‘The Lottery’ (1948) by Shirley Jackson and ‘Midsommar’ (2019) by Ari Aster
The Banality of Evil and Theodore Adorno’s concept of the ‘shudder’.
“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
― Theodor Adorno
Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story was first published in 1948 in The New Yorker and generated more letters than any other work ever published in the magazine. Readers were furious, offended, somewhat curious and bewildered, with many, immediately cancelling their subscriptions to the magazine.
Some of this public outcry can be assigned to the policy of The New Yorker not stating whether the works they published were fact or fiction. But even then the outcry, so vehement and so sudden, will need more than this editorial policy to explain such a reaction to a very short, short story. The Lottery is one of the most widely known stories in American literature and in American culture so here is just a very brief precis.
The Lottery takes place on June 27, a beautiful summer day, in a small New England village where all the residents are gathering for their traditional annual lottery. Though the event first appears festive, it soon becomes clear that no one wants to win the lottery. Tessie Hutchinson seems unconcerned about the tradition until her family draws the dreaded mark. Then she protests that the process wasn’t fair. The ‘winner’, it turns out, will be stoned to death by the remaining residents which include the children. Tessie wins, and the story closes as the villagers — including her own family members — begin to throw rocks at her as she cries out, pitifully: ‘‘It wasn’t fair!’’ to them. They take not the slightest notice. After all, the ‘winner’ takes it all.
I, when I read the story for the first time only a few years ago, found it even now very disturbing, even in the early 21st century. One can easily understand why over 50 years ago when it was first read, by completely unprepared and unsuspecting readers of The New Yorker, they found it terrifying and their sensibilities deeply offended. This was not the response that Shirley Jackson had intended. In the July 1948 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle she said this in response to readers who had questioned her intentions:
‘‘I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to chock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.’’
Her story achieves exactly this effect primarily through Jackson’s expert use of contrasts. The picturesque setting contrasts sharply with the horrific violence of the conclusion. The story takes place on a beautiful summer day with flowers ‘blossoming profusely’ and the grass ‘richly green’. When the boys begin gathering stones, it seems like typical, playful behavior, and readers might imagine that everyone has gathered for something pleasant like a picnic or a parade.
Having recently watched the film Midsommar I noticed a quite similar mise en scene as Jackson’s story. The primitive pagan rituals in both story and film are very similar. An attempt by both communities to propitiate the god or gods to provide them with their needs through human sacrifice. In communities such as these, that obviously amounts to food and the continuation of the community through successful fertility. Both food production and fertility are obviously linked. This ritualization of the growth cycle is as old as time itself. But there is something far darker at work here which is fundamentally what both story and film are consumed with.
You can see and feel the same contrasting schema involved in the story and the film. It is also soaked in the perceptions and impressions made famous in a now iconic book by Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1964). Arendt had covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker in 1963. She examined the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions. Arendt’s argument was that Eichmann was not a monster, contrasting the immensity of his actions with the very ordinariness of the man himself.
In The Lottery the presence of evil is felt without being truly ‘seen’ until the final scene. This act is shocking in itself, but resonates far deeper psychologically, because we finally realise what the purpose of this rather odd lottery has really been about, to pick a member of the community for human sacrifice. It is the very ordinariness of the way both the lottery is performed and the final act of murderous sacrifice that follows, is what disturbs and unsettles us. It is here that the ‘shudder’ takes place. The evil is man-made and does not rely upon a deus ex machina or figure from pagan mythology or Christian eschatology to provide the causation and give us, the reader, a way out.
We shudder at this act of murder, sanctioned by all and carried out by all including Tessie’s own children and the young children of the community, with specially polished small stones, knowing that similar acts although on a much bigger scale have been and are being perpetrated by people who consider themselves to be civilized. I refer not only to the Holocaust but also to World War Two and all the wars that have taken place since Shirley Jackson’s story.
Both book and film address a far deeper and darker part of human nature that has its origins in the primitive but has now resurfaced with a vengeance in our modern society. The idea that people will commit acts of barbarism to another group of human beings because the leader of the political creed in power at that moment has required them to do so. But more disturbingly and the whole point of both book and film is that acts are committed without the slightest hesitation or concern for the morality of such acts. They are to the perpetrator as normal as making tea, or making bread or listening to a piece of classical music or reading a short story. The ritual or observance of the dictates of the leader of the community/country must be actioned otherwise the health/purity and continued existence/traditions of the community/country is endangered.
It also invoked a very similar curiosity from reader/viewer and displayed a similar visceral emotional effect, particularly at the end. I felt the scene where the container was turned and a ball chosen to denote the sacrificial victims was a direct homage to The Lottery. However the many killings and sacrifices in the film do work against the concept of the shudder. The emotional power of Jackson’s story is not repeated in Midsommar due I believe to the 50-year gap which has somewhat desensitized us to the standard tropes of such horror films. Hence I assume the reason for the inclusion of black humour and the self-referential looks by actors to the camera (and the viewer) as an acknowledgement of the fact that the tropes of horror are now well known. The ‘shudder’ cannot work here.
What for me was very enjoyable but did distance the horror emotionally within the film was the black humour. It is because of this self-referential humour that for me the ‘shudder’ is lost in Midsommar but happens with Jackson’s short story, which is completely without any black humour (although there is one moment of humour with the ‘dishes’ banter by Tessie). Adorno’s concept of ‘shudder’ seems to work perfectly here. Whether Adorno would agree with me is another matter.
Theodore Adorno (1903–1969) was a German philosopher, sociologist and musicologist who was a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, for whom the works of Freud, Marx and Hegel were essential to a critique of modern society.
In his 1949 essay Cultural Criticism and Society he made the now infamous and misunderstood comment that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. It is almost impossible, but people are still impelled to keep trying but this tends to become increasingly negative. It could be achieved argued Adorno through a senseless and systematically abstract aesthetic that could shake the viewer out of the inflexible structures of our modern industrialised society.
Adorno called this momentary revelation of truth the ‘shudder’ and wrote that it could be experienced in absurdist theater and literature, as well as experimental classical music. Adorno’s tastes were influenced by his social position — an upper-class German-Italian born in the early twentieth century and schooled in philosophy and classical music from a very young age inclining him towards high art in his search for an aesthetic that challenged the monotone culture sanctioned by the elite in order to keep the masses stupefied.
Adorno viewed the atonal music of Schoenberg and the absurdist theatre of Beckett not just as the quintessential response to modern aesthetic problems but as a response to our reified society under capitalism. Reification is rooted in the all-pervasiveness of the principles of commodity exchange. Everything is reduced to a common quantitative measure (monetary value). For Adorno, crucially, even thought was effected by both quantification and exchange value. In effect philosophy and science like the culture industry exist to reproduce capitalism. Art and specifically the art of the modernist avant-garde is for Adorno the principle form of resistance to capitalism.
An appropriate reading of a work of art can according to Adorno tell us so much more about the inner tensions of our society than any sociological study because the empirical sociological analysis will only reproduce a copy of the reified society in which it is being produced. It is only when the reified surface is broken apart by a work of art that we can experience the ‘shudder’. The reaction to the publication of Shirley Jackson’s story in 1948 has for me all the hallmarks of people, particularly women, who have experienced this ‘shudder’; a very specific moment when they felt uneasy at the overwhelming truths inherent in the story they had just read in a popular magazine in the comfort of their apartment.
Putting the magazine down and asking the writer: But I have never engaged in such practices. Why are you accusing me of this? And then for some the veil lifts and they are shaken out of their victorious complacency and see through the false consciousness of their lives into a very dark abyss. For it was more than a parable about man’s innate depravity it was a brutal fictional account of the way the ideological modus operandi of capitalism (and fascism) works in society.
The portrayal of women as inferior to men in the socio-economic hierarchy of the ‘village’, male power over their wives as compensation for powerlessness in the workplace, the ‘family’ as the normative social unit, accusing some of being lazy because they are unable to work and pitting those who are working against the unemployed are a few of the most obvious in The Lottery
The lottery itself is fundamentally a democratic illusion. On its surface the idea of a lottery in which everyone as Mrs. Graves says, ‘‘(takes) the same chance’’ seems eminently democratic, yet as we now know from our recent experiences with democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, chance has nothing to do with it.