23 September 2015

Feeding the Inner Wolf

I had an odd insight at the supermarket the other day, watching a guy use the motorized shopping cart. He was a double-wide, for sure, carrying enough extra weight for it to be an obvious handicap, with tree-stump calves and thick ankles that probably indicated diabetes - but all of this beside the point. It got me thinking. He never set out to be that fat guy, he didn't do it by choice. It almost certainly had more to do with genetics, environment, the luck of the draw. We have a tendency to look at people with physical problems, obesity, rotten teeth, or bad skin, and hold them responsible, as if it were a moral failure.

I began to wonder about the corollary. What about people with glowing skin and great smiles and a body by Botticelli who turn out to be misshapen, or damaged underneath, but without visible injury? Perhaps some crippling trauma, or maybe no explanation at all. Maybe they're just plain ugly at heart.

There's a scene in John Crowley's novel LITTLE, BIG, where you encounter a crazy old drunk on the subway - or at least he seems like a crazy old drunk - and he's staggering up and down the cars, talking to himself. "I met the woof the other night, out back the churchyard. He didn't look like no woof, look like a man, but I knew him for who he was. He were hairy on the inside." The werewolf of folklore is known as Turnskins, a shape-shifter, wearing human covering as a disguise.

So, begging the question, Are there monsters? Some of us would say no, that it's nurture, or the lack of. I'd lean toward yes, though, the argument that it's nature, that evil is somehow innate, and not learned behavior. In other words, we can simply be hardwired the wrong way.

Do we come to the Manichean view that Absolute Good and Absolute Evil exist, as opposites? "Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it," Mephistopheles says, meaning he lives in the absence of God. But why shouldn't evil exist, without respect to virtue? Why do we imagine salvation is our reward for avoiding sin, when sin might prove to be its own reward? Bad isn't necessarily good taking a dive.

There was a time - the early days of the Church, say - when the world was seen as the earthly battlefield between the forces of light and dark, a struggle manifest, the war for men's souls. The stake was literal, not a metaphor. You could burn, your fatty tissue popping in the fire, and given the cooking time, it must have felt like an eternity. Then we have the misreading of Freud, as if a plausible explanation serves us as an excuse, or a note from teacher. ("Did you like Mr. Clutter?" "Why, yes, I did - right up to the moment I cut his throat.") Just supposing, however, that we don't see the dark silhouetted against the light, that there isn't any contrast, that the dark doesn't cast a shadow. It isn't the absence of God, or moral weight, or empathy, or some other frame of reference. Evil sufficient to the day. It stands on its own.

We're the ones who need help. We invent a mechanism that tells us the good is thrown on the scales with the bad, and they counterbalance. The one is necessary for the other. Yes, for dramatic tension in a fiction, a narrative, which is a construct, using familiar conventions. Not so much, we begin to think, in life. What if what goes around don't come around no more?

We appear conditioned to this idea of opposition: action, reaction, synthesis. I read a book one time about what the author described as The Bicameral Mind. The short version is Right Brain/Left Brain, but there's more to it than that. There was a long period in our development when we heard voices - the voices of the gods, perhaps? - but for a far longer period than our present psychological state, the accepted diagnosis or perceived reality, which has probably only obtained for about the last three thousand years, sake of argument, where such Voices signal mental illness, or at least the gateway to a less rational or linear world.

Presupposing the unspoken or the unseen, is the notion of duality functional? It seems like an enabling device, a comforting alibi. Rooted, as may be, in the bicameral mind, our physiology, the left a mirror of the right. This doesn't mean any of it has objective reality.

We might say, then, that evil exists for its own purposes. Not the opposite of good, but a force with no counterweight or equivalency. Thomas Pynchon, in THE CRYING OF LOT 49, says of Rapunzel, waiting rescue, what if the tower is everywhere, and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic? During the Middle Ages, many people thought the Black Death was evidence of God's abandonment, Not, we remark, a visitation of His disapproval - rather, a sign God had simply given up on us. But the disease vector of plague is a bacillus answering to its own necessities, unconcerned with the host bodies. We flatter ourselves, if we imagine we're any higher on the food chain, or that there's malice aforethought. In this sense, evil bears us no ill will. It's not retribution, and perhaps that's what makes it harder to bear. Evil is indifferent.


  1. Not only is evil indifferent, it's banal and petty as well. Which only adds to its unbearability. There's a great scene in the original movie "Bedazzled", where Peter Cook as the devil takes random LP records and scratches them before shipping them out to future customers. Another great scene is in C. S. Lewis' novel "Perelandra" where the devil (inhabiting an earthly body) in between being "on duty" attempting to capture people's souls, sits around by himself, torturing birds to death. Hideous because it is indifferent, banal, and petty.

  2. I come from a health care background, and I see evil as lack of empathy. Sociopaths (4 in 100 people, according to some studies) have no empathy. They wear a mask to fit into society which slips every now and then. It's the scariest thing to watch, especially when it's someone in your own family, and you have to deal with it regularly.

  3. That’s a wonderfully thoughtful article, David.

    Commenting only on one small part, I’ve been an acquaintance of criminal attorney Don West who defended Trayvon Martin killer George Zimmerman. Don is very much in the nurture over nature camp. He once remarked that the violent criminals he’d defended were forged by horrible parenting, tortured by cruel fathers and mothers or other relatives who took their anger and prejudices out on their children.

    Brilliant column, David. Thanks.

  4. Melodie, you are absolutely right - no empathy, no consideration, and there never ever will be. Despite what they say...


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