We Think by Feeling

Theodore Roethke

David Hume

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

–Theodore Roethke

Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of understanding as of taste and sentiment. Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived.

–David Hume

Emotions ignite moral judgments. Reason follows in the wake of this dynamic….Conscious moral reasoning often plays no role in our moral judgments, and in many cases reflects a post-hoc justification or rationalization of previously held biases or beliefs.

–Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds (24-25)

We Think by Feeling

In my last post I objected to clever and stylistic cinematic portrayals of violence because violence is the ugliest and stupidest thing that people do. I selected four movies for disapprobation, Snatch, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. (It is no accident that two of these movies were created by Quentin Terantino, but more on that later.) But it dawned on me after I made the post that the primary rationale that I could come up with for why Mr. and Mrs. Smith is such a morally execrable movie (it makes light of those wretched people who kill others instead of exploring the contours of their depravity) is also true of Prizzi’s Honor, one of my favorite movies. Of course, I could try to convince myself that Prizzi’s Honor deserves an exemption from my rule about glamorizing violence because it is a highly ironic work of art.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that whoever came up with Mr and Mrs. Smith was trying to be ironic, and every movie is a work of art (but not necessarily a well-achieved work of art.) It has also occurred to me that every reason I can come up with for why I never enjoyed Married with Children (it’s about a bunch of pathetic losers who are constantly abusing each other) is true about Two and a Half Men, one of my favorite shows.

Because emotions ignite moral judgments, it is my feeling that violence in film should be just as ugly and stupid as it is in real life. That’s why I like Reservoir Dogs so much more than Pulp Fiction (Michael Madsen’s happy dancing torturer scene notwithstanding). Terantino is, of course, a lightening rod for people who object to violent movies, particularly when he says asinine things like this:

“Violence in the movies can be cool,” he says. “It’s just another color to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn’t mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a color.”

The maddening thing about Terantino is that he such an idiotic savant. He writes brilliant dialogue, gets unexpectedly marvelous performances out of his actors and he’s even capable of creating rather touching scenes. I was very moved, for example, by the way Robert Forster revealed his vulnerable side to Pam Grier in Jackie Brown by talking about how degrading it was to sit alone for hours in a dark room that reeked of cat piss in order to do the only job he was qualified for.

So is every work of criticism simply an attempt to rationalize feelings? I’m afraid so.

by Richard W. Bray

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5 Responses to “We Think by Feeling”

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