Monsters Inside Me
The play Aristotle chose as the quintessential example of great tragedy is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a work which contains the ingredients essential to catharsis. First, it has a larger-than-life, generally sympathetic protagonist whose compassion for his people and determination to know the truth are sufficiently developed to allow the audience to identify with him—to see mirrored (and magnified) in him those noble qualities that they believe have a latent existence within themselves. Secondly, this protagonist has the inevitable flaw at the heart of his character that acts as a cancer doing its deadly work underneath all his real and undeniable virtues. The audience senses that same cancer in themselves, that same capacity for wrongdoing—if, like their virtues, their wrongdoing acts itself out on a much smaller scale.
This double identification on the part of the audience will produce the pity and fear necessary for catharsis as the audience watches Oedipus uncover the horror of his own patricide and incest. The audience recoils, along with Oedipus, from his discoveries even as they anticipate the consequences—the literal self-blinding of a man desperate to avoid seeing what he really is.
The beauty of Oedipus Rex, and the remarkable virtue of the catharsis it induces in the audience, lies in its insistence on exposing the true nature of things, notwithstanding the inevitable pain of exposure. Aristotle’s word for the tragic flaw is hamartia, a word that found its way via Koine Greek into the New Testament. In Aristotle, it is usually translated flaw or simply transliterated; in the New Testament, it is translated sin. In both contexts, the word implies that which no human being wants to face about him or herself—but that which must be faced in order to bring about cleansing, be it the cleansing of Thebes or the cleansing of the individual soul. St. Paul wrote about the danger of leaving the cancer of vice undiagnosed, letting it do its work in the comfortable darkness. He argued that “when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5.13). There is virtue, then, in facing hard truths, in resisting the urge to seek refuge in spiritual blindness as Oedipus sought refuge in physical blindness. It is a virtue in which the Athenian audience participated through their vicarious, cathartic suffering during the last act of the play–their inability to close their eyes to what Oedipus, even in his blindness, could not escape.
But there is perhaps an even deeper reason why Oedipus Rex has resonated with audiences for more than two millennia, and that is the fact that—unlike Promoetheus, Antigone, Medea, and so many other protagonists of classical tragedy—Oedipus’ hamartia leads him to find his own antithesis in himself. Oedipus sets out to destroy the enemy of the city, a man who embodies the negation of all the virtues he himself seeks to uphold, and he finds out that he himself is that enemy. He has become, unconsciously, everything that he consciously despises. This is perhaps one of the most fearsome crises of the human soul. It is the crisis of Kind David as the prophet Nathan pronounces “You are the man!” And it is sometimes the only crisis that will destroy a human being’s confidence in his or her immunity to the real, soul-destroying evil at work in fallen humanity.
The nature of the catharsis in Oedipus Rex, with its capacity to shatter the illusion of invulnerability in complacent souls, is one of many reasons why that tragedy has stood out as a masterpiece among masterpieces. The fear evoked by Oedipus’ fall, the fear of the sleeping monster in all of us, is a healthy fear. And it is a fear as relevant in the early years of the twenty-first century as it was to Sophocles’ original audience.
It might seem, in fact, that the violent history of the last century—a violence more horrific, if not in its scale (other centuries have seen holocausts), at least in the cruel efficiency lent it by science and the surreal revisiting of it made possible by visual media—has made it all the more imperative that human beings come to recognize the monsters within themselves, instead of locating them in those individuals who, in the extremity of their offense, make them convenient scapegoats for the rest of us. Sociopathic criminals like Jeffrey Daumer and Ted Bundy are evil. The rest of us are just fallible. They are inhuman; we are human.
The problem with the current usage of the human/inhuman binary is that it gives the illusion of fixed categories, of a real and immovable barrier between civilized human beings (civilized being another misleading signifier) and truly evil human beings—between “us” and “them.” Anyone who commits a real crime, one that tears a gaping hole in the fabric of humanity’s belief in its general benevolence, is the other against which the self is defined.
It has sometimes been the work of tragedy to expose this sort of illusion for what it is. There is, however, a more recently developed genre which has also proved remarkably adept at doing so, and that is horror. Horror has the advantage of dealing with that which terrifies us the most, and, as Oedipus discovered, what terrifies us the most is often what lies at the core of our being.
The early twentieth-century writer H. P. Lovecraft is a favorite of serious horror fans, and at the heart of many of his short stories is the terrifying transformation of a normal person—the kind of person the readers would trust to watch their children at the playground—into the kind of person or “thing” that would drive the equally “normal” readers half-mad with terror. (It is, perhaps, an added virtue of horror that it can problematize our irrational faith in the virtue of normality.) The transformation is more powerful still because it brings to the surface the latent qualities that initially drive the “normal” protagonist half-mad with terror as well. The character becomes that which he fears the most.
In “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” for example, the protagonist uncovers a hybrid civilization—half-man, half sea creature—born of an unholy courting of the sea “things” through human sacrifice. This hybrid civilization is presented as capable of terrible atrocities—of the slaughtering of innocents to feed its ancestors or hide its secret and even, it is hinted, of genocide to make way for its development. The existence of hybrid beings—of people who look like everyone else at first but whose tainted nature is changing them from the inside out—would be enough to unsettle the notion that being human is itself a bastion against evil. But Lovecraft goes further, having the protagonist discover a common ancestry between himself and the monstrous hybrids and, ultimately, a gradual and terrifying alteration of his appearance. He is becoming that which he most loathes and fears, the sort of thing that used to haunt his worst nightmares, and when the transformation is complete, his new nature destroys his capacity to fear that which ought to be feared—himself.
It does not, however, destroy the reader’s capacity for horror at “one of us” becoming “one of them.” The self/other binary is no longer as stable as it seemed before—at least as long as the reader remains in the unnamed protagonist’s head.
“The Rats in the Walls” is another example of this kind of transformation, involving a generally benevolent character with whom the reader inevitably identifies. This generally benevolent character innocently restores his ancestral mansion only to discover an evil beneath its foundation which chills him—and Lovecraft’s readers—to the core. It would not be so terrifying, however, if this evil did not have a power over the character that ultimately destroys both his sanity and his moral inhibitions, leading him into the kind of atrocity that would easily rival Daumer or Bundy. This transformation is perhaps even more terrifying than that in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” because the protagonist, in the very commission of his atrocity, is at the same time fully human and fully monster—which might, if only for a moment, make readers wonder why they ever thought of “human monster” as a contradiction in terms.
That it takes something like horror to shatter humankind’s complacent illusions might be a symptom of the depth of those illusions. In any case, the clear capacity of the genre to shatter them suggests that the kind of catharsis horror can bring about is akin to the catharsis brought about by Oedipus’ fall. In such a case, pity and fear bring about a desperately-needed and often desperately-lacking awareness that serious evil is part of who we are and that the only monsters we cannot possibly defeat on our own are the monsters we see in the mirror.