Friday, July 30, 2010

The Nature of Evil

The fiction of evil.
I thought the quote in the block with brown-colored-text below was highly interesting, which I lifted from an essay excerpt written by Lars Svendsen, published in the Fall, 2009, issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction.  The excerpt is from a preliminary work that preceded publication of Svendsen's book, A Philosophy of Evil. [Update:  The piece in The Review of Contemporaty Fiction ended up being a good chuck of the Foreward in A Philosophy of Evil.]

There's a lot of exposure to Evil or ideas about Evil in Homeless World Sacramento because: (1) it's a topic of some discussion, since HWS is in very large part Christian [the Bible is in large part about Good v Evil and most/many Christians think in terms of the poles of Good v Evil]; (2) there are people who have committed terrible crimes in our midst; (3) there's an abundant amount of narcissism and sociopathy "out here"; (4) people are subjected to a lot of petty and not-so-petty theft and other scams; and (5) other reasons.

Be aware that there is Good galore "out here," too! I am certainly not meaning to cast aspersions on the homeless community by bringing up Evil; I am just wanting to face one factor in the reality of homelessness.  A mission of this blog is to get out the truth of the homeless condition, in all its colors.

Note that Svendsen is writing about the real thing, itself, as he sees it, as well as how it is falsely portrayed in the Arts. [Footnotes are Svendsen's; I added the links.]:
…When I first began to "rehabilitate" the idea of evil, it appeared to me as an object of fascination. This fascination was especially tied to the tendency to regard evil as an aesthetic object, where evil appears as something other and therefore functions as an alternative to the banality of everyday life. We're steadily exposed to more and more extreme representations of evil in films and such1, but this form of evil doesn't belong to a moral category. Like most other things in our culture, evil has been aestheticized. Simone Weil writes: "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating."2 In fiction, evil feeds off its fictional nature. It poses a contrast to the banality of everyday life and represents a transcendence of the same. "Evil" is translated as "transgression," "the sublime," etc. When such aestheticization becomes dominant, we lose sight of the horror associated with evil. For the purely aesthetic gaze, there is no actual victim. As a purely aesthetic phenomenon evil becomes a game without consequences, something we can gorge ourselves on, play around with, or shed a tear about without worrying that the knife will cut too deep.3

…One problem we face, however, is that the negative possibilities are so much greater than the positive. In terms of causality, it's always easier to do evil than to do good; easier to hurt another human being in ways that will haunt them for the rest of their lives than to do a comparative amount of good; easier to inflict an enormous amount of suffering on a whole people than to bring about a comparative state of prosperity. In short, there's an asymmetry between our ability to do good and our ability to do evil. This may be a defining condition for human action, but it's still our responsibility to do more good than evil. …
1 This is obviously nothing new, and our present fascination with evil clearly has its roots in the Romantic. For more on this subject, see Davenport: Gothic: 400 Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin ; Gillespie: Nihilism Before Nietzsche , esp. chpt. 4; Russell: Mephistopheles , esp. chpt. 5; Bohrer: Nach der Natur .
2 Weil: Gravity and Grace , p. 70.
3 Oscar Wilde writes about how art expresses reality—that is, life—but in a tame form that prevents us from hurting ourselves. Therefore we must turn to art—not life—for all our adventures and experiences: "Because Art does not hurt us. The tears we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded … But the sorrow with which Art fills us both purifies and initiates … [It] is through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence" (Wilde, Complete Works , p. 173). Art, therefore, becomes a defense against life's burdens, and aestheticism becomes escapism. In my opinion, that encompasses all aestheticism—and Wilde himself implements a critique against such aestheticism in later works, especially in The Picture of Dorian Gray and De profundis.



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