“You may not always like novelty, but your brain does.” (Berns, xiii)
The Elder Seneca (ca. 54 BC – ca. 39 AD), Controversiae 10.4: This text tells of a man put on trial for taking exposed children and mutilating them, so that they are more effective beggars through the pity they incite:
“Here roam the blind, leaning on sticks, here others carry round stumps of arms. This child has had the joints of his feet torn, his ankles wrenched; this has had his legs crushed. Another’s thighs he has smashed, though leaving feet and legs unharmed. Finding a different savagery for each, this bone-breaker cuts off the arms of one, slices the sinews of another’s; one he twists, another he castrates. In yet another he stunts the shoulder-blades, beating them into an ugly hump, looking for a laugh from his cruelty. Come on, bring out your troop half-alive, shaking, feeble, blind, crippled, starving; show us your prisoners. I want to get to know that cave of yours, that stripping-place for children.” Translation Michael Winterbottom, 1974.
How does this example fit in as a ‘spectacle’? Can something be considered a spectacle if you don’t want to look at it? Keeping the quote above in mind, I would suggest that the desire NOT to look is informed by cultural values rather than biological or psychological reactions, wherein the latter are instinctually-based, causing the individual to want to look, to stare, even if they may not think they want to. The cultural values with which they are imbued influence the ultimate reaction to such a sight – in this case, pity.
Sadly, the mutilation of children as a shrewd entrepreneurial tactic is in no way isolated in the ancient world. Today, horrific stories are revealed by the media of eerily similar practices occurring in countries such as India and Cambodia. Excerpts from these articles are hauntingly reminiscent of the passage from The Elder Seneca:
“So just who would chop off the leg of a healthy child? The boys are victims of India’s so-called ‘beggar mafia’ — criminals so violent and amoral that they are prepared to hack the limbs off children, as well as steal new-born babies from hospitals. They use the children as begging ‘props’ to maximise their earnings from sympathetic passers-by.” (Malone, 2009)
“It was a tragic story. He had been a normal young boy in Cambodia. But when he crossed to Thailand. He was suddenly mute. He pointed to his cut tongue with terrified eyes. On his neck there was a trace of surgery, size of a little finger which made the officer believe that they had removed his larynx. The boy said that there were more boys of his age, also forced to work as beggers. They were all handicapped, their arms and legs had been cut off. The gangs alledgedly abducted the children and cut off their tongues, arms, or legs to make them crippled and they would be easy to to control and people wold pity them and give them money.” (Published : March 21, 2012)
These terrifying situations are nevertheless illuminating: the reaction of humans to mutilated children proves overwhelmingly successful for the monsters who disfigure and exploit them. I believe this success inevitably lies in both the psychological processes involved when one reacts to the damaged bodies, as well as the socio-cultural conventions which contribute to the desire for the able-bodied humans to rectify the guilt of: a) their own, intact forms and b) their inability or unwillingness to truly help the victimized children.