October 19, 2003


Evil: An Investigation by Lance Morrow (C-SPAN, October 19, 2003, 8 & 11pm)

Long couched only in theological terms, and popularly personified by the despots of history, the nature of evil has resisted explanation. In this singular survey of this mysterious but all too often palpable force, veteran Time magazine writer Lance Morrow examines the unmistakable ways evil influences our global culture-and how that global culture in turn has magnified evil's menace. Its dramatic reemergence in the national consciousness-against a backdrop of high-tech, sensationalized violence-makes his updated understanding both timely and absolutely necessary. Drawing on examples both obscure and splashed across the headlines, Morrow seeks to understand how evil works, and what purpose, if any, it serves. From the heartrending to the harrowing, from quiet lies to catastrophic acts, his stories are drawn from over thirty years of experience as a revered journalist and essayist. The result is a brilliant synthesis of a lifetime of observation that elegantly illuminates a chronically elusive but fascinating subject.

One of the seminal 9-11 moments came on September 12th, on PBS, when Bill Moyers was talking to Andrew Delbanco. Mr. Delbanco had argued in his book, The Death of Satan, that:
[T]he work of the devil is everywhere, but no one knows where to find him. We live in the most brutal century in human history, but instead of stepping forward to take the credit, he has rendered himself invisible. Although the names by which he was once designated (in the Christian lexicon he was assigned the name Satan; Marxism substituted phrases like 'exploitative classes'; psychoanalysis preferred terms like 'repression' and 'neurosis') have been discredited to one degree or another, nothing has come to take their place. The work of this book is therefore to think historically about the shrinking range of phenomena to which accusatory words like 'evil' and 'sin' may still be applied in contemplatory life, and to think about what it means to do without them.

I have written it out of the belief that despite the shriveling of the old words and concepts, we cannot do without some conceptual means for thinking about the sorts of experiences that used to go under the name of evil. Few people still believe in what the British writer Ian McEwan has recently called the 'malign principle, a force in human affairs that periodically advances to dominate and destroy the lives of individuals or nations, then retreats to await the next occasion.' We certainly no longer have a conception of evil as a distributed entity with an ontological essence of its own, as what some philosophers call 'presences.' Yet something that feels like this force still invades our experience, and we still discover in ourselves the capacity to inflict it on others. Since this is true, we have an inescapable problem: we feel something that our culture no longer gives us the vocabulary to express.

Now, Mr. Delbanco is really only speaking for the intellectual class there. Most of us, still faith-filled, have no problem comprehending and speaking about evil, but Mr. Delbanco has said that: "[religious] belief is really not an option for thinking people today." Okay, but that leaves about 90% in the unthinking category.

Of course, here's the only vocabulary he had to express himself with after 9-11:

BM: Do you believe in evil?

AD: I don't see how anyone can have experienced even indirectly as you and I sitting here have the events of the last last day and not take seriously the existence of evil. One of the things that a number of writers have said about the devil-- some people believe in him as a literal being, some people believe in him as a metaphor or an image or a representation of these dark, human capacities-- one thing that a number of writers have said is that the cleverest trick of the devil is to convince people that he does not exist. We saw evil yesterday. We have to confront it. We have to face it.

BM: Evil is defined as?

AD: Well, for me I think the best I've been able to do with that question is to try to recognize and come to terms with the reality of the fact that there are human beings who are able, by convincing themselves that there's some higher good, some higher ideal to which their lives should be dedicated, that the pain and suffering of other individuals doesn't matter, it doesn't have to do with them or that it's... That they're expendable, that it's a cost that's worth making in the pursuit of these objectives. So evil for me is the absence of the imaginative sympathy for other human beings.

BM: The absence of a moral imagination, the ability to see what the consequences of your actions are to someone else?

AD: Yes, the inability to see your victims as human beings. To think of them as instruments or cogs or elements or statistics but not as human beings.

BM: You have written about your concern that Americans have lost the sense of evil. Is what happened in the last 36 hours going to bring us back or is it too deep for that, our absence, our loss of memory.

AD: I think it simmers. It's dormant in all of us. We don't want to acknowledge it. We want to explain it away. We want to find explanation for it. In a modern world we mostly live in a place where the terrible suffering of the world seems far away-abstract and unreal and we can somehow imagine that it hasn't anything to do with us. It came home yesterday. I think a lot of people in this city and in this country are searching their souls.

"Evil" "The Devil" "The Soul" "Morality" ...


-BOOK SITE: Evil: An Investigation by Lance Morrow (Perseus Book Group)

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2003 6:20 AM
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