Originally published on February 21, 1997
Thanks Peter for the essay. I read it, and agree with your prefacing remarks "that the essay which follows does not answer the question, `what is evil?' but it does point strongly towards my core belief that evil is an ever-resurgent human drive which operates when other drives are given free reign without ethical obstacles..."
I have just finished the piece. With so little percolation time I really don't know if I am capable of voicing anything but superficial remarks, but I will give it a shot. While during my own 20s I wretchedly galloped through many of the classics you cite in my own feeble attempts to "find God" and "become a writer", my education was certainly sporadic and without the depth which hopefully one achieves submerged at the university level in a bonafide literary curriculum, such as you apparently have engaged. Professorial tuteledge, classroom debates among peers, and mandatory paperwriting obviously all play their part in bringing the student to a better understanding of what she reads than an existential romp through the local library classics section.
That said, I must suggest that your take on the Judaic-Christian influences on Western thought were rather understated. Despite several centuries of overt rebellion against the ancient writings of "a few good Jews", each of the examples you gave of shimmering evil with its heavy accents on the will to power using such longstanding notions of battle as deceit, deception, and devastation grieve me as I realize that each passing generation pretends to dismiss the ancient only to mimic it by fluffing up the language a bit and calling it a new coin.
Gazing out from my own humble subterranean watchtower I can only chafe at the most recent camouflages of antiquity as modernity seeks to gouge its tusks into the body of the old Jewish tales of good and evil, a few skip and hops beyond the gaffs of French existentialism and even further past the pro-Capitalist ho! ho! ho! objectivists. I am talking about the Situationists International and their pre-apocalyptic tug at the deadbolts keeping man and god and law all outside the fabled gates of Eden. As poetic as Debord and his small band of merry blatherers of negation were, titillating with such rallying cries, as NO MORE WORK! FREE LOVE! and ALL IS SPECTACLE! one is left pondering just how close to the gates of Eden modern philosophy dares to ride before the feckless myth of the serpent finds its way back into literary and the psychogeographer's chic...
I'm sorry but I cannot apologize for my heavily weighted Dylanista leanings. Just like the prophets of old, however, Dylan sets no man free when any fair thought can in a twinkling of a cobra's eye set the world stage on fire, instant corruption this foul revolutionary fervor, all in the name of setting men free. I wonder out loud why Jesus didn't make the cut in your literary glance at evil? He quite boldly denounced the well-spoken finely-garbed religious leaders and pretenders of his day as followers of THAT EVIL ONE, SATAN, and in doing so drew their wrath upon himself, of course with proper considerations.
Yet he also rejected the claims of the patriotic Zealots, and Barrabas. While suggesting with Dante, or was it Milton, that worldly organization (the Satanic impulse) is a positive step in human evolution, and what political modernist would disagree, many former refugees under Hitler and Stalin now working to sustain liberal policies in this country will plead in quite colorful terms that these very same organizational talents who rise with great promise of social order and prosperity to the Machiavellian ideal are the very antithesis of what political modernists would call good, while most certainly most might call these regimes quite evil, and without social redemption.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and later Sartre, despite their own personal gentility, would propose that right makes might, while differing vastly in impetus of resolve. Camus, less eager to play bully, suggests (not as an original thought, mind you) that right inspires the absence of might, exemplified in his phrase, NEITHER VICTIM NOR EXECUTIONER. Will there ever be a peace upon which all can agree? Shall we ask if evil is merely the only face of goodness humanity can suffer for any sustained length of time, which thus far seems an eternity, and thus appears to us as mere imperfection? That thought presents quite a thorny when not an entirely flaming bush of terminologies in conflict, now doesn't it?
But we come full circle in the sense of your original premise that the absence of moral obligation leads to all sorts of behavior most warm-blooded human beings can no doubt in good conscience dub as evil acts, while still reserving the right to soften any accusational language against the originator of the evil act. But I ask you, is an eye for an eye, an inherently evil doctrine? Why is it considered evil for the state to carry out a punishment to an unremorseful murderer of innocent flesh on the bone, while the victim remains dead, and the victim's dependents remain ill-disposed?
This culture seems to be moving toward a system where individuals are held unaccountable, while past ages and past groups in some nebulous transference are held responsible retroactively for crimes committed in the present? Is this moral advancement, as the hordes rush to gain entrance to this new city of refuge? But is this not the result of the very doctrine of passive evil that Bertrand Russell wrote of in his WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN. He couldn't quite stomach little old ladies who smiled the christian smile while hiding behind the badges of a police state.
Don't get me wrong Peter. I am not advocating christianity in its clerical sense, nor its overthrow, but I do think discussing the perils of evil without noting that man has proven himself quite an evil caricature of his own stated anti-evil ambitions, somewhat more preposterous and ill-conceived the more he insists on his own self-image, despite any parameters a college course may have invoked. Does evil require the self-consciousness of the doer of a misguided deed? Even Jesus suggested this was true. Do you, or do I agree?
Oh well, I see now that intriguing threads are cropping up everywhere, but I really must close this out. Hope you can appreciate the fact that I appreciated your efforts in allowing me to read your article. And by the way, as strange as it sounds, the eighty-four pages condensed to a mere six after I edited out the PC-Mac translation garbage appended at the end of the writing.
As Tim Shipman has been known to say, "Go figure..."