By Richard Smoley
Originally printed in the Summer 2009 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. â€œFrom the Executive Editor - Summer 2009.â€ Quest 97. 3 (Summer 2009): 82.
From time to time in my reading, I turn to some classic work of fiction that Iâ€™ve never gotten around to before. Recently I read Saul Bellowâ€™s novel Herzog, about a middle-aged professor whose wife runs off with his best friend.
Herzog is furious. At one point he gets an old horse pistol that had belonged to his father and goes to his ex-wifeâ€™s house, intending to shoot her and her lover. But as he sees them through the window, he realizes that he will do no such thing. He goes off and eventually makes peace with his sorrow.
Herzog was published in 1964. I wonder whether a novelist writing today would be able to avoid the temptation to have Herzog use the gun. Anton Chekhov once said that you canâ€™t have a pistol onstage without having it go off. American art over the last few decades seems dedicated to the principle that pistols must be found everywhere and used at all times. This is true not only in mass culture but increasingly in the â€œseriousâ€ arts as well. Just today I read a New York Times review of a production of the Oresteia that features a great deal of red fluid spurting about.
Conflict is the key to drama: if you take a basic course in scriptwriting, thatâ€™s the first thing you will learn. But if you watch the typical current movie or (increasingly) read the typical current novel, youâ€™ll get the impression that conflict is a spice that is dumped willy-nilly into every dish. Certain moviesâ€”Spike Leeâ€™s come to mindâ€”have everyone shouting at one another at every possible juncture regardless of whether itâ€™s necessary to the plot or relevant to what the characters are experiencing. Other films have characters firing weapons at one another at every possible juncture.
Itâ€™s easy to see why. If youâ€™re a mediocre filmmaker with little sense of plot or dialogue, you can always fill in the holes with gunfire. By now viewers have come to expect this practice as a matter of course, and a film that is lacking in bloodshed is often dismissed as slow or boring or, still worse, â€œforeign.â€
Since films remain one of our nationâ€™s chief exports even in a time of chronic trade deficits, our filmmakers are shipping this idea of America abroad. Possibly some or most of the anti-Americanism that we are seeing worldwide is the result of this image. If America is a country riddled with pimps, drug dealers, gang lords, and craven politicians beholden to them, and if we are a people who have to keep pistols in our nightstands so that we can sleep in peace, who would want to be like us? Who would not want to keep American influence at bay?
Nor is it just a matter of how we look to the world at large. One adage says that you become what you behold, so violence has become a central element in our self-definition as Americans. We still imagine ourselves as a nation of pioneers who must keep rifles over our hearths to fight off the savagesâ€”or, if you prefer, wary vigilantes holed up against the gangsters and psychopaths beating down our doors.
The usual punch line to this sort of reflection is that images of violence propagate real violence and that we must do something about this explosion of criminality on our viewing screens. Impose stricter rating standards, perhaps? Ban violence from TV? Unfortunately, such editorializing has gone on for decades with no result whatsoever.
I would like to suggest something different. We need to see that violence has become an artistic clichÃ©. Like all clichÃ©s, it has simply become uninteresting. If youâ€™ve seen one car chase through a crowded city, youâ€™ve seen them all. If youâ€™ve heard one movie gangster threaten a hero tied to a chair, youâ€™ve heard them all. They are all the same, and all are incredibly tiresome: the clever heists, the drug deals gone bad, the sadistic hoodlums, the misfit cops who throw out the rules and do it their own way. The changes have all been rung on bloodshed, American style.
Whatâ€™s the point of this discussion? Itâ€™s quite simple. People are, like it or not, herd animals, and by and large they (or rather we) follow the crowd. In the America of 2009, where attention spans are shrinking to nanolevels, there is nothing worse than being â€œso last year.â€ Itâ€™s time to move the crowd in another direction by bestowing upon violence the most poisonous of all stigmas: that of being passÃ©. Brutality in our cultural imagination will not end with a bang or for that matter with a whimper, but we may be able to end it with a yawn.