In his review of a new book by Allen Wheelis, The Listener: A Psychoanalyst Examines His Life, Douglas Hofstadter quotes a beautifully written but nightmarish anecdote about the killing of a bird that Wheelis witnessed in his youth. The language is poetic. The content is brutal and terrifying ... and magnetic in its fascination.

Why are certain images of perverse torture so attractive to (apparently) healthy human beings? Horror movies, novels, short stories, and poems often revolve around moments of torment and pain. Why? Is it simply satisfying to be scared and yet safe? Is the brain taking advantage of a vicarious learning situation, encouraging the accumulation of data about trouble so as to avoid it in the future? Or are we just experiencing cross-talk between mental circuits? --- that is, getting excited by one set of stimuli because of their accidental linkage to completely different functions, e.g. food, shelter, reproduction, etc.? (And is that the basis of much commercial advertising? "Sex sells" and so forth?)

How should one respond to reports of individual or state-sponsored brutality and terrorism? ... to graphic descriptions of genocide? ... to news of ritual mutilation of young girls and boys, tribal "customs" which result in life-long suffering? Should one be ashamed of a fascination with horrible imagery? Or can this visceral emotion be recognized and harnessed --- or in appropriate circumstances even enjoyed?

And besides the fascination with evil that normal folk feel, how can one understand those individuals who actually perform grim things to other living creatures? What goes on in such people's minds? Do they have no empathy for their victims? Or is there a continuous spectrum of behavior from the saintly to the demonic?

Tuesday, November 30, 1999 at 21:35:21 (EST) = 1999-11-30

TopicLiterature - TopicPoetry - TopicJustice

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