When Evil is "Cool"

Our culture, in particular the institution of the university, has contrived over the past few decades to transform sin into a positive: transgression, a term that, as used by postmodern critics, refers to an implied form of greatness.
(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

I BEGIN with three stories, three moral tales.

*  *  *

IN LATE-MEDIEVAL Avignon a certain man gained the confidence and the warm friendship of a good-hearted and wealthy Jew. The man lived in the Jew's home and became his closest confidant. One evening the man came home in despair. He told the Jew that someone had denounced both of them to the Inquisition -- the one as a despicable Jew, the other as a renegade from the only true religion. They would soon be imprisoned, tortured, tried, and burned at the stake. But the man had a solution. The Jew should sell everything he had and charter a fully equipped ship, onto which he could load his fortune. The two of them would quietly sail away to safer shores. All these plans were rapidly carried out. Then, during the night before the planned departure, the man rose stealthily, robbed the sleeping Jew of his last possessions, and slipped away aboard the ship with all its treasure.
But this is only half the tale, and does not reveal the full dimensions of the man's evil. Before escaping, this "friend" denounced his benefactor to the Inquisition and arranged that its agents would seize the Jew early on the morning of his own flight. A few days later the Jew died horribly by fire. His treacherous friend has come to be known as the Renegade of Avignon.

*  *  *

AT NIGHTFALL outside a remote New England village early in the nineteenth century, a lime-burner named Bartram was tending his kiln. Its flame-framed metal door looked like a private entrance to the infernal regions. Announced by a frightening roar of laughter, the previous owner of the kiln returned after many years' absence. He declared to Bartram that he had found what he set out to seek: the Unpardonable Sin. Where had he found it? The wanderer laid his finger on his own heart and scornfully laughed again. Some local residents assembled to acknowledge, though hardly to celebrate, their fellow's return, and to hear about his obsessive quest for the Unpardonable Sin. Strange omens during the evening, among them a dog's suddenly chasing its tail, suggested that the devil was lurking in the neighborhood. The guests had uncertain knowledge that the former lime-burner had carried out fiendish psychological experiments on young and old. Left alone, finally, to tend the kiln for the night, the wanderer recalled that he had not, properly speaking, found the object of his quest. Rather, he had produced the Unpardonable Sin. For in seeking that knowledge, his fierce intelligence had separated from and outrun his heart.

In the morning Bartram did not find the returned wanderer. But in the hottest part of the kiln he discovered a snow-white lump of lime in the shape of a heart.

*  *  *

LIVING ALONE in a Paris garret, an idle young bohemian meditated on the sudden, perverse spurts of energy that can interrupt a life of laziness and boredom. Such urges lead one to unthinkable acts -- such as starting a forest fire or lighting a cigar next to a powder keg -- just to see what will happen, to tempt fate.

One morning the young man awoke in a mood to perform such an outrageous act. Seeing below in the street a window-glass vendor, un vitrier, with his stock of panes in a pack on his back, he summoned the vendor to climb up the six stories to his garret. He asked for tinted glass, which the vendor did not have. In a rage the young man kicked the vendor back out into the staircase, where the tradesman almost stumbled under his heavy load. Then, watching from the balcony, the young man dropped a flower pot just as the vendor reappeared in the street, and thus broke his stock of glass to smithereens. This vicious prank might damn him, the young bohemian said to himself, but it also brought a moment of infinite bliss.

*  *  *

These three narratives cannot aspire to tragic or epic proportions. Their intimacy, combined with a certain mystery of the inexplicable, gives them the status of moral enigmas.

The Renegade of Avignon was not content to abscond with the good Jew's entire fortune; this traitor, who would be assigned to the lowest circle in Dante's Inferno, also contrived to have his victim burned at the stake. The story appears about two thirds of the way through Diderot's widely influential underground dialogue, Rameau's Nephew (1761). The parasitic, clowning nephew half jocularly and half seriously cites the tale to show how one can become a "great personage" -- the Renegade displayed "unity of character" in his sustained viciousness. The nephew calls it "sublimity in evil," and enthuses over the deeds. His interlocutor, Myself, presumably speaking for Diderot, observes, "I don't know what horrifies me more, the villainy of your Renegade or the tone of voice you use to tell his story."

In the second tale many readers will have recognized Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "Ethan Brand" (1850). This dark tale implies that Brand has done unspeakable things to a local girl and to others, and has come to some understanding with the devil. But the essence of the Unpardonable Sin is neither of these. It lies in the sin of intellectual pride, in undertaking in the first place the search for the Unpardonable Sin. That overweening ambition turned Brand's heart to stone. "Ethan Brand" offers a strong parable of Forbidden Knowledge, in which the desired and prohibited goal is to discover ultimate evil.

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