The necessity of dark stories for dark times

When life seems unsettled, and I’m aware of quiet feelings of sadness, regret or dread, I generally don’t turn to chipper entertainment to lift my mood.

I go to the dark side, which I suppose can include last night getting sucked  into watching three hours of Keeping Up With the Kardashians special on Kim’s dream wedding.

Would the Kardashian fest of excess, plastic surgery and emotional immaturity meet the definition of tragedy?

Some of my other entertainment choices this past week would fit that definition. I’m sort of talking about the definition batted about by those people much smarter than me,  philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche. They were talking about stories, plays or other works in which a hero or heroine suffers a reversal of fortune. According to Aristotle,  this reversal can lead to a revelation or recognition — for the hero and the audience — about human fate or the will of the gods. To Nietzsche, a sad story is a way of “saying yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes.”

Then there is that catharsis thing. You’ve heard of it right? It’s often mentioned alongside descriptions of tragedy. Audiences will experience emotional healing from experiencing fear, pity or other emotions in response to the suffering of the story’s characters.

For me, a good sad story offers me a sense of comfort. I see or read what the characters are going through, and I  think I’m not the only one. That is, I’m not the only one who worries or who gets depressed or thinks that a lot of what comes up in life is bullshit. Here are characters in a story, or artists who have created these characters, who feel the same way I do. I may be crazy but, like I said, I’m not the only one.

Take Shelter tells the story of Curtis, a guy who seems to have a good life. He has a wife, a young daughter and a good job in construction that pays really good health benefits, which comes in handy because he and his wife hope to get a cochlear implant for their little girl, who is deaf. And, then Curtis starts to experience frighteningly real nightmares and delusions about an apocalyptic storm coming and about other bad things happening to his family. He wonders if he’s inherited the schizophrenia that afflicted his mother. He wonders if he’s losing his mind. But he also can’t help but feel that something  terrible is going to happen to the world.

“I’m afraid that something might be coming, something that’s not right. I can’t describe it,” he tells a counselor.

I know something of that feeling: I had it last Sunday  in the seconds before my heart stopped beating and I passed out.  There were seven such asystolic episodes that landed me in the emergency room and led to a diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat and the need to implant a pacemaker in my chest.

Is it such a stretch that I was curious to see Take Shelter, so soon after this past week’s strange turn of events in my life? 

A New York Times review calls Take Shelter a “quiet, relentless exploration of the latent (and not so latent) terrors that bedevil contemporary American life.” Curtis is not living a life of luxury but has achieved modestly comfortable existence and fulfilled reasonable expectations for himself and his family: a home of his own, a decent job, vacation time.

The Times review continues: “We like to think that individually and collectively, we have it pretty good, but it is harder and harder to allay the suspicion that a looming disaster — economic or environmental, human or divine — might come along and destroy it all,” the Times review says. “Normalcy can feel awfully precarious, like a comforting dream blotting out a nightmarish reality”

Curtis’ brother speaks to the precariousness of many people’s financial situations when he warns Curtis about going into debt, building a shelter in his back yard that he believes will protect his family from the doom. “You take the eye off the ball in this economy, you’re screwed.”

Early last Monday morning, when I lay in my bed in John Muir Medical Center’s cardiac care unit, unable to sleep and waiting for the 7:30 a.m. surgery to implant my pacemaker, I re-read a 1939 novella about a young woman who is dying in the influenza outbreak of 1917-18.

How’s that for non-chipper entertainment?

Pale Rider, Pale Horse is by Katherine Anne Porter, who was one of those great American writers of the first half of the 20th century who is probably not as well known today as she should be. Her  prose penetrates deep into the big questions of being human: Who are we? Why are we here? Really, what’s the meaning of all this? Is there a point?

The novel is set during one war and was published on the eve of another. The protagonist is Miranda, a smart, pretty, lively–though somewhat sad and already jaded–24-year-old newspaper reporter at stateside daily newspaper. She falls in love with a solder named Adam, days before he’s about to ship overseas to fight in the trenches. Their romance is amazingly beautiful, intelligent and, you sense, doomed. The story slips through dream, memory, feverish delirium and scenes of funeral processions, Miranda at work and her moments with Adam.

It was the perfect book to read in those hours.  Like Take Shelter, Pale Rider, Pale Horse meditates on a protagonist’s fear of doom, both individual and global. As I was reading the novella last Monday morning, I wasn’t afraid that anything bad would happen to me with this pacemaker operation. However, I was also in the mood to, as Nietzsche would suggest, “say yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes.”

The pale rider on the pale horse, of course, refers to the fourth of the New Testament’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That fourth horseman is named Death. The pale horse has shown up in stories since  as a metaphor for pestilence, war, famine and death.  (Maybe the Kardashians are a new, 21st century metaphor for doom?)

Some people would say that, during such challenging times, I should be diverting my mind with readings that are more “uplifting” and “motivational.” But what could be more uplifting, motivational and profound than what Porter has Miranda thinking as she lays in her hospital bed, confronting the possibility of death?

“Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live.

“The fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of life said. Trust me, I say.”

3 thoughts on “The necessity of dark stories for dark times

  1. Walnut Creek Resident: How about the time when my mom told me a kid was here with his mother to pick up a pool key for the nieghborhood. They came into our house, and my mom told me to show the kid my room while she talked with his mom. I took the strange kid to my room and we sat on my bed and he asked me basic questions. Within 10 minutes they were gone. A year later that same mother drove to the top of mount diablo and shot that same kid in the head then killed herself…


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