One of the most morally and aesthetically interesting aspects of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary film Grizzly Man, the enchanting and bizarre tale of Timothy Treadwell’s life and death among the grizzlies, is Herzog’s decision not to include the existing audio of Timothy Treadwell and Aime Huguenard’s deaths. Treadwell and girlfriend Huguenard were eaten by a grizzly bear while living amongst the grizzlies in Alaska in the summer of 2003. Treadwell’s video camera (at least its audio function) was on while the two were being attacked and this audio is now in the possession of one of Treadwell’s friends. Herzog himself listens to the footage in Grizzly Man, and though viewers cannot hear it, they see Herzog listening to it, and hear him tell the audio’s owner that the recording should be destroyed.
A strict empiricist would disagree: If we are to understand an event or a life we must examine all of the evidence, however gruesome. But then, artists are not lawyers or scientists, and artistic justice is rather another thing than scientific or legal justice. Herzog’s choice not to include the audio recording of these two surely horrific deaths is a question that many artists are confronted with. What aesthetic and ethical effects will the representation of a certain act, particularly something like dismemberment or rape, have on my audience? Will the representation of such acts necessarily invoke responses of arousal or morbid fascination in the viewer? While this might serve the purposes of certain artists intent on impressing upon us as visual consumers our complicity with the rapist, voyeur, or bear, it becomes deeply problematic when the artist does not want us to identify with the assailant.
Those who have read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace will know that the horror of a traumatic event that goes undescribed is not lessened, as will those who have read Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). Sometimes referred to colloquially as “The Rape of Clarissa,” Richardson’s nearly 1600 page novel does not actually describe Clarissa’s rape. It is through Clarissa herself that we get the novel’s only approximation of a description of the event and her drug-addled memories are described only vaguely – shadows, a candle, the prostitutes (who, we later learn, held Clarissa down for her rapist). Richardson’s choice to refuse description, like Coetzee’s, is an ethical choice. It is a choice that absolutely refuses to offer us the possibility of aesthetic engagement with monstrous acts. If literary and other fiction is, as some hold, a means of playing make-believe, of trying on alternate identities, artists who refuse to represent horrific acts tell us something in these refusals. They do not want us to imagine these things, they do not want to provide the means by which we will be implicated in dehumanizing other people (even if these people are only literary characters). Even to write descriptions of such events would be, to whatever degree, to aestheticize them. And to make a rape into an object of aesthetic contemplation, aesthetic pleasure, is a sort of crime.
Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette is the most recent example of this phenomenon that I have encountered. Coppola uses artistic refusal in her decision not to represent any social reality beyond Versailles until the very end of the movie, and then, only slightly. Occasionally, a court character mentions unrest among the people, bread shortages, increased taxes, but no physical evidence of it ever invades Louis XVI’s court until the film’s end, when a crowd of peasants surrounds the palace. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) goes out onto a balcony of the palace and we hear below her (and even see the torches, pruning hooks, and scythes – though not the faces – of) the people below her on the ground. The scene astonishes because through it we realize that Marie and Louis had no idea what was happening beyond Versailles – had no idea these people truly existed, much less that they existed in exigency and anger. They have never seen them – they did not physically exist until this moment when it is too late. And we are made, like the monarchs, to have no idea of the anger and suffering of their people (no visual idea at least, though we all know their eventual fate). Is this refusal unethical? Does it mask the suffering of thousands to force upon us sympathy for two thoughtless, pampered fools or does Coppola’s demand that we understand the king and queen’s ignorance press for an even more scrupulous definition of justice?
In “Weighing In,” Seamus Heaney invokes “the power/Of power not exercised”: Sometimes we say more and say it better by refusing to speak.