Man Was Not Meant To Know: Destruction & Unnatural Power


I came across this recently:

By all means watch the whole thing, but it’s the point that starts at 2:50 that really caught my attention. The part where he talks about how male characters may cause destruction, but female characters will cause destruction. The more common statement is that male characters fight or destroy and female characters create or nurture, so this made me wonder. The video suggests that he’s backing his claim up with two examples – Eve and Pandora. There are a number of others in Classical literature (Medea, Medusa, Salome, et al) and many in modern. But there are just as many who don’t comply with this so-called ‘inevitable destruction’ pattern.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting characteristic trait – the idea that unnatural power, or at least power which is gained or wielded unnaturally, will inevitably go wrong. We have it over and over in our stories, usually as a warning. Don’t do deals with the Devil, don’t mess about with gamma rays, don’t chant ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagnand never succumb to the temptation to raise the dead. Frequently science (or magic – same difference) is the bad guy, which is odd when you think about our real-life trust in scientific progress. But even this is inconsistent, as Science Gone Wrong is where we get many of our superheroes from and there’s no end of good magical practitioners. So what’s really going on here?

1) Beware the Other

So many stories are driven by fear of the Other – the culture or race or individual who doesn’t fit into the ‘norm’ and is therefore vilified as dangerous. In a patriarchal society, women can be counted as other; in a human society, aliens definitely do. This is an oft-repeated lesson, designed to unite local societies so they work better together. A good (easy) way of delineating between normal and other is powers/technology. Anyone from normal society who utilises other powers could therefore be considered a traitor. Obviously it goes wrong.

2) Ignorance is bad, m’kay?

Know your limits, or at least something about what you’re getting into. This fits a bit better with the real-life pro-science stance. The bad guy is the one who doesn’t fully do his research before trying to manipulate ultimate cosmic power. These stories teach caution and thoroughness, both of which are good survival traits. At this point the power is not inherently destructive – the problem is in the ignorance of the wielder.

3) Ignorance is… good?plant6s

There are things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Forbidden knowledge is very common: the apple tree in Eden, the maenad celebrations of the Bacchanalia, the traits of the Dark Side. Interestingly, sometimes this suggests that there’s power that women are supposed to wield (which goes against the whole ‘women with power are unnatural’ thing in the video above) and it only becomes dangerous if men surrender their ignorance. I’m reaching for the lesson in this one, but the best I can come up with is ‘mind your own business and stay out of other people’s space’.

Now, the raptor has made the point that ‘the golden period of science as a force for relentless good probably peaked in the 60’s. It has been reversed since then. Think public responses to nuclear power, GM crops and vaccinations – there isn’t the same blanket support there once was.’ Progress for the sake of progress is certainly no longer okay, and has led to stories like I, Robot and the Resident Evil franchise. We have become more wary as a society, both of destruction and its potential causes. Possibly because our way of life is more dependent on easily disrupted technology and we’re therefore more fearful of having to manage without? Just speculating here. But it does make me wonder whether our confidence in society’s robustness directly impacts our attitude to power.

That was all slightly rambly, due to me working out most of my opinions on the page as I wrote them. What do you guys think about all this?

2 responses »

  1. The Ignorance is good aspect of story telling.

    Normally I find this trope annoying, especially in modern fiction. Understanding the dangers of any situation will surely outweigh the benfits of hiding the truth from people. A good examples are sex education and the force. Both have a potential dark side and instead of being educated on the potential threat individuals are warded off with ancedotes and stories which only magnify the mystic.

  2. That contrast between ‘ignorance is bad’ and ‘ignorance is good’ is a really interesting one. I worry about where we’re going as a society through our distrust of science. I think we trusted its authority, and the wisdom of those who wielded it, a bit too much at times in the 20th century, but now we’re swinging too far the other way, into an attitude of ‘facts don’t matter!’. I don’t know where I’m going with this thought in terms of stories, it’s just an interesting situation.

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