The Washington Post recently carried out an unusual experiment. It hired Joshua Bell, one of the world's most famous classical musicians, to dress like a common street busker and play his Stradivarius in a D.C. metro station during rush hour. The anonymous Mr. Bell played Bach, he played Schubert, he played some of the most beautiful music ever to emerge from the minds of mortals.
And virtually nobody stopped to notice.
The point was not that most people are uncultured clods. The point, rather, is that we are so caught up in the routine of our lives that we fail to see extraordinary beauty right in front of us. Something's wrong with us.
As Post reporter Gene Weingarten wrote, "If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that then what else are we missing?"
If we don't see the beauty that we should, we don't see the ugliness either. For much of my career I was a film critic, and saw just about every movie that came out. Every now and then, I'd take my wife to screenings with me, and I'd observe her flinching at intensely violent or explicitly erotic images onscreen. Though I shared her conservative moral sense, or so I thought, I pitied her oversensitivity.
And then I changed jobs. I went from seeing 30 or so movies a month to seeing maybe three. It was as if I'd been a heavy smoker who'd gone cold turkey and was shocked to experience my sense of taste returning. Without meaning to, I began to watch movies differently.
The graphic sex and extreme violence that I'd manage to aestheticize away earlier, I no longer could deal with. I told my wife I must be turning into a prude. "No," she said, "you're becoming normal again."
Around that time, I became a father for the first time. One evening not long after my son was born, the mob picture "Goodfellas" came on cable. Three years earlier, I'd written that it was the best movie of the year. Forty minutes into the film, I turned it off. Couldn't stomach the onscreen savagery. Having a newborn gave me eyes to see things I couldn't before. Those eyes that had looked with wonder at this soft pink miracle could no longer take any pleasure in looking upon vivid images of human beings being shot, stabbed, beaten, tortured and abused.
My wife called this becoming "normal," a loaded word in a culture that makes a fetish of being nonjudgmental, especially about art and entertainment. A norm is a standard. Once we were a culture that looked to our art to educate our moral imagination, to show us what it meant to be fully human. Human in all our brokenness and passion and glory. Even artists who confronted evil did so with an eye toward illuminating the good (which is not a synonym for "nice").
Now, we are afraid to call anything good or evil and no longer have the confidence to assert that standards exist. When people ask if a movie, book, album or play was good or bad, what they're really asking is, "Was it entertaining?" In a culture with an insatiable craving for sensation, boredom becomes the root of all evil.
Thus our moral imagination declines into decadence. A decadent society is one that has lost its hold on standards and denies that they exist. A society in the early stages of decadence loses its sensitivity to beauty and to the good. As it slips further into decadence, it loses its ability to recognize how far it has fallen.
Which brings us to the case of Seung Hui Cho. We may never know to what degree he was psychopathic and what fed his insanity. But Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter identified striking parallels between the mass-murder ritual Cho conceived as performance art, and the hyper-violent films of director John Woo. While it's impossible to say these films "made" Cho go berserk, Hunter is right to assert that all creative artists have to face the real-life consequences of their work.
What does it say about our culture that there is a hot genre of mainstream films called "torture porn," the point of which is to show human beings being eviscerated? The latest entry, "Vacancy," opened days after the Virginia Tech savagery. It's about a couple who are unwittingly set up to star in a snuff film a movie in which people are tortured to death for the viewer's sexual pleasure. The Los Angeles Times called "Vacancy" a "ruthlessly efficient stalk-and-slash machine" this, in a favorable review.
Something is wrong with us, all right.
We have learned to expand our understanding of the normative to include art that exalts things that ought to be repugnant to those who love life. In so doing, we teach ourselves to embrace death, or at least to remain indifferent to its putrid presence. "A human body that cannot react is a corpse," wrote literary critic Russell Kirk. And a human imagination that cannot react against that which would destroy it is nothing more than fever dreams of a zombie.
Do you want to live? Then look at the culture of death, say not this, not anymore and turn to the good, the beautiful and the true. It's still here, hiding in plain sight.