Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Evil Walks

It is a shame that "evil" has become a word we use so casually that it can even itself be a punchline: Dr. Evil. And it's a shame that language -- these stale assemblages of shapes and ink and sounds -- cannot on its own portray the magnitude of human experience.

Nearly 500,000 men, women, and children were killed at the Belzec extermination camp in Poland between mid-March 1942 and the end of December that same year. Imagine that many bodies in one place.

When archaeologists studied the site in the late 1990s, they found the surface soil littered with charred wood and bone fragments. Exploratory drilling brought up putrid black water, hair, and grease. Most of the pits had a thick layer of black fat at the bottom.

This is the face of evil. It is not fiction.

Congo. Srebenica. Choeung Ek. Rwanda. Beslan. On and on and on.

Often our greatest outrage, if there is such a thing, occurs when the victims are children. They are not immune to the darkness of the world.

What is the responsibility of the writer for children? What is his morality, in bringing or not bringing this darkness into the story?

Many good children's books are successful, even moving, without this darkness. Protecting children from that does not mean that the only villains are cartoonish bad guys in black hats. There is a middle ground, after all, between traumatizing the reader and giving them a good story. Even a sublime one. And certainly if a book shows much darkness it ceases to be strictly a children's book and is instead marketed to adults. Think of The Book Thief. (Which, I'd argue, is nevertheless suitable for some children.)

My point is this. Is it cowardice to turn our backs on the darkness of our own world? Do we somehow become complicit by pretending it doesn't exist? Or should the responsibility of the writer not necessarily be to hold open the reader's eyes at the shock and terror of our world, but rather to transport them as, quite deliberately, an antidote to that world?

I ask not to incite argument, but because I genuinely do not know. Please comment.


Peter S said...

Children are sensitive creatures and their exposure to evil should increase with age and understanding. Yet we should always make an effort to show children evil. For them to see the duality of forces in the world is invaluable.

How could they understand salt without sweet, light without darkness, and good without evil? How could we teach our children to be good without showing them what evil does? Places like the Shoah Foundation exist precisely to display evil and keep stories alive. Why? To avoid genocide in the future, we have to know what it is, how it works, and how seemingly good people can transform into monsters bent on the extinction of another human group.

Literature for children should respect their intelligence and their capacity for empathy. For children to become champions for true good when they grow up, they must have seen true evil.

Anonymous said...

The most profoundly affecting children's entertainment BOTH graphically depicts violent evil AND transports the audience to a world of beauty and wonder and hope, perhaps even the hope that good may triumph over evil. I mean this in absolute seriousness, a notable example of this remains, in spite of later artistically bankrupt attempts by its bearded, gouty creator to "cash in", a certain movie trilogy of which you may be familiar that first appeared in 1977. You know what I'm talking about, and you should know I am by no means making light of your question by citing this example. Again, it's hard now to recall or discern beneath the 30+ years of kitsch and knowing in-jokes that have accreted atop it in our memories, but divorce yourself from all that and think of yourself as a seven year old who had probably had never seen a screen image of burning, skeletal corpses in the wreckage of a desert home, seen a woman subjected to chemical interrogation and perhaps torture by a totalitarian government, seen wholesale gun violence that was unquestionably fatal and final and painful. Juxtaposed against gorgeous vistas and planetscapes, and added to a story of latent heroism discovered (by numerous characters) that to jaded adults is rightly a cliche-ridden joke but to a seven year old may have triggered perhaps the first real existential self-examination and self-affirmation. That was the genius of at least the first two of those movies-- they did BOTH the seemingly contradictory things you speculate are the responsibility of the creator of literature, art, entertainment for children.

S R Wood said...

Peter -- Thanks for the heads up about the Shoah Foundation. I had no idea it existed.

Nietsche said "Gaze not too long into the abyss, lest it gaze into thee." I guess one of the many hard choices is how much darkness to subject ourselves to in order to understand it.

I remember visiting Dachau years ago with my friends young brother. We saw the barracks, the wire, the "Labor Macht Frei" rusted sign, the ovens. By the end of the day he was shaken and wet-eyed. "Good," I said. "He should always remember this." But still I wonder.

And Anonymous: You are right! Thanks for reminding me to chip away thirty years' of irony and adult judgements about what has now become a cliche.

To young eyes, that darkness, violence, bravery, a final decision to Do Right ("Let's blow this thing so we can go home") are very compelling. I'd forgotten that.

I'll try to do both. And thanks for the reminder that they do not have to be contradictory.