Participating In The Evil

In his essay “On Evil in Art” (issue of December 17, 1971), Professor Thomas Howard of Gordon College asked: “Does there come a point at which the portrayal of evil passes a certain line and begins to participate in the evil it is portraying?” Clearly the mere portrayal of evil characters and deeds does not constitute participation. The crucial factor, as Howard notes, is not the presence of evil but the way it is treated: Is the artist standing on the side of the evil figures and acts he describes, leering at the audience, or with the audience sharing its revulsion and dismay?

To say that a writer has not participated in evil does not necessarily imply that he has explicitly condemned it. Indeed, because of the complexity of evil and the ambiguous situation of fallen man in a darkened world, a novelist or dramatist who realistically grapples with the problem of evil may find it impossible to sum up his work with an unambiguous moral judgment and the meting out of appropriate punishments and rewards.

This is done in medieval miracle and mystery plays and in some specimens of early modern mass culture—for example, the “Gangbusters” school. While not without a certain educational value, especially for the young, these highly moralistic efforts are seldom satisfactory. Not only do they frequently fail from an artistic perspective, but they generally are morally deficient as well, since they minimize the power of evil in this world. That evil will ultimately be judged and punished is a valid and necessary statement. But in this fallen world, evil may go unpunished, and art that depicts a situation in which the due punishment for evil appears inevitable may not be only unconvincing but unreliable and unhelpful as a representation of man’s moral predicament.

Nevertheless, between a moralistic and unpersuasively automatic condemnation and punishment of evil on the one hand and identification with it on the other (what Howard means by leering at the audience) lies a broad realm for creative work that is neither artistically nor morally defective.

In considering the way artists deal with evil, we may properly limit ourselves to literature, including drama (and in modern times, film). The plastic and graphic arts are not well suited to the unambiguous portrayal of moral evil. The visually ugly may represent evil, but not necessarily so, for great moral evil may clothe itself in apparent beauty. The literary arts, as Lessing pointed out in his classic essay Laocoon, deal in the element of time, which the merely visual arts cannot do. As a result, they can show the motivation and consequences of evil actions, and these are far more important for the moral significance of characters and situations than mere appearances.

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Does an artist portray any moral awareness, any internal conflict, any self-examination or remorse in the agents of evil? Are they moral beings who struggle with evil, even though they may ultimately act wrongly? Does the evil in which they involve themselves have consequences that they are consistent with a moral universe ordered by God? Or is the evil presented as a good, or as a goal, without complications, without remorse, while any unpleasant consequences—the fate of its victims, for example—are glossed over? Points like these are significant clues to where an artist’s sympathy lies.

Broadly speaking, we can discern three major stages in the literary treatment of evil: the pre-Christian pagan, the Christian, and the post-Christian pagan or apostate. This three-fold division is an oversimplification, of course; there are moods and movements in literature that do not fit into it. But it may provide a helpful insight into the general development of the artistic imagination in dealing with evil.

If we look at pre-Christian paganism, we see that the problem of evil plays a central role in Greek tragedy. In the Oresteia cycle by Aeschylus, for example, a single but momentous wrong decision by King Agamemnon sets in motion a chain of evils that other characters seem unable to break. In order to secure propitious winds so that his fleet could set out on its expedition against Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter. Having avenged the seduction of his brother’s wife Helen by Paris of Troy, Agamemnon returns home with a concubine as part of his spoils of war. His queen, Clytemnestra, brooding over her husband’s murder of their child and seeking consolation in an affair with Aegisthus, traps and kills Agamemnon on his return. Their son Orestes feels duty bound to avenge his father’s murder, but in so doing he must kill not only Aegisthus but also his own mother, Clytemnestra. Because this crime violates the order of nature, he becomes the target of the Furies, those baleful spirits who hound the perpetrators of unnatural violence.

Despite its stylized and schematic form we can see in Aeschylus’s trilogy some of the authentic characteristics of evil in human experience. He shows that an endless chain of evil may result from a decision not totally bad but from an ambiguous one. Evil may be committed under apparent duress, by a person who lacks real freedom of action, who may even be fulfilling a duty. Nevertheless, although he acts under some duress, and although the evil in which he becomes involved may result from a mere flaw in an otherwise great character, the tragic hero is accountable for the evil he does and ultimately must pay the consequences. Perhaps, likes Orestes at the end of The Furies, he will gain a final tragic insight into the high principles of justice and fate and into the distance that separates men from gods, even though he will still be destroyed.

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In this respect the Greek tragic hero is a model for certain real-life figures in our post-Christian world: a flawed hero, driven by apparent necessity, involves himself in evil, and the very greatness of his gifts serves only to increase the inevitability and severity of his ultimate disaster. Both ancient tragedy and modern life seem to cry out for a redeemer who can break the chain of ambiguous motivation and guilty complicity. But the pagan Greeks had not yet heard of Him, and too many modern Americans have forgotten.

To turn to the Christian period: it has been frequently and aptly observed that for Christians tragedy in the classic Greek sense does not exist. Where the light of the Gospel shines, guilt and ambiguity can be overcome. If a person continues to reject the Gospel and its message of redemption and salvation, he will end in misery, but we can no longer call his fate tragic nor him a hero. The hero of pagan tragedy was not without guilt, but his tragic end was the result of forces and factors too great for him to understand, much less resist. The unrepentant sinner in a Christian context stands self-condemned, rebellious and self-destructive to the end, his own.

For this reason the genre of tragedy in the Greek sense is rare in Christian culture. When it is found—as in French and German classicism—it represents a deliberate and artificial attempt to recapture a vanished world. The great antagonist of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan, despite all his brilliance and his grief, cannot really merit our admiration or sympathy as a tragic hero does; his fate is self-inflicted, and even in his humiliation he perversely refuses to relent and seek forgiveness, for he views repentance as submission. Yet he does possess a certain insight into his own character. Milton’s Satan knows that if he could repent and be restored to his former state of grace, he would soon “recant/Vows made in pain … And heavier fall” (IV, 11. 96, 97, 101). Milton knew of God’s justice and of redemption and hence did not write tragedy of man or of Satan.

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As the dominant influence of Christian thought on Western society began to recede, something akin to a tragic sense developed again. It was possible to present evil in literature without placing it in the context of ultimate divine judgment or forgiveness. But the omission of the Christian message does not mean that modern artists have really rediscovered the tragic sense of life. The Gospel rejected and forgotten is not the same as the Gospel never heard. The consequence of this rejection is not a return to the tragic heroism of the lonely individual in his unequal struggle with immortal gods and iron necessity. The meaningfulness of the conflict between good and evil that was given by the perspective of God’s judgment and mercy is lost, but the ancient nobility has not been restored. Modern theater does not know tragedy; it knows absurdity and despair.

The ancient tragic hero, such as Aeschylus’s Orestes, may suffer, but in suffering he realizes that he is penetrating to the threshold of being and sees things as they are—himself a tiny speck, dwarfed by the gods and powerless in the harsh grip of Fate. This understanding of man’s predicament may form a powerful vehicle of pre-evangelism, because it shows the way in which even those who aspire to goodness and nobility are entangled in evil of their own and others’ doing and are brought to a situation that almost cries out for a message of redemption and salvation.

Post-Christian literature, by contrast, has lost the element of flawed nobility that is essential for ancient tragedy. In Eugene O’Neill’s re-creation of the Orestes cycle, Mourning Becomes Electra, everything is obscured—there is no great guilt, no great nobility, no tragic insight. It is curious that neither the Calvinistic concepts of sin and forgiveness nor the lofty optimism of Unitarianism, both very much present in the New England of O’Neill’s setting, intrudes to resolve, or even illuminate, the sordid and somehow bloodless tangle of guilt and consequences he portrays. Post-Christian “heroes” such as K. in Franz Kafka’s Trial or the tramps in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot are even farther from tragedy in the classic sense. O’Neill’s Lavinia attains, at the end, a minimal insight into some kind of ultimate judgment, but K. and the tramps attain at best an insight into absurdity and hopelessness.

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Yet even this post-Christian way of dealing with evil, ending not in insight but in absurdity, does not involve the kind of participation of which Howard speaks. Kafka and Beckett, for example, no longer hope in the good, but they do not turn and embrace evil. They recognize it and expose themselves, together with their audience, to its shriveling mockery.

This type of literature, while it may be more despairing than pre-Christian pagan tragedy, by its very bleakness cries out for a source of hope that it does not know and cannot itself provide. As a consequence, Kafka and Beckett, like Aeschylus, exert no seductive influence in favor of the evil they portray, and they too can be used effectively in pre-evangelism, at least in order to reveal how desperate the human condition appears to the most sensitive and creative minds when they do not know, or will not recognize, the reality of God. Where Aeschylus breaks autonomous man on guilt and fate, Kafka and Beckett break him on absurdity, and that too cries out for redemption.

Participation in evil, in Howard’s sense, comes not when the art is too realistic about the reality of evil and its consequences for human life, but when it is dishonest or unrealistic. In our day the prime offenders are found not so much in “serious” art (e.g., O’Neill, Kafka, Beckett) but in mass culture, and specifically in films.

Howard discussed The Devils, and I have previously commented on A Clockwork Orange, but we need not turn to such esoteric films to see where the problem lies. If we consider the police or detective story, we find that the old, moralistic but valid “crime does not pay” motive has broken down in two different ways. In the detective story and related films, the transition from the pursuit and exaltation of justice to the praise of evil is marked by the transition from The Maltese Falcon to The Godfather. In the one, evil is ugly and ultimately defeated; in the other, evil, while not exactly pretty, appears more attractive than its opposite, and if not altogether triumphant, it at least gains a moral (!) victory over the forces of good. The detective story has become the criminal story.

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An equally significant transmutation is that from the detective story to the spy story. In the spy story, the secrecy motive prevents the hero from identifying with good. If we compare the series of French films about Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret with the far more successful British series involving Ian Fleming’s creation, James Bond, we notice significant differences. Maigret, an unprepossessing, dumpy bourgeois, knows evil and its consequences first hand. He understands criminals and their motivation; frequently he can even sympathize with them. He intuitively recognizes the pathetic chain of wrong decisions and mixed motives that can plunge relatively ordinary people into dreadful crimes. There is nothing pretty about crime in the Maigret films, neither for the victims, nor for the perpetrators, nor for Inspector Maigret himself. Often it is with mixed emotions that he turns a pitiable but guilty miscreant over to the courts of justice.

Bond by contrast is brilliant, but only slightly more so than his enemies. They all live in a world of illusion, luxury, glitter, cruelty, and sudden if not always merciful death. Bond’s only superiority to his enemies, apart from a certain elegance of style, lies in the fact that his salary is paid by the British queen, a figure held by Fleming’s literary convention to be morally preferable to ominous combines such as SMERSH and SPECTRE. What Maigret shows us, but Bond never does, is the real consequences of evil for those other than the hero—the murdered man, his aging widow, the criminal, his broken and despairing wife, the permanently crippled victim of an assault.

Simenon’s stories do not teach a moral in the superficial sense, for Maigret is occasionally unsuccessful, frequently unsatisfied. Bond, by contrast, always “gets his man.” But Maigret sees, avenges, and to some extent participates not in evil but in the suffering caused by evil. Bond instead participates directly in the evil, and to a considerable extent enjoys his participation. It may be that the old police and detective genre did little to discourage potential evil-doers of an earlier day from embarking on their misdeeds, but it is likely that entertainment of the Godfather and James Bond type stimulates their successors today. Good is seen as distinguishable from evil only by a convention, always as less exciting, frequently as less successful.

It would be foolish to minimize the debasing effect of the current flood of pornography on the human spirit. To apply Howard’s question about participation in evil to that monstrous and lush enterprise would certainly be useful. But it may well be that the greatest threat from the entertainment world to the moral sense in our day lies not in the spectacular cinematic dramatization of sexual vice and perversion but in the trivialization and beautification of violence that characterizes the shift from The Maltese Falcon to The Godfather and from Jules Maigret to James Bond.


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