Evil bastards

What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.

Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.

Social conditions

I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.

Metaphysical/religious

Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.

Psychoanalytic/Freudian

Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a  Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)

Existentialist

Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.

I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.

Jung’s Synchronicity

To my scientist friend and sometime interlocutor, you might tentatively grant me that science and reason like to explicate everything with reference to a causal nexus. Let’s start with the big bang. Since I can’t get figures to print in WordPress, picture a circle (the big bang) at the center of the page with rays shooting out in all directions. Within each ray, each point is “explained” by the antecedent points in the ray, the string of “causes” that got you there. That’s the “causalist” way of explaining reality.

Carl Jung’s synchronicity, drawn in part from his reading of the Chinese I Ching, gives a different way of apprehending reality. Look at the group of objects in this room or outside the window, or the grouping of people and things in your life right now. Synchronicity sees not the causal aspect of that configuration but the chance aspect. It strips away the reference to that external causal nexus and really looks at the things themselves. Jung gives the example of the crystal. The Western mind sees that all crystals are hexagonal (well, not exactly, but they all approximate a rational ideal of the hexagon that doesn’t exist as such in real life). The mind of the I Ching sees the unique, chance aspect of the one crystal that happens to be in hand, the beautiful arbitrariness of its single identity. Neither mode of apprehension is “correct”; they both offer insight into reality.

But synchronicity is not all chance. Here I turn to Jung’s central contribution to the history of ideas – the archetypes and the collective unconscious. (And don’t blame Jung for this, because I am now making up these connections as I go along.) Synchronicity does attribute meaning, often profound meaning, to the configurations at hand. It does so not with reference to the external string of causes, but with reference to a kind of depth within the configuration. For example, two people meet and experience tremendous love and tremendous loss. The “causalist” might explain by saying that Person A moved to this city after such and such causal events, Person B moved to the same city at the same time due to a different series of causal events, etc. Synchronicity disregards these causal sequences. Any meaning comes from the subjective depths. These two people reverberate with the unbearable love and unbearable loss of Apollo and Daphne, of Cupid and Psyche, these timeless archetypes, a kind of cosmic destiny, rippling through their here-and-now experience. It may not be a meaning you can map along a series of coordinates, but it is a meaning you can feel.

And now, with due respect to the vast body of information made available through causalist disciplines, one could at least argue that the archetypal way of rendering the meaning of our two lovers captures the richness of the human experience more accurately than the causalist reading.