On Evil, non-fiction by Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 2010
Thirty years ago if the word ‘evil’ cropped up in conversation I would think immediately of late night movies, Frankenstein, Dracula, zombies, mummies, werewolves, and man-eating blobs. Giant ants, giant sharks, giant lizards, giant women, giant men. Creepy-crawly hands, disfigured serial killers, mad scientists and evil wizards. Except for the implications of social malaise in movies like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or nuclear technology gone awry in movies like Godzilla Vs Mothra or Them! evil had only one unequivocal political dimension: Nazis. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, et. al. But even they seemed contained. Their example had proved so horrific that everyone felt safe: humanity had learned an important lesson. There would be henceforward safeguards against such atrocities. Those who dared could watch footage of the holocaust, turn off their TV, and breathe a sigh of relief that humanity had come to their senses and were now committed to never allowing that evil to occur again.
But it did. It has. And it will continue to.
The first inkling I had that something very ugly had occurred in the zeitgeist was shortly after Reagan had been elected president. The population of homeless people burgeoned. Many of them were psychologically troubled, not your garden variety hobo, or hippy panhandler. There was something very cruel behind their growing numbers in the street. Severe budget cuts and a maniacal hatred of taxation, especially on the rich, had led to some very inhumane conditions.
Vietnam had been a horrible, ugly evil, but had been so vigorously protested by so many people, at least by the early 70s, that one still had a sense of moral victory, a secure feeling that people were fundamentally good. This eroded quickly after Reagan’s immense popularity strongly suggested a very different set of values had taken root in the American psyche.
It did not take long for the utopian triumphs of the 60s to become a trivialized clutter of lava lamps, love beads, scratched Beatles records, and moldy day-glo posters destined for the attic or garage. Martin Luther King’s stellar leadership would become a holiday and the name for a lot of city streets, but otherwise forgotten.
By the late 80s, American imperialism turned very bloody and very ugly in Central and South America. And the labor movement took a near-fatal blow when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981. The effects of that were becoming very visible in the late 80s; wages plummeted and the disparity between the obscenely rich and middle class became stunningly evident. A cute term was coined to describe this new phenomenon: trickle down economics. The reality was better summed up by Gordon Gekko: “Greed is good.”
In the following decades the world has been witness to such a dizzying number of atrocities, from Gaza to Afghanistan, Iraq to Chechnya, Mogadishu to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that ‘evil’ has lost its late-night-movie aura and become a real… what? What is evil? I realized I had no true idea as to what it was. It seemed as shapeless and ubiquitous as the gelatinous blob that blobbed its way around town swallowing everything in sight in the The Blob. Or, for that matter, the black viscous blobs swallowing the gulf of Mexico and the coasts and marshes of the southern states. And I had a further obsession: what goes on in the heads of people like Tony Hayward when, after destroying an ocean, he skips off to enjoy a yacht race, or the CEO of a health insurance company that has denied benefits to someone dying of leukemia or cancer for utterly bogus reasons in order to bolster the profits of the shareholders? Or the sinister market manipulations at Goldman Sachs and other financial giants? Did Henry Paulson or Larry Summers ever have qualms? Doubts? Ethical tremors? What would five minutes in the head of Glenn Beck be like?
It was time to find out just what evil is all about. It was, therefore, with a great deal of eagerness I opened the cover to Terry Eagleton’s opus on the subject, On Evil, dedicated, appropriately, to Henry Kissinger. I chose Eagleton as my introduction because one, I am not religious, and two, I am not given to the occult. I don’t even like Tarot cards. I wanted a secular view, and one with an eye toward current affairs.
Nor did I want to read Hanna Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem. I was already pretty well acquainted with her notion of the “banality of the evil,” and I have had my fill of Nazis. It’s probably a good thing that she is not alive to see them sprouting up again in the likes of the Christian fundamentalist movement. And if she thought Eichman was a clown, I can’t begin to imagine what she would make of Sarah Palin.
Eagleton’s discussion is erudite, vigorous, and refreshingly non-academic. He writes in a completely lucid, accessible, engaging style. He begins with a discussion of evil in contemporary fiction, then segues, in chapters two and three, into treatments of evil in Shakespeare and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. His preference throughout is to cite examples from literature rather than current affairs in order to discriminate between what he deems authentic evil from sheer wickedness, or iniquity. It is not a question of magnitude so much as essence. It is a matter of freedom and self-determination. “Pure autonomy,” he says, “is a dream of evil.”
There is Pincher Martin, “the tale of a man who refuses to die,” by William Golding. After nearly drowning in the middle of the ocean, the central character, Christopher Martin, makes it to a rock where he is most certain to die of thirst and hunger. The bulk of the novel is rendered in flashbacks in which we learn that Martin, according to Eagleton, is a “grasping, lecherous, manipulative naval officer was never really alive in the first place.” Spiritually dead and divorced from the sensations of his own body, his slow death on the rock “magnifies the way he has treated other human bodies all along.” “Evil involves a split between body and spirit -- between an abstract will to dominate and destroy, and the meaningless piece of flesh that this will inhabits.”
There is Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which “the schoolboy’s efforts to build a civilized order on their island are inevitably undermined by violence and sectarianism.”
There is Free Fall, another novel by Golding, which Eagleton cites as “Golding’s most subtle investigation of original sin, a condition which has nothing to do with slimy reptiles and forbidden fruit.” What has to do with “lies in the fact that we are self-contradictory animals, since our creative and destructive powers spring from much the same source.”
Man is Faustian Man, too voraciously ambitious for his own well-being, perpetually driven beyond his own limits by the lure of the infinite. This creature cold-shoulders all finite things in his hubristic love affair with the illimitable. And since infinity is a kind of nothingness, the desire for this nothingness is an expression of what we shall see later as the Freudian death drive.
Eagleton leans heavily on the death drive to explain evil. “Evil, as we shall see, is bound up with destruction in several senses. One bond between them is that fact that destruction is really the only way to trump God’s act of creation.” “The prospect of nuclear holocaust, or of the world being swamped by its own oceans, turns evil weak at the knees with delight.”
He cites, as a literary treatment of this idea, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, “a novel in which we hear the music of the damned,” the story of a doomed composer, Adrian Leverkühn, who “deliberately infects himself with syphilis by visiting a prostitute, and does so in order to conjure resplendent musical visions from the gradual degeneration of his brain.” “If,” Eagleton observes, “the artist seeks to redeem a corrupt world by the transfigurative power of his art, then he or she must be on intimate terms with evil. This is why the modern artist is the secular version of Christ, who descends into the hell of despair and destitution in order to gather it into eternal life.”
This is a fascinating idea, but might we broaden it to help explain the baffling waste and futility of persecuting a war in Afghanistan, or killing a country’s economy by outsourcing all of its jobs overseas and gambling away its future on esoteric derivatives? I tend to see it as just plain greed and stupidity, and I’m not sure it helps to frame the destruction of so many lives in terms of a psychoanalytic theory. I don’t see a Pentagon general sitting down, slapping his hand to his forehead and saying “wow, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe we need to figure this thing out, before we kill any more people.” I’m pretty sure the war, like all wars, has more to do with Moloch than Thanatos. “War is a racket,” said Smedley Butler, “it always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
It is hard to believe how any individual could be so callous and egotistical as to make money off of a war and sleep peacefully at night. The devil himself must puzzle over this.
In Chapter 2, titled “Obscene Enjoyment,” Eagleton cites Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of evil, distinguishing it from “ruthless egoism or fanatical self-interest.” “By evil,” says Eagleton, “Schopenhauer meant more or less what I have been meaning by the term. He saw evil deeds as motivated by a need to obtain relief from the inner torment of what he called the Will; and this relief was to be gained by inflicting that torment on others.”
The Will, for Schopenhauer, is a malignant drive which lies at the very heart of our being but which is callously indifferent to our personal welfare. It ordains suffering to no end. In fact, it has absolutely no purpose in view other than its own futile self-reproduction. Men and women under the sway of this force, Schopenhauer writes, find one gratification after another wanting, so that “when at last all wishes are exhausted, the pressure of the Will still remains, even without any recognized motive, and makes itself known with terrible pain as a feeling of the most frightful desolation and emptiness.” Only when we cease to desire something in particular are we overwhelmed by the sheer painfulness of desire as such, desire in its purest state.
Or, as Keith Richards and Mick Jagger put it, “I can’t get no satisfaction. Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.”
It could very well be I’m obtuse, but I did not come away from Eagleton’s book with a satisfactory definition of evil, at least not one that helps explain what goes on in the head of a Tony Hayward, Richard Cheney, Rush Limbaugh or Arizona governor Jan Brewer. Or why Republicans do evil with so much more flare and demonic glee than Democrats. Not that democrats are strangers to evil. Not by a long shot. Or what it is that led seven male American contractors in Iraq to lock Jaimie Lee Jones in a container under armed guard and brutally rape her? And the corporation that hired her and the seven men, Halliburton/KBR, to block legal action, thereby creating a climate of impunity and encouraging further atrocities? Again, I see the devil shaking his head in dismay. What is the point in provoking God with unabashed evil when humans are so much better at it?
Eagleton did not stint on definitions of evil. He calls it “unintelligible… a thing in itself,” “supremely pointless,” “boring because it is lifeless,” “philistine, kitsch-ridden, and banal.” “It defends itself against the complexities of human experience with a reach-me-down dogma or a cheap slogan… If it believes in nothing, it is because it does not have enough interior life to be capable of doing so.”
The opposite of evil, of course, is good. “For Thomas Aquinas,” Eagleton observes, “the more a thing succeeds in realizing its true nature, the more it can be said to be good. The perfection of a thing, he argues, depends on the extent to which it has achieved actuality.” Within this context, evil is “a kind of deficiency of being.”
There are those who feel uneasy about this way of viewing evil. How can one possibly speak of Mao’s monstrous purges, or those who perished in the Nazi concentration camps, as victims of a simple deficiency? Doesn’t this risk underestimating the terrifying positivity of evil? It is here, I think, that psychoanalytic theory can ride to the rescue, allowing us to maintain that evil is a kind of deprivation while still acknowledging its formidable power. The power in question, as we have seen already, is essentially that of the death drive, turned outward so as to wreak its insatiable spitefulness on a fellow human being. Yet this furious violence involves a kind of lack -- an unbearable sense of none-being, which must, so to speak, be taken out on the other.
I felt unsatisfied at the conclusion of this book. But I think I made a mistake in expecting far too much from it. It is best to appreciate it as a primer, not as a geyser of enlightenment. Its subject is far too large, too complex and too unwieldy to fully comprehend by any author, no matter how perceptive or talented. Maybe what I was hoping for was a rant. Some fire-breathing rage. A passionate slam against the criminality of the Bush administration, which the Obama administration has not only allowed to slither back into the shadows without so much as an investigation, but has gone forward perpetuating, and in some instances escalating.
Eagleton’s tone throughout is even-tempered. His treatment of the subject does more to promote reflection and intellectual evaluation than encourage people to take to the streets with pitchforks, blazing torches, and guerrilla tactics with the hopes, however deluded, of bringing the evil empire of unchecked capitalism and its monsters down. His solutions are sobering, not enraging. This is a book you can bring to the beach without putting yourself at risk, wading into the surf to drown yourself or throw rocks at the first person to come along wearing a conservative t-shirt.
Eagleton cites numerous sources, all of them neatly noted, and so provides a rich vein of further pursuit. And so I will. I will continue my search and no doubt find quantities of the black viscous gooey stuff called evil running in my own veins.
At present, my most fervent hope is to merely understand what it was that went on in Tony Hayward’s head when, after the company for which he stood as captain and CEO decimated X number of pelicans and dolphins and manatees with gooey black oil, polluted for decades, perhaps centuries, the pristine white beaches of Florida, permanently disrupted the lives of thousands of people who depended for their living on the waters of the gulf of Mexico, and killed eleven men in an inferno of oil and steel, all of which could have been easily prevented by using a little wisdom, prudence, and pittance of money, he went skipping off to enjoy his life.
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