The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.

The Masterpiece Too Horrible To Recommend: Francine Prose on Haneke’s Amour

Francine Prose–(what an excellent last name!)–titles her review of Michael Haneke‘s Amour ‘A Masterpiece You Might Not Want to See’, (New York Review of Books Blog, 7 January 2013) and begins with the following:

Michael Haneke’s Amour is the ultimate horror film. With its portrayal of the shocks, the cruelties and indignities to which old age and disease subject a happily married Parisian couple, it’s far scarier and more disturbing than Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining, or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and like those films, it stays with you long after you might have chosen to forget it.

That pair of opening sentences tells us, perhaps, all we need to know. I have not seen the movie yet but it is clear it is about ageing, the slow downward decline toward death that is the lot of those whose appointments with the Grim Reaper do not occur suddenly, and lastly, perhaps it is about the crowning insult to injury that is often the terrible fate of some: watching your loved ones die in front of you, even as your own body slowly gives way.

Prose suggests Haneke’s vision of this aspect of the human condition is unsparing enough to raise the question of whether he is a ‘sadist’ or a ‘moralist’ or both. Clearly, this is not the kind of movie that one can watch dispassionately. And as Prose suggests, having seen the horrors that Haneke makes available to us, should we warn others away from it? And contrary to the notion that classics demand periodic reconsumption, why would you ever want to watch this horrorshow again?

Why would I voluntarily put myself through the awfulness of watching the scenes in which the couple struggles to navigate the suddenly staggering demands of the wheelchair, the knife and fork, the toilet?

So, several questions then: If a work of art brings us into uncomfortably close contact with an all too well-known aspect of the human condition, are we compelled to pay attention? In all probability, we’ll experience it ourselves in all its frightening immediacy. Can an artist’s eyes be a little too unflinching? Sometimes we should look away, not compel others to look, and if like Prose, it has seared our eyes, perhaps we should warn others to stay away.

These questions are familiar and have not lost any of their intractability over the years. For the present moment, I want to merely point to an addition to some of the expected responses to Prose’s piece. (Such as, for instance, that ‘art should confront all there is head-on’ or ‘let others make up their own mind whether the art they experience is too painful for them.’) That additional response comes those that have already experienced the loss of a loved one, and lived through its extended nightmare, and now disdain this cinematic rendering of their lived experiences. Or from those, like doctors, for whom such scenes of decay and death are all too commonplace. For these folks, the cinematic version of an all-too familiar experience is at best a painful exercise in forbearance and at worst a wilful act of self-directed torture. The trauma sufferer often plays reluctant host to a recurrent, unwelcome guest: the memories and visions that have already left visible and invisible scars. Ripping off the bandages to let the wounds run again might be unwise.

Note: I intend to see the movie.