restricted access NINE: Literature and Evil
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L i t e r a t u r e a n d E v i l 1 4 5 145 NINE Literature and Evil ur past century was exemplary in a number of ways. The advances it made in science and medicine were unparalleled. Also without precedent was the destructiveness of its wars. In part, this was due to an increasing technological sophistication. The time lag between a scientific advance and its technological application was, in the urgency of the century, constantly diminished. Modern weaponry combined with mass production, communication and mobilization to produce what came to be known as “total war.” This was a war without any of the limits that characterized the conflicts of the previous centuries. It was this lack of restraint that, perhaps more than anything else, led to the terrible excesses of this century: its wartime terror bombings, deportations and genocidal slaughters. It also led to the chief problem this century presents to ethics: that of the grasp and comprehension of collective evil. This problem is not just theoretical.An inability of those involved in its collective processes to take thought — to actually apprehend the evil they were engaged in — characterized the disasters of the twentieth century. At least in part, the participants’lack of restraint was based on a lack of recognition. O 1 4 6 H i d d e n n e s s a n d A l t e r i t y At the beginning of the century Joseph Conrad published a novella, The Heart of Darkness, which focused on evil, restraint and recognition. Its story revolves around Kurtz, described by its narrator, Marlow, as “a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear” (Conrad 1989, 108).1 Kurtz, until his last moment, failed to recognize the evil that positioned him within the “heart of darkness .”2 Such evil is both individual and collective; it includes both Kurtz and the “Company” he works for. The novella can be taken as an attempt to describe evil, its theme being the lack of restraint that is its most obvious marker. More profoundly, however, its subject is the difficulty of recognizing evil. The lack of restraint, which characterizes evil, is based on a lack of recognition. This lack is not accidental. It follows from the self-concealing nature of evil. There is, in this view, a clear line of self-reinforcing causation: evil’s self-concealment generates a lack of recognition, which gener-ates a lack of restraint, which generates evil. In its ability to escape recognition, evil, as I noted, seems capable of an indefinite expansion. The pragmatic, ethical question that follows from this is: How does one break this circle of causation? It is a question broached in our consideration of shame. In this chapter, I am first going to look at Conrad’s descriptions of the difficulties involved in recognizing evil. I shall then examine how a similar set of difficulties plague our attempts to come to terms with the evil of the Holocaust . After some reflections on the self-concealing nature of evil, I shall conclude by describing literature’s ability to unmask this concealment. In such unmasking, literature achieves what nonphenomenological philosophy cannot. This achievement gives literature its special, moral dimension. The Ab-sense of Evil At a certain point, in relating the tale of The Heart of Darkness, Marlow exclaims in exasperation: “Do you see the story? Do you L i t e r a t u r e a n d E v i l 1 4 7 see anything. It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain attempt because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment . . . that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams” (Conrad 1989, 57). The senselessness of what he is describing frustrates his attempts to present a clear narrative. Events occur without any clear purpose. For example, as he travels down the coast of Africa, his ship encounters “a man-of-war . . . shelling the bush” (40). He relates, “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns . . . a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.” Given that the shore was empty, “there was...