Naturally, in an age of authenticity and promotion of all our impulses, we mustn’t allow that some of our impulses are dark and mean. This would point, immediately, to the lack and twistedness in ourselves. It would cut us off at the knees the next time we tried to shame someone for a careless comment, for we would have to acknowledge that we are sometimes careless. Even more, we are cruel.
The problem, of course, as any five-year old could tell you, is that kowtowing to our impulses — our authentic impulses — will quickly get us in trouble. A five-year old may want cookies for dinner, and we have to explain how that impulse isn’t healthy, but when are our impulses all healthy? At fifteen? Thirty-five?
We cannot allow that we have dark impulses. Movies do not show this, avoiding it even for villains. The nuanced, careful portraits of broken men and women have enough backstory to show that they’re acting out because of what was done to them. It’s not their fault.
This has two ramifications. First, whose fault is it? Are we no longer morally culpable for actions if we’ve been emotionally injured? What if our action injures someone else, and they act in a cruel way as a result? Is it neither person’s fault?
Second, as my first example points to, how far back does the chain go?
I’m re-reading East of Eden. Steinbeck creates a character, Cathy, and asserts that she is a monster. He does not perform backflips to show why; he is comfortable with brokenness. All good fiction writers must be.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
Who is willing? The storyteller and writer must be, and we must point back to this dividing line again and again, if we want to tell a story that is good, beautiful, and above all, true.