Catharsis

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

What would happen if we suddenly became deprived of a resource we have never been without?

It is a question that I have been asking myself since reading Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. Watching the slow decent into terror and chaos as the inevitability of darkness seeped in was particularly frightening to me because I can see some truth to Asimov’s portrayal of human response to crisis. Asimov smartly includes multiple characters to capture many of the likely responses to crisis, from Theremon’s paralyzing fear to Aton’s desperate religious fanaticism. It is mob mentality at its most extreme: could we destroy ourselves through our own uncontrollable fear?

Although it would be easy to say that we are not likely to experience anything like the situation on Lagash in our lifetime, it is actually more relevant than it first appears. How many third world countries lack access to clean water or food? How often do we hear stories of armed militias fighting over access to a well in Africa or gangs stealing and selectively distributing food meant to be for all hungry citizens? Perhaps to a lesser extent but even more relevant to Americans, how have industrialized nations responded to the threat of a world oil shortage? It is an uncomfortable thought that fear may perhaps be our most powerful emotion. At the very least, history demonstrates that it is our most constraining instinct.

To me, the true horror of Asimov’s work revealed itself in a part of the story that is probably easy to overlook in the wake of the impending doom Asimov describes. This is the part in which Sheerin reveals that the destruction of Lagash’s society by fire is cyclical, hinting that society destroyed itself in its own fear at least nine times. At least in terms of Western culture, development has always been viewed as linearly progressive. To discover that we find ourselves making the same mistakes over and over again with no way out of the cycle is, to me, even more disturbing than the thought of being permanently plunged in the darkness. Without the promise of improvement, what is the purpose of working towards progress?  Surely mankind is capable of change, right?

We had a discussion in class this week about the idea that just because a story unsettles us does not mean that it is effective. Thinking about the way that Nightfall created a sense of unease, however, I have to disagree. Catharsis may very well be the most important indicator of a good story, particularly one that makes us discomfited.  Uneasiness in stories, like in Nightfall, almost always makes people question their understanding of something. Although it is not pleasant to think about, Nightfall succeeded in making me think of depravation and need, sanity and madness, security and vulnerability, and what these mean for human nature.

-Libby

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