The Pessimism of George RR Martin and the Inadequacy of Game of Thrones

“Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.” — Leon Eisenberg

“All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality.” — Elias Canetti

“[A pessimist is] a man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.” — George Bernard Shaw

Note: I haven’t read the books. If you feel this disqualifies me from responding to the show, it’s probably best that you stop reading now. You will be missed.

Game of Thrones is the Human Centipede of fantasy epics in the 21st century. Both stories revel in the deplorable wretchedness of humans at their worst, without any viable mention of compassion, empathy, or conscience. Both stories work primarily to shock and revolt audiences, exploiting our emotions rather than digging into the deep soil of humanity.

There’s no question about the skill of Monsieur Martin (and the show’s writers) in creating complex characters, effective dialogue, and epic story arcs. My complaint is not with his skill with the tools of fiction writing; my complaint is with how he uses these tools.

There’s also no question about — and therefore hopefully no reason for me to discuss — the horrible brutality of GoT. We’re introduced to sympathetic characters and hopeful situations, only to watch them mutilated without mercy. Much has been written about the veneer of Schadenfreude that permeates Martin’s work, and many of his fans delight in watching newcomers cringe and squirm as good butchered by evil.

Responding to this phenomenon, Martin is quite clear. When asked by Entertainment Weekly if his books present a cynical view of human nature, he said:

I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture?

A fair question, and I wish neither to argue to problem of evil from scratch, nor demand a theistic narrative paradigm. But Martin’s worldview as depicted in GoT is unrelentingly negative, and it is pessimistic. It pretends that compassion and empathy are statistically insignificant freaks of nature.

But this is not a full and fair accounting of reality, and I am tired of seeing hideous atrocities presented as the only “real” things, with the vast array of other human interaction derided as “unrealistic”.

To wit: Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He worked with the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. He clearly believed that there was a pathology in carpet-bombing thatched huts in Vietnam, and that he could do some good in refusing to fight.

So where are the conscientious objectors in Westeros? Why are there no scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil? I’m not calling for simplistic Pollyanna happiness, nor an idiotic deus ex machina to stop the wicked machinations of the Lannisters. But blood and suffering are the only “reality” we’re given. (A few tiny moments of romantic or motherly tenderness are inevitably bookmarked by elongated sequences of torture, rape, and murder.)

At the risk of repeating myself: Those horrible atrocities are not the full and fair reality of our world.

You cannot tell the story of the Santa Cruz massacre without mentioning Amy Goodman. You cannot tell the story of Black September without mentioning Marie Colvin. You cannot tell the story of Rwanda without mentioning Paul Rusesabagina. You cannot tell the story of the My Lai massacre without mentioning Hugh Thompson, Jr. And so on.

I’m not done with Game of Thrones, but I’m sick of its facile emotional exploitation. If a storyteller asks me to give up 30 hours of my life, I think I deserve a little more than crude manipulation and superficial reminders of how nasty people can be.

What You Got Ain’t Nothin New

I can’t stop thinking about the horror and sadness in this story about three kids who killed a guy because they “were bored and didn’t have anything to do”. Obviously my heart goes out to his family, and I simply cannot imagine the grief and pain they’re going through.

And I also feel horrible for the kids who did this terrible thing, and what their families must be going through. They more or less ended their own lives on that day as well. As Wackle says in Rudy Rucker’s novel Spaceland, “Killing kills the killer.” (Of course their lives were probably pretty horrible before that fateful moment.)

It’s tempting to think about all of this as a post-modern phenomenon, something totally new and unique to our decrepit age. But I’m pretty certain that it’s not. There’s an important scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in which Bell and his Uncle Ellis discuss when Bell’s father was killed in a savage and horrible way. Ellis says:

What you got ain’t nothin new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.

(The conversation is a bit different in the novel, and contains an important story about Bell’s actions in the war.)

I’m also reminded of this comment made by the Chicago writer Nelson Algren, in an interview from 1963:

I think the trouble with American literature is it doesn’t know who it is. [...] American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, “Isn’t anybody on my side?” It’s also the phrase I used that was once used in a court of a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”

More recently I think American literature is also the fifteen-year-old who, after he had stabbed somebody, said, ‘Put me in the electric chair — my mother can watch me burn.’

Even more recently, American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, two killings in a boat, in a ship off Miami, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. He had no vindictiveness toward those two people he killed. He said they were pretty good about it. They didn’t know, they had no idea, that he was going to come up with a knife. He had, in fact, a little bit of admiration for their coolness.

One of them, finding himself stabbed, said, “Why?” He wanted to know. He said, “I can’t tell them why.” But I know he’s been trying to get out of it since he’s six years old. This is an honors student, you understand, this is a bright boy from a respectable home. He never remembers a time when he wasn’t fully convinced that death was better than life. And now he was very contented, his only worry being that he might not get the electric chair. He’s afraid of that. That’s the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live. I think that’s American literature.

American literature is The King and Duke selling Jim out in Huck Finn. It’s Cholly doing horrible things to his daughter in The Bluest Eye. It’s Bob Ewell doing horrible things to his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Lenny killing things in Of Mice and Men. It’s the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.

I want to turn away from this sadness and horror, but I can’t. And I guess it’s a good thing. As Franz Kafka supposedly said:

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.

Now I’m going to go do something for someone else, because that’s usually the best way to deal with this sort of thing.

This is just to say

A little something I made today. True story!

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