Giving Voices To The Voiceless: Why Tragedies Should Be Given The Cultural Significance They Demand

I remember the first time I listened to Metallica’s ‘One’ from their 1988 classic album ‘…And Justice For All’ when I was 14 years old. It was slightly different from the usual testosterone-pumped hyper aggressive and abrasive music that I was so used to listening from the Thrash Metal stalwarts. This particular song had an atmosphere that was somber and serious and spoke of great pain and tragedy. The song, inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 anti-war drama ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ chronicles the pain a soldier goes through after being seriously injured when he gets hit by an artillery shell during World War I and ends up as a quadruple amputee with no arms, legs, eyes, ears or mouth.With no senses left in his body, Johnny is left alone with his thoughts as his life flashes in his mind and he reminisces life spent with his loved ones.

Fed through the tube that sticks in me
Just like a wartime novelty
Tied to machines that make me be
Cut this life off from me

Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please, God, wake me

-Lyrics from ‘One’ by Metallica

Years have passed since I last saw the music video for the song but I see images of the video flash in my dreams ever so often. The song and its imagery have left a very deep impact on my brain. Which had me pondering, why would Metallica (or Trumbo, for that matter) create something so tragic and disturbing in nature? The answer, I have realized after years of subjecting myself to tragic tales, is to generate that one emotion humanity needs the most: empathy.

Along similar lines is the Japanese animation film ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’ which follows the journey of two infantile siblings- a brother about 8 years old, and his baby sister- as they try to survive in a village devastated by American bombers during WW2 after both their parents are killed and the other relatives become hostile towards them. Tales such as these force you to see things from the perspective of those who we would never hear from. They put you in the shoes of the innocent lives who are destroyed because of no fault of theirs. Yes,they are tear jerkers and are extremely difficult to watch but the experience is always a rewarding one. I paused Grave Of The Fireflies more than 5 times because some of the scenes were too emotionally overwhelming, but the film gave me a new found sea of emotions about the World War and war in general. This is the kind of art that screams for peace by subjecting you to the agony of characters stripped bare of any melodrama, glitz or glam. The deliberate portrayal of characters belonging to middle class families and who lack any interesting personality quirks is a pattern I have noticed in many tragedies. Why so?

By portraying them as normal individuals who let us in on their psyche only through their interactions with others onscreen, we as the audience are left with no choice but to see a reflection of ourselves in them. By making the characters as relatable as possible and not going to great lengths to define them in any way- politically or religiously, for example- you end up making them far more universal. Tales like these make the underlying morals and the overarching story lines their protagonists, and not the characters themselves. As a result, you see yourself in the story. Tragedies thrive on empathy.

The very purpose of any art is to give its audience perspective.It carves out windows in our brick houses and allows us to have a view outside our cocooned lives. The best way to make an anti-war statement is to subject the viewer to the horrors of war faced by its victims.

The film focuses its attention almost entirely on the personal tragedies that war gives rise to, rather than seeking to glamorize it as a heroic struggle between competing ideologies. It emphasizes that war is society’s failure to perform its most important duty to protect its own people.

An excerpt from Grave Of The Fireflies Wikipedia page.

Immortal Technique’s Dance With The Devil from his 2001 album Revolutionary Vol.1 is another masterpiece that comes to my mind. The song speaks of a black/latino character named William. Raised by a single mother who works very hard late into the night to ensure her son gets a proper education and a respectful career, William eventually succumbs to pressures of the Ghetto lifestyle and chooses a life of crime instead. To seal a spot among fellow gangsters, he decides to showcase his skills as a cold hearted criminal and plans to gang rape a woman he and some men find walking alone down a street at night. An intoxicated William covers the womans face with a shirt from behind and beats her up brutally and then proceeds to violently rape her with his comrades. When they finish, it is up to him to decide what happens to the woman who is a witness of the crime and he chooses to kill her. With a gun in his hand and a smile on his face he pulls back the shirt covering her face only to realize that the woman they raped was his own mother.

She looked back at him and cried, ’cause he had forsaken her
She cried more painfully, than when they were raping her
His whole world stopped, he couldn’t even contemplate
His corruption had successfully changed his fate
And he remembered how his mom used to come home late
Working hard for nothing, ’cause now what was he worth
He turned away from the woman that had once given him birth
And crying out to the sky ’cause he was lonely and scared
But only the devil responded, ’cause god wasn’t there
And right then he knew what it was to be empty and cold
And so he jumped off the roof and died with no soul
They say death takes you to a better place but I doubt it
After that they killed his mother, and never spoke about it

(Excerpt from the song ‘Dance With The Devil’ by Immortal Technique)

The song, with its beautiful poetry and raw language can send shivers down the spine of any listener. Immortal Technique then proceeds to deliver some of the most beautiful lines of poetry I have ever come across:

The devil grows inside the hearts of the selfish and wicked
White, brown, yellow and black color is not restricted
You have a self-destructive destiny when you’re inflicted
And you’ll be one of god’s children that fell from the top
There’s no diversity because we’re burning in the melting pot
So when the devil wants to dance with you, you better say never
Because a dance with the devil might last you forever

The lyrics not only highlight the horrors of rape and intoxication but also the sorry plight of Ghettos and the African American and Latino American communities. The song also hits a philosophical and moral note by speaking of the ills of taking ‘shorcuts’ to success.

I feel tragedies are underrated by society and many people actually look down upon them. Be it Darren Aronofskys Requiem For A Dream which chronicles the descent into oblivion of 4 lives when all of them become drug addicts or Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves which shows a mentally handicapped woman struggling to find acceptance in society or Eminem’s song ‘Stan’ from his album ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ which tells the story of a fan who is so obsessed with his music that he ends up killing his pregnant girlfriend after Eminem fails to answer his fan letters (inspired by Eminem’s well documented hatred towards his wife who apparently cheated on him) or Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, about the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts which captures in the most brilliant way the anger of both the communities and the resulting bloodshed; well executed tragedies always manage to leave a lasting impact and give the audience enough fodder to empathize with the marginalized and the wronged and quite possibly alter the viewer/listener/readers perspectives about society. It comes as no surprise that the Nobel Prize for literature this year was awarded to an individual who spent most of her life documenting the pain and horror of war and its impact on humanity.

Outsiders Art

‘Alone. Yes that’s the word. The most dreaded word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t even hold a candle to it and hell is just a poor synonym’
-Stephen King
When one of the worlds best horror novelists tells you that being lonely is one of the scariest things in the world, you know it’s true. Being accepted and more importantly liked by everyone is one of the fundamental goals of man. And very often people who aren’t very well accepted by social communities are looked down upon as being worthless. But is this treatment justified? Are loners actually losers or are they actually more superior than those on top of the social ladder?
Excerpt from Psychologytoday:
Acceptance is the fundamental motive but at the same time, the need for uniqueness is also a fundamental human motive. When people are treated too similar to others, they (sometimes unconsciously) attempt to do anything to make them stand out. For instance, people who had their uniqueness threatened were quicker to endorse uniqueness-related words and were more likely to express less popular attitudes.

How can this be? How can humans have both the need to belong and the need for uniqueness? Well, humans are complicated! We have lots of motives, many of which frequently conflict with each other. This is why most people try to strike a balance between their various motives, and are satisfied with moderate levels of each motive.
However it has been seen that many times worldwide acclaimed artists are rather eccentric individuals who don’t really believe in ‘going with the flow’. One of the worlds best and widely influential filmmakers Stanley Kubrick was a well known social recluse. Known for his painfully perfect detailing and surrealistic cinematography, Kubrick is hailed as a master of the art of cinema but it is a very well known fact that Kubrick detested humans and preferred to work work alone. Along similar lines is the highly controversial Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier who has been labelled a Provocateur by many, Lars too prefers solitude, hates travelling and has a wide range of phobias in fact he has stated that he has extreme fear of almost everything but filmmaking.
Many musicians have been known to be rather odd in their behaviour as well (Read: Rockstars and Metallers). Speak of Niravana’s Kurt Cobain who had rather strange outlooks on life, appeared to interviews with his shoes untied,wore the most casual dress for his wedding because apparently he did not have the time to wear a formal suit and wrote a death note addressed to his childhood imaginary friend when he committed suicide. Speak of reclusive musicians and one picture that is bound to pop up in your mind is that of black metal musicians who roam around in the woods in the most uncomfortable looking attire and silly looking corpse paint. Many of these nihilistic, misanthropic individuals actually leave in completely isolated and unwelcoming environments far away from any established settlements. I remember watching an interview of Xasthur’s Malefic whose otherworldly shrieks dominate his haunting and fiercely melancholic songs but during the interview he had great difficulty opening up to the interviewer, he looked extremely uncomfortable throughout the interview and became quiet the moment he was asked about his past. He went on to talk about how much he hates people who according to him are very rude.
So is there in fact any connection between the level of deviation and creativity?
Another excerpt from Psychologyabout.com (http://psychologyabout.com/)
By definition, creative solutions are unusual, involving the recombination of ideas. Unusual, divergent ideas and access to distant, remote associations are hallmarks of creative thinking. Perhaps those who like to distance themselves from others are more likely to also recruit associations from unusual places and think beyond conventional ideas.
Research supports this idea. The need to be seen as separate from others within a group enhances both nonconformity and creativity. In contrast, an interdependent mindset has been shown to extinguish the spirit of independence that is optimal for producing creative solutions. What’s more, those who report a high need for uniqueness make more unconventional word associations, show a greater preference for complex visual figures, and produce more creative drawings and creative stories.
I do not know how accurate these claims are but I must say, taking into account the examples I enlisted and many more deviant artists out there there is surely some connection between being a recluse and an individual with artistic insight.

Footnote #1- Intentionally did not mention many people because many a time the social deviancy might just be an act, a performance which increases the audiences intrigue

Footnote #2- I believe an entire blog can be written discussing painters who were well-known social deviants. Once I’m done compiling a a gust of information on the topic I will publish an article. If anyone is interested I might publish the article on your blog as a guest blogger xD.