Terry Eagleton ‘On Evil’

In a postmodern and secular society, the dilemma of knowing when and how to use the word ‘evil’ persists in the absence of God. With a rise in divorce rates and sexual liberation it would now seem completely bizarre to refer to sexual acts that happen outside of wedlock as being ‘evil’. Terry Eagleton’s book On Evil is an attempt to track down and locate the true source of evil and define it by its characteristics.
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Eagleton’s book trawls through fictitious modernist literature in a quest for the meaning of ‘evil’, ‘hell’ and ‘Satan’. His work draws from works such as William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. While at the same time, he and aligns his finding with an incredibly broad range of philosophical ideas on evil – drawing from authors such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Žižek, whose definitions are often left to stand alone as independent statements without any interrogation or cross-comparison. The psychoanalytical framework that he deploys in his analysis of these texts is provided by Freud’s notion of the id, ego and super ego. What he explores is a terrain of paradoxical dualisms – time/space, order/disorder, meaningfulness/meaninglessness – leading to some relatively earthly, and, incredibly abstract considerations.

What he observes from there are several reoccurring characteristics that offer non-biblical definitions of evil. Firstly, evil has a liminal property. It is nether something or nothing and it exists somewhere between life and death, ‘which is why we associate it with ghosts, mummies and vampires. Anything which is neither quite dead nor quite alive can become an image of it’ (p. 123).

In his reading of Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, and his interpretation of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Eagleton argues that evil has a spatial property, which defies time, while at the same time finding itself involved within time. Much like Nietzsche’s concept of the re-eternal occurrence, ‘cyclical time also belongs to a vision of evil-to a world in which the damned are those who have lost to capacity to die and, being unable to make an end, are doomed to eternal repetition’ (p. 50). This notion of being trapped in the self, in a space, detached from temporality and the structure provided by time, life becomes painfully boring. Moreover, ‘Evil is boring because it is lifeless’ (p. 123)

Rationality, logic and reason, provide the momentum of modernity. Bauman argues that an excess of such principles underpinned the inhumanly rationalised execution of Jews during World War II. However, Eagleton argues that evil can be found in both reason and disorder, what he describes as the ‘two faces of evil’, ‘(t)he more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mess of sensation. The more abstracted reason becomes, the less men and women are able to leave a meaningful creaturely life. So the more they must resort to mindless sensation to prove to themselves that they still exist’ (p. 76). Therefore, we can consider that evil can occur in an imbalance of reason (super ego) and primeval impulse (id).

If we were to strip the structure of life away (the finite), what we would be left with (amidst infinity) is chaos and disorder. Therefore, another of Eagleton’s characteristics of evil is meaninglessness, or nihilism, is the dark space that exists at its core, which wills and attempts to demolish everything godlike and meaningful, ‘Evil would actually prefer that there was nothing at all, since it does not see the point of created things’ (p. 60-61). Paradoxically, by willing for the destruction of meaning, evil would destroy its own context thereby extinguishing itself.

  • Does searching for evil in literature provide an adequate, and objective, definition of evil? Should Eagleton have considered some more subjective perspectives to evil, including his own?

Bibliography

Eagleton, T. (2010) On Evil, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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