Niall Ferguson has written an absorbing and disturbing account of warfare in the first half of the 20th century and beyond, War of the world. The title’s self-conscious take on H G Wells’ story of a Martian invasion of our planet suggests all too painfully that the alien element that threatens to destroy us is inside us, not outside, another way of saying we are our own worst enemies.
Whatever the merits of Ferguson’s specific arguments – for example that this period was the most violent in history, that this was caused by instability, with ethnic dimensions brought on by integration and assimilation – the sheer awfulness of the events he describes is breath-taking as it is sobering. Is this our lot, really? “Nasty, brutish and short” taken to a general conclusion? Are we just inherently violent, ready whenever it suits to drop the thin veneer of decency for the snarling monster of real humanity?
It seems to me, as a writer and a human, that as in so much of our natures, the answer is double sided. Yes, that monster is there, though it is not always the horrible fellow we say. But no, it is not necessarily the rule; it just can be. Indeed, it can be argued that peacefulness is the rule, that if the desire to have a peaceful life is not a wellspring of society, it has been a powerful byproduct of the “march of civilisation”. Midway through the mammoth series that is Edward Gibbon’s History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (I am now three-quarters through the third of six volumes) the repeated failures of the Romans to provide security for their citizens – some of them Romans but many and even most incorporated from other cultures – makes for painful reading. Those who were conquered and then “assimilated” into the Roman state were often willing new subjects, refugees from the instability and horrors of life in the regions outside the empire – they sought a peaceful life. For centuries, they got it. But when things went awry, the former empire sank into chaos. It is no surprise that feudalism rose from the rubble – peasants and others seeking protection from random violence via a local lord and his knights, and willing to shoulder arms to help.
Today most people live quite unviolent lives. It is our norm, and it is because it is our norm that violence so terrifies and outrages and also fascinates us. Those who in our communities step outside the norm and practice routine violence threaten us at least implicitly. When whole societies fall into a violent mode, where normal life is impossible – as in Mexican and other Latin American towns during the drug cartel wars for example – we shiver inside. Well, if you don’t, I do. Breaking this cycle seems to invite the fighting fire with fire response that not surprisingly prompts the spectre of further descent into the maelstrom.
This reality – or perhaps “these realities” – also spawn and justify the attention to violence in our arts and media, but raise troubling issues when they are explicit. It is fair to ask whether graphic violence promotes real violence in the same way that chaotic social violence makes peaceful life so difficult. Even I, as a writer who puts violence in his books that is a focus of the storyline and central to the moral dimensions of my work, find this troubling.
It seems to me that deliberate exploitation of violence in the arts – such as some of Luc Besson’s violent thriller films like Leon the professional or La femme Nikita – is morally indefensible, though that does not mean this work should be banned. It is possible to depict and explore the realities of the most gruesome violence in all their moral dimensions without implying for a moment that because it is real, it is ok to do it. Besson no doubt carefully choreographed the moral dimensions of his graphic depictions in these films just as much as the staging of them, to be able to justify them to critics. The very care he has taken suggests to me that he knows what he is doing is wrong, and cynically goes on doing it. For example, in Leon, a young woman who says she is 18 but who looks much younger, played by Natalie Portman, teams up with a professional killer after her family is horrifically murdered by a drug-crazed corrupt cop.. When she kills someone, it is less gruesome than when Leon does, even though both are shown graphically enough, and Leon’s murders are correspondingly less awful than the villains’. I couldn’t bring myself to watch this film to the end, so perhaps Natalie “lifts her game” in the denouement when she confronts the corrupt and nutty cop, and goes from making little specks of blood appear on her victims’ abdomens to blasting away as organs fly around the room, but her first few shootings and killings are deliberately depicted as somehow less terrible than Leon’s, or the villains’.
Besson can also point to the “context” of these killings in that innocent people are the villains’ victims (Portman’s family) and thus qualify for the most gruesome violence while Leon and she kill criminals of one sort or another, where instant death is part of the deal. As crims, they are not fully human…
Yet what seems to me to be the point of Besson’s technique is to desensitise his audience towards violence and its consequences. Portman’s character is as methodlical and businesslike in killing as her mentor; it’s just what one does when one is a “clearner” as Leon describes himself, right?
Critics defend him. One who says he is among the greats calls this approach to violence “a conscientious resistance to human degradation”. That just doesn’t seem right to me; this resistance seems to deliberately wallow in human degradation. And with Leon, a film whose premise is staggeringly ridiculous, there seem to be underlying motives outside the film itself.*
I was watching these films because I had earlier seen another, Angel-A, that I liked a great deal for other reasons, in which violence played a secondary and far less graphic role. So Besson is not uniform in his treatment. He can be funny, and in Angel-A, he raises interesting issues about personality and our ability to change and improve as people.
Whatever Besson’s effect on others – Nikita is apparently considered a classic of the genre – his effect on me has been to make me rethink my attitude towards violence in my own writing. Some of my books** suggest that there are obvious situations where violence is justified and I feel certain that in the real, as opposed to the make-believe moral universe we would all like to inhabit but don’t, that this is so. But when considered as on a slippery slope, maybe this sledge is one a writer only thinks she or he is piloting as it heads towards the abyss.
* It has been suggested (see Wiki) that with Leon, Besson was making a film about a young woman while having a relationship with a 15 year-old, smearing a personal statement all over the screen and into viewers’ faces.
** This may be true of all of them, but The Kleiber Monster, Tobi’s Game, Demented and Kaos all examine this moral dilemma in some way.