We have a torn relationship with the mangled, the bloody, and the dead. Our reptilian brain instinctively prescribes a wide berth, like what you'd give to spoiled fruit or big, angry animals with sharp teeth. But an equally elemental counterforce urges us to go and have a look and not only a peep but a hard stare.
Is it just our inner imp of the perverse at work, asks Eric G. Wilson in Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, indulging a penchant for doom and ruin for which we will feel exhilaration and shame, guilt and a pleasure all the more gratifying for being frowned upon? Or does morbid curiosity serve some other purpose, perhaps an evolutionary advantage? Wilson, who teaches English at Wake Forest, entertains plenty of suspects for the source of our dark curiosities, and he does so in an informal voice. He's fluent and comfortable, whether he is poking for clues in the bewildering complexity of Edmund Burke's sublime, as experienced in the stomach-dropping irresistibility of, say, a tornado; the Jungian shadow, that archive of everything we hate about ourselves, those destructive crazes and unadmitted tendencies without recognition of which we would not be whole; or the simple, malicious pleasure of another's misfortunes.
He also finds himself in some grim precincts, including the memorabilia industry that has grown up around Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and company who peddle customized souvenirs from their jail cells or the venting of aggressive and erotic urges through the nihilistic voyeurism of, godhelpus, snuff films on the Internet.
But back to Darwin, please. Do we commune in one fashion or another with the dying and the dead to glean some useful morsel about behavior to be avoided? That exposure to the macabre allows us to more effectively navigate sinister environments? That witnessing death or misery shakes us out of our narcissism and elevates our ethical imaginations, allowing us to share in suffering, and, through that empathy, begin to understand our greater commonality?
Just maybe, writes Wilson, our fascinations with catastrophe can best be seen as "as a special invitation to think about life's meanings," where we can not only entertain our destructive impulses without hurting ourselves keeping that special distance; the closer, the better, though not too close but also be reminded that life is a swift and chancy wonder, inspiring our progress through it to be appreciative and honest. Which doesn't mean that we can't enjoy scandals, failures, falls from grace, or just a fall down the stairs mockery, derision, ignominy, heap it on but that calamities of all sizes can ignite a passion for life in the observer, above that immediate sympathy for the Devil.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
Read an Excerpt
That’s what she asked, more than once. I heard her distinctly each time, and told myself I should oblige, and even once partially turned my head in her direction, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I engrossed myself again, and again submitted to the anger, the sorrow, the fear, as well as guilt’s perverse pleasure: I felt that I shouldn’t be doing this, but I was doing it anyway, and got a peevish thrill from my transgression.
It was evening, dinnertime, and this had been going on since morning, right before I left for work. I had just finished breakfast. I had my satchel over my shoulder. It contained my books for that day’s class (on Keats’s “To Autumn”) and also my lunch (a peanut butter sandwich). I had my hand on the doorknob, ready to leave, when Sandi, my wife, ran up to me, phone in hand, and said, “Turn on the TV.”
I did, and there it was. Too slowly, a jet, brilliant white, wide enough to seat a hundred, plowed into a narrow rectangular tower, luminous and silver in the September sunshine. The blast silently boomed, and the skyscraper turned black billow, spume of flame: an immense sinister candle.
There was a stop, and the sequence rolled once more, soundless, with the same dilatory tempo. It repeated, each time more mesmerizing and meaningless, someone else’s eerie dream. No words explained it—fit it into a familiar story, with reassuring causalities and characters. It was unmoored destruction, sublime. I watched, and watched.
We all know what this was, and likely remember our need to witness the eruption one more time, and also to look when the events became more horrific: another fiery collision, and then buildings sucked to the ground, leaving only rubble and crushed loved ones.
Sandi’s voice broke my morbid trance that morning: “Come here.” When I faced her, she appeared to me in the fullness of her three-month pregnancy, holding in her smooth belly a little creature who would soon be pressed from the warm darkness into this glare.
We hugged, not confessing our terror: an infant in this Armageddon. We sat down together and watched the catastrophe worsen.
After an hour, I made my way to my office at the university where I teach. I had seen the attacks on the towers probably twenty times by then. I turned on my computer, went to the Internet, and found the scene again.
But I had classes to teach, and so reluctantly left the screen. I held the students only briefly in each of my three sections, telling them that we would pick up with Keats the next class—even his wisdom did not that day suffice—and urging them to go back to their dorms and call their families and friends. Between classes, I persisted in watching the footage, breaking only to call Sandi, to comfort and in turn take solace.
I returned home around five. Sandi was in the kitchen preparing dinner, food that would best nourish our baby. The small television beside the coffeemaker, like the other sets in our house, was off.
After giving my wife a hug, I clicked the set on: the conflagration in the sky, now strangely comforting, like a wound you can’t imagine not having. More than that, the footage at this point was, as shocking as this might sound, gruesomely beautiful: swelling ebony smoke against the blue horizon. And the film inspired this staggering thought: “Here is one of those rare ruptures from which history will not recover, and I am alive at its occurrence.” I felt exhilarated, inappropriately, and I was ashamed.
“Come on,” Sandi said. “Turn it off and help me chop the vegetables. Don’t look.”
But I did, though she asked me again to stop, and I continued into the night, brooding.
Copyright © 2012 by Eric G. Wilson