Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Savage Pastimes" (2005)

Revealed wisdom is that violent entertainment, whether via TV, movies, comics, video games or books, is bad for children. In fact, most people assume that too much of it will turn kids into felons at the drop of a Stetson with a bullet hole in it.

Not so, says literature professor Harold Schechter, who spends his afternoons teaching 19th century American lit at Queens College in New York and his mornings writing crime novels starring Edgar Allan Poe, or drop dead readable mass market true crime books on the lives and careers of serial killers.

His message in "Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment" is, not only is contemporary pop culture not more violent than it used to be, it’s actually less violent—and even if it were just as violent, that would be a good thing. Following Gerard Jones’ 2002 book "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, "Schechter makes a strong case in favor of the idea that humans are just too near, in evolutionary terms, dropping down from the tree or crawling out of the swamp to be completely civilized. We need the outlet of violent entertainment to keep from being violent in fact.

“One of the main functions of the popular arts,” he writes, “is precisely to supply us with fantasies of violence, to allow us to vent—safely, in a controlled, socially acceptable, vicarious way—those ‘undying primal impulses which, however outmoded by civilization, need somehow to be expressed’ (as Leslie Fiedler puts it).”

Most of the book is spent conveying anecdotal evidence (not too convincing) and in relating the history of violent entertainment through the ages (very eye-opening.) There was a time, he tells us, that even the church used the latest special effects technology to make medieval mystery plays gruesomely spectacular.

“No celebration of Christian martyrdom would be complete without at least one fiery immolation—a requirement satisfied in The Acts of the Apostles by the burning of St. Barnabas. For added verisimilitude, the stand-in dummy was stuffed with animal entrails. As the figure blazed, the offal spilled onto the stage. By this clever means ‘the stench of roasting flesh complement[ed] the sight of the body being consumed by the flame.”

This is stuff even Mel Gibson didn’t think of.

None of Schechter’s ideas are exactly new. He quotes Edmund Burke’s 1757 tract on the Sublime and Beautiful to the effect that the citizens of his day would rather watch a real execution than an imitation one performed by the best actors.

The good thing, Schechter believes, is that we have become civilized enough to happily settle for the imitation. This is why he says that modern pop culture violence is considerably less than it used to be. We may still execute criminals, but at least we don’t do it in public.

Quoting critic George Stade, Schechter writes that “People are fascinated by representations of murder because, in the first place, they want to kill someone and, in the second, they won’t. Surely one function of narrative is to allow in the imagination what we forbid in the flesh.”

Schechter has little use for the professionally outraged, those letters to the editor writers who see damaged young psyches behind every thumb and forefinger bent to form an imaginary gun.

“The problem with moral crusaders,” he writes, “is an almost willful blindness to the fundamental realities of human behavior, accompanied by a sweeping ignorance of cultural history that prevents them from seeing supposedly unique manifestations of modern depravity for what they really are—i.e., simply the latest versions of perennial phenomena.

“The pattern is always the same. A new medium of mass entertainment comes along that is aimed at—or embraced primarily by—kids and the working class. Very quickly, high-minded reformers begin to denounce it as a sign of social decay, a corrupter of the young, a threat to the very existence of civilization as we know it.”

Schechter doesn’t follow through on the key concept here—that it is not just the children that “need to be protected,” but the less-smart-than-we members of the working class that also need the guidance of people who demonize pop culture, schools and libraries, and then heroically volunteer to step in and solve the problem only they saw in the first place.

Certainly many moral reformers are concerned with morals—but many others see these “problems” as a means of gaining political control.

"Savage Pastimes" is clumsily edited, with names misspelled and words repeated in sentences. If Schechter wanted the book to be used in classrooms, he should have done a little more scientific research and relied on anecdotes, but as an introduction to the, for some, heretical notion that violent entertainment is as inevitable as violence itself—and a lot less destructive—this is a good place to start.

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