Evil eludes essayist

To these intellectual sophisticates, "the children of the Enlightenment," who doubt evil exists, he has this to say: "Talk to the children in Sierra Leone whose hands have been chopped off by the rebels there. It is as fatuous to deny the existence of evil as it is to toss the word around irresponsibly."…Where Morrow excels is in decrying contemporary justifications for evil acts, excuses that transform evil into something more benign in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible.

The Globe and Mail
November 1, 2003

Evil eludes essayist
Zsuzsi Gartner

Evil: An Investigation
By Lance Morrow
Basic Books, 276 pages, $37

In my neighbourhood kitsch emporium, there are Satan cocktail shakers, Satan key chains, Satan puppets, hellfire shower curtains and devil rubber duckies in assorted sizes (in addition to the Mother Teresa breath misters and angry nun lunch buckets). The owner says the devilish items have surged in popularity, a reaction, she's convinced, to the rise of fire-and-brimstone-style speeches from the American right in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and its demonizing of the perpetrators.
It's basically capital E, biblical Evil, versus quote-unquote "evil" — evil as a conversation piece for urban hipsters, sympathy for the devil over whisky sours.

In Lance Morrow's Evil: An Investigation, the long-time reporter for Time and now an award-winning columnist for the magazine, challenges both U.S. President George Bush, who uses the word in an "aggressively in-your-face manner that takes its resonance from a long Judeo-Christian tradition of radical evil," and Bush's critics, who, "hearing the word, go ironic, and put evil into quotes."

To these intellectual sophisticates, "the children of the Enlightenment," who doubt evil exists, he has this to say: "Talk to the children in Sierra Leone whose hands have been chopped off by the rebels there. It is as fatuous to deny the existence of evil as it is to toss the word around irresponsibly."

When Morrow wrote about the 1996 Dunblane, Scotland, massacre of 16 primary-school children and their teacher by a disgruntled scoutmaster, he raised the spectre of evil. Time readers were outraged at his use of "such a primitive word." Instead, these rationalists "looked in the man's past for telltale shreds, for that tracery of cause and effect that might lead one to the tout comprendre." Evil exists, Morrow cautions, yet defies understanding.

Unlike philosopher Susan Neiman, whose Evil in Modern Thought was published last year to almost uniformly glowing reviews (including one in this paper in September, 2002), Morrow approaches the subject of evil as a layman. "I have spent time as a journalist in arguably evil places, notably Bosnia in the mid-nineties. But my real interest in evil derives from my lamentable instinct to moralize and from a sort of naïve lifelong astonishment that people are capable of doing the things they sometimes do." The things people sometimes do, in evil's case, range from brutal individual murder to genocide.

The Holocaust occupies a central place in the book as the ne plus ultra of 20th century evil, as it should. "Where was God at Auschwitz?" was the question that led off The Globe and Mail's obituary in September of former Toronto rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim, a man who spent a lifetime trying to answer that question both philosophically and theologically, only ultimately to admit it was unanswerable. The Holocaust triggered a seismic shift in philosophical conceptions of evil and the question of moral responses to it. But you wouldn't glean that from reading Morrow.

"I doubt such disciplines as theology, philosophy, politics or science — for all their institutionalized intellectual apparatus — deal very well with the subject of evil," Morrow writes, saying we should turn to literature instead. I'm all for literature, but a primer on theological and philosophical approaches to the subject would have been useful, at least as a starting point for an investigation that is largely personal and sporadically journalistic. Without such grounding, statements such as "Evil is a learning experience. The Holocaust was a catastrophic education in the diabolical possibilities of advanced societies — and in the nature of evil itself" come off sounding glib.

Where Morrow excels is in decrying contemporary justifications for evil acts, excuses that transform evil into something more benign in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. Political, ideological, medical and socio-cultural excuses for evil proliferate. Flip Wilson's iconic quip, "The devil made me do it!" has been perverted into everything from "My low serotonin levels made me do it!" (child-killing U.S. mother Andrea Yates) to the versatile "Our religion made us do it!" (the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; the cover-up of widespread child abuse in the Catholic Church; and Sharia law, which allows adulteresses to be stoned to death under certain conditions).

Morrow is a good writer, a natural storyteller with a flair for relating anecdotes and describing people. But his subject matter here seems to overwhelm and ultimately defeat him. A 276-page book on a serious subject that's divided into 34 chapters, many of which are disjointed and read like notes for future essays, is in need of a prescription for the literary equivalent of Ritalin — or a tougher editor.

There are few sustained arguments. Chapter headings such as Is Evil Funny and Is America Evil? raise interesting ideas that are tossed aside after as few as five pages. In The Meaning of Hatred, Morrow writes of attending a conference called The Anatomy of Hate, convened in Oslo by Elie Wiesel. We learn little about what the participants — people like Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter — have to say about hatred, as Morrow digresses to a later Time magazine event in New York and the chapter morphs into a compendium of name-dropping.

There are annoying repetitions of ideas and opinions. The concept of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the idea of divine justice in a world replete with evil (or, plainly, how can there be an all-powerful, all-good God when bad things happen to good people?), is reintroduced more than once, but never satisfyingly discussed. The word "metaphysical" is used at least two dozen times, often as a bizarrely inappropriate adjective stuck in front of a noun as if to add a soupçon of philosophical gravitas. (My favourite: "metaphysical sassiness.") There are times when Morrow's investigation approaches the profundity of a greeting card — albeit a metaphysical greeting card. "Hope is the thing in feathers;" "Hope is the thing in diapers;" "Faith is the mind with its eyes fiercely closed. Poetry is the mind with its eyes open. Each is a different form of transcendence." Morrow's conclusion, arriving pretty much apropos of nothing, is just plain hokey: "Rely, simply, on love."

This is not deep thinking on the subject of evil, but neither is it Chicken Soup for the Dubious Soul. It's honest and intelligent, though scattershot in its approach, and Morrow's central premise — that evil exists, whether we can understand it or not, and that we should acknowledge it and talk about it and not make excuses for it — is important in these terribly off-kilter times.

In a lengthy article in my local paper recently, the B.C. man who killed all six of his beautiful young children is described as having "narcissistic personality disorder." As if to let the monster further off the hook (and remember, there were those who expressed sympathy for the poor, abused perpetrator of the Montreal Massacre), there's this bit of predictable psycho-goo: "The problem is often triggered in childhood, some believe as a result of trauma or abuse… . Others believe there is a genetic component." Unsurprisingly, the word evil never comes up. That would be too … what? Unscientific? Bible-thumping? Medieval?

Or too uncomfortably true?

Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner once published a short story called The Nature of Pure Evil, in which the moral relativists think they won the debate because they were louder.


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