In Robert G. L. Waite's psychological biography of Adolf Hitler, The Psychopathic God, there is a discussion of Hitler's obsession with the erotic works of German symbolist Franz von Stuck. While it is telling which paintings of von Stuck were among the dictator's personal favorites, the most telling exchange came between Hitler and his companion from pre-World War I Vienna, "Putzi" Hanfstaengl. When Hitler and Putzi saw this mosaic . . .
he declared, "Those eyes, Hanfstaengl! Those eyes are the eyes of my mother!" For someone who is a textbook case of Freudian psychopathology, Hitler's obsession with his mother, and the shocked expression of recognition as he saw his mother's eyes staring back at him from that image should be telling enough. That von Stuck, whose work includes some darkly erotic imagery of women as both victim of sexual evil and seductress in the midst of that sexual evil, was Hitler's favorite artist should tell us much about what passed for a mind in that diseased skull.
What we see and understand as evil is very often interpreted through imagery familiar to everyone. The traditional image of the Devil as a horned, winged being is very real to many, and was exploited for great effect in an arresting scene in the classic horror film The Exorcist. Yet, how much power can such an image carry in a world where the reality of evil is present in much more mundane imagery - the piles of severed limbs in Rwanda, the grim abattoir underneath the staid suburban tract home of John Wayne Gacey, or the smokey plumes from the ovens at Auschwitz/Birkenau? How can art compete with these realities that are, sadly, too much a part of our lives?
I think, oddly enough, we can take a lesson from Hitler's startled response to von Stuck's image of the Gorgon. When we recognize that which both attracts and repels us in an image, we are on the borderline of comprehending a representation of something of transcendent horror.
This is a crime scene photo of the last Whitechapel murders, usually ascribed to the unknown assailant given the moniker Jack the Ripper. I first saw that photo in 1988, and was transfixed by it. The depth of rage and will to destruction that grabs the viewer by the throat is difficult to put into words. How, we wonder, is it possible for one human being to do this to another human being? Even more unsettling is this question: How do we accept this image, make it a part of our view of the world, incorporate it in to our lives in a way that makes sense? At first blush such a question seems to belittle the sacrifice pictured. To reduce the death portrayed here to a symbol does further violence to the person already violated beyond recognition. How dare we treat one so utterly destroyed as something less than human, a mere image to fit into a catalog of images that help us make sense of our world.
Yet, we must do so. The image presses itself in to our minds and hearts, the silent voice of the victim demanding not only justice (a justice denied contemporaneously) but understanding. In these images we not only see a glimpse of something physically arresting; we see something that recalls to us our deepest fears, not just of what surrounds us, but of what lives inside all of us. We deny to our peril the threat that images of the profane present to us. Unless we are willing, as he most certainly was not, to answer the question posed by Adolf Hitler's declaration that the Head of the Medusa reminded him of his mother, we are destined never to comprehend the reality of evil in this world. Unless we listen to the voices of the victims, and seek to comprehend the depths to which human beings are capable of sinking, we will always remain surprised by evil.
Art allows us this glimpse in to the shadow regions of our own lives. This is why it is here, first, I believe, we shall begin to regain an understanding of and vocabulary for the evil that rests like a tumor upon our souls.
NB: I had to travel to the dark side to get that image of the Medusa. The only place I found it was at a Nazi website. I want to apologize here and now for that. I feel dirty.