Maybe the seminal moment in my education came when, as a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, I sat in the back of my World History class and listened to a brilliant instructor wrap up the final semester. It was a session that was especially flattering to Catholicism and the excellent work our religion has done throughout world history. So I raised my hand.
“What about the Spanish Inquisition,” I asked. (This was at least a decade before Monty Python turned that name into a joke.) In any case, the professor didn’t think the question was funny… or relevant either apparently, because he simply said, “We all know it happened, we don’t need to talk about it.”
For a very long time, I’ve believed that evil exists in the hearts and minds of all humanity… even in the best of us. And if this is true, we have to be aware of it, we have to look it in the eye; we have to know what it is so we can keep it in check. And this especially applies to cruelty and torture, perhaps the most repellant forms of evil that exist.
Humankind seems to have an amazingly high tolerance for cruelty. And that doesn’t just apply to the deranged killers who commit unspeakable acts for sexual thrills. It doesn’t only apply to beaten-down, bullied kids who decide to get even with the “everyone and everything” they feel has persecuted them. It doesn’t just apply to entire nations who look the other way as their leaders move toward genocide in the name of creating a better world order. It applies to all of us.
Humanity’s high tolerance for cruelty seems to find especially fertile ground in the minds of the righteous: all the parents who beat their children “for their own good,” all the patriots who stand idly by while being aware that their nation tortures others “to protect their country,” every supremacist of whatever persuasion who feels that they are entitled to genocide, or at least hideous revenge, “because they or someone else thinks they are better.” It applies to the men who ran the ovens in the concentration camps and the men and women who dragged witches to the stake and burned them alive.
It may seem inappropriate, but I wonder how big a role sex played in some of these acts of cruelty. Because it appears to me burning something or someone who might be considered a tempting sexual object only intensifies the feeling of righteousness. And while torture seems to deny and suppress sexuality, in fact, it can be its own sexual reward. In other words, how different are those sexually-charged, hysterically-righteous witch hunters from the mass murderers we live with today, who stalk our streets looking for victims to abuse and torture? All of which, believe it or not, brings me to a book review.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is perhaps the most graphic portrayal of sexual violence that the general public has ever been exposed to. It’s horrific, almost impossible to get through, way past pornographic, deep into the realm of unspeakable sadism. So the question is, why should a book like this ever be published, ever be read, or ever be praised? Well, as I said above, We have to look evil in the eye. We have to know what it really is… all of it.
In my mind at least, American Psycho is a significant work of art. It feels more like a collage than anything else. It’s made of pages torn from travel brochures, old album covers, a playbill from Les Miz, a severed human ear stapled casually into place, a finger gnawed nearly to the bone glued at just the right spot with its own blood. There are several pages from GQ, others from Vogue, Zagat’s ratings of Manhattan restaurants, a human eyeball smashed against the collage so hard that it splatters and sticks.
The book starts out slowly. It’s boring. The conversations in vapid, all about clothes: what brand labels he, she, and everyone else wears. They talk about the rules of proper dress: dull, dull, dull, suggesting that these people lead lives that are devoid of any meaning or excitement. Of course, none of them actually do. These guys are all high-powered Wall Street traders, financers, and they look the part. The women are all “hard bodies,” the men are all buffed; they work out all the time. The main character, Patrick Bateman, is so handsome people keep asking if he is a model or an actor. He’s the narrator, so we start off by liking him.
But little by little Patrick suggests that he thinks about murdering people all the time, maiming them first and then doing more. I’m hoping that at worst his suggestions are more along the lines of a Fellini film where events seem real, but they are only wishes. But time goes on. He teases and then murders homeless men and women on the street; he takes hookers home and pays them a lot of money so that he can “do things to them with coat hangers.” And then it gets even worse. He invites an old girlfriend from Harvard to his apartment and nail-guns her hands to the floor so that he can torture and kill her.
That’s enough of that. I’m sure you get the point.
I guess it could be said that the author is sparing us some of the gorier details. But there is already too much carnage here. It’s like he’s holding our eyes open and forcing us to look at it all. I wonder how Patrick can murder so many well-connected people and get away with it. Though he does have his moments with the police… believe me. (On the other hand, there are more than a few suggestions that all this mayhem is no more than imaginings of a sick, sick mind.
In any case, that’s American Psycho, a hard, unflinching look at things that are so awful that no one really wants to look at them. My point is that we should look at them; we need to. Because evil does exist in the hearts and minds of humanity, even the best of us. And we have to be aware of it, we have to look it in the eye; we have to know what it really is… so we can know of its dangers, and keep it in check.