The Bloodiest, Most Stomach-Turning Book You’ve Ever Read

“All of European literature springs from a fight,” says a Classics professor in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. He’s talking about Homer’s The Iliad, and what a nasty little story it is. A few lines from Book 4, during the first major battle scene between the Trojans and the Achians, offers a sanguine taste:

Then fate fell upon Diores, son of Amarynceus, for he was struck by a jagged stone near the ankle of his right leg. He that hurled it was Peirous, son of Imbrasus, captain of the Thracians, who had come from Aenus; the bones and both the tendons were crushed by the pitiless stone. He fell to the ground on his back, and in his death throes stretched out his hands towards his comrades. But Peirous, who had wounded him, sprang on him and thrust a spear into his belly, so that his bowels came gushing out upon the ground, and darkness veiled his eyes. As he was leaving the body, Thoas of Aetolia struck him in the chest near the nipple, and the point fixed itself in his lungs. Thoas came close up to him, pulled the spear out of his chest, and then drawing his sword, smote him in the middle of the belly so that he died.

Graphic sex and violence in literature became less common following the Christian conquest of Europe, but was revived with the likes of Chaucer, Rabelais, and Shakespeare. Here’s a famous scene from Titus Andronicus where a professed virgin begs her captor to kill her rather than allow her to be raped

LaviniaO, keep me from their worse than killing lust
And tumble me into some loathsome pit,
Where never man’s eye may behold my body:
Do this, and be a charitable murderer.

TamoraSo should I rob my sweet sons of their fee?
No, let them satisfy their lust on thee.

But even a play like Titus Andronicus, where poor Lavinia is not only raped but also has her tongue cut out and hands lopped off, doesn’t rise to the level of  graphic violence that literature would reach  following World War II. Even the Marquis de Sade himself cannot compare with a type of writing I would call “Boschian nightmare.”

In a Boschian nightmare, there are no good people. “Goodness” in fact, does not even exist, but is a sort of mask we wear. Rarely does a chapter not involve some sort of depravity. Here is a scene from Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the story of a nameless boy wandering Eastern Europe during World War II. In it, a plowboy has been making eyes at the miller’s wife during dinner:

With a single kick the miller got the woman out of his way. And with a rapid movement such as women use to gouge out the rotten spots while peeling potatoes, he plunged the spoon into one of the boy’s eyes and twisted it.

The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and rolled down the miller’s hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and shrieked, but the miller’s hold kept him pinned against the wall. Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boy’s cheek as if uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto the floor.

There is a scene like that every few pages. Reading it, I was reminded of my reaction to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which is a nonfiction history of the same era: “For hundreds of pages death is layered upon death, to the point that only an innate compulsion to bear witness to the inhumanity prevents you from skipping the ceaseless, murderous repetition.”

In a way, you might mistake it for pornography. After all, one purpose of literature is to entertain, so it is fair for some to believe Kosinski intended reading  The Painted Bird to be  an enjoyable experience. But who could enjoy this?

The cats rolled the eyes around, sniffed them, licked them, and passed them to one another gently with their padded paws… The miller…kicked the animals away and squashed the eyeballs with his heavy boots. Something popped under his thick sole. A marvelous mirror, which could reflect the whole world, was broken. There remained on the floor only a crushed bit of jelly.

One definition of pornography is content solely intended to arouse a strong physical response, repeated with minor variation.  Is that what we get in The Painted Bird–a relentless series of shocks, only in different positions?
What about a different Boschian nightmare, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian? This time we have another nameless boy who follows a gang of cowboys on missions to murder and scalp Indians. Here’s a few lines from one such encounter that doesn’t work out for the cowboys:

Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses… and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws…riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives…and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.

There are many other books from the past sixty years that feel like an invention of Hieronymus Bosch. Several are lauded as great literature such as William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and to a lesser extent–in terms of both critical praise and graphic excess–James Ellroy’s L.A. Trilogy. Most excessive of all, perhaps, is Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg–a book one reviewer called the “most shocking novel of the 20th century.”

Are any of these books “good reads?” Well, of course they are (though I can’t speak for Hogg). While pornography only arouses some atavistic urge, these books are efforts to strike at the heart of real human experience.  They are expressions of pain, of shame, of anger, of witness to horror and evil. The pleasure we take from them is a complicated one since–hopefully–we do find their content offensive.  Our pleasure comes from a growing sense of self in a dangerous world. In the end, that is one of the greatest gifts literature can offer, I suppose.

Having just finished The Painted Bird, I will admit I was not as shocked by it as I was by comparable scenes in Naked Lunch or Blood Meridian several years earlier. A critic of this kind of fiction would cite that as a great example of how the pervasive violence of our culture inures us to evil. I would disagree. Reading a scene of rape or genocide may lose its power to shock if you’ve read hundreds of them–but that is only due to the loss of unfamiliarity. Such horrors never stop shocking. Sadly, as in real life, they simply stop surprising.

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