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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, August 19, 2005

entry arrow8:26 PM | Violence as Literary Catharsis

I can't help but post this exchange from LiveJournal, where I keep my more incendiary and erotic posts locked and hidden from the rest of the blogging world. Hehehe. This is an exchange between La Aquarius and me, on violence as denouement in literary works.

LA AQUARIUS: George Saunders' story in the August 1st New Yorker, while offering a humorous, skillfully dialogued exposition with touches of White Noise, falls apart at the end. It unravels into an easy denouement involving several acts of violence, that the opening gives little hint of (for comparison, see Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which also climaxes in violence, but prepares the reader for it with sliding landscapes of graveyards, dark remarks, etc.). A writer's tendency to rely on violence as an easy means of tying off narratives strands resembles the criminal's tendency to rely on violence as an easy out. Wrapping a story without the use of broad, life-and-death swaths of action is much more difficult.

But violence can be very beautiful: when it approaches the cathartic, it transcends the gruesome, and becomes divine. I felt this for sure when I read Adam Haslett's "The Beginnings of Grief," where the violent fight scene between two boys verged on the erotic, even love and acceptance. I know that's paradoxical, but so is most of great literature. I've always felt that literature is a violent art, only subtly so. The epiphany, or the catharsis, at the end of a story is a necessary wrenching; sometimes the violence there is overt, sometimes implied, sometimes even hidden, but it is there. Note Oedipus Rex with its ending of bloodied eyes. Note the violence of Shakespeare and the Bible. Note most of mythology. I have yet to read a story that moved me without some violence in its story. Even something for children, like the gut-wrenching The Giving Tree, is violent. The tree gave everything, even its life, for the love of a boy. Yay. Then again, maybe this is just personal ars poetica: my stories almost always end violently. And the title of my first collection? Beautiful Accidents. Hehehe.

LA AQUARIUS: Thanks for your insightful and intelligent comments. I've got to check out that Haslett story. You bring up a lot of other compelling examples as well. And that's just the status quo I'm questioning: why is it that we require violence for closure in narratives? What you're saying, it seems, is that in addition to the writer relying heavily on violence, the reader relies on it as well. My contention would be that maybe we've just been conditioned to expect it? I'm thinking of an analogy in music: up until Debussy, all Western music relied on the same tonal devices for resolution: basically, a V chord to a I chord. Audiences had already been conditioned to expect such a resolution for hundreds of years! But when Debussy started writing modal music (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, etc.), he basically ushered in 20th Century music by creating a new form that didn't require the old kind of catharsis. It seemed aimless and vague to many of his contemporaries (just like the "impressionistic" work of his corollaries in the visual arts), but now strikes us (at least me) as lush and expressive.

ME: Oh my. NOW you've tickled the greatest of my fancy: social conditioning! But, of course! You may be right! Ey, can I use this thing about tonal devices for a short story I'm working on?

What do you think?

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