My guest today; Marney Wolfhunter
What is violence?
A character can take an axe and whack another character over the head with it, and you can dwell upon each detail in the description of the murder taking place. In the end you have a truly violent act.
A crime of passion.
But what about the crime of patience? The slow burning hatred that leads to death? Isn’t that an act of violence in itself?
In Agatha Christie’s novel, Towards Zero, the murderer spends months setting up the crime, to frame someone else for an act of murder which he commits. His intent is to ensnare his victim and have her hang for his crime.
Again an act of brutal physical violence is at the heart of the story, but the psychological aspects of the plot are an act of violence in themselves. The victim is unsure, there is nothing she can really put her finger on, if she goes to the police without any sort of proof they will dismiss her. She is powerless to prevent the act of violence.
In a recent script for an episode of CSI:NY, an overweight, bullied girl enacts her revenge on the yob who deliberately humiliated her at a basketball game. It takes her two years. A slow burning hatred, and a determination to make him pay.
But these examples are relatively tame, at the heart of each of them is the understanding that the killer will pay for his or her crime. There is a moral compass, we know how to align ourselves. For right or wrong.
What about the violence that is the bound and centre of the story? The ones who get away with it? At what point do we draw the line?
In Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s character is undoubtedly charming, and he gets away with the things he does. You are attracted to the character, you are invited to feel an emotional connection to him, and thus when he gets away with murder you are almost invited to rejoice.
Dexter takes this to the next level. Dexter is a serial killer. The justification for his activities is that he only kills those who deserve it. The lines have become so blurred that it has become difficult to make the moral judgement any more. In a world of gliding monsters, we have to choose between two equally monstrous options.
As writers I do believe in our ultimate responsibility, both to authenticity and to an audience. I think we do have to draw a line, take a stance. It is all very well to say that we do not create violence but reflect the society we live in, but to abrogate responsibility is short-sighted in the extreme.
In Philip K Dick’s short story, Progeny, he imagines a world where the education and upbringing of children is handed over to robots, lest we as humans visit our own shortcomings and insecurities upon the child and damage his or her potential. Chillingly, at the end of the story, the father of one such child visits his son. He finds the child emotionless, without soul. After he leaves, the robot in charge of the child invites the boy to discuss his findings from the visit. Without any human emotion the child compares his father to the lab animals he has been experimenting upon.
Whilst it is obviously a stretch to say that we have reached that stage, there is a lesson here if you choose to look for it.
We cannot let go of the responsibility that we bear to civilised society. There does come a line in the sand which we really cannot cross. Violence has a place in literature; we are a violent society, recent events in Britain prove this even if you discard the lessons of history. The more we abandon the moral centres to our stories in favour of the dubious rewards of greater levels of titillation, the greater risk we run of losing the soul of the story.