Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away

We have a torn relationship with the mangled, the bloody, and the dead. Our reptilian brain instinctively prescribes a wide berth, like what you'd give to spoiled fruit or big, angry animals with sharp teeth. But an equally elemental counterforce urges us to go and have a look -- and not only a peep but a hard stare.

Is it just our inner imp of the perverse at work, asks Eric G. Wilson in Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, indulging a penchant for doom and ruin for which we will feel exhilaration and shame, guilt and a pleasure all the more gratifying for being frowned upon? Or does morbid curiosity serve some other purpose, perhaps an evolutionary advantage?

Wilson, who teaches English at Wake Forest, entertains plenty of suspects for the source of our dark curiosities, and he does so in an informal voice. He's fluent and comfortable, whether poking for clues in the bewildering complexity of Edmund Burke's sublime, as experienced in the stomach-dropping irresistibility of, say, a tornado; the Jungian shadow, that archive of everything we hate about ourselves, those destructive crazes and unadmitted tendencies without recognition of which we would not be whole; or the simple, malicious pleasure of another's misfortunes.

He also finds himself in some grim precincts, including the memorabilia industry that has grown up around Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and company -- who peddle customized souvenirs from their jail cells -- or the venting of aggressive and erotic urges through the nihilistic voyeurism of, godhelpus, snuff films on the Internet.  

But back to Darwin, please. Do we commune in one fashion or another with the dying and the dead to glean some useful morsel about behavior to be avoided? That exposure to the macabre allows us to navigate sinister environments more effectively? That witnessing death or misery shakes us out of our narcissism and elevates our ethical imaginations, allowing us to share in suffering, and, through that empathy, begin to understand our greater commonality?

Just maybe, writes Wilson, our fascinations with catastrophe can best be seen as "as a special invitation to think about life's meanings," where we can not only entertain our destructive impulses without hurting ourselves -- keeping that special distance; the closer, the better, though not too close -- but also be reminded that life is a swift and chancy wonder, inspiring our progress through it to be appreciative and honest. Which doesn't mean that we can't enjoy scandals, failures, falls from grace, or just a fall down the stairs -- mockery, derision, ignominy, heap it on -- but that calamities of all sizes can ignite a passion for life in the observer, above that immediate sympathy for the Devil.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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