The devil’s advocate

August 12, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

On Evil. Terry Eagleton; $16.00 paper 978-0-300-17125-9, 180 pp., Yale University Press.

English literature professor and cultural critic Terry Eagleton dedicates his brief examination of evil in our modern age to Henry Kissinger. This is the only mention of Kissinger in the book, and the implication seems to be that he serves as the embodiment of the ontological state expressed in the title. This reading is somewhat problematic, however, given Eagleton’s conception of evil as banal, nihilistic, and devoid of ideology. Hitler, Eagleton suggests, “can probably be spoken of as authentically evil.” Mao and Stalin, on the other hand, cannot, because their actions can be rationally explained by their pursuit of ideologically based goals. Unlike the Holocaust, which Eagleton casts as “a kind of monstrous acte gratuit, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it,” Mao and Stalin “massacred for a reason.” Eagleton is quick to point out that this does not absolve them from moral culpability for their atrocities, but at the same time, it excludes them from the category of evil acts.

The author distinguishes between evil, which he sees as fabulously rare in the real world, and wickedness, which is much more common. In this conception, Mao and Stalin were wicked, not evil, as were Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the two 10-year-old boys who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered two-year-old James Bulger in northern England in 1993. Venables and Thompson, “semi-socialised” children whose actions may have been explicable on the basis of both age and societal situation, should not be seen as evil. As Eagleton attests, William Golding suggested in his novel Lord of the Flies that “a bunch of unsupervised schoolboys on a desert island would slaughter each other before the week was out.” Boys will be boys, after all.

Eagleton should be commended for sloughing off the Manichean separation, much beloved by Victorians and Calvinists, of demonic and angelic; as a critic steeped in theory and nuance, this renunciation is only to be expected. And it is easy to agree that calling Venables and Thompson evil, as one of the police officers involved in the case did of Thompson (“As soon as I laid eyes on him, I knew he was evil”), is a neat way of shutting down any debate about social conditions that might contribute to nurturing youth violence.

The distinction between evil and wickedness, on the other hand, seems purely semantic, particularly as applied to figures such as Mao, Stalin, and, indeed, Kissinger. How is Kissinger evil, as Eagleton’s dedication would seem to imply, while Mao and Stalin – who were, by any metric, responsible for the deaths of exponentially more people – manage to escape such a designation? Kissinger was no less impelled by explicable, albeit despicable, ideological goals. So, for that matter, was Hitler, if one considers racial purity an explicable goal. Claiming evil for Hitler and Kissinger, while Mao and Stalin are downgraded to mere wickedness, seems passing strange. The whole category separation starts to appear like a distinction without a difference.

Again, it is important to note Eagleton’s resistance to categorical statements: his entire argument is a kind of dance, a bob and weave around various linguistic stumbling blocks. Early on (and as though anticipating the objection above), the author asserts:

The word “evil” is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist to the solar plexus. Like the idea of taste, over which there is supposedly no arguing, it is an end-stopping kind of term, one which forbids the raising of further questions. Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them. The argument of this book is that neither of these viewpoints is true.

Eagleton wants to make clear that evil exists, but not as the kind of blunt instrument many of its proponents often wield. Evil is much more subtle, and much less common, than popular culture would have us believe.

For Eagleton, the key component of evil is its meaninglessness. Evil, Eagleton suggests, is not self-interested, but disinterested; it is closely tied to the Freudian death drive, which is a kind of “death-in-life,” characterized by despair and spiritual vacuity. “Those who fall under the sway of the death drive,” Eagleton writes, “feel that ecstatic sense of liberation that springs from the thought that nothing really matters. The delight of the damned is not to give a damn.” This state of uncaring is what makes Iago the most evil of Shakespeare’s characters, in Eagleton’s opinion: he precipitates Othello’s demise, not so much out of sexual jealously as for no discernible reason at all. His hatred of Othello simply exists without cause or rationale. “Othello presents us with the spectacle of one man systematically destroying another, and for no apparent reason. Evil, it would seem, is an example of pure disinterestedness.”

This reading flies in the face of the psychoanalytic approach to the play, which tends to see Iago as Othello’s Jungian “shadow.” To the extent that Iago is a kind of projection of Othello’s darker impulses, his evil cannot be entirely disinterested. Indeed, the psychoanalytic critic Barbara A. Schapiro finds Iago caught up not so much in a Freudian death drive as in a kind of psychological splitting:

The fact is that Iago would have no power over Othello were Othello not in love; Iago’s destructiveness can best be understood, I believe, within the context of Othello’s love. Perhaps the play enacts not the psychic reality of destructiveness as an innate, irrational force, but the psychic reality of splitting. As Klein and Fairbairn have theorized, in the immature psyche, enraged, bad, destructive feelings are split off and projected in order to protect the self and its good, loved object – a primitive defense that can always be remobilized. The very purity of Desdemona’s goodness and the absoluteness of Iago’s evil support a view of the play as a dramatization of splitting. It is possible to understand Iago, in psychic terms, as representing a split-off, repudiated destructiveness within Othello himself.

“In every work of genius,” Emerson wrote, “we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” In the psychoanalytic conception, Iago would appear to be a kind of genius of evil, returning Othello’s own destructiveness to him with a kind of alienated majesty. But such a reading disallows what Eagleton feels is the central proponent of evil: “It has, or appears to have, no practical purpose. Evil is supremely pointless. Anything as humdrum as a purpose would tarnish its lethal purity.”

It is significant that Eagleton does not differ with the psychoanalysts on Iago’s essential nature. For Eagleton, he is a “great Shakespearian example of an evil which seems to lack all purpose.” Schapiro, on the other hand, accedes that Iago is evil, but doubts that his evil has its origins in what she refers to as a kind of “motiveless malignancy.” “Psychoanalysis,” Shapiro writes, “can support a view of Iago’s evil as deeply contingent and bound up in a relational history and narrative, a narrative that can indeed provide a motivational base.” This approach, Schapiro argues, allows for a conception “of Iago’s destructiveness as responsive rather than as purely instinctual. Iago’s destructiveness is inseparable from Othello’s destructiveness, and that destructiveness is a response to the intolerable vulnerability and self-endangerment that Othello’s love for Desdemona, and his status as a black man in relation to a white aristocratic woman, involves.” Whatever it is, in other words, it is not without motive.

This is significant, since it touches the heart of Eagleton’s idea of what constitutes evil. “Evil is philistine,” Eagleton writes, “kitsch-ridden, and banal.” He goes so far as to suggest that in their obsession with meaninglessness and the systematic dismantling of tropes and traditions, postmodernism and avant-garde art share commonalities with evil (he makes a better case than one might expect).

Although he rejects the notion of original sin, Eagleton’s analysis is inseparable from his Catholicism: the two figures who tower over this book are St. Augustine and (not surprisingly) Thomas Aquinas. His late-game broadside against the “dewy eyed” atheist Richard Dawkins feels grafted on, as does his attempt to explain the actions of the 9/11 terrorists as being grounded in legitimate political motives (there is an argument to be made here, but Eagleton fails to make it in any satisfying way). Eagleton writes as a believer, and this may catch readers up short should they not share the author’s assumptions. This proves a stumbling block especially in the book’s final section, in which the author’s a priori belief that god exists and his attempt to explain the nature of evil in light of this belief immediately forestalls any kind of scientific or existential objection. This tendency on the part of Eagleton the believer undercuts the attempts by Eagleton the theorist to introduce nuance and subtlety into his argument, and brings the book to a stuttering, unsatisfying close.


One Response to “The devil’s advocate”
  1. Lewis Kelly says:

    If Eagleton conceives of evil as inherently pointless and without motivation, how does this avoid the “end-stopping” version of evil he says he’s arguing against? It seems to me that labeling something “evil” on his grounds precludes much further discussion of the thing labelled.