by Johanna Sargeant
Why is it that we love reading about exploitation? Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha sit stoically on my bookshelf next to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Richard Overy’s The Dictators. For most of us, delving into these worlds of both the victim and the perpetrator is like reading any good fiction: It is escapism, it is voyeuristic, it gives us avenues through which to explore ourselves. Few of us would choose to read stories of the great battle to find a good soy latte in Switzerland or the joy of a toddler’s bedtime antics, when instead we could read about an exploited opium-addicted prostitute in the newly colonised New Zealand (the 2013 Booker Prize winner, Catton’s The Luminaries) or the lives of young women used solely for their reproductive purposes in a theocratic military dictatorship (Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Critics and philosophers throughout history, most notably Aristotle in his discussions of Greek tragedies, have attempted to explain the attraction we often feel to reading about another’s experience of suffering.
Aristotle, the foremost critic of tragedy, explored three modes of persuasion in his work On Rhetoric. He writes about the deliberate evocation of the emotions of pity and fear from an audience in his discussion of the concept of ‘Pathos’. Pity removes us from a character and allows us to merely act as observers, vicariously revelling in the horror of knowing their tragic fate before they themselves do. As the plot progresses, we are met with the realisation that the character is essentially human, with flaws and strengths like any of us, and we are filled with a sense of fear that we too may fall victim to a similar fate. Perhaps, like Oedipus, who deliberately gouged out his own eyes when met with the horror of self-realisation, we are also blind as to what will befall us. Reading or experiencing tragedy in this way acts as a kind of rehearsal for our own lives. According to Aristotle, it allows us “to understand the emotions—that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.” It gives us the opportunity to turn our eyes inwards and explore our own hidden limitations and resources, our own personal flaws and strengths. It is here that we feel a great purging of emotion—the ever-longed for ‘catharsis’—before we return to our own, hopefully more controllable, lives.
Reading literature from the perspective of the exploiter is both horrifying and utterly fascinating …
Morality in Greek tragedies of this era was never unclear; while the characters themselves may have struggled to see a clear right from wrong, the audience was never in doubt. As time progressed, readers and audiences began to crave a more murky morality. Literature that is focused solely on the moral experience, when being read today, can be essentially quite boring, for, as modern literary critic Northrop Frye states, “what tragedy gains in morality, it loses in cathartic power.” Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is the perfect example that is at its most compelling at the beginning, when exploring the psyche of a murderer. As the novel progresses, however, it turns to become entirely focused on what is considered ‘good’ and ‘Christian’ behaviour, and loses much of its gravitas. We all love to read about Raskolnikov much more when his morality was disturbed. It seems that for today’s audiences, the greatest and most compelling literature—where tales of human suffering are the most deeply affecting—are those with no clear lesson, and where we are left questioning our own innate sense of right and wrong.
It is exactly for this reason that novels such as Nabokov’s Lolita and Fowles’s The Collector remain so popular. Both, at the ultimate height of controversy during their time of publication, allowed readers to delve into the mind of a paedophile and a murderer, respectively. Reading literature from the perspective of the exploiter is both horrifying and utterly fascinating, as it exposes us to a psyche that we would never otherwise have an opportunity to explore. The most horrifying and, as such, the truly appalling thing about this kind of literature is that we find ourselves sympathising with the exploiter, even at times cheering for him. Instead of closing the book and breathing a sigh of relief that we are not the victims, we find our hearts racing at the thought that not all evil exposes its horns, and perhaps we all have some seed inside of us that for the most part remains dormant. Under the right circumstances, any of us has it within us to become an exploiter.
Holocaust literature is another avenue that encourages self reflection. Novels exploring this particular historical period remain some of the most popular books sold today, and readers still crave modern publications like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Historically, the prevalence of tragic literature rises during periods of extreme change from one dominant system of thought to another. In this way, we often observe tragic heroes as those who are ahead of their times, who are relatable and admirable, who rebel agains the systems of their time but fall prey to the social and political forces around them, as did any Holocaust victim. While they may suffer a downfall that convinces them their actions are meaningless, their life pointless, we observe their strengths, remember them as victims of only their circumstances, and reflect upon our own lives to celebrate our freedoms.We ask ourselves how we would cope when faced with such terror; we question our own resilience, our loyalties, our very humanity. Would we have submitted for the sake of survival? Would we have rebelled?
Holocaust literature not only asks us to sympathise with the exploited, however, but also asks us to examine ourselves.
What would it take for us, our friends, our families, our neighbours, to become evil? This is literature that allows us to imagine ourselves as both the exploiter and the exploited, as both the perpetrator and the victim. It is no wonder that these tales remain so compelling.
It is no secret that it is human nature to be fascinated by the lives of others. We are social creatures, governed by an individual sense of right and wrong, wanting to explore a life outside of our own from the haven of our armchairs. Whether it be through reading tabloid media or great Russian classics, we all revel in being a voyeur, in having a safe place wherein we can explore our own natures, question our own strengths and weaknesses, examine our own moral code. Stories that explore suffering and exploitation always have and will forever continue to grab at our hearts and minds.