Violence in literature: When is enough, enough?
By Garalt Canton
My name is Garalt Canton, I am a violent man.
I feel able to say this to you because I know that you are violent too. You are. It’s in your nature. Every human being that has ever been born from Stalin to Saint Francis of Assisi, from Nefertiti to Lady GaGa is violent. This is fact. Irrespective of whether you embrace pacifism, veganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, masochism or any other philosophical or intellectual position you are inherently violent.
It is surprisingly easy for me to provoke your violence. I cut into you, I simply break your skin and you will bare your teeth without being able to control it, it’s a reflex action. It is a warning that you will bite. If I startle you, you will jump, boggle eyed, not knowing what your hands are doing (they are leaping to your defense). Your body has been given the basic tools of counter attack when in danger. Your violence is inherent; it is the gift of your ancestors.
Without violence there is no gain, no movement forward in the upward struggle against entropy. We did not become master of this planet by saying ‘Please’ to tigers. We never accepted our allotted place in the animal kingdom implied by our physical limitations. Our species hunted, maimed, slaughtered and ruthlessly extinguished our rivals over millions of years. For better or for worse, we are what we are now due to our violence.
We are so violent, we can afford to be peaceful.
What we have done to counteract this violence is to build around us is an imaginary safety fence made up of learned rules and agreed behaviours that we call ‘civilisation’. In this ‘civilised’ bubble we are able to create art, to devise new ideas, to build new mechanisms, to discover new pleasures for our senses to enjoy and to share with our fellow humans our experiences, our humour and, most exciting of all, our stories.
Civilisation makes our literature possible.
Without civilisation we are in a constant state of war, fear is our default emotion. Our children are not safe, our loved ones could be killed and maimed without warning. This ‘uncivilised’ state is pure terror for anyone. The Viking raids around the 9th and 10th centuries, the terror after the French Revolution and in our own lifetimes, the civil wars that descended into tribal annihilation in Yugoslavia, Liberia and in Iraq all serve to show us just how inherently violent we are.
If Vikings threatened your crying children and you had a fully loaded machine gun…well of course you would! “Bye-bye Balor, ya bollix!” BUDUDUDUDDUDUDDUDA!
How may we use our violence? When may we use our violence? What level provocation must we suffer to before we may lash out? How far may we go to redress our injury? What kind of victim may we select? When will our fury be abated or when will our conscience be outraged? – these questions are mere parameters.
When is enough, enough?
You already know. You just don’t want to bring yourself to that point unless you have to. Literature can bring you some of the way and then your body takes over. Your heart beats faster, your breathing shallows, you may sweat, get a crick in your neck, you may even experience a knot in your stomach.
These symptoms are the effect of your imagination on your physical state, literally the imagined story is provoking psychosomatic responses.
But is a book violent? No. It is we who are violent.
Can a book provoke violence? Yes. But it is we who commit violence.
Is it acceptable for a book to depict violence, to upset the reader and possibly even provoke a feeling of revulsion or horror? Of course it is! We do that to one another with speech why not with written language? The violence resides within the reader not the writer. That’s the point.
What about protecting children from violent stories such as happens in Saudi Arabia? I believe that violence in children’s stories is positive and necessary so that children get to develop their own sense of right and wrong and they can empathise with the victims in the story allowing their morals to go deeper than simply obeying the example of their parents or their society. Tough stories with tragic victims help to create responsible young adults that dare to care.
Books without illustration have an inbuilt age rating system in the fact that no carefree child wants to read War and Peace but an angsty teenager just might. This argument is true for written literature but comic books and graphic novels are a different subject again. Visual imagery can have a lasting effect on impressionable children but, having been raised an Irish Catholic, I know that no trashy gore fest comic comes close to the Old Testament for visceral brutality.
But the question is “When is enough, enough?”
I can only give my opinion and my opinion is this: When the story is no longer a story.
When it becomes a command from God. When it becomes the manipulation of propaganda. When it becomes a manifesto for hate. When it sets the reader against his or her fellows. When its purpose is not to entertain, inform or enlighten the reader but to shut their conscience down and isolate them from the fellowship of humanity. When it seeks to define and contain an entire body of people and limit them to that one vision. When literature pretends to be universal truth, when it seeks to become first reality and ultimately law then any amount of violence is already too much.
There is no story, fiction or memoir in the history of literature that has ever been able to do that.
Literature doesn’t kill people but the imposition of a fiction upon a people as law is the worst violence of all. This is true for religious stories, scientific theory, social theory, or any manifesto idea out there. We do not truly know all reality so limiting it to our personal or collective prejudices is doomed to failure and it dooms us.
So let’s stay violent because that’s who we are but don’t let’s pretend it’s the book’s fault.
About Garalt Canton:
After having worked in several different industries from I.T. to Mental Health, Garalt took stock of his life and made the leap of faith into the world of Hedonism. Together with his partner, he sold his home in Dublin’s north side and relocated to Carcassonne, in the Languedoc region of France. Five years of bohemian pursuits such as painting, alcoholism and avoiding the bills gave him a new perspective on his life. (Especially when the electricity, gas and water were cut off.)
Once he realised that the ex-pat lifestyle is best pursued by someone in his dotage with a lottery cheque in the bank he embarked on writing his debut novel “The Fifth Kingdom” – The initial manuscript is nearing completion and Garalt shall be querying agents, publishers and media developers in September 2011.
The Fifth Kingdom is the first novel in a twenty one novel series that charts our history from 800 years ago to 200 years into our future. It is an historical, philosophical, scientific, spiritual, mystery, war, romantic fiction written in the style of a Diabolical Book.
“Judging from his writing, Mr. Canton is an insidious lunatic.” Jacobo Belbo – Garamond Press.
Further information and beta reading enquiries to :