It’s been an odd reading/viewing month for me. I rarely set out with a predetermined theme, but I often discover one as I go. While I understand that it’s unusual to discuss despair on Thanksgiving day, that was the accidental theme that presented itself over the past several weeks.
It started with watching a set of Kurosawa films (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ikiru, Rashomon). Then I read 1984 for the first time (and watched the movie), followed by re-reading a graphic novel called The Watchmen. In and around other things I watched a number of anime centered on post-apocalyptic events (Noein; Now and Then, Here and Now; Blassreiter) as well as a couple of Hollywood movies in the same genre (Legion, Pandorum, Brazil). I also sprinkled in a number of documentaries on the war in Vietnam, the war in Iraq, the biology of stress and emotional response, and historical religious figures (Martin Luther, Buddha).
Every single one of them explored dark topics using a variety of approaches. Kurosawa famously explores characters on the cusp of despair and how they respond (always with a decision to act constructively despite conditions).
Both 1984 and The Watchmen offer notoriously pessimistic views of both the desire and power of individuals to oppose evil in society. The various documentaries all dealt with directly confronting difficult issues in a specific social and political context.
The anime featured either discovered or created transcendent power wielded by sad/angry individuals who have lost hope and are intent on wiping out all of society to force fallen humanity to atone for its sins against life and hope—not to create a brighter future, but to simply put an end to everything and the suffering it represents.
As I tried to contextualize and understand the broad diversity of forms, structures, media, target audiences, and the fact that these pieces were spread across sixty years, I also noted a distinct shift in fundamental approach. The presumption of hope—for peace, for resolution, for redemption—became decreasingly evident as we approached pieces produced most recently.
The stories progressed from exploring the challenges of hopeful people in hopeless societies, to the difficulties of individuals struggling to retain a fragile hope (and succeeding) despite difficult circumstances, to the tragedy of losing hope. All of the pieces produced in the last five years (both anime and Hollywood films) featured a fundamental lack of hope that had turned to harsh judgment and violent retribution.
Just as interestingly, the settings and situations that underpinned that decreasing hope became more stylized and less realistic, moving toward an affected presentation that I’ve heard described as darkness-chic. In other words they moved from observable realism to contrived fable, with those created contexts being used to emphasize the loss and/or absence of hope.
You can argue that any one of these stories function as warning, and in each case there was something like a positive ending, or at least characters recognizing the pointlessness of those who had lost hope. But the total effect is one of wallowing in how bad everything is and how fundamentally powerless individuals are to change it. When that sentiment repeated across so many titles by so many authors in so many forms, the sum of it all starts to feel a lot like despair porn.
It’s one thing to expose the pathos and longing of those who see hope in others while struggling to find it for themselves (Kurosawa), but the vast majority of the other stories either blandly point out that hopelessness is bad without offering any concept of a path to find hope, or they simply leave hope out altogether. In exploring an unwanted loss of hope you still grant the fact of it if not its usefulness; in showing characters exploring means of expressing their hopelessness through retribution you deny both the presence and value of hope. One sees the loss of hope as a tragedy; the other celebrates the loss of hope and revels in the details of that loss.
Any one story is defensible; the weight of stories feels like porn to me. Wallowing. Justification for losing hope rather than an argument for retaining it.
I admit that as a purely subjective view, and it’s more than fair to point out that a subset of stories consumed in a single month does not fairly represent an overall trend. But this is something that I’ve passively noted over the past several decades (and that I metaphorized a decade ago as an antisocial virus nurtured by the biochemical by-products of despair).
As a guy who writes an awful lot of dark-ish fiction whose only ray of hope is when the character confronts the choice directly and honestly finds or chooses hope, I can appreciate the value of dark fiction to engage the near-hopeless in re-examining the question. I’ve tended to ride the trend line to the bottom, then show an uptick at the end as evidence of the reality of escape from that pit. But even I can’t quite pull it off–my stories are dark but rarely bleak; suffering is productive and ultimately leads to hope if not cheerfulness. The future retains evident potential to be better than the present.
I suppose that’s a zeitgeist thing–we are all powerless against powerful business or government or economic or social forces. We’re all too small to have any meaningful impact on the overall trend. Even as Mormons we believe that the apocalypse will happen first after the world has essentially fallen into irrecoverable sin, then the hope will arrive in power and glory to lay waste and punish the wicked. But we also believe that among the fallen there will be pockets of the righteous, and that those few will enact works of extraordinary righteousness and rise in joy to meet the redeemer.
That’s one of the inevitable results of loss of faith in the atonement–if there is no escape from the result of our sin, then the inevitable result must be a loss of hope. But as Mormons we know better. It’s part of what we can honestly bring to our fiction that others may not be able to. Arguably, that makes it our calling and our responsibility–to proclaim hope to a lost generation. Because heaven knows, I’m seeing plenty of hopelessness in fiction these days and a declining measure of hope in society at large.
But ours is a gospel of both peace and hope, and within a broad spectrum of types and forms and genres we can reimagine hope for those who seem to have forgotten how. We can be a reaching hand to those still seeking hope both in this life and in the life to come. Not a whitewash or a gloss-over, but a recognition of the fact of failure and the reality that we can still recover if only we choose to lay hold on the hope that stands before us.
For that hope inherent in the atonement and the gospel of peace I am truly grateful. And I hope we will choose to tell more stories of that hope that we have such powerful insight into.