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Everywhere and Nowhere

Terry Eagleton has written a book about evil in order to demonstrate that there is no such thing. Evil, he writes, is boring, supremely pointless, lifeless, philistine, kitsch-ridden, and superficial. Lacking any substance, it “is not something we should lose too much sleep over.” People can be wicked, cruel, and indifferent. But the concept of evil, with which theologians and philosophers have wrestled for centuries, can be safely tucked away. When it comes to evil, we must be social and economic realists. “Most violence and injustice are the result of material forces, not of the vicious dispositions of individuals.”

On a subject that does not exist, Eagleton nonetheless has found a great deal to say. This should come as no surprise. Widely known for books refuting what he confidently proclaimed in his earlier ones, Eagleton is not one to let a seeming contradiction stand in the way of strongly declared convictions. Perhaps this explains why his Marxist musings seem so obligatory, tacked on to the end of a book that primarily deals with writers pondering the many ways we are disobedient to God and his commands. Eagleton believes as fervently in everything as he does in nothing. On Evil is theology without a supreme being. As much as he wants to hold onto class struggle, Eagleton cannot let go of the catechism.

Evil can be found, if one wishes, among the oppressed proleteriat whom Marxists ought to love. Graham Greene located it there, especially in Brighton Rock, whose protagonist, Pinkie, a small-time criminal all of seventeen-years-old, is not given to deep theological speculation about the meaning of life. This is evil as Eagleton ought to prefer it: banal, if you will pardon the expression, lacking in purpose, inexplicable. Yet Eagleton is not satisfied with Greene’s novel. Pinkie, he writes, “cannot understand everyday human reality, but the tawdry common existence presented by the narrative is not worth understanding in any case.” So much for the working class. When it comes to sympathy for the down-and-out, Eagleton sounds more like Herbert Spencer than Karl Marx.  

If we want a more compelling account of the nature of evil, Eagleton goes on to argue, we ought to seek more heroic figures than Pinkie. He is especially drawn to Adrian Leverkühn, the demonic composer in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Leverkühn seeks to punish himself—he goes out of his way to catch syphilis from a prostitute—in order to inspire his musical genius. For Eagleton, he is “a Dionysian artist, plumbing the depths of human wretchedness in order to pluck order from chaos. His art strives to wrest the spirit from the flesh, wholeness from affliction, the angelic from the demonic.” Now we are on a turf that feels comfortable for Eagleton. This is the kind of evil he loves: grandiose, defiant, destructive, and therefore sublime. Eagleton cannot stomach the narrator of Mann’s novel because he “is far too decent, reasonable a soul to take the full monstrous measure of what he is confronting.” The narrator’s humanistic sensibility fears death, whereas Leverkühn is to be admired because he welcomes it.

The theme of death offers Eagleton the link between his role as literary critic and his more political reflections on the great evils of the twentieth century, Nazism and Stalinism. But which kind of evil will it be: senseless and dreary or purposeful and its own way creative? The answer turns out to be both, depending on whether we are talking about communism or fascism. “Stalin and Mao massacred for a reason,” Eagleton informs us. They killed “for what they saw as an honorable end.” They were, in a word, Leverkühnian villains. This does not render them more or less evil than Hitler. They simply are of a different order.

Nazi evil, by contrast, is more like Pinkie’s; it served no end whatsoever. The Holocaust was “a kind of monstrous acte gratuit, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it.” True, Eagleton acknowledges, the Final Solution, as its name implies, was viewed by those who adopted it as a solution to something. But he spends little time speculating on what that something might be. He writes about the Nazi era with no mention of World War I, the Versailles Treaty, Weimar inflation, persistent anti-Semitism, the emergency powers clause of the German Constitution, and the Great Depression. It is as if Hitler magically appeared on the scene because evil, being meaningless and without purpose, can appear wherever it chooses to do so.

However little attention he pays to material conditions when discussing the Nazis, Eagleton has much to say about psychological motivations. Coleridge famously described Iago’s evil as a “motiveless malignancy.” Eagleton does not cite the phrase, but he does argue that those singled out for extermination by the Nazis were killed, much as Othello was, for just being there. Unlike Leverkühn, the Nazis were supremely afraid of death. This, and not their desire to render the world Judenfrei, explains their actions. “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.” The Jews died because the Nazis suffered from a massive inferiority complex. Eagleton has managed the difficult task of making Eichmann in Jerusalem seem sympathetic to the Jewish plight. For him, it was not just one man who happened to be banal. The whole experience of the Third Reich bores him.

But when we finally get the socialist revolution we have been longing for, all this speculation about evil can end. That is pretty much the best I can do with Eagleton's bizarre conclusion. “We cannot pass reliable moral judgment on the human species,” he argues, “because we have never been able to observe it other than in desperately deformed conditions.” Lift the burdens imposed by scarcity and poverty, and then we will find that human beings need not kill others to make up for their moral and psychological failings. This seems to me, if I may be so crude as to repair to the language of social science, a non-falsifiable proposition, assuming, as it does, a condition that will never be met. Such futuristic speculation is not what we would expect from a self-proclaimed realist, but logical consistency is not remotely Eagleton’s strength.

Early in his book Eagleton cites an English evangelical bishop who evidently informed the world that signs of satanic possession just might include Scottish ancestry or wearing black. “None of this makes sense,” he helpfully points out, “but then that is how it is with evil. The less sense it makes, the more evil it is.” Eagleton’s book makes no sense. But it is not evil. It just makes no sense.

Alan Wolfe is currently writing a book about political evil.