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On Evil by Terry Eagleton.

Grayling

Title: On Evil.
Author: Terry Eagleton.
Genre: Non-fiction, philosophy, psychology, literary criticism, history, books on books, cultural studies.
Country: U.K.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 2010.
Summary: In this work, Eagleton investigates the condition of those who apparently destroy for no reason. In the process, he poses a set of intriguing questions. Is evil really a kind of nothingness? Why should it appear so glamorous and seductive? Why does goodness seem so boring?

My rating: 7.5/10.


♥ A police officer involved in the case of the murdered toddler declared that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprit, he knew that he was evil. This is the kind of thing that gives evil a bad name. The point of literally demonishing the boy in this way was to wrong-foot the softhearted liberals. It was a preemptive strike against those who might appeal to social conditions in seeking to understand why they did what they did. And such understanding can always bring forgiveness in its wake. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable.

♥ None of this makes sense, but then that is how it is with evil. The less sense it makes, the more evil it is. Evil has no relations to anything beyond itself, such as a cause.

In fact, the word has come to mean, among other things, “without a cause.”

♥ This mistakenly implies that action which has a cause cannot be freely undertaken. Causes in this view are a form of coercion. If our actions have causes, we are not responsible for them. I cannot be responsible for staving in your skull with a candlestick, since it was your reproving tap on my cheek that caused it. Evil, on the other hand, is thought to be uncaused, or to be its own cause. This, as we shall see, is one of its several points of resemblance with good. Apart from evil, only God is said to be the cause of himself.

♥ If the young killers of the toddler could not help being evil, however, then the fact is that they were innocent. Most of us, to be sure, recognise that small children can no more be evil than get divorced or enter into purchase agreements. Yet there are always those who believe in bad blood or malevolent genes. If some people are really born evil, however, they are no more responsible for this condition than being born with cystic fibrosis. The condition which is supposed to damn them succeeds only in redeeming them. The same goes for regarding terrorists as psychotic, a term which the British government’s top security adviser has used for them. One wonders whether this man is really up to his job. If terrorists really are mad, then they are ignorant of what they are doing and are therefore morally innocent. They should accordingly be nursed with tender care in psychiatric hospitals rather than have their genitals mutilated in secret Moroccan prisons.

♥ There is, however, no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free. A good many of the influences we undergo have to be interpreted in order to affect our behaviour; and interpretation is a creative affair. It is not so much the past that shapes is as the past as we (consciously or unconsciously) interpret it. And we can always come to decipher it differently. Besides, someone free of social influences would be just as much a nonperson as a zombie. In fact, he or she would not really be a human being at all. We can act as free agents only because we are shaped by a world in which this concept has meaning, and which allows us to act upon it. None of our distinctively human behaviour is free in the sense of being absolved from social as poking people’s eyes out. We would not be able to torture and massacre without having picked up a great many social skills. Even when we are alone, it is not in the sense in which a coal scuttle or the Golden Gate Bridge is alone. It is only because we are social animals, able through language to share our inner life with others, that we can speak of such things as autonomy and self-responsibility in the first place. They are not terms that apply to earwigs. To be responsible is not to be bereft of social influences, but to release in such influences in a particular way. It is to be more than just a puppet of them. “Monster” in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others.

♥ 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.

♥ What distinguishes capitalism from other historical forms of life is that it plugs directly into the unstable, self-contradictory nature of the human species. The infinite - the unending drive for profit, the ceaseless march of technological progress, the ever-expanding power of capital - is always at risk of crushing and overshooting the finite. Exchange-value, which as Aristotle recognised is potentially limitless, holds sway over use-value. Capitalism is a system which needs to be in perpetual motion simply to stay on the spot. Constant transgression is of its essence. No other historical system reveals so starkly the way in which potentially beneficent human powers are so easily perverted to baneful ends. Capitalism is not the cause of our “fallen” state, as the more naive kind of left-wingers like to imagine. But of all human regimes, it is the one that most exacerbates the contradictions built into a linguistic animal.

♥ In a poignant moment in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the long-suffering Jewish hero Leopold Bloom speaks up for love as the opposite of hate. It would be agreeable if this were true. But there are sound Freudian reasons for regarding love as deeply bound up with resentment and aggression. it may not be true, as Oscar Wilde claimed, that we always kill the thing we love, but it is certainly true that we tend to feel profoundly ambivalent about it. Given that love is a laborious process which requires a perilous risking of ourselves, this is scarcely surprising. The novelist Thomas Hardy knew that by a series of decisions which are both free and considerate of others, we can end up painting ourselves into corners where we cannot move an inch in any direction without inflicting grievous damage on those around us.

♥ This is what is so absurd about the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, according to which Jesus’s mother, Mary, was conceived without original sin. It regards original sin as a kind of genetic stain which you might be fortunate enough to be born without, rather as you might be unfortunate enough to be born without a liver. Original sin, however, is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having had the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into a preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires - an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core. This is why babies in most Christian churches are baptised at birth, long before they know about sin or indeed about anything else. They have already drastically reordered the universe without being aware of it. If psychoanalytic theory is to be believed, they are already imprinted with an invisible network of drives which bind their bodies to those of others, and which will prove a constant source of affliction to them.

♥ Because our earliest, most passionate love affair takes place when we are helpless infants, it is caught up with frustration and voracious need. And this means that our loving will always be defective. As with the doctrine of original sin, this condition lies at the core of the self, yet is nobody’s responsibility. Love is both what we need in order to flourish and what we are born to fail at. Our only hope is learning to fail better.

♥ Infants are innocent (literally, harmless) in the way that tortoises are, not in the way that adults who refuse to turn a machine gun on civilians are. Their innocence does them no particular credit. We are born self-centered as an effect of our biology. Egoism is a natural condition, whereas goodness involves a set of complex practical skills we have to learn.

♥ Besides, that certain things cannot be changed is far from a bad thing. Only a social order which makes a fetish of the new is likely to deny this. To think in this way is one of the many misconceptions of postmodernism… Not all permanence is an offence against the political left. Continuity is at least as significant a factor in history as change, and many continuities are to be cherished. It would appear to be a persistent feature of human cultures that great masses of people are not regularly slaughtered simply because the moon is full, but not even postmodernists should feel down in the mouth about this. Durability is no more precious or worthless in itself than change. The assumption that change is radical whereas the unchanging is conservative is an illusion.

♥ Lots of men and women hope to live forever; the damned are those for whom this seductive dream has become atrociously real.

♥ The artist must be on nodding terms with evil because he must treat all experience as grist to the mill of his art, whatever its conventional moral value. This is why, if his work is to flourish, he himself must be a kind of immoralist, reluctantly abandoning all hope of sainthood. It is as though his art sucks all the goodness out of him. The more magnificent the art, the more degenerate the life. The late nineteenth century is full of parallels between the artist - doped, debauched, anguished, absinthe-sodden - and the Satanist. Both figures are equally scandalous to the reputable middle classes. And one reason for this is that both art and evil exist for their own sake.

♥ The devil, who puts in a guest appearance in Doctor Faustus, turns out to be a revolutionary avant-gardist himself, a sort of Rimbaud or Schoenberg with a cloven hoof. He despises middle-class mediocrity (it has, he scoffs, “no theological status”), and recommends despair as the true path to redemption. God is interested in saints and sinners, not in boringly well-behaved suburbanites. Extremes meet: at least those in despair are capable of spiritual depth, and are thus botched or parodic versions of the saints. Whatever else one might say of the devil, he has a robust contempt for the straitlaced middle classes. In this sense, he resembles the shaggy-haired Bohemian artist.

♥ Besides, everyday existence has grown so alienated and banal that only a dose of the diabolical can stir it up. When life grows stale and insipid, art may find itself being forced to sup with the devil, raiding the extreme and unspeakable in order to make an effect. It must transgress outworn conventions in its snarling, iconoclastic, Satanic way. It needs to summon the resources of the exotic and extreme. A demoniac art sets out to smash our suburban complacency and release our repressed energies. In this way, perhaps, some good might finally be salvaged from evil. From Charles Baudelaire to Jean Genet, the artist is complicit with the criminal, madman, devil-worshipper, and subversive.

♥ Yet when clowning is pushed to the point of denying all value, it indeed becomes monstrous. Farce is human actions stripped of meaning and reduced to mere physical motion.

♥ Iago, by contrast, remarks of himself that “I am not what I am” - meaning that while Othello seems more or less identical with his public image as a warrior, his own selfhood is just an empty excess over whatever mask he presents to the world at any given moment. Iago can be defined only in negative terms, as the other of whatever he appears to be. The same goes for his comment that “I am nothing if not critical.” Like a critic, he is parasitic on creation - a creation he secretly despises. Lacking any sturdy identity himself - he is an actor, a purely performative figure - he lives only in the act of subverting the selfhood of others.

♥ In this dissipated Parisian high society, one’s lover is one’s antagonist, to court her is to hunt her to the kill, and to bed her is to destroy her… In this malign lack of motive for their conquests, the two come very close to a traditional kind of evil. It is a condition which can be found all the way from Sade to Sartre. There is a good reason to believe that the devil is a Frenchman.

♥ Purges and pogroms generally have some political point - to seize land, for example, or to destroy potential enemies of the state. Yet they are rarely reducible to these practical goals, as the excessive violence invested in them might suggest. If they are as savage as they are, it is because they usually involve not just land or power but people’s identities. Human beings will often go to quite barbarous lengths to carry on being themselves. In any such campaign, the pragmatic and nonpragmatic are often interwoven.

♥ Those who fall under the sway of the death drive feel that ecstatic sense of liberation that springs from the thought that nothing really matters. The delight of the damned is not to give a damn. Even self-interest is set aside - for the damned are in their own twisted way entirely disinterested, eager as they are to bring themselves low along the rest of the creation. The death drive is a deliriously orgiastic revolt against interest, value, meaning, and rationality. It is an insane urge to shatter the lot of them in the name of nothing whatsoever. It has no respect for either the pleasure principle or the reality principle, both of which it is cheerfully prepared to sacrifice for the obscenely gratifying sound of the whole world crashing around its ears.

♥ The doomed are those who are bound fast to the Law because they are in love with the act of violating it. Each time they kick over the traces, they bring its sadistic fury down on their heads. They do so as surely as an alcoholic squeezes a few last, defiant drops of pleasure from the bottle, in the dreadful knowledge that this will bring upon him the most appalling state of physical and mental collapse.

♥ It seeks to reintroduce the idea of God to a sceptical, rationalist culture, since to kill is to exercise a divine power over others. Murder is our most potent way of robbing God of his monopoly over human life.

Yet the idea that evil is glamorous is one of the great moral mistakes of the modern age… Once the middle classes get their hands on virtue, even vice begins to look appealing. Once the puritan propagandists and evangelical mill owners redefine virtue as thrift, prudence, chastity, abstinence, sobriety, meekness, frugality, obedience, and self-discipline, it is not hard to see why evil should begin to look like a sexier option.

♥ The evil, then, are those who are deficient in the art of living. For Aristotle, living is something you have to get good at through constant practice, like playing the saxophone. It is something that the wicked have never quite got the hang of. Neither, for that matter, have any of us. It is just that most of us are better at it than Jack the Ripper. That we are all defective in this respect might come as a surprise to visitors from another world, who might reasonably expect to stumble upon a handful of perfect examples of the human species, along with a number of botched versions. It would seem as reasonable as expecting that there are a number of excellent apples around as well as a lot of rotten ones. The fact that all human beings without exception are dysfunctional in one way or another might seem to visiting aliens as bizarre as the idea that all the paintings in New York’s Guggenheim Museum are fakes. If the evil are grossly deficient in the art of living, the rest of us are moderately so.

♥ Radicals, by contrast, must maintain a precarious balancing act here. On the one hand, they must be brutally realistic about the depth and tenacity of human corruption to date. Otherwise there can be nothing very insistent about the project of transforming our condition. Those who sentimentally indulge humanity do it no favours. On the contrary, they act as a barrier to change. On the other hand, this corruption cannot be such that transformation is out of the question. Too sanguine a reading of history leads to the belief that no thoroughgoing change is necessary, while too gloomy a view of it suggests that such change is impossible to come by.

♥ That is not to claim that Islamic fundamentalism is eminently rational. On the contrary, it is ridden with the most virulent strains of prejudice and bigotry, as its torn and butchered victims have good reason to know. But those lethal fantasies are mixed in with some specific political grievances, however illusory or unjustified its enemies may consider them to be. To think otherwise is to imagine that Islamic terrorists, rather than being viciously wrong-headed, have no heads on their shoulders at all. It is to claim not that their grievances are misplaced, but that there is absolutely nothing to argue over. This is an irrational prejudice to rival their own, and one which can only make the situation worse. The tragedy is not only that millions of citizens now live in mortal danger through no fault of their own. It is also that such danger may never have been necessary in the first place.

No doubt there might still have veeb vicious, benighted Islamic ideologies around, just as there are vicious, benighted Western creeds. But it is unlikely that the twin towers would have crumbled simply because of this.

♥ Terrorism now has a deadly momentum of its own. But there is a difference between regretting this tragically lost opportunity, and treating one’s enemies as mindless beasts whom no rational action could ever conceivably sway. For champions of this viewpoint, the only solution to terrorist violence is more violence. More violence then breeds more terror, which in turn puts more blameless lives at risk. The result of defining terrorism as evil is to exacerbate the problem; and to make the problem worse is to be complicit, however unwittingly, in the very barbarism you condemn.
Tags: 2010s, 21st century - non-fiction, books on books, british - non-fiction, cultural studies, history, literary criticism, non-fiction, philosophy, psychology
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