I’ve been cackling madly at Thomas De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” It’s a modest proposal about the aesthetic and philosophical value of homicide—not as something to be encouraged, but as something that cannot be avoided in modern society, and deserves to be studied and discussed for its inspirational qualities.
So… in addition to being the world’s most famous opium addict, De Quincey was a connoisseur of killings. Well done, sir.
Back in De Quincey’s day, to murder someone you had to pick them out of a crowd, stalk them, choreograph your killing strike, and seize the opportune moment to slit their throat. A bloody business, to be sure. But also a humanizing one. De Quincy writes at length about the intimacy of murder, and how an extreme conflict can provoke a superhuman response. Any murder is a powerful collision of two separate lives, and De Quincey seems to love watching the sparks fly. He dissects the famous murders of his day, and he also dredges up historical killers like highwaymen, Indian thugs, and Arab assassins.
For the final purpose of murder, considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as that of Tragedy, in Aristotle’s account of it, viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’
Here’s the full text of the essay. (Scroll down.)
A good contemporary parallel might be Law & Order, CSI, and their many spinoffs. Police procedurals are built on the idea that murder (among other crimes) is reprehensible. And yet they celebrate murder every week—not for its brutality, but for its narrative arc and the catharsis it brings. To investigate a murder is to investigate a life, and to ponder how two lives can collide. You know, when you watch these shows, that you’re going to see a corpse, and you’re prepared for it. But the surprise is figuring out how the murder casts its participants a new light. The killing is just a pretext for a prosaic exploration of our neighbors’ lives.
Shows like Law & Order use murder to elevate a common person and make them worth beholding. That’s exactly what De Quincy loves about killing.