Why watch evil?

So I haven’t had time to follow up the horror post yet as promised, mainly because seeing Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty today meant that I spent six hours in the cinema. But some thoughts will be posted here shortly (along with some thoughts on the two films. I just need a day or two to digest them). In the meantime, a better and more direct formulation of the problem I’m grappling with, this time from Matthew Kieran:

At one level it is easy to see why art works deal with morally bad characters and situations from Shakespeare’s Richard III to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. We are naturally interested in why people are bad, come to be so or come to do bad things. What looks more puzzling is how and why works get us to empathize, sympathize, and even admire bad people or react to morally problematic situations as we would or ought not to ordinarily. Consider how you might likely react to the following newspaper headlines:

Wife-killing paedophile kidnaps young step-daughter

Suburban homeowner is psychopathic mafia boss

Trendy Shoreditch moron sleeps with 13-year-old model

Beethoven lover rapes wife of respected author

Adulteress arranges husband’s murder and betrays lover

Bully Manager made staff’s lives hell

In real life if we read about the events as encapsulated in such headlines or witnessed them our moral shock and horror would likely preclude sympathy for or empathy with the perpetrators involved. Yet given that the mock headlines above refer to Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Tony in The Sopranos, Nathan Barley in Nathan Barley, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and David Brent (UK) or Michael Scott (US) from The Office respectively, we know that this is not the case with respect to many art works.


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