Why do people read about awful things that have nothing to do with them? I mean prison camp memoirs or accounts of genocides, or fictional versions of these. Many do so from an obligation to remember. Is that all? No one retains the names of those whose testimonies inform these books. A memory has space for only some bloodless facts — what Stalin called, “statistics” — about how many were murdered in this town, on this day. They might be attended by an effort to grieve, but given all the horror accessible in today’s newspapers, this is difficult. Horror likes shock, and what’s common doesn’t shock.
Some further explanation is required, accounting not only for the desire to read, but also for the desire to actually be reading, horrifying accounts. I have two thoughts, the first moral, the second a bit wicked.
The moral suggestion, which everyone will insist is the reason that he himself reading such books, is that we wish humbly to know the suffering of others — to, as it were, comfort Job. This evokes empathy, and empathy is good on behalf of noble victims. Reading this literature is therefore a chance to inculcate (or vindicate possession of) humane virtues. There is a noble aspiration in this: The virtues touched by such reading are just those that could support universal peace and stop unjust suffering. If suffering is rightly understood and reacted to by all — the thought goes — then no one will intend to inflict it. Who could intend such pain once he comprehended Camp 14, Kolyma and Auschwitz?
Why else might we read — sometimes voraciously — about horrible things? It is a kind of contemplation of the sublime. The sublimely evil, but the sublime still. Why contemplate the evil when there is the good? Because the radical evil most people encounter is far more sublime than the radical goodness.
Of course, God is the most sublime. And of course, He is the most radically good. But He is infinitely far and infinitely deep — who can find Him out? Total transcendence costs the Lord clarity even (no — especially) for the most pious. There were some moments in history — the Revelation at Sinai, prophetic visions — where man’s capacity for wonder (in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase) could be satiated by both the sublime and the good at once. But mostly, the beautifully good in this world does not shock. Think of nuns attending to the sick and poor, for instance, or mothers caring for their newborns. The bravery of soldiers is an exception — but only because of its intrusion into a more shocking, violent and breathless scene. The beauty of good things is mostly quiet.
Why is this so? Goodness is a small planet in the moral universe. There is vast space for human evil, and so numerous deviations and degradations. The good is simple, while evil is a grotesquely variegated diversity. And so for a long time after mastering how we ought to live, we will find man innovative in the ways he mistreats his fellow guests on this earth. The evil is an exhilarating getaway from the banal virtue of daily life.
Aesthetic contemplation is often its own purpose. That’s why people go to museums. And off-loading moral considerations onto one’s contemplation of a brutal book, or a horrifying photograph or anything else striving for aesthetic value seems like alienating the work in question from the constitutive values of art. So what if a book shows evil? The question is whether it does so well — whether the form and the medium are appropriate to the object. That seems like a question different entirely from the goodness of what’s depicted. Let moralists discuss that on their own time.
I think that’s unwise. First, for prudential reasons. Humans are often motivated by what’s perpendicular to moral considerations. Fascination with the awesomely evil might lead us to behave evilly. How many young radicals act as they do because it looks dashing? Any one with a functional cortex knows that cigarettes are evil. And I have heard smokers addicted to the chance for a slow death from rat poison and ash say that what they really like is the “aesthetic” of a cigarette. Idiots all, it’s true, but who can disagree that it would be way less cool to walk around sucking on, like, an obtruding popsicle stick?
But is the awesome evil itself worth our fascination? I think not, precisely because it is infinitely diverse. There are no criteria for conformity to evil. Or, more precisely, there are only explicit criteria for conformity to the good. There could be no wrong move if there were no right move. But this means that standards for correct depiction of the evil must always be derivative standards, and because there are many more ways to deviate from the norm than there are to conform, the standards will be consequently diluted.
And so anyone can depict the evil, because the evil is most ways of acting. It requires immense skill to depict the good, just as it requires a life’s effort to embody the good. And so contemplating the evil for its own sake is strictly speaking a waste. I would say that we should read to remember and to empathize, but from no other motives — certainly not, it seems, from mere curiosity.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .