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Peering into the darkness

BLACK AND WHITE, it seems, is the new black and white. In the days before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger may have denounced a ''dictatorship of relativism,'' but in some circles moral absolutes are back in style.

A few months after 9/11, George W. Bush famously denounced Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the ''axis of evil,'' wording that struck many listeners as a projection of quasi-religious values into geopolitics. In February, The New York Times reported that some psychiatrists - those paragons of non-judgmental scientific objectivity - had begun entertaining the notion that some of their most sociopathic patients were not just sick but downright ''evil.'' And in the wake of the Asian tsunami, journalists reported that believers around the world were grappling with the age-old problem of how to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent, merciful God with the reality of suffering and nature's own version of evil.

This weekend, in the latest instance of the phenomenon, nearly 20 psychoanalysts, philosophers, and scholars of religion are gathering in New York for a two-day ''Conference on Evil,'' sponsored by the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health and its sister psychoanalytic training institute. According to invitations issued to participants, the conference seeks to examine how ideas of evil have evolved in each discipline and to discuss ''how current thinking is elucidating [evil's] presence in contemporary life.''

In addition to pondering film clips from ''The Omen,'' ''Dawn of the Dead,'' and other horror movies assembled by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist (and former soundtrack composer) Daniel A. Brenner for his presentation on ''Evil in Film,'' participants were set to ponder a concept that has sparked debates throughout history: Is evil a force in itself, or merely an absence of goodness? Is human nature fallen? Are we free to choose light over darkness? Is suffering an unfortunate but necessary glitch in the universe's workings - an ill that God does not step in to rectify, so as not to interfere with physical laws? Could evil fit, in some mysterious way, into a plan that God has ordained for the best? Or does gratuitous suffering prove that God doesn't exist at all?

The conference was the brainchild of Marlin S. Brenner, a psychologist who's on the board of the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (the Metropolitan Center's sibling). Four years ago, Brenner (who is Daniel Brenner's father) found himself looking out the living room window of his Manhattan apartment at the burning towers of the World Trade Center. Subsequently, he says, ''I started thinking in terms of evil, and I'd really never thought in those terms before.'' Soon, he says, he ''came to the conclusion that it wasn't only me who was thinking in terms of evil. It was almost everyone in the country.''

. . .

In planning the conference, Brenner says, he and his colleagues decided to focus on theology, philosophy, and psychology. ''There's no discipline that can wrestle with the issue of evil,'' he says. ''None is strong enough. But the ones we selected...are in a position to think about it more deeply than others.''

The conference organizers have deliberately not defined ''evil,'' so as to give participants freedom to bring their own viewpoints. Brenner himself takes a cautious approach to the subject. ''You begin to think in terms of black and white, the good-doers and the evil-doers,'' he says, ''and that's dangerous, because that means you can hurt people without too much thought.''

The comment points to a question that's of interest to many of the conference speakers: Namely, is it responsible to use the word ''evil'' to describe other people, and what does it mean to do so? Put another way, to what extent can individuals be held accountable for wicked actions, and does evil always involve deliberate malevolent intent?

Philosopher Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, and author of the 2002 book ''Evil in Modern Thought,'' which was recently reissued in paperback, tackles some of these questions in the paper she prepared for the conference. Thinking in terms of evil, she writes, doesn't necessarily mean reducing reality to black and white: ''The word 'evil' by itself need not be dehumanizing - if coupled with analyses which show how ordinary people, with ordinary motives, get caught up in it.''

Neiman's essay describes how a fundamental change in the conception of evil occurred in the wake of the notorious 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which leveled the city and killed thousands. The catastrophe appalled observers across Europe, including Enlightenment-bred thinkers shaken in their belief in a rational universe and those, like Voltaire, who objected to facile religious or philosophical interpretations of such calamities.

Before the 1755 cataclysm, Neiman maintains, natural phenomena like quakes or tsunamis were lumped into the ''evil'' category, because they seemed pregnant with meaning and moral causality - a quake might be considered God's punishment for human sin, for example. After Lisbon, though, people began to view such disasters as morally neutral and reserved the concept of ''evil'' for wrongs perpetrated by humans, with intention.

But in the second half of the 20th century, Neiman suggests, this distinction broke down in the face of the bureaucratic mechanics that generated the Holocaust, involving so many ordinary citizens. ''At every level, the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously seen,'' she writes, concluding that even though the definition of evil is unstable, humans have a basic need to use moral language - that is, to use that high-voltage word, ''evil.''

Wendy Doniger, a scholar of religion at the University of Chicago and author of ''The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology'' (1976), says it's important to remind people that non-monotheistic religions ''have had very interesting ideas about evil.'' Her prepared remarks for the conference explore, among other matters, the notion of karma, which she sees as a theory of justice that does not pivot on the involvement of a deity - although evil actions catch up with their perpetrators in future lifetimes.

''It's not a perfect theory - there is no answer to the problem of evil,'' observes Doniger. ''But it is a very good one that helps people come to terms with evil in their lives.''

. . .

To understand the contemporary American attitude toward evil, Harvard's Daniel Brenner looks to another mythological system: Hollywood movies. Horror films, he says, acknowledge ''our own capacity for evil and destructiveness,'' which coexists with our capacity for good - but which we prefer to see represented in different fictional protagonists, whether Hannibal Lecter or Freddy Krueger.

Brenner himself takes a somewhat skeptical view of the concept of evil. ''I do not believe that it exists as a thing,'' he says, suggesting that Americans are brooding about the subject because ''when people feel threatened, they tend to retreat to more simple, comforting ways of viewing themselves in the world.''

This human tendency, he thinks, makes the topic of evil a potential powder keg. ''When people want to comfort themselves by viewing other people as evil, they really want to hold on to that perspective,'' he said. ''The dialogue I've had about this with a few people, it's been heated already! People really get [angry] when you question the existence of evil.''

Celia Wren is the media and theater critic for Commonweal.

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