In chapter 14 of Our Faith in Evil, in a section titled “The ‘Evil’ in Evil,” Desilet outlines what for me is the head cornerstone of his philosophical thesis:
In reflexive melodrama, the attitude of the audience toward a dark or villainlike protagonist (for example, Ahab) fundamentally changes through deepening character revelations. Similar to tragic drama, the troubled protagonist appears as a complex human being who has adopted, through a form of partial blindness, a ruinous set of instructions for operating in the world. Instead of being presented with a character aligned with evil and designed for destruction, the audience encounters a character who appears mistaken in orientation in a way that becomes tragically destructive. (p. 160, emphasis added.)
I emphasize those parts because they seem like an almost perfect description of Travis Bickle, even though that had nothing to do with why I initially selected this section for quoting. This passage comes, if you recall, from the section of the book before Desilet gets to any kind of film analysis, and hence I read it before I had any misgivings about his thesis. Based on this, my problem with Desilet arises not with the formation of his central argument, but with its application. But before I get to that, let’s pick up where we left off, from the same passage:
This way of structuring dramatic conflict, when applied to real life, suggests a broadening of orientation toward conflict. The great problem with the notion of evil as defilement lies not merely in the possibility that it can be misapplied but rather in the reality that it is always misapplied. As already suggested in the context of the discussion of tragic drama, the logic of evil as a way of structuring conflict can be displaced by another approach to conflict and by a less potentially destructive way of looking at evil. In this alternative way of looking at what is usually regarded as evil, evil is essentially a misperception of nature, the functional relation, and the ecology of beings. Nothing is essentially a pollution and nothing is fundamentally worthy of elimination from the order of being. In this sense there is no “evil.” . . . The notion of evil as pollution, as that which is in its essence worthy of elimination, is the real evil because it is precisely through the introduction of this notion that the possibility of finding something to be inessential to the whole emerges. This concept of evil introduces the justification for the radical sacrificial negation of beings. (p. 160-61, emphasis in original.)
This really quite brilliant passage is–ironically enough–also a succinct summation of the psychodynamic so beautifully examined and exposed by Taxi Driver. Insofar as Travis is driven by a misplaced desire to eliminate those polluting aspects from his environment, it is due to an incapacity to recognize, or accept, his own affinity with them. This is the very essence of tragedy. Indirectly, Desilet’s thesis–which he will go on to use to try and discredit Taxi Driver–is here helping me to understand–and deepen–my already profound admiration for the film. Irony upon irony! Desilet continues:
The idea of evil as radical pollution falters on the reality that everything that exists functions, through one context or another, as pollution in relation to something else. . . . But the idea of something as absolutely out of all worldly context fundamentally breaks down against the necessity that whatever has made its appearance in the world must in some way ‘belong’ or must be essentially ‘natural’–otherwise it could not have come into being. (p. 162.)
This presentation is profound in its simplicity and has the special quality of being both startling and self-evident–startlingly self-evident. It is a hypothesis that presents its own proof through the unassailability of logic. It also applies neatly to Travis again, insofar as he unconsciously chooses to move in a world that, at a conscious level, he finds abhorrent. Travis uses the sordid under layer of New York society to drive himself into an apocalyptic fury geared towards the eradication of the same “pollutants” he chooses to surround himself by (and fill himself with). “Some day a real rain will come.” But if it did, Travis would be the first to be washed away.
As it happens, last year, while I was working on a novel about neurodiversity that was the fictional counterpart to The Kubrickon, I wrote something very similar, if not quite identical, to Desilet’s formula above. I edited the passage out of the final draft because it was too “wordy,” but now it seems right on point:
In a reality model in which pure and impure exist as a polarity, the impure will always triumph over the pure. . . . Where purity has a no-tolerance policy, impurity can afford to be quite liberal about it. However, at the deepest, molecular level, the reverse is the case. Purity is always assured and impurity does not in fact exist. An H20 molecule can be mixed with other molecules, but doing so does not alter its molecular constitution. It remains an H20 molecule no matter which molecules it fraternizes with. The idea of impurity pertains only to temporary arrangements that are then put forward as in some sense inherently real or permanent. Impurity is only possible if we allow for something outside of any given arrangement entering into it and making it “impure.” An arrangement that was self-complete and permanent, if it were truly the sum total of what is pure, could not be infiltrated or contaminated in any shape or form, because there would be nothing that was not itself. . . . Existence as a whole remains as pure and complete as it ever was or ever will be. It simply is. . . . The idea of impurity, then, can only enter into the existing realm once arbitrary and temporary arrangements of the base units come into existence, arrangements that depend on the exclusion of other arrangements of units to maintain their integrity.
This kind of arbitrary arrangement and the accompanying intolerance is what Desilet terms “Monistic antagonism.” He is, I presume, referring to a monistic or monomaniacal point of view that, through its very existence and its insistence and imposition of a single and exclusive way of perceiving reality, sees anything that contradicts or challenges it as antagonistic to it. The irony of this is, once again, startlingly self-evident: the desire to apply a single unitive interpretation of reality to everything we encounter–a single set of values for all circumstances–creates the inevitability of division and conflict and destroys unity. The reason for both the irony and the conflict is, I think, also quite apparent: when we lack an internal sense of truth, meaning, or value, we will seek after external models to live by. Once we have found models that suit us, we then impose them upon our own expression and behaviors. After that, we “naturally” seek to impose them on others as well–for “their own good” of course, but really for our own safety and comfort and to ensure that those adopted values–our crucial fictions–are never questioned. To silence all voices of dissent, both inner and outer, and avoid all “contrapuntal conflict.”
Travis tries in vain to impose his strange puritanical porno mindset onto Betsy (the world, the mother’s body). When it fails, he is left with no recourse but violence. It is through violence that he forges an identity in keeping with his fantasy projection, forcing the world to bend to his pathology. The fact he is successful is the tragic irony of the film. Either this was entirely lost on Desilet (as it was on Hinckley, allegedly) or he decided it was simply too powerful and persuasive to be trusted (irresponsible!), since it generated out of tragic irony tragic reality. Either way, we are faced with the impact of so-called great art. If Desilet wants to argue against Taxi Driver as irresponsible, then he may end up sitting on the right side of Plato and pitting himself against all forms of poetic self-expression. From this perspective, anything at all that has the potential to profoundly impact the collective psyche becomes ipso facto irresponsible and dangerous. Ironically (again!), this also places Desilet in the very position he is arguing against: that of a defender of purity who has created an arbitrary arrangement (his thesis) that can only establish itself by identifying all impure elements–those dastardly movies inspiring copycat crimes!–and marking them for elimination.
Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?
When all is said and done, can the new, more bendable and accommodating film critic I have hopefully become in middle age–in all good conscience–make the emphatic statement that Taxi Driver is an immeasurably superior work to Shutter Island or to any of Desilet’s other shining examples of “synagonal” cinematic violence? Can I declare with Moses-like certainty that Desilet is only able to argue otherwise because he has become lost in the matrix of his own sociopolitical/critical evaluation system? Apparently I can’t–not in good faith at least.
Taste is by definition subjective. If I were to argue that Greg Desilet’s subjective experience of movies is of less value than my own–that it is, shall we say, delusional–I would find myself on a dangerously slippery slope. Nonetheless, in the spirit of administering a film analyst’s medicine back to him, and in the hope of a miracle cure, I will say that I feel more confident framing the above statements as ontological certainties than I would in doing the same for a statement such as “there can be no justice in violence.” This is a statement Desilet makes with ontological certainty on page 19 of Screens of Blood (emphasis in original).
A line or two later he adds for good measure “All violence is tragic.” Unlike his praise for Shutter Island, I find these sentiments admirable and I have no desire to question them as sentiments. Desilet seems confident no one else will either: he offers no arguments to back his statements up, as if taking it as a given that all civilized, sophisticated minds will naturally agree. He doesn’t take the time to define what exactly he means by justice, either, even though it’s a distinctly more sociocultural concept than violence. Without going too deeply into the question of why there can be no justice in violence, I think it’s fair to point out that, since violence is not a social concept and justice is, retributive or defensive violence must surely predate “justice” as a feature of human experience. So then Desilet–while assembling theses that threaten to topple every last pillar of aesthetic certainty–would be wise to at least allow for the possibility of “justice” as a human intellectualization that has been imposed upon a natural corrective function, that of force being applied within the so-called “law of the jungle.” This would then imply that justice as a concept–the black irony of it!–is a form of violence against our inherent natures.
This idea is something movie characters that Greg surely despises–Mickey in Natural Born Killers–are fond of arguing, but it’s by no means reserved for Hollywood fantasies of ubermenshian serial killers. Desilet’s thesis could perhaps benefit from an analysis of the Bhagavad Gita here, a religious text that entertains the notion (both ancient and current) that violence has both a literal and a metaphorical, archetypal context, and that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In other words, physical violence is believed by some cultures–including let’s face it our own–to be a means to a spiritual end. This is something Desilet addresses directly, disparagingly, in his analysis of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (at the end of Evil). It also becomes especially relevant when it comes to repudiating (were I inclined to do so) Desilet’s repudiation of my review of The Matrix. In his analysis of the film, Desilet doesn’t allow for any kind of spiritual tyranny that might, in theory, require physically extreme measures to overcome it (i.e., for wrestling against spiritual wickedness in high places). He doesn’t entertain the idea that the death of the body might be a small price to pay for the emancipation of the spirit (though he does address this in the Passion piece). The possibility that The Matrix might be a form of fantasy that transcends realism–and that the violence might also have a transcendental quality–does not reach his synagonal radar; or if it does, it is only to be electrified instantly out of existence.
Not that I blame Greg for any of this. Having once subscribed to this kind of radical mysticism, I can say with authority that literalizing transformation myths is a dangerous game. As an apropos example of how dangerously close to mythic literalization I veered: after the release of Matrix Warrior, when I was still hoping to become a literary phenomenon, I toyed with the idea for a time that the book might inspire deranged acts of copycat violence. In my hubris, I decided I would be OK with this, because you can’t make an omelet, etc., etc. Today, I am much more in accord with Desilet, even to the point of regarding The Matrix (and especially my previous allegiance with it) with suspicion. I no longer believe violence can ever really be the same as or lead to justice, or facilitate spiritual transformation or liberation. But this belief doesn’t amount to ontological certainty–it is not a case of knowing it for a fact. After all, I have been wrong before.
To his credit, these are the sorts of philosophical questions which Desilet’s work has (re-)opened up for me. They are questions that are deep and potentially bottomless. But my impression–my frustration–is that Desilet pulls back just when he needs to be diving all the way into these questions. The reason he pulls back, I think, is something he has in common with most liberally-minded social commentators. He is not content with merely diagnosing a problem, he feels the need to also offer some sort of solution, no matter how premature or partially formed it may be. The problem with this ought to be obvious to anyone who has been following along with this nonfiction narrative so far: attempts to formulate a solution to a problem that has not yet been fully mapped out or understood are inevitably doomed to failure. This is (partially) because the conscious desire to find a solution is rooted in unconscious resistance to going further into the problem. It is a kind of psychological clutching at straws when going under is manifestly the only option. Reaching the bottom, after all, is the only way of pushing back to the surface.
That’s how I did it anyhow.
An Exemplary of Confusion
In his essay on The Matrix in Our Faith in Evil, Desilet writes this:
Horsley exemplifies the confusion among critics regarding The Matrix when on the one hand he gives substantial praise for the overall experience offered by the film while on the other hand he submits a caveat such as the following: “The most disappointing thing about The Matrix is its reliance on the familiar terms of action movies, presenting violence and ‘resistance’ as the only means to overcome tyranny.” To be more precise, he ought to say, “presenting absolute destruction as the only means of overcoming an enemy portrayed as wholly and irretrievably evil.” If this kind of criticism of violent melodramatic filmmaking remains only a footnote caveat at the bottom of a page of commentary, then this kind of filmmaking can be expected to continue pouring fourth from Hollywood.” (p. 287.)
Desilet is right here that my caveat requires more than a footnote. What I would add now is, similar to the point made above, that there is a wide contextual spectrum–a canvas–upon which movie violence can be depicted, ranging from the archetypal to the literal and from tragic to comic. Gauging whether a given depiction is healthful or not–much less what effects it might have on viewers–can only be done on a case by case basis and must begin and end with our own subjective experience. Leaving aside that all his writing is inevitably an expression of his own opinions, Desilet more or less excludes all personal testimony from his analyses. He rarely if ever talks about how a given depiction of violence effects his consciousness or nervous system. Without this as the baseline for his arguments, they tend to float weightlessly inside a theoretical vacuum. They are “all academic.”
To be one hundred percent fair and honest at this crucial juncture, I cannot know with certainty that watching Taxi Driver the fifteen or so times I have done so has not had any deleterious effects on my own psychological development. (I can be pretty sure The Matrix did, but I have already conceded that to Greg.) In Seen and Not Seen, I more or less conclude that all movies, all art, affects our development at a cost. This is roughly what Plato–as cited by Desilet–warned about: that art enflames our emotions, ushers us into a dissociative fantasy realm, and feeds a side of us that thrives on fantasy and simulated emotions. While it’s inconceivable to me that Taxi Driver fueled my rage or increased my propensity for violence (it gave me a context for better understanding both), it is possible that it reinforced, by glamorizing in the form of Robert DeNiro, my tendency for imposed solitude, tragic alienation, and “morbid self-attention.” It’s also possible that this tendency in myself, by being strengthened (even today I own a Travis-style army jacket that I feel quite cool wearing), increased my alienation from myself (and hence from others), and that this could have indirectly allowed for anger and violence to fester within me.
There is simply no way to know how and why our development unfolds and precisely what the exact relationship is between external influences and internal changes. Trying to sort through those seeds is what Seen and Not Seen was all about, and I certainly wasn’t able to separate my current evaluation of movies from my sentimental attachments to them, especially the ones that imprinted me when I was most open to being influenced. In the end, the only gauge we have is that of our own responses, combined with our critical faculties for examining those responses and determining how authentic they are. Our responses–being emotional, visceral, and both pre- and sub-rational–will always tend to trump–and potentially sabotage–our critical faculties. Unless, that is, we so over-develop our critical faculties that they become powerful to inhibit our responses.
This latter is hardly a preferable option; but it is, I fear, the path Desilet has chosen. My impression from reading his works so far is that he has–intentionally or not–hijacked or inhibited (“corrected”) his ability to respond viscerally and emotionally to movies. This may seem like a bold and contentious statement–like fighting words!–but I can think of no other explanation for how an otherwise extremely insightful and talented writer could so utterly misread a work of such depth and substance as Taxi Driver. It is–I think quite literally–like he has not been able to see the movie that I saw.
To this end, I am endeavoring to lend him my eyes. Isn’t that what friends are for?
 The title is stolen, whole and intact, from an essay by Pauline Kael about the perils of over-intellectualizing our experience of movies.