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I SEE four categories of evil.
Natural evil occurs in the form of elemental disasters and scourges, which may affect any of us and over which we have limited control. In the years immediately following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 the intellectual and theological debate over the meaning of that event helped to shake the foundations of the Christian faith.
Moral evil refers to actions undertaken knowingly to harm or exploit others in contravention of accepted moral principles or statutes within a society. These actions are subject to judgment and punishment, mitigation and aggravation, repentance and remission. In societies that have been shaped by Western traditions, Greco-Roman law and Judeo-Christian ideals merge in a gradually changing heritage that defines morality.
Radical evil applies to immoral behavior so pervasive in a person or a society that scruples and constraints have been utterly abandoned. The Marquis de Sade, the Soviet gulag, and the Nazi Holocaust belong to this form of evil, so extreme that it can no longer recognize its own atrocity. Lenin stated it forcefully: "The dictatorship means -- learn this once and for all -- unrestrained power based on force, not on law."
Metaphysical evil designates an attitude of assent and approval toward moral and radical evil, as evidence of superior human will and power. Thus forms of evil arising from human agency are given a status as inevitable -- effectively a reversion to natural evil. And thus the cruelest of monsters and tyrants are normalized in the perspective of history and in their evolutionary survival of the fittest. Metaphysical evil nullifies all attempts to establish constraints through law and social compact. The twentieth century has conferred astonishingly widespread respect for metaphysical evil by honoring the thought of Nietzsche.
Though such definitions and distinctions may supply us with ideas and nuances to argue about, I continue to find greater revelation about evil in narratives. Stories supply details of character, of setting, and of the passage of time, which are the essentials of our moral existence. When a number of cultures concur in identifying an author as profoundly illuminating about a particular aspect of life, we have good reason to read that author with attention. On the subject of evil Dostoevski has few close rivals. He frequently presented different versions of a single situation: the failed attempt by an individual or a group to extend the moral evil of his or their actions into the purer and more intense domain of radical evil. Even Notes From Underground, behind its compulsive comedy and satire, sketches in a weak version of this situation. The Possessed and Crime and Punishment, in contrast, develop a strong version that overrides elements of comedy and satire. Dostoevski's major works deal primarily with forms of evil and fanaticism released by "new ideas." In this respect Dostoevski remains astonishingly timely. His work occupies an essential place in literature curricula. Raskolnikov anticipates the essence and the allure of Nietzsche's thought; his friend Razumihin and the police inspector Porfiry provide a mature rejoinder, both spoken and lived, to these destructive new ideas.
Anton Chekhov grew up in much the same society as Dostoevski, and through his medical practice and his professional familiarity with prison culture knew as much about the underside of life as Dostoevski did. Why don't we turn to Chekhov, as we do to Dostoevski, to inform ourselves about the compulsions and the evasions of evil? Chekhov's plays and stories contain despair to the point of suicide, pointless and fatal duels, perfidy and deception in endless variations. Chekhov was essentially more of a realist than Dostoevski, whose force often lay in a strong proclivity to melodrama, caricature, and hallucinatory scenes. In an 1887 letter to M. V. Kiselev, Chekhov defended a story called "Mire," about a grasping provincial courtesan who half corrupts two intelligent and respectable cousins. Literature must be able to portray all of life, Chekhov insisted, including "the dunghill," even though the depiction of evil affects readers in very different ways. Echoing the French critic Hippolyte Taine, he said, "A writer should be as objective as a chemist." Yet Chekhov wrote this stout defense of literary freedom with reference to a singularly innocent story. In "Mire" the two cousins misbehave a bit, but their embarrassed laughter at their own behavior is an appropriate response to their social situation. "Mire" is almost too strong a title for a story in which evil emerges briefly from the milieu and is absorbed back into it. Even the stunningly self-reliant woman who impresses both men with her poise and talents seems more a challenge to stuffiness than a sinister and corrupting influence.
Like most of Chekhov's stories and plays, "Mire" is a work without a villain. Chekhov depicted everything, dunghills and all. Yet the self-deprecating, tentative actions of his characters leave the impression that in their weakness they exist as the victims of natural evil. Awful things happen, but no one must assume full moral responsibility for them. Not even Natasha, the most self- absorbed and unfeeling character in Three Sisters, fills the role of a moral agent driving the action, like Stavrogin in The Possessed. Chekhov dealt with evil, but he pushed it constantly in the opposite direction from that of Dostoevski, moving it through prolonged silences and inappropriate laughter toward natural evil, about which we can do very little. Dostoevski, with prolonged intellectual discussions and growing horror, moved evil toward radical evil and its self-justification. As a result, Chekhov is consoling to read, Dostoevski disturbing.
A YEAR ago a group of high school students in Pearl, Mississippi, conspired to murder some fellow students and their parents. (At least five incidents of school homicide have followed.) The dynamics of the group and the motives for the killings may never become entirely clear. But such an event is not unprecedented. Seventy-five years ago a similar homicide and a celebrated trial shocked the nation. Nathan Leopold, age nineteen, and Richard Loeb, age eighteen, two precocious college graduates in Chicago, both from wealthy families, kidnapped and murdered Bobby Franks, a fourteen-year- old boy who lived in their neighborhood, and then tried to extort a ransom from the boy's family. As the result of their bumbling and some remarkable police work, they were caught, and they confessed.
The two youths were neither deprived nor mistreated. They could look forward to a brilliant future. Why this senseless crime? They sought a thrill, the kind of elation in a momentary experience that Baudelaire imagined. But they planned for it over a long time. They hoped it would demonstrate that they could conceive and carry out a perfect crime. And such a crime would demonstrate their superiority to, and exemption from, the ordinary laws of mankind.
The young men's defense was conducted by Clarence Darrow, the most famous trial lawyer of the era. He had them plead guilty without plea bargaining; that way they would appear before a judge alone. The hearing, with many witnesses for both sides, lasted more than a month. Having avoided an unwanted jury trial through guilty pleas that acknowledged the sanity of his clients, Darrow deployed witnesses and arguments to prove that the defendants were mentally impaired. In his magisterial summation, published in newspapers nationwide, Darrow cited the influence on Leopold of Nietzsche and his superman philosophy. He turned it into a mitigating circumstance. "Your Honor, it is hardly fair to hang a nineteen-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university." Darrow said that the fact that Leopold lived and practiced the superman myth was evidence of a "diseased mind."
The most persuasive, finally successful part of Darrow's argument was against the inhumanity of capital punishment as no improvement over an eye for an eye. The judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life plus ninety-nine years. But along the way Darrow had stretched and even exceeded legal limits in his effort to transform guilt or conscious evil into insanity. The prosecutor, Robert E. Crowe, in his summation, quoted Theodore Roosevelt's response to a plea of insanity by a prisoner on death row: "I have scant sympathy with a plea of insanity advanced to save a man from the consequences of crime when, unless that crime had been committed, it would have been impossible to persuade any reasonable authority to commit him to an asylum as insane." No friend or familiar had ever considered Leopold or Loeb mentally incompetent before their crime. And Crowe felt compelled to reveal Darrow's deepest convictions about the nature of crime. He read to the packed court and into the historical record a statement Darrow had made twenty years earlier to prisoners in the Cook County jail in Chicago: "The reason I talk to you on the question of crime, its cause and cure, is because I really do not believe the least in crime."
It sounded for a time as if Darrow were being put on trial. First, he partially excused the boys' evil actions by attributing them to the influence of Nietzsche's ideas, the ideas of a man who went mad. Second, he had publicly advocated ideas about social determinism and the nonexistence of crime and moral responsibility. These ideas, if accepted, would not merely mitigate the crime; they would undermine the entire judicial system in which Darrow was participating, and would eliminate from social relations any guiding principles of good and evil, sanity and madness, innocence and guilt. This disturbing revelation close to the end of the trial did not halt Darrow's juggernaut against capital punishment. But it demonstrated that highly articulate and influential people close to the criminal-justice system may entertain notions about the nature of evil and free will that are utterly at odds with the basic principles of that system.
The last story I want to examine is neither a literary work nor a court case. The movie Pulp Fiction (1994) represents several murderous episodes in gory detail, sets all the action in a criminal milieu where such episodes are considered normal and justified (with the exception of one awkward accident), and surrounds the incidents with small talk and compulsive wisecracking. After one has adjusted to the thick layer of obscenities, a frequently used four- letter word emerges as descriptive of the character trait being held up by the film for admiration: "cool." Mr. Wolf, the chief mobster's troubleshooter, efficiently and unflappably directs the cleanup of everyone's bloody mess and restores the normal order of crime. Mr. Wolf provides the nearest approach to a moral center in the story. He is supremely cool.
One brief scene, in which a character chooses the cruelest available weapon with which to escalate the already extreme violence of the scene, unmistakably satirizes the conventions of splatter films. He picks up and then rejects, one after another, a hammer, a baseball bat, and a chain saw, settling finally and triumphantly on a samurai sword. This is vaudeville. Is it possible that the director, Quentin Tarantino, intended to mock the film industry's crass exploitation of criminal violence? Some viewers and critics believe that he did. But the movie as shot and edited displays itself as complicit with the criminal violence it depicts. Except for the scene just mentioned, nothing suggests that this film sees around or beyond the horrible actions it portrays with the utmost cool. By depicting evil in this fashion the film neutralizes it -- absorbs it into ordinary life, broken by a few thrills and laughs, and desensitizes us to evil.
After I had presented a similar analysis of Pulp Fiction in a lecture on Swift and satire, a few of my students defended the movie vehemently as satire. They maintained that it sensitizes the audience to violence and crime. We did not persuade one another. I continue to find, after further viewings, that Pulp Fiction mitigates the behavior it represents, as Darrow tried to mitigate the evil deeds of Leopold and Loeb even after legally conceding their guilt. But in one respect Pulp Fiction carries us further away from responsibility and guilt than Darrow did. In the ideal of cool complicity in criminal violence lurks the suggestion, spotted by Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, of greatness in evil and of evil. Plausibly, a form of that greatness can be found in a few tragic roles. Aeschylus' Orestes kills his own mother to avenge her murder of his father. Orestes then undergoes the sufferings of exile, and of the Furies' wrathful pursuit, followed by ritual cleansing of his crime. In Aeschylus, however, greatness is less in and of evil than in overcoming evil and attaining wisdom. The cool of Pulp Fiction, in contrast, transports us first into the pervasiveness of radical evil and then back to Rameau's nephew's metaphysical evil -- his approbation of the Renegade of Avignon. Evil is not overcome. Evil is accepted and admired.
I CLOSE with a troubling quotation from Emerson. Toward the end of "Experience," one of his most skeptical and disillusioned essays, Emerson made a remarkable statement about evil: "We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others is experiment for us."
The term "experiment," cousin to "experience," links Emerson's thoughts to Ethan Brand's search for the Unpardonable Sin and to Baudelaire's bohemian who indulges his perverse cruelty. And Emerson's transformation of objective sin into subjective "experiment" suggests a method of discovering greatness in evil, as imagined by Pascal and La Rochefoucauld. In this strongly observant passage Emerson appears to take no stand, to observe from afar. Then, a dozen or so lines later, comes a sentence that casts light on every case and every story I have cited: "For there is no crime to the intellect." I read that sentence as strongly cautionary to our era. Our culture, in particular the institution of the university, has contrived over the past few decades to transform sin and evil into a positive term: "transgression." As used by postmodern critics, "transgression" refers to conduct that aspires to Emerson's moral experiment and to an implied form of greatness in evil. On an intellectual level, which Leopold and Loeb feverishly extended into deliberate actions, evil can become supremely cool.
Let us beware of applying our intellects to condoning evil or to making ourselves into "splendidly wicked" people. Twice this century has spawned overwhelming state terrorism -- in communism and in fascism. We cannot afford such blindness to history and such naiveté as to embrace the morality of the cool.
Roger Shattuck is the author of Marcel Proust (1974), which won the National Book Award. His most recent book is Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (1996).
Illustrations by Amy Guip
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; When Evil is "Cool"; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 73 - 78.