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.

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I BEGIN with three stories, three moral tales.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The young Parisian who gratuitously and fiendishly victimized a poor glass vendor inhabited the imagination of Baudelaire in one of his prose poems, "The Unfortunate Glazier." Consisting of a few pages written around 1862, it may well have been read by Dostoevski, whose Notes From Underground (1864) sounds like a sustained recasting and elaboration of Baudelaire's vignette. In each of these works the author created a principal character who approaches cruelty and crime as psychological and intellectual experiments. Cultivating their most selfish impulses, both characters reach a point of practicing sheer wickedness without purpose or cause. Neither commits a capital crime, but their logic could easily lead them in that direction.

One thing these three tales establish is that evil comes in several forms. The Renegade of Avignon premeditated his theft and his treachery over time. He plotted how to obtain the Jew's cooperation in his scheme and then how to eliminate his benefactor with hideous cruelty. The latter crime was largely unnecessary, a kind of maestro's flourish or fiend's laughter. That is the part of the story that Rameau's nephew finds sublimely evil.

lacerated heart

Ethan Brand spent even longer than the Renegade in meditating on and finally carrying out his project -- discovering the Unpardonable Sin, the ultimate evil, which not even the love of God can wash away. Presumably, Brand believed that his quest would serve mankind and would bring him some form of reward and satisfaction for his devotion to a lofty goal. The story has a strong Faustian ring. But there is more evidence to consider. When Bartram saw Ethan Brand lay his finger on his heart to designate where he had found the Unpardonable Sin, the simple lime-burner came to a conclusion never denied elsewhere in the story: he must be dealing with "a man who, on his own confession, had committed the one crime for which Heaven could afford no mercy." Only after an offstage, undescribed point of no return did Ethan Brand comprehend that the terrible knowledge he sought in the world and in other people resided in himself. Curiosity and pride blinded him until the time for redemption had passed. The Unpardonable Sinner could now only return to his starting place and destroy himself by leaping into the inferno that had originally inspired his nocturnal meditations on evil.

Baudelaire's bored bohemian neither plotted a crime nor sustained any purposeful mental activity. Through the absence of meaningful occupation he became the victim of sudden willful actions that seemed to serve no personal interest. The reward he claimed was "dans une seconde l'infini de la jouissance." This instant of mental voluptuousness stands for a reverse epiphany, a negative transcendence toward baseness and inhumanity. All of us can feel and have felt this tug toward what is vile, and have yielded to it in varying degrees. The fragile compact we live by declares that we should not follow these impulses too often or too far. Baudelaire reported in formal verse and in prose poetry on his recurrent encounters with these reverse epiphanies, these glimpses into the abyss. His power as a poet arises from the way his lines create tensely divided feelings about evil, composed of both fascination and revulsion. Rameau's nephew would have found nothing sublime about such an attitude -- no unity of character.

EACH of these tales concentrates on a particular form of evil. And in each case evil has a strong presence, a perverse stature not reduced or redeemed by any other force in the story. Moreover, each story obliges us to ponder an implied greatness of evil -- its claim on our admiration as a dynamic element of reality -- and an implied greatness in evil of certain dark personages. In order to deal with this vast subject on a small scale, I must leave aside major figures like Milton's Satan and Goethe's clownish Mephistopheles. Instead I shall comment on three short quotations that may concentrate the matter for us.

The complete text of one of Blaise Pascal's most troubling Pensées runs to four sentences.

Evil is easy. Its forms are infinite; good is almost unique. But there is a kind of evil as difficult to identify as what is called good, and often this particular evil passes for good because of this trait. Indeed, one needs an extraordinary greatness of soul to attain it as much as to attain good.

Elsewhere Pascal wrote insistently that man's greatness resides in his capacity to think: we are frail reeds, but reeds capable of thought. What, then, is this unexpected and even inappropriate "greatness of soul," summoned from nowhere to explain a particularly rare form of evil? Did Pascal envision a moral and metaphysical mission like Ethan Brand's to search out a special form of evil that could pass for good? Possibly. But he provided too little evidence to guide our conjectures, offering a riddle without a solution.

Pascal's contemporary, François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, wrote even more succinctly on the same moral question: "Il n'appartient qu'aux grands hommes d'avoir de grands défauts" ("Only great men can have great faults"). La Rochefoucauld did not write, "The greater the personage, the more destructive the faults." Perhaps that is presumed evident. Instead he introduced a pun on the word grand, or "great." Grand, like "great," can mean "worthy of admiration and respect," and also, more neutrally, "large in extent, big." "Great men" employs the first meaning, "great faults" the second. When the two are said together, we hear a certain moral greatness and worthiness being attributed to the faults of the great -- that is, to evil. Has La Rochefoucauld given us something more profound than a flippant pun? I think he has. Through the ironies that sparkle in the word "great," he offers us a warning against the influence of such powerful figures. So crisp a maxim does not fade away.

The eighteenth-century English scholar and critic Samuel Johnson was, unlike Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, disinclined to reduce a complex moral quandary to a cryptic maxim and move on. In his Rambler essay on the modern novel (1750) Johnson stated the quandary clearly and then inserted a severe "but" that cuts in the opposite direction from Pascal's "but."

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the art of murdering without pain.... Vice, for vice is necessary to be shown, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind.

Johnson believed so strongly in the persuasiveness of literature that he disapproved of assigning sympathetic traits to immoral characters. This principle became the basis for his first criticism of Shakespeare: that the dramatist was more concerned to please us than to instruct us. I find Johnson's aversion to villains of mixed temperament naive and obtuse, if only for reasons of verisimilitude; we continue to expect fiction to be true to life in some essential way. But Johnson was dead right in insisting -- as did Plato and Rousseau -- that what we encounter as literature and as entertainment has a strong effect on us, not just on our feelings and imagination but also on our behavior. Nearly a century passed before a fully articulated doctrine of art for art's sake came on the scene to separate art from life. More than two centuries later a free-market publisher and pornographer, Larry Flynt, has been heroized in a movie as a champion of free speech, has been invited to law-school debates, and has stated without challenge, "Adults can read anything they want without being corrupted." Dr. Johnson's understanding of human nature reached deeper than Larry Flynt's.

is the author of (1974), which won the National Book Award. His most recent book is (1996).

Illustrations by Amy Guip

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; When Evil is "Cool"; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 73 - 78.