Approximating Evil

Describing “Empathy for the Devil,” Noah Millman writes:

As for me, what I find most terrifying about stories like Adam Lanza’s is . . . that I can all too easily imagine what it might be like to surrender to a horrible impulse. I can’t quite imagine my way into the mind of someone who picks off little children with a rifle, but any number of other horrors are mentally accessible. It only requires focusing intently on the normal rages and frustrations that bedevil anybody, and closing off everything else, including the access of other minds.

We share a kinship with monsters, not because we are all part of the same “depraved” society but because we are all part of the same depraved species.

The all-too-easy imagining he refers to is one of the purposes of literature, and the novel in particular—to bring us closer to those we are not, and who are not, but who could just as easily be.  While the cable television serial may have become the home of the twenty-first century American anti-hero, the restrictions placed on film and television by rules and methods of pacing, of plot, of episode-length create a distance, even if only to the extent of window glass, between the audience and the protagonist that isn’t necessarily there in fiction.  The novel, by contrast, meandering and digressive while at the same time plot-driven, is able to momentarily blur the distinction between the reader or author and the character.  In television and film, we watch, sometimes in intricate, sympathetic detail; but only in the novel do we find ourselves quite literally thinking with the character.

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to the representation of evil in the novel and both, incidentally, are found in the language Millman uses to describe his reaction: that “we share a kinship with” those who would kill, or that we don’t quite—that they are “monsters,” something not quite in line with the lives and methods of the rest of humankind.  In the former, we are allowed to empathize, to gain ghostly proximity, while in the latter, we can only get so close—never approaching, by design, as closely as we do other characters in the same work.

Such is the case in the unexplainable but wholly natural evils of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, where devils appear and disappear almost at will, ageless, timeless, and destructive.  A reader has access to the corrupted and the fallen, but The Judge is identifiable by the sheer blankness of his character.  He is, quite simply, what he is; pray that you never meet him.

But I’d argue that John Steinbeck, not McCarthy, gives us the most paradigmatic version of this approach in East of Eden.  There are “monsters” in this world, he tells us, born with “a malformed soul,” those “born without a conscience, [to whom] a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous.”  As a description of some forms of evil and certain criminals this seems perfectly apt: there’s a psychiatric diagnosis almost precisely in line with what Steinbeck describes.  His premise as the novelist is that we, with properly formed souls and functioning consciences cannot understand or empathize with Cathy because the very nature of her being is alien from our own. In order to understand another, we must share certain psychological (or soulful) qualities with them.

But this moral vision, as Steinbeck proposes it, is flawed and, more to the point, self-sabotaged.  “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one,” the author-narrator announces: “All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.  And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.  Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”  The monster he depicts through the character of Cathy is not just representative of herself, but of the natural moral category of evil—of all that is not good.  Whether “I have done well—or ill” is determined by one’s deeds, of course—but these deeds themselves are determined at birth.  Evil is predestined and inherent, a biological as well as a moral flaw.  We cannot control it precisely because we can never understand it.

Figures like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog or Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney don’t fit into this paradigm, though both attempt (or at least plan to attempt) a murder.  This wouldn’t be any different if Gladney’s aim were better or if Herzog hadn’t been pulled over for erratic driving on Lake Shore Drive.  While I’ve expressed ambivalence in the past about the moral vision—and pleasure of reading—White Noise,  it shows, with precision, how one can be driven to murder not from any inherent moral flaw in the individual, or flaw in humanity, but simply from morally neutral and shared human characteristics.

Herzog scares me less—I don’t leave wondering whether I could be driven to attempt murder, but whether I, too, would disintegrate into strings of words and half-academic thoughts were my private life to collapse so abruptly.  From the author’s perspective, however, it may be an exercise in exactly in what Millman describes.  The novel has its origins in an affair his then-wife had with his then-friend, Jack Ludwig, in details the book mirrors.  A recent article on the connection notes that “[w]hen Bellow finally learned of the affair (through some slip-up when the two couples were making plans), he was murderously angry and spoke of getting a gun.”

But he doesn’t—instead, he sits to write his masterpiece and imagines how it could have been if he gave into that first urge:

But they had done something else to Herzog—unpredictable.  It’s not everyone who gets the opportunity to kill with a clear conscience.  They had opened the way to justifiable murder.  They deserved to die.  He had a right to kill them.  They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary. [. . .]  In spirit she was his murderess, and therefore he was turned loose, could shoot or choke without remorse.  He felt in his arms and in his fingers, and to the core of his heart, the sweet exertion of strangling—horrible and sweet, an orgastic rapture of inflicting death.  He was sweating violently, his shirt wet and cold under his arms.  Into his mouth came a taste of copper, a metabolic poison, a flat but deadly flavor.

These are just hypothetical people in hypothetical situations, of course.  But that’s also the point—while they aren’t real, they aren’t quite not-real, either.  When we read literature that casts an eye toward what it means to be human, and when we keep our eyes and hearts open, we can learn—and learn without the horror of it happening in our too-real world.  Even if it is only to learn that the horror is unpredictable, to be on guard against that ability to do evil that exists in all of us, to know that the inclination to listen can seem rational in moments of crisis.

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17 thoughts on “Approximating Evil

  1. A critical purpose of myth is to teach us how to behave. The heroes of our myths — whether they are noble or otherwise — serve as models for behavior upon which we pattern ourselves. Dark heroes or antiheroes can be negative examples: if you do bad thing X, then bad thing Y will happen to you. For me, the real power of a novel like the ones you describe is to demonstrate how easy it is to become such a figure. People do not think of themselves as evil; they see themselves as good. The novel lets you understand the dissonance between the evil actions and the good thoughts motivating them.

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  2. Given that we can see the dark impulse within ourselves, and glimpse circumstances under which it might break through, how do we feel about the complete availability of unlimited firepower?

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  3. The book I’ve read (and I regret to say I have read none of those discussed in this excellent post) that laid out in the most psychologically understandable way why a reasonable person might commit murder was Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”

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  4. Two books that have affected me profoundly in my understanding of spousal abuse are Angela Carter’s Love and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Both novels are written such that the reader deeply inhabits the minds of the main male characters, and as a result the cruelty of the men is obscured. I read Love when I was 19, and very new to the idea of romantic relationships. I discussed it with friends, and I remember feeling shocked and embarrassed that I read the entire book without realizing that Lee was a much more evil person than he thought of himself. It’s the emotional shock of perceiving how close one is to cruelty–or greed, or insanity, etc–that for me makes a truly memorable and worthwhile novel.

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  5. I was thinking about somewhat the same thing recently because I read somewhere that Zola’s ‘La Bête humaine’ was intended as a sort of response to ‘Crime and Punishment.’ It’s hard because, of course, Crime and Punishment is a much better book about how someone could be compelled to kill and yet Zola’s killer Jacques Lantier, who’s essentially a sex maniac, strikes me as much closer to the reality than Raskolnikov, who is a fantastic character that never quite stuck me as real. I never quite accepted Raskolnikov.

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  6. About a decade or so ago, a member of my (then) UU community committed a horrific crime. She killed her children. It was all over the news of course. Marilyn Lemak.

    As a community, we were devastated on so many levels. Some of us had known her well, some of us not so well, some of us not at all. But we all grieved and felt guilt to an extent that I simply cannot put into words.

    In one of our grief counseling sessions, I remember another member. Still, so vividly. I knew her, though we were not friends. As a Sunday School teacher, I probably knew her kids better than I knew her. While she sat in the counseling circle with the other 30-40 of us, I remember her knitting the entire time. I remember thinking to myself, Is she here? Is she with us? She didn’t speak a word. She didn’t look up from her knitting. Until, toward the end, there was an extended silence. She gently laid down her needlework on her lap, looked up, and with a solemnity that can only come from the deepest part of us she said, “There but for the grace of god go I.” Every one of us broke into tears of recognition of that painful truth.

    It’s an old saying. One we all know. But at that moment, in that place and time, under those circumstances, it became personally meaningful to me. That memory has never left me. The profoundness of that experience has never left me. That, as much as we’re sure we could never ever commit any atrocity, surely not killing our own children, the painful truth is that we simply cannot ever be sure that, given some terrible mix of circumstances, we aren’t capable of it.

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  7. In hell? Sure. Here? Not so sure.

    To be honest, just writing my comment left me fairly ripped up. I totally did not expect that, so many years have passed. But I am … holy cow, utterly flabbergasted! that you asked. May I think about it?

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