Escape from Horror
“The horror! The horror!” Kurtz dies, uttering his last words in the presence of Marlow, the main character of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Why does Kurtz feel compelled to repeat his “last” words? This paradoxical repetition reveals something about the essence of horror: horror is what repeats itself. Thus the only way to avert it is to interrupt the process of repetition. Is it possible? Actually it is not, it’s – impossible. If horror is the endless possibility of its repetition, then escaping horror requires the advent of an impossible interruption. I call this form of interruption wonder.
Horror and Wonder
Horror belongs to the dimension of the possible, while wonder is on the side of the impossible. This idea seems counter-intuitive, especially when we think about disasters, such as 9/11, ISIS massacres, or Trump’s election. But then we confuse two things: our moral reaction and horror’s ontology. Our moral reaction consists in refusing the horrible event: we declare it impossible because we couldn’t imagine it happening; but when we really try to understand it, we insert the massacre or the act of terrorism into a sequence of rational explanations, and we end up finding its causes. The better we understand what happened, the more the monstrous action becomes retroactively possible, and the more we contemplate the possibility of its repetition. It’s also in this way that we must consider the election of Trump: it was considered impossible because of a certain condition of blindness.
But wonder is the impossible that remains impossible whatever its manifestations. Let’s take the example of a revolution, understood as a radical rupture. Borrowing from Badiou, we can call it an Event, that is to say, the “possibility of the impossible” – but it is precisely because the Event remains impossible that a revolution can become something else than a fixed and fruitless model. When revolutionaries choose to borrow the names, the signifiers, and the philosophy of former revolutionaries, they not only inherit what was done and how it was done, but also inherit what was unfinished, what was desired but never fully accomplished; they inherit a promise and the obligation to implement the impossible as such, that is to say a new rupture. Actually, revolutions turn into horrible things when they renounce themselves as radical ruptures, when they deny the impossible and turn it into a mere mechanical possibility. Instead of using the impossible as the marvelous interruption of injustice, they make its absoluteness disappear into reality.
That said, we also have to explain why certain possibilities are horrible. In fact, horror refers to something that an individual, a society, or a civilization, rejects so violently that the relation between the subject and the horrible object is irreparably cut. That’s what horror films demonstrate: horror is not what scares me behind the door, but what scares me because the door is ineffective, neither protecting me nor able to separate an inside from an outside. That’s why horror is always everywhere, inside and outside, continuously inverting the internal reality into the external one and vice versa. In When a Stranger Calls (1979), someone calls Jill, the babysitter, and asks her whether or not she has checked on the children: it’s not a practical joke, and it turns out that the call comes from inside the house, precisely the second floor, and if she does not run away, she will probably die… Aside from the world of fiction, the political news recently gave us a perfect illustration of this logic: Donald Trump is, in the same time, inside and outside the political system.
Yet, it would be a mistake to imagine that wonder, as opposed to horror, requires clear limits. The wondrous concerns an outside or an outsider who is able to regenerate, rather than to infect or to implode, the inside. The wondrous is the happening of the distant in a beneficial form. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind does not begin with the return of the rejected, but with the return of the missing ones (missing pilots and sailors who had mysteriously disappeared): while the return of the rejected is a sign of death, the return of the missing one is a sign of life. Besides, the close encounter at stake in Spielberg’s film does not concern a stranger that wants to kill you, but a stranger that is going to open you to an unperceived dimension. In such an extraordinary situation, the encounter does not deal with green stuff oozing from below or above, but with an otherness able to regenerate one’s own alterity. At last, in Spielberg’s film, the encounter is a moment in which a form of presence is experienced, not with a “what,” but with a “who.” In this encounter, it does not matter who the other is. What counts is the event as such.
Mapping the Sites of the Impossible
I’ll neither recommend to wait for a Messiah coming from outer space, nor will I argue that only an extra-terrestrial form of life can save us from the new stage of capitalism that Trump’s “great” team is currently experimenting with. But the structure of the encounter that Spielberg’s film reveals is isomorphic with the structure of the event that Badiou described: in all that concerns the truth, Badiou argues, there must be an encounter. A real encounter is always an experience that interrupts the regular thread of life; horror is what prevents us from having this experience. We certainly can’t master the happening of the event, but there are several things that we can do in order not to obstruct the site of the encounter. The first is to understand that we should not offer our fear to those who produce and administer horror – they do not deserve our fear. The second is to map the sites where the impossible could happen: we need to draw the geo-political map of the impossible. The third is to imagine situations in which we could say: “The wonder! The wonder!” as our first words.