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Stephen Crane, the Underground Man, and Annihilation: Literature’s Obsession with Self-Destruction

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

by Julia Peavey

Storytellers are the translators of human truths. They scrape the insides of their worlds with the sharpest tools that language has to offer, landing within the spaces that echo with universal familiarity. They collect layers of grime beneath their fingernails until they hit the sediment of origins, where granules become recognizable to the touch and discovery at once sinks beneath a well-worn door mat. They follow the cartographer that is empathy to strike upon the same deposits: love and loss, betrayal and revenge, war and change, death and life.

And yet, perhaps none of these reservoirs are as paradoxically stretched between story, storyteller, and truth as self-destruction. Is it odd that this is where the dust settles, that this is where the pins stick? Is it odd that our own penchant for conflict and irrepressible decomposition so quickly leads from destruction itself to destruction of self?

Like many concepts, self-destruction pervaded literature long before psychology was born. Even then it accompanied one of Freud’s most widely disputed ideas in the theory of Thanatos, or death drives. And so in understanding this concept - its inherent nature, its many proposed justifications - it’s best to turn back to the storytellers. A poet, a novelist, a screenwriter. Each has their own considerations, their own conclusions, their own portrayal of the same inherently shared obsession of an idea.

First, the poet.

Two Stanzas. Ten Lines. A poem that has unsettled generations with its dark simplicity, its guileless exposure of fascination and satisfaction in the most morbid of places. Such defines the nature of self-destruction. Such reflects literature’s long and complicated journey to define it.

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”

“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it

“Because it is bitter,

“And because it is my heart.”

– Stephen Crane (1895)

“In the Desert,” the third piece of collection The Black Riders and Other Lines, is perhaps Stephen Crane’s most famous poem. Known for novels including The Red Badge of Courage and short stories including The Open Boat, Crane was an early American naturalist, distinguished by his detailed realism and vivid descriptions. In this poem, however, he demonstrates the peak of his allegorical abstraction. It is simplistic, a narrative loosely tied as a first hand account between the speaker and a singular subject. And yet it is definitive, undeniably resonant of a world not contained by but encapsulated within its few words.

Is Crane remarking on human nature? Yes. Is Crane, as a writer, the not-so-innocent bystander who searches for the places where hearts are eaten and takes note with a curious, self-indicting pen? Also yes. Though at first glance it is the gruesome, nonchalant consumption of the creature that leaves a mark, upon further examination it is the speaker’s own simple acknowledgement of the self-destruction that unfolds before their eyes, their complicit questioning that rings most eerie. It is not the act of ultimate masochism that yields truth, it is the lack of reaction that reeks of normalness and thus shines with bitter realization.

Stephen Crane died at the age of 28. He had been plagued by illness throughout his life, and in his final years was a dedicated war correspondent riddled with financial struggle. He is someone who saw a world that was often violent and destitute with a writer’s unwavering eye, who felt his own body destruct, who was near death often and reached it quickly. And so perhaps this poem is a testament to his realism more than all else.

Second, the novelist.

A critique. A confession. A novella that has become a staple of philosophical canon. Its critique of rationalism stands as a vocal address of the fissures and inconsistencies of the human state, a testament to the reality of self-destruction which lies beneath even the thickest skins of composure and idealism.

“What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is the existentialist, narrative confession of The Underground Man, a character of obsession, cynicism, and self-loathing. The Underground Man adamantly opposes growing movements of rational egoism and utopian socialism - in short, the beliefs that the application of reason to society will end suffering - within 19th-century Russian society.

Why does the Underground Man oppose this? Because he believes in the complexity of humans, particularly when it comes to free will. Humans, he argues, will choose suffering over happiness every time if it means they have even the barest illusion of free will. Independence, control, and power are valued above all else, including reason. In cases when choice is involved, to suffer, to self-destruct, to bite into one’s own heart is, of course, irrational. But it is human.

And so, in his eyes, self-destruction is inevitable.

Fyodor Dostoevsky is a monolith. A giant of Russian literature, his work introduced a time of ideological disruption and uncertainty (as the growing prevalence of Western influence fought deep tradition) in Russia to a vast audience. While he is best known for the deep philosophical, religious, and psychological analyses illustrated through his characters in The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot, Notes from Underground is touted as his most experimental and perhaps most revolutionary work. Split into two parts, the first an essay-like declaration of the Underground Man’s ideas and the second a narrative account of his actions and relationships, the central voice of the bitter, alienated protagonist pervades both. This voice, like that of many Dostoevskian figures, is simultaneously a reflection, satirization, and exploration of the Underground Man’s time period, heavily affected by the author’s own experiences of Orthodox Christian religiosity and forced exile.

Dostoevsky’s insights into the human condition are of unique perception and ageless relevance, solidifying his works as masterpieces. Like few other thinkers of his time, he embraced, explained, and unflinchingly depicted the irrationality of humans - shining a light on stories of both their redemption and, of course, their self-destruction.

Third, the screenwriter.

A mind-bender. A revelation. A film as clever in construction as it is superb in execution. Pulling from influences ranging from Tarkovsky to Lovecraft, it has been hailed as one of our most recent sci-fi classics.

“...almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job, or happy marriage. But these aren't decisions, they're impulses.”

– Alex Garland (2018)

Crane observed the dark satisfaction of self-destruction, the Underground Man observed the explicably irrational choice of it. Garland, a screenwriter of this century, has a different take on the age-old idea: that self-destruction is deeply, irremovably innate. In his 2018 film Annihilation, Garland’s protagonist is Lena, a biologist who enters The Shimmer - a mysterious, mutated ecosystem originating from an alien life force. Her mission is twofold: she is both part of a team of soldiers attempting to discover The Shimmer’s source and personally investigating what happened to her husband, who returned from a previous mission changed beyond recognition.

As Lena ventures deeper into The Shimmer, it becomes clear that her body is being disorientingly altered beyond her control as the tumor-like, dualistic nature of alien matter takes hold. Her fellow team members are in their own stages of destruction: facing cancer, addiction, suicidal ideations, and grief. Hers is the shame she feels from an extramarital affair while her husband was lost inside The Shimmer. At the story’s climax, Lena faces the part of herself she fears and despises - the incapacitating, guilt-ridden, self-destructive part. She is forced to reckon with it in her effort to remove it, and she returns forever changed, radically evolved and replaced in a sense both aligning with her sci-fi world and representing its pervading metaphor. The conclusion; self-destruction is not just a side effect, it’s a prerequisite for change.

Alex Garland, whose writing fame originated from novels such as The Beach and has become the core of modern sci-fi films such as Sunshine and Ex Machina, often incorporates complex philosophical and scientific ideas with powerful, character-driven story beats. He sees horror and beauty and poetry within the pursuit of knowledge, and brings the most imaginative and existential threads of our fundamental state into the tapestries of his work. Thus, he serves as a perspective that shapes 21st-century views of humanity, possessing the knack for uncovering truth and insight that is crucial to universal storytelling.

Self-destruction is inherent to us in our observations of the world’s bitterness, in our desperate attachment to choice, and in the apoptosis of our very cells. It must, therefore, be inherent to our words. Literature is a tool through which we seek to understand and collectively work through the struggles of understanding. A tool in which we may meet each other across centuries with open hands and echoing voices and familiar sentiments. It is only fitting that some of our greatest works across mediums question and define the nature of self-destruction, for it is a human truth of undeniable permanence. Our future literature will do the same.


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