Damascus. Sex, violence & empathy

Damascus, by Christos Tsiolkas

This isn’t a book review as such because, a) I only review books I love, and, b) it is full of gratuitous violence which I abhor. The gratuitous violence, however, is the point of this post. And on a more positive note, in the real world we have progressed from the days when such violence was accepted without heed. Time to move on with our books?

Damascus, by Christos Tsiolkas, is salaciously nasty. Set during the birth of Christianity, it revels in the horrors of the age. The book may be billed as “a work of soaring ambition and achievement, of immense power and epic scope” but I’m betting its appeal is largely for the very graphic sex and violence.  The publishers are pretty clear with their marketing quote:

They kill us, they crucify us, they throw us to beasts in the arena, they sew our lips together and watch us starve. They bugger children in front of their mothers and violate men in front of their wives. The temple priests flay us openly in the streets.

It’s read for the history, my arse. This is explicit torture for entertainment. It’s Game of Thrones with a veneer of respectability. You may as well say you watch porn for the interior decor. I’m not saying these events described didn’t happen or are not realistically portrayed. I’m sure events like these did happen, though I suspect they have been selectively chosen and enhanced for their shuddering impact. But I am disturbed with the recreating of grizzly horrors for profit in a book (or a movie, or a game), and I suggest those who enjoy reading, watching and gaming for the brutality have the same mentality as those who, back in the day, went to hangings and enjoyed crucifixions.

In the first few chapters I read (no, I didn’t finish it but yes, I know St Paul goes to Rome and it gets more hopeful), the thing that Tsiolkas does explain well is first century culture. The acceptance of one’s lot. The collective understanding that people were born slaves, or poor, or dammed, or female, and deserved the degradation that came with their inferiority. They were somehow less human. There was a great lack of empathy, no possibility of understanding the pain of the chained man or whipped boy or constantly raped girl. To a large extent, all oppression, hatred, and mans’ inhumanity to man is a result of a lack of empathy. In Tsiolkas, it is as if empathy had yet to be invented. Interestingly, the word ‘empathy’ was not coined for another 19 centuries.

Empathy is what sets us apart from the animals, along with opposable thumbs and some other tricks. There is some debate that the Neanderthals had the beginnings of empathy; the fact they may have buried their dead a possible example. Humans developed sympathy and compassion over millennia. True empathy, I’m guessing, came on the scene pretty late. It is certainly still developing. This is something that gives me hope.

“Violence has been in decline over long stretches of time”, says Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

Stephen Pinker’s evidence for the overall fall in violence is convincing (see link below). We’ve come a long way since the first century and violence is now in patches rather than universal. The decline in violence and rise in empathy form a neat negative correlation. I’d like to end by suggesting that if you read Tsuilkas’s story and found it entertaining, you might want to google: ways to improve your EQ. The human race is moving on. If you found the the violence unbearable, if it left you too sick to read on, congratulations. You are helping to build a more empathetic and less violent world. You highly evolved human, you.

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Author: cristinasandersblog

Novelist, trail runner, tramper, book reviewer and blogger.

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