Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eric G. Wilson's "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck"

Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, and five books on the relationship between literature and psychology.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Sarcasm wears after a while. (Ask my friends.) Yes, there’s a time to smirk sardonically at a celebrity’s meltdown (Charlie Sheen’s being the most recent) or a colleague’s comeuppance. But what of someone who watches actual beheadings on the Internet? This is a different story. This is not aestheticized macabre, macabre at a distance, where no one really dies or even gets hurt too bad— not fictional or artistic or filtered through slicked- up media. This is a matter of real blood, real pain, real death.

After 9/11, beheadings of American citizens were made available to millions on the Internet. Take the case of Eugene Armstrong, known as Jack, a construction worker from Michigan who moved to Iraq because of the lucrative work opportunities there.

On September 16, 2004, only months into his stay in Iraq, Armstrong and two other GSCS employees were kidnapped by the Tawhid and Jihad Islamic extremist groups, headed by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi. The kidnapper claimed they would free the men if the United States would release the female prisoners....
Why would anyone watch a beheading? I ask this question on page 99, where I try to understand why millions, in September of 2004, watched an Islamic extremist group brutally decapitate Eugene Armstrong.

The killers streamed a video of this grisly execution on the world-wide-web. Soon after, they posted footage of their beheadings of Jack Hensley and Kenneth Bigley. In each case, the internet was almost slowed to a halt by viewer traffic. Websites devoted to these beheadings, as well as to actual combat from Iraq and Afghanistan, soon sprang up. These pages—one of which advertised itself by asking, “Can you handle life?”—created a new category of titillation, “war porn.”

Americans love violence. We need look no further than the extreme popularity of the crime, action, and horror genres. But our grisly police procedurals, gore-ridden flicks, and cool thrillers are all aesthetic renderings of violence: brutality filtered through lighting, soundtrack, script, acting. These buffers keep the gruesomeness at a remove, however slight, by representing it as a meaningful event. We understand the killer’s motivations, for instance, or comprehend the nature of revenge.

Great literary tragedies—King Lear—or powerful paintings—Saturn Devouring his Son—make sense of violence in more complex, awe-inspiring ways, creating, to use Yeats’ phrase, terrible beauties. Unspeakable violence to a Shakespeare or a Goya is an invitation to contemplate the meaning of suffering and empathy’s grace. The morbid becomes the muse.

Violence stripped of aesthetic buffers can overwhelm our meaning-making imaginations, shut down our interpretive abilities or seduce us into shallow truisms. What, then, is the attraction of unadulterated gruesomeness? What purpose, if any, does this gawking serve? Is this gazing a crass exploitation of another’s suffering, or an expression deeper desire to grasp what ultimately unifies us all? We suffer and die.

In my book, I attempt to answer these questions.
Learn more about Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website.

--Marshal Zeringue