Corruption, Greed, And Apathy: Humanity’s Inherent Flaws
Three of the books covered this semester in US 101 shared a remarkably similar recurring theme. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a vivid story depicting the life of an innocent young man who slowly degenerates from the inside out, eventually collapsing under the weight of corruption. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, covers the internal decadence of Islamic fundamentalism during the Iranian revolution. The arresting ease in which people grew to embody Hitler’s callous idealism is delineated in Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. But how can these be tied together? In all three, the enemy is not some ruthless beast, incurable disease, or imminent disaster; it is the symposium of sickness created by the human mind.
Dorian Gray’s downward spiral allows a look at the theme on a diminutive scale. The book starts with a pure character, someone seemingly free of any and all personality flaws. But he was too perfect. Upon meeting Lord Henry, a witty man with far-flung yet brilliant ideas, Dorian’s virgin mind is tainted by the power of words and quickly enveloped in a world of dark insanity. His relationship with Lord Henry borders on idolatry, allowing every passing word and nonchalant action of his to have an interminable effect. Dorian’s exterior appearance remains untarnished throughout the entire ordeal, while his soul enters a state of perpetual decay.
Although this story only involved a handful of people, it clearly demonstrates how one small action can create a widespread effect. Lord Henry’s whimsical notions were too much for an angelic young man to handle; within his mind the ideas quickly convoluted out of control and created a devil incarnate. In this case the introduction of an idea was all it took to comprehensively erode all preconceptions of how the world and the human psyche worked. All of this would have been completely preventable had Dorian taken a step back to realize what was happening. Instead, he watched helplessly—and ruthlessly—as his life crumbled beneath him. If one person can apathetically watch their life wither away, can an entire society do the same?
Persepolis advances this concept within the levels of individuals, communities, political groups, and countries. The book clearly demonstrates conflicting ideologies between Marji and the people around her, the revolutionary group and the fundamentalists, and, on its largest scale, Iran and the surrounding nations. This allows a look at how tension amongst small groups of people can breed animosity in an entire nation. A deep rift between countrymen is created through malice, and in it an internal and external conflict can clearly be seen. Iran may be at war with Iraq, but the fundamentalist government’s unwillingness to assimilate modern ideas creates a more hostile environment at home than on the war front. Obviously this strife will not benefit anyone, but as the book progresses it becomes more and more apparent that the fundamentalists will continue their perennial quest to enlighten.
Another self-destructive pattern found in the book is that of martyrism. One common slogan used in the book was “To die a martyr is to inject blood into the veins of society” (Satrapi, 115). Although this approach could have been effective if used in moderation, the government chose to butcher the nation’s youth on the front line and glorify the act of dying in vain. Their definition of a martyr was expanded from a hero dying for a cause to anyone fortunate enough to die during the revolution. This effectively drained the credibility of all those who sacrificed themselves for an insidious leadership. Actions such as these can only raise the question of what value we put on human life, and what extent, if any, we will go to in order to preserve it.
Another stigmata of the human mind made apparent through the reading is man’s insatiable greed. Iran’s malignant fighting tactics brought on heavy losses and were proven to be ineffectual initially. However, as the war against Iraq progressed they eventually gained back what had been taken from them. At this point, Iraq came up with a peace settlement and Saudi Arabia offered to pay for reconstruction of the ravaged war zone. Iran promptly refused this, opting to try to take the Iraqi holy city of Karbala instead. This is a clear transgression of what is admissible to do given the scenario—or nearly any similar situation. They had nothing useful to gain and everything to lose, and still decided to march on through the gates of oblivion. Whether it is power or money, man succumbs easily to his instinctual callous greed.
Viktor E. Frankl presents these problems on a much more grandiose scale in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. This book deals largely with the psychology behind the holocaust, and gives an incredible insight into what the human mind will do in a state of desperation. It provides an excellent perspective Persepolis and The Picture of Dorian Gray cannot offer because it deals with both the individual’s and society’s annihilative tendencies. The first person perspective is also able to convey a much more macabre account of how man will turn his back on himself in order to fulfill self-indulgent and often ludicrous desires. This in turn gives a greater understanding of humanity’s potential for heinousness.
There is no better example of the barbarity of mankind than the extermination of six million innocent people. There was no solid reasoning behind the act; it would almost seem to have been done in spite. The evidence strongly supports the argument that man has an inherently apathetic nature, and will choose what is in his best interest over what benefits society as a whole. This in turn gives an explanation to the behaviors prevalent in the death camps; as seen in both the German guards and the capos. Such a large group of people couldn’t possibly commit an act as horrific as the holocaust if they weren’t fundamentally indifferent to the eradication of other human beings. Upon beginning this campaign, humanity had reached its height of callousness.
Society cannot make the switch on its own, however— change must start with the individual. In this sense, everyone must at some point knowingly decide to transgress basic moral code and engage in the unethical. In this case, it was for the power and authority offered by positions in the military and at death camps. The German soldiers--many of whom had been lower-class citizens before the war—were offered limitless power. The Jews were not so fortunate. In order for them to get anywhere, they were forced to maliciously turn on their own and detach from any community they possessed. Many jumped at this opportunity and inflicted unnecessary harm in the hopes of bettering their chances of survival. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The book also presented an even more extreme internal and external conflict than that seen in Persepolis. The theme of war dividing a country is shared between the two, but in Man’s Search for Meaning the class separation is much more divisive. For a short period of time Hitler was successful in making one group inferior to the other, although it had obvious flaws and was doomed from its inception. Both the baleful regimes were self-destructive in their nature and accomplished nothing good outside their own prejudiced agendas.
So what can we conclude from this? One of the books was obviously written in a disturbing manner and did an absolutely extraordinary job of conveying its mixed, yet straightforward message: people are easily corrupted and naturally egomaniacal. Through all its intricacies, The Picture of Dorian Gray has an elegantly simple thesis. Man’s Search for Meaning and Persepolis, on the other hand, were much different. Although they were written with the intent of being positive and encouraging awareness, one cannot help but notice the overwhelmingly nefarious underlying messages. People may be able to unite and persevere under abominable circumstances, but one cannot forget that it is other people who put themselves and others into the situation. Granted it is a miniscule faction of society that sparks the evil; but just as a drop of ink will stain a bucket of water, one person can degenerate and entire world.
On the flip side, there is always something beneficial to be gained from any situation. All of the evils in the books would have been entirely preventable if people had taken the time to question and form their own thoughts. When people act like sheep, good causes are forgotten and wickedness prevails. Dorian forgot who he was, the Iranians were overtaken by greed, and the Nazis lost their benevolence. From this we can learn that words don’t need to be taken to heart all the time, martyrism only works in small doses, and ideas cannot be effectively willed onto other people. If you reach far enough into the dark, light can always be retrieved.
Search for answers, on the perennial quest
Where dreams are followed, and time is a test
METALHEADS BW ~on3p.~