[She] was only a victim. Like all the others. It’s so easy to create a victim, young lady, so easy…
The World as it is, there is nothing but victims. Martyrs are exceptionally rare. They survive pain, they survive total deprivation. They bear all the sins of the earth. They give themselves up. They transcend themselves… they are transfigured.
~ Mademoiselle, from “Martyrs” (2008).
So long. We wish you well. You told us how you weren’t afraid to die. Well then, so long. Don’t cry here, or feel too down. Not all martyrs see divinity. But at least you tried…
Come down. Get off your fucking cross. We need the fucking space, to nail the next fool martyr.
~ Maynard, Eulogy.
I. Trauma and Martyrdom
In my last post, I feel that I didn’t pay sufficient attention to Will Sheff’s remarks about trauma. I feel that I too easily brushed aside some important ideas, and so I would like to return to this notion of “rapturous trauma”. Once again, here is the key portion of Sheff’s quote:
I’m really interested in the idea that trauma can be a really rapturous thing. You know, some people return again and again to trauma– they re-enact it and feel it again. It becomes something that defines their personality.
In thinking further about this, I was reminded of various artistic representations of this-or-that Saint being killed in this-or-that manner. In these pictures, trauma is often portrayed as something rapturous. The veil between heaven and earth seems to have torn, the face of the saint shines, and he or she appears to be transported by a vision of something too beautiful for words. Thus, the murder is not called trauma, or torture, or murder. It is called martyrdom. It is described this way in The Martydom of Polycarp:
And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?— who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure.
This is why, when he was young, Origen longed to rush out and join the company of the martyrs and was only prevented from doing so because his mother was smart enough to take and hide his clothes.
Still, having journeyed alongside of many who have experienced the sort of violent actions described in Sheff’s songs, it is pretty clear to me that trauma, at its core, is something very different than martyrdom. Trauma permits no heavenly companions, no separation from one’s (tortured) body, no justifications, and no escape routes. Trauma is that which disorients all of these things as they previously existed in the life of a person. Trauma is a tidal wave that sweeps a person away and leaves the person stranded in a world that is no longer recognizable or safe. If one is able to go through torture and remain a witness to all that one was and all that one believed previously than I think one has experienced pain, but has not necessarily experienced trauma.
This is why Sheff is onto something when he talks about the ways in which a trauma may come to define a person. It does so, not necessarily because it is something rapturous, but because one needs to rebuild one’s self and one’s world in a new way if one is to continue to live. Trauma can become definitive because it posits a break in one’s life, a before and after are established and an unbridgeable gap is wedged between the two.
It is for this reason that one may describe rapturous moments as traumatic, but I don’t think one should assume we can do the reverse and describe traumatic moments as rapturous. For example, consider what Saul understood to be his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road. This Event caused him to fall blinded into the road. He didn’t eat or drink anything for three days after it occurred. The experience completely shattered the world he had lived in previously, it reoriented his life in an entirely new way. These are elements of the traumatic within the rapturous.
But can one posit elements of the rapturous within the traumatic? Can one, especially as an outsider looking in, describe the kidnapping, or killing, or torture of another person and conclude that there was something rapturous about their experiences? I remain skeptical.
II. Watching “Martyrs”: A Simulacrum of Solidarity?
Speaking of being an outsider looking in — which always leads, in my mind, to questions of voyeurism and exploitation, especially when the subject is the sufferings of others — I am reminded of Pascal Laugier’s film, “Martyrs,” which explores questions like these in great detail. “Martyrs” is a movie unlike anything else I have seen (and, given the proclivities of the young people with whom I work, I’ve ended up watching a number of other slasher/torture movies, from American pulp to gorier films that have come out of France and Asia). I’ve actually tried to blog about the movie more than once and wasn’t able to properly express myself. However, let me be clear: I am not recommending that anybody go and see “Martyrs.” It is the most violent and terrifying movie that I have ever watched.
More than anything else, “Martyrs” is the single more successful film in communicating the reality of violence. Violence that is terrifying. Violence that is traumatic. Violence that is random and unexpected and… well… violent. Violence that simply is. Anton Bitel’s review on Film4 (with spoilers — part of why the movie hit me so hard was because I knew nothing about it or the plot) describes this well:
The ensuing quasi-mystic reverie on sadism and suffering eludes the ‘torture porn’ label precisely by examining what those terms might mean, what appeal they might possibly have, and what questions – fundamental, even metaphysical questions – they might answer. The torments that Laugier shows in such repetitively banal detail are neither sexed up, nor ironised, nor sanitised, and will certainly not titillate or provoke any hipster laughter from the aisles.
This is a very different kind of violence than what is seen in most other horror movies (and probably the reason why I was able to make it through to the end). There is no sexualization of it (as happens in everything from “Halloween” to “Hostel”), there is no escape through humour or irony or shitty acting and special effects (one sees these things in the zombie sub-genre), and one cannot say that the violence is so over the top, so gory, that the viewer can distance herself from the film because it is “too unrealistic” (a common defense of many other films that have been described as “torture porn”; thus, for example, “Ichi the Killer” is labeled a comedy). Furthermore, there is no moral escape route (the violence is not the consequence of doing things drugs or fornicating, as per the horror movie rules explained in “Scream”). This is why the reaction that many have to “Martyrs” is so different. As Laugier says:
Even me, myself, I hate the film. You know? But… it’s an affecting film and when you are affected you don’t know if it’s good or not. If it’s positive or not… [Some viewers] love it instantly and other ones they hate it and will forever hate it and I respect that. And I think for the majority that don’t exactly know what they feel, they felt a lot by watching it but they don’t quite understand the nature of the feeling.
I can identify with that. I’ve never been so unsure of what I thought of a film.
But all of this raises another question. One that is difficult for any of us to confront. It is this: Is there something rapturous to be found in observing the trauma of others? Certainly, some of the characters in “Martyrs” are seeking this, but Laugier crafts a film that throws this question back at the audience: why are you watching this? What are you seeking here? Just as the torturers in Laugier’s movie look for a glimpse of something transcendent in the sufferings of others, so also the viewers of extremely violent films seem to be in the search of “something more” than just another gore fest.
Of course, one’s first reaction to this is to say that it is the sadist who finds something rapturous in the sufferings of others. So how is one to account for the the popular appeal of slasher films (especially amongst young people)? At another level, how is one to account for the ways in which mass numbers of the public will view and re-view, footage of extremely violent events (videos taken during tsunamis, footage of planes flying into buildings, and so on)? Are we all sadists now? Maynard (another of my favourite song writers in recent years) suggests we might be, in the song Vicarious:
Eye on the TV ’cause tragedy trills me, whatever flavour it happens to be. Killed by the husband. Drowned by the ocean. Shot by his own son. She used the poison in his tea and kissed him goodbye. That’s my kinda story. It’s no fun ’til someone dies.
Don’t look at me like I am a monster. Frown on your one face, but with the other, [you] stare like a junkie into the TV. Stare like a zombie while the mother holds her child. Watches him die. Hands to the sky, crying, “Why, oh why?”
‘Cause I need to watch things die from a distance.
Vicariously I live while the whole world dies. You all need it too, don’t lie.
Why can’t we just admit it?
I do think we need to seriously pause at this point and recognize that there is probably a sadistic, voyeuristic and exploitative element to our attraction to these things. Or, if the word attraction is too strong, then I would say those same elements are present simply when one makes the choice to view violent images, regardless of the feelings that they then evoke in a person.
In some ways, I reckon this is the result of the widely proclaimed “desensitization” of the population (especially the young) that has occurred in the wake of not only violent video games and movies, but also violent news stories and documentaries. In this regard, one of the things that caught me off guard in viewing Laugier’s movie was that it permitted me to see how my comfort level with violence shifted over the period of 100 minutes. The beginning of the film was full of some horrific scenes involving implements like knives and scissors. However, when the long, drawn-out torture scenes followed in the latter half of the movie, I found myself, inadvertently, experiencing a sense of relief. This really surprised me. I was watching something that, in any other context, would have totally horrified and nauseated me (a man punching a chained woman in the face, for example) but because of the greater degree of violence that had proceeded this part, I was relieved… relieved to not watch somebody get torn open with a pair of scissors… relieved that only punches were being thrown. It feels shameful to confess this but, to me, it demonstrates how much context dictates the sort of emotional reaction we have to a situation (which is part of the reason why I think judging ourselves based upon our emotional reactions — rather than our concrete actions — is a mistake).
So, let me return to the question: is there something rapturous to be found in observing the trauma of others? Evangelicals who wept (and then felt like good Christians) after watching “The Passion of the Christ” might answer that question affirmatively. Viewing Mel Gibson’s snuff film purportedly made many feel closer and more grateful to Christ than they had ever felt before. In my opinion, this only further confirms that their relationship is a fictional creation, given that I don’t know anybody who would watch a snuff film about one of their loved ones in order to “feel closer” to that loved one. I can’t help but wonder if a fundamental mistake is occurrring here: the traumatic is being mistaken for the rapturous, simply because the rapturous contains elements that appear to be traumatic.
Therefore, what is one to do when a privileged non-traumatized person like Will Sheff speaks of “rapturous” traumas? On the one hand, one is bound to criticize such remarks as a way in which oppressors can exploit and romanticize the act of oppressing the oppressed. On the other hand, however, one may be forced to recognize that it is those who are poor, exploited and marginalized who know more about what it means to be alive — fully alive — than those of us who are comfortable and privileged. Perhaps we sense that and so we try to look for that.
But is this only another way of romancing the oppressed? It may be that, but I don’t think it is necessarily that, if one believes that there is a God who is truly for and with those who are most ill-treated by others. With this taken into consideration, what we might see in the traumas of others could be a space where the veil between heaven and earth, God and humanity, wears thin and possibly breaks–not because God is in the violence, but because God is especially close to those who suffer violence.
Consequently, perhaps those who are drawn to films like Laugier’s “Marytrs,” and all of us who watch the same disastrous news video over and over again, are experiencing the simulacrum of solidarity with the poor and crucified. In such an experience, we may be seeking the transcendent without actually engaging in that which would drawn us into intimacy with the suffering people of our day. Which might be why we seek but do not find, and might be why we continue to stare.
I want to back up a moment and rethink what I just said (I was a bit tipsy when I wrote that last section). Does the veil between heaven and earth really wear thin in trauma? When a woman is being beaten can we say that God is especially close to her? Ask those who have gone through such beatings and pretty much the opposite experience seems to be the case. Do we then want to overcode that observation with statements about how raw experiences of godforsakenness situate a person intimately close to the Christ who died godforsaken on a cross? Other than a cerebral bit of word-play is that kind of statement worth anything? It certainly doesn’t change the experience as it is experienced (although it might impact how a person later comes to relate to that experience). Perhaps, then, we stare at the traumas of others not because there is a perceptible “thinning of the veil” but because we imagine that there has to be something like that. There just has to be some sort of explanation and deeper meaning.
But maybe there isn’t any sort of explanation. Maybe there isn’t any sort of rapture. Maybe we stare and stare because we want or need it to mean something, reveal something or make sense. Maybe we want our traumas to be an apocalypse but maybe they are nothing more than what they are. At the end of the day, perhaps violence just is, and perhaps the experience of trauma will always be non-sensical. Maybe we stare because we can’t get our heads around that, maybe we replay the images so that we can hammer them into some sort of narrative or system of meaning. Maybe we desensitize ourselves so that we can protect ourselves from remembering that much or all of this doesn’t make any sort of sense and we’re scrambling to stay on top of it (as Maynard says, “How can this mean anything to me, if I really don’t feel anything at all?”). I think that’s why one has trouble discerning what one thinks of a movie like “Martyrs”. The point is that one should be left in a place of uncertainty and discomfort both with what one saw and with one’s self for choosing to watch.
IV. Living Vicariously
When the tidal wave of trauma does break upon somebody else (instead of upon ourselves) it lets us forget about everything and “live in the moment.” When planes are flying into towers, nobody is thinking about the bullshit paperwork waiting on their desk. Nobody is thinking about the fight they just had with a loved one. All anybody is thinking about is “the now.” Nobody is thinking about the rules of everyday life. People on the street stop and talk to each other. Love and goods are shared with strangers. In this way, the trauma of others permits us to forget ourselves. This is exactly the opposite of what we experience when we go through trauma ourselves. Personal trauma focuses one upon one’s self (my body hurts; what is going to happen to me next; I’m afraid for my life; and so on). Hence, we seek out the former and shun the latter. Maynard is onto something, maybe we only live vicariously — we can feel thrills, sorrows, and create meaning with the lives of others. We can experience it all and still slot everything into a narrative that gives things meaning and value. Or, if not experience it, we can at least hope for it with the lives of others (as Maynard does with the life of his mother in a couple of songs). With ourselves, with our own lives, we cannot do this nearly as easily, and when we think we have succeeded at this task, it is trauma that reminds us we have not.
Anyway, as with my prior post, I’ll leave it to the musician to have the final word. I know a lot of religious folks have a hate-on for Tool, but the song Opiate contains one of the most heartfelt and heart-rending prayers, I have heard anybody sing. Maynard begins by singing about a religious leader who gets-off on wielding power over others and who wants to rape his (or her) followers. In the refrain, Maynard begins by speaking in the voice of that person:
If you want to get your soul to heaven, trust in me, now don’t you judge or question. You are broken now, but faith can heal you. Just do everything I tell you to do.
And then, Maynard’s voice (or perhaps the voice of the congregants who are seeking something more?) bursts forth:
Jesus Christ, why don’t you come save my life, now? Open my eyes, blind me with your light now. Jesus Christ, why don’t you come save my life, now? Open my eyes, blind me with your light, now.
To that cry there is no response, except the coming of God. It is the cry of one who cannot make peace with the trauma of life. It is not for us to make that peace.