Describing “Empathy for the Devil,” Noah Millman writes:
As for me, what I find most terrifying about stories like Adam Lanza’s is . . . that I can all too easily imagine what it might be like to surrender to a horrible impulse. I can’t quite imagine my way into the mind of someone who picks off little children with a rifle, but any number of other horrors are mentally accessible. It only requires focusing intently on the normal rages and frustrations that bedevil anybody, and closing off everything else, including the access of other minds.
We share a kinship with monsters, not because we are all part of the same “depraved” society but because we are all part of the same depraved species.
The all-too-easy imagining he refers to is one of the purposes of literature, and the novel in particular—to bring us closer to those we are not, and who are not, but who could just as easily be. While the cable television serial may have become the home of the twenty-first century American anti-hero, the restrictions placed on film and television by rules and methods of pacing, of plot, of episode-length create a distance, even if only to the extent of window glass, between the audience and the protagonist that isn’t necessarily there in fiction. The novel, by contrast, meandering and digressive while at the same time plot-driven, is able to momentarily blur the distinction between the reader or author and the character. In television and film, we watch, sometimes in intricate, sympathetic detail; but only in the novel do we find ourselves quite literally thinking with the character.
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to the representation of evil in the novel and both, incidentally, are found in the language Millman uses to describe his reaction: that “we share a kinship with” those who would kill, or that we don’t quite—that they are “monsters,” something not quite in line with the lives and methods of the rest of humankind. In the former, we are allowed to empathize, to gain ghostly proximity, while in the latter, we can only get so close—never approaching, by design, as closely as we do other characters in the same work.
Such is the case in the unexplainable but wholly natural evils of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, where devils appear and disappear almost at will, ageless, timeless, and destructive. A reader has access to the corrupted and the fallen, but The Judge is identifiable by the sheer blankness of his character. He is, quite simply, what he is; pray that you never meet him.
But I’d argue that John Steinbeck, not McCarthy, gives us the most paradigmatic version of this approach in East of Eden. There are “monsters” in this world, he tells us, born with “a malformed soul,” those “born without a conscience, [to whom] a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous.” As a description of some forms of evil and certain criminals this seems perfectly apt: there’s a psychiatric diagnosis almost precisely in line with what Steinbeck describes. His premise as the novelist is that we, with properly formed souls and functioning consciences cannot understand or empathize with Cathy because the very nature of her being is alien from our own. In order to understand another, we must share certain psychological (or soulful) qualities with them.
But this moral vision, as Steinbeck proposes it, is flawed and, more to the point, self-sabotaged. “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one,” the author-narrator announces: “All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.” The monster he depicts through the character of Cathy is not just representative of herself, but of the natural moral category of evil—of all that is not good. Whether “I have done well—or ill” is determined by one’s deeds, of course—but these deeds themselves are determined at birth. Evil is predestined and inherent, a biological as well as a moral flaw. We cannot control it precisely because we can never understand it.
Figures like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog or Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney don’t fit into this paradigm, though both attempt (or at least plan to attempt) a murder. This wouldn’t be any different if Gladney’s aim were better or if Herzog hadn’t been pulled over for erratic driving on Lake Shore Drive. While I’ve expressed ambivalence in the past about the moral vision—and pleasure of reading—White Noise, it shows, with precision, how one can be driven to murder not from any inherent moral flaw in the individual, or flaw in humanity, but simply from morally neutral and shared human characteristics.
Herzog scares me less—I don’t leave wondering whether I could be driven to attempt murder, but whether I, too, would disintegrate into strings of words and half-academic thoughts were my private life to collapse so abruptly. From the author’s perspective, however, it may be an exercise in exactly in what Millman describes. The novel has its origins in an affair his then-wife had with his then-friend, Jack Ludwig, in details the book mirrors. A recent article on the connection notes that “[w]hen Bellow finally learned of the affair (through some slip-up when the two couples were making plans), he was murderously angry and spoke of getting a gun.”
But he doesn’t—instead, he sits to write his masterpiece and imagines how it could have been if he gave into that first urge:
But they had done something else to Herzog—unpredictable. It’s not everyone who gets the opportunity to kill with a clear conscience. They had opened the way to justifiable murder. They deserved to die. He had a right to kill them. They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary. [. . .] In spirit she was his murderess, and therefore he was turned loose, could shoot or choke without remorse. He felt in his arms and in his fingers, and to the core of his heart, the sweet exertion of strangling—horrible and sweet, an orgastic rapture of inflicting death. He was sweating violently, his shirt wet and cold under his arms. Into his mouth came a taste of copper, a metabolic poison, a flat but deadly flavor.
These are just hypothetical people in hypothetical situations, of course. But that’s also the point—while they aren’t real, they aren’t quite not-real, either. When we read literature that casts an eye toward what it means to be human, and when we keep our eyes and hearts open, we can learn—and learn without the horror of it happening in our too-real world. Even if it is only to learn that the horror is unpredictable, to be on guard against that ability to do evil that exists in all of us, to know that the inclination to listen can seem rational in moments of crisis.