Literature and Violence III: How Is Violence Successfully Employed in Fiction?

“We need this art of violence to wrench us out of our screen-centered malaise and force us to see the real human violence that surrounds us.”
— Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, Stay, Illusion!

On December 7, 2012 Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old Indian nurse living in London, was found hanging in her apartment. The suicide received international media attention because Saldanha had, three days prior, been pranked by an Australian radio show duo posing as Queen Elizabeth II into transferring their call to the nurse treating Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, who was in the hospital for morning sickness. In her suicide note Saldanha, she blamed the radio stunt for her death.

People die on the news all the time, but this story left a particular mark on me. What made it more “real” than much of the other horrors that fill the pages and screen each day? And what does it tell me about myself that I felt a stronger emotional reaction to learning about the death of this Indian nurse than I did to all the thousands who had died in, for instance, the Syrian civil war that was raging?

Thinking back, I think the reason it struck my gut was that in most of the scenarios in which people on the news die, that news is the first time we’ve heard of them. They appear to us only as victims. Whereas if we know someone and then they’re taken from us, we fell the loss of all the emotional investment we’ve put into them. Sartre has a famous example: going to a café to meet a friend who turns out not to be there sucks a lot more than showing up not expecting anyone and not seeing any friends. Without the build-up of emotional attachment, there’s not as much pain of loss. Syrians only enter into our consciousness when they are the subject of fighting, and so there’s nothing out of the ordinary about them dying. We get accustomed to it.

While it’s not like I already knew Saldnha when I found out about her suicide, I was invested in her in a way, because I had heard about the story of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. And so her story was a continuation of Kate’s — it was an unexpected twist in an ongoing narrative. Celebrities aren’t real and the rules about things like privacy and being real people aren’t supposed to apply to them. They exist merely for our entertainment; similarly, the radio program was designed for our entertainment, to cover up our boredom. And so suddenly, when these unreal realms suddenly had a real impact, it was a shock. Saldanha’s suicide retched me out of fictional realm of celebrity and entertainment and back into “real life.” What was revealed by her death was the unreality of the other realms, the incongruence of her situation (immigrant seeking to provide for her family through nursing) and that of us (prosperous Western consumers something to distract us in the grocery line).

Now, we know that such inequality exists all the time: the shoes we use for recreational running were probably built by preteens in sweatshops, the Olympic stadiums we will ogle come August will have cost far more lives than we would have wished to build, and so forth. But these stories don’t shock us (me) as much as Saldanha’s story, I think, perhaps because they weren’t revealed so unexpectedly, or connected so directly.

These thoughts led me to try to explore how we can reestablish emotional connection with violence (if that’s even the right goal?). And if media and journalism isn’t doing the job (perhaps because it’s its job), then maybe fiction is a way that can be achieved. So how can one present horror in a responsible way?

Let’s tackle this question by beginning with obviously poor ways violence is employed in fictional works and then trying to march our way into what seems like more productive territory. Let’s commence — following the suggestion of Tanner Fliss — with the medium of video games. I played a lot of Halo II growing up, and the fact that I had little idea of the plot of the Halo games didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of them. The plot was never the point. The primary purpose of violence in a first-person-shooter game is simply to entertain the person consuming the game by allowing them to kill. The thing that defines the genre (first-person shooter) is the act of shooting; you’re asked to kill before you’re asked to think about what you’re killing for. The other components of the game are window-dressing on the act of violence. This is true of many other types of videos games; the “strategy” in a real-time strategy game is how to kill most efficiently, and the “role” you play in a role-playing game is usually that of a warrior. Take away the violence, and most games would lose their audiences. Violence is needed for the entertainment. In Baudelaire’s phrase, it’s “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” I’ve only seen one episode of Game of Thrones, but the buzz I’ve gotten from others seems to suggest a similar employment: characters are “killed off” (by Martin/the TV producers, not by other characters) simply because they can be, and because they know it will be shocking and talked about on social media. The plot without the murder (and the sex) would be boring. In the Star Wars saga, probably the least “exciting” or flashy of the light saber duels is the first one between Obi Wan and Vader, and indeed A New Hope is the installment that has the least amount of fighting in it. In, the violence there is necessary to tell the story, as opposed to in the prequels, where the story is there simply to showcase the special-effects-enhanced violence (and launch the violent joys and video games, of which I was an avid consumer).

Of course, in none of these works is anyone actually dying. But why do we feel the need to chose to spend our time getting our entertainment in this form? Why do you need to inflict (fictional) suffering in order to have fun? Why is someone making money or a career or fame off of someone else’s (fictional) suffering?

Beyond any ethical problems such violence prompts, that creators feel the need to manufacture violence for the sake of something less real that it (entertainment) represents a lack of imagination. We know humans respond easily to violence, so it’s an easy way to transfix eyeballs without thinking hard about character or plot. One can get away with it merely because other do. Genres exist that structure experience such that certain things — like fighting — are normal. Video games generally don’t give one a choice whether or not to kill. So ingrained in the assumptions of games is violence that to do a “pacifist run” (beat a game without using lethal force) becomes a challenge taken up by advanced gamers who’ve grown bored of the normal way of playing the game. Generally, though, those doing pacifist runs probably are motivated more by the wish to test their skill than by the wish to make a moral gesture.

Several games do forefront the choice of whether or not to commit violence. In my favorite video game, Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic, you get to make decisions that allow you to choose the path of the light side or the dark side. Sometimes, you can kill people and take their money, or let them go and miss the chance to make money, but at least you get to feel good about yourself for taking the moral high ground. Undertale, a very popular indie game of 2015, employs a similar mechanic.

But still, there’s not too much connection between the decisions foisted upon the player of a light-side vs. dark-side choose-your-own-adventure game and the moral decisions one makes in real life. They may ask the person qua character to act morally or immorally, but they don’t demand much of the player interacting with their actual surroundings. Most of the moral decisions we make today aren’t about choosing the right or wrong action (i.e. should I kill this person or not, should I swipe in when I’m riding the light rail even if no one will check me) than they do with not paying attention. We don’t necessarily need to make different choices between two options but to be made aware of the choice we’re already or not thoughtlessly making.

One of my friends once made a funny modification to a Mario Brothers level. Playing the first level, I walked along, saw a brick, bonked it with my head, and a mushroom appeared. I picked up the mushroom and grew into a bigger version of Mario. But when I walked to the right and the screen scrolled to the next scenery, it was revealed that the passage I had to walk through was only high enough to walk through if I were a normal-sized Mario. And so I was forced to wait around for a while until I got small again in order to proceed. It’s a funny little premise because it makes you aware of a game mechanic that you’d never questioned before: in Mario Bros, when you see a power-up, you should pick it up. There’s no violence in this example, but I think it illustrates a good principle of fictionalizing violence — it should force us to see the ways that we are already acting to aide and abet violence, show us the consequences of what we already think, rather than present us with choices over “moral dilemmas” in the way they may be presented in, say, a philosophy class.

One way of doing this is to question the structure of a particular genre. As I’ve written before, viewers of Hamlet may become annoyed that Hamlet takes so long to kill Claudius. In doing so, they are buying in to the assumptions of a revenge tragedy: that revenge is just. What Hamlet does is remind us that — oh yeah that’s right — murder and revenge aren’t something we should be unreflexively supporting. Even more sharp is Shakespeare’s use of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The audience finds themselves laughing at the way characters joke at the Puritan steward’s expense. But when the other characters’ jokes turn into outright torture, we are made to question whether we should have ever been laughing at him in the first place. Why did we need to get our entertainment at his expense? This harkens back to the Indian nurse example — why do we need to get our kicks pranking innocent people in the first place?

The Hamlet and Twelfth Night examples implicate the viewer indirectly — they cause them to questions why they were expecting or okay with violence being committed against characters — but the viewer isn’t guilty of any real harm. They simply aren’t being proper judges of violence perpetrated by other characters. The viewers are already paying attention, just not in the right way. But this too doesn’t really reflect the way violence presents itself in the world of the West in the 21st century. Again, our problem is that we are not paying attention to the right things. We have a problem paying sustained attention to what is going on. So what can be done?

The best example I can think of of a good way of presenting violence comes from the novel 2666 by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. It begins as a literary detective story: the first 200-or-so pages are about four European literary critics searching for a reclusive German author named Benno von Archimboldi. Eventually, they trace his whereabouts to the town of Santa Teresa in the Sonora Desert near the Mexican-American border. After the critics fail to find him there, the narration suddenly switches to narrate the life of a Chilean philosophy professor who works at the University of Santa Teresa, and is followed by a section on an American journalist who flies to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. Finally, we get the famous “The Part About the Crimes,” which chronicles the murders of 112 women of Santa Teresa and the police’s futile attempts to solve the crimes. Each death is narrated in a forensic fashion:

On November 16 the body of another woman was found on the back lot of the Kusai maquiladora, in Colonia San Bartolomé. According to the initial examination, the victim was between eighteen and twenty-two and the cause of death, according to the forensic report, was asphyxiation due to strangulation. She was completely naked and her clothes were found five yards away, hidden in the bushes. Actually, not all of her clothes were found, just a pair of black leggings and red panties. Two days later, she was identified by her parents as Rosario Marquina, nineteen, who disappeared on November 12 while she was out dancing at Salon Montana on Avenida Carranza, not far from Colonia Veracruz, where they lived. It just so happened that both the victim and her parents worked at the Kusai maquiladora. According to the medical examiners the victim was raped several times before she died.

Another example:

The next month, in May, a dead woman was found in a dump between Colonia Las Flores and the General Sepú industrial park. In the complex stood the buildings of four maquiladoras where household appliances were assembled. The electric towers that supplied power to the maquiladoras were new and painted silver. Next to them, amid some low hills, were the roofs of shacks that had been built a little before the arrival of the maquiladoras, stretching all the way to the train tracks and across, along the edge of Colonial La Preciada. … In the dump where the dead woman was found, the trash of the slum dwellers piled up along with the waste of the maquiladoras. The call informing the authorities of the discovery of the dead woman came from the manager of one of the plants, Multizone-West, a subsidiary of a multinational that manufactured TVs. The policeman who came to get her found three executives from the maquiladora waiting for them at the dump. Two were Mexican and the other was American. One of the Mexicans said they hoped the body would be removed as soon as possible. One of the policemen asked where the body was, while his partner called an ambulance. The three executives accompanied the policeman into the dump. The four of them held their noses, but when the American stopped holding his nose the Mexicans followed his example. The dead woman had dark skin and straight black hair past her shoulders. She was wearing a black sweatshirt and shorts … The dead woman spent that night in a refrigerated compartment in the Santa Teresa hospital and the next day one of the medical examiner’s assistants performed the autopsy. She had been strangled. She had been raped. Vaginally and anally, noted the medical examiner’s assistant. And she was five-months pregnant.

This goes on for some 300 pages. You get roped into the book because of an interesting literary mystery and end up confronted with something very different — a horrific murder mystery. And what gives the section a lot of power is that it’s based off of the real-life feminide that has taken place in Ciudad Juarez since 1993. The book forces us to contend with our own preference for reading the fake literary detective story than the story of real murders. One character remarks “no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” The choice Bolaño presents to the reader is whether they will read through the whole section or “get bored” of the repetition of violence. It is a dare. Imagine watching the opening-discovering-the-body scene of every episode of Law and Order back-to-back, but without any detectives and lawyers to provide the intriguing context and solve the case. In Law and Order, you get the body and then have the story reconstructed for you. Here, though, we get the context first — depressing, corrupt, hopeless Santa Teresa — and then the context spits out bodies, one by one. Whereas in real life, the violence comes in small, manageable doses, here we are overwhelmed by its scale, and when present on this scale without justice we made ashamed of the voyeurism we usually experience when watching crime shows. The novel challenges the reader not just by forcing us to reflect on our practices of consuming violence, but also — because the town is a border town named after a real-life town in Texas — by challenging us by drawing a contrast between the circumstances of those in the U.S. and those just a few miles away. It forces us to see that we — who would rather be reading about a literary detective story — are part of the same world as they are. And what makes it effective more than many treatments of violence is that it doesn’t let you know in advance what’s coming. The violence isn’t prepackaged. Rather than being an escape artist — i.e. George R. R. Martin — Bolaño’s book returns us with new horror back into our own world.

Now, for most of the violence we’ve been considering here is human violence. People murdering, coercing, raping, other people. But there’s another form of violence — let’s call it cosmic violence, for lack of a better term — that would exist even if human being were perfectly moral. This is the violence inflicted by the fact that all of us will die. And it seems like writing about the anguish derived from that fact requires a different approach, but we’ll save that discussion for another occasion.

Thanks for reading. Hope this was somewhat helpful, and let me know if you have any thoughts/corrections/etc.

— jacob