"People love seeing violence and horrible things. The human being is bad and he can't stand more than five minutes of happiness. Put him in a dark theater and ask him to look at two hours of happiness and he'd walk out or fall asleep." -- Paul Verhoeven, 1987
When word got back to me that one of the critics at Salon, whose identity I shall protect, had expressed disbelief that I was writing a Brilliant Careers piece on Paul Verhoeven -- "You're kidding, right?" -- I could hardly be surprised. Most American filmgoers, if they know Verhoeven's name at all, regard him as a director of empty, sensationalistic spectacles, who has been pilloried by right-wing moralists as a pornographer and by left-wing moralists as a homophobe and misogynist. Meanwhile, to a far smaller cadre of cineastes, Verhoeven is a once-interesting European director who sold his soul to make megabucks Hollywood trash.
It's true that the story of Verhoeven's life as a filmmaker might best be considered under some rubric more complicated than "brilliant," but as far as I know, Salon has no plans to launch a column called Ambiguous Careers. So here we are, and my mission is to convince you that Paul Verhoeven is indeed a genius, albeit one partly defeated by -- take your pick -- history, circumstances, public indifference or his own contrary nature.
Is he concerned with sex and a sleek, candy-coated visual style? You bet. Does he choose disreputable genres: the erotic thriller, the soapy melodrama, the sci-fi spectacular? Clearly. Does he make trash? Sometimes he absolutely embraces it. But what intoxicating, satisfying, downright weird trash! I'll take Verhoeven at his best over all your Ridley Scotts and Tim Burtons and Terry Gilliams and whatever other piss-elegant upscale Hollywood artistes you can name. Next to his obsessive reiterations they're kids in the backyard with Dad's video camera and last year's Halloween costumes.
Verhoeven's career has a peculiar coherence that isn't easy to grasp; in order to understand his American films you need to see his European films, and vice versa. His body of work is unquestionably uneven, but I would argue that "Starship Troopers," "Basic Instinct" and, to a lesser extent, "RoboCop," are among the most interesting Hollywood films of the last 20 years. They are ambiguous and troubled works, not quite complete and widely misunderstood; they share an ironic/melodramatic narrative mode that is, for better or worse, distinctively Verhoeven's own.
After the relative commercial failures of "Starship Troopers" in 1997 and "Showgirls" in 1995 (failure in Hollywood is always a question of perception rather than absolute numbers), Verhoeven may be running out of rope, which makes a reassessment of his career especially timely. He has always been a slow and methodical craftsman despite his hack reputation, and "Hollow Man," his invisible-man thriller starring Kevin Bacon, which opens this week, is his first film in three years. If it fails to connect with mass audiences, Verhoeven may have difficulty refuting the perception that, at 62, he's an aging director of overpriced genre pictures who has nowhere to go but down.
For that tender minority who believes Verhoeven is an important director, "Hollow Man" will seem like a disappointingly conventional film. It's recognizably his work, both because of the dazzling special effects and because it's a fable about an arrogant man, wounded in love, who is symbolically emasculated (by literally disappearing) and becomes a jealous, paranoid monster. But without a powerful and complicated woman for Bacon's mad scientist to bounce off -- Elisabeth Shue's character is a cheerful Girl Scout type -- Verhoeven never seems viscerally engaged with the film. There are a couple of creepy signature moments, as when the invisible Bacon stalks a naked woman who thinks she's alone in her apartment, but for the most part "Hollow Man" is standard (and wretchedly scripted) Hollywood action-adventure.
Verhoeven foresaw his current problematic fate in a characteristically frank interview with Bob Strauss of the Boston Globe in 1997, before the release of "Troopers": "When your movies work, it gives you more power. . . . The moment you start to make failures one after the other, you're much more at the mercy of what people want you to do." In Verhoeven's world, films and filmmaking are always power games, played against a shadowy adversary (whether it's his Hollywood employers, the audience or both) he seems to desire as much as fear.
The key concept in understanding Verhoeven's work and career, I think, is ambivalence. He is ambivalent about sex, about men and women, about violence, about Hollywood. Although it's probably fair to call Verhoeven a leftist (yes, really), he understands the philosophical and aesthetic appeal of fascism. He loves the overwrought narrative style of thrillers and melodramas, but doesn't entirely trust its manipulative power. He wants to attract a mass audience and then feel superior to it. He's like the conjurer who tells you how the trick works, then makes you believe in magic anyway. For a filmmaker in his position in the marketplace, he thinks too damn much.
Years ago, when I reviewed "Basic Instinct" for a San Francisco newspaper, I wrote that Verhoeven was not just a genius but an evil genius. That was a joke, but there may be something to it. Verhoeven's evil, I have since decided, is an innocent evil like that of Alfred Hitchcock, rather than the smug, calculating evil of Hitchcock's innumerable imitators. To me, at least, the comparison is inescapable: Like Hitchcock, Verhoeven is an ice-veined European expatriate whose sleek filmmaking style cannot conceal the fact that he's not in control of his own obsessions. For both directors, male sexual anxiety is at the center of their aesthetic universe, and both have been accused of hating women. The charge may be unfair or overly simplistic, but in neither case can it be totally dismissed. (The best response to this belongs to another cold-hearted filmmaker, Peter Greenaway, who always insists that he is a misanthrope, not merely a misogynist.)
In Verhoeven's films he is tormented by beautiful and potentially predatory women, consumed by doubts about his sexual identity, haunted by visions of shocking violence and by the conviction that love is a disfiguring and destructive ailment. He addresses the same themes -- and in fact makes versions of the same films -- over and over again.
Like Hitchcock or Fritz Lang or Ernst Lubitsch, Verhoeven is a European director who became an ironic observer of the American scene by translating his filmmaking style into Hollywood's terms, without ever entirely abandoning his Old World values and mores. He has said he was reared on American musicals and melodramas, so one can imagine that when he was offered the opportunity to come to Hollywood in the mid-1980s he saw it as a kind of homecoming.
He could have become another Douglas Sirk, who came to America with a substantial career in Germany behind him and churned out such sudsy '50s studio hits as "Imitation of Life," "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Wind." He may become one yet; Sirk's Hollywood melodramas were not widely recognized as classics until recently, after prominent buffs like Martin Scorsese took up his cause. At the moment, however, Verhoeven's muddled track record makes him seem a stranger in a strange land, with a sensibility too American for Europe, yet too European for America.
Verhoeven's career would certainly look different if it were not divided into two ungainly halves; if he had stayed in Holland through the '80s and '90s, or come to America much earlier, or simply been born in Lubitsch and Lang's era or another yet to come. But he was in his late 40s, with seven features behind him, when he moved from Amsterdam to Los Angeles to make "RoboCop" in 1986. So his Dutch films are extremely difficult to find (with the sole exception of "The Fourth Man"), and his American films are generally seen as disposable crap. Verhoeven has largely determined his own destiny and has been handsomely paid for it. But in neither case is this fate just.
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Paul Verhoeven was born in Amsterdam on July 18, 1938, so he was not quite 2 years old when the Germans overran Holland in the spring of 1940 and not quite 7 when they left. He has discussed this aspect of his childhood only briefly in American interviews, but has said that he saw the bodies of downed Allied pilots in fields near his home and has implied that the first movies he ever saw were Nazi propaganda films.
One should, of course, resist the temptation to psychoanalyze a total stranger based on sketchy anecdotes, but the image this presents is nearly irresistible: a child confronted with and fascinated by violence and death, and enthralled by images that, as he comes to understand later, cannot be relied upon to tell the truth.
"It's really that age between 5 and 8, when you are extremely susceptible and starting to develop as an individual, when you are really formed," Verhoeven told Strauss. "My brain was impregnated by these images that I saw, and as a child, of course, they seemed to be the norm. German occupation and war all around was what I was used to. By the time peace came, I was like, 'What is this?'"
Specifically, Verhoeven has said that his childhood experiences under the occupation have informed two of his films. The most obvious of these is "Soldier of Orange," a tale of the Dutch Resistance that won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film in 1980. (Its Dutch release was three years earlier.) In most respects a straightforward patriotic adventure, "Soldier of Orange" marked Verhoeven's first attempt at action cinema and the first touches of an odd satirical mode that would later become his Hollywood hallmark. (Like most of Verhoeven's Dutch films, it's out of print on video, although I found a copy at a rental outlet.) It opens, in fact, with a fake newsreel that celebrates Holland's liberation while conveniently ignoring the widespread Dutch collaboration with the Nazi regime.
"RoboCop" (1987) and "Starship Troopers" (1997) also begin with parodies of propaganda broadcasts, and the latter film, as Verhoeven has admitted, is essentially a remake of "Soldier of Orange," albeit a remake in which the irony meter is cranked to 11 and the story's moral polarities are thrown into grave doubt. You could argue that nearly all of "Starship Troopers" is a parody of a propaganda film; its cast of hard-bodied young unknowns (including future Bond girl Denise Richards) and its "Melrose Place"-style love quadrangle mimic the ideals presented by both wartime Hollywood and Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine. "That was the style of the movies in the '30s and '40s, and also of the fascist idiom," Verhoeven told Strauss. "There is an indication that this society is not so far away from fascist thinking, which is what the movie says, isn't it?"
Well, what is "Starship Troopers" saying, exactly? Robert A. Heinlein's novel paints a glowing portrait of the fascist future Earth society engaged in war against the giant bugs of the planet Klendathu. Critics and audiences alike seemed baffled by the sardonic distance maintained by Ed Neumeier's screenplay and Verhoeven's direction. In my view, the film devastatingly portrays an all-too-possible future in which Earth is ruled by a gender-neutral, race-neutral military dictatorship; you might call it P.C. totalitarianism.
All the same, "Starship Troopers" -- still one of the most elaborate and expensive technical achievements in film history -- is also a stunningly realized war movie, a gory, thrilling adventure yarn driven by Verhoeven's elaborate camera work and Phil Tippett's astonishing creature effects. "If you look at the movie and don't think about it," Verhoeven said at the time, "it's really just young kids fighting giant bugs." Even that conflict is viewed with ambivalence. Naturally the viewer roots for the kids against the bugs, but it gradually becomes clear that human aggression started the war and most of what is "known" about the arachnid civilization is only prejudice and false supposition.
I don't know whether to view Verhoeven's invitation not to think about the film as cannily disingenuous or charmingly naive, but either way it represents his need to have his cake and eat it too, to create boffo entertainment and a critique of American imperialism at the same time. To its core of admirers, "Starship Troopers" is a delightful commingling of seemingly incompatible themes and tones, one of the most complicated and even subversive films ever made at the top end of Hollywood production.
But there's no denying that in commercial terms Verhoeven outsmarted himself. The film's moral ambiguity -- in a genre where such complexity is virtually unknown -- is both its strength and its great weakness. Blockbuster audiences (and a disconcerting number of critics) prefer the moral kindergartens built for them by the Lucases and Spielbergs of the world, in which the difference between good and bad, innocent and guilty, is always obvious.
"Starship Troopers" was released just two years after Verhoeven's debacle with "Showgirls" in 1995, and many critics, I suspect, had simply made up their minds that he was an incompetent sleazemeister who couldn't possibly have intended his new film as an intricate, double-edged satire. Here again, Verhoeven for the most part made his own bed. "Showgirls" has its defenders, but I'm not among them. I've heard the opinion that it is also meant to be a sweeping satire, a tongue-in-cheek indictment of American tastes in sexuality and entertainment. Verhoeven has specifically denied this interpretation, and it strikes me as a version of my old evil-genius theory carried to extremes. It's even stranger to consider that "Showgirls" was made in deadly earnest.
I see "Showgirls" as an attempt to exorcise or fulfill an archetypal female presence that first surfaced in Verhoeven's films two decades earlier in Holland and culminated with Sharon Stone's role in "Basic Instinct." In creating Nomi, the picaresque heroine of "Showgirls," Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas were trying to redeem this sinister female figure from earlier films -- let's call her the Temptress -- by turning her into a masculine-style protagonist, on the road to meaning and self-definition. Like the male heroes of Verhoeven's films, Nomi is jilted by faithless lovers, challenged by homosexuality and must resort to ruthless violence to get ahead.
As far as all that goes, it was a well-intentioned effort, and explains why Verhoeven could say with a straight face that he thought the film was feminist. But neither he nor Eszterhas (both generationally challenged European immigrants) were capable of making this transfiguration seem convincing. As one female friend of mine has observed, the women in "Showgirls" all behave like men, or at least like drag queens.
Looking for the origins of Verhoeven's Temptress, I can only guess that whoever the inspiration for this black widow figure was, she entered his life sometime between the liberation of 1945 and his first feature film in 1971. An outstanding student, Verhoeven attended the prestigious University of Leiden (the principal setting of "Soldier of Orange") and actually earned a doctorate in math and physics.
While he was in school he began to make short films and then, probably to further his craft, he served a hitch in the Royal Dutch Navy as a documentary filmmaker. So there was the boy whose first cinematic experiences had been propaganda films, making them himself for his own government.
In 1971, Verhoeven directed his first feature, "Wat Zien Ik?" (literally, "What Do I See?"). Its U.S. title was "Diary of a Hooker," thereby establishing a crucial precedent: In America, Verhoeven was a pornographer. I can only presume that the prostitute played by Ronnie Bierman is an early version of the Temptress, but by the time of Verhoeven's second feature, "Turkish Delight" (1973), the archetype that would haunt the rest of his work was already in place.
"Turkish Delight" launched not just Verhoeven's career but two others. Its star, the sneeringly sensual Rutger Hauer, would repeatedly play Verhoeven's tormented protagonists before going on to numerous character roles in Hollywood, and its cinematographer, Jan de Bont, would himself become a leading action filmmaker with movies like "Speed" and "Twister." But none of this future is visible in "Turkish Delight": It is very much a film of its anarchic place and time, suggesting that Verhoeven was becoming a chronicler of unsettled post-'60s Europe, a peer of Bernardo Bertolucci ("Last Tango in Paris" had appeared the previous year), Wim Wenders and Bertrand Blier.
Hauer plays Eric, a brutal and self-destructive Amsterdam Casanova -- the first sex scene occurs within 30 seconds of the opening credits -- struggling to recover from the duplicitous ex-wife who provoked him to violence and then dumped him. When he meets his faithless Olga again, he discovers she still loves him, but she promptly dies of a brain tumor. While the film is clearly the work of an imaginative director eager to take risks, it is fatally undisciplined, and driven by nearly naked anger and pain. Its net effect is something like "Last Tango" mixed with "Love Story," and, as that might suggest, it sometimes seems like an embarrassing relic of the free-love era. The fact that the Netherlands Film Festival last year named it the best Dutch film of the century tells us more about the state of Dutch cinema, I'm afraid, than about the enduring merits of "Turkish Delight."
As Olga, Monique van de Ven was the first of Verhoeven's fetishistically presented female characters, although not quite the finished product. Certainly lovely and at least as willing to get naked as Stone and Elizabeth Berkley would be in later films, van de Ven at first has a gauzy, indeterminate beauty with faint earth-mother, Thai-stick overtones. When Olga reappears late in the film, pretending to be flirtatious and self-confident while hiding her illness from Eric, she has temporarily metamorphosed into a steely, feline, slightly trashy blond. This is the Temptress in her true form.
Whether dirt-poor (Renie Soutendijk in "Spetters") or fabulously rich (Stone in "Basic Instinct"), the Temptress is a tough, calculating girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has made her own way and plays with men like a cat with a wounded mouse. She does so not out of cruelty but because it's her nature, her mode of existence, her method of survival. Men are drawn to her even though they know better; they participate almost eagerly in their own destruction. You could argue that Verhoeven's real subject is the corrosive nature of male desire, and in that regard the Temptress is an instrument rather than an end in herself. Perhaps she is a misogynist stereotype, but as I said earlier, in Verhoeven's case -- as with the similar Kim Novak ice-blond worshipped by Hitchcock -- it's the product of a genuine obsession, not an arty affectation.
"Turkish Delight" was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film -- surely the closest its director will ever come to holding an Oscar -- and immediately made Verhoeven the best-known filmmaker in a small country that had been long ago shoved off the world stage. Holland's cultural coffers were essentially thrown open to him, and he reunited Hauer and van de Ven for "Keetje Tippel," a costume drama about a 19th-century family who forces its daughter into prostitution. After that came more international acclaim for "Soldier of Orange," and then, in 1980, "Spetters," which introduced a new version of the Temptress and marked the beginning of the end of Verhoeven's Dutch period.
"Spetters" (the word means what it sounds like, spatters of paint) is a modestly engaging disaffected-youth picture in the "Saturday Night Fever" vein, but its real importance lies in the many germs it contains that sprout in Verhoeven's later work. It puts Iggy Pop's song "Lust for Life" to ironic use as a party song 17 years before "Trainspotting," and the highly enjoyable punk-disco soundtrack also features ABBA's "Chiquitita" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass." Following the misadventures of a group of hapless teens in a provincial Dutch town, it eventually settles its focus on Fientje (Soutendijk), the bitchy blond who sells fries and meat pies out the window of a roach coach.
Like the character of Christine in "The Fourth Man" and Catherine in "Basic Instinct," Fientje destroys men without realizing how or why she does so. Her first lover is a budding motorcycle champion who is paralyzed in an accident and then kills himself, the first of several such crippling or transfiguring incidents in Verhoeven films. Her next lover has the money to take her away but is brutally raped (by Fientje's brother, no less) and turns gay. As far as I know, this is the first appearance of the homoerotic obsessions that play out in "The Fourth Man" and "Basic Instinct," and it's fair to say that in Verhoeven's world homosexuals are no more dysfunctional or morally ambiguous than anybody else.
All the Temptresses after van de Ven look more or less alike -- and have their blond tresses packed into about the same tightly controlled style -- but Fientje especially seems like a prototype in looks and manner for Nomi of "Showgirls." In both films Verhoeven tries to penetrate an alien world and make sense of it, whether Las Vegas showrooms or motocross racing. Fientje and Nomi are both immoral figures by the standards of conventional society, but emerge from the violence and depravity of their surroundings essentially unscathed, ready to move on and find their fortunes elsewhere.
In "RoboCop," a satire of the vapid American media and the Reagan-era fervor for privatization, Verhoeven captures the dystopian hysteria of the late '80s with a newcomer's acuteness. Peter Weller gives a fine performance as the ordinary policeman killed and reborn as the Christ-like RoboCop, who, like all Verhoeven heroes, is tortured by love. But without a Temptress to focus on, the film lacks the passion of the director's best work, and the effects, dazzling in 1987, are far less so today.
Obviously, I also have to bring up "Total Recall" (1990), Verhoeven's most commercially successful film to date and, not coincidentally, his most impersonal. It's full of brilliant images and groundbreaking effects; with it, Verhoeven established what he could do with the budgets given to A-list fantasy filmmakers like Burton and Scott. The story, about a man whose real memories have been catastrophically erased and replaced with fictions, is well suited to his temperament. But in Arnold Schwarzenegger he had a star who makes all material his own and who is incapable of demonstrating suffering. How exactly do you humiliate Schwarzenegger? Finding no answer to that question, the director could do nothing to make "Total Recall" a Verhoeven film.
"Total Recall" did, of course, accomplish something important: It introduced Verhoeven to Sharon Stone. Fans of either of these devious characters will eternally regret that they didn't reunite for a long-rumored project about the Marquis de Sade, in which Stone was to play the legendary libertine's baleful mother. Relations between Stone and Verhoeven on the set of "Basic Instinct" were reportedly tempestuous, but what can you expect? ("I hated her as much as I loved her," Verhoeven has said.)
In Stone, Verhoeven found an actress who seemed the veritable incarnation of his Temptress archetype; in Verhoeven, Stone found the director willing to expose and exploit the cruelest and most powerful side of her personality. I'm officially, here and now, begging Paul and Sharon to bury the hatchet and get back to work. These kinds of Sternberg-Dietrich relationships don't come along often, and let's face facts: Neither of you has been quite the same since.
But before Stone and "Basic Instinct" in 1992, there was Soutendijk and "The Fourth Man" in 1983. Verhoeven's last true Dutch film, "The Fourth Man" still has something of a cult following, and it's no wonder. It's a creepy psychosexual thriller suffused with a mood of dread, driven by a number of threatening dream sequences as powerful as anything in the director's work. Considered in tandem, "The Fourth Man" and "Basic Instinct" meld into a catalog of Verhoeven's obsessions. As two aspects of the same narrative of irresistible compulsion -- one, as it were, directed by Hitchcock and the other by Luis Buquel -- they form the brilliant and tormented centerpiece of his work.
In "The Fourth Man," Jeroen Krabbi (another Verhoeven alumnus who would go on to numerous Hollywood roles) plays Gerard, a visiting writer drawn in by a mysterious woman who lives at the beach and may be a multiple murderer. In Eszterhas' screenplay for "Basic Instinct," Catherine, the beautiful murder suspect who lives at the beach, is herself a writer who appropriates Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) as the principal character in her next novel. Christine in "The Fourth Man" is also a creator and collector of sorts; in fact, she's a filmmaker. She meets Gerard while shooting him during a public appearance, and, as he later discovers, she has reels of film devoted to each of her three deceased husbands.
In the sexual texts of the two films, we can see a sort of object lesson in the difference between European and American cinema, and in the translations Verhoeven's obsessions required when crossing the Atlantic. Gerard is gay and on the run from a stale relationship in Amsterdam; although he enjoys sex with Christine, he's hoping to use her to seduce a studly construction worker who is also her lover. Needless to say, this wouldn't fly for Douglas and Hollywood, and the homoeroticism had to be displaced onto the female characters. In "Basic Instinct," Catherine is the voracious bisexual whose other lover is a woman.
Both of these secondary figures die in auto accidents: Catherine's Roxy kills herself while trying to kill Nick, and Christine's hunky laborer is gruesomely impaled just after admitting his interest in sex with Gerard. (Talk about symbolism!) To attribute these deaths to Verhoeven's alleged homophobia, while an understandable reaction, is to miss the point entirely. These other lovers die not because of their sexuality, or because of Catherine and Christine, but because of the men.
It's crucial to note that the question of whether Christine and Catherine are really murderers is not conclusively answered in either film. In "The Fourth Man," Gerard's conviction that Christine is a killer lands him in the loony bin. Yes, there is that final shot of the ice pick under Catherine's bed in "Basic Instinct," but it hardly removes the ambiguity. Just before that, and after we see Stone and Douglas in the final clinch, Verhoeven inserts a three-second blackout. What the hell does it mean? Is the last shot real or some kind of symbolic fantasy suggesting that violence, literal or metaphorical, is always under the bed?
Verhoeven's insistent ambivalence may be infuriating, but it is central to his art. We can never be certain whether the two women are genuine black widows or only brilliant flames into which men fly like moths, blank screens on which paranoid male fantasy is projected.
While "The Fourth Man" remains a singular European film of its time, "Basic Instinct," as I see it, has greater significance. It's a uniquely potent fable of America in the early '90s, and its hidden text -- the idea that Nick, rather than Catherine or Roxy or Beth, the police psychologist, is the real killer -- is the source of its power. Supposedly in recovery from his squalid past as a violence-prone cokehead and boozehound, Nick is actually sliding all too eagerly back into addiction and abuse. He ends up by killing Beth, who is unarmed and may be the only person in the film who really cares about him, without ever being sure she is the murderer. Nick's real addiction, and that of the class he stood for, was to power and money and dominion. (Killing homosexuals, if you like, was a perfectly apt metaphor for their activities.) With Douglas and his litany of persecuted-male roles as their avatar, angry white men in suits all across the country claimed to be the victims of a far-reaching Stalinist conspiracy, even as they stood at the cusp of a new era of greed that would make the Gordon Gekko '80s look innocent.
Of course, "Basic Instinct" is also a lush, seamlessly constructed thriller with two extraordinary stars at the peak of their powers. It's driven by De Bont's lustrous cinematography and its offhand references to Hitchcock's "Vertigo," along with Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score, pulsing and throbbing as it rises in pitch and intensity. If audiences can't see past Verhoeven's lustrous surfaces, past his stylized, haute-hot images of sexuality and violence, to the deeper structures he half-consciously has in view, is that his fault or ours? Perhaps both.
Seduced and overwhelmed by ambivalence and moral ambiguity, and by sexual fears he has never fully articulated, Verhoeven has always stood apart from his audience, a nearly great artist who suspects that all art may be propaganda and all morality self-justification. "After what went on in the Second World War and we saw what people were capable of doing to one another," he has said, "people all over the world were forced to realize they were no better than the Germans and were capable of committing similar acts. . . . We must acknowledge these dark things because the sooner we admit our capacity for evil the less apt we are to destroy each other."