Blood as metaphor is the juice in which our imagination bobs. We think and dream in blood metaphors, but seldom meet the real stuff except in small, regulated displays like periods or shaving cuts. Britain is not a place where public carnage is often seen - except on motorways. And the more we use blood figuratively, the more shocking it becomes to encounter the thing itself. 'Bloodiness' or 'bloodshed' or 'blood brotherhood' are familiar in speech. But that red outpouring, which triggers uncontrollable reflexes of fear and pity, is something else: gore.
No representation of it really works. The reflexes vibrate, if the art is clever, but do not go into action. I had read dozens of 'realistic' war books when I first saw the blood of a brother-soldier in a puddle on the ground, but nothing prepared me for the flinch, the physical shying away, which the sight and the scent laid on me. Much later, in Algiers, I saw a chuckling torrent of blood running down a gutter and watched two French girls hop across it to avoid messing their shoes without losing a word of their conversation. The reality was unreal. Montrose was a soldier, but how could this be the fluid he meant when he promised his dead king to 'write thine epitaph in blood and wounds'?
I went to see Quentin Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction the other day, on a rainy Glasgow evening. The audience was young: lads with their girlfriends.
Knowing little of Tarantino's reputation, I had veered into the Odeon simply because it was raining and I had time to kill before a train. At first I sulked. Everyone who appeared on the screen seemed detestable, but there was a hopeful prospect - after the first round of executions - that most of these geeks would wipe one another out. That would be worth waiting for.
Around me the damp audience goggled, uncertain how to react. The appearance of John Travolta created only a faint stir. The first red splatters on walls, and the sight of heroin brewing on a spoon, were greeted with uneasy silence. But then, gradually, the cunning farcicality of the movie began to sink in. These figures, with their guns and wisecracks and drugs, were just that: figures, and no more. Trying to work out who was better or worse was missing the point. These were puppets without qualities. One gunman says to another: 'Let's get into character; let's go to work]' That was it. They had no character except what they did, except what the film did. The young Glaswegians relaxed, sensing that no moral response whatever was asked from them.
They began to snigger. And then, at the scene which is sickening to describe -a woman overdoses heroin and passes out in a muck of blood and spittle, saved from death by a terrified gangster who stabs her in the heart with a syringe of adrenalin - they burst into wild laughter. I found I was laughing too.
From that moment, artful Tarantino had his way with us. It was grisly farce, in which washing blood and brains off two killers and the car in which they had accidentally blown somebody's head off became funny. Only art can do this sort of thing, and Tarantino has diabolical talent. Not that his cleverness always worked. A man dying in agony with his groin blown out was suddenly not funny, and at that instant Tarantino's suspension of human sympathy collapsed. The treatment of blacks (here invariably called 'niggers') as sadistic monsters or destined victims was sinister: a nudge in the ribs of audiences assumed to be racist.
But I left the cinema feeling diverted rather than defiled. Sometimes, after a good film, you find yourself on the pavement in a daze, stunned with images and emotion. This time, as I buttoned up my coat in the drizzle of Hope Street, there was no buzz of any kind. I felt unchanged - much as I went in, but drier. For the last couple of hours, I might as well have been playing a computer game.
Next day, I read some of the reviews. Many were adoring, and they were not very interesting. These critics did not even find the film astonishing. A few reviews were hostile, but seemed to say important things even when, in my view, they were mistaken.
Bryan Appleyard, in the Independent, complained that Pulp Fiction expressed the 'smart young mood of the hour: being authentic, being in the muddy, bloody mess of things, is where it's at'. But there is nothing remotely authentic about Tarantino's movie. It is utter escapism. Nothing could be less like the experience of actual carnage than the experience of sitting in the dark and watching Pulp Fiction. The more scarlet gunk spouts 'realistically' from some human face, the less you are prepared for the moment when (if you are unlucky) you see this in life.
And that is how Tarantino wants it. He is, if the terms can be used as description rather than insult, a nerd and a wanker. In other words, he is entirely committed to simulating rather than doing, to 'virtual reality' rather than reality, to inventing his world on a screen rather than looking at it through the window.
The other impressive attack came from Mary Kenny in the Daily Mail. It was impressive because it was the straightforward protest of traditional Christian moralising. She found the film disgusting and dangerous. It would probably encourage young people to imitate its callous violence, to adopt its modish indifference to human values. It treated human life as trash, reflecting a 'decadent emptiness' in culture. It betrayed art, whose purpose was 'to inspire and ennoble, as well as hold the mirror up to nature'.
I cannot imagine that anyone will go out and try to play Pulp Fiction on the streets. It is a lurid farce, which is funny precisely because it manages to prevent the audience identifying with any of its cardboard characters - it would be like identifying with a Keystone cop, or Bugs Bunny. The films that really did worry me on that imitation count were the Home Alone movies, aimed at children, which constantly suggest that if you smash an iron bar across someone's skull or drop a piece on concrete on him from a roof, he will stagger away more or less intact.
As for art, there is more to it than the art which ennobles or mirrors. Art is every work of imagination which grabs a human being by the skill of its artifice: not just books and paintings, but a circus act, a computer game on disk, even an elegant fraud or a dazzling courtship. They need not have anything to do with nature or moral improvement.
Pulp Fiction certainly has nothing to do with either. But there has to be a bit of the nerd and wanker in every artist who invents a reality. The trouble with Tarantino is that his bit leaves little room for anything else.Reuse content