Reading this in 2020 you might think this is commentary on current events: plague, politics, polarisations, and so forth. But actually I mean all the stories — in print and film — that make an idol of bleakness.
(My husband has Children of Men on the TV as I write this, and after I cooked the very dinner he requested. This feels like betrayal. There are few stories of hope as hopeless as this one.)
I have some very good friends who write post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction who may be rather cross with me for disparaging the genre, so let me clarify: I am equally fed up with (in no particular order) anti-heros, misery lit, the pervasiveness of Tragic Backstories, meditations on sexual violence, and the downfall of society.
If I had £5/$6.50/€5.50 (at current exchange rates) for every story I’ve read where the lone wolf male protagonist has a drinking problem brought about by the stress of possessing an excess of noble intentions, integrity, and honour–oh, and romantic disappointment–or the strong female lead ‘earnt’ her strength by surviving rape or other traumatic abuse, well…it all adds up. If I actually got paid for reading dreary modern literature, I’d probably have retired to a splendid old country house somewhere rugged and beauteous up north, and be writing fiction at a desk with a view, not putting angsty pen to page in draughty (drafty?) Chapter House with depressing, artsy rot playing the background.
But, things being as they are, I strive in the meantime to be of service to whomever chances upon this column. It is the HELPdesk, afterall. So, today, free to whomever might need it, I am here to give you permission to read books you actually enjoy, books that are not the distillation of despair, nor the Platonic form of fatalism. Does anyone truly enjoy them? These tales that chronicle in unrelenting detail the violence and failure of mankind?
Obviously adventure is not off limits, nor indeed the sometimes-bleak struggle against evil and corruption, decadence and decay. I’m not averse to bad things happening in a story, but I am implacably opposed to good things—truly good things like virtue, redemption and happiness—being ruled out altogether. Or sneered at. I am sick of reading about miserable people who are resigned, or even committed, to being miserable in an unrelentingly miserable world because they are too smart to imagine life could be any other way.
Ursula K LeGuin, an author renowned for her experimental, even revolutionary, science fiction, in particular the Earthsea chronicles, describes this problem succinctly:
The trouble is that we have the bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil is interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.
LeGuin’s novels are not paeans to giddy joy. Indeed, the profound influence Taoism had on her thinking gives much of her work the narrative aim, if not the narrative quality, of a muted sort of harmony. Distinctions tend to slide together in LeGuin’s stories. She would use words like “balance” and “unity” to describe the dynamic she sought to make her worlds achieve; I’m not wholly convinced. This is not intended to warn you off reading LeGuin, but tread carefully: there is an underlying structure in her work that can deeply influence the way in which we think and reason.
Classical Western thought is built on the idea of making distinctions, so approaching the world in a way that idealises the elimination of distinction and views it as fundamentally contingent is an intrinsically different way of forming the intellect. Of course, LeGuin had many other influences; she is not a purely Eastern writer. Part of her utter originality as a writer is no doubt due to not being purely or identifiably in the sway of a single intellectual tradition.
The way in which we think and feel is fundamental to our identity, and literature impacts on this for, as TS Eliot points out in his essay on Religion and Literature, we don’t have a special sense with which we read that is impassive, impervious to influence. The emotions a story insights are real emotions, even if the stimulus is imaginary. Likewise, if I am encouraged through the structure of a story or sympathy with its characters to think in a certain way, those are real thoughts, and the means I use to produce them can be habit-forming. Habits of thought and feeling can be germinated in literature, therefore, including those pernicious ones LeGuin points to: considering happiness naively idiotic and evil the natural object of meditation.
Le Guin’s mention of ‘the banality of evil,’ which she holds an artist bound to acknowledge, is a reference to another of her influences, Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase to describe the moral picture of the Shoah, wherein ordinary people, who were by no means ideologues, through their everyday actions based on mundane concerns ended up perpetrating some of the most shocking atrocities in human history.
The German Historical Museum had an exhibit earlier this year, focusing on Arendt’s views of totalitarianism and anti-Semitism, inter alia. Arendt articulated this notion of banality in a letter to Gerhard Sholem:
It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.
That evil is essentially nothingness is well-established in the Western tradition, but Arendt is radical in excising it even from the supporting structure of deliberate choice, clear moral agency, or opposition to the good. It is not just nothingness, it springs from nowhere, and disappears upon examination. One can see why LeGuin would think it backwards to take up evil as the proper locus of interest for the artist. Stories aren’t stories without moral agency, and for those who think art is by nature radical there can be no better topic for an artist than that which is truly radical, per Arendt, good.
There is a reversal of Arendt’s paradigm in the stories of which I complained at the outset. It is good that is insubstantial, banal. Goodness is a veneer; evil has foundations. The effect of these kinds of stories is less of cleverness and sophistication and more of dreariness and discouragement. It’s also incredibly dull.
As Terry Pratchett (satirically) quips in Guards! Guards!: “I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.” It is stories that take this approach that give force to LeGuin’s neat phrase “the terrible boredom of pain.” Without the possibility of actual goodness there is little point in talking about evil, little point in describing suffering.
If that is how the world is and it can’t be fixed, dwelling on it is in fact terribly, terribly boring.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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