From The New York Times:
A man and his son trudge through the wasteland into which human civilization has devolved. Every night, they shiver together in hunger and cold and fear. If they encounter someone weaker than they are — an injured man, an abandoned child — they do not have the resources to help, and if they encounter someone stronger, violence is assured. The man lives for the child, and the child regularly expresses a desire for death.
I am describing the novel “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. The last time I can remember being hit so hard by a work of fiction was decades ago, reading “The Brothers Karamazov” while I had a high fever: I hallucinated the characters. I can still remember Ivan and Alyosha seeming to float in the space around my bed. This time, however, I’m not sick — yet — nor am I hallucinating.
Like many others, I have been finding my taste in books and movies turning in an apocalyptic direction. I also find myself much less able than usual to hold these made-up stories at a safe distance from myself. That father is me. That child is my 11-year-old son. Their plight penetrates past the “just fiction” shell, forcing me to ask, “Is this what the beginning of that looks like?” I feel panicked. I cannot fall asleep.
Why torture oneself with such books? Why use fiction to imaginatively aggravate our wounds, instead of to soothe them or, failing that, just let them be? One could raise the same question about nonfictional exercises of the imagination: Suppose I contemplate something I did wrong and consequently experience pangs of guilt about it. The philosopher Spinoza thought this kind of activity was a mistake: “Repentance is not a virtue, i.e. it does not arise from reason. Rather, he who repents what he did is twice miserable.”
This sounds crazier than it is. Immersed as we are in a culture of public demands for apology, we should be careful to understand that Spinoza is making a simple claim about psychological economics: There’s no reason to add an additional harm to whatever evils have already taken place. More suffering does not make the world a better place. The mental act of calling up emotions such as guilt and regret — and even simple sadness — is imaginative self-flagellation, and Spinoza urges us to avoid “pain which arises from a man’s contemplation of his own infirmity.”
Should one read apocalypse novels during apocalyptic times? Is there anything to be said for inflicting unnecessary emotional pain on oneself? I think there is.
Link to the rest at The New York Times
PG is reading a post-apocalyptic novel, Ready Player One, right now. (Yes, he realizes he is behind the RPO curve by several years.) He has also started, but not finished, a couple of others in the same genre.
Insensitive lug that he is, PG has not felt any pain from/while reading these books. He finds them helpful to getting his mind around a great many things that people around the world are experiencing, thinking and feeling at the moment.