Scripts of defiance

The theme of hostile resentment toward God or toward the metaphysical order of things is not hard to spot in popular culture. The classic example of this is Ivan Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. After rehearsing a litany of grievances, from the soldiers who amused themselves by "cutting the unborn child from the mother's womb, tossing babies up in the air, and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mother's eyes," to the savage beating of an old and feeble cart horse, to the jagged disembowelment of a peasant boy by a pack of hounds set upon him by a Russian general, Ivan proclaims: even if there will be ultimate justice, whereby the perpetrators of these crimes are cast into hell and all wrongdoing will be rectified by an avenging God - or made right through the restoration of harmony by a loving God - the suffering of these innocents cannot be undone. No divine scheme of justice can compensate for an earth "soaked from its crust to its center" with human tears shed on behalf of such extravagant cruelty toward innocents. The very idea of such a justice is so perverse, he declares, that he must "respectfully return God the ticket." To accept a world like this is to endorse its misery. This is conscious defiance of God, protesting the nature of things on behalf of the countless victims who have suffered because of it.

This script of defiance, common in the mid-twentieth century, was an understandable response to two world wars. While it was seldom as explicit a rejection of God as Ivan's was, it was a pointed questioning of the worthwhileness of living in an absurd universe that has already been vacated by God. This is seen particularly in the existentialist-tinged novels of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus and Joseph Heller, the plays of Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Hitchcock used the genre of suspense to film a Nietzschean world in which God is dead or missing and the moral universe has lost its bearings. Many of his killers had nothing to gain from their actions - short of the exercise of their liberated genius or the pure sport of pushing on a universe that doesn't push back. More recently, we've seen this defiance carried forward by Woody Allen, whose Crimes and Misdemeanors was a brilliant parable about how we are adjusting to the disintegration of the fanciful idea that the universe has a moral order, and also under the banner of postmodern "anti-narrative" fiction, such as that found in films like Memento (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

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