Reading about Evil

I've read a lot about atrocities in the last year, and I'm struck by the difference between the different genres that deal with them. The most miserable way to read about atrocities is to pick up a straightforward work of non-fiction. I'm currently reading Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt. It's extremely well-written and informative, but so painful! Since it's a chronicle of events starting with the precursors of the Holocaust, the trajectory of the book can't be anything but consistently downhill.

The other books I've read recently avoid this trajectory, even when they deal with terrible events. For example, the superb novel What is the What, by Dave Eggers, tells the gruesome true story of a small boy's exodus from war torn southern Sudan. Passages in the book are more heartbreaking than you can imagine, but you know from the beginning this is a book about a survivor.

The same is true of memoirs by Holocaust survivors. Night, by Elie Wiesel, is heartbreaking and shocking, but the reader knows all along that Wiesel will be alive at the end of the book. You read your way into total darkness ("night"), knowing there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Novelists can deliberately take you on an up and down journey, but even the most pitiless writer has some compassion for the reader! A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, is a very painful portrait of life for lower caste Indians, but it's not a complete and total descent into hell. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is an excruciating 9/11 book, but still amusing in places.

The difference between the Holocaust history and all these other books, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, is the writer's perspective. A comprehensive, birds-eye perspective of the Holocaust can't fail to be utterly depressing. A survivor's perspective is another matter. And a storyteller's perspective is usually yet another--a good story is never all one color. Sadly enough, it just doesn't make sense to always pick the easier-to-take book. If you want to read a history of the Holocaust, Dwork and Van Pelt have written a really good one.


Unknown said...

I'd recommend reading The Shrine at Altamira by John L'Heureux.

It's a novel, but not a happy one. It's about a man who burns his son alive. It physically hurt me to read it. This book does not give you a happy ending, but if you look close enough (and perhaps have some training in either religion or existentialism), there is hope in it. It's just not as easy to see.

It opens with a quote:

"...if you can't imagine yourself an SS officer hustling the Jewish women and children to the gas chamber, you need to be more closely in touch with your buried self"

-Paul Fussell

Jean Kazez said...

I've never agreed with this thought anyone could be the SS officer. It softens the condemnation of the SS officer (maybe that's the point). No, I can't imagine myself as the SS officer, which I think is to the credit of my upbringing and the culture I've grown up in. The fact that the SS officer not only imagined but did those things tells us something about his upbringing and culture. Possibly there are deep character differences as well, as not every German became an SS officer. We are not all the same.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the SS officer either, not because I am in any way braver or more moral than other people, but because I am more recalcitrant. If people tell me I should do something, I am likely to resist and question. I don't suppose I would have been at all courageous about it, in fact I would probably just have snuck off and concealed myself from official view, but I wouldn't have been in the SS.

If you have a wider interest in atrocities, Jonathan Glover's "Humanity" is very interesting, although I am not sure I agree with all his conclusions. But very depressing, yes.

Unknown said...

I can't imagine myself as an SS officer either. But I think what that quote does, regardless of our agreement or disagreement with it, is force us to look at what it would take for a person to do that.

We like to think that there was something evil in these people from the very start. But the scary thing is that if you had been there watching their story unfold, you would have understood how they could make that move. You may not agree with the choices they made, but you can see how their minds made that leap.

That's what the book I mentioned above does. It doesn't say hey, you are capable of burning your children on a hospital bed. It says hey look, this guy? He's not a monster. He's really fucked up, I'll give you that, but he's real and he's human and as much as his actions are abhorrent, they are understandable given what he had to work with. It doesn't excuse him, but it does change how we look at him.

That, and the book goes even more in depth into what salvation (if a word like that can even apply) looks like, and that hope lights up even the darkest places. I came out of reading that book with a whole new appreciation for humanity and it's utter brokenness and beauty.


Jean Kazez said...

Difficult question. I think it's really important to try to imagine oneself the victim of atrocities-- because that motivates getting up and doing something to help. But must I try to imagine what it's like to be the perpetrator? Certainly somebody better try to understand how people do terrible things. That's got to help prevent similar things in the future. It just might not be me. I can get myself inside the heads of some bad guys more than others. When it comes to the Holocaust, I don't think I can. I truly don't get it. But no doubt one factor is that my energy goes into imagining being there...as a victim...as a mother of Jewish kids, etc.