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.


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.


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.)


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.


Three Takes on Satan

First, there Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the guy who would famously rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He created quite a stir in his neoclassical age. The critics of that age liked for everything to fit into their symmetrical boxes, but there was some conundrum about what to do with Satan. Everyone naturally wanted Adam or the Messiah to be the hero of the poem, but no one could deny that Satan was the most interesting, most memorable, the dominant character who lingers in the imagination. Not that Milton had anything subversive in mind, at least not when it comes to the Christian world view. (His regicidal politics are another matter.) Milton is no doubt a God-fearing Protestant, but Satan steals the show nonetheless.

A century later, William Blake finds a way out of the conundrum. Blake also identifies as Christian, but his way out of Milton’s knot gave no succor to more orthodox Christian souls. Blake had his own visions of divine history – quite literally, as a result perhaps of some psychotic or paranormal power – which, he claimed, confirmed Milton’s epic vision in every respect but one: Milton misnamed the Messiah “Satan” and misnamed Satan “The Messiah.” Blake could not deny his own essentially religious visions of divine reality but he could not accept the principles of orthodox Christianity, which he found deadening and counter to the spirit of the human soul. He and Milton would probably agree that Milton’s Messiah represents restraint and reason, and that Milton’s Satan represents an unrestrained desire, a passion that exceeds all accepted bounds. It’s just that for Blake, that means Milton’s “Messiah” represents everything deadening to the human spirit and Milton’s “Satan” represents the liberating and redemptive power. At first glance, indeed, it seems like Blake puts a lot more energy into debunking Christian orthodoxy than offering anything favorable to Christianity. (The archetypal figures in his visionary works can be interpreted in a way that is commensurate with the Christian mythos but they are not limited to that interpretation.) Blake, however, reminds us in a letter to Thomas Butts: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God.”

Leave it to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who was kicked out of Oxford in his youth for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every Bishop in England, to take the next move. Shelley keeps Blake’s archetypal structures intact, embracing the Romantic view of imagination and passion and desire as liberating forces and conventional thinking and restrained rationalism as deadening, but Shelley breaks the whole mythos free of the Christian shell. Shelley agrees that Milton’s Satan is morally superior to his God, but he would prefer to draw his archetypal heroes from the likes of Prometheus, as someone who can represent the great forces of our collective unconscious without the risk of pulling the reader into the realm of nominal superstition.

So is that the end of Satan? I doubt it. Even today, Milton’s Satan can capture the imagination of readers – both professorial and everyday ones. And I know religious philosophers after Shelley – Kierkegaard and Husserl come to mind – have wrestled with the role of imagination and desire in a religious framework (although I can’t recall them bringing Satan into it in the same concrete way).

Then there’s Dracula and such villains who seem carved from Satanic stone, but I’m not sure we should start down that road. After all, Satan may be the ultimate reference point for all villains (but especially for gothic villains). So maybe we’d better stop here and ponder 😊

“Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design, 
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
 his solitary flight.” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, 1667)

 “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790-99)

 “Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [Christianity], of which … it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 1821)

Von Trier’s Melancholia

A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.

Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.

So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.

With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).

But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)

From Boethius to Blake

“The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

Embedded in this quote from The Consolation of Philosophy, beautiful to contemplate in its own right, is a code that solves all of Boethius’s philosophical problems. Writing just as the classical period gave way to the medieval (late 5th/early 6th century), while he was personally awaiting execution, Boethius struggled with many common questions: (1) how do we explain fortune’s wheel, which turns up and down quite irrespectively of what one deserves; (2) how do we deal with the problem of evil; (3) can we justify our belief in free will when everything seems logically predetermined by external and pre-existing forces?

Boethius views Fate and Providence as descriptions of the same reality but from different orientation points. From the point of view of one who exists in time, events often seem to follow each other by chance, with no rhyme nor reason to rewards and punishments. But the point of view of the eternal sees the full history of the universe simultaneously. The question of how one thing leads to another is irrelevant, as time has evaporated and the whole of eternity lies before one like a unified tapestry with all threads woven as they should be.

If we accept the premise of these two orientation points, this solves problem # 1 directly. Problem # 2 he solves with the supplemental argument that all men strive for happiness, that true happiness is consonant with goodness, and evil is never actually rewarded, as evil people mistake their goal and must always fall short of happiness by virtue of their own evil. Problem # 3 is a bit more indirect. From the point of view of Providence, from the still point in the middle, all things are simultaneous. In Boethius’s sometimes theological diction, all things are “foreseen.” But from the point of view of people moving along the circle, they need to make decisions every day with practical and ethical implications. To Boethius, foreseen is not the same thing as fore-ordained. The omniscience at the center of the circle in no way mitigates the urgency of making the right decisions for those of us in motion.

Although one can detect concerns here that would occupy the Christian age, Boethius remains classical in a couple of key ways. His intellectual guide is always reason, his moral compass moderation and tranquility. Combine these with the sense of Providence and Plato’s metaphysics, and you have the basic framework of Christian Platonism that looms over the next millennium.

One could argue that John Milton’s Paradise Lost takes this medieval Christian worldview into the Renaissance. Milton’s Satan is the great Renaissance humanist, the high achiever who thinks it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan’s villainy, and his undoing, is his all-too-human pride, his tragic belief in his own self-sufficiency.

Whereas in this (necessarily simplified) line of reasoning, Milton smoothly transitions to the Renaissance, just as Boethius had smoothly bridged from classical to medieval, there is nothing smooth about William Blake’s emergence at the beginning of what would be called the Romantic period. Here we get a real rupture. Blake praised Milton for his concrete vision of divine reality, a panorama that rang true to Blake’s own visionary experience. Milton’s only flaw, to Blake, is that he misnamed the characters. The character Milton calls “Satan” is actually the Messiah, and the character Milton called “the Messiah” is actually Satan.

Shock value aside, there is a method to Blake’s madness. Milton’s Messiah represents reason and restraint, the chains that bind the human spirit in Blake’s cosmology. Milton’s Satan represents passion and excess and unrestrained will, all the redemptive forces that enable maximum human achievement and self-actualization.

All great writers, each with something to offer the questing spirit, but after Blake it’s suddenly a long way back to Boethius.