24 November, 2007

Evil in modern literature

What do we make of actions stemming from individuals or people that cannot be accounted for; evil, for example, comes to mind.

Evil as a force can be legitimized in only two ways: in a Manichean struggle between good and bad, each battling for dominion in earthly life. Problematic as it may seem, most of our concept of evil is infused with this earthly struggle, which is also cosmic and transcendental in nature, but which posits human freedom and the ability to choose one from the other as the only redemptive way out of this impasse. Hence, we often tend to judge actions according to our inate ability to choose the good over the bad, or vice versa.

In truly heinous acts, we seem to believe in the infallible epistemological verity of goodness when bad is punished, often as compared to some principle or other, and as a society we buy into the reassurance that after all this is the best of all place, after all, to paraphrase Voltaire's Candide, and that justice ultimately is achieved.

There are a few books that have been published lately, each diametrically opposed to each other except by the thematic issue of evil, that bring into the fore of popular discourse the meaning of evil in modern time. Assuredly, in what is recognized as a post-911 society, trying to come to grips with evil is timely. One of these books is a book of fiction titled The Castle in the Forest, written by the darling of American letters, Norman Mailer, (1923-2007).

There are other books on this subject-matter, and they each grapple with what has now become a clique, a terminology that describes evil as banal, something devoid of character. This phrase, coined by Annah Arendt (1906-1975) in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, based on her reporting of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963, has vastly contributed to our present-day discussion on evil in modern political thought, though not without some controversy. Hers was a phrase that didn't seem to settle anything. This is more astonishing by the fact that she liked to think of herself as a political theorist whose overall theories was based on "men, not Man," or "man in the singular."

But her banality of evil phrase outlasted its usage by the manner in which evil has been defined historically. Instead, seeking ways to save human nature from horrendous potentials and acts of genocide, it was better to comprehend the incomprehensible or "inhuman" by distancing each from the other first by distancing it from a moral point of view, and then from an epistemological one.

Regardless, it was the best antidote to that vast plain field of post modern barenness we seem to have fallen trap to, and not inevitably I might add.

Evil, in the presence of Goodness, should not exist, or should it? If it does, can evil be called anything other than human, all too human, fated for defeat if defeated, fated to triumph if it does? Is it something so radical that to call it inhuman would, then, be appropriate? or is it? is it banal to the point that it is both devoid of radicality and then it becomes, ipso facto, not inhuman, but part of us? Hence Hitler's mass movement.

But what gives rise to it in the first place and, when it does in quantifiable ways, how are we to reprehend it for what it is? What drives some people to mastermind acts of genocide that gives rise to our concepts of evilness? And when it does, whence does it come from? And, most alarming, for what purpose?

Mailer, no stranger to controversy if his life and not his fiction is analyzed, sets out to write nothing less that Adolf Hitler's early life as seen through the eyes of devil. This devil is just one invisible and not all powerful demi-evil-god who answers to an even larger devil whom he calls the Maestro. Little is written about goodness, or someone whom we can refer to as a Maestro of goodness. In fact, nothing is written about the opposite of evil and we soon enter into the lives of normal-seeming people, even when we are brought face to face with a kid whose actions, while odd, don't come close to foretelling the acts of genocide he ultimately was responsible for perpetuating.

As problematic as Arendt's banality, Mailer's is no different, and for the same reasons. In Mailer's cosmology, there is a struggle that even reduces the very substance that pits good versus in evil, when evil these devils don't know what it is that makes them follow the order of high-above, low-below, since it seems devoid also of value. The narrator in the Castle in the Forest just follows the directives of his master, rarely mentions God, and just puts ideas into the people he is slated to lead step by step, everyday, until his mission is accomplished: Hitler the baby turned Hitler the genocidal mass murderer.

If Mailer grappling with Arendt's own post-modernism, he fails since in his desire to find meaningful explanations that are not merely descriptive actions, he takes the moral imperative against evil acts by making his characters, in effect, innocent of responsibility. This is at first ironic from a man who once went on record arguing against this same problem: "If Hannah Arendt is correct and evil is banal, then that is vastly worse than the opposed possibility that evil is satanic."

In other words, if the struggle is between something that is banal, not necessarily substantial in nature (definition is mine), then any act termed evil is just a tautological description. What's the same, the 10,000,000 millions who died in World War II is no more an act of indifference and caprice of a strange group of people that liked to be part of the Third Reich under a leader known to be the Fuhrer, than it is for a psychopath mass murderer who goes on a killing spree of women and who, though resposible, is no more accountable for his actions than Hitler himself.

The irony in all of this is that impasse, though intractable, is not at all impossible to imagine.

In our development of western thought, we are all victims to that Platonic division that pits "concept" against "reality"; its implication seems to indicate that we, as finite actors in a worldstage, can understand one's ultimate meaning only by comparing it to some ineffable world of ideas outside the realm of cognition, and the simple act of seeking to find such cosmic mana by which we seem to base, compare and contrast all of our actions, is an act to self-defeat from the first-go.

It reminds me a lot of the strange circular reasonings many philosophers seem to have rebutted their own philosophies by concluding that the conceptual is a fiction, that we should nonetheless seek to believe in it as if it existed in reality. The paradox is at first startling, but that's exactly the sets of ideas which have made us heirs to a culture, and individuals.

Only those who are really wise enough to be members of an elite group of philosophers with knowledge in esoteric mysteries, can understand and guide the rest of us. Therefore, our inability to fully place bad actions in the context of a meaningful dialogue that places both concepts and reality as one and the same and makes, in a plethora examples, all actors accountable for their own actions for to act without ideas is not to act beyond grunts and hunger. To continue to divide and believe in this bipolar existence of the above and below, the cosmic and the human, we fail to undestand that meaning can only be understood without recurring to phantoms that plant the seed of doubt in our heads, but makes each of our actions based on either freedom, or its lack; concepts inately part of our actions; play and act one and the same.

In many ways the pre-Socratic materialists, Epicurus, Democritus and Epitectus we closer to the modern impasse when they described the world as being finite and of one substance, matter, and not as based on two substances, matter and spirit. Perhaps each was defining a truth into itself, matter and spirit may be one, not two, but very few except the bravest at heart have taken on this challenge with any level of persuasiveness. Our canon tends to immediately shut that possibility up twenty-five hundred years ago.

Mailer can't account for Hitler's monstrous acts, but neither can many of his peers. Their attempt to understand something that cannot be acounted for is noble, but only when placed within the context of human, not inhuman, acts. To Arendt that was the major issue. In fact, how can one judge war crimes or heinous acts if those acts are deliberately inhuman. Inhuman? If at issue it was inhumanity, then I'm not sure how one can judge such acts because to separate the human from the context of the acts is to call such, indeed, banal though there is nothing banal about murder, or genocide.

Since Hitler's suicide in 1945, we have yet to understand how someone like him could have driven one of the most liberal-minded cultures in Europe to a culture that accepted crematoriums for human beings. To get to know in-depth the real Hitler would fail at many levels, and current books both fiction and non-fiction are prove to such. Even to those who knew Hitler personally and survived World War II, fail to come to fully describe the monstrosity he created. Of course, it is a monstrous act that he couldn't have done on his own, like most crimes are never committed just by one person.

Of Albert Speer's memoirs which is a whopping 600+ page book, there are no more than five or six pages, at the most, which he describes concentration camps, and only in the most perfunctory manner. Of another survivor of the Hitler gang is that of his personal and faithful secretary, who wrote her memoirs of the last days of her Fuhrer right after World War and her words are just excuses are just ritualizations of her days working as secretary to a killer and her remunerations of his last days, deeply entrenched under group in his bunker.

All these books, and I've only mentioned a four in a vast bibliography of the subject matter, fail to describe murder for what it is: inexecusable acts committed in the daily routine of our lives. Perhaps we fail to analyze whence these acts occur because to dig too deep into the cavernous motives for our actions is to tread of thin ice. Hitler, before becoming the Fuhrer, seems to have been a normal with strange ideas, but not necessarily dangerous. Stalin and Mao, or any other psychopath, before becoming politically powerful looked like you and I. They may have come out of highly dysfunctional families, but many of us do and hardly all of us become mass-murderers.

Is evil, then, something that we can call "banal" in a society long used to allowing evil acts in a non-judgmental manner? Hardly, it was always an untenable though thought-provoking facile way to strip our collective guilt of any culpability. Is evil, then, something for which we as actors in a world stage claim innocence of? Hardly, it never was though we felt better knowing that it was convenient to strip thought from action; concept from reality; life from death.

I would like to develop this line of reasoning later on as I analyze the demarcation between thought and reality in tragedy, especially as it has been defined in works of fiction of both elder and modern times.