In Praise of Darkness.

A while ago, I had posted a snippet from the October 2004 issue of McSweeney’s The Believer. William Giraldi, in an amazing piece on the value of depressing literature (which carries over to music, performance, and film), extols the virtues of “intelligent suffering” within a candy-coated, blind-wormlike existence propagated by popular culture and a capitalistic, regulative society.

Perhaps I’m just a slow reader, or maybe I simply like to revisit some of my favorite, poignant pieces of thought-provoking propaganda. Regardless, I found myself wandering aimlessly around the International Terminal of SFO while aspiring to collect matt_ledgerwood for his premiere stint here in The States, my face buried deep within the pages of Giraldi’s Part II of ‘Let There Be Darkness’ – a long, slow nod-provoking missive, conveniently bundled within one and one-half magazine-sized pages.

‘The Big Festival of Morbidity’ explains concisely why it can only be a bad thing to lose touch with emotion-raking literature. Some of it must be repeated here.

Giraldi asserts that it is an underestimation by publishing companies and an insult to intelligent readers to pass over books and articles that provoke endemic human responses of horror, shock, or depression. The responsibility for this is a cyclical machine, as “intelligent readers…do not set the market standard…since they are far outnumbered by the sugar-dipped and elusive fans of Danielle Steel.” It is the publishing houses and book companies that cater to “self-esteem-starved people,” yet it is the readers who either choose to pick up a Plath, de Sade, Calvino, or Kafka, or to live out their lives with their heads firmly buried in the ground, “simply ignoring the horrible truths of our existence, simply pretending that they are not there, that everything is peachy with the world.”

This was obvious to me in 1998 when I attended the premiere of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. After the film, while we were collecting our jaws and hearts from the red-carpeted concession area, we overheard a woman rejoin her friends after coming back into the theater from outside. “Sorry I left in the first ten minutes, you guys,” she said. “This was horrible! I thought this was going to be a comedy, like Private Benjamin. I just spent a month in a hammock in Hawaii, and to me, war just doesn’t exist. I went to the bookstore to go scope out guys.”


And the 16 million Americans who served in that war – and the 600,000 that were killed – cease to matter. The whole point of the film is to remind, to remember and to acknowledge. Yet so many people would rather not, thereby doing a great disservice to the “intelligent readers” who would, to the people who had their lives forever changed (or snuffed out) by the horrors of war, and to the cohesion of the country as a whole. We create our own histories, and we ignore our own hells. Giraldi notes that World War II is “a caustic reality that must be reckoned with,” and the only way many Americans seem poised and able to do so is through accounts of the past. Therefore, darkness and horror may be acceptable if there are historical precedents, but they are not to be explored by fiction. People may study the dark depths of the human condition if there is a real-life lesson to be learned – a brutish paradigm to transcend.

But these same people may only peruse fiction to feel good, to make a departure, or to pass the time away, not to consider themselves and their own conditions. Not as a learning tool, or as one of reflection. There’ll be no side orders of thinking or feeling with our literature, please.

Popular culture is partly to blame for this, and I would extend Giraldi’s claim of unfair play to include that of modern consumerism, MTV, and the mass media (which are all inextricably linked, regardless), which all assert that dark and gloomy representations of art are “anathema to the founding ideals of positivity and progress” – and therefore antithetical to the very bastions upon which America is founded. But those building blocks are long since crushed to dust. Make a million, get out quick, and retire in style at an early age to spread the word at how you dodged any real work, a vocation, and an identity. Yes, that’s what America is built on, remember? John Mellencamp would shit his drawers, and probably does whenever Lil’ Bow Wow or Mase pops on the tube.

Kafka is quoted as having written that “We need the books which affect us like a disaster, which pain us deeply, like the death of someone dearer to us than ourselves, like being lost in the woods, far from everyone, like a suicide….” The point of this, Giraldi affirms, is to instill in us the skills necessary to deal with tragedy and terror when it happens, both on a personal level and a global one. Perhaps the reason we were so shocked by the terrorist attacks on September 11th is because we didn’t expect it, and didn’t understand it – because no one was exposed to it, or to what brought it on. What do we see beyond our borders? Who read Al Jazeera before 9/11?

So being exposed to the darkness of the human condition is a salve for being able to deal with it? Not necessarily nor entirely. But certainly hiding behind fantastic vision; never extending one’s feelers beyond their own front doors and television sets; and most importantly, never imagining that the demons and ghastly evils of fictional settings and long-past happenstances could ever truly exist within one’s self in the modern age is like playing football without a helmet. The Gap wouldn’t have it. They’re just too damned happy to even consider it. I mean, I have just ten days in November to just try on an item of black clothing from those bastards.

Again from Giraldi: “If darkness and horror are indeed genetic constants in humanity, then our stories and novels have the obligation to tackle them truthfully, to wrestle them down onto the page with the purpose of clarifying their meanings and learning to live with their implications.” This is how we prepare ourselves for dealing with our own horrors, then – through artistic and interpretive cogitation. The great minds of Europe and Asia have done this for centuries – why is America afraid to do the same? Are we too perfect in our own minds, a newer, better model of the tyrannical barbarians whom we cast off after the Revolution? Are we afraid that by acknowledging that part of our true nature, we will be doomed to let it envelop us?

Is Marilyn Manson so bad for us? Do we benefit from shielding our children from him?

Do we pretend that guns don’t exist so that our kids are never faced with the horrors of their power?

William Giraldi quotes Mario Vargas Llosa, summing up both his section of the article and his point in defense of depressing art: “The truths that [literature] reveals are not always flattering; and sometimes the image of ourselves that emerges in the mirror of novels and poems is the image of a monster. This happens when we read about the horrendous sexual butchery fantasized by de Sade, or the dark lacerations and brutal sacrifices that fill the cursed books of Sacher-Masoch and [delve’s Georges Fucking] Bataille. At times the spectacle is so offensive and ferocious that it becomes irresistible. Yet the worst in these pages is not the blood, the humiliation, the abject love of torture; the worst is the discovery that this violence and this excess are not foreign to us, that they are a profound part of humanity.

In a way, it’s what every Star Trek episode ever taught us. We are monstrous, flawed, and tortured. Some people need twisted alien races to anthropomorphize the barbarism and pain that we suffer unto ourselves, and some people simply need a good, tear-inducing manuscript, article, or novel. At least both may attempt to work it through instead of internalizing it, letting it simmer, and then ending up in a bell tower with a high-powered rifle. At least we “intelligent readers” won’t be ignoring it.

[Source of quotations: The Believer, Vol. 2: No. 10, October 2004 (San Francisco, McSweeney’s Publishing), 17-29]

24 Responses to “In Praise of Darkness.”

  1. vervassal Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 3:03 am

    Hi, you don't know me at all – I'm a student at Edinburgh. I've been watching your journal for a while now and just want to tell you that I always enjoy your entries. They're always thoughtful and well-written.

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you very kindly for these words, and for your time spent reading. It makes me feel very good to know that you're interested.
    Now I look forward to reading more about your own experiences in my old, beloved Edina. Keep those pictures comin'!

  3. zotz Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 5:44 am

    This is all very true. I saw an interview with Nick Cave a year or two ago. Blixa wandered in in the middle of it – they were in a cafe – and said something about the melancholy being incredibly important in art. Cave's won views on the matter, of course, are a matter of record.

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    Indeed. Cave milks it as much as he can drink it, as well.
    🙂

  5. ethereal_lad Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:34 am

    I agree with this essay. Sounds fascinating, and your annotations are intriguing as well.

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:27 pm

    Thanks for this. I had a feeling that you'd connect with my opinion on this – and Giraldi's, as well.
    And thanks for the Dwelling reference. Once again, you've nabbed something very nice.

  7. dr_beep Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 9:39 am

    I remember that girl, I was also aghast at her intentional ignorance. I can accept that such a movie is not to your liking, I can even accept that someone might have to leave the movie, after all, one scene in that movie had me almost pass out even after my third viewing!
    But I cannot accept the waving away of what is unpleasant as beneath you.

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:33 pm

    Oh my god, Will. I had totally forgotten that you were there! I remember the look of disgust on our faces after she had blasted off in her convertible BMW.
    Yes, 'waving away' is a frustrating pattern…one which I, myself, do all to often. We choose our battles, I suppose, and we can't bleed for everyone. But as you've stated, it's pretending that it doesn't exist – that it's beneath you – that really chaps my hide.
    And really, it's a virus and a terrible symptom of the state of the country…convenience and NOT HAVING to see it. Not having to plug into it. We have 435 cable channels, and we can always turn to another if we don't like what we are seeing.

  9. agntprovocateur Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 10:02 am

    thank you!
    i want to write a long post but i have to run to work. 🙁

  10. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    Nono! Thank you!
    And take your time. I completely understand how it is. We could always save it for a chat in person…

  11. thistlelurid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 10:19 am

    That movie allowed me to understand my grandfather infinitely more
    than I ever had while he was alive….I really think, at that time, it was the
    closest representation of what he had experienced…as I walked out of the
    theater, everything that he was finally made sense.
    I truly appreciate foreign films for this reason….everyone was upset and
    then they all died
    ….and youre left with a stone in your stomach, aching…..
    but its good aching. I'll take a "Saving Private Ryan" or a "Europa Europa"
    over "Pretty Woman"(barf) any day… people are so afraid of being….afraid!
    My "fear" is my substance, and probably the best part of me.
    Franz Kafka

    < applause >

  12. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    Such a good point. And it's just like you to accept the film as a tool for clicking into someone dear to you, you darling thing.
    Good aching. Intelligent suffering.
    This publisher can have us furiously nodding in agreement on such a poignant notion, and howling and spitting with laughter over something so delicately inane as 'Bad Names for Professional Wrestlers'.
    What's up, Drooling Lamb?
    Love the Kafka quote, and how appropriate? How true is it for you?

  13. thistlelurid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    "How true is it for you?
    I use fear as a catalyst for overcoming….fear……
    how scary to NOT be afraid and not confront the
    things that scare us most!
    What's UP? Nothin much "Linus!" HAW! ::falls off chair::

  14. scotis_man Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Not too long ago, I had someone notice a poppy that I have … one of the remembrance variety. They asked why I have that, "Don't you dislike war things?" I said, "No, I am a pacifist. I have this to remember why I believe in pacifism."

  15. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 8:33 pm

    This is a good thing to say, and a good way to say it.

  16. scothen_krau Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    Excellent, very good stuff. The inability of Americans to confront or even acknowledge the dark side of human nature is one of our more dangerous characteristics.

  17. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 9:48 pm

    Absolutely spot on. Manufactured goodwill and good feelings that keep people shopping is a plague, not a liberation.

  18. kimmaline Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    I am trying to come up with a way to phrase this, so pardon me if I struggle.
    I don't see movies like Saving Private Ryan. Period, end of story. But it isn't for the reason that that woman walked out. I agree with you, sometimes people don't want to see those movies because they don't want to really KNOW that those things happen in the world…but for me it is the exact opposite.
    For me, I see these things in relation to children. Just part of what makes me me, I suppose. I was working with an adoption agency specializing in Cambodian adoptions when the US government shut them down. I can tell you more about the plight of Cambodian orphans, (hell, most orphans of third-world countries, for that matter) than probably anyone else you know. But I am sure as shit not going to sit down and watch The Killing Fields. I literally lose sleep over what is happening to children in this world. I know what Pol Pot did. I don't need to be educated.
    When I say things like, "I hate war." I don't mean it in some overly-Marinite-war-is-bad-blanket-statement way. I mean it in the, every-single-one-of-those-killed-was-once-someone's-baby way. I hate every single gory detail of war…and I sincerely doubt that I need to be reminded.
    Whew, this is long already.
    As for Marilyn Manson…up to a certain age I wouldn't let my kids listen. Small children, no matter what type of parent you are, cannot comprehend certain things at face value. The same goes of Eminem. If my 6yo wanted to go to a concert, my answer would likely be no. However, if my 14yo did…I would have to hope and assume that by that point I had done enough of my job to teach them what is right and just, and that they would be able to judge for themselves. I don't know what the magic age is…it is probably on a case by case basis…but there HAS to come a time with your kids when you assume you have taught them enough about why war is bad and we treat others with respect that they can just enjoy the fucking concert. Or, decide that they don't want to support that artist at all, and stay the pluck home. I hope to GODDESS I am able to teach my children about supporting things with their dollars. Then I hope they get it.

  19. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 19th, 2005 at 10:39 pm

    Clearly this post and this article are directed to those who are actively refusing to hone in on the darker side of human nature because it fucks with their routines. That, or to the people who are simply too dumb or oblivious to step up to that threshold. It doesn't necessarily apply to those who can face their inner demons without the need for art and artistic product to conjure the demons…or to those who are awake and aware, but not interested in suffering further, or having their fears splayed out before them.
    You've arrived at the same answer without necessarily using the formulae that others choose to eschew for different reasons. I get that about you, and I understand why.
    Of course, it's less about sitting in front of violence (as in Private Ryan) to stir sentiment and acknowledgment, and more about NOT pretending it doesn't exist. About NOT pretending that people aren't suffering – inside perhaps more than outside. To choose to read, watch, and view artistic media that challenge one's current state of internal affairs is therapeutic and sometimes correctional. To not do so is dangerous and immature.
    My point about including Manson and guns is that too many parents spend far too much time hiding their children from important truths – which sets up alarming patterns later in life. The line between fantasy and reality become blurred, and the kids grow up with a warped set of ideals. It IS up to the parent to make these decisions, as you've identified, but it's even more important for their children to be allowed to play this stuff out, rather than be forbidden to view it, no matter how scary or grim. They need the skills to be able to face it later in life.
    We've all seen the opposite result – how these horrors break people down and cause them to lose their shit, to make terrible snap decisions and to run away from adversity and fear.

  20. angledge Says:
    January 20th, 2005 at 10:15 am

    I think sometimes people are afraid of seeing dark things because they are afraid they might like them. The junk novel I'm reading right now actually put it right when the main character said, "The most frightening nightmares are not the ones where we're being pursued by monsters, but the ones where we are the monsters."
    <lj user = vulgarbarbarian> pointed out that one of the disturbing things about the violence of Saving Private Ryan (in particular the opening scene at Normandy) is that, while the whole scene is terrifying & full of capricious death, it was still exciting. I don't think any sane person would want to undergo something like that, but still … there was death-dealing power & an inimitable test of self to be had. You may not really want to be there, but it's compelling & fascinating nonetheless.

  21. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 23rd, 2005 at 10:33 am

    And as we've seen from our recent stint in Normandy à la Band of Brothers, the atmosphere of connection, camaraderie, and adventure is unmatchable. Some veterans have even said they regret leaving the war due to the inimitable closeness of relationships once experienced, even amidst the horror. They feel a loss from never having that again in their lifetime.
    "It is well that war is so terrible–we should grow too fond of it." – Robert E. Lee

  22. angledge Says:
    January 23rd, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    The R.E.L. quote is perfect.

  23. Anonymous Says:
    January 23rd, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Blood 'n' gore 'n' guts 'n' veinsinyerteeth
    Some thoughts:
    >“This was horrible! I thought this was going to be a comedy, like Private Benjamin.
    Oops! Pretty impulsive (or fond of friends, or possibly just heedlessly rich) to go to a movie with no clear idea what it's about. Rule 1 of Life: never believe the statement "You'll love it" without other evidence.
    >I just spent a month in a hammock in Hawaii, and to me, war just doesn’t exist.
    If I'd spent a high enough proportion of my income on a seldom-enough vacation, *I'd* certainly feel like preserving my investment in mental health a little longer…no idea how often she goes to Hawai'i for a month, of course.
    >I went to the bookstore to go scope out guys.” How old is this person, and what are the "requirements" for being a fully-conscious adult 24/7? Where are these rules posted? Who made them up? Of course, if I skipped a movie to go to the bookstore, I would be scoping the books (yes, even at age 18, such was my geekdom), but that's just me.
    >There’ll be no side orders of thinking or feeling with our literature, please.
    Well, please be aware that some of us made a considered decision years ago to avoid violent movies because they are so vivid to us that any message other than "extreme pain" does not get through. (Also, theater managers have unaccountably failed to provide the necessary bags as airlines do, yet take a dim view of throwing up in their theater!) The same can be said of certain well-written books — if the impression of horror is all that remains, or if previous real-life experiences have left one with especially sensitive receptors to stimuli rather than the ability to receive intellectual messages when the two conflict, then I find it justifiable to avoid taking in information in this particular way. Which brings me to:
    >To choose to read, watch, and view artistic media that challenge one's current state of internal affairs is therapeutic and sometimes correctional. To not do so is dangerous and immature.
    For me, the key term is "artistic media". I have made a conscious decision not to take in other people's points of view in the form of movies and fiction, because *to me* those are "comfort activities" in the way people have "comfort food", and it's a case of "Mess with the recipes (or my head) all you like, but not with Mom's special mashed potato pie". Also, I do read books and articles that scare me to death, but they are nonfiction — there's just something about having that filter of the artist's mind in the way that annoys me if I'm trying to learn something or stretch my mind; I'd rather collect data that hasn't been twisted and played with and emphasized to suit someone else, and form my own conclusions. Oddly enough, ancient Greek drama and Shakespeare are somewhere in between.
    Another thing that bothers me about the idea of *constantly* challenging one's own ideas and conclusions is that it would leave very little time for accomplishing anything. Sometimes you need the long view, the ability to say, "Yes, I felt that way for years, but lately I've wondered…" These days, there is so *much* shifting, so little stability, that perhaps some people cling to their own ideas *more* than they used to, just to have something that doesn't change so fast. ???
    One last thing: I think my ideas on this topic are a result of too many messages, at an impressionable age, on the theme of "you MUST care". When I was still trying to call my soul my own, being told daily by friends, the media, and the world that "you SHOULD march in the antiwar rally" or "you MUST contribute to Appalachian relief" or "you HAVE TO attend the Cambodia protest" was not a healthy experience. Those who have an easier time forming and standing up for their own opinions will probably feel differently.
    And it was *definitely* stupid to let guys I was interested in convince me to see "Mean Streets" and "The Godfather" (nausea is not romantic)!! Just to show you I wasn't always smart and pontifical :)!
    –Kirsty

  24. FunkyPlaid Says:
    January 25th, 2005 at 11:19 am

    Re: Blood 'n' gore 'n' guts 'n' veinsinyerteeth
    Thanks for these thoughts, Kirsty.
    I want to make it clear that this post isn't really about violence in artistic media, but, rather, an exploration of the darker side of the human condition. I hold no ill thoughts for those who are unable to view blood and gore on the screen or between the pages; what I don't appreciate is how some people choose to live in a fantasy world without taking a critical look into their own emotional states through the experience of others, crafted or genuine.
    "I'd rather collect data that hasn't been twisted and played with and emphasized to suit someone else, and form my own conclusions."
    Of course you realize that we are creatures of comparison, constantly juxtaposing others' experiences with our own, and with our own sets of values and expectations. I don't think it's possible to read about outside experiences and not transpose your own persona, opinions, and values within. While I respect the decision to use literature as a respite and a comfort, I also feel that strictly doing so is a great waste of an incredibly important tool. A tool for self-reflection, for human interpretation, and most of all – for empathy.
    Empathy, both for the self and for others, is something we desperately need more of in this world.

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