I asked my partner for guidance. “I don’t know what book to read next. What do you think?” She advised me to take a break from reading about Hitler, the Third Reich and the Holocaust. So I chose Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave, which examines the ethics of birth and suicide. At first, I thought this was indicative of an obsession with the macabre. But after some consideration, I reached the conclusion that it’s not.
I’ve read a fair amount about some gruesome episodes of human history, from an individual perspective—memoirs, biographies and the like—and from a cultural or societal viewpoint—histories, theoretical works, that sort of thing. Consequently, I’ve found myself disgusted with the capacity for cruelty inherent in all of us. I’ve experienced feelings of despair and been shaken to the core by my disillusionment regarding human nature and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world. But for every negative feeling, there’s been a positive. Yes, I’ve discovered that the worst times bring out the worst in us. But I’ve also realised that the reverse is true: the worst times bring out the best in us. Reading about the undisguised glee with which German officers sent concentration camp inmates to their death provokes horror within me. But reading about the individual instances of courage and collective acts of resistance in that Hell-on-Earth fills me with awe and wonder.
That’s why I revert to reading about the macabre. That’s why, in Nietzschian terms, I’m liable to voluntarily look into the abyss. Because as well as undermining my faith in the human animal, it also re-affirms it. It reveals to me the spectrum of action—from the bestial to the saintly—available to us all, and thus gives me reason to consider where I would fall on the spectrum in such nightmarish scenarios, and where I want to be on the spectrum in the comforts of the world I inhabit right now.