By Lucía Pereira
It is a widely shared experience to see a book described as ‘devastating’ and think, “I need to read this immediately”. As moths are drawn to light, humans are drawn to sorrow. But why? And what, if any, are the moral implications of this?
Tragic stories, especially those that develop a reputation for being tearjerkers, are often taken as a challenge. But there is a responsibility to be borne when stories that tackle heavy themes reach an audience that is, perhaps, not their target.
Where are the limits when trauma and literature congregate? Contemporary works like A Little Life, My Dark Vanessa or The Kite Runner are not what you would call uplifting reads, and, oftentimes, this aspect has been criticised. But sad endings are not exclusive to contemporary literature. Depictions of graphic death, addiction, sexual assault and wars are rampant in English classics.
What does this say about the reader?
There is a cyclical discourse in online spaces about the validity of such stories, but a now-deleted tweet caught my attention and essentially inspired this essay. The person who tweeted took issue with the consumption of ‘tragic’ media, and directly called into question the morality of those who can enjoy such sad books. This is not new; several authors who write fiction weaving in elements from their own trauma get told that their depictions are disgusting, unrealistic or that they should not exist at all. To this, I counter: does such silencing fix the problems, or does it create taboos around them? Readers who have encountered novels depicting trauma that is the same as, or similar to, their own, and have found some sort of solace in the stories might internalise such comments and let the comfort they once felt turn into shame.
Now, delving into a book with certain expectations and then being slapped by an unconventional twist – like a gruesome death in a romance that seemed to be all fluff and sunshine – is a rightful cause for uproar. But, as stated before, most of us either look specifically for books with darker themes, or start reading a work with the knowledge that it made everyone and their mother cry. This is usually made clear on the cover, in the blurb or online (where we pass trigger warning lists like they’re notes in class). So, it is, I believe, unfair to call authors cruel or readers ‘sickos’ for seeking such media – the kind that does not appeal to everyone but that everyone seems to be drawn to. It is like wanting to ban horror because it is just mean to make people read about murders! (This, of course, is an exaggeration, but it gets the point across). Human beings are morbidly curious; the fact that books on terminal illnesses and the tragedies of war are bestsellers attests to this.
Much like in horror, humans take pleasure in tragedies – a twist that leaves those last pages with the ink running. But why? Aristotle, who wrote about this centuries ago, said something along these lines: the value we attribute to tragedies is tied to the pleasure we derive from them, and both of these are contingent on mimesis and catharsis.
Mimesis is a basic principle in the creation of art, understood as a representation of nature. ‘Art imitates life’ and so on. This is key when dealing with themes of trauma or grief, because it brings to light a painful aspect of life that most people have suffered through. Even in ancient times, people bonded over pain. Perhaps they had never watched a king get stabbed, but they understood a mother’s agonising cry. Pain is a universal language.
Catharsis, said Aristotle, is the purgation and/or purification of emotions through art. Literature that takes us on a journey where a character processes their trauma (without even arriving at a “healed” place) seeps into us, holds up a mirror and says, “this struck a chord; think about why”. It is also a way to deal with your experiences from a safe, distant space, with the reassurance that you can put the book down at any time. The emotional release that catharsis brings, be it through real tears or any other manifestation of the emotion, can be therapeutic for the reader. Even in the absence of a happy ending. Maybe, by the end of the book, the character doesn’t magically walk again. Maybe grandma really is gone. Maybe the depression is here to stay.
Yes, this is pessimistic. But there is a peculiar pocket of comfort in knowing this. It does not say, at the first sign of trouble, lie there to die! What it does say is: it’s okay to not be okay, to stack mistakes upon mistakes like they’re Jenga blocks. It is an uncomfortable truth for us to reckon with, especially if we are used to stories that end with a bow and a clear resolution. But the muddiness in these stories is drenched with realism and holds heaps of value, especially for those who can relate – those who do not often see their wounds represented.
Art has always been used as a medium for processing conflicting emotions that we perhaps tend to suppress in our daily lives. (Like ostensibly sobbing while watching Dumbo, but because you’re actually mourning your own relationship with your mother). And the on-page illustrations of these devastating stories make us feel understood. We are not a forlorn figure gazing into the horizon, feeling loss for the first time in history. People have been here before; there are footprints on this ground, fingerprints on this page. To understand this does not erase the pain that has been suffered; but it does, perhaps, help us in bearing it.
We need these stories for the cathartic journey they take us on, and the message they leave us with: that it is okay to be hurt, or to simply not know what lies ahead.
Lucía Pereira (Montevideo, Uruguay) studies English Literature and Culture in Spain, where she moved when she was five. There, her poems have been published in literary journals such as Página Salmón. She reads and writes because she craves to merge with another.