Why read literature that explores the inner world of monsters – people who are brutal or whose behaviour is monstrous?
I have been thinking about this a lot in the last week as various studies encounter sexual violence, domestic violence, racism and misogyny, psychological battering, grooming . . . and I feel my instinctual repulsion met with my need to justify, both for my own comfort and to explain to other readers, why we should go through this ugliness.
There is value in seeing the roots and expressions of prejudices and de-humanization—the reader becomes more aware and able to call this out in themselves and those around them. For example, in the consideration of Farrington in James Joyce’s short story Counterparts, his treatment of his son is presented as counterpart to his being ground down in his own job—all the ways he is dehumanised may be translated into his abusive behaviour. I found my co-facilitator Paul Caviston’s comment really helpful for me in framing this: ‘the writing does not condone the behaviour – the reader is not meant to come away from the story feeling Farrington is the obvious victim—but the framework of the story does help us to see Farrington’s violence and drinking as part of system, a machine of dehumanisation that he participates in.’ Our empathy, as it is drawn out by the text, is equated with sympathetic understanding. What we come away with is the truthfulness of the portrayal—Farrington is recognisable in his fallibility.
The careful exploration in literature of a subjective psyche affords a complex understanding of how the flaws of a person enmesh with the flaws of the world they inhabit. There is humanity to be gained from the truth of the material—and Joyce (like Faulkner, Proust and others) will not let us look away.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” — Franz Kafka
My co-facilitator on our recent study of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Geoff Brown offered our group his own reflection on our work:
Hello fellow salonistas. I have been reflecting on the sessions we had.
It becomes increasingly clear to me how challenging this text is – not just in the common passive sense of difficult to understand, but also actively challenging in the ways in which it confronts the reader. One of its most forceful confrontations is aimed at our reluctance to recognise and discuss the unacceptable. Horace has spent his life denying the existence of bad things, and the novel dramatises his final inability to sustain that level of dissociation. What Faulkner’s text does is steer the reader into a comparable dilemma: when we ask ourselves questions such as ‘why did he need to put that in?’, we are echoing Horace’s implicit question: ‘why do bad things have to happen?’ Or perhaps we are unconsciously siding with Narcissa – who wears white to pretend to herself that the dirt of the world does not attach to her. But debating awkward questions is at the heart of what the Lit Salon does.
This issue is bound up with Sanctuary’s long reputation. The novel addresses (and I would argue criticises) issues of behaviour and thinking which permeate society, but which society would prefer not to consider itself responsible for. This prompted – and continues to prompt – outraged denial, taking the standard defensive mode of alleging that there must be something degenerate about the author, or alternatively something defective about the work in question (cf. long-standing suggestions that Shakespeare’s ‘difficult’ later plays derived from problems with his sex life).
During most of the weeks of our study, I have been reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s famous dictum: “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” What that has always meant for me is that any work deserves to be judged on its own merits alone. Of course that must mean that any of us can decide that Sanctuary is flawed, or unacceptable by comparison with Faulkner’s oeuvre as a whole.
I think there is little doubt that this novel has an insidious quality which gets under one’s skin. It has been a tough project, but like many of the best salon experiences, it has been a ground-breaking one. If you are asking yourselves whether it was worth the trouble, let me offer you the consolation of considering yourselves as pioneers who have traversed hostile territory and reached the other side. It has been tremendously helpful for me to read it with you and I thank you warmly for your participation.
And we have received responses from other Salon participants, set out below with their permission.
This is something George Saunders witnessed first-hand while reporting from Trump Tour 2016 for the New Yorker, and attending rallies for the future president in California, Arizona, and Wisconsin, where he spoke to supporters and generally tried to understand what makes them tick and why they’re so damn angry. I ask, in light of the election and everything about it, whether such a thing still matters in the age of Trump—does empathy still matter like it did? “Yeah, I’ve given that a lot of thought,” he replies. “I’m just trying to deepen understanding of what empathy actually is. Because, in my lazy version of it, it means being groovy with everything, and liking everybody. I don’t think that’s quite it. For me, it seems urgent to me that we resist this crap. How do we best do that?”
Saunders says that while covering the rallies, he noticed that whenever people on either side got “strident and emotional,” the conversation shut down. “So, my thing is, if we really wanted to restore our country to what it was, or even better, to get it to what it should be, empathy is a really great tool,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean you’re gonna agree, and I think we liberals have a tendency to think that empathy equals enabling. And I think that’s actually false. That’s not at all what compassion and empathy means. It’s much more akin to a kind of wide-open awareness, which to me is always a powerful thing.”
On a personal level I feel conflicted between a ‘no platforming’ desire (if I have this book on my shelf, does it mean I am complicit in condoning a male hegemony which sees nothing wrong in predators grooming teenagers for sex, casual antisemitism which is insufficiently repudiated, an objectification of the homosexual as ‘other’….) and alternatively, the wish to take the text in the context of the time and understand the limitations that puts on both the writer and the text.
Curiously, having just completed a Salon on the Book of Job, I am very aware that The Bible poses very similar issues. Some people find the text highly offensive because it appears to condone rape, sexual exploitation, rank homophobia, domestic violence, child abuse, antisemitism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing. However, some of the poetry is sublime and the narrative, epic.
So, do I read the text in the manner that it was originally intended, or do I read it with contemporary eyes?
Nicky von Fraunhofer (also a Salon facilitator)
When literature reflects real life (even if it’s not our personal experience) and we choose to engage with it, it allows us the possibility to reflect on the realities of others from a safe distance and widen our comprehension of humanity in all its fallibility. This starts with literature like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (cf. Bettelheim on The Uses of Enchantment) and moves through to work like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (the dramatisation of which is terrifying). I think this is important.
I come back to Quaker principles: even in the most horrible people who have done the most hideous things, there is some spark of goodness, buried however deep. People can sometimes be redeemed from evil. Understanding how people become evil gives us a better chance at stopping it happening.
My problem with this mode of analysis is that there is plenty of empirical evidence that psychopaths are *not* born like most people; it often seems to me that literature has obscured our ability to both help and deal with them.
We always imagine we could never be that thing we abhor – Nazis, child molesters, etc. Then, as James Baldwin writes, “we read.” Psychopaths, when they exist, were born like me. What do we do with that? The things I hold in greatest contempt fill ME with momentary violence, quickly followed by sorrow…for all of us.
What Joyce and Proust achieve is excavation of thought, language and buried subconscious ideas which is why I feel no revulsion in reading them but discomfort balanced with revelation. They shed light on dark places. De Sade starts off ‘120 days of Sodom’ as if writing a novel but soon it descends into lists of acts he wants to perpetrate, it is obscene, his excited imaginings are so intense that he does not even bother filling it in, just the lists are enough to pleasure himself. I did not get very far with Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’, again no attempt at understanding, just written for pleasure.
So it is all about the balance, precise, clean excavation is very different from orgasmic salivation.
The balance between the drive to understand rather than enjoy is the crucial thing. It is why I could not finish de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.
Yes indeed Toby and I like to think of the good and loving examples there are too like George killing Lenny as he imagines the rabbits on a farm rather than letting him be murdered by the men pursuing him in Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. Or in A Tale of Two Cities when Sydney Carton dies in the place of his look-alike saying ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before.’
Further proof that we all have everything in us! Literature helps us to understand ourselves and develop compassion for those who find themselves in wretched circumstances.
Fear seems to be the motor for ugly action; thinking of the fear of miscegenation in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!
In the end, I am glad to have a group that can thoughtfully explore these issues and hold the ambiguities alongside the brilliance of the prose and accept the paradox.
I would welcome further reflections on this.