The logic has defied the best of philosophers, but the reality is plain before us. Upon it depends much of the entertainment industry. Bloodlust is in the heart of man as surely as the more fashionable emotions.

Caliban dwells within each of us; man, woman and child and cannot be driven out. Our civilisation being but the thin crust humanity has built each for his own protection, the greater part of us is in the seething lava beneath

In an uncharacteristically grim passage in his comic novel Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K Jerome describes the sight and the feeling of watching the blood flowing and flesh ripped on the duelling floor in Heidelberg:

Whether anything can properly be said in favour of the German Mensur I am doubtful; but if so it concerns only the two combatants.  Upon the spectators it can and does, I am convinced, exercise nothing but evil.  I know myself sufficiently well to be sure I am not of an unusually bloodthirsty disposition. 

The effect it had upon me can only be the usual effect.  At first, before the actual work commenced, my sensation was curiosity mingled with anxiety as to how the sight would trouble me, though some slight acquaintance with dissecting-rooms and operating tables left me less doubt on that point than I might otherwise have felt. As the blood began to flow, and nerves and muscles to be laid bare, I experienced a mingling of disgust and pity.  But with the second duel, I must confess, my finer feelings began to disappear; and by the time the third was well upon its way, and the room heavy with the curious hot odour of blood, I began, as the American expression is, to see things red.

I wanted more.  I looked from face to face surrounding me, and in most of them I found reflected undoubtedly my own sensations.  If it be a good thing to excite this blood thirst in the modern man, then the Mensur is a useful institution.  But is it a good thing?  We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched. Occasionally he may be wanted, but we never need fear his dying out.  On the other hand, it seems unwise to over-nourish him.

This is not just about Germans. True that their murderous cruelty a generation later still shocks us to the core of our humanity, but no one should think it is exclusive to one nation – we are all Adam’s sons. It is about mankind, thirsting for blood like the wolves we resemble in character.

Why we should thrill to see a boxer crush his opponent’s nose, or two thugs beating each other to pulp, or why crowds used to press tight in the streets to watch a hanging, that is the question. No one can feel superior to this: in the cinema the action thriller is exactly the same.

When we see an action film, the peril is the thrill, or we might rationalise it that way. We know there is no real peril, even in the willing suspension of disbelief, because the hero gets out at the end. The film does not pall on the second viewing when we know the outcome, and we might even look keenly for particular details of the carnage.

The crowds at a boxing match are actually present at actual peril, and the reactions of the crowd are telling: yelling, bellowing, cheering not just at the skill but at the bloodiest blows. This is not a surrogate fear as one might feel towards another’s danger, but a bloodlust, a heating of the temper. The biggest cheers are not at the greatest peril but at the most crushing bodily punishment. The idea that the fight, or an action sequence, inspire through the peril presented just does not fit what we see. It is deeper, more primal.

The boxing match takes place in a settled society of rules and norms. The car chase in the film is in a city of ordered lines. The hanging is within the strict procedures of the law. The college duel, the Mensur, is within the epitome of civilisation, the university, in a streich in Ordnung student society.

What they have in common is an outbreak of raw violence, ripping aside the peaceful veil of society and releasing the feral man. Social rules suppress the animal that we are inside, and the greatest lust is for freedom. As the blade spews blood, it is a glimpse of that ancient freedom for which we all yearn. There is nothing like it.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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