Literature to mediate on the scum of the earth
February 24, 2012 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I have been trying to deal with the shadows, or dark reality, of life: sex-trafficking, war crimes, war rape, rape, hatred, familial abuse, child pornography; even the "lighter" shadows of infidelity, corruption (of the 3rd World and 1st World), hard drug use and dealing of financial elites, etc.; and perhaps maybe even more importantly: the lack of public-moral outrage that would seek to eradicate such an infestation (strong words, sure - I don't mean to imply I want a 21st century witch hunt).

Was the pre-technological age freer from this darkness than we? How can we really progress if something like this is so overlooked? What is the nature of this darkness?

I'm looking for literature that deals with this issue, either pessimistically or optimistically. I'm more interested in literature that meditates (so maybe the book doesn't have to have this as an explicit and obvious topic) on this issue, than non-fictional works and the sort.
posted by SollosQ to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
A Song of Ice and Fire. Cloud Atlas.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:23 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

No, because we are human, and see previous answer.

I liked Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth and World Without End for this sort of thing.
posted by jquinby at 7:26 PM on February 24, 2012

Was the pre-technological age freer from this darkness than we?

From a historical perspective, most definitely not. On many levels, things on earth are much better than they have ever been. Most people live under a government with a rule of law; much dread disease has been minimized or eradicated; more people have basic human rights in their societies than ever before. Even very, very rose-colored theorizers about pre-agrarian societies can't refute the probability that rape, abuse, and murder have always been part of human culture.
posted by Miko at 7:27 PM on February 24, 2012 [14 favorites]

OK. I like this author for most of that!

I like these podcasts for a lot of it.

And I love these podcast interviews for all of it. And then some.

With that last one, I caution you not to blow past podcasts that seem to "woowoo" from the descriptions. Often, the guests are very well researched and insightful, even if the main thrust isn't anything you accept.

Multiple perspectives are what you are after if you want a FULL picture of the how and why the world is the way it is. Technology plays a part, and the last podcast especially, often touches on how innovations have changed, enabled, or sometimes mitigated the things you are concerned about.
posted by jbenben at 7:31 PM on February 24, 2012


You wanted literature not non-fiction.

You want the DUNE books. Use them as a metaphor. Start from the beginning.

I never ever understood government until I read Dune. The older I get, the truer this series rings.
posted by jbenben at 7:34 PM on February 24, 2012

Was the pre-technological age freer from this darkness than we?

No. The problem is that you're bombarded with all the bad stuff in the world now, on a 24/7 cycle. 99/99% of these various injustices are beyond your control, there is literally nothing the individual can do about them.

And yet, as Miko noted, this is one of the best, most progressive times in human history. More people are feed and have freedom than ever before and that number keeps growing. But being human, we need to focus on the negatives.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:35 PM on February 24, 2012

In fact, there is a whole thing in Dune that deals with technology.
Like the reboot of Battle Star Galactica, where certain technologies were banned because this lead to the Cylon robots who rebelled against Humanity in the series, similar technologies are banned in the Dune planetary system.

Frank Herbert nailed society on many of the levels you are interested in. Much more can be inferred or deduced.
posted by jbenben at 7:40 PM on February 24, 2012

If you can switch mediums, I think The Wire deals with these issues. Mostly I think things are much better than they were, it's just our access to the information that has improved.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:56 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Was the pre-technological age freer from this darkness than we?

Well, let's see if the things on your list happened before the modern era:

sex-trafficking- yes
war crimes- yes
war rape- yes
rape- yes
hatred- yes
familial abuse- yes
child pornography- technical factors might prevent this, but children were exploited
infidelity- yes
corruption- yes
hard drug use- not really a bad thing, but people have always gotten high
dealing of financial elites- yes

Try: Blood Meridian (or anything by Cormac McCarthy), Chesapeake, Dispatches (non-fiction, but it is definitely a literary mediation and fits within your parameters), The Canterbury Tales.
posted by spaltavian at 8:02 PM on February 24, 2012

Miko's comment about "rose-colored theorizers" is weirdly glib. Violence in hunter-gatherer societies is a contentious topic about which scholars disagree, but if anything the consensus is a lot sunnier than what she implies.

You might appreciate Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
posted by phrontist at 8:46 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of Steve Erickson's books:

"Arc D'X"
"Rubicon Beach"
"The Sea Came In At Midnight"

These novels blend history, millennial angst, and quasi-futuristic dread in a way that I think touches on all your points.
posted by hermitosis at 8:49 PM on February 24, 2012

It's not fiction, but if you're not already reading Rigorous Intuition, I suggest that you do.
posted by gentian at 8:54 PM on February 24, 2012

I like The Fifth Element. It's not as subtle, or ultimately as depressing as"The Cloud Atlas," but it's more on the feel-good side.
posted by rw at 9:13 PM on February 24, 2012

Roman Polanski's version of Macbeth.
Julie Taymor's version of Titus.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:45 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Literature that meditates" is philosophy. The school of philosophy that concerns itself with "the dark reality" of the human condition is existentialism, whose widely acknowledged founder, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote several books but doesn't rate real high on readability (not unless of course you like chewing on reflections like "dread is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy").

Existentialist literature doesn't really get readable or relevant until the 20th century, when Kierkegaard's existentialist themes were picked up by such writers as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. These are the four giants of existentialist fiction. In my opinion, their novels are where you should start

Additionally, a lot of the best literature on all the horrible things people do to people comes from people who have witnessed events first-hand, and/or been victims of cruelty and lived to tell the tale.

This would include the Holocaust memoirs "Night" by Elie Wiesel and "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankl, and such works as "Blood Knot" and "Master Harold and The Boys" by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 10:05 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

The now-cancelled teen girl show Veronica Mars dealt uncompromisingly with pretty much all of those themes-- in the context of high school!

Holocaust literature tries to deal with a lot of these themes. I don't know if reading it will solve these questions for you, or open up new ones, but for harrowing look at life at one of the darkest periods in human history, I recommend the nonfiction/memoirs of Primo Levi and Jean Amery (but I would recommend reading them when well fed, surrounded by friends or family, and in a relatively good mood- they can be genuinely disturbing).

For a more optimistic message, seconding Badger Doctor's recommendation for Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning-- aside from being the first-ever work of existentialist psychiatry, it tries to explain how to reconcile the bad things humans are capable of with the hope provided by talking and making meaning.
posted by kettleoffish at 10:42 PM on February 24, 2012

Breaking Bad. This series has been like a greased luge ride into ethical agony.
posted by biddeford at 12:51 AM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Perhaps the lack of modern social outrage is in part due to a lack of exposure?

My generation was pretty fucked. In as many sense as you want. The best of us was just once confronted with a creepy uncle who got nowhere. The worst of us was bartered as an object from buyer to buyer - that start was age 1.

It seems like a lot of moral conservatives will hide the abuses within their own family. And that's fine, I don't blame them, they had some serious issues in their formative years. You kind of have to work back to the root of the evil.

But let's talk about just the experiences our mainstream people had?

Oh, right, you're looking for literature. You won't find much until you start digging on your own. This isn't a subject that gets much journalistic and/or media attention. At least not until a white, blonde female goes missing.

So maybe I meditated on the subject for a bit. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Good luck. I do hope you know where to look. Some things could use a bit of exposing.
posted by krisak at 1:22 AM on February 25, 2012

From a historical perspective, most definitely not. On many levels, things on earth are much better than they have ever been. This is absolutely true. If you are not sure about this then read Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Stephen Pinker which is a comprehensive overview of how and why human suffering has decreased over time.

What you are asking about is, it seems to me, inhumanity - given that in terms of literature, the obvious place to start is holocaust literature and memoirs - Night by Elie Wiesel, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski and If This Is a Man by Primo Levi come to mind.

Blood Meridian is an obvious choice that has been mentioned already.

I am not sure what to recommend from a "pre-technological" age though..
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:25 AM on February 25, 2012

"Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory"... You make a good point. But are you sure it's apples and oranges?

If you're talking about just literature, then yes, you are correct. Sort of... Does literature also contain news stories, wire transfers, video feeds?

Let's discuss violence. In modern countries, on a per capita basis, violence has declined.

And in countries not part of the EU? Iran, Afghanistan, etc? Can we know that?
posted by krisak at 1:37 AM on February 25, 2012

Books and films I think fit the bill, in rough chronological order:
- Lysistrata by Aristophanes
- Barry Strauss' The Trojan War: A New History
- The Aeneid by Virgil
- The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCollough
- Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- Ralph Fiennes' recent film “Coriolanus
- Terrence Malik's "The Thin Red Line"
- Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"
- What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers
posted by cocoagirl at 3:33 AM on February 25, 2012

With regards to the question of whether these evils are modern, I humbly submit the Roman Empire. (See also: Genghis Khan, the Aztec Empire, the Bible, the history of the Jews, the conquest of the Americas...)

For a very contemporary look at some of these problems, how about the recent Mexican films El Infierno and Miss Bala?
posted by feets at 4:50 AM on February 25, 2012

Was the pre-technological age freer from this darkness than we?
Certainly not. A quick scan of the Old Testament tells you that we have a long history of cruelty and bad ethics. Slavery, rape, war crimes, betrayal, murder ....
posted by bunderful at 9:03 AM on February 25, 2012

2666 by Roberto Bolaño is exactly about what you are dealing with. It's a hard read, not in terms of style, but in terms of the heaviness of its subject matter and the unremittingness by which it approaches it.

Candide by Voltaire is a more humorous, if no less bleak, take on the same issues.
posted by Kattullus at 9:37 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely David Thorne! Missing Missy is hilarious!
posted by sybarite09 at 12:22 PM on February 26, 2012

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