Sunday, January 2, 2011
On Evil by Terry Eagleton
The novelist Milan Kundera writes on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting of what he calls the “angelic” and “demonic” states of humanity. By “angelic”, he means vacuous, grandiloquent ideals which lack root in reality. The demonic, by contrast, is a cackle of derisive laughter at the very idea that anything human could conceivably have meaning or value. The angelic is too stuffed with meaning, while the demonic is too devoid of it. The angelic consists of high-sounding cliches like “God bless this wonderful country of ours,” to which the demonic replies “Yeah, whatever.” “If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth" (the reign of the angels) writes Kundera, “man collapses under the burden; if the world loses all meaning (the reign of the demons), life is every bit as impossible.”
When the devil gave a burst of defiant laughter before God, an angel shouted in protest. The devil's laughter, Kundera comments, “pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel's shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was.” The angelic are like politicians, incurable upbeat and starry-eyed: progress is being made, challenges ate being met, quotas are being filled, and God still has a soft spot in his heart for Texas. The demonic, by contrast, are natural-born scoffers and cynics, whose language is closer to what politicians murmur in private than to what they maintain in public. They believe in power, appetite, self-interest, rational calculation, and nothing else.
The United States, unusually among nations, is angelic and demonic at the same time. Few other nations combine such high-flown public rhetoric with that meaningless flow of matter known as consumer capitalism. The role of the former is to provide some legitimation for the latter.
Rather as Satan combines angel and demon in his own person, so evil unites these two conditions. One side of it – the angelic, ascetic side – wants to rise above the degraded sphere of fleshliness in pursuit of the infinite. But this withdrawal of the mind from reality has the effect of striking the world empty of value. It reduces it to so much meaningless stuff, in which the demonic side of evil can then wallow. Evil always posits either too much or too little meaning – or rather it does both at the same time.
The dual face of evil is obvious enough in the case of the Nazis. If they were full of “angelic” bombast about sacrifice, heroism, and purity of blood, they were also in the grip of what Freudians have called “obscene enjoyment”, in love with death and non-being. Nazism is a form of crazed idealism which is terrified of human fleshliness. But it is also one long jeering belch in the face of all such ideals. It is both too solemn and too sardonic – full of stiff-gestured bombast about Fuhrer and Fatherland, yet cynical to its core.
The two faces of evil are closely linked. The more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mass of sensation. The more abstract reason becomes, the less men and women are able to live a meaningful creaturely life. So the more the must resort to mindless sensation to prove to themselves that they still exist...
Hell is the kingdom of the mad, absurd, monstrous, traumatic, surreal, disgusting and excremental which Jacques Lacan, after the ancient God of havoc, calls Ate. It is a landscape of desolation and despair. But it is a despair that its inhabitants would not wish for a moment to be snatched from them. For it is not only what gives them an edge over credulous idealists of every stripe; it is also the misery that assures them that they still exist. But even this, did they but know it, is a lie, for theologically speaking, as we have seen, there can be no life outside God. The evil, who believe they have seen through it all, are thus ensnared in illusion to the end.