Coping Without Catharsis

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It's beginning to feel like every time I sit down to write this bi-weekly blog of mine that America has just endured another calamity of such mind-numbing atrociousness that I can't simply ignore it, while at the same time knowing that there is nothing I can say that can possibly make anyone—students and colleagues alike—feel any better about it. And the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas has placed me in that position once again.


So I'm going to go ahead and address the matter analytically, but there are some things I will not do. First, I will not waste my time, or yours, demanding that America finally do something to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction to everyone who wants them, because I know perfectly well that America is not going to do anything of the kind. Second, I'm not going to try to explain why nothing is going to happen because it would be entirely futile to do so. Suffice to say that we all know the script: the political rituals that follow upon every one of these atrocities, and the way that those rituals invariably play out as they do. Third, I'm not going to blame "the media" for the carnage; that, too, is a common, though by no means illegitimate, part of the post-massacre script, as this essay in Inside Higher Education demonstrates once again. And finally, I'm not going to blame the high level of violence in popular culture for the high level of violence in everyday life—though that, too, is a not-unworthy subject for careful, data-driven analysis. Rather, I am going to look at the difference between the typical (and conventional) narrative to be found in violent entertainment, and the formless anomie to be found in the seemingly endless string of massacres in schools, movie theaters, night clubs, music festivals, and heaven knows what other sites, that plague our days and nights today.


Consider, then, the typical narrative of violent entertainment. Reduced to its most basic structure, it involves a victim (or victims), a villain (or villains), and a savior (or saviors). The story—whether told in the generic form of horror, or murder mystery, or thriller, or war epic, or superhero saga, or sword and sorcerer fantasy, or whatever—tells the tale of how the villain is, in some way or another, opposed by the savior, and, usually, stopped (even when the story is open-ended, which is not infrequent in contemporary entertainment, there is usually some heroic figure, or figures, to identify with, who at least provides a model of sanity amidst the mayhem). This is what stories conventionally do: they give shape to the horrors of existence and give them a kind of meaning that Aristotle called "catharsis." When the detective catches the killer, the vampire slayer drives the stake through the monster's heart, the evil empire is defeated, the wicked witch is dissolved or the evil sorcerer vaporized, the bad king is dethroned (or de-headed: Macbeth is part of this system as well), and so on and so forth, the audience overcomes its pity and terror, and, to put it as plainly as possible, feels better.


But this is exactly what does not happen when someone, who has been living among us—and who, having shown no signs of madness or murderousness, has plotted his massacre completely under the radar of law enforcement—suddenly cuts loose. More often than not, now, he also kills himself. And we are left with nothing but the carnage: there is no wily detective, no heroic hobbit, no boy wizard, no man/woman in spandex, no warrior, no secret agent, no martial arts expert, nor any kind of savior at all: just the sorry spectacle of missed opportunities on the part of those we rely on to protect us—from the police to the politicians—and an almost total lack of understanding of why the carnage occurred at all. I realize that the heroic acts of victims and first-responders on the ground in such cases can help mitigate the horror, but it is all too after-the-fact for any real comfort when we know that it is all going to happen again. This is the reality of real-life horror, and there is no redemptive narrative in sight.

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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.