Fear ran deep in 2016. No matter what cause you identify with or who you are, no matter where you’re from or what you spend your time doing, many walked away somewhat shaken. Be it due to geopolitical concerns, massacres that caused a seemingly endless stream of death around the world from January to December, riots, the deaths of beloved artists or personal struggles, almost everyone seems to agree that there was an extra weight on our shoulders last year. This may be the result of some cognitive bias or 2016 could indeed have been a worse year than those that came before. Proving such a thing would hardly be an impossible task, but the statistics don’t dictate what people believe to be true. Our society decided that 2016 was a miserable year full of tragedy on a near eschatological level. No one cares that the postwar period has ushered in an era of declining violent crime or that in the last 40 years the rate of rape has gone down 80%. The fact of the matter is that our social reality has convinced people the state of our world is declining. This list would be important regardless of what year it was, but it’s especially pertinent now, when so many believe the sky is falling. The following is a list of beautifully tragic novels. Novels that pull no punches in the business of portraying both beauty and horror. They are novels that aim to instill in the reader a sense of humility and thankfulness for the fact that things might appear grim, we are very lucky to be where we are in history.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front is a book about one of the darkest times the human race has experienced. It follows the psychological state of a young soldier during the latter years of World War 1. Author Erich Maria Remarque writes “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book discusses with unflinching honesty the trauma that soldiers experience during and after war. Protagonist Paul Baumer finds himself unable to relate to his friends and family when he returns home on leave, their concerns have become foreign to him. Likewise, his experiences are incoherent to them. He is so alienated that he’s glad to return to the war front, a place where he finds no rest or peace and is constantly confronted with death and suffering. The primary function and context of All Quiet on the Western Front in 2017 is as a reminder of how privileged we are today. The physical and mental struggle faced by the young men who fought in World War 1 makes our societal worries pale in comparison. By no means do I claim that we have nothing to fear, but I do believe that it’s important to maintain an awareness of how far humanity has come in just 100 years, especially in times when many are convinced that there is a regression occurring. All Quiet on the Western Front is a beautifully written humbling experience for any reader.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
While All Quiet on the Western Front examines humans as victims of violence and bloodshed, Blood Meridian takes the perspective of the violent. The book is set in the 1850s and follows the exploits of the Glanton Gang, a group of men who travel the Texas-Mexico border murdering Native Americans, collecting money from local settlers for each scalp they produce. Their activities slowly descend into absolute madness as the gang leave a trail of death wherever they go. Structurally, the novel is largely abstract, but the language is overpowering and dense. Blood Meridian is an amoral journey through hell. The characters, who commit some of the most violent acts ever put to paper, lack a moral compass. The reader is horrified by the constant violence, but the characters within the book never question their murderous actions. They unanimously acknowledge killing and war as an unavoidable fact of life. In fact, the characters don’t question much at all. They’re often nothing more than executioners who cross the desert, destroy a village and cross the desert again ad infinitum. A dry concept in theory, but again, the language is powerful. Cormac McCarthy writes with strength and gravitas, creating a desolate, haunting landscape and rather than using characters actions and thoughts to convey concepts he does so with his descriptions of the cold, hardened people and the alien landscape that was the untamed southwest. The events in the book are propelled by Judge Holden, a physically gigantic man educated in the classics who appears suddenly before the Glanton Gang in the middle of the desert with no explanation for his presence there. He is evil personified in a world where evil runs wild. The Judge is the self proclaimed “suzerian of the earth”, and he means it. He is an enigmatic figure who exists loudly, hiding nothing from the other characters. Yet he remains shrouded in mystery because his motive and origin is incomprehensible to his fellow scalpers. The Judge gives the novel a larger than life, almost mythological atmosphere. Blood Meridian remains a contentious novel to this day. Some readers call it gratuitously violent, meandering trash, some call it a biblical metaphor, and yet more consider the book one of the greatest American novels ever written. But what I find most important about Blood Meridian is its function as a reminder of the evil humanity is capable of. The book is important in todays society because we so often lose track of the darkest capabilities of humanity. Blood Meridian shines a light on the worst things we’re capable of as a species, and it uncovers a story both repulsive and fascinating.
1984 by George Orwell
I have no doubt that most of the people who read this article will have read 1984 already, but given recent events, the book is worth revisiting. It presents a society that I argue indirectly supports the idea of metamodernism by showing us the power of unhindered postmodernism. Reality and truth in 1984 have been made entirely subjective. The novel is set in a country dictated by the “English Socialism” political system. English Socialism introduces all sorts of terrifying concepts, but the one that’s most relevant to todays society is the lack of truth. The English Socialism party controls all media and as such constantly alter historical facts to serve their agenda. They use this power to maintain control over the citizens of their country who, having surrendered all rights to the government, are powerless to help themselves. The book was written in 1948, almost 70 years ago and it remains as relevant a commentary on totalitarianism as it ever was though its specific context has changed. It was written immediately following World War 2 and aimed at revealing the corruption of the Stalinist regime. Today it’s most valuable as a critique of postmodern apathy. When looked at through that lens, it’s entirely possible to see the book as the result of a society that deconstructed truth by examining its moral foundations, finding them faulty and replacing them with nothing. 1984 is a shocking look at a point that our society could easily reach if unchecked.
The books on this list help us realize what we may be doing wrong, but they don’t offer solutions for the problems. Thankfully, their messages are so powerful that they don’t need to. One who begins reading them while aware of what they have to offer will walk away convinced that postmodern apathy is a corrupting frame of thought. Postmodernity has deconstructed honesty, replacing it with apathy and irony. As metamodernists, we must fight to resurrect universal truths that postmodern moral relativism has challenged such as the sanctity of human life, the importance of personal liberty and the existence of good and evil. Regardless of whether or not these concepts are human constructs, any argument against their importance is flimsy at best. In today’s culture of universal relativism, books that take promote such values are essential to the progression of metamodernism.