Joel Magarey on the Prism of Darkness

People don’t much like fear, suffering and death, whether their own or that of others. Spectator columnist Allan Massie has typified this discomfort, arguing that personal experiences of suffering should not be put into memoirs but fictionalised, in part because that way ‘it’s less embarrassing’. This kind of denial is natural enough, but it excludes much more than at first appears.

Because fear, suffering, death and I hung out together for much of my twenties, and because my first book is partly about them, I’ve thought a lot about their meanings and how we write what I’ll collectively term human darkness. As Exposure: a Journey describes, for twelve years I was prey to the regular savaging of pathological fear that is obsessive compulsive disorder. In my mid-twenties, having thrown myself out into an indefinite journey across the planet, I also glimpsed death more often than I’d have liked, as I set fire to my tent in a Bolivian desert, nearly drowned in a half-frozen Alaskan river - you know how it is.

It’s true that none of that was precisely fun. I’m not necessarily recommending people try it. But it’s difficult to overstate how much suffering, fear and the prospect of death offer us.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gifts of darkness are reflected in the way we write darkness (which reflects how we process it). First, you gain understanding of it; then you gain distance; and then you put it through a kind of darkness prism, refracting it so that it can’t overwhelm. You find the comedy in part of it, the beauty and meaning in another part, and the rest you make as terrifying and moving as you can.

This process of refraction embodies the reality that our experiences of suffering and value, of darkness and light, are not only inseparable but mutually constitutive. Significant suffering often deepens, for instance, the capacity for compassion. Prolonged exposure to pathological fear – as exposure therapy has shown – takes sufferers through to calm. But this interrelatedness is perhaps most obvious in the case of life itself, limited and defined as it is by death.

It’s because life has been stolen from death that we value the things and people we love as much as we do: one day, we know, they must all be returned. This is perhaps the richest gifts of both darkness and of the literature that embodies it: to make us see and feel, if even for a moment, how achingly, how heartbreakingly precious and fragile all we love is, and how it will too soon be taken away.

Joel Magarey presented an extended version of this post at the Emerging Writers' Festival. Read the full transcript (pdf)

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