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Human Fascination with Evil/ the Grotesque

by Dr. Donna Freitas

It is obvious within western culture that humanity is now and has been for centuries, fascinated by that which is evil or grotesque, that which horrifies. Storytellers, writers, artists, and in this century filmmakers and tv-producers have always found the theme of the grotesque as a favorite subject to explore through their work. One explanation for these individuals taking up this topic might be the fact that a piece, be it novel, film, or what have you, involving evil/the grotesque almost surely will find an eager audience. Humans are thrilled by this subject matter. We seek it out, we are repulsed by it, yet we can't seem to pull ourselves away from it. Evil/the grotesque draws us in and in a powerful way.

Why is this the case? What is it about this subject that captures our attention? Our imaginations? Even though it may repulse us, why do you think we still vigorously pursue the vast array of portrayals of evil that already exist and are continuously being created within our culture? Is there something within us that connects with the subject? If so, what is it? If not, why is it then, that we devour books like Interview with a Vampire, movies such as Dracula, as well as real-life biographies of figures such as Adolf Hitler?

Themes To Consider Throughout the Course of the Semester:

The Nature of Evil. From where does evil find its source? What exactly constitutes evil; from what is it comprised? Is it a force? May it be reduced to acts? - Can something be at the same time both good and evil? What is the relationship between evil and the good?

The Roots of Evil. Is evil something objective (completely outside of us, transcendent) or subjective (arising from within the individual)? How does one become evil? Is one driven to it, or does it come totally from within? If evil comes from without, from where does it arise and how does it come to settle in a particular person?

Evil and Redemption/Forgiveness. Are any individuals/characters absolutely unredeemable? Is there any act which is unforgivable? Is it possible to be evil through and through?

Relationship Between Evil, Reason, and the Passions/Emotions. The passions or the emotions are traditionally more closely associated with evil than human reason. Aristotle and Plato certainly suspected that to be the case. Why do you think the passions would be more likely to lead one to evil than the intellect? In your own opinion, does one (reason or the passions) tend more toward evil than the other? Use examples from the texts to support your ideas.

Evil and the Question of the Other. Who would have known that innocent, young Annakin Skywalker, who would grow up to be one of the greatest Jedi Masters ever, would also turn out to have a serious weakness for evil things? Is there really that great a distance between each of us (assuming that we are good), and those who practice evil in the world? Aren't we all just one step away from things being other than good? Are the evildoers of the world and of our texts truly other than us, or do they simply reveal to us another possible mode of being for each of us?

Evil and Fate. Does fate play a role in who/what is evil? Is it possible that some individuals/characters in our texts are destined for evil, regardless of what they intend for themselves in life? If evil is tied with destiny/fate, then we may conclude that at least to a degree, evil action is out of the control of humans, If this were the case, then could we still hold people accountable for their deeds (think the Monk for example).

• The Question of the Good. From where does "the good" arise? From within humans? From something/somewhere transcendent of humanity (from the realm of the divine perhaps), from something/somewhere outside of us? A combination of both? What is in conflict with the good? Is it only humans? Is there a "force" that exists somewhere within the realm of space and time (or even outside of space and time) which works at inhibiting the good? Is the good something objective or subjective?

Evil and the Soul. What relationship if any does evil have to our souls? Is it possible to be an "evil soul"? If so, give an example of one. Do evil and the good wage battles within the soul? If so, use one of the literary texts to illustrate the way in which this battle within the soul is being waged.

• The Human Desire to Grasp the Divine/Supernatural. It is said by many philosophers/theologians (Plato for example) that to be human is to search for and experience glimpses of the divine, and ultimately to become one with the divine (think mysticism). In some individuals, it is obvious that this tendency is stronger than in others; some individuals are propelled in a more intense way. Given the course readings, both literature and philosophy, in what way can the search and desire for the divine lead one down an ambiguous path (that is, potentially tending toward good and evil at once). What do you think is going forward, when the individual engaged in that search crosses the line on that path from good to evil?

The Human Desire for Divine Powers: To Be a Creator. The role of"Creator" is generally reserved for God; yet it is obvious that humans share in the desire to take on this role in the world. What relationship do you think artists (any kind of artist) and scientists, for example, have to this desire, if any at all? In what way can this desire for power lead an individual down an ambiguous path (think Frankenstein, think the
relationship between humanity and our almost frenzied pursuits in the areas of science and technology)?

The Individual and Alienation. Many of the characters in our novels either alienate themselves from society or experience some kind of alienation (usually undesired by them) from society. What qualities of the characters cause their alienation? What is it about them that society rejects? What relationship do you see between the experience of alienation and evil behavior? Can alienation drive one to evil? If one is shunned by society and potentially driven to evil acts in response to this, then can a person be held responsible for their actions? Why or why not?

The Ambiguity of Human Freedom. Humans (according to many, many philosophers) have this capacity called "free will" which allows for choice in one's actions. It is often said, that humanity walks through life along a precipice, while remaining on the side of good; (at least for most people), that fatal move to evil is (constantly) just a mere footstep away. Given this ambiguity, that so close alongside good there resides evil, what do you think it is that would cause a person to take that fatal step? What circumstances surround that kind of move? Please elaborate using examples from our texts. Do you think that humans forget that evil is always so close at hand? If so, what effect does this have on our potential to remain on the side of good?

Religion in Relation to Evil. At times in our texts, religion is the savior of humanity and at times it seems to be the downfall of one of our "heroes". Compare and contrast the role that religion plays in at least two of our texts.

The Boundaries of Human Knowing. Kant argued that human knowing was bounded by categories of knowing that we could never break through; he believed that we could never know a "thing-in-itself' for only God could have that kind of objective or "mystical" knowledge. Regardless of this modern belief, the Romantics played with this possibility of humans breaking through these boundaries to achieve divine knowledge. What are some examples of this? Do you agree with Kant, or do you believe that it is possible to break through the boundaries that lie between the human ability to know and divine knowledge? What impact does this pursuit have on our characters?

The Impact of Technology/Science on Humanity. It is common in our culture, when we believe that within the realms of science and technology we are moving forward too rapidly in our development of science and technology without thinking of the potential consequences, that we are trying to "play God" (think the controversy of cloning). Why is there this fear around scientific and technological development getting out of hand? Are these fears and concerns grounded? In your answers, use examples from the texts to argue for or against these concerns.

Literature and "The Truth". It is said that art (in this case literature) is that which "mimics" or "imitates" it "reveals" or is revelatory. Take a text and analyze to what degree the text has revealed the truth(s) of life/reality. To what extant does it not have to do with what you would consider the "truth"? Why?

• Gender and Literature. With respect to the issue of mimicry/imitation and literature, consider the issue of gender. Is the text reflecting a truth more for a male or female perspective? In what way does it do this (reflect a particular male or female perspective/voice)- or in what way does it not do this?

• The Author and Gender. Consider the gender ofthe author (almost all of our authors are male). Do you think that the gender of the author has an impact/influence on the perspective ofthe "truth" that the author intends to be revealed in the text? Does the gender of the author have an impact on the perspective the reader is given regarding the nature of humanity? On our perspective of men and of women?

The Judgment of Morality . It is easy to judge, and we are quick to judge the characters in these texts which we read. It is even thrilling to us to learn ofthe depths to which our characters may sink in their depravity! Yet, are we really in a position to sit in judgment of their moral status? Why or why not? What would put us in the position to judge? Please explain. Is it possible that though in outward deeds we may be easily distinguished from our disturbing characters, that inwardly our make-ups are not that different after ail?