Approximating Evil

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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17 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    A critical purpose of myth is to teach us how to behave. The heroes of our myths — whether they are noble or otherwise — serve as models for behavior upon which we pattern ourselves. Dark heroes or antiheroes can be negative examples: if you do bad thing X, then bad thing Y will happen to you. For me, the real power of a novel like the ones you describe is to demonstrate how easy it is to become such a figure. People do not think of themselves as evil; they see themselves as good. The novel lets you understand the dissonance between the evil actions and the good thoughts motivating them.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Tod — Thanks. Burt — about to head off to the airport so I don’t actually have time to respond. But wanted you to know that I’d otherwise probably have some sort of response! (Maybe in a day or two?)Report

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    Given that we can see the dark impulse within ourselves, and glimpse circumstances under which it might break through, how do we feel about the complete availability of unlimited firepower?Report

  3. The book I’ve read (and I regret to say I have read none of those discussed in this excellent post) that laid out in the most psychologically understandable way why a reasonable person might commit murder was Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”Report

  4. Boegiboe says:

    Two books that have affected me profoundly in my understanding of spousal abuse are Angela Carter’s Love and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Both novels are written such that the reader deeply inhabits the minds of the main male characters, and as a result the cruelty of the men is obscured. I read Love when I was 19, and very new to the idea of romantic relationships. I discussed it with friends, and I remember feeling shocked and embarrassed that I read the entire book without realizing that Lee was a much more evil person than he thought of himself. It’s the emotional shock of perceiving how close one is to cruelty–or greed, or insanity, etc–that for me makes a truly memorable and worthwhile novel.Report

  5. Rufus F. says:

    I was thinking about somewhat the same thing recently because I read somewhere that Zola’s ‘La Bête humaine’ was intended as a sort of response to ‘Crime and Punishment.’ It’s hard because, of course, Crime and Punishment is a much better book about how someone could be compelled to kill and yet Zola’s killer Jacques Lantier, who’s essentially a sex maniac, strikes me as much closer to the reality than Raskolnikov, who is a fantastic character that never quite stuck me as real. I never quite accepted Raskolnikov.Report

  6. ktward says:

    About a decade or so ago, a member of my (then) UU community committed a horrific crime. She killed her children. It was all over the news of course. Marilyn Lemak.

    As a community, we were devastated on so many levels. Some of us had known her well, some of us not so well, some of us not at all. But we all grieved and felt guilt to an extent that I simply cannot put into words.

    In one of our grief counseling sessions, I remember another member. Still, so vividly. I knew her, though we were not friends. As a Sunday School teacher, I probably knew her kids better than I knew her. While she sat in the counseling circle with the other 30-40 of us, I remember her knitting the entire time. I remember thinking to myself, Is she here? Is she with us? She didn’t speak a word. She didn’t look up from her knitting. Until, toward the end, there was an extended silence. She gently laid down her needlework on her lap, looked up, and with a solemnity that can only come from the deepest part of us she said, “There but for the grace of god go I.” Every one of us broke into tears of recognition of that painful truth.

    It’s an old saying. One we all know. But at that moment, in that place and time, under those circumstances, it became personally meaningful to me. That memory has never left me. The profoundness of that experience has never left me. That, as much as we’re sure we could never ever commit any atrocity, surely not killing our own children, the painful truth is that we simply cannot ever be sure that, given some terrible mix of circumstances, we aren’t capable of it.Report

  7. ktward says:

    In hell? Sure. Here? Not so sure.

    To be honest, just writing my comment left me fairly ripped up. I totally did not expect that, so many years have passed. But I am … holy cow, utterly flabbergasted! that you asked. May I think about it?Report