Notes on Martyrdom


Written: Oct. 2016

The most difficult aspect of human thought is dealing with extreme agnosticism which must deal with all possibilities. Richard Dawkins said, "By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out." In contrast, extreme agnosticism is comparable to being so open-minded one's brain drops out and shatters into a thousand pieces. One must ask questions as difficult as:
1) How do I know this is real?
2) Why is there something instead of nothing?
3) What has value?
4) Is there any absolute truth? If so, can humans ever know this truth?
5) Is there any real authority on truth? Who can we trust?
6) How can we know for certain?

One way to deal with the boundless breadth of the realm of extreme agnosticism is to continue down that path until one hits the realm of the Witness and then to document the experience.

The most reliable testimony comes from those who are agnostic and able to bear witness even under circumstances where they have no religious affiliation or current belief in God — where natural biological piety is all that is necessary for one to enter that realm of consciousness. Being uncertain of God's existence is not the same as conviction that there is no God; agnosticism is not the same as atheism.

Notes on Martyrdom

First published: Nov. 2012
First Revision: Oct. 2016

On one episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show regarding children or people who admit to crimes they did not commit under extreme pressure from authorities, Oprah asked the audience if they thought they could ever admit to a crime they did not commit. She said she didn’t think she could. I believed her.

What gives some people the strength — the conviction — to never admit to a wrong they did not commit while others break down more easily? This is the subject of Pascal Laugier’s French horror film Martyrs.

Hearing from my cousin that many considered the film to be the most horrifically gory movie ever drew me to it since I was in a horror movie–phase at the time. But what really stood out to me was the cover:

There is something about the cover — something hard to describe — something emotive — something special — two people huddled together in the face of something sinister and unknown…

Whatever the case, it drew me in as did the first scene in the movie — an extremely disturbing scene of a young girl who has endured severe physical abuse running for her life.

Within the first segments of the movie, I already noticed many apt directorial choices by Laugier. The eerie clip of two girls playing outside is one; it sets the tone. The creature which first only appears in black is another. The next time one sees it, it’s in the kitchen, but there is only a flash of it. Laugier doesn’t show too much of it in the beginning. Eventually, Lucie, the young girl from the first scene who is now a teenager, takes revenge on the family she suspects tortured her — a seemingly normal family.

The next part of the film that stood out was when Anna hears noises coming from underground and discovers a steely hallway — the eerie coldness of which sits in striking contrast to the seemingly normal house — lined with posters of disfigured humans. Those images have a deeper significance later on, but for now they serve as basic unsettling imagery in what appears to be an ordinary horror film. Anna goes on to discover a young woman — scarred and emaciated — in the cellar. I think Laugier did a great job creating a truly disturbing victim. She is more chilling than the Medeiros girl from REC — the metal head-plate drilled into her head giving her an alien aura — the scars across her emaciated form intensify the effect. She is not a monster, but she resembles one. She is both devastating to witness and unsettlingly threatening at the same time.

After some scenes dealing with this new revelation, we get Anna handcuffed to a chair. Enter Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle is a very compelling character — possessing the mysteriousness, conviction, and shrewdness one would expect in someone heading her type of organization. Her dialogue with Anna is expressive and captivating. She discusses how Lucie was just a victim and that there are so many victims in this world, but that martyrs are rare. She reveals the true importance of the images hung in the hallway and discusses how martyrdom is not reserved for the religious or for those who believe in God. The scene with Mademoiselle is breathtaking and one finally gets a sense of what the film is truly about. Like Gosford Park that appears to be a classic murder mystery on the surface, but has deeper commentary beneath, one begins to see that Martyrs is not just gore for the sake of gore the way Inside largely was. It’s not torture porn. The extremity of the ruthless inhumanity is needed to capture the extremity of the subject matter.

Martyrs are classically known as those who sacrificed themselves, most often in the name of a God or religious belief. But this is clearly not the martyr Laugier refers to. In psychology, the term "martyr–complex" is used to describe individuals who intentionally seek out suffering or persecution.1 However, the martyrdom portrayed in the film is not one that intentionally seeks out pain. Thus, new terminology needs to be created to describe the type of martyrdom being depicted in the film. For now, I’ll use the term agnostic martyrdom.

Going back to Oprah, part of her ability to refuse confessing to crimes she did not commit, even when under extreme duress, and one of the secrets to her success is the agnostic martyr–complex. It allows her to place special value on certain things that might seem trivial to others — a waste of time and energy — but that to her seem important; thus, she pursues these little things until they become big things. Others are surprised by her accomplishments because they find it hard to imagine how she achieved such feats.

Another celebrity example is Yuna Kim, the figure skater from South Korea. Her skating is extra expressive because she possesses this complex. She is also able to endure extra pain during practice to perfect those extra little details that give her an edge over other skaters. Like Oprah, she can place value on something that may not have value to most others. Both take the quote “excellence comes from doing normal well” to the extreme.

Both Kim and Oprah (likely) see success as some kind of heaven — an extra special heaven that seems so much greater to them because of this complex. Thus, they are able to pursue success within their fields with an extra diligence and integrity, allowing them to go above and beyond others because of how much more valuable success is made to seem in their eyes because of the agnostic martyr–complex. Kim and Oprah are also charitable — both donating large sums of money with the genuine intention of easing suffering for others.

But people who possess this complex are far from perfect. Society is filled with too much shallowness that it is far less painful to be shallow and have the qualities that society sees fit: money, success, celebrity, etc. I’ve complained (on my blog) that Oprah focuses far too much on material goods, influenced poorly by American culture. And Kim is famous for her talent and athletic accomplishments despite this psychological complex being much more special than a mere recipe for success. However, as Emily Dickinson stated in one of her poems, “the heart asks pleasure first”. It’s easy to get caught up with more shallow qualities when you’re getting so much adulation. It also helps one avoid the situations described in the rest of Dickinson’s poem (“The heart asks pleasure first”) regarding pain and suffering.

Kim and Oprah are current examples, but in a shallow, celebrity-obsessed society, current examples are often chosen for their glow of success over a deeper glow. As for those who are aware of its deeper intrinsic value, few historic figures (that I can think of) describe and exhibit the agnostic martyr–complex more powerfully than the two Emilys:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life—that in me has rest,
As I—undying Life—have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idle froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The stedfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou—Thou art Being and Breath,
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

-Emily Brontë

I’m almost positive that what Brontë is describing in this poem is what it feels like to experience and possess the complex of the agnostic martyr: A God within her breast that exists even when all other existence is gone. I think that this feeling — this phenomenon — is what Laugier is focusing on in his film when he has Anna martyred so she can see past our closed reality. This complex is depicted in the film as being so powerful that it continues to exist after immeasurable pain and suffering has caused one to let go of all other states of mind. I think it’s a very creative way to illustrate the transcendency of the experience.

Brontë’s poem ties in excellently with other parts of the film. One can describe agnostic martyrdom as validation where there is no validation — internal value when all sense of worth coming from external sources, such as society, has been stripped.
This type of internal value is much more powerful than mere high self-esteem. High self-esteem often says to itself: “I feel good and that I am somebody, and I’m proud of the talents and skills that I possess.” agnostic martyrdom says to itself (and others): “I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody too? Then there’s a pair of us!” The reason Dickinson can say she is a nobody with such ease is no handicraft of poetry where she is merely making up thoughts to create the appearance of resilience. It is because she still feels value when society gives her no value at all. But it’s an honest value — one that can sense something special within itself and feels validated as a result.

People who do not have this complex are normal and many are good people. However, they need society’s validation and feel lost without it — lost when deviating too far from accepted norms. Thus, all the “creeds” about standing up against sinister authority or a shallow majority are generally vain and worthless as described by Brontë — with only very few having the deeper conviction to oppose such forces alone. These creeds are “worthless as withered weeds” because people don’t go very far with them as we can see all around us. People cannot leave the herd. Leaving the herd is more painful than going to war as Dickinson discusses in “To fight aloud is very brave.” There are more people willing to go to war than willing to truly stand up against everybody and be considered different. At least what soldiers do can be seen; at least they have others doing the same and they know few in society will fault them. People like Samantha Power, for example, pretend to be dissidents when they are actually deeply subservient to the sectors of society they know hold true power.

Lucie is a victim. In Martyrs, all normal people are victims. The pain of being different from society is literally as painful as being scarred and emaciated; again, people go to war before they choose to be truly different. Thus, people go with the crowd to avoid such pain. And we have seen countless examples of those who have gone insane or killed themselves because what they see as truth deviates too far from accepted norms. That “small, easily opened crack” referred to in the film is a very apt description as is the formula for creating a victim: “You lock someone in a room with no light; soon they begin to suffer. Then you feed that suffering — slowly, methodically, systematically, coldly — for a long time.” This is similar to why people admit to crimes they did not commit when put under conditions of extreme duress for a long enough period of time. It also explains why people are so unwilling to be seen as different. Total rejection from society’s standards can feel as horrible, if not worse, than lacerations or solitary confinement.

Martyrs, as Laugier describes in the film, are special. “They withstand paralyzing pain…They can survive total deprivation.” They can be transfigured to bear all the sins of humanity. But to do this takes pain because “the heart asks pleasure first,” and will walk away with “sin” before it walks away with martyrdom. However, for some people, the pain of the world slowly teaches them the true nature of value. Emily Dickinson, perhaps, wanted to have physical beauty (the way most women do); it would have been easier. However, she might have grown up to find she is not considered physically attractive in the eyes of society. This happens to many and many find new qualities to take pride in. But what happens when all of these qualities are stripped or become obsolete? Some people, after enough loss of socially commendable traits, still experience a worth within themselves — a very special internal worth alongside a very special sense of internal beauty. And as a result of this, these people learn. They learn the true nature of worth. If physical beauty is not present and there is still this deep sense of worth, appearance must not be so important. If one is unpopular — even isolated — yet still feels this worth, then perhaps status is not so important. A greater purity emerges and this is considered redemption for humanity because at least there are some people who are not so vain. Laugier’s film depicts this by having girls endure paralyzing pain to draw out this special, internal glow.

Narcissism is not the same. The narcissistic personality-type has no internal worth or identity without society. Their identity is whatever lie they have fabricated for themselves and others. They need other people to act as mirrors and reflect back on them an identity they like to see and want others to fall for. That’s why they get so angry if this is threatened; it threatens their very existence. Narcissistic rage sets in to try to reclaim this preferred identity; the narcissist feels you’ve tried to kill them (though all you did was expose them.)

“False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

-Shakespeare, Macbeth

With all this in mind one sees why Anna evolved in the film the way she did. Her empathy towards others was reflected back on herself. Empathy and compassion are traits of the agnostic martyr: Oprah’s philanthropy; Kim’s expressiveness; the deep understanding of the human condition by the two Emilys; the way Anna helped the emaciated victim; the way she held the victim's hand. Anna gives this back to herself later on when she is being tortured. I love the way she strokes her cheek with the back of her hand and the selection of music for the scene. It’s a very touching scene and there is such a feeling of nobleness and resilience attached to it.

But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

-Emily Dickinson

Aspects of the film I admire are: how it plays itself off as gory horror but is actually about something more profound; the idea to use the agnostic martyr–complex to peer into the afterlife; the ominous chill of the hallway and torture chambers; the creepy underground organization conducting the experiment; the gathering of senior members who definitely looked appropriate for the part; as well as the ending.

I think Laugier did a great job with the ending. The mystery of what Anna sees is superlatively enticing. But what did Mademoiselle hear and what could live up to the zenith of expectation that’s been built up? I think Laugier made the best choice in leaving the audience guessing. But he did it in a very artful way — creating suspense with Mademoiselle’s slow, resigned movements; generating intrigue with her sudden despondency; and building up to a scenario where one no longer knows what to expect. I like how whatever was revealed was so profound it made her take her own life; and though we can obviously never know, it genuinely felt like she knew. What Anna revealed to Mademoiselle could have been that the afterlife is nothing or that it’s a place where torturers are punished (and perhaps Mademoiselle felt she deserved it.) Or it could be any multitude of possibilities.

Laugier also did a good job in choosing which people are good candidates for “transfiguration.” All the real-life examples I listed are female. The film never says males do not possess the necessary qualities, but that it’s more common in females. I would say that it’s also more noticeable in females because they can display more emotion. Additionally, they are more emotional. The age he picked was a fitting choice as well. Highest rate of suicide attempts is among teenage girls — a time of extremely high emotion.2 As they become young adults, they retain a lot of that high emotion but also a wisdom that helps one understand.

Brontë died at 30.3 The lines of “No coward soul is mine” were her last and were first published in 1846 when Brontë was roughly 28.4 At the same age, Dickinson began reviewing poems she wrote at an earlier age. Her early thirties were her most productive period.5
Thus, in their late twenties, they progressed to a wisdom in how they wanted to record the emotional experience, but it was not necessarily the height of the experience itself, which may have been earlier.

Anyone who reads Dickinson’s poetry knows she’s endured maelstroms of emotional turmoil. She typifies the characteristics of the psychological complex so well and captures so many aspects of the phenomenon in her poetry. She is actually more accustomed to suffering than not because pain she can push through with the agnostic martyr–complex; that’s what the complex was designed for after all (or at least one of the things).

I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I'm used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —


As described, one can get so acclimatized to using the complex to “wade grief” that one can actually become destabilized without the adversity to push against. Yuna Kim’s performance at the 2010 World Figure Skating Championships after she won the Olympic gold medal is a good example. She could barely keep balance on the ice and didn’t really understand why herself. Emily Brontë’s “How beautiful the earth is still” has a similar theme. She is used to longing for something, not used to success. “And by fulfilment, hope destroyed;” basically describes Kim after winning the Olympics.

Dickinson also describes feeling something when most others feel nothing:

There is another Loneliness
That many die without —
Not want of friend occasions it
Or circumstances of Lot

But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be revealed
By mortal numeral —

After reading this, one can see why the extremity of brutality in Martyrs is actually fitting. Dickinson had a soul of extremity:

I made my soul familiar — with her extremity —
That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony —

Extremity allows perseverance through pain. This type of extremity cannot be captured easily. So many academics love moderation. “Breadth” also takes extremity and I feel Dickinson describes many academics in her poem:

He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow —
The Broad are too broad to define

For example, Shakespeare has very aesthetically pleasing art, but it can never truly capture the complex of the agnostic martyr. Shakespeare’s work is pleasing because he excels in moderation — knowing where to avoid excess and where to avoid paucity. It’s not wrong for people to find his work pleasant, but there seems to be an anger and a hatred directed towards extremity. That’s because extremity is not necessarily healthy. A healthy person is not extreme. Average people are a walking multitude of “sin” and self-contradiction. Self-contradiction gives people reproductive success, and we’re all guilty of it, but this is part of the problem and the reason why many view humanity as depraved. Moderation gives a greater appearance of health, but health is not the same as truth. Is a moderate amount of truth more true than the entire thing? Many academics treat it that way. Is there such thing as too much inner beauty? Is less inner beauty preferred? Can someone have too much integrity? Can someone be too good? In my opinion, moderation has the right to be pleasant as much as extremity has the right to be veracious.

I wanted to close with talking about the warmth associated with the agnostic martyr–complex. In Brontë’s “How beautiful the earth is still” she uses the word "thee" and directs sympathetic words towards the reader. Kim’s skating possesses this warmth which draws people into her performances; the same is true for Oprah’s spiritual discourse. This warmth that wants to envelope another who is suffering is well articulated in Dickinson’s poem “There is another sky”. As with Brontë's poem, she expresses it to a person — speaking directly to that person — creating a more tender connection and experience for the reader.

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields -
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

-Emily Dickinson

[Image: Kim performing her free skate to "The Lark Ascending" at the 2006 Skate Canada.]

It’s no doubt Anna had this warmth; one could see the compassion in her eyes. For me, Anna Assaoui stands out as the greatest heroine of film.

  • 1. “Martyr–complex.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Apr. 2016, Accessed 17 Oct. 2016.
  • 2. “In 2014, the highest suicide rate (19.3) was among people 85 years or older. The second highest rate (19.2) occurred in those between 45 and 64 years of age. Younger groups have had consistently lower suicide rates than middle-aged and older adults. In 2014, adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 had a suicide rate of 11.6.”

    “Females attempt suicide three times more often than males. As with suicide deaths, rates of attempted suicide vary considerably among demographic groups. While males are 4 times more likely than females to die by suicide, females attempt suicide 3 times as often as males. The ratio of suicide attempts to suicide death in youth is estimated to be about 25:1, compared to about 4:1 in the elderly.”

    "Suicide Statistics — AFSP." American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2016, Accessed 17 Oct. 2016.

  • 3. Emily Brontë: 30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848
  • 4. Brontë, Acton, et al. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Aylott and Jones, 1846.
  • 5. “Withdrawing more and more from the outside world, Emily began in the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books. The forty fascicles she created from 1858 through 1865 eventually held nearly eight hundred poems. No one was aware of the existence of these books until after her death.”

    “The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from social life, proved to be Dickinson's most productive writing period.”

    "Emily Dickinson." The 2008 Wikipedia for Schools. 2008, Accessed 17 Oct. 2016.