[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: David B. Morris: The Transformations of Evil and Suffering

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David B. Morris: The Transformations of Evil and Suffering
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          David B. Morris compares modern and postmodern views of
    suffering and looks at how our cultural narratives of suffering often
    serve to increase, rather than alleviate, the pain and isolation of
    those most in need. Viewing suffering as embedded in events,
    situations, and relations resists a static view of suffering that can
    lead to inaction and hopelessness and pushes for an exploration of its
    causes and consequences.

          David B. Morris is the author of several books, including two
    prize-winning works on British literature--The Religious Sublime:
    Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th Century England and
    Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense--and, recently, The Culture of
    Pain, which won a PEN prize, and Illness and Culture in the Postmodern

Evil: Modern and Postmodern

          Evil has been transformed by postmodern culture. It doubtless
    constitutes a truism of contemporary thought that evil has shared in
    the same loss of credulity suffered by the comprehensive explanatory
    systems or--as Jean-François Lyotard famously calls
    them--"metanarratives" that formerly explained or contained it.[3]^1
    This truism is surely accurate, if incomplete. Paul Ricoeur in The
    Encyclopedia of Religion, summarizing and extending his earlier work,
    describes four dominant myths worldwide that have addressed the origin
    of evil: chaos myths, myths of an evil god, myths of the exiled soul,
    and myths of a lost paradise.[4]^2 Myths of origin fall among the
    metanarratives that come under suspicion in postmodern thought, but in
    Western cultures the most powerful and still intermittently persistent
    myth describing the origin of evil is doubtless the vision of a lost

          John Milton's epic Paradise Lost gave influential expression to
    the long-standing view that evil is an omnipresent threat and central
    event in human history. The threat of evil is felt as so powerful that
    in effect Milton writes within the formal tradition of theodicies that
    explicitly set out to justify God's ways to humans, especially in
    creating or permitting evil. Milton depicts human history, in contrast
    to the timeless innocence of Eden, as beginning with the temptation
    scene and the triumph of evil, when Eve disobeys God and succumbs to
    the wiles of Satan. William Blake's illustration of the scene is
    faithful to the spirit of Milton's text in depicting Adam, at the
    fateful moment, looking away from Eve, with back turned. Adam's
    back-turned posture carries a crucial moral meaning: he simply cannot
    see or will not attend to the presence of evil, as embodied in the
    well-spoken serpent.

          Attention is an important ethical state for Milton, more
    significant at times than heroic action. They too serve God, he says
    in the sonnet on his blindness, who only stand and wait, attentively.
    The flowery garland that Adam has been weaving for Eve--now fallen
    beside his left foot--is more than a sign of love or perhaps, for
    Milton, even of uxorious folly: it is a prophecy of their own
    impending fall. It locates the triumph of evil in the failed attention
    that ignores the dangers--from within and without--that continuously
    surround us. Human history, for Milton, is life lived, uncloistered,
    in the heat and dust of constant temptation and in the all-too-easily
    ignored presence of evil.

          Evil in the West has never regained the prominence, theological
    and dramatic, that it achieved in Paradise Lost. Little more than half
    a century later, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, its central
    position had been subtly but thoroughly eroded. An Essay on Man by
    Alexander Pope announces its ambition to rival Milton in the creation
    of a theodicy. Pope aims to "vindicate" (not merely "justify," as
    Milton claimed to do) the ways of God to humankind. Pope's lengthy
    vindication of divine goodness in four verse epistles, however,
    manages with only two appearances of the word "evil." His preferred
    term to describe catastrophes and wrongdoing is not evil but the
    milder, evasive term "ills." In effect, while Milton struggles with
    the problem of evil, including the omnipresent threat, dire
    consequences, and deep mystery that evil represents, Pope worries
    about the appearance of evil. Evil for Pope is not a cosmic force
    continuously at war with humankind, daily tempting the soul and
    threatening to plunge us into everlasting fire, but rather a cognitive
    illusion: what we misinterpret as evil is, if understood rightly, a
    component of "universal good." True, Pope retains a trace of the older
    vocabulary of evil when he employs a distinction between "physical or
    moral ill" common in theological accounts. If the distinction remains,
    however, its force is lost in the light of a rational theology that
    has no room for mysteries so potent that they once demanded nothing
    less than a mythic imagination. Now evil (under a new name) can be
    handled in a single line as the effect of errant will and natural

          The postmodern world--despite our skepticism about grand
    narratives and our erosion of trust in mythic accounts--has not
    witnessed the absolute disappearance of evil, nor has Satan wholly
    died. In its notorious eclecticism, postmodernism retains elements
    from the past, which are of course deracinated and transformed in
    their new context, like an ancient Greek portico stuck onto a
    skyscraper. Televangelists regularly thunder against sin and evil in
    their fund-raising ministries. The so-called death of Satan becomes
    the occasion for an academic critique of liberal failures to
    understand the reality of evil and to give it a needed place in our
    civic and moral imagination.[5]^3 Less tendentiously, a few
    theologians, historians, feminists, and philosophers continue to study
    the perennial issues associated with evil and to offer insightful
    analysis.[6]^4 The fact is that evil in the postmodern era--even as a
    topic of conversation--has not so much disappeared as taken on the
    changed shapes of a period in which theological and mythic accounts of
    a lost paradise no longer ring true.

          Indeed, the twentieth century has witnessed catastrophes (from
    world war to genocide) so immense and so chilling as to demand and, on
    occasion, to receive serious discussion, such as Hannah Arendt's
    influential treatment of Adolph Eichmann and the banality of
    evil.[7]^5 Arendt's view of Eichmann is especially helpful in
    suggesting that evil has not disappeared but rather taken on
    distinctive new shapes. It seems clear that she detects a modernist
    transformation of evil in the Nazi employment of such invisibly
    omnipresent inventions as the assembly line, mass transit, and the
    bureaucratic routine. The decades that have passed since the close of
    World War II and the advent of postmodern times have seen evil not so
    much transformed as turned inside out. Evil has been long understood
    by theologians and by popular audiences as the cause of
    suffering.[8]^6 The postmodern era has redefined suffering as evil.
    Suffering becomes one of the few agreed-upon new shapes that evil
    assumes in the postmodern world.

          The postmodern reformulation of the bond between suffering and
    evil finds examples not only throughout popular culture, where
    prolonged suffering is construed as the worst thing that can befall
    someone, but also, surprisingly, in the sciences and social sciences.
    Timothy Anders, for example, is unusual mainly in employing the
    postmodern tools of evolutionary psychology to argue that "the
    ultimate source of all evil is the biological capacity for
    suffering."[9]^7 Here again we see the traditional relation between
    evil and suffering turned inside out: evil is no longer the source of
    suffering, but rather suffering is the source of evil.

          French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas provides an
    especially thought-provoking account of this reversal in his essay
    "Useless Suffering." Levinas writes self-consciously from a late
    twentieth-century stance in which our awareness of massive cruelty and
    of unprecedented suffering exceeds any possible justification in the
    language of traditional theology. "This is the century," he reminds
    us, "that in thirty years has known two world wars, the
    totalitarianisms of right and left, Hitlerism and Stalinism,
    Hiroshima, the Gulag, and the genocides of Auschwitz and
    Cambodia."[10]^8 The millions of victims crushed in all this torture
    and destruction cannot for Levinas be encompassed within traditional
    religious perspectives which understand evil through its relation to
    God's will. In this new context, which he believes requires a radical
    rethinking of evil, Levinas seeks the basis for what he calls a faith
    without theodicy. "All evil," he asserts starkly, "refers to

          Suffering, in Levinas's account, takes on the quality of evil
    from its combination of destructive pain coupled with absolute and
    intrinsic uselessness. Suffering, for the person who suffers, is in
    his view wholly without meaning. It is simply the experience of an
    overwhelming, violent, and cruel negation--"extreme passivity,
    impotence, abandonment and solitude"[12]^10 --in which every human
    effort to affirm coherence or value drains away into absurdity. It is,
    Levinas writes, the "impasse of life and being."[13]^11 Such impasse
    for Levinas finds its archetype in the Holocaust of the Jews under
    Hitler: "the paradigm of gratuitous human suffering, where evil
    appears in its diabolical horror."[14]^12 Within the darkness of such
    diabolical evil redefined as an extreme and useless suffering, within
    the horror of utter meaninglessness and of crushing impersonal force,
    however, Levinas also finds the hope for a saving transformation. The
    source of this transformation lies in what he calls "the inter-human

          The "inter-human order" for Levinas signifies not merely the
    everyday political or social worlds but the ethical position of the
    self (prior to all practical politics or implied social contracts) as
    inescapably bound up with others. From this ethical perspective based
    upon a recognition of the Other, the suffering of another
    person--while absolutely useless, meaningless, and inexorably evil to
    the person who suffers--can take on a meaning through the
    "inter-human" claim it makes upon us as witnesses: it solicits and
    calls us, invoking the recourse that people have always recognized to
    help one another. Further, where such solicitation finds an answering
    response, absolute and meaningless suffering does not lose its quality
    of evil for the sufferer but instead becomes transformed, in the self
    who responds, into what Levinas calls a meaningful suffering for the
    suffering of someone else. This difficult reciprocity within suffering
    makes sense in the context of Levinas's distinctive style of
    postmodern thought, where an Ethics of the inter-human is not an
    obligation derived from higher principles but rather the principle
    from which philosophy and Ethics must begin. The importance of Levinas
    here lies not only in his identification of evil with suffering but
    also in his demonstration that postmodern suffering--cut free from
    traditional theodicies--clearly differs from suffering as it was
    understood at least from the time of Milton through the modernist era.

Suffering: Modern and Postmodern

          Postmodern thought differs from modernist thinking not only in
    the creation of an absolute identity between evil and suffering but
    also in the development of a new idea of suffering. The famous poem
    "Musée des Beaux Arts" (1938) by W. H. Auden offers a strong example
    of the modernist view that is rejected or revised in postmodern
    versions of suffering. Auden's poem--based upon the famous painting
    Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1555), by Pieter Brueghel the
    Elder--depicts suffering as a quintessentially individual, private,
    and solitary experience. This modernist view construes the act of
    suffering, even though embedded in a rich social context, as occurring
    in an almost impenetrable solitude, like Icarus falling into the sea
    as the workaday world goes about its business, with only his lower
    legs visible in the extreme right corner of Brueghel's canvas.

          As Auden depicts it, such impenetrable solitude is almost built
    into the structure of suffering. The problem is not that we turn away
    from evil and disaster, Adam-like, as if unable to foresee or to bear
    it, or as if deliberately refusing to assist. While suffering
    regularly disturbs and threatens us, Auden does not represent the
    turning away from suffering as moral failure, a lapse, say, of
    foresight, charity, or courage. He depicts aversion or detachment,
    instead, as the outcome of a structural position we cannot help but
    occupy. Suffering occurs in a social world where non-sufferers always
    find their own lives more absorbing and immediate, where nature and
    commerce continue in their appointed course oblivious to individual
    disaster. The plowman never looks up; the expensive ship sails on. If
    suffering should fall unavoidably within our field of vision, Auden
    insists that we cannot escape our built-in position of detachment. Not
    even the Old Masters, he suggests, could somehow place us in direct
    relation to another person's suffering. Their triumph--straining the
    limits of art--lies in forcing us to recognize and to contemplate our
    fated detachment as each of us, like Icarus, suffers alone.

          The significance of Auden's poem lies in the clarity with which
    it presents the modernist myth (a myth it represents as uncontestable
    truth) that suffering is an individual, private, and solitary state of
    inwardness. From a postmodern perspective, it seems clear that Auden
    invokes Brueghel and the Old Masters in effect to universalize and
    confirm what is a historically and culturally specific modernist
    interpretation of suffering, as recognizably modernist as the gaunt,
    skeletal, solitary human figures sculpted by Alberto Giacometti. As
    heirs of modernism, of course, we respond to a persuasiveness in
    Auden's view that the normal human "position" in relation to suffering
    mandates a glasslike separation and detachment. Yet, this modernist
    myth concerning the inwardness and isolation of suffering is not
    necessarily confirmed by Brueghel's painting. It is uncertain, in
    fact, whether Brueghel's painting deals with suffering at all. The
    painting could equally depict violent death or the consequences of
    over-reaching. Even if we grant that the painting deals with
    suffering, Brueghel's luminous depiction of everyday life--the shining
    furrows, dazzling sea, and dreamlike city--might suggest that
    suffering lies wholly outside the realm of daily experience: it is not
    so much private and inward as utterly alien. We cannot grasp it any
    more than we can make sense of a demigod falling from the sky. Auden's
    reading of Brueghel is powerful precisely because it seems to validate
    as universal what is at last merely a limited and historical modernist
    interpretation of suffering. From a postmodern perspective, suffering
    is never wholly individual, private, inward, and solitary, despite our
    inability to inhabit another human consciousness. Postmodern suffering
    contains important public and social--or inter-human--dimensions.

          The postmodern interpretation of suffering as necessarily public
    and social stands in vivid contrast to the modernist emphasis on
    isolation and silence. The silence attributed to suffering in
    modernist views is almost a cliché: a corollary of the argument that
    suffering is private, inward, and unknowable. There are obviously no
    words to convey an experience construed as so inaccessible to others
    that it lies beyond language. The cliché of silent suffering, however,
    while it recognizes real limitations of speech and knowledge, must
    somehow be reconciled with an equally obvious and proliferating
    discourse of lament, elegy, litigation, and victim-mongering.
    Postmodern suffering not only seeks a voice but also, however
    imperfectly, enters vigorously into the public discourses and speech
    genres of specific communities. A postmodern approach thus recognizes
    that suffering in some sense follows the contours of various
    established discourses, much as an academic analysis like this one
    will follow the conventions of scholarly discourse, including
    footnotes, reference to contemporary thinkers, and correct grammar.
    Methodist hymns, by contrast, treat human suffering within a speech
    genre where none of the social patterns that govern scholarly essays
    applies--or even makes sense. Suffering, from a postmodern
    perspective, cannot be disentangled from the linguistic and narrative
    turns that so deeply color contemporary knowledge. Postmodern
    suffering belongs inside--inextricably connected with and shaped
    by--the public, social domain of story and language.

          The specific question at issue here is quite basic: Why does it
    matter for an understanding of evil that postmodernism asks us to
    recognize how every voice is shaped and constrained by the speech
    genres of a specific social community at a particular historical
    moment? It matters because the public discourses of distinct
    historical communities also shape and constrain how we talk about
    suffering, how we talk when suffering, and, ultimately, how we suffer.

          The major change that typifies postmodern versions of suffering
    and of evil can be identified in the concept of social suffering.
    "Social suffering," as Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Margaret Lock
    contend, "results from what political, economic, and institutional
    power does to people and, reciprocally, from how these forms of power
    themselves influence responses to social problems."[15]^13
    Contributors to the book-length volume Social Suffering discuss the
    forms of affliction that characterize such political, economic, and
    institutional applications of power as the rape of women in India
    during the struggle for independence from Britain, the imposition of
    Maoism in China, and, inevitably, the Holocaust. Moreover, the
    writings of Michel Foucault have shown how social power works not only
    through traditional top-down political, economic, and institutional
    hierarchies but also through widely distributed informal networks of
    professional knowledge and cultural discourse. Suffering, when viewed
    in this postmodern perspective, is never strictly private, inward, and
    individual. It is transpersonal, discursive, or, as Levinas says,
    inter-human. Its sources lie not in some unknowable or ungraspable
    fatality--like the will of the gods or the operations of a mysterious
    curse--but rather in social structures and in cultural practices.
    Individuals suffer only within the context of far larger social forces
    and actions that give their suffering its distinctive historical
    shapes. One way to think about this postmodern conception of evil as
    social suffering is to imagine a shift from myth to plot.

          Myths deal with archetypal patterns or large abstract structures
    of experience that always exceed the dimensions of a single culture or
    society. In discussing myths of evil, Paul Ricoeur emphasizes how myth
    "incorporates our fragmentary experience of evil within great
    narratives of origin."[16]^14 The postmodern skepticism concerning
    grand narratives carries over into a skepticism concerning myths of
    evil. Myth and plot clearly overlap, of course, in the sense that
    every myth tells a story, but plot introduces us to a more detailed
    and prosaic level of narrative. It moves us from timelessness to time.
    Plot gives us heroes or heroines who are not the thousand-faced
    figures of myth but distinctive people with local addresses: Quixote,
    Crusoe, Pip, Mrs. Dalloway, Joseph K. Plots, too, tend to focus on a
    specific, concrete, and unique sequence of actions. They describe a
    world in which this unique sequence of actions and choices, not an
    underlying mythic pattern, is what determines individual destinies.
    Plot, moreover, invites a detailed analysis of causation. It gives
    wider play than myth to the operations of chance and contingency,
    while also allowing readers or spectators to recognize elements of
    narrative structure, such as the recognition scene or turning point,
    that distinguish causal sequences from mere happenstance or fate.
    Plot, in short, immerses us in a world where suffering and evil emerge
    as distinct from the universal forces represented in myth. It allows
    us to understand evil and suffering as, no matter how deeply imbued
    with ineradicable traces of mystery, at least in part the outcome of
    specific inter-human actions and distinctive social arrangements.

          These heuristic differences between myth and plot--evoked as a
    framework for analysis of suffering and evil in the postmodern
    age--find a clear illustration in the work of Gustavo
    Gutiérrez.[17]^15 Gutiérrez, known as the founder of Liberation
    Theology, is a Catholic priest who works in the slums of Lima, Peru.
    For Gutiérrez, the suffering of the innocent and impoverished masses
    who inhabit the slums of Lima does not raise traditional theological
    questions about God's will. He is not concerned with mythic
    explanations of evil as originating in a lost paradise. For Gutiérrez,
    we will understand the suffering in the slums of Lima only by
    identifying the historical oppression of the poor by powerful
    landowners who receive the support (if not outright blessing) of the
    Catholic Church. Plot here is not merely an analytical tool that helps
    clarify the social causes of suffering in the historical actions of
    wealthy landowners and churchmen. Unlike myth, where the outcome is
    already foretold, plot has access to the realm of contingency, where
    human actions may change the outcome of events. Suffering in the slums
    of Lima, Gutiérrez insists, will not be reversed by medicines or
    compassion or improved social services, however welcome they might be,
    but only by the creation of a new and just historical plot that
    redresses the oppression of the poor. A postmodern vision that
    understands suffering as inter-human and historical (not solitary,
    private, inward, and inscrutable) matters for Gutiérrez precisely
    because it contains an implicit imperative for mobilizing effective
    social resistance to evil.


          Evil, from a postmodern perspective, is as malleable as the
    suffering with which it has increasingly come to be identified.
    Filmmakers, of course, continue to create stories depicting evil as an
    indestructible cosmic force, breeding new legions in a distant galaxy,
    or as a deathless Gothic legacy that lives on in vampires, swamp
    creatures, and ax murderers. As we might expect, there is no single
    postmodern voice of evil. Some postmodern voices prove especially
    gripping because they call upon an archaic and primitive dread that
    may belong to the evolutionary history of humankind. The malleability
    of evil, of course, ranks among its most ancient features: Satan is
    the archetypal shape-shifter. Yet, a postmodern perspective provides a
    major difference in viewing the malleability of evil as, at last, a
    cultural artifact. Moreover, the new identification between evil and
    suffering throws a new light onto suffering. Suffering, from a
    postmodern point of view, now appears not a permanent, ungraspable
    mystery of the human condition--something always enigmatic and beyond
    comprehension--but rather an event, even when locked within the
    privacy of an individual consciousness, that expresses much of what
    our cultures have taught us. In the extended social history of evil,
    one solid advantage that accrues to the postmodern moment lies in the
    implicit promise that we may, at least in part, address and redress
    the suffering that we have so thoroughly helped to shape. We may,
    unlike Adam, begin to turn towards the evil around us.

    [18]^1 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
    Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
    University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 34-37. ] [19]^2 Paul Ricoeur,
    "Evil," The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York:
    MacMillan, 1987) 200. Ricoeur's text is based in part on his
    well-known study The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (New
    York: Harper & Row, 1967). ] [20]^3 Andrew Delbanco, The Death of
    Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar,
    Straus and Giroux, 1995). ] [21]^4 See, for example, Jeffrey Burton
    Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil From Antiquity to Primitive
    Christianity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977); John S.
    Feinberg, Theologies and Evil (Washington, DC: University Press of
    America, 1979); Mary Midgley, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay
    (London: Routledge, 1984); John T. Wilcox, The Bitterness of Job: A
    Philosophical Reading (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989);
    Nel Noddings, Women and Evil (Berkeley: University of California
    Press, 1989); David Rey Griffin, Evil Revisited: Responses and
    Reconsiderations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991);
    and Lyall Watson, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil (New York:
    HarperCollins, 1995). ] [22]^5 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A
    Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1965). ]
    [23]^6 See, for example, Anthony B. Pinn, Why, Lord?: Suffering and
    Evil in Black Theology (New York: Continuum, 1995). ] [24]^7 Timothy
    Anders, The Evolution of Evil: An Inquiry into the Ultimate Origins of
    Human Suffering (Chicago: Open Court, 1994) 334. See also Leonard W.
    Doob, Panorama of Evil: Insights from the Behavioral Sciences
    (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978); and Howard K. Bloom, The Lucifer
    Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (New
    York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995). ] [25]^8 Emmanuel Levinas,
    "Useless Suffering," trans. Richard Cohen, The Provocation of Levinas:
    Rethinking the Other, eds. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (New York:
    Routledge, 1988) 161-162. ] [26]^9 Levinas, "Useless Suffering," 157.
    ] [27]^10 Levinas, "Useless Suffering," 158. ] [28]^11 Levinas,
    "Useless Suffering," 157. ] [29]^12 Levinas, "Useless Suffering," 157.
    ] [30]^13 Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Margaret Lock, introduction,
    Social Suffering, eds. Kleinman, Das, and Lock (Berkeley: University
    of California Press, 1997) ix. ] [31]^14 Ricoeur, Encyclopedia of
    Religion, 200. ] [32]^15 See especially Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology
    of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad
    Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973) and On Job:
    God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J.
    O'Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987). ]

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