The Touch, The Feel

... of evil: the fabric of our lives

Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy<br>
by Susan Neiman<br>
Princeton University Press, 358 pp., $29.95
Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy
by Susan Neiman
Princeton University Press, 358 pp., $29.95

Where were you two years ago when the first plane hit? Downtown, grabbing a second cup of coffee at Little City? Filling up at the gas station? Heading to class? Where were you in your workaday morning? A little later, you'd watch unimaginable events at a great distance. Images of anguished people, ash, and drifting paper. Watch TV anchors sit dumbly at their desks, unable to hang their metaphoric hat on a thing. They try, but it only dispirits you more. "No, it's not the end of the world, one anchor says as if speaking to children, "it just looks like it. And poor Peter Jennings doesn't even know the South Tower is silently collapsing onscreen behind him. He is busy finishing a reporter's sentence. He looks up at the monitor, speechless. Words fail. They do. The next day, as if to confirm this, CNN shows catastrophic images, a scrawling NO COMMENT NO COMMENT NO COMMENT below. Ticker tapes from the subconscious. "More than we could bear: These are the first words that make sense. But it would be a while before any others would.

Struck dumb. That's what Susan Neiman, author of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, says happened to us on September 11. But it wasn't a new form of evil that made us mute -- it was a form so old that we had difficulty recognizing it. This probing and wonderfully written book is about the struggle to understand why our reason (our this ought not to have happened that we carry with us everywhere) has never been at home in the world (that uncooperative is of reality). Neiman points out that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington represented an evil less sophisticated than we are used to, unless you live in the world of the traditional Western. Think of the old John Wayne movie Red River, and you get the idea: an unambiguous world where harsh judgments are made with clarity. Although we might fantasize about such a world (why else would the image of a hip-canted John Wayne still resonate?), most of us, in our heart of hearts, don't believe in it. We mosey on. Think of the implications of this belief from another point of view: The only good American is a dead American, or a terrorist has to do what a terrorist has to do.

Many of us recoil from this explanation for the terrorist attacks because, well, it's simplistic. Evil, we know, is more complex than this. But here are people who are willing to die in order to bring death and fear to people they don't know. What can you do with that thought? Where does it have a place at your table? As Susan Neiman writes, "Those whose conceptions of evil had been shaped less by Hollywood than by Chile and Vietnam and Auschwitz and Cambodia are at more of a loss. We have learned how easily crimes are committed through bureaucratic structures of ordinary people who do not let themselves acknowledge, exactly, what it is they do. But the terrorists had planned the attacks for years. It was "massively intentional. So many of us "seemed left with no good choices. To call what happened on September 11 evil appeared to join forces with those whose simple, demonic conceptions of evil often deliberately obscure more insidious forms of it. Not to call the murders evil appeared to relativize them, to engage in ... calculations that made them understandable -- and risked a first step toward making them justifiable. As a result, many of us were rendered literally speechless. Those who weren't -- Jerry Falwell, the Bush administration, and those who thought our own foreign policy brought this destruction upon us -- were only doing what comes naturally, according to Neiman.

If you can explain evil, their thinking goes, you can ward more of it off and re-establish sense-making in the world as a whole. But as Neiman's book makes clear, as understandably human as this urge may be, it's a form of denial. Evil is, by its very nature, sense-destroying. So whatever you've explained, it's more than likely not evil. You've hung your hat on the wrong post. You've forced your ought on the is of the world. Wars have been fought over less. Other evils perpetrated. Neiman warns that "the appearance of old forms of evil need not blind us to other forms, and it may even sharpen our eye for them. Particularly for evils we might participate in ourselves.

Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought is primarily a history of how we got to this point in thinking about evil, how enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophers have reacted to other catastrophes, such as the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 that killed 15,000 people. The question: How could a just god permit such things? The answer, after much agonizing, was that it was the wrong question. It's hard for us to conceive of how shattering the consequences of this realization were -- that things simply happen in the natural world. That no one is protecting you. Figuratively and literally, you could no longer trust the ground beneath your feet. After Lisbon, human evil became the only evil in town.

by Herman Melville<br>
Norton Critical Edition, 726 pp., $17 (paper)
by Herman Melville
Norton Critical Edition, 726 pp., $17 (paper)

... All My Means Are Sane, My Motive and Object Mad.

-- Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick

If you haven't dusted off a copy of Melville's Moby-Dick since college or high school or ever, you should. Melville tells us just about all we need to know about evil, our participation in it, and the necessity of fighting it. The story, you might remember, is simple enough, but it dives deep: The maniacal Captain Ahab, his leg amputated by the white whale Moby-Dick, has created false pretences to lure his crew on a pursuit of the whale and his vengeance. And though they sense that Ahab is mad, his crew goes along with it because, as with you and me, there's something in us that this kind of madness speaks to: In it is the promise that we can join our ought and the world's is by force. As Ishmael, the hero of the novel and its only survivor (sure, I'll give the ending away), tells us in Melville's explosive language, "the white whale swam before [Ahab] as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them until they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignancy that has been there from the beginning ... all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain ... all evil ... [was] made practically assailable in Moby Dick. [Ahab] piled upon the whale's white hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." Now, friends, that is a novel. Reading it takes patience, to be sure -- Melville's gunning for Shakespeare here, after all -- but there's no better examination of what it is we talk about when we talk about evil. And, in the end, we're talking about ourselves, as the failed hero Starbuck makes clear near the end of the book: "'Oh, Ahab!' cried Starbuck, 'not too late is it, even now ... to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!'"

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning<br>
by Chris Hedges<br>
Anchor, 224 pp., $12.95 (paper)
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
by Chris Hedges
Anchor, 224 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Chris Hedges' powerful and National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning takes on the evils of nationalism, genocide, and the hijacking of cultural memory. Hedges, a longtime war correspondent who covered the wars in El Salvador, the Balkans, and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli crisis, among others, lays bare the myths of war: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by myth-makers -- historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state -- all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, a chance to rise above our small stations in life." But, at the same time, "it dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death." Hedges points to war's ability to raise "fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet ... when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us." He says that this is why, when war is over, it's so hard to discuss. The ground has shifted. Words fail.

And two years after September 11, how is the ground beneath our feet? Human evil calls for a response. But how to respond without missing the mark and causing more harm than good? Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought has an answer, though some might not be completely satisfied with it. The passengers on flight 93, unlike the passengers on the other planes, had advance knowledge of the terrorists' intent -- loved ones had told them about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So, as far as we know, the flight 93 passengers deliberated. Then they acted with the knowledge that, though they were probably doomed, they could refuse to become instruments of evil. They made choices. As Neiman says, "we will never know how much destruction they prevented but we know they prevented some. They proved that not only do human beings have freedom; we can use it to affect a world we fear we don't control." end story

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More by Scott Blackwood
Define 'Normal'
Define 'Normal'
Debra Monroe on the families we're born with and the families we build

May 14, 2010

Carry On, My Wayward Tongue
Carry On, My Wayward Tongue
Michael Erard on 'Um ...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean'

Sept. 14, 2007


evil, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, Chris Hedges, Princeton University Press, Anchor Books, Scott Blackwood

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