From San Sebastiano to Jon Snow: why is pain still so popular?
Step into any Catholic church and you will see a number of statues that depict pain, suffering, violence and death, not least of all the figure of Jesus Christ on the cross, which is obligatory. But it is not just the crucifixion that one sees. Elsewhere in the church there might be a statue of Mater Dolorosa, about whom I wrote in an earlier piece, as well as a number of saints who were martyred for their faith, San Sebastiano being a particularly popular figure. Baroque churches are especially vivid and graphic in their depictions, which can include arrow-pierced hearts and bloody gashes. Notably, both Protestant and Eastern Rite churches do not have such gory displays. Russian, Greek and other orthodox traditions typically display Jesus in his resurrected state, while Protestant churches have largely removed his figure completely, particularly from the cross.
Why were these depictions so popular in Catholicism and why are they still so prevalent and such a central part of one of the largest and oldest religions in world history? Some might point to such an emphasis on death as being a form of social pathology, a relict of a less sophisticated and more violent age, or a peculiar fixation of a particular religion. As scholars such as Steven Pinker enjoy pointing out, the world is just getting better and better, meaning ever less violent, so human civilization is always improving. Surely it is time to put these awful, archaic statues away and surround ourselves with more pleasant and inspiring depictions of humanity. Surely the Catholic Church is out of step with the times, even holding back world progress.
And yet. And yet. And yet, we have the Game of Thrones, an immensely popular television program that ended not too long ago, the violence in which outstrips anything you will see in a Catholic church or in the Bible, or even in great works of classical literature such as the Odyssey and the Iliad. So there must be something about depictions of pain, suffering, violence and death, if not direct experience of them, that connects to something that is essentially human. And because so much of the necessary violence of our lives, everything from killing animals for food to waging war, has been outsourced to specialized parts of our political-economies, most people do not suffer from, let alone execute, violent acts as part of their daily lives, nor do they experience the pain and death that is a consequence and goal of them.
To help untie this curious knot, it might be helpful to turn to a bit of theory. In an earlier piece, I introduced the allergen concept, the idea being that human immune systems evolved to combat pathogens that constantly threatened our health and well-being. Once we removed many of these pathogens from our daily existence, our immune systems did not have enough work to do, to put it rather simply, so they malfunctioned, manifesting themselves in the form of allergies, for example. When our immune systems are stressed to the degree to which they have evolved to respond, they do not overact and cause distress. They work as they are designed to work, with all of their energy being channeled into solving a problem.
The allergen theory can also be considered then in social terms. If our psycho-biologies have evolved to accommodate and counteract stresses that were prevalent in our preindustrial and premodern past, what happens to our psychological and biological systems when those stresses are removed through structural changes to our social and physical environments? What might a form of psycho-social allergy that is caused by an underused psycho-social immune system look like?
Well, whatever drives the appeal of Game of Thrones and other programs like it is probably behind it. These violent programs are popular because they scratch an itch we have, or stop the itch from developing in the first place. Depression seems like a likely modern social malady that might be caused by the lack of stimulus that regular encounters with pain, suffering, violence and death once produced. Likewise, the more complex and perhaps less palpable forms of existential despair, often characterized by a lack of meaning and an inability to feel intense emotions, good or bad, could very well have their origins in an undertaxed psycho-biological immune system.
So let’s return to our Baroque churches. Is JonSnow just the new San Sebastiano? Is there something about seeing a figure — historical, contemporary, fictional, secular, religious, or some combination of some or all of these characteristics — suffering in pain as the victim, or perhaps the perpetrator, of violence and death that paradoxically stimulates health and happiness? Did the Catholic Church know how to tap into a fundamental trait of human beings to reveal an essential problem of human nature that had to be reconciled one way or another? Or did the religion develop out of a historical narrative and simply remain faithful to recording and telling this story as it evolved over centuries? If we are past this vision of humanity and the world, or should be, why do we continue to be so enraptured by it? Why do television studios invest millions of dollars to produce these programs and why are they so medieval in the details of their set, costume, story and characterization? And why on earth are they still so popular?
One answer is that Western culture is grounded in Christianity and there is just no escaping it, at least not yet. As the novelist and social critic, Gore Vidal, once observed, American writers, no matter how hard they try, cannot avoid rewriting the Bible with every book they turn out. Another answer might be that human beings have evolved to survive in a violent world, and when we are deprived of regular exposure to pain, suffering, violence and death, because we now have police officers, soldiers, medical staff and slaughterhouse workers who perform all of these often regrettable but necessary acts of violence for us, we miss out on an important aspect of life. We lack an essential stimulus to our systems, and thus we become sulky and depressed, even though we have everything we need, or think we do.
Of course, pain, suffering, violence and death are still strongly evident in the lives of many people, and some would say that this is still too much of a problem. And they are just parts of human existence and experience. Love, compassion, kindness and generosity are essential as well, and you see their expression on screens and in churches also. But perhaps the problem is that the good and bad of life have become uncoupled, so that the natural logic of life is no longer apparent in our daily experience. Michel Serres suggests that violence never goes away, that it just moves from one place to another. So when pain, suffering, violence and death are hidden from us, we can no longer respond to them as nature intended, and this is not good for us, neither individually nor collectively.
So, maybe the prescription for what ails us is to watch Game of Thrones, or to read the Odyssey, or to visit a Baroque church, or to go on a pilgrimage, or whatever it is that restores our engagement with the struggle between the good and bad of life, which forms an essential nexus of who we are.
For a future piece: What roles do sex and beauty play in all of this? To tackle that question, we will need Sigmund Freud, that embattled stalwart of 20th century social thought, and others, to help us. And no doubt the Catholic Church, whose existence, development and influence is inextricable from those of Italian life and culture, has said and done a great deal on and around these topics.