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After Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry

During the closing session of the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2012, some of the darker themes of writing were explored in Going To The Dark Side.  Chaired expertly by Ashley Hay, the panellists Tony Birch, Tony Cavanaugh and Denise Leith all spoke about their unique experiences of going to the dark side in their writing – a defining thread that seemed to tie them all together. The discussion took an up-close-and-personal look at the darker aspects of human society: war, fear, violence, disaster and environmental collapse – all the usual suspects.

In writing their novels, each panellist had to embark upon a journey into the dark, either through their protagonist, or through the vivid reality of war itself as in the shape of Leith’s book; more closely aligned with fact.

Leith questioned her own obsessive interest in war but reasoned that it is in trying to understand injustice and humanity – an issue she has grappled with since childhood – that she keeps coming back to the subject.
“In war, you see the worst of human behaviour and the best of human behaviour,”  Leith says.
Compassion and kindness always find a way to arise from even the darkest of places, including the abject horror of war, and it is to that place Leith always returns.
It is evident early on in the session that all of the panelists climbed deeply into their books, in some cases research itself almost bordering on a process not dissimilar to madness, channelling psychopaths and swallowing down story after story on serial killers and the like.

Tony Birch describes his connection to the darkness as a deep sense of intrigue into the nature of evil. Before long the line between good and evil is explored in depth on the panel.

Let’s talk about the Rwandan genocide and the way in which Hutus were not just killers, but in some cases heroes – as in those who were hiding the Tutsis, Leith said. This made us all question what enabled them to be so incredibly brave?

Does evil exist? Leith suggests that after everywhere she has been and everything she has seen as a reporter and war correspondent, it isn’t so much that people are evil but that they are capable of doing evil deeds.

There is great skill involved in orchestrating mass slaughter, explain Tony Cavanaugh. Though it is cold-blooded, pathological murder that he struggles to understand. Those are the kind of murders that make you stand up and take notice.

So what keeps us from crossing over? From going to the dark side?

Having the courage to go inside yourself and to ask the deeper questions, Cavanaugh explains.

“To know thy self. Because once you have crossed that line, there is no going back. After Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry.”

Michelle Sim is a student at Southern Cross University. 

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