Narrative nightmare | Daily News

Narrative nightmare

It’s one phenomenon that inspires the men of letters.

Terrorism was born along with human civilization. But it did not come to the fore until some time. Long before Sri Lanka’s 4/21, the world was shaken by 9/11 of the Unites States of America. With the rise of terrorist activities, certain groups strangely develop the mother wit to generate an aesthetic narrative. Literary men are one such group.

Less than two weeks before the infamous 9/11 took place, Jonathan Franzen published his third novel. Named ‘The Corrections’, it hit the bookshelves on September 1, 2001. The first two sentences were bizarrely prophetic:

“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.”

These opening sentences revived with life as the scary aircrafts entered the sacred precincts America’s finance and politics. Franzen’s work reached the limelight as it was documented as a historical work of pre-9/11 literature.

Then emerged the next question, as usual: what would follow this?

In Sri Lankan context, the three-decade war provided breeding grounds for the wordsmiths. However, it was subject to much controversy. As most authors had no firsthand experience of the warring grounds, their works came to be questioned. On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright known for anti-war literary stance, raised the dilemmatic condition. The soldiers on the warfront are skilled at their job. But can they necessarily generate literary masterpieces? The literary men are at the advantage of imagination and second-hand experience. They can listen to the soldiers and birth the narrative as if they experienced it. Shaw’s ideology aside, there could be a rare case of a warfront soldier equipped with creative genius too.

But the question continues to be asked. Sri Lankan literature based on terrorism reached the international shores mostly thanks to the diaspora authors. The diaspora writers do not even have a second-hand experience. They do not live in Sri Lanka, let alone terrorism-hit areas.

The soda pop patriotic rhetoric in the weeks and months after 9/11 has already dominated the Sri Lankan culture. And it will soon gain grounds in the local literature. The first phase is to have the traumatic experiences recounted in media. The media business has enough tales and stories to share with the general public. The general public of course includes the literary men, who will already have their imagination running riot for another aesthetic work.

The subsequent fears of another attack are trauma piled on trauma.

As author Karen Thompson remarks fear is a kind of unintentional storytelling that we’re all born knowing how to do. Walker adds: “Our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: what will happen next … How we choose to read our fears can have a profound affect on our lives.”

So what do people fear most? Literature directs us to many fears. The fear is an emotion universally felt since the inception of human civilization. Remember, terrorism did not spring on the spur of some moment. It bred in parallel with the human civilization. Whether instilling fear into literary works is wholesome or unwholesome is a question with no proper answer. The universality of fear demands literary attention, whatsoever its outcome maybe.

Whether by murder, negligence or a set of circumstances beyond our control, the fear of causing the death of someone we love is unfathomable. It’s a stock feature of numerous spy and crime dramas, where we tend to brush it off since the hero protagonist is always a go-getter. Numerous operas including Phantom of the Opera use this theme. The operas, in fact, have to reach for fear.

The fear psychosis has a significant element in classical literature as well. Some classic examples are Patroclus (dying for Achilles in Homer’s The Iliad), Othello (killing Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello), Thomas Hardy (, Jude the Obscure “Done because we are too menny”) and DH Lawrence’s Women in Love (Gerald choosing to die rather than kill Gudrun).

Another wordsmith who feasted on fear is Alfred Hitchcock mostly known for films such as ‘Psycho’. Hitchcok wrote to the Good Housekeeping magazine in ‘Enjoyment of Fear’. He made a dissection between the feelings and moods of ‘terror’ and ‘suspense’ by making use of vivid illustrations.

“Fear in the cinema is my special field, and I have, perhaps dogmatically, but I think with good cause, split cinematic fear into two broad categories – terror and suspense.”

There is more to what happened in April 21 than a mere catastrophe. The victims who survived may need serious counseling or any other psychological solace. The question is whether the literary works or any other aesthetic medium can be one source of psychological comfort if the creative artistes attend to terror in its rawest form. 


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