Is the world awash with evil?


BOOK REVIEW: JOHN BANVILLEreviews On evilby Terry Eagleton, Yale 176pp, $25

Returning to an ancient debate, Terry Eagleton defends the notion that evil is a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world

THE PROBLEM of evil has bedevilled us since – well, since when, exactly? It is hard to conceive that our earliest ancestors, when they had swung down out of the trees and set up camp on the savannah, agonised over the extermination of the Neanderthals or worried about the proliferation of bows and arrows. Surely, in those days, at the dawn of what we would recognise as human life, the struggle to survive was so arduous that evil as a concept hardly existed. In Before Life and After, one of his greatest and bleakest poems, Thomas Hardy looked back wistfully to a prehistoric age “Before the birth of consciousness/ When all went well”:

If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,

If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung,

If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,

No sense was stung.

But the disease of feeling germed

And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;

Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed

How long, how long?

Friedrich Nietzsche, too, devoted much speculation to times before and beyond good and evil, tracing how homo sapiens, as he progressed in sophistication and self-awareness and set about the conquest of nature, transformed his primitive terrors into neurosis or religion or both: the ravening tiger’s yellow eye at the mouth of the cave became the superego’s savage monitoring or the baleful glare of a vengeful God, a process that the author of The Genealogy of Moralssummed up in a sardonic and wonderfully succinct aphorism: “Danger – the mother of morals”. Recent research among the higher primates indicates that the closer a species approaches to self-consciousness the more murderous it becomes; like us, the great apes slaughter their own kind out of hatred neither pure nor simple, or just for fun. The transformation from our beginnings as fish up to full-fledged humanity has been a costly process, one that before it is finished may cost the Earth.

Terry Eagleton, in his jaunty and surprisingly entertaining book on the subject, takes the unfashionable view that such a thing as evil does exist, though not in the sense in which viruses exist, and while it does determine actions it does not do so in the way that genes do. His argument is subtle, intricate, provocative and limpidly expressed; if in the end it is not quite as definite as he wishes it to be – if, in fact, it strays off into the same fog where even the great ones such as Kant and Thomas Aquinas purblindly grope, it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to a debate as old as Adam and Eve and as contemporary as 9/11 and Abu Ghraib.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION, Eagleton, who reclines in a number of distinguished academic seats including the chair of English literature at NUI Galway, is unequivocal in his view that “there are indeed evil acts and individuals”. This may seem a startling declaration from a self-professed Marxist, since thinkers of his persuasion usually deny the existence of evil in itself and see all wrongdoing as the direct result of social conditions; but then, Terry Eagleton is far too humane, and possessed of far too lively and open a mind, to be doctrinaire – his previous book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, made eyebrows rise on all sides of that ongoing and unruly bunfight.

He is dismissive of hard-left theorists such as Fredric Jameson, who speaks of “the archaic categories of good and evil”, or Perry Anderson, who contends that such terms can be applied only to the conduct of individuals. For Eagleton, morals and politics, the private and the public, interpenetrate at all levels. “If morality is not just about the personal life, neither is politics just about the public one.”

Towards the close of his book he seems to drift back into the Marxist enclosure, declaring that “most wickedness is institutional. It is the result of vested interests and anonymous processes, not of the malign acts of individuals.” This neatly supports Hannah Arendt’s notorious judgment of Adolf Eichmann as the embodiment of “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil”, the same Eichmann who at his trial in Jerusalem was able to adduce in his defence Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative and the Teutonic acceptance of the state’s right to demand absolute duty from its subjects.

EAGLETON IS QUICK to emphasise that in his conception of it, evil is not a supernatural phenomenon – “Ideas of evil do not have to posit a cloven-hoofed Satan” – yet he rejects outright what he calls the “community-worker theory of morality”, which, rather like hard-theory Marxism, regards the word “evil” as a “device for demonising those who are really nothing more than socially unfortunate . . . One should be careful not to let the Khmer Rouge off the same hook on which delinquent teenagers are impaled.” We may take it, then, that he would not be persuaded by Graham Greene’s contention that “In the lost childhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed”.

For Eagleton, evil is nothing more and nothing less than nihilism in its ultimate and purest manifestation, since “it takes up an attitude toward being as such, not just toward this or that bit of it. Fundamentally, it wants to annihilate the lot of it.” This rage for destruction he sees most clearly identified in Freud’s theory of the death instinct, and Eagleton notes that his own theory of evil “draws heavily on the thought of Freud, not least on his idea of the death drive . . .” This, he writes:

is the true scandal of psychoanalysis – not infant sexuality, which has been recognised for a long time (not least by infants), but the proposal that human beings unconsciously desire their own destruction. At the core of the self is a drive to absolute nothingness. There is that within us which perversely clamours for our own downfall. To preserve ourselves from the injury known as existing, we are even ready to embrace our own disappearance.

Or as Philip Larkin has it, “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”.

On Evilis divided into three chapters. The first, Fictions of Evil,examines the treatment of the subject in a number of novels, especially Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, William Golding’s Pincher Martinand Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, all of which have at their centre a protagonist who has given himself over to evil – Greene’s Pinkie and Golding’s Pincher Martin driven by an inner emptiness; Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn by the supposedly diabolical demands of great art.

The next chapter, Obscene Enjoyment, seems mistitled, since in it the narrative arrives at “an insight which seems central to the idea of evil”, which is that “Evil is supremely pointless” – but surely anything that provides enjoyment, even of an obscene variety, has a definite point. Yet the contention that Eagleton pushes here is profound, and profoundly frightening. Observing that Nazi Germany had many “Others” than the Jews, including the Allies, yet “it did not have well-drafted plans to exterminate them en masse”, he writes:

“The kind of others who drive you to mass murder are usually those who for some reason or other have come to signify the terrible non-being at the core of oneself. It is this aching absence which you seek to stuff with fetishes, moral ideals, fantasies of purity, the manic will, the absolute state, the phallic figure of the Führer. In this, Nazism resembles some other brands of fundamentalism. The obscene enjoyment of annihilating the Other becomes the only way of convincing yourself that you exist.”

In the final and shortest chapter Eagleton attempts to sum up, and to shore up, his general position, but although it contains many subtly shaded insights and vigorously expressed assertions – “Can there be evil acts without evil persons to execute them? Not if the argument of this book holds water” – he finds himself smack up against the intractability of the problem, the age-old problem, of how and why evil exists. This does not matter; we do not, or at least ought not, attend to a thinker in expectation of answers, but only for the stimulation of his manner of questioning.

Evil is an insoluble conundrum if for no other reason than that it is impossible to know how a world without evil would look. As Eagleton ruefully admits, “We cannot pass reliable judgment on the human species because we have never been able to observe it other than in desperately deformed conditions.” This is a sad truth. As Kant liked to say, nothing straight was ever made out of the crooked timber of humanity.

John Banville’s novel The Infinitiesis now out in paperback from Picador