Any quasi-sentient being who’s been paying attention to recent news has encountered frequent if not exuberant usage of that uniquely evocative word, “evil.”
The assassination of Qesem Suleimani alone has brought forth the word with impressive regularity, ironically not just to describe the decedent but also those responsible for his death.
The fact the word can be employed in such diametrically opposing ways suggests more than just moral relativism or ethical facility. It points out that, irrespective of whether something we might call evil truly exists, the use of the term to describe one’s adversary will continue as long as sanctimonious self-congratulation resides in the hearts and minds of mankind.
But as writers, we should avoid such convenient simplicities. We’re in the truth business, even when we employ fiction as our method—especially then.
Those of you who attended the Un-Conference may recall my presentation on villains, specifically my attempt to define what we mean by evil in a character. This is problematic given our need to justify, not judge our characters, and to keep in mind at all times that every character is the hero of his own narrative, regardless of what repulsive, horrifying, inexcusable means he employs to pursue his ends. That effort rests on our commitment to always see our characters as human subjects, not objects.
And yet even a passing acquaintance with the affairs of mankind alerts us to the presence of those individuals who not only cause harm and damage in the pursuit of what they want, they go further. The create that harm or damage deliberately, with “malice aforethought” or “malignant hearts,” or worse—they savor the harm, delight in it.
“The cruelty is the point,” as some have remarked concerning current immigration and asylum policies.
In creating a character who fits that prototype, if we wish to be honest, requires us to dig deep and explore where that sense of cruel vindication comes from, what generates and justifies not just the need to inflict pain but the exaltation in it.
Often, a sense of weakness or victimization is being reversed, not infrequently tinged with a profound sense of shame, guilt, or both. In this sense, it is an act of psychological legerdemain, where that sense of shameful victimization or weakness gets magically erased by being transferred onto another.
This also suggests that the new victim must be selected carefully, to truly expiate the old feelings of inadequacy, otherwise the magic won’t quite work.
It’s a sneaky business, finding just the right victim who best represents what we hate about ourselves. But this is a fool’s errand, because the magic is tainted by its nature. The shame and terror can never be truly erased—it really is part of us, not them—and so a new victim, a better victim, must be found, over and over, ad infinitum
This logic applies across a wide spectrum, from schoolyard bullies to abusive husbands to sadistic cops to serial killers, even to heads of state. Ivan the Terrible, after all, didn’t earn his catchy sobriquet by being open-hearted.
Whether the term “evil” applies to Qesem Suleimani is a question I don’t intend to address here. Dexter Filkins wrote an excellent profile of the man for the New Yorker in 2013. (To read it, go here.) Although no evidence exists that he relished the suffering he inflicted on his enemies, there is also nothing to indicate he felt regret.
However, if I were writing him as a character, I would take particular note of his being raised in poverty under the Shah; his military experiences and the valor he exhibited during the pointless slaughter known as the Iraq-Iran War; his legendary status as a commander and the reverence his men held for him; his invention of a particularly cruel form of weapon used against Coalition forces in Iraq, the notoriously murderous “explosively formed projectile” or E.F.P.; his sponsorship and direction of terror groups throughout the Middle East; the anger and resentment felt by many Sunni Arabs across the Middle East who were targeted by his proxies; the same sort of anger and resentment of many Iranians who saw him as the brutal enforcer for an oppressive regime; the awe (and fear) he inspired in nearly all those who encountered him; and this uniquely elucidating statement he made:
“One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscapes. But there is another paradise—the battlefield. The battlefield is man’s lost paradise—the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest.”
One can easily imagine something similar being said by Caesar, Rommel, or Patton. And though Sherman famously remarked that, “War is hell,” he didn’t make that observation until fifteen years after his devastating March to the Sea, which epitomized what has come to be known as Total War.
Regardless, the quotation strongly suggests that no one would have been less surprised that Qesem Suleimani was targeted for death than the man himself.
As I was presenting material along these lines at UnCon, I brought up how ethics in the Jewish moral tradition differed in some crucial regards from the Christian tradition, specifically with respect to the concept of “radical evil.”
Relying on a series of lectures titled “Why Evil Exists” by Professor Charles Mathewes of the University of Virginia, I noted that the Jewish tradition by and large resists the notion of radical evil as seen in Christianity, especially in the writings of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Such a notion implies the existence of an evil power or force in nature such as Satan, Lucifer, the Devil—or simply man himself since the Fall, corrupt, craven, irredeemable absent God’s grace.
An evil power or demigod or even an intrinsically corrupt mankind cannot be squared with the Jewish rejection of dualism; rather, God is the sole divinity at work in the history of the world, and his creation is good, as Genesis affirms.
What we might think of as evil is instead solely man taking his self-interest, which in many regards is good and necessary for worldly achievement, to an improperly selfish extreme. (This perspective changed in the wake of the Holocaust, but not entirely, as we will see below.)
This distillation of Jewish ethics did not sit well with one of the attendees, who considered it woefully incomplete. She referred me to the Jewish Virtual Library website, specifically the page from its Encyclopedia Judaica focused on Good & Evil. (I am refraining from mentioning her name out of a sense of decorum; if she wishes to come forward in the comments section and take credit for her observations and assistance, I would be delighted.)
I followed this excellent advice, and I agree that the Jewish ethical tradition is far more complex than my tidy little encapsulation could possibly capture. However, it is true that strict monotheism and the conviction that God is benevolent and his creation is good could not be reconciled with the kind of metaphysical evil found in Augustinian Christianity.
The crushing, grand-scale horrors created by totalitarianism, however, specifically the Nazi, Soviet, and Maoist killing machines, presented a new challenge. Two thinkers in particular raised arguments that I found particularly interesting and useful for a writer.
Martin Buber argued that evil results from man falling out of proper relationship with his fellow man. This echoes what I mentioned about a writer’s obligation to always treat his characters as subjects, not objects (i.e., “plot puppets”). It also echoes one of my favorite quotes from Iris Murdoch (“The Sublime and the Good”):
“Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”
The person we might be inclined to describe as evil has lost that contact with reality by losing that fundamental sense of the other as equally human. We often will need to defeat such a person, keep him from harming others—but does that really require we label him as evil and thus reduce ourselves to the same disconnection with reality and humanity?
I’m neither a pacifist nor a sentimentalist. I know only to well that in the heat of battle hatred can be a useful, even necessary mindset. It forms a unique, often unaddressed aspect of the fog of war. And yet what is strategy but planning out what needs to be done to combat a foe who is as clever, as motivated, as determined—as human—as we are?
The other Jewish theologian I found particularly interesting—and relevant—was Abraham J. Heschel. For fear of mischaracterizing his thought by trying to summarize it myself, I’ll defer to the Encyclopedia Judaica’s account:
Heschel, referring to a midrash about Abraham seeing a castle in flames (Gen. R. 39:1), asks: “The world is in flames, consumed by evil. Is it possible that there is no one who cares?” (God in Search of Man (1961), 367). After considering the horrors of Auschwitz he questions: “What have we done to make such crimes possible? What are we doing to make such crimes impossible?” According to him nothing in the world is wholly good or wholly evil, everything is a mixture. Man’s nature, his ego, and the relative rewards of evil in this world help evil to prevail. Fortunately, God is concerned about man’s separating the good from the evil. God commands man and gives him the mitzvot, which are the tools by which man can overcome evil. “Evil is not man’s ultimate problem. Man’s ultimate problem is his relation to God… The biblical answer to evil is not the good but the holy. It is an attempt to raise man to a higher level of existence, where man is not alone when confronted with evil.”
Once again, we see evil as a kind of disconnection, this time not just from our fellow humans but from God.
How intriguing, how useful to see evil as a commitment, maybe even an obsession, with being alone. The need to control, dominate, dictate terms is the epitome of a need to stand alone—to live above, not among, others.
It’s cowardice on steroids. It’s narcissism as ethos.
That’s why I find the idea that the opposite of evil is not just the good but the holy particularly appealing.
How many of us, when writing about conflict, bother to go that deep, to move beyond a depiction of the contest of wants or needs and recognize the damage inflicted on our sense of love and wonder by objectifying our enemies?
How many of us recognize in our need to belittle and demean those who oppose us—or to reduce our characters to plot puppets—a fearful rejection of the love and wonder that make us human?
It is tempting, in the sacred sense of that word, to call our enemies evil. But in doing so we merely reveal our rejection of our own humanity in its fullest sense, our contentment with being small, frightened, and alone.
How do you see your current WIP reflecting this deeper contest between relation and isolation—between control and equanimity, domination and openness?
What have you done recently to deepen the conflict in your stories to include not just a contest of wills but a revelation of the battle between isolation and connection?