5 Books to Help You Gaze Into the Abyss

“Death on a Toilet,” Francis Bacon, 1973.

“The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work, but it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Most of the reading lists you’ll find on this website and elsewhere recommend books to “increase,” “expand,” “grow,” “develop,” or “elevate” various things about yourself. All these vertical metaphors speak of a pervasive insistence on optimism. Every book, it seems, is a self help books, and the purpose of reading is to make the reader happy. But is that really why generations have picked up Madame Bovary, Hamlet, or, for God’s sake, the Oedipus Cycle? Great literature has as much to show us about the dark side of life as the sunny side, if not more, and so here I have compiled five books that serve it up in exceptionally pungent, concentrated form. As for those who would prefer to keep on the sunny side, let the words of Melville suffice: “The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth.”

On the Genealogy of Morals — Nietzsche

Best to start with the master abyss-gazer himself. In this, Nietzsche’s most systematic work, the philosopher analyzes the psychology and history of our most basic attitudes about good, evil, justice, and the like. He comes up with some fairly disturbing results. Nietzsche concludes that Christian morality, with its concern for the downtrodden, is premised not on love of the weak but hatred of the strong. Along the way he shows the connection between our ideals of justice and ancient debtor/creditor relationships — that is, people cutting off bits of their bodies as payment for debts. The book forces us to consider whether our moral disgust at abuses of power is really an attempt to assuage our own wounded, unfulfilled desire for power. Whether or not one wants to go all the way with Nietzsche on his conclusions the book poses a challenge that any person seriously trying to be “moral” must face.

Justine — Marquis de Sade

When Justine first hit the press it so shocked French society that Napoleon ordered its author be thrown into a sanatorium. Today Sade’s novel has lost none of its power to shock. Much like Nietzsche, Sade is out to attack the foundations of Christian morality, but from a totally different angle. Sade takes his protagonist, Justine, an embodiment of Christian virtue, and places her in the worst circumstances he can think of, thereby forcing the reader to ask whether it wouldn’t be better for everyone if Justine gave up her virtuous ways. The story oscillates between long speeches which voice Sade’s own bizarre system of morality and a bludgeoning sequence of Sade’s infamously violent literary pornography. The power of Sade rests in the fact that our culture has never developed a means of integrating or neutralizing him, and so the reader enters into his world alone, with only his or her wits to wield against the grand Marquis.

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness — Daniel Paul Schreber

Daniel Paul Schreber was the definition of a “model citizen”: a respected and highly accomplished jurist and a family man, conventional in outlook and aspect. Then, into his forties, he was stricken with severe psychosis. The product is Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. In the book Schreber reports on his experiences from the other side with uncanny lucidity. He presents the reader with an entire cosmology based around nerves: God is an infinite bundle of nerves, souls are detached, free-floating nerves, souls communicate through a secret “nerve language.” At the center of this cosmology is a psychosexual drama about God and Schreber’s psychiatrist conspiring to turn Schreber into a woman. Schreber’s delusions have an eerie logic to them that is reminiscent of dreams and early childhood. The book is a terrifying testament to the power of the unconscious, but also a demonstration of the power of language to create clarity in the midst of absolute chaos.

A Short History of Decay — Emil Cioran

We all have our nihilistic moments — or so we think. The nihilism of Emil Cioran makes ours seem puny by comparison. A Short History of Decay is a series of loosely connected aphorisms about the collapse of empires, the death of God, the loss of innocence, etc. His vision of the world is so bleak that it may leave the reader wondering why he doesn’t just off himself, to which Cioran answers, “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” On the one hand, A Brief History of Decay can be oddly comforting, since it shows the reader just how far off is the rock bottom that Cioran represents. On the other hand, it is chilling, since it shows just what it would mean to give up all hope.

Civilization and Its Discontents — Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud’s summation of the human condition is that we all desire to sexually possess our mothers and kill our fathers, but that we repress this desire out of fear that our fathers will castrate us. It is through this lense that Freud analyzes society in Civilization and its Discontents. Unsurprisingly, the book looks at mass slaughter, oppression, and alienation not as aberrations but as inevitabilities, even foundations, of civilization. For Freud, civilization is a grand compromise, wherein human beings give up the full enjoyment of their rapacious faculties in exchange for relative peace. As with most of Freud’s writings, the argumentation is meandering and experimental. In one chapter Freud catalogues all the various strategies people can adopt in the pursuit of happiness and why they are all generally bound to fail. In another he speculates over the emergence of religion out of infantile sexuality. Those who have not read Freud are quick to dismiss him, which is no surprise to those who have read him.

If you liked these books you may also want to check out the life cycle of parasitic wasps, or atrocities committed by the CIA, or the heat death of the universe. There are so many little things we can do every day to make the abyss a bigger part of our lives. Happy gazing!

New York based freelance writer. Cultural and political commentary.