Strength (Ss Afterword)

An excerpt from Ss: Six Short Stories

The initial ending for Barker featured strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree. But this fruit didn’t just hang from its neck; its hands were bound behind its back and from this binding it was hoisted into the air. To add to the depravity, the fruit was set aflame and roasted.

I revised it shortly after. It wasn’t because I had a problem with the violence. It was that the violence felt out of place and disproportional to the events that preceded it. The replacement, however, was limp and tame. A cop-out. I revised it again and ended up with a strange goose of an ending that I won’t describe here, except to say I felt it more satisfying.

With Barker released, I still found myself wondering about the nature of violence: its intensity, its frequency, its flavour, its effects, its positives and its negatives. It wasn’t a new wondering.

I’ve read Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle is a Grave. I’ve learned about the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is that life is suffering. I’ve read Ken Coates Anti-Natalism: Rejectionist Philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar. I’ve read a large portion of Rory Miller’s works—Meditations on Violence being my favourite. Since I was a boy, I’ve read hundreds of stories, all of which featured characters suffering through events in a world awash with pain and narrated in a way that further entangled the three together. Since I was a teenager, I’ve read masses of non-fiction and all, regardless of topic, contained the virus that is endemic to life; pain, suffering, violence.

To say that the concept of violence became an obsession would be an overstatement. It became something I found myself thinking about in times of ease and leisure, when no immediate concerns or obligations were jockeying for my attention. It also ended up being the theme of this short story collection.

After Sonya Mann nudged me into writing Stateless, I began to outline other stories. However, the stories I’d outlined swerved from fantasy to science fiction to realism. They featured a range of characters with no real unifying characteristics. I needed a theme, a thread, and I realised violence was it. The aim of this collection thus became the exploration of violence. Nothing so explicit as a taxonomy, but more the cultivation of a select few of its instances.

Stateless touches on the tug-of-war between here and there, between the known and the unknown, between a place that is your home and places that are capable of becoming it. Sever is about oppression, repression and release. Siluan hints at the violence inherent in humanity’s relationship with nature and the violence inherent in the growth, maintenance and death of the thing poets call love. Sufferer is the most overt bearer of the collection’s theme, being about the violence contained within existence as a whole. Shift is the opposite. It’s about the make-up of play and how its a pale imitation of oh-so-violent reality. Finally, Stay is about choice and constraints, about the pushes and pulls we can choose to accept, reject or redirect.

The reason this collection isn’t a taxonomy is because a taxonomy of violence, a true one, is impossible. The six stories contained within touch upon only a fragment of the possible types. Capturing them all? A dream. If you look close enough—hell, if you look even with the most disdainful, doubtful eyes—you’ll see that violence is all around. From the cosmic to the atomic, violence is the inseparable companion of reality. 

This puts us in a rather tight spot. Fortunately, we humans are designed, at a fundamental level, to give violence and to take it. Enter Rory Miller.

I remember him writing that giving violence is easier when the intended recipient is “othered”. We are hard-wired for in-group/out-group classification and it seems that violence meted out to an out-group doesn’t boomerang back and result in things like post-traumatic stress syndrome. Fortunately (but also unfortunately) a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before is expanding the boundaries of their in-group. This is a net-good, but it has consequences. 

Here’s one: if the preceding paragraph is anywhere near truth, then it seems a “good” life-strategy would be to deliberately cultivate the perception of belonging to a small in-group. Thus, when you give violence to others—as you inevitably will because that’s reality—there’s less chance of any negative emotional baggage or trauma accruing to your self. Note: I don’t condone such a strategy, however optimal it appears.

Taking violence is another issue. In one of his books, Miller says that violences happens hard, fast, close and with surprise. It’s a little and increasingly lesser-known fact that violence is more violent than we suspect. However, another little and increasingly lesser-known fact is that we’re more resilient to violence than we think, both mentally and physically. Says Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved:

“No one can know how long and what torments his soul can resist before crumpling or breaking. Every human being has reserves of strength whose measure he does not know; they may be large, small, or nonexistent, but the only means of assessing them is severe adversity. Even without invoking the extreme case of the Sonderkommandos [the inmates responsible for removing corpses from the gas chambers post annihilation], we survivors commonly find that when we talk about our experience our listeners say, ‘In your place, I wouldn’t have lasted a day.’ This statement has no precise meaning; you are never in someone else’s place. Each individual is an object so complex that it is useless to try to predict behaviour, especially in extreme situations; we cannot even predict our own behaviour.”

It is possible to interpret Levi’s statement with cynicism. He himself says that one’s “reserves of strengths” could be small, or non-existent. I don’t think so, however. 

No matter who we are, where we hail from, what we think, what we’ve done or how others perceive us, I like to believe that there’s a minimum “reserve of strength” within us all, and that that reserve is far from insignificant. 

The violence of reality may undeniable but so is our ability to tolerate it, if not transcend it; reality is an irresistible force but we are all immovable objects.