I like to think I'm reasonably open minded, even to the point where I'm prepared to listen to people who say I'm not! As one feature of my alleged open-mindedness I have a fairly omnivorous approach to reading, so much so that I swing between discipline and dilettantism, between focusing on deep study or acting like a tourist with a camera more interested in capturing than enjoying.
Still. I do find it hard to have much patience with that genre of literature now established in the book markets, "Tragic Lives". It isn't only that I am impatient with those who tell their story for self-therapy, or skeptical with writers who tell all to encourage others, or cyncial about those whose drastic revelations aim to inspire those who think they've had it rough but just wait till you read this. I've thought all these thoughts, and by and large avoid the genre. But there's a more fundamental point I want to suggest as the reason for my ambivalence to the tragic lives industry.
I think there is an enormous difference between stories told as an exhibition of human suffering, abuse, tragic loss, many of which are expoitative, of the writer or of the reader, and another kind of writing which explores the tragic through the lens of human sorrow. This second kind of literature can be illustrated by looking at several monumental achievements in writing, which set a standard of integrity and human authenticity so high that conveyor belts of imitiations are simply multiplied mediocrity. And I avoid entirely that other genre of the celebrity tells all about their briefly flickering moments of fame.
The Diary of Ann Frank, Etty; A Diary, and the two vilumes of Elie Wiesel's Memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, and But the Sea is Never Full; these are another genre entirely, often referred to as Holocaust Literature. Such writing would never be described by the authors as 'tragic lives'. The shimmering characteristics of books like these include human hopefulness, moral courage, literary integrity and a declaration of self-worth and human value that has transmuted self-pity into a passionate commitment to the other.
Etty Hillesum's account of 1941-43 is as tragic as they come, though not as she sees it. Here is her take on that inner ache we call sorrow - these are words of humane wisdom and emotional precision:
"Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve mostof the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge - for which new sorrows will be born for others - then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply. And if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God."