Human entertainment has many dark basements. At the Roman Coliseum, crowds once howled their approval as human beings slaughtered one another. At strip clubs -- of more recent vintage -- patrons pay to stare as the most intimate and beautiful human acts are reduced to a public display of animal-like grinds and moans.
People who gawk at naked, gyrating women, like those who filled the Coliseum, are not evil, but ordinary human beings.
We all have a dark basement of the soul. We differ in the quality and condition of the locks we try to place on it.
Entertainment moguls know all about these dark basements. They know they can make a fortune by coaxing large numbers of us to remove the locks. But they also understand that we want to preserve a veneer of respectability. Their most effective strategy, then, is to coax us into the basement through half-steps.
Take the recent Ultimate Fighting Championship spectacle at the Target Center. More than 15,000 people cheered as fighters grappled in a cage, reminiscent of wild animals.
The crowd roared as combatants delivered "vicious kicks to the face, knees to the chin and hooks to the jaw -- while any lull in the action was booed," according to the Star Tribune. At a recent similar event, one fighter vowed to "rip the skin off" his opponent's face, and make him "taste his own blood going down his throat," the paper said.
But "ultimate fighting" fans can claim that it's not the frenzied lure of the Coliseum that draws them. Cage-fighting has been dressed up with "rules" that maintain the illusion of a civilized sport, and promoters make a point of touting the participants' legitimate boxing and martial arts skills.
We find more half-steps to the basement at Sneaky Pete's, a downtown Minneapolis "party bar," recently profiled in the Star Tribune. The place is known for its "crotch shots," in which bar girls "cradle" boozed-up revelers' heads between their legs and "pour a shot of liquor straight down" their throats. On the dance floor, partiers strut their stuff around prominently positioned stripper poles.
Sneaky Pete's patrons aren't the winos we once associated with X-rated shops in the wrong part of town. Many are suburbanites, intent on winding down after a hard day at the office.
And the stripper poles? They aren't used by strippers, according to the Star Tribune. Perhaps they're just there to reinforce the "crotch shot" atmosphere.
Back in 400 A.D., St. Augustine identified the danger of the dark basement, and the risk of half-steps down its stairs. In his "Confessions," he told the story of his friend Alypius, who came to Rome to study law.
Alypius detested bloody gladiatorial contests, says Augustine. But one day the young man's fellow students dragged him to the amphitheater with them. He went along laughingly, saying, in effect, "You can haul my body, but you can't force me to turn my mind or eyes to those shows."
At the amphitheater, Alypius covered his eyes but not his ears, Augustine tells us. "Whenever a gladiator fell during the fight, the whole audience let out a mighty cry," he wrote. Overcome by curiosity, Alypius eventually "opened his eyes, prepared to despise and be superior" to the spectacle.
But the moment he saw the gore, "he was riveted to it ... and intoxicated with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same man that he was when he had first come. ... He saw, shouted and was inflamed, and he carried away with him the madness which would drive him to return ... and to draw others as well."
Do the popularity of ultimate fighting and clubs like Sneaky Pete's signal the end of civilization in the Twin Cities?
They're just more wear and tear on the lock to the dark basement -- and more encouragement for us one day to remove the lock altogether.