Why Am I Reading Apocalyptic Novels Now?

A man and his son trudge through the wasteland into which human civilization has devolved. Every night, they shiver together in hunger and cold and fear. If they encounter someone weaker than they are — an injured man, an abandoned child — they do not have the resources to help, and if they encounter someone stronger, violence is assured. The man lives for the child, and the child regularly expresses a desire for death.

I am describing the novel “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. The last time I can remember being hit so hard by a work of fiction was decades ago, reading “The Brothers Karamazov” while I had a high fever: I hallucinated the characters. I can still remember Ivan and Alyosha seeming to float in the space around my bed. This time, however, I’m not sick — yet — nor am I hallucinating.

Like many others, I have been finding my taste in books and movies turning in an apocalyptic direction. I also find myself much less able than usual to hold these made-up stories at a safe distance from myself. That father is me. That child is my 11-year-old son. Their plight penetrates past the “just fiction” shell, forcing me to ask, “Is this what the beginning of that looks like?” I feel panicked. I cannot fall asleep.

Why torture oneself with such books? Why use fiction to imaginatively aggravate our wounds, instead of to soothe them or, failing that, just let them be? One could raise the same question about nonfictional exercises of the imagination: Suppose I contemplate something I did wrong and consequently experience pangs of guilt about it. The philosopher Spinoza thought this kind of activity was a mistake: “Repentance is not a virtue, i.e. it does not arise from reason. Rather, he who repents what he did is twice miserable.”

This sounds crazier than it is. Immersed as we are in a culture of public demands for apology, we should be careful to understand that Spinoza is making a simple claim about psychological economics: There’s no reason to add an additional harm to whatever evils have already taken place. More suffering does not make the world a better place. The mental act of calling up emotions such as guilt and regret — and even simple sadness — is imaginative self-flagellation, and Spinoza urges us to avoid “pain which arises from a man’s contemplation of his own infirmity.”

Should one read apocalypse novels during apocalyptic times? Is there anything to be said for inflicting unnecessary emotional pain on oneself? I think there is.

We don’t consciously choose to feel pangs of guilt or waves of regret, in the way that we consciously choose what novel to read. Still, we can assimilate the two sorts of cases if we introduce a hypothetical: Imagine you are offered a pill that would make you immune to regretful or guilty thoughts. Would you choose take it? If your worry is that those thoughts are important for steering you away from future wrongdoing, let me assure you I’ve built that functionality into the pill: You won’t behave any worse for having taken it. You’ll just stop having negative feelings.

I can imagine circumstances under which things got bad enough that I would take the pill. Indeed, most of us have taken versions of this pill, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs or simple distraction. But we would not always and immediately take such a pill — which is to say, we would consciously, reflectively choose to hold on to some of our suffering, at least some of the time. And this is interesting. I think the “desirability” of negative emotions can shed light on why we read novels that induce panic and despair.

If I have something to feel guilty about, I want to feel guilty. If something frightening is happening, I want to be afraid of it. Which is to say: When things are bad, I want to suffer and would choose to suffer and even seek out suffering. Why? Because sometimes the only alternative to suffering is a kind of alienation or numbness that is, as a matter of fact, worse than feeling bad — even if it feels better than feeling bad.

It makes sense that with respect to the good things in our lives — the birth of a child, the wedding of a friend, the celebration of an achievement — we want to be there to experience them directly and to then re-experience them through imaginative memory. Knowing that one’s child has been born is no substitute for seeing and touching the child, and remembering the fact that the child was born is no substitute for revisiting the sensory details of just what it was like to hold him or her for the first time. We seek experiential access to what’s good — but we crave such access to the bad as well.

While we are quarantined, we want to be entertained, distracted, cheered up. And we should be grateful to those who help us with that; they will make the isolation, fear and uncertainty more bearable. But to the extent that our situation is unbearable, we also want to face that, to participate fully in what is happening to us. We use our imaginative grip on the bad to create an inner mirror of outer evils: It is only when the evils penetrate the theater of our mind that we can truly “see” them.

Pain that you can accept is almost not pain; pain that you cannot accept you call “suffering.” In “The Road,” the man and his son have, by the time we meet them, experienced so much loss and pain that they are inured to the deep sadness of their lives; they have so totally accepted the collapse of civilization that they seem, in some ways, removed from the tragedy that surrounds and suffuses them. But the reader has not been inured — she feels it, we could say, on their behalf. “The Road” is a participatory novel: The characters trudge, numb and alienated, through a wasteland, and we, the readers, take on the task of feeling their pain. The coronavirus crisis has equipped readers with especially good access to that unfelt pain: We are poised to panic over what has happened to the father and son because we fear it might happen to us. This fear is in the air all around us, and we use books and movies to bring it indoors, to breathe that suffering in as deeply as we can.

Why are we reading apocalypse fiction? Why are we watching apocalypse movies?

Because we don’t want to escape. We want to be here, now. Even if it hurts.

Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard) is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and the author of “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.” She writes a monthly column on public philosophy at The Point magazine.

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