May 31, 2010


Moral Hazards: Two literary thinkers ponder sin and belief in a disenchanted world (Stephen Prothero, June/July/August 2010, bookforum)

But what is evil? Eagleton never really says. He starts off well, taking liberals and Marxists alike to task for wishing the idea away. Later he blasts Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists" for their "mindless progressivism"—their "staggeringly complacent belief that we are all becoming kinder and more civilised." But right about the time he floats the notion that evil's motto is "For the hell of it," it becomes hard to shake the suspicion that Eagleton is succumbing to a similar sort of progressive complacency. His desire not to sound like a bourgeois moralist overwhelms his desire to say something new—or even plain—about evil.

At a minimum, any book of this ilk needs to provide a clear definition of its controlling term, including how evil differs from related matters such as wickedness, immorality, and wrongdoing. Here Eagleton flirts with the notion that evil is about "purposeless or nonpragmatic wickedness." On this view, Stalin would be immoral but not evil, since he "massacred for a reason," while Hitler would be both immoral and evil, since he presumably massacred without one. By the same logic, terrorism today is wicked but not evil, since terrorists have their purposes and their politics. So far, so good. But not long after he advances this logic, Eagleton withdraws it, concluding on further reflection that evil does "have purposes of a kind" and "a grisly kind of rationality," too.

Eagleton, who was raised Irish Catholic, shows his roots in Scholasticism when he describes evil as "a condition of being as well as a quality of behaviour," but his best theorizing here is psychological rather than theological. Drawing heavily (and usefully) on Sigmund Freud's theory of the death drive, he interprets evil as a sort of vampirism, "leeching life from others in order to fill an aching absence in oneself." Evil's enemy, he writes in his most sure-footed jab at his subject, "is not so much virtue as life itself."

Though he self-identifies as a Marxist and a Catholic, Eagleton is also something of Calvinist, if by that term we mean someone for whom the Christian faith torques around the tension between a sovereign God and a sinful humanity.

Anti-Socialist Realism: a review of Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman (Michael Weiss, May 18, 2010, New Republic)
Communism did not bring about classlessness; it sharpened pre-existing class divisions and fashioned the signed denunciation into the main weapon of warfare. Envy was thus allowed to masquerade as the true power of the powerless. Grossman understood that the genius of a system that inculpates everyone is that it also abolishes moral absolutes and leaves only one arbiter of right and wrong: the state, which can change its mind overnight about the culpability of Jewish doctors, the enmity of the Third Reich and anything else. Ideology is supposed to traffic in historical inevitability. Instead it traffics in caprice.

The abolition of absolute morality is not what ranks as Grossman’s most lasting insight; it is his more controversial one about the moral equivalence between Hitlerism and Stalinism. Only the polemics of Partisan Review from the 1930s and '40s compete with the intellectual sophistication Grossman brought to bear on this wrought and by no means settled comparison. (Among leftists in the 1930s and 1940s this was perhaps the most sensitive question of all. Friendships were ended by the suggestion of such an analogy.) We understand at once why Life and Fate, which Grossman finished in 1959, stood no chance of being published in Russia even during the Khrushchevite cultural “thaw” (the book itself was “arrested” and only smuggled to the West in microfilm samizdat years later by Vladimir Voinivich.) In one scene, a Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrer attempts to ingratiate himself with an Old Bolshevik prisoner-of-war by telling him the truth: “A red workers’ flag flies over our People’s State too. We too call people to national Achievement, to Unity and Labour. We say, ‘The Party expresses the dream of the German worker’; you say, ‘Nationalism! Labour!’ You know as well as we do that nationalism is the most powerful force of our century. Nationalism is the soul of our epoch. And ‘Socialism in One Country’ is the supreme expression of nationalism.”

In Grossman’s hands, this is not the Devil’s grand inquisition so much as the morbid cunning of history, a theme he amplified more poignantly in Everything Flows by implicitly comparing the Holocaust to another state-perpetrated atrocity: the Holomodor, or Ukrainian Terror Fame of 1932-1933, which claimed the lives of three to five million peasants. Grossman equates the destruction of “kulaks” with the destruction of European Jewry, again putting his own thoughts into the mouth of a former accomplice to evil. This time it’s the penitent and fatally ill Anna Sergeyevna, in whose lodgings and sexual embrace Ivan Grigoryevich will ultimately find comfort. Anna was a chairman of a collective farm during Stalin’s starvation genocide and her confession about the events that took place is widely cited for its almost journalistic quality. Robert Conquest, author of the pathfinding history of the Terror Famine, The Harvest of Sorrow, has repeatedly referred to the following passage for its subtextual resonance with the Shoah:

They convinced themselves that the kulaks

were evil, that it was best not to even touch them...

The kulaks’ towels were unclean, their children were

disgusting, their young women were worse than lice.

The activists looked on those who were being

dispossessed as if they were cattle, or swine... They

were not even human beings; goodness knows what

they were—some kind of beasts, I suppose.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2010 1:30 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus