Epic Bloodshed

People who spend much of their time talking about literature seem endlessly amazed by the fact that we are drawn to fiction in the first place. One can of course posit many reasons for our need to indulge in literature. For instance, we find advice in parables, diversion in romances, and something to aspire to in epic poetry. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to read fiction, but there are others that are morally questionable. In fact, they might even be wrong, the sort of reasons that lead to mental strife and psychological scarring. When I was younger, I found out early that literature could be dangerous and that this sense of danger could be used for play, like the matches in grandpa’s woodshed.

There was more sex, violence, incest, mutilation, cruelty, torture, and psychological mindfuckery in the library than television could ever provide. And people around me seemed quite pleased that I had taken up reading as a hobby. In fact, it was more than an idle pastime. It was an addiction, it was flirting with danger. The biggest discrepancy I found in Greco-Roman mythology. These stories were rightly lauded by everybody as some of the greatest things ever produced by mankind, and they were (and still are) absolutely terrific tales of death, bestiality, love, war, honor, and everything else in between. It just seemed hilarious to me that my minders probably would have wasted no time taking my books away had they read these blood-drenched opuses themselves.

Reading has become a job for me now, but the same thrill is still there. There are lots of more ethical viewpoints that clutter up the childlike joy of reading about heads being bashed in and gods having their way with mortals; and, of course, many technical things of interest make these stories anything but simple. But the delight is there, however troubling it may be. Take, for instance, this little battlefield snippet from John Dryden‘s magnificent translation of the Aeneid (Book 11):

He seems to follow, and she seems to fly.
But in a narrower Ring she makes the Race;
And then he flies, and she pursues the Chase.
Gath’ring at length on her deluded Foe,
She swings her Axe, and rises to the Blow:
Full on the helm behind, with such a sway
The Weapon falls, the riven Steel gives way:
He groans, he roars, he sues in vain for Grace;
Brains, mingled with his Blood, besmear his Face.

I was more into the Greek stuff, but it’s pretty much the same. Sexuality, violence, power, all mingled into these exciting packets of madness one could get from the library for free. Unlike television and the movies, this was genuinely scary. Not because of the graphic violence and sex. It was the act of letting someone into your head and letting them screw around with the bits inside that was truly frightening. And this is really the point where the danger of literature becomes palpable. It is supposed to make you think: Am I allowed to enjoy this? Is it as safe as it seems, or will it turn me into a monster or a madman? What about people who will never read this? Can they even have an inkling about what they are missing? Are they better off unscarred? Will I eventually lose my mind and will it matter anymore when I do? That’s heavy stuff when you’re twelve.

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