Kelly J. Baker tagging me in the Hope 2012 blog relay constitutes a profound act of irony. And yet, it’s such a delicious act of irony that I find it hard to resist.
Kelly’s brilliant post followed equally smart and even moving contributions by Ed Blum and Mike Altman. These are scholars who know how to intertwine the personal and the political and who, to borrow the cliché, are interested in lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Kelly has reason, I think, to be more than cautiously optimistic that her teaching and writing about hate groups can educate and enlighten and, well, bring a bit of hope to country scored and scarred by a history of violence against various “Others.”
What I have to offer, I’m not sure. And I confess to these friends and colleagues of mine that I felt at cynicism when first reading their posts. I don’t see any reason to light a candle because I have no desire to curse the darkness. Or the things waiting there.
I’m deeply suspicious of hope, its easy turn toward sentimentality, the way that it can actually disable us, suddenly crush us when its taken away. It seems to have all the qualities of adolescent (and middle-aged) love. Soaring aspiration suddenly crippled by empirical fact.
Then there are my monsters. My intellectual and imaginative life doesn’t allow for hope. Most horror films end badly. If there is a hero that survives the night, she (it usually is a she) has seen, and done, inhuman things. And then she’s likely to die in the sequel as the body count climbs.
Don’t go to classic horror looking for hope either. Most of the time we find our sympathies with the monster, various gill men, werewolves or unlucky creatures that find themselves assembled out of the remains of cadavers. And they are often bludgeoned, burned and staked, brought down by angry villagers who don’t understand that freaks, in a better world, would be allowed to be freakish and even frightening.
So lets be clear, I don’t believe in hope. I certainly resist it as a Christian theological virtue, part of that triumvirate that includes faith and charity. To paraphrase writer Thomas Disch, we live in a world where even the sound of laughter turns into a scream.
Hope is often mother’s little yellow pill that helps us to forget this. Entertaining ourselves to death in the developed industrial zones of the west, we find ways to ignore the scream our laughter always becomes. We spend out lives, time and money trying to ignore the horrific realities of history.
So I guess I’ve pretty much already dropped the baton of hope that my colleagues tried to pass along to me. Kelly wondered if horror has anything to say about hope but I am afraid that, to quote Lugosi in Dracula, “there are worse things waiting.”
But I’m not done here. Horror movies are celebrations of excess that remind us that dark powers entangle around our dearest hopes. Beautiful things die in horror movies. And that, of course, raises the question of why we need these stories.
My thoughts on hope come to me at a time when I’m working on a contribution to a new collection being put together on Joss Whedon and religion. I’m writing about the hilarious, brilliant and deeply misanthropic film Cabin in the Woods, one of my favorites from this year. It managed to deconstruct the horror tale not as a simple cautionary tale about teenage sexuality being punished with an axe but as a set of narratives embedded in the deepest structures of society.
Its also a film that raises all kinds of questions about why we need these narratives, why we need to punish the young, why our own growing dread of the grave might make us want to see the vigor of life (embodied in teenage lust) disciplined and punished. We obviously need these stories. Whedon has pointed out that we must, since we tell them over and over again.
But it’s simplistic to see horror as narratives of moral instruction about sexuality. They are ”songs of love and death” that remind us of our extinction, which really could take some kind of horrific form. They are also reminders that the primordial structures of the universe continue on in their cyclical magnificence despite our frequent stupidities and crude deaths.
Hope then is not what I am talking about. I’m writing about the effulgence of Being, the sheer elegance of things. Watching conservatives evangelicals line up at a fast food franchise to stuff their faces instead of caring for the dying or feeding the hungry loses some of its meaninglessness, ironically, when I remember that all of those people in line will die. I, their acerbic observer, will as well. And the planet we live on will pass away in its present form. And so will the universe it lives in. And something else will be and so Being Itself will endure.
Such is the wisdom taught by monsters, those lethal portents of our non-existence. To rephrase the famous Zen saying, they are the Buddhas that, if we meet them on the road, will kill us first.
And it will be ok.