Immersive Darkness / I Challenge You
As the joy of the New Year settled, allow me to assist you – to hell with resolutions. None of us needs a promise. What we need is a challenge. So, to start the last year of this worrisome decade, let’s begin light. Three stories: two short tales of personal struggle and an epos. I don’t promise that you’ll like them, but I can guarantee you that they will help you grow.
by VILIUS PETKAUSKAS
illustrations AUSTE DZIKARAITE
The idea is fairly simple, dear reader. I will present you with three stories and all you need to do after completing this article is to read about them online. As simple as that. Reading one story yourself would qualify as an overachievement. Reading all of them would qualify you insane.
The stories are listed according to their length. All of them are dark and difficult to read, but bear with me, friend. Ghastly tales are the best and worst of humankind are found. As one fancy German, Friedrich Hegel, said – world history is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are empty pages in it.
Who: Viktor Emil Frankl, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, the survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.
Where: Nazi concentration camp.
Why: because history provides us, the future of the dead ones, with macabre gifts. Out of tens of millions of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, at least one had to be a talented psychiatrist. In 1942 this 38-year-old man met his horrible fate, one too common back then, a train to a Jewish ghetto and later - a concentration camp.
In his tale of life inside hell, Mr Frankl asks one question: how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner? And that is scary, because by answering this question he allows an everyday Joe, you and me, to see camps the way we would have seen it. Not the way Steven Spielberg imagined it, not in black or white, no close-ups and wide-angle shots. Just a gruesome routine in hell.
It comes without saying that there is a lot of death in Mr Frankl’s story, but through gruesome challenges presented upon the poor souls of the inmates, the underlying beauty of the human soul is revealed. As seen through eyes of people who lost all privilege to grace. What the story tells us, is the importance of the human mind over a feeble bag of meat that we think we are. We are told that the simple act of admitting some point in time being the end, lighting up the last cigarette, meant that in less than two days, the body would stop going on.
The story is not meant to make you feel shitty for not getting up 15 minutes earlier to do cardio. Quite the contrary. Mr Frankl tells us that even the worst is possible to live through, as long as you create meaning. It was not lost family and friends that broke people, it was a loss of meaning.
The story: Man's Search for Meaning (although the original title Nevertheless Say 'Yes' to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp is way more metal if you ask me), 1946.
Who: Arkady Babchenko, Russian journalist, a soldier in the First and the Second Chechen wars.
Where: Chechen Republic, Russian Federation.
Why: because if you are at least as half as idiot as I am, you could easily mistake Mr Babchenko for a prankster. You see, back in late spring of 2018, media reported the dude was assassinated on his way home in Kiev (Ukraine). Later it turned out it was all a covert operation to trick Russians who wanted him dead. Read here.
I was amazed to learn a few months later that not only Mr Prankster is a war journalist; he did some serious warring himself. He volunteered to go tame a rouge part of Russia at the age of 18 and was put through physical and mental hell.
When you read about soldiers being beaten senselessly by day and being raped by night, you think of a captured soldier. Well, as Mr Babchenko explicitly details – not in the wild Russia of the 90’s. All of the OZ types of crazy shit went down before he went to fight Chechens. In the boot camp, waiting for deployment.
The goal of this tale, however, is not to provoke pity. Far from it. It’s a tale of 18-year olds conscripted to war, one that was poorly organized and corrupt to levels that are hard to comprehend. He talks about medals being given to company chefs, lieutenants openly beating generals, Guantanamo-type-of-torture of a fellow Russian soldier and a lot more.
Yet after all that, he did go back for a second time. The story reveals the bloody beauty of man, reduced to killing yet able to gaze at the night sky and enjoy a single blinking star. The same man, however, will later see a friend of his in the street of Grozny (capital of Chechnya), his throat slit with no one able to help.
It is as ugly as it is fascinating to read about school boys catching spiders, calling each other names at one moment and killing people the other. This tale allows one to appreciate how truly thin is the veneer of civilization, under which we hide the true barbarity pre-programmed in each and everyone of us.
The story: One Soldier's War In Chechnya, 2006.
Who: Timothy D. Snyder, a kick-ass historian.
Where: Eastern Europe.
Why: because making a story out if history requires some mad skills. And skill is something Mr Snyder does not lack. He takes us 70 years back and tries to explain what the fuck has happened to people in Europe to allow them the level of barbarity that was seen here at the time.
If you’re a Jew, German, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Estonian, Ukrainian, Belarussian or Russian this is a particularly good story to read. You see, the Holocaust is different if you’re American, for example. Here, we sometimes joke that one thing every town in my country has in common, is a mass grave. Look here.
Being a Lithuanian, I can help but wonder why did Hitler’s plan of mass extermination work in my country (over 90% of Lithuanian Jews perished during the Holocaust). Why is there a pit with as many bodies as the whole population of Reykjavik less than 20 kilometres away from where I live?
As Mr Snyder argues, something was very different in Eastern Europe, compared to the West at the time. For example, there were roughly as much Jews in Estonia, as in Denmark back in 1939. Both countries were occupied by the Nazis and 95% of Estonian Jews died, whereas the same number of Danish Jews survived.
From here on, through the medium of history, Mr Snyder tells us that unlike Denmark, Estonia (and other Eastern European countries) were crippled by a dual occupation. First came the Soviets, then came the Nazis. Countries that experienced the first occupation met the Nazis in complete disarray – with local bureaucracy destroyed. As Mr Snyder puts it “In the zone of double darkness, where Nazi creativity met Soviet precision, the black hole was found”. Please, share this to your pseudo-anarchist friend.
It really doesn’t matter what you agree with here – Mr Snyder’s greatest strength is his ability to speak 11 European languages, including Russian, German and Polish. Languages that are crucial for analysing primary sources as he masterfully does. The account is simply epic, from start to finish – a tale of how terrible the humanity can get, given the right circumstances and right incentives (it doesn’t hurt that Mr Snyder manages to truly make a story out of history).
Nevertheless, the story is not meant to shock you. You already know how bad the Nazis were. What Mr Snyder tells to us by unmasking the mechanisms that allowed barbarity to creep back into once enlightened Europe is that we are wrong to think this cannot happen again. To think that darkness randomly springs up is the epitome of naivety.
The story: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, 2015.
That’s it. Read about them – prove me wrong. Go crazy. Who knows, maybe a month of darkness will bring light. Don’t forget, however, that darker thoughts come to visit us at the extremes of life. When it wasn’t our day, our week, our month or even our year.
After we get truly knocked down, and can’t help but ask – what is this all for. Within these tales, we might find that the same question has been asked so many times by so many different peoples, that the true solace lies in recognizing that this is the most human we can get as no other animal has pondered the same.