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. [Read more…]