by Tom Jacobs
All the time there is this split in the American art and art-consciousness. On the top it is as nice as pie, goody-goody and lovey-dovey. […] You must look through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness. That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knows disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.
Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Hums the under-consciousness. Love and Produce! Cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-Produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath. Until such time as it will have to hear.
–D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
One of the most upsetting scenes in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994)—a film full of upsetting scenes—is what one would probably have to call the “rape scene.” It’s the scene where Bruce Willis’s character (Butch Coolidge) returns to save Ving Rhames’s character (Marsellus Wallace), from an already-in-progress rape and, presumably from a subsequent certain death. All of this takes place in the basement of an already disturbingly creepy pawnshop run by a coupla good old boys. This, in and of itself, is not funny. It’s hard to imagine how or why it might become funny. But it does, oddly, become funny. This is intriguing: how does it comes to pass that we laugh not so much at suffering, but rather at violence, even if it’s fictional.
Susan Sontag, the prophet of how we consume suffering, says this: “Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind.” She also says this: “For the photography of atrocity people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance.” Imagination and contrivance, it seems, are the problems that plague us. She is right, of course. We don’t understand images of suffering either because we can’t completely empathize because we see these images everyday, or else because they seem too contrived, too beautiful (and one might check the front page of the NY Times…it invariably presents us with an image of beauty and death). We don’t imagine ourselves, not really, in the sufferer’s shoes, and the representations of their lives seem distant and abstract. This is a problem. It is all so far away, so distant and remote, and I asked for a grande not a venti, type of thing.
I feel like a conductor and the audience's feelings are my instruments. I will be like, 'Laugh, laugh, now be horrified'. When someone does that to me I've had a good time at the movies.
A signature of Tarantino’s work (or at least, his landmark film, “Pulp Fiction”) however, is that “we”—and as Sontag cautions, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” “We” can never safely assume that there is a real “we” here—find ourselves laughing at a moment of extreme cruelty and horror. To be sure, not everyone laughs, and I will try to address this incongruence below, but the sequence is so perfectly shot that it’s hard not to respond precisely as Tarantino wants us to. Even if you’ve seen the film—and if you haven’t, well, that’s odd—it will be necessary to re-describe, since I want you to see it as I do.
Butch is, prior to the scene, free and clear. He has cheated gangsters out of a lot of money by refusing to throw a fight. On his way out of town, though, he realizes that he has forgotten an important and luminous object back at his abandoned apartment. His father’s watch. In abbreviated plot summary, he goes to retrieve it, kills one of the gangsters (John Travolta’s character), and then finds himself free again. He drives happily down a decrepit L.A. street listening to the Statler Brothers, and then finds himself confronted with the very gangster he cheated as he walks across the street. Bad things ensue, and both he and the gangster are injured. He is chased (as he must be) through a couple of side streets until he finds his way into a lurid pawn shop. It is there that he confronts his enemy, and just before he issues a coup de grace, both he and his enemy are knocked unconscious.
They both wake up in the cellar of the pawn shop, and bad things ensue. Marsellus is the first to go.
Meanwhile, Butch has made it out of the basement. A professional boxer, he has managed to unbind himself and to expertly punch the “Gimp,” who has recently been released, inexplicably and disturbingly, from a coffin-like box in the basement, where he apparently awaits for the next insane sado-sexual spree). Butch knocks out the Gimp, unbinds himself, and then escapes up the stairs into the sunlight, which seems somehow so far away from the darkness at the bottom of the pawn shop’s stairs.
The key moment is when Butch reaches the door, the daylight pours in and over him, and he realizes he has made it out. (No doubt you’ve seen it, but if not, here’s a verbal description). He is free to go. But, of course, he can’t. He isn’t free. He has to go back.
Butch turns back slowly, and we can see that he is cogitating. What is he thinking about? On the one hand, he is clearly thinking about a plan: he needs a weapon (the hillbillies in the basement have shotguns), so he browses through the collection of creepy cast off things…he picks up in turn a baseball bat, a chainsaw, etc. until he lights upon a “katana” or “samurai” sword. Somehow, this seems just right.
This scene reverberates in many directions, and it also resonates with many well-known archetypes… The All-American white guy (he’s wearing jeans and a blood-bespattered white t-shirt, which seem somehow significant) going to save the beleaguered black guy, the good guy opening up a six-pack of whoop ass on the bad guys, two enemies becoming friends through the crucible of suffering and humiliation. All of these things are there. But what is more interesting is the depiction of the moment of a conscience stumbling over itself. The moment when the self sees itself and can’t go on without doing something altruistic, which, in this case, one understands, is also and at the same time, an act of egotism. Butch returns to the basement not because he wants to, but because he has to. And that makes all the difference. It is a moment of grace, a moment in which Butch is made to confront his own humanity and his responsibility towards others. Even his enemies.
Back to the scene. Butch walks slowly down the stairs, holding the katana sword in front of him like sacred fetish. We understand that he is not sure what he is going to do, which makes it all rather exciting. (And, like “Citizen Kane,” we can hear multiple layers of reality: we hear the soundtrack with its wailing surfy saxophone, which re-registers the meaning of the moment; we hear also Marsellus’s agonies).
What happens next is predictable. Butch kills one of the bad guys and just before he dispatches the other, Marsellus stands up in the background, holding and then shooting the other bad guy’s gun and shoots him in the groin. Then, the following conversation takes place:
BUTCH: “You okay?”
MARSELLUS: “No, man. I’m pretty far from fucking okay.”
What’s extraordinary is that this scene is funny. It’s hard to say why, but I am going to try to explain why I think it’s disturbingly funny, and why, in watching it, we should all be pretty fucking far from okay.
The problem is how to communicate moral problems to a profoundly hostile audience—how, in short, to make us see?
~ Flannery O’Connor
Stendhal famously thought of the novel as a “mirror being carried along a road.” That didn’t make sense to me when I first heard it. What do roads and dudes (and they were mostly dudes at the time, of course) with mirrors reflecting the roads have to with literature? His point is, as I take it, that literature offers the possibility of mirroring social and cultural (and economic, racial, philosophical, etc.) realities to us in a way that we can see and understand and reflect upon. Perhaps better is David Foster Wallace’s cast off comment, that “fiction is about what it means to be a fucking human being.” Or maybe better to try and hold both thoughts together at the same moment.
Flannery O’Connor was also obsessed with violence and the imagination and the idea that we are all imperfect and need to live better lives. Throughout her work, there is this notion of “grace,” of the idea that we are all imperfect and fallen and that we need something bigger and larger than us to get us through the day and night. The problem is that we don’t see or feel this very often. It is only when we are confronted with the abyss, with the silliness of our concerns and with the various forms of our narcissisms—only then do we see our imperfection. We can’t make it through this alone…we need something (not someone) to help us. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.
So she wrote freaky tales about serial killers and grifters and con men who know how to exploit our deepest desires and longings. She wrote stories of the “grotesque,” as she called them (with a nod towards Faulkner and his Emilies and Bundrens), and in which she sought to force back to the surface the sad realities that we generally choose not to acknowledge:
In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.
Mystery and the unexpected. These are precisely the dimensions missing from most of our lives, I daresay. Disenchanted and possibly disenfranchised, mystery and the unexpected provide some sort of punch to our time-clocked days of work and woe. And this is why violence—even if it’s only fictional depictions of violence—matter. When done right, scenes of violence slap us out of our general stupor, they make us see things again in strange ways. Here’s O’Connor again, speaking of the kind of fiction that would grab us by the lapels and shake us into awareness:
It's not necessary to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine.
And later, she says:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it. […] You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
These are important and profound words. Violence both matters to us and it doesn’t. It is both upsetting and funny. We see It as a spectator and as someone who imagines oneself into those particular ill-fitting shoes. We need to be shocked, convulsed out of our traditional ways of consuming and watching it in order to really see it and its relation to our mundane lives. If that requires the comic, the sense that all of our responses to the world are in some sense ridiculous and that what we should really pay attention to is the mystery of the darkness at the top of the stairs. Everyone’s mortality is unique, although an actuary would suggest otherwise. We don’t have long.
This is where “Pulp Fiction” and O’Connor’s work comes in. Violence tends to focus the attention (It’s the “purest form of expression,” as Herbert Marcuse once said), even as it unveils something of our vanities. Violence (which is different from suffering), when represented in fictional form and crosscut with a sense of humor, is in today’s world, perhaps the only way to make us see. And laughing while we weep, well, that’s a particularly rare experience—and one that ought to make us think about what lies in between.