I love Star Wars, but in my nascent middle age, I wonder if it has affected me negatively. I’m talking about Good and Evil – which are so clear-cut in the movie, but are more complicated in real life. Do I not see the “gray” in life enough? Am I a moral absolutist? I hope not. Literature, too, has had a profound impact on me, and I think generally speaking, it allows for more gray area in humanity than movies often do. So it was with great regret that I had to miss Toni Morrison’s speech last Saturday night in Santa Cruz, entitled “Literature and the Silence of Goodness.” I’m sure it was intensely interesting, especially for someone who is as obsessed with good and evil as I am. I read an interview with Morrison, however, where she said, “. . . and ‘obsession’ with evil has crept into literature over the past century or so while the forces of good have been driven to the sidelines and compelled to bite their tongues.” She credits World War I and its horrors as creating this preoccupation in the first place. She said it is “too easy” for dark forces to dominate modern fiction, although she did admit that portraying genuine goodness is harder.
So this got me thinking about the literature I’ve read, the pre-WWI stuff compared to modern literature. Is it true that evil predominates in 20th and 21st century stories? Does evil always win? A caveat here is that although I think of myself as fairly well-read, I haven’t read absolutely everything, so I don’t know if I can rightly come to a conclusion. But anyway, I was thinking about Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and even the late 18th century Fanny Burney. I think Dickens and Conrad certainly believed in the power of evil and wrote a lot about it. Think Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, or Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Not much gray there. The suitors in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia: Or Memoirs of an Heiress are all pretty awful, and as I was reading it I remember being incredibly stressed out by her seemingly impossible situation. Not much gray here, either, where people are pretty much all good, like Cecilia, or all bad, like Mr. Harrel. But in Trollope and Austen, I think there are a lot of gray areas. They are consummate character creators, and can see the flaws and foibles of a person while also seeing their good points. Or, maybe, the flaws are explained, and can be forgiven to some extent. Even Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is susceptible to the charms of the wicked Mr. Wickham., and Mr. Wickham, for all his wickedness, is charming and pliable.
So after that incredibly brief and shallow assessment, I turn now to modern literature. Does evil win out in 20th and 21st century stories? I think of all the dystopian young adult novels I read, and while they are preoccupied with evil, ultimately good wins. But then there’s Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and it seems like humanity’s baseness trumps everything else. I think of more recent things I’ve read, like Chang Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, or Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man and The Memory of Love. In these books, people are complicated (probably just as complicated as characters out of the 19th century). I think they’re just trying to survive the best way they can. More than personal, individual evil, I think they address evil forces – uncontrollable forces in society that make people do things they wouldn’t otherwise. Maybe that’s one difference between earlier literature and modern – evil is blamed on the individual, whereas in later books, evil is blamed on dark societal forces. I’m sure there are exceptions, though.
I guess this brings up other big questions. Is evil individual or societal? Can we rightly blame bad things on something in the ether? Aren’t we all, ultimately responsible for our actions, and even the actions of others? When political theorist Hannah Arendt covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, she referred to “the banality of evil.” In this, according to Bethania Assy who wrote “Eichmann, the Banality of Evil, and Thinking in Arendt’s Thought”, Arendt meant that Eichmann himself was an insubstantial, mediocre man – “not even sinister” in his appearance. But his deeds – organizing millions of Jews and others to concentration camps – were horrific, needless to say. Assy reports that Arendt believed that Eichmann’s main attribute was thoughtlessness. In his personality, he had not one iota of critical thought, and moreover was completely removed from reality. Arendt rightly saw this as scary. As someone who daily sees students unable to form their own opinions and to write critically and intelligently, I see this as scary, too. The author Iris Chang said, “Civilization is just a thin veneer.” If we can’t think critically, if we can’t think for ourselves, how close are we to atrocity? I saw this in Forna’s The Hired Man that took place in Croatia. I saw it in her story The Memory of Love in Sierra Leone. Now I see it in Ru Freeman’s book On Sal Mal Lane, about Sri Lanka.
I’m sorry if this seems like a digression . I think that Morrison might be right about evil in today’s literature. but I would take it a step further. It is too easy to blame badness, or evil, on society itself – both in literature and in real life. In short, individual action matters. I know that sounds like some kind of Facebook meme – but I believe in it. We are what we do. We are what we say. I had a history teacher in high school who would quote some Nazi war criminal – was it Joseph Goebbels? – when he was joking about school rules: “I’m only following orders.” Mr. Beaver had a twisted sense of humor. But maybe he wanted us to believe that we were responsible for our actions, too.