Thursday, September 23, 2010

Humbert Humbert and Understanding

"The leap from disgust to understanding is a big one, but moving from understanding to liking feels the most natural thing in the world."

Chris wrote this in the comments of a post Jon wrote over at the sad bear a few days ago about a Clockwork Orange.

Jon specifically talked about the tendency of audiences to think Stanley Kubrick was celebrating Alex, the protagonist. After tying in Dexter and suggesting that making a serial killer likable is not really a great feat, he concludes, "What's great is to demonstrate that the fact that the worst about us can seem likable should be shocking."

This is quite good. It's not so weird that we like terrible things or people. Anti-heroes are old hack, really. What would be really great today would be an effective reminder that this should be shocking, that Dexter, for example, should be more shocking than it is.

Tony then drew the natural connection to Lolita and the frighteningly charming Humbert Humbert, which led to Chris' comment, which in turn led to this post.

Chris is completely right, you know. Understanding involves a recognition of shared humanity, so to condemn something you understand is to condemn yourself. And most of us would rather excuse than condemn ourselves, so we almost instinctively excuse what we understand.

Thus the desire not to understand evil is common in places and generally unspoken, but sometimes quite explicit. Some even think that one must not--must not!--understand evil. The most strident of moral condemnation usually relies on not understanding, and there's a kind of chosen ignorance at the core of hatred. If you want to condemn and to hate, in other words, you have to keep understanding at bay.

This may be one reason why the academic humanities tend to be liberal or pluralistic or amoral (rather than immoral). If the goal is to understand (as it certainly is with history), and if you cannot easily keep any distance between understanding and approval, then it's simply natural to excuse or explain away pretty much everything. Letting understanding and approval drift into one indistinguishable blur is easy.

But of course this doesn't really work much better than self-prescribed ignorance, does it? Just about everything under the sun is understandable, but there's plenty that's simply inexcusable. Humbert Humbert, for instance.