rider (1969) strikes me as American Gothic in the hippie mode. And in fact, the further we get from the Deadheads, who co-opted so much hippie imagery into a kind of collegiate cuddliness, the more freaky the original hippies will seem, and I mean freaky in the carnival sense. The original hippies themselves used the term ‘freak’ to describe themselves. Hence ‘freaky’. And the sideshow connotations were definitely still on their minds. In fact one could look at the 1960’s hippies as the point where the carnival sideshow and the Wild West collided, along with psychedelia and Eastern religion.
After the annus horribil1s 1969 Charles Manson then becomes the sine qua non of the American Gothic hippie archetype. And films quickly exploited that fact. But I sense that we really haven’t begun to see the real Hippie American Gothic fully bloom yet. More post-Deadheads are going to have to shuffle off this mortal coil first.
Then came the two absolutely seminal works of the true American Gothic spirit, films clearly in the EC Comics vein: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). It is really hard to overstate the importance of both of these movies upon the culture of our own moment. Night of the Living Dead, simply put, invented the zombie image that haunts us at seemingly every turn in the early 21st Century. And in doing so Romero created both a new horror and American Gothic archetype: The mindless shuffling horde, an image not too distant from ourselves as mass consumers.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is another kettle of stewing bones entirely. Tobe Hooper’s magnum opus is definitely a winding down of the American dream, made during the first oil crisis, amid the dusty decay of hippie utopianism, where the Aquarian Age gives way to the malevolence of Saturn, and the noble rustic of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has become the utterly degraded family in the seedy white house.
For the décor alone Texas Chain Saw would be a seminal film. Hooper took the stories of Ed Gein’s ghoulish human furniture, half whispered from his Wisconsin relatives during his childhood, and constructed a stunning nightmare tableau of animal, feather and bones. Starting with the real life story of the same murderer who inspired Psycho and Silence of the Lambs and an EC Comics aesthetic, Hooper embellishes the Western accoutrements far beyond the point of kitsch into a new species of American Gothic design. It is as if an Indian burial ground had been located behind a white picket fence and inside the house.
But, of course, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not merely a home decorators night terror. The hulking figure of human skin mask wearing Leatherface holding a spitting, snarling, whining, growling chainsaw dominates the proceedings. Then there is his port wine stained brother marking the side of the hippie van with his own blood. Or try dad, a corrupt Andy Griffith-like escapee from a mental institution. Or take granddad, impossibly wizened and leechlike. Or what about that strangely defective guy at the gas station with the bucket? And by the time of the final scene, when blood drenched Sally has barely escaped yet surely has lost her sanity, Leatherface remains alone on the road pirouetting a stark ballet in the sweltering morning sun, chainsaw whirring as he whisks it round and round. American Gothic Cinema now had become something to reckon with.
From Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), to any number of slasher flicks, American Goth now dominated the landscape of horror. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) was a pitch perfect blend of vampire horror and contemporary Western. Who needed the old creatures of Europe anymore to find deep streams of fear?
And the American Gothic influence soon entered deeply into the apocalyptic phase of the Western. Clint Eastwood understood this best in films like The Beguiled (1971), true Civil War Gothic, High Plains Drifter (1973), an amoral 70’s take on Hell’s Hinges, or Unforgiven (1992), a stark masterful Western in high American Gothic. Gone was the optimism of the Western Epic. Gone was the High Noon hope of law, order and courage conquering the shady debasements of greed. All that remains is Eastwood’s ravaged visage stalking through rainy night; remorseless shark’s eyes. Unforgiven is an American Gothic masterpiece, a filmic cousin to Cormac McCarthy’s Western Gothic tales.
And it is in Australian John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road (2009) that we encounter another seminal work of American Gothic Film. Which reminds me, obviously one doesn’t have to be American to create American Gothic works. And in fact many countries now produce Gothicized versions of their national zeitgeist: Australia, Mexico and Japan come to mind. Yet the same entropic spirit of loss and decay hover over them all.
The filmed version of The Road is especially pungent. Many post-Apocalyptic variations of the American Gothic nightmare have been produced (i.e. A Boy and His Dog, The Book of Eli) but The Road stands out for it’s hewing so close to the bone of reality. The cannibals in the film bleed of an actuality bred of a close observation of the human condition.
And finally I’d just like to mention one other recent American Gothic classic: Winter’s Bone (2010), directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence. The film, based upon Daniel Woodrell’s novel, comes across like an earlier chapter in The Road, our moment, the moment before the apocalypse. The rural character of the Missouri landscape has been altered by meth labs and damaged human relationships. There is no longer a dream of progress to which one can aspire. Jennifer Lawrence is perhaps the perfect American Gothic actress. While visually flawless, she nevertheless conveys depths of loss and disillusionment beneath her pragmatic resolve. (Also check out her performance in The Poker House.) As Ree she moves invisibly from an unimpressible and prematurely responsible teen to Gothic apparition in a tar-black folk tale as she hovers over her fathers submerged body in the moonlight in a canoe. This is American Gothic filmmaking of the highest order; uniting the many streams into one shivering autumnal tale to be told around a campfire after the country has sunk into apocalyptic disarray.
Next: We cock an ear to the sounds of American Gothic Music.
(Click on the images to enlarge them.)
Now we come to American Gothic Art. And I think we can say with some confidence if anything has a mangy pedigree in the art world this breed certainly does. American Gothic Art was not born in the studios and galleries of New York City. It is not sold in crafts fairs. It rarely touches the confines of well-considered art in any degree. Only Edward Hopper’s dark desolate structures speak of the kind of quality that is spoken of with admiration in the tonier climes of the art world. But most of the rest of it? Junk really: Cartoons and sideshow banners, pulp and comic books. It’s just illustration: a word sniffed at in some quarters; and with good reason.
Before we get too far into the subterranean realms of art’s American gothicisms, let’s point out what American Gothic Art isn’t. First and foremost, Grant Wood’s American Gothic certainly is in no way American Gothic. (See American Gothic #1.) Jasper John’s American flags are not Gothic. Georgia O’Keefe’s cow skulls are too spiritual, too proto-New Agey, to be called Gothic. Likewise no Pop Art, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, no Modernism in general, are connected with it in any way. And all Postmodernism by definition is excluded from American Gothic. But on the opposite end of spectrum: Currier and Ives and especially Norman Rockwell’s cute Americana are not American Gothic, nor do I think they ever will become so. And American illustrations of European Gothic do not qualify, even, as in Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein, they are created by artists with a real American Gothic touch.
Again American Gothic has to use American themes, particularly themes now truly lost to the present, or an imagining of the present in its entropic future all the while thoroughly connecting it with America’s past.
The first evidence of something uniquely American Gothic that I can locate is to be found in the works of illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. He worked for nearly all of the second half of the 19th Century. His most notable illustrations were featured in Harper’s Weekly, which bears some relationship to England’s Punch. While much of Nast’s political cartooning is beyond the scope of this essay once in a while he would portray a theme rife with a specific kind of American darkness. His depiction of Confederate President Jefferson Davis reaping a harvest of skulls is a completely realized American Gothic work of art. And it’s from 1861! And that leads one to speculate how far back American Gothic imagery actually goes. Just as clear is Nast’s influence on Edward Gorey. (And Gorey is a huge influence on filmmaker and artist Tim Burton.)
A brief mention should also be made at this point of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper from the 1880’s. His work often had a curious haunted edge to it.
After the rather outlandish political cartoons of the late 19th Century, (Don’t even get me started on all that minstrel and coon imagery!) we next jump the caravan of the touring carnival sideshow. The truly American institution of the traveling carnival is near to the heart of American Gothic Art. The clumsily painted sideshow banners and circus and freak show posters are a real influence upon the visual palette of the American Gothic imagination.
The Western Frontier contains another cluster of Gothic images waiting to be born. Besides the many illustrations from Dime Novels, even the classic Western Artists like Frederick Remington would occasionally hit upon an image resonant with a receding view of the dark frontier. James Earle Fraser’s famous statue End of the Trail with it’s slouching native warrior reeks of desolation, sorrow and finiteness. Much of the imagery surrounding the destruction of the Native American has acquired an American Gothic flavor. And anytime you see an Indian burial ground in a work of literature (Stephen King) or film (Jeremiah Johnson) you are almost automatically in an American Gothic situation.
In the first half of the 20th Century the carnival with its tricksters and hustles continued to be both a source of fascination and a slowly dying way of life. Yet in films like Nightmare Alley and Freaks and in pulp magazines and comics it yielded much to the artistic side of the American Gothic vision.
Speaking of pulp magazines, we can’t pass by the curious art works of these little rough-hewn compendiums. While much of the art was purely fantasy or science fiction, jungles and robots and barely clad women in a degraded post-symbolist style. Periodically an artist like Virgil Finlay might portray a Gothic scene with purely American roots.
In the 1930’s the WPA (Works Progress Administration) supported many artists including several with definite American Gothic leanings. Thomas Hart Benton’s post-Van Gogh murals and paintings occasionally showed the frightening side of rural America. His Approaching Storm and Prodigal are masterpieces.
The WPA artist who calls forth most eerily with a vision of a lonely desolate America is Edward Hopper. His justly famous Nighthawks is one of the pinnacles of American art and, like most American Gothic work, is completely unaffiliated with the trends of the art world. In Hopper we enter a world of isolation and starkness that is in full concord with the American Gothic prophecy. And quite clearly Hopper’s work has much in common with the worlds of the Hardboiled Detective and Film Noir. (But we’ll leave aside those implications for now.)
At last we come to the 1950’s and another fountainhead of the American Gothic: EC Comics, particularly their horror titles. Starting from the point where Virgil Finlay left off artists like Johnny Craig and ‘Ghastly’ Graham Engels might conjure up a deeply unsettling apparition of the dark heart of America. One cannot overstate the influence of EC Comics upon contemporary horror films. Just one example: George Romero’s decaying walking dead can be found here in a form halfway between the Haitian zombie and the living dead of contemporary culture. EC Comics were so intense that they were eventually banned. But in fact they were quite intelligent and their art might truly be seen as a high water mark of comic book history.
Then came the hippie generation and while the multiplicity of paeans to a kind of overblown indiscriminate love infested both the world and the word underneath the naïveté darker questioning American Gothic seeds began to sprout. One could argue that the underground comics in their scatological anarchy contained many American Gothic ideas. The works of Jaxon, Jack Jackson, come to mind readily. And R. Crumb’s work would eventually shift tone from bubbly acid playgrounds to a veritable Gothic gallery of a decaying America. Meanwhile even at DC Comics, a bastion of caped superheroes, a strange scarecrow-like figure, Brother Power, The Geek, betrayed the hallucination of a gothicized version of what the hippies themselves would eventually look like drenched in dark psychedelia.
In comic book land the American Gothic urge was being revived in other ways: First through Warren’s Creepy and Eerie Magazines, then through the arts of many mainstream comic artists, of whom Bernie Wrightson stands out as one of the great American Gothic artists of anytime. In the Seventies he drew vampires, aliens, superheroes and the rest, but his Gothic Americana stands out. Strongly influenced by EC Comics his works often summon up the more unnerving aspects of the American nightmare. Mementos is more than just Norman Rockwell’s rural inversion. It delivers such a strong statement of that gulp-worthy sense of American Gothic black humor as well. In comes as no surprise that Wrightson also depicted a stunning variation on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (See American Gothic #1) And his interest in the dark carnival Freak Show is perfectly consistent with the deepest traditions of the American Gothic idea.
Wrightson also understands the power of the EC & Romero styled zombie as the personification of future dread. And it is his fascination not only with the macabre but the specifically decayed dream of an America at the close of its classic age that links him with the nauseating bleakness of outsider artist Joe Coleman. Coleman in his performance art bit the heads off mice, in direct emulation of the sideshow geek, stubbed out cigars on his face and blew himself up with fireworks at that most American of events, the high school reunion. Meanwhile his crammed paintings were filled with the decadent icons of a psychotic country: Charles Manson, Ed Gein, PT Barnum and Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence Kansas. Joe may be an outsider to the art world, but his work is perfectly in line with American Gothic tradition.
American Gothic Art lives like its subject matter on the fringes of an America grown almost pathologically optimistic. Its citizens thrive on conspiracy theories while living vicariously through various commercial pop culture mirages. American Gothic Art, unlike the regnant postmodern species, holds up the prophetic mirror of a ruined future rooted in an abandoned past and a deaf and blind present. As we move on into American Gothic Film we see these motifs intensified.
Come back again if you dare…
What To Do Until Reality Is Rediscovered
… a Few Practical Suggestions
Although I’m just beginning this little foray into the art of the essay, (I’ve committed myself to doing this for at least a year.) nevertheless, if I only critique without providing a few unconventional suggestions then I won’t have given much support for the lone souls trying to piece whatever this means together.
So far the only alternative I’ve provided is puppetry, which is not a simple proposal at all. (See Antidote Art #1 & #2.) Meanwhile there is indeed much more to say. But rather than try to be too schematic I’m going to jump around and present what might appear to be disconnected.
The first thing that occurs to me is the need to recognize that much that used to be taken for granted has been cast off in recent years. People used to make shoes, make music in the evenings together, grow their own food, make local forms of folk art, invite friends over for intellectual discussion, read together, pass on memories and that’s just what popped into my head rather spontaneously. In other words most of what used to pass for human behavior has been overturned largely in favor of passive amusement intake and rather addictive information gathering. When activity does get the upper hand it is largely inspired by the media we consume, the propaganda we manufacture at every turn or the fear that that our current modes of existence are somehow highly detrimental to our own existence. What used to occur naturally now must happen by choice or not at all.
Consider this: People used to get together and make music. This is particularly important to me, since I have spent quite a while among musicians and studying music history. I am probably a product of one of the last folk cultures in North America to actually just play music with no thought of actually ever recording. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I was part of a network of Jesus People communes running from the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon that provided a foundation for a unique music style that was at best poorly recorded, if at all. When I came home from work and sat with my friends we naturally played an unusual form of country influenced acoustic rock together. Now I could make quite a few serious criticisms of these Jesus People groups, but the music is not one of them. We took songs of all types and turned them around for own purposes. It was a far more vibrant music scene than most of what has passed for Alternative or Independent music since then. It was eventually supplanted and subverted by the commercial Christian music stealing out of Southern California.
After I passed on to the next phase of my life, I found myself in the late 70’s in situations where people were actually singing John Denver and Beatle songs around campfires as if they were folk songs. Later I would meet people, musical types, who would in all earnestness tell me that all pop music was folk music. I could only reflect back on what I had experienced in the flesh to know that making real music is a very different idea from the containment of pop consumption. (And the word consumption here is definitely tubercular.) I eventually ended up in New York City in the Eighties and was stunned to find out that the vast majority of my musicians friends never played together except in conditions where they could practice or play at full rock concert level. I rarely heard of any of them just sitting around playing together. (And I don’t mean jamming and all of the connotations that implies these days.) Since then I have indeed met post-Deadheads into “drumming” or other naïve wastrels who seem to be yearning for something more real, yet somehow often moving music further from that which unites people into a culture as they imitate their favorite pop cult examples. So for me making music together is a crucial way to resume the human project. And yet the microphone and amplifiers too often crush the real experience of music. The key to the equation seems to lie in this thought: That music is not primarily either entertainment or art as defined by the 20th Century.
Music used to be connected to work. Music used to truly celebrate the moments that make life meaningful. Life wasn’t about music. Music was about life. And so to even begin to think of ways to integrate music back into life will require much more time than I have here.
Speaking of celebrations: I don’t want to find that when I’ve died someone has cooked up “A Celebration of the Life of Byrne Power”. When I die please mourn my passing. Why are the most important moments in our lives mutating into feel good parties? How many chances do we actually get to show sorrow in public anymore? Please hold a funeral for me. And cry. I don’t mind if you have something like a wake afterwards. But please no slide shows with photos of me as a child. And above all do not play a recording of my favorite song. (Good luck trying to figure that out.) Find real singers, someone who knew me. Get over this positive thinking curse and learn to grieve properly.
Food: Here is a major area of conflict and nightmarish propaganda. So I’m certainly not going to launch into a vegan vs. synthetarian diatribe here. But here is what I have to say: Eating meals is near the top of the list of practical things you can do to retrieve a sense of reality back from the artificial maw of mass culture. Now while I am all in favor of nutrition, knowing the difference between good wine and bad, sustainable living and whatnot, that’s all really beside the point. What matters is finding ways to reconnect with others while you eat at least now and then. What is the point of living in culinary splendor or correctness if your meals are less than human? None at all.
Meals are the best way to help weld a small community together. I have experimented with meals for years as way of bringing people together the like and the unlike, the convivial and the disparate. Here are a few practical personal rules that I have discovered for myself. I really haven’t expected anyone else to follow these rules, but I have discovered that as I apply them others seem to be at least momentarily present at the occasion.
First: The television should never be left on. This seems to me to be almost obvious and insulting to point out, except that I know from too much first hand experience that far too few people even know what I mean. A meal is essentially subordinated to the screen, especially during holidays that require the presence of a turkey. Yeah I know what about the game? Exactly what about the game? Why is it so important? If the game is so important to you, then just watch the game. But try not to confuse eating a real meal with grabbing a few people to watch the game. In my house I try to never leave an active screen on when real humans are present, unless the point is to watch films. It sucks the life out of anything. Ditto screens that fit on your teeny phone.
Second: Meat. (Okay if you aren’t into meat please skip this…) Yeah meat. Meat is important for getting people together. The real feast always hovers around meat. I’ve been invited to endless potlucks with casseroles and organic get-togethers. It’s never special until you throw the sacrificial animal down on the table. (See the story of Cain and Abel.) And I’m not simply talking the big turkey meals, which are often too clichéd to ring true. I mean goose, duck, rabbits, goat, moose, an entire freshly caught sockeye salmon. Someday I hope to have suckling pig for the second time in my life. I could go on an on here. I’ve seen it work every time. Three times last summer and fall I had an entire haunch of goat (which I killed and butchered myself). Each time automatically became a memorable moment. Ask anyone who was there. Good meat, rare meat, expensive meat makes people talk. The conversation begins and that is the real point of the whole meal.
Third (and last for now): Don’t invite people over a meal at the same moment that you expect to eat. Get them there at least an hour earlier if you can. Leave some of the cooking unfinished. Let people work together prepping the food in the kitchen. That’s when people really start talking. When I cook a special chestnut dressing that I learned in France I always wait for the guests to come over before I start the boiling process. Then I assign one or two of them to boil the chestnuts and to peel them before they get cold, which always burns your fingertips. But no one has ever really complained because the final product is so tasty and the process of scalding your fingers actually provokes much needed laughter.
There are so many other ideas related to food and the practicalities of life that can be done to help people recover enough of their human essence to open up the path for dialogue, real discourse. And that, my friends, is the point. I will return to this subject in due course.
Meanwhile conduct some experiments in conviviality…