Earlier this year I summed up the perpetual utilitarian lament:
Despite nigh-inestimable progress, the world is pervaded by suffering. An unimaginable amount of suffering. Trying to comprehend it specifically and thoroughly makes me feel sick. It is staggering, the magnitude of pain.
At times the futility of ever fixing this breaks me. How Sisyphean it is, the prospect of searching interminably for new solutions to coordination problems! I lament that positive-sum possibilities can barely be glimpsed through a tangle of innumerable constraints.
The fact is... it's true. There is tremendous suffering, beyond my ability to convey and beyond the auspices of the word "fix." Nothing can be said, no conclusion can be reached, that will negate that. It is what it is.
Reality does not have a human value system. The most you can say about the association between the two is that human value systems are figments within reality, gesturing at its structure. Sometimes the gesture is 🙏, sometimes it's 🖕, and everything in between.
I'm not over it, and probably never will be. It's not that I'm inordinately empathetic or anything, but I share the typical concern for people's wellbeing. In particular, watching someone close to me Go Through Some Shit is gut-wrenching (again, as it is for most of us). And I know that it won't stop! "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Life is other things too, but it's definitely pain.
The Problem of Suffering seems like a category error, to borrow / repurpose a framing from @thesravaka. Suffering is. The Problem of Suffering supposes a fantasy in which it is not, but no clever philosophizing can instantiate that fantasy. We live in the existent world, for which suffering poses no grand problems — that fate belongs to its inhabitants. But whaddaya know, pain is indispensable to survival.
It's okay to grieve, I think — perhaps even unavoidable, or inadvisable to avoid. I don't know how I'd get through this year without befriending grief, let alone my whole life, and my experiences of both have been pretty good compared to what others have endured.
I mourn for my illusions — of control, of perfect knowledge... the latter in itself an illusion of control. The most cherished mirages I cry for repeatedly, since they sneak back into my mind to break my heart again. And again.
I mourn for my fears, for the awful possibility of dreaded outcomes. I mourn for the people I know who are dying, which is all of them, but some much quicker than others.
There's a lot to let go of, you know? A lot that I can't keep within my grasp. Nor can I pretend to be okay with this state of affairs. Sure, it's okay to not feel okay, but even if it weren't, would that change anything? I would still be appalled by the cruelty of life. I would still struggle with acceptance, despite the relative and objective ease of my circumstances. Likewise, I would still grieve.
For unnameable reasons I find it therapeutic to examine the facets of pain closely, specifically, and in depth. I want to know how bad it can be. Not firsthand, of course, and thus not with the visceral punch of having learned from experience. Regardless there is understanding to be gained from others' accounts. Would Elie Wiesel have written Night otherwise? (Look, I'm not above an occasional argument from authority.)
Sordid agony has always intrigued me — I was that kid reading about serial killers on Wikipedia in the library during high school. (Albert Fish and the torment of poor Junko Furuta are my picks for most awful. We're talking very seriously awful, so click with caution.) These days I scarcely have the stomach for extended revelry in prurient gore, a la de Sade's work or Samuel Delany's Hogg. But witness to profound hardship is available in other forms.
Lacking a deft resolution to this preamble, I'll just segue to the books that have helped me process [some of] my rage and frustration with, well... the Problem of Suffering. It may not be a problem for the universe, but it sure is a problem for me.
A few obvious titles were omitted, since flogging a dead horse doesn't comport with the spirit of the list — corpses can't feel any blows! Har har. Fine, I'll be straight with you, what I mean is that I considered recommending more Cormac McCarthy. The Color Purple would be a worthy inclusion. Etc. But I erred on the side of idiosyncrasy.
All of the following books are harrowing reads (in my opinion) and unlikely to cheer the soul. Steer clear if wallowing would be bad for you!
In order of how strongly I feel about the book being crucial documentation of life's brutality:
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
After his dugout suffers a direct hit from a German shell in the last days of the Great War, 20-year-old American infantryman Joe Bonham gradually comes to in a French hospital. As his thoughts become more lucid, he realises he has been left deaf, dumb and blind and that all four of his limbs have subsequently been amputated. His face, meanwhile, has been obliterated by the shell and what is left — "a red gash ... with mucus hanging from it" — is now covered by a mask to avoid distressing the nurses.
Despite his injuries, his mind still functions as well as ever, letting him think back to his childhood in small-town Colorado and allowing him to contemplate the full horror of his situation. Joe soon realises he is "the nearest thing to a dead man on Earth ... a dead man with a mind that could think".
A quote from the book: "Maybe nothing was real not even himself oh god and wouldn't that be wonderful." Imagine if Slaughterhouse-Five were markedly more grueling.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
A very strong contender for Best Book I Read in 2017. After the nuclear apocalypse, history devours itself like an ouroboros. Science becomes religion becomes science becomes religion. Human nature doesn't improve, but it still has its moments of transcendent goodness.
With a little more time and distance, one of the best books that I've read ever.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Although her story has all the components of formulaic dirty realism, there is never any redneck posturing, no luxuriating in colourful bad language or behaviour. When she has a man cause a family crisis by telling his wife 'I wouldn't touch you even if you took a bath in whiskey tonic and put a bag over your head', it's not to glorify or denigrate a 'good ol' boy' but simply to report what he said.
A quote from the book: "Family is family, but even love can't keep people from eating at each other." Ain't that the truth.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
I am not one to cry from reading, but I imagine many a reader would when reading of the despair of life with a young family during a famine and of what they witness. There is much more emotional engagement elsewhere in the story, whether it is the despair of poverty; the frustration of the inequities between rich and poor, men and women, workers and freeloaders; the fear of violence and disappointment in the character's choices. [...]
Wang has known nothing other than the hardworking, precarious, life of a peasant. The life within the House of Hwang is as alien to him as the life of a Westerner. He does not consider how different his life might have been if he had been born into privilege. Nor does he realise, since upward financial and social mobility is his dream, how, if he were to succeed, it would change the way he feels about his wife, the way he would raise his sons or the life he would choose to lead. The thought that his sons might grow up in a completely different environment to himself, with personalities, opportunities, ambitions and wants completely foreign to his own would baffle him.
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Against a landscape as sparse as the trees on the ridge just yonder, anonymous characters, the ferryman, the snake hunter, the beekeeper, the preacher, pursue an unyielding existence. Only a little more identified here are Culla Holme and Rinthy, his nineteen-year-old sister who has just had (his?) child in a cabin. A day or two later he tells her it has died, while going off with the tinker to leave the child elsewhere (where?). Rinthy as soon as she is strong enough goes on her long search to find the tinker and her child[.]
Here's a better review that unfortunately divulges nearly all of the plot details.
The House of God by Samuel Shem (because of the Slate Star Codex review)
The whole thing had a touch of magical realism, which turns out to be exactly the right genre for a story about medicine. Real medicine is absolutely magical realist. It's a series of bizarre occurrences just on the edge of plausibility happening to incredibly strange people for life-and-death stakes, day after day after day, all within the context of the weirdest and most byzantine bureaucracy known to humankind.
Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson
One line from the New York Times review says it all: "Ann grows up on a steady diet of broken promises and ice cream." Anywhere but Here pairs especially well with Bastard out of Carolina.
A quote from the book: "I knew when my mother turned and sighed in the night, I had radar for her. I always moved before she inched anywhere near me. I slept with a closed fist full of blankets and sheets. Our life together made me selfish."
Also in order of how strongly I feel about the book being crucial documentation of life's brutality:
Two Arms and a Head by Clayton Atreus
In the author's own words:
What do I think of this book? I have no affection for it. I find it odious and unattractive and am very saddened that I wrote it. But it is what I had to say. It took on a life of its own and when I now step back and look at what I created I regard it with distaste. If I could, I would put all of these horrible thoughts in a box, seal it forever, then go out and live life. I would run in the sun, enjoy my freedom, and revel in myself. But that’s the point. I cannot go out and live life because this is not life. So instead I speak to you from the place I now occupy, between life and death.
If you're religious (as I am), just power through the New Atheist spiel near the beginning. Keep reading and you'll understand. This book changed my life, and you may recognize one of its early passages from "Thriverism."
Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne (again because of Scott Alexander's review)
[T]he Comanches fit the classic pattern of hunter-gatherer civilizations of simultaneously being really mean to people outside the tribe while showing deep and heartfelt kindness to everyone within. We know this because sometimes if there were very young children, and the Comanches were feeling a bit low on headcount, they would capture the children and adopt them as full Comanches (after torture-killing the parents, of course) and some of these children would later grow up to write English-language books about their experience. But this practice definitely led to some awkward situations, and the book centers around one of them: the last great chief of the Comanches, Quanah, was half-white, the son of a Comanche chief and a Texan woman who had been captured when she was nine years old.
The Slaughter by Ethan Gutmann
The numbers are of course difficult to prove, but Mr. Gutmann proposes a reasonable estimate would seem to be in excess of 65,000 prisoners of conscience — minority Uyghur activists, Tibetan monks, and predominantly followers of Falun Gong (simply put, an exercise regime combined with meditation) — were slaughtered to order during more than a decade of "harvesting" from the late 1990s that continues to this day.
Without question, this is "indisputably a crime against all humanity" and though it might not be on a par with the numbers of the Holocaust, it definitely is reminiscent of a certain Dr. Mengele.
It was 2006 when reports began to surface of systematic harvesting of organs, but Mr. Gutmann kept an open mind as he began his research. He establishes early in the book that he "anchors [his] work in witness testimony" and indeed has interviewed "over 100 witnesses in depth, across four continents." The conclusions he has drawn from this research encapsulate not only the horrific scale, but also the dehumanizing details of the supermarket sweep that is China's transplant business.
Given the geopolitical controversy attached to this subject, I should note that I also sought out critical reviews / takedowns of this book, and didn't find them compelling. Do your own research; always read skeptically.
Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller
A passage from the book:
Maybe this is a metaphor, maybe it is a model: Things are what they are. Violence is what it is. You are you, no more and no less — but humans can't leave simple things alone. One of the ways we complicate things is by telling stories, especially stories about ourselves. This story we tell ourselves is our identity. The essence of every good story is conflict. So our identity, the central character of this story that we tell ourselves, is based largely on how we deal with conflict. If there has been little conflict in the life, the character, our identity, is mostly fictional. I present this as a warning. You are what you are, not what you think you are. Violence is what it is, not necessarily what you have been told.
His post is not exactly a review, but I appreciated Matthew Sweet's thoughts on Miller.
Why They Kill by Richard Rhodes
Unlike most criminologists, [Lonnie] Athens grew up intimately acquainted with interpersonal mayhem, both within his family and in the high-crime environment of Richmond, Va. As a Berkeley graduate student, he embarked on the then-radical tactic of interviewing prisoners about their violent crimes and eventually formulated a provocative yet persuasive theory that such actors undergo a four-stage "violentization" process, in which their own childhood brutalization and "horrification" (witnessing violence against others) is augmented by "violence coaching," until the individual instinctually accepts violence as a ready solution to personal conflict. Although Athens published two books on his findings, his academic career foundered for many years. Rhodes thus applies his considerable narrative authority both toward detailed explication of Athens’s work and as advocacy. He accomplishes these goals in many ways, ranging from his poignant re-creation of Athens's blasted childhood, to his application of Athens's template to notorious criminals like Lee Harvey Oswald (and Mike Tyson!), and more generally to such phenomena as wartime atrocities and the extreme violence of the medieval era.
This book is marred by its author's "blank slate" naivete regarding personal heredity, but as Rhodes takes pains to point out, not all people with violent parentage themselves turn out violent, and the opposite can happen as well. Lonnie Athens' explanations are grounded in meticulous ethnography. Granted it might be better to simply read Athens directly; I don't know for sure.
That's the list! Enjoy? Ugh, you know what I mean.
If you found this post useful, join the mailing list! Thank you for your time and attention.
Header artwork: Perversity by Odilon Redon, 1891.