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What Is Evil? (Part 1 of ?)

May 23, 2015

Dear Reader,

In the matter of the subject of our novel, the psychopathologies of American democracy, and in regard to one or more characters in our plot, the narrator will have to think out loud about war crimes and crimes against humanity; and it may well be that he will want to think about them in the context of his thoughts about the nature of evil. So, here we go.

I am not confident of my ability to understand, let alone clarify, the nature of evil.  But I can’t avoid thinking (out loud) about it, even if I were not involved in this novel.  I would not be complete.  I must at least imagine my capacity for evil, and attempt to understand the fascination that it holds for me—I think it is a longing for an absolute, in an existence in which the only absolute is Being, with its constant changefulness.  This longing engenders ego fantasies, of control, and of transcendence.  In men, within a sexist culture enforcing male domination, its supreme expression is violence against women that produces sexual satisfaction on a divinely (hormonal) personal scale.  Since this fantasy can no longer be assuaged through cannibalism (at least not in our time), it is sublimated in the form of war.

(Thus evil is not, after all, a transcendent principle, it is a common ignorance and self-delusion, with the capacity, as Arendt pointed out, of becoming banal. It’s rather like a certain impotence, a flaccidness, gone permanently into limp, relaxing into boredom. One’s dissipation, entropic yet not quite of the order of entropy. The only thing that can lift it into action is the psychic electricity of pain, as of a soul.)

Rather than begin with acknowledged, large-scale examples of evil, in our epoch, such as:  the genocidal treatment, by Europeans and then by Americans, of the indigenous peoples of the lands to their west (note the demythologization and demystification achieved simply by dropping the cap W—so fragile), the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe, the Bolshevik and then Stalinist purges; and the murder of Southeast Asian peasant and urban populations by the Nixon-Kissinger and then Pol Pot regimes, let’s begin with a concrete example.  It’s one on a smaller scale, but important in itself, and directly relevant to our narrative.

Imagine that I am trying to get information from a prisoner. I believe that my prisoner possesses the information that I need, and that the information will make it possible, at least potentially, to save many lives. And I believe that this prisoner will give me that information, in order to avoid the amount of pain that I am prepared to inflict.

Many readers now know that our illustration is not a hypothetical.

What shall I do? I can, of course, imagine some acts that are too repulsive, too painful, for both the writer and the reader, for me to describe here. Fortunately, it is not necessary to describe or even name those, for our purpose. And anyway, while they are extraordinary in kind and amount of pain, they are not so rare that the reader, dear Reader, will not by now have imagined at least one of them. So already we all know what we have set out to understand.

In real life, as a torturer I do those things. They’ve been done plenty of times before, and quite possibly are being done in a Latin American country at this moment, or last night. So, what do I do? I could….well, most readers can make the list themselves, from our media coverage (even our corporate media that are loathe to reveal such negative actions by powerful persons with whom the corporate owners are allied—or perhaps by the corporate leaders themselves).

At any rate, I inflict severe, prolonged pain, but to no avail. But that’s okay, because, as it happens, in this instance my prisoner has children, in my possession. I bring them into the room, bound, and I read her a list of ways in which I will inflict pain, in ascending degrees of horror, if she does not tell me what I need to know. She doesn’t tell me, so I begin. She tells me.

I’ve used torture to illustrate evil as if everyone agrees that it is evil; but recently many Americans have taken the position that it is not, when it is done in self-defense (as I allowed for, at the beginning of my tortured thinking, above). Thus begging the question: what acts are justifiable in self-defense or in defense of others? And if there are some that are not justified, what does that tell us about the nature of evil?

Is the scenario that I have narrated an example of evil—and does that word apply to the person, or the act, or both?

But wait, isn’t there something that my narration omitted, that is necessary for our understanding (have I not already let myself off the hook)?

Dear Reader, what is it?

[Page (2a) of this episode.]

Don’t forget to breathe.

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