- Evil: A History in Modern French Literature and Thought by Damian Catani
Evil has long fascinated and instilled fear, raising difficult questions of meaning, responsibility, and representation. With the events of 9/11 and the global “War on Terror,” the term has reemerged in public discourse, though not necessarily in consciously critical ways. In this context, Damian Catani’s timely, politically engaged study contends that evil is a “vitally important” modern concept—one that can aid in understanding our own times (1). Evil: A History in Modern French Literature and Thought charts new critical terrain by bridging narrower approaches. Catani frames his project in contradistinction to others that focus on one literary movement (e.g. Decadence) or historical trauma (such as colonialism), as well as those reducing evil to one aspect (aesthetics in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony or transgression in Georges Bataille’s La Littérature et le mal). Moreover, he resists the compartmentalization encouraged by the constraints of specific disciplines, such as Holocaust studies or Revolutionary historiography on the Terror.
In the resulting interdisciplinary study, Catani mobilizes various discourses (philosophical, religious, historical, political, scientific) to support comparative literary analyses and attentive close readings of a diverse corpus of modern novelists, poets, and philosophers. After presenting the book’s aims, Chapter 1 broadly surveys approaches to evil, introducing theoretical voices—from Augustine to Žižek—that inform subsequent literary readings. Particular attention is paid to Paul Ricœur’s phenomenological challenge to the speculative theodicy long privileged by Western philosophy, Susan Neiman’s post-Kantian rehabilitation of Arendt’s banality of evil, and Alain Badiou’s critique of ethical ideology’s concept of evil. This chapter also considers evil’s relationship to cultural factors, from politics to gender to science.
The following six chapters are organized thematically and chronologically around cultural and intellectual “paradigm shifts” (4). For instance, Chapter 2 (“Evil and Modernity”) identifies in late Romanticism’s reliance on metaphysical constructs its “ultimate inability to advance the debate on evil in a socially pertinent and contemporary way” (37). Breaking out of this impasse, Balzac and Baudelaire investigate the modern capitalist city’s vices, which Catani examines in particular in the former’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes and the latter’s “Au lecteur” and “Le Jeu” from Les Fleurs du mal. Here evil is not merely associated with the industrialized capital and the marginal characters of its underworld, but “in turn helps us unlock the mysteries of modernity” (40). The next chapter pinpoints the move from [End Page 157] theological to biological accounts of evil via the influence of Darwinism and Lombrosian atavism. Chapter 3 (“Evil and Science”) argues that while Lautréamont and Zola rely on both metaphysics and science, the author of Les Chants de Maldoror blends the two more self-consciously, ironically, and successfully. Catani contends that this “more multifaceted” and “hybrid approach” leaves space for human agency and revolt (64, 68). By contrast, he reads La Bête humaine’s protagonist as troublingly lacking in moral agency—naturalism having replaced original sin with a new secularized determinism.
In turn, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers and thinkers resist the strictures of scientific positivism and defend the autonomous self, as Chapter 4 (“Evil and the Self”) demonstrates. Catani’s analysis of this “crisis of individuality” places into conversation Nietzsche’s “genealogy of morals” and Bergson’s notion of duration as psychological real time with Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican and Proust’s Le Temps retrouvé (87). Unfixed and historically contingent, evil depends on the individual’s moral agency. Ultimately, the author concludes that despite a shared defense of individualism in the face of positivism, “the relationship between evil and selfhood advanced by the novelists emerges as more ethically responsible and plausible than that proposed by the philosophers” (88). Eventually, Bernanos and Céline would question the legitimacy and efficacy of this newly embraced individual moral autonomy that supersedes universal theological or scientific laws. Chapter 5 (“Evil and Ennui”) explores their representation of evil as a powerfully determining and...