The terror of being just out of reach
January 25, 2021 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good literary descriptions of the terror / hopelessness one can feel when something bad is happening and it's ineviteable. Do you know of an author who's described this well, or is there a specific word in English or other languages which fit the bill?

In real life the feeling is never this clear cut for me, but I react to it strongly in fiction & art; Some examples from TV that have stuck with me:

I saw a dramatisation of a mountain climbing expedition which ran out of rope on the way down. The would-be rescuers took a cable car up but could only come within shouting distance of the survivors – there was nothing they could do to reach them in time and the last climber of the expedition died only a few meters away from safety.

In season 2 of the Expanse there's scene where a group of refugees are dropped into space to die, not transferred to another ship as they thought. A protagonist sees this through a window but is unable to help.

In Event Horizon there's a scene where Smith [Sean Pertwee] discovers a bomb on a ship, but instead of having the usual action scene where the actor tries to defuse it and dies a heroic frantic death, he just lowers his head in acceptance that there's nothing he can do to change the outcome.

The feeling I'm looking to describe is not one of profound acceptance of an injust and uncaring universe, but the realisation that you haven't accepted it but are unable to change a thing even though you know what is required – it's a combination of despair, grief-in-advance and paralyzing rage.
posted by monocultured to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Ich kann nicht

The mountain rescue scene in North Face was exactly what I thought of when I saw your question.

Inexorable? Implacable?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:03 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

The very last scene of the movie Gallipoli, maybe? The film follows the story of a pair of Australian soldiers in the World War I Turkish campaign; Mark Lee and Mel Gibson meet as footsoldiers and become buddies in the army before they're sent to the front lines. Both are fast runners and so are often used as messengers.

The final scene has to do with a real-life battle, one which was mishandled because of a breakdown in communication and which resulted in a huge number of Australian casualties. In the film, the Australian army is mean to attack the Turkish front line in three waves; an advance team was supposed to establish a bit of a foothold in the Turkish trenches, and the main attack would come later. Except the advance team was unsuccessful. But the radio between the trenches and the general went down and no one was able to tell the general so he could call off the attack.

Mel Gibson's character then runs the whole way to the general's tent trying to warn him, and gets the authority to call the attack off. Except that by the time he's sprinting back, the attack is already proceeding. The signal sounds for Mark Lee's character and his squad to go ahead with the attack, and that's where it ends - is with them all sprinting towards certain death.

The bit I'm thinking of, though, is Mel Gibson's reaction to hearing that signal - he is still several yards away, but hears the signal, and knows that his squad is now racing to their deaths, and he howls in despair and frustration. The whole scene is here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:14 AM on January 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're thinking of, but your question kind of reminded me of the Stranger by Camus. There's a distinction, I guess, in that the action in the Stranger is not inevitable per se, but the point of the book is that the protagonist feels like it's inevitable.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:14 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

the (horrible) film titanic has a scene of a below decks/steerage mom putting her children back in bed when she realizes escape is impossible and drowning is inevitable.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:31 AM on January 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

The ending of The Vanishing
posted by crocomancer at 7:42 AM on January 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

I find this feeling extremely compelling as well. I have a few additional examples (Legend of Korra, Horton Hears a Who!, The Envoy of Mr. Cogito, Wicked), but I don't think I've ever seen this described. The complexity is easily legible on the face, but the act of describing it takes away from the tension that makes it a gorgeous gut-punch.

Despair Event Horizon, perhaps, gets close? to describe the moment when a character realizes that they are actually in a tragedy. I'd modify it to the Furious Despair Event Horizon to cover the anger and helplessness.
posted by snerson at 7:43 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

or is there a specific word in English or other languages which fit the bill?
The cliché phrase "like watching a car crash in slow motion" or "slow-motion car crash" applies. The phrase "trainwreck in slow motion" is also used.

-Here's an art project that references it. The artist statement says the sculpture is a statement on our inevitable mortality; that may be why seeing those situations in film/lit hit hard (echo the subconscious below-the-surface knowledge and terror that we are headed to our own inexorable end).
-Not art/literature, but if you google "slow motion car crash [horrible event that took some time]" you can see it used to describe someone realizing that terrible things are happening they cannot change (insert: covid, 9/11, diabetes, Trump etc.)
-The 1990s Romeo & Juliet movie adapted the end so that Juliet was waking up while Romeo was drinking the poison, so there was a few seconds of them seeing each other alive and realizing "whoops, I'm/he's about to die!" So close to all working out for them, but yet so far. Fifteen more seconds of soliloquy and crying before downing the poison and it would have been all good.
posted by neda at 7:44 AM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

(one more example: Over the Garden Wall's finale has a few of these moments, but I won't link because SPOILERS and you should really just take a few hours and watch the whole thing yourself. You being anyone who hasn't seen it yet.)
posted by snerson at 8:09 AM on January 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

In one of my favorite books, In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, there is a flashback to the death of a child that I have to skip when I reread the book. A large group is on an outing and a child falls into a crevasse in a cave. There is no way to reach him and no way to get equipment in (the story takes place in I think the 1940s), so the family and onlookers can only try to comfort him from the mouth of the cave as he dies from his injuries from the fall over the course of more than a day.

The book is lovely but that passage is absolutely gutting.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:16 AM on January 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

I feel like the Wire is full of things like this, and No Country For Old Men is practically a montage of these kinds of events.
posted by LionIndex at 8:37 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Related to but not exactly Cassandra Syndrome? (Which is this plus other people refusing to believe you)
posted by johngoren at 8:43 AM on January 25, 2021

Response by poster: [Can't keep up with the replies, so bunched a couple comments together – hope it's readable]

@TWinbrook8 – Thanks for naming the mountain, I'd forgotten where it'd taken place - The wikipedia page is harrowing… "Inexorable? Implacable?" might be what is happening, but it's your reaction to that which is inexorable / Implacable that I'm looking for.

The cliche "slow motion car crash" might fit – but it doesn't narrow down your reaction, only your heightened sense of what is happening. The car crash art piece is nice though! Made me think of the New Zeeland speed limit PSA which also serves as an example here – the fathers reaction is gutting.

I like the Horton example, and Romeo after Juliet wakes up as well. "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" is beautiful, and the phrase "and let your helpless Anger be like the sea" rings true here.

Mel Gibsons scream is not it (he did do his best, he just failed) but the soldiers in the trenches are a better example: They could just hunker down and not run at the gun emplacements, but they don't acknowledge it as a choice and are aware of their impending death as a fait accompli. The Giazotto Adagio is often used in similar scenes and actually serves to invoke the feeling just by itself, at least for me…

Goddens book added to the reading pile, as is Over the garden Wall and The Vanishing – Thanks for the suggestions. I haven't seen Titanic, but that's the kind of situation I'm referring to; The mother acts out of love and compassion, but how does she feel about this being the limit of what she can do, of being in this situation, of the universe allowing this to happen?

I think I get where you're going with The Stranger @kevinbelt, but as I recall it, Meursaults is an onlooker with no volition to begin with, so his surprise at the trial is more one of realising that he's misread how the world works, and there's no just reward for "doing ones best" and no guarantee of do-overs.

In that sense, perhaps Meursalts is a partially good example for this: The world isn't fair, we fail and die many times over, and the universe doesn't care for your impotent rage.

Casandra syndrome: Denial is a part of this. If you're at peace with the world and accept the world as it is, etc, you'll not be as perturbed by calamity as someone who's not come to terms with life.
posted by monocultured at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2021

Gateway by Frederik Pohl seems to cover a lot of what you're asking for here. I'm not going to spoil it, but there's an inescapable situation that the main character has to come to a realization with. He gets a chance to examine what happens during the actual event through sessions with an A.I. psychologist. (Its also a really good book)
posted by kookywon at 8:59 AM on January 25, 2021

Ben Winters wrote a trilogy about a detective solving crimes while a meteor is heading towards the earth, and the response of the population to inevitable destruction.

The Ministry for the Future is about global warming, and did more to educate me about the topic than any other nonfiction article that I've read. It has been discussed elsewhere on this site.
posted by mecran01 at 9:08 AM on January 25, 2021 [6 favorites]

I know you asked for literary examples but since you also seem open to other kinds, this is why Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is so unsettling and moving. Laura knows she is doomed and spends most of the film coming to heartbroken, terrified terms with this realization.
posted by cakelite at 9:28 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this applies exactly, but there is study of the phenomenon of why people feel regret more intensely when only just missing something, versus missing by a great degree.
Anticipated regret vs. experienced regret
posted by subocoyne at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Toy Story 3 does this in what turns out is a false ending, when they're in the trash incinerator. They all hold hands and honestly I can't even think about that scene without getting emotional.
posted by sleeping bear at 12:09 PM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

The HBO series Chernobyl had this feeling as its subtext. It's often discussed in the context of the narrative.
posted by effluvia at 1:26 PM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Dread was the first term to come to mind, but I'd modify it with 'existential.'

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera describes kitsch this way: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

Like the "second tear" of kitsch, existential dread is not dread qua dread ("to anticipate with great apprehension or fear"), but rather it is a backward-looking or meta-dread that is aware of the terror, inevitability, and grief of tragedy.

The film La Jetée holds (is?) an example of this emotion, where you not only confront a final terror, you also realize your impotent, ant-like role in it. In that wikipedia entry, it mentions a blogger's interpretation of La Jetée as "realizing there is no escape from the present."
posted by cocoagirl at 2:13 PM on January 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

Last Contact, by Stephen Baxter
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:15 PM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

maybe the film All Is Lost would be interesting. the ending is foregone and inevitable. solo sailer makes mistakes and struggles to the last, futilely.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:26 PM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Open Water (2003) based on the true story of the disappearance of two divers left behind when their boat returned to shore without them. Sharks, jellyfish, dehydration, delirium, separation, more sharks, and one last fuck it.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:59 PM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

In Underland by Robert MacFarlane there is a truly chilling description of a fatal caving accident that fits what you describe.
posted by Balthamos at 7:25 AM on January 26, 2021

Dread, futility, inexorability, impotence and fatalism might all be useful descriptive terms for this phenomenon. 'Bearing witness' might also capture the traumatic experience of being unable to help as does the now out of fashion phrase 'survivor's guilt' for those who are present at, but unable to prevent, a tragedy or horrific act occurring.
posted by The Rehearsal at 11:31 PM on January 28, 2021

« Older Can I block Outlook time without seeing it on iCal...   |   Gift suggestions for a beginning weaver Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.