From Homer to Game of Thrones: Atrocity in Art

We do not typically write about popular culture here, but I was struck by a recent criticism of the aesthetic and moral merits of Game of Thrones. Mr. Walther’s dismissal of the series as something which, twenty years ago, “would have gotten you shoved into a locker” is almost as fatuous and infantile as the nerd-driven popular culture which he is dismissing. While he laments that cinema today is largely dominated by comic book heroes, it is not clear that there was ever a golden age of popular entertainment which did not have its own schtick. One may just as readily note that the cinema of the 80’s and 90’s was dominated by muscles-‘n’-machineguns action films, while previous decades had an insatiable appetite for cowboys and detectives. Commercialization will take its toll on any art. In Latin, the word ars signified not only aesthetic production as we understand it, but rather technical skill or ability. In some sense the incorporation of mass-market appeal into a narrative itself involves no inconsiderable amount of ars. The damage which commercial expediency can do to any aesthetic medium is undoubtable. Many Victorian novels are literary masterpieces, but they are also in some ways marred by the pressures which serialization and the need to sell stories imposed upon the authors. Thousands of years earlier, poets often relied on the patronage of the powerful, and it is not clear that Vergil and Horace would have written in such a laudatory fashion if they did not feel that they had a master to please.

Yet, the real crux of Walther’s argument is that Game of Thrones is bad and bad for us because it has a morally damaging effect on our souls. This is not a new idea. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates complains about the manifest immorality of the gods as depicted by the poets Homer and Hesiod. He then claims, “for this reason, we ought in all cases to bring it about that those stories which they hear first are nobly fashioned with an eye to virtue.” (ὧν δὴ ἴσως ἕνεκα περὶ παντὸς ποιητέον ἃ πρῶτα ἀκούουσιν ὅτι κάλλιστα μεμυθολογημένα πρὸς ἀρετὴν ἀκούειν., Republic 378e) This argument is no more convincing now than it was in antiquity. Salutati noted that Plato, for all of his enthusiasm to craft a perfect state by strictly limiting access to morally acceptable poetry, was discredited in his own day by the number of thriving poleis in which poets played an active governing role. Subsequent generations have tried in various ways to censor, ban, or expurgate books in order to ensure salvation and the moral safety of the soul, yet they all proved singularly ineffective at engendering the lofty elevation which good art (both aesthetically and morally good) was supposed to produce. From the horrors of the Inquisition to the relative silliness of Thomas Bowdler’s Shakespeare, censorship of art on moral grounds has never yielded anything noble. To be fair, Walther is not advocating censorship from above, but rather, an aesthetic reform from within. This, too, has been tried. A glance at English literary criticism of the 17th and early 18th centuries will serve to show just how silly the ‘cult of correctness’ could become in a time when deviation from a norm of correct thought and expression was deemed to be aesthetically (and morally) perilous.

Walther objects to the show’s recurrent themes of violence, rape, and incest. These are all horrific, to be sure, but are they necessarily to be excluded from artwork or public discussion? As far as I can tell, Walther is arguing from a Christian standpoint, yet seems to have glossed over or forgotten the violence, rape, and incest contained in The Bible. My aim here is not to criticize Scripture, but rather, to suggest that atrocity is to be found throughout our artistic, cultural, and spiritual landscape because atrocity is something which we must grapple with every day. Even the most ebullient optimist must concede at some point that there is, has been, and will likely continue to be an unfathomable depth of suffering in the world at any given instant. Any narrative which overlooks this fact entirely is simply not engaging very fully with the world in which we live. On the contrary, a steady stream of morally uplifting and ennobling entertainment is likely to produce a naïve and facile worldview totally incapable of navigating situations of any moral complexity. Cicero writes of that arch-moralist Cato that he “gives his opinion as though he lived in Plato’s Republic, and not in the sewer of Romulus.” (dicit enim tamquam in Platonis πολιτείᾳ , non tamquam in Romuli faece sententiam.) Stannis may have burned his daughter, but did Agamemnon not sacrifice Iphigenia? Jamie and Cersei may be committing incest, but is Oedipus not both the father and the brother of his children?

The very poets (Homer and Hesiod) which Plato condemns would likely be condemned by Walther’s standard as well. The Iliad may read superficially like a glorification of aristocratic exploits, but at every turn it undercuts the heroic ethos. The poem begins with Agamemnon and Achilles disputing their respective rights to captive women whom they intend to rape, and ends after Achilles reluctantly returns Hector’s body to Priam after slaying him on the field and savagely disfiguring his corpse. Hector is one of the few characters in the world whom we, in the modern world, might deem morally good or at any rate not ethically compromised. The reward for his virtue is death and disfigurement. Beyond a few maxims quoted by the heroes themselves, there is no incitement to virtue here – only a grimly pessimistic view of human nature at the point where civilized norms break down. If the aim of the work were to sing the praises of heroes, it would be a resounding failure. If, however, it is read as a critical engagement with the darker side of human conflict and its destructive effects on our lives and souls, then it can hardly be surpassed. The Iliad is but one example, but much the same can be said about the Odyssey or Greek tragedy.

In many ways, Game of Thrones is the antithesis of the puerile entertainment offered up by the comic book superhero films which Walther dismisses. The darkly pessimistic and brutal worldview offers up a mirror to the horrors of our own world in which cosmic justice seems entirely lacking, where comic book films tend more often than not to offer up savior figures who are capable of redeeming humanity. Yet, the aesthetic of Game of Thrones is a fundamentally tragic one: good people suffer and die just as readily as manifestly wicked ones. Simonides made this point explicitly long ago:

ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

“Inevitable death is hung above everyone’s head alike. Everyone receives an equal share of it – both the good and the wicked.”

I should note carefully that I am not claiming that Game of Thrones is good, and I hope that my comparisons with Greek epic and tragedy do not suggest to the reader that I intend to equate them. I do enjoy the series with the “febrile, quasi-eschatological anticipation” which Walther criticizes, yet I am not unaware of its faults. I have on occasion thought that the series has crossed the line from depicting atrocity to sensationalizing it, but I did not feel morally weakened by the experience. Rather, I would suggest that it can have much the opposite effect of drawing out a sense of revulsion which actually forces our moral sense into heightened activity. It is, at its best, an entertainment well described by George Orwell’s definition of Chesterton’s term, the ‘good bad book’: “the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.” The show is by no means a triumph of the human spirit, and will in all likelihood be largely forgotten within a matter of decades. Yet, its faults are those which beset all popular entertainment: cheesy dialogue, a reliance on stale tropes (even when inverting them), and the construction of narrative and staging for optimal return on investment.

The attack on Game of Thrones from a ethical-aesthetic standpoint represents a misguided impulse (at least as old as Xenophanes) to criticize works of the imagination both for their ethical content and their moral effects, despite the fact that there is little evidence that art or literature, in and of themselves, regularly produce “moral effects”. This is the line of thinking which holds that listening to Wagner turns people into Nazis, or reading Joyce converts prudes to debauchees.  Moreover, it reflects an ignorance not only about the form and content of art and literature, but also of the criticism of that art and literature which has been vigorously practiced for thousands of years. If we are appalled by the sickening scenes of violence and suffering in our art and literature, then we should actively do something to reduce violence and suffering in the real world, until these aesthetic products no longer show us a faithful mirror image of our own world. To advocate for an aesthetic landscape entirely free of moral conundrum is to ask that our entertainment be untrue to the human experience. As Solon said, “In a long life, one must see and experience many things which he would not wish.” ᾿Εν γὰρ τῷ μακρῷ χρόνῳ πολλὰ μὲν ἔστι ἰδεῖν τὰ μή τις ἐθέλει, πολλὰ δὲ καὶ παθεῖν.

François Perrier: The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

5 thoughts on “From Homer to Game of Thrones: Atrocity in Art

  1. You know we would (and have) debate the merits of GoT over many mead-like beverages, but I cannot quibble with your careful, learned, and insightful disarming of the critique you mention. I have stopped watching the series several times because I do worry overmuch that it invites us to enjoy its excess (and be corrupted by it) rather than learn from and transcend it–but that peril is present in any art, as you so clearly imply.

    Another classic essay, I think.

    (And I still have my Stark sigil up in my office.)

  2. Also, I was a sucker for some of the clear classically inspired atrocities of the past two seasons: the punishing of bad xenia by Arya; the sacrifice of Iphigenia motif; the bastard of Bolton eaten by his own dogs–the mythic depravity and savagery has helped to remind me how awful the classical paradigms are. Authors are praised for excerpting and returning to the pretty or sophisticated or witty, but when we are forced to consider the base, the vicious and the truly dehumanizing aspects of our narrative traditions, some of us get a little upset…

    • Sir, you are too kind! I think that this bit of scribbling stems directly from my growing awareness of just how much of the atrocity in GoT has substantial literary precedent, even if it has been intensified somewhat. This ties into my thoughts on the horrors of Classical Studies, but one day when I was teaching the sacrifice of Iphigenia, I felt appalled in a way that I never had before – I had read the myth so many times as a part of the fairly canonical account of the trip to Troy, but sometimes you don’t really think about the full implications of these tales until you have to tell them yourself. A lot of people claimed that GoT went too far when Stannis burned his daughter, but it is in substance no different from the Iphigenia story. If they made a “House of Pelops” miniseries faithfully adapted from the myths, I’m sure that it would be panned in much the same way as disgusting and loathsome exploitation.

  3. Not really on on topic but yesterday (Tuesday) the British Museum issued an article via Twitter and Facebook comparing the Dothraki from GoT with the Scythians, so if it’s good enough for the BM to use…..

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