Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Terry Eagleton's On Evil: A Review, Part I

In his book On Evil, Terry Eagleton offers his readers an eminently readable treatise that combines literary criticism and philosophy in a way that does justice to his complex and charged subject. In my view, Eagleton does what every scholar of literature should attempt to do: make his analysis accessible to a wide reading audience without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of his work. As usual, the book is written beautifully, and Eagleton's sense of humor is highly enjoyable.

Eagleton begins On Evil by discussing how the concept of evil has been appropriated by a certain type of political discourse. The implication behind referring to terrorists as "evildoers" and their actions as "pure evil" is that if we accept that there is a rational  explanation for acts of terror, we somehow condone them. This, of course, is completely wrong:
Calling the action evil meant that it was beyond comprehension. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable. . . if evil really is beyond explanation—if it is an unfathomable mystery—how can we even know enough about it to condemn evildoers? The word “evil” is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus. . . No Western politician today could afford to suggest in public that there are rational motivations behind the dreadful things that terrorists get up to. “Rational” might too easily be translated as “commendable.” Yet there is nothing irrational about robbing a bank, even if it is not generally considered to be commendable.
 The tendency to refer to terrorists as evil only serves the purpose of shutting down any kind of discussion of their actions. As a result, we are left with no understanding of what they do and what. Consequently, we cannot possibly hope to combat terror since we have precluded any opportunity to analyze terrorism in any meaningful way. There are other consequences, says Eagleton in his incomparably delectable writing style, to the constant references to evil that populate a certain kind of political discourse:
Once the middle classes get their hands on virtue, even vice begins to look appealing. Once the puritan propagandists and evangelical mill owners redefine virtue as thrift, prudence, chastity, abstinence, sobriety, meekness, frugality, obedience, and self-discipline, it is not hard to see why evil should begin to look like a sexier option.
Even though Eagleton ridicules the way certain politicians have appropriated the word "evil," he believes that evil actions and evil individuals do exist. In this, he disagrees not only with a certain brand of liberals but with many Marxists as well. (We have to remember that Eagleton himself is an unapologetic Marxist, which does not preclude him from pointing out the many subjects where he disagrees with his fellow Marxists):
For there are indeed evil acts and individuals, which is where the softhearted liberals and the tough-minded Marxists alike are mistaken. As far as the latter go, the American Marxist Fredric Jameson writes of “the archaic categories of good and evil.”1 One is forced to assume that Jameson is not of the view that the victory of socialism would be a good thing. The English Marxist Perry Anderson implies that terms like “good” and “evil” are relevant to individual conduct only—in which case it is hard to see why tackling famines, combating racism, or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good. Marxists do not need to reject the notion of evil, as my own case would exemplify; but Jameson and some of his leftist colleagues do so partly because they tend to confuse the moral with the moralistic.
 I quote so much because it is impossible not to love Eagleton's way of expressing himself. As I said before, if I ever learn to write half as well as Eagleton does, I will die happy.

In Eagleton's view, the nature of evil is metaphysical, in the sense that it aims to destroy being as such, not just certain parts of it. It is the metaphysical nature of evil that Eagleton tries to analyze (and in my view, succeeds in doing so) in On Evil. The most intolerable thing for evil is that anything should exist. Its most important goal is the annihilation of being as such:
Evil would actually prefer that there was nothing at all, since it does not see the point of created things. It loathes them because, as Thomas Aquinas claims, being is itself a kind of good. The more richly abundant existence is, the more value there is in the world. . . Given the intolerable fact that things do exist, however, the best evil can do is try to annihilate them.
Eagleton comes up with the strongest and the most convincing explanation for the reasons that push people to engage in mass murder, genocide, extermination of others, etc.:
The kind of others who drive you to mass murder are usually those who for some reason or other have come to signify the terrible non-being at the core of oneself. It is this aching absence which you seek to stuff with fetishes, moral ideals, fantasies of purity, the manic will, the absolute state, the phallic figure of the Führer. In this, Nazism resembles some other brands of fundamentalism. The obscene enjoyment of annihilating the Other becomes the only way of convincing yourself that you still exist. The non-being at the core of one’s own identity is, among other things, a foretaste of death; and one way of fending off the terror of human mortality is to liquidate those who incarnate this trauma in their own person. In this way, you demonstrate that you have authority over the only antagonist—death—that cannot be vanquished even in principle. Power loathes weakness because it rubs its nose in its own secret frailty. 
In his  Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek says that the question we need to ask ourselves is not "Is there life after death?" What we should ask instead is, rather, "Is there life before death?" Eagleton echoes this statement in On Evil. He mentions "the worthless purity of those who have never lived", which can lead people to desire to bring destruction to those who have the capacity to enjoy the richness of human existence. It is among those who have never actually allowed themselves to live, to enjoy, to love life that evil has its perfect breeding ground. We can't but think of the glee with which the US Evangelicals indulge in their apocalyptic fantasies of world destruction. It is no wonder, then, that those very Evangelicals are so prone to wage wars on all and sundry.

[The second part of the review is here]

1 comment:

eric said...

Seems like an interesting book. Though I share his social views, I generally don't agree with Eagleton philosophically, steeped as he is in the Scholastic tradition, and from the fact that he draws so much on the current neo-Lacanian craze (the intellectual equivalent to Heavy Metal music: exciting, yet insufferably pompous and morose). Hanna Arendt's contribution, I think, is closer to the mark, wherein "evil" is simply the result of indolence, conformity, and general indifference to suffering.