The title is of course a tease. A lure. But beware, if you were attracted by the bait this article may not be for you?
In one of our recent articles we wrote about The Worried Warrior, claiming that a certain level of anxious worry (angst) is commonplace and even proper to mankind. I want to go on now and claim that curiosity, in certain of its manifestations in the mind, is an offshoot, an adjunct, to this warfare of worry going on there.
For not all curiosity is of the same kind. Let’s first get out of the way the phenomenon of curiosity as prurience. We don’t have far to go from home to find examples of invitations, seductions, to indulge vicarious peeps at things better left alone.
UK TV carries ‘shockumetaries’ being professedly objective looks at persons who bear a burden of awful physical deformity, or maybe who enjoy gross and unseemly behaviours; all presented to viewers as modern day instances of the now defunct circus freak show. Whatever way you try to look at most of these shows, they cannot escape being offensive and they pander to salacious appetites.
Yet this is not to say that dramas and programmes cannot be made which treat of these subjects with tact and seemly good taste. An instance that springs to mind is the movie of ‘The Elephant Man’, being the life of John Merrick (played by John Hurt) and the story of how Frederick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins) became his protector and benefactor in the final years of a much victimised and unhappy life lived out in late nineteenth century London.
The Elephant Man had been born deformed, having a kind of encephalitis which disfigured his face and shoulders so that he was hideous to look at. Here is where the prurience in commonplace idle curiosity comes in. A wise-guy opportunist huckster (played by Freddie Jones) enslaved the adult Merrick and exhibits him for money as a freak. Merrick, made so dispirited and hapless by this and by his harsh brutish treatment, stops speaking and remains dumb, as if indeed a beast and not a man.
Treeves, a medical doctor removes Merrick to his hospital. At first, dismayed to find Merrick a retard and a psychical cabbage, Treeves walks away after having recited the 23rd Psalm to him as a test for sentience. As Treeves walks Merrick suddenly breaks his fast of silence and begins loudly reciting the continuance of the Psalm’s verses from where Treeves had broken them off.
The moment is a compelling epiphany, exquisitely moving and in its way a rebuke, a judgement, on us all.
The reasons I have dwelt on this storyline of The Elephant Man movie for so long in such detail are that firstly, the story is true – in fact Treeves wrote a medical and psychological study of The Elephant Man and his life. It is currently in print and available to be read today. Secondly, the storyline itself covers many of the bases I want subsequently to touch on in the remainder of this article on Curiosity. It forms a central point of reference for it.
Curiosity has always been controversial. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’, we say. In Mediaeval times when the national law was administered by the Church, and when the Church held the central role in political and social life, religious leaders often condemned curiosity as sinful, and preached in homilies warnings about indulging it. Like laughter, which also got a lot of bad press in those days, to indulge it was a surrender, a caving-in, a succumbing to the temptations of the devil.
The reasoning was this: To enjoy curiosity (and laughter) was demeaning to the spirit of mankind. It was a victory for our animal (the lower) nature, which was gratified and so built up addictions to its sensual pleasures. Thus step by step such habitual enjoyments inured people against bearing a higher sensitivity to holy things. It effectively prevented people from leading a life in emulation of the blameless life of Christ. We might conclude today that curiosity and laughter were barred because they were like having too much fun?
Now, is there any substance to this Mediaeval critique of curiosity (and of laughter)? Do we indeed grow a callous over our finer sentiments when we rock to sensationalist peeping-tom sideshows on our TVs and in the other media? If a person is honest, and looks into themselves and asks from his/her own experience for an answer, it would have to be made as an amplified ‘yes!’ Even the phrase ‘Don’t mock the afflicted’ is used in common parlance in the UK as a sarcastic retort, as bon homme; its literal truth and usage forgotten and defunct in our language here. This is part of a sad catalogue of evidence available that instances the point being made. For instance the shows which air personal ‘dirty laundries’ in public are similar honey-traps for cruising carousers; they are watched for the most part for their prurient frissons and the delight in disgust they offer.
Now mine is not just another moral outrage article; because the upshot of a nation or a people celebrating shows of idle curiosity and gratifying visceral lewd appetites is for that nation and people to grow more hardened and increasingly unfeeling. And so when in everyday life a person like Merrick is actually met with he /she is automatically rejected as being repulsive and shunned, considered not fully human. She might even become the butt of cruel humour and asides?
Do we want to grow, to encourage, our society in this direction – and for the sake of its viewing figures, and advertising revenues, and to promote the sale of more and seamier videos and pot-boilers?
Should we not want to forego watching; – more, should we just not make shows – of this kind? Are they not plainly and destructively anti-social? And their bait, their lure, their drawing-in – is our weakness within for the salacious; that itch that has to be scratched.
But it is not just the freak shows and the exposés of life’s Merricks who are today’s big draws – pulling us into barbarisms – there are a raft of rather better respected curiosities we prefer, which equally offend the image of man being made in that of God’s.
I am meaning all those ego-driven craven curiosities which pass for being scientific, analytical, journalistic, artistic, social and political endeavours in our world of light shows of smokes and mirrors. The litmus test for us is of Matthew Arnold – does the subject matter of study warrant, and does the enquirer concerned apply to their endeavour a ‘disinterested interest’?
A disinterested interest is this: When a study is made for the sake of a noble impulse which is bigger than, and beyond, oneself; and it is able to stand alone as valid without the aid of extraneous supports or collateral enticements. In short – no libidinous rewards – of reputation, cash, standing, congratulation, pride, ego, power, influence, – the whole nine yards of the world the flesh and the devil. When we look inside ourselves how much of what we do – is it done thus? :
The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
When we do things for anything other than ‘disinterested interest’ we are doing it, as it were, as ‘hired hands’.
Only enquiry done in response to the fit terms proper to a Warfare on Worry (see former article – hyperlink) in the mind will escape bad consequence. Only enquiry done ‘for the right reasons’ is of ultimate benefit to men women in society, and is able to pass as holy in the eyes of God. The rest is curiosity at bottom. Curiosity of an ultimately unproductive kind, and is akin to unseasonable misplaced laughter, and in the same way it acts in its consequences to destroy community and civil life over the long term and in the final instance.
Another article is on its way soon; this time on comedy, as it is preached today, on the airwaves, here in the UK.
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