I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s book On Evil which, for something that is concerned with the awful atrocities humans are capable of inflicting upon each other, is surprisingly funny in parts. The basic gist of it is that there are two dominant ways of thinking about why people do bad stuff to other people. The first one is the traditional conservative viewpoint, which holds that some people are just bad, there’s not much point trying to reason about why they do the things they do, and there’s nothing to be gained by trying to rehabilitate them. Incarceration and punishment are the only legitimate responses, and in some cases, the ultimate punishment of death is warranted. This is a way of thinking that finds its most extreme form of contemporary expression in the use of the death penalty in the US, but it’s also what fuels those calls for longer and harsher prison sentences that we are all used to hearing. Eagleton cites the case of the police officer who arrested one of the killers of Jamie Bulger. The policeman remarked afterwards that when he looked into the boy’s eyes he knew immediately that he was evil. In other words, hang ‘em high, but if you’re not allowed do that, then lock ‘em up and throw away the key.
The other way of thinking is one that is ultimately derived from Marxism. It denies the existence of any kind of inherent evil, and attempts to explain bad behaviour by means of environmental factors, in particular socio-economic ones. So people steal because they need to do so in order to provide for themselves, they kill because circumstances dictate that such ruthless and brutal acts are necessary, and if they seem inured to violence it’s because the environment in which they were raised taught them that it’s just a normal part of life. If a fairer and more equal society is put in place, then the necessity of engaging in such acts will diminish, and in the meantime, education and rehabilitation are appropriate ways of trying to alter people’s behaviour for the better.
You might expect a lifelong left-winger such as Eagleton to come down firmly in the second camp but what makes the book interesting is that he finds both positions to be inadequate, particularly when we are dealing with the type of badness that we would usually be tempted to describe as evil – the Bulger murders, the Nazi holocaust, serial killers, and so on. Such things are not easily explained in terms of environmental factors. We can use them to try and explain why a mugger beats someone to the ground and steals their wallet, but we are on much shakier ground if we try and use them to explain why someone might take sadistic pleasure in torturing someone else. The right-wing hang ‘em high brigade would insist that there’s no explanation to be had here, and little point in pondering such behaviour. The torturer is an evil person and should be dealt with accordingly. There’s a giant contradiction here though. If the torturer is simply bad-by-nature then there’s really nothing he can do about it. He’s not responsible for his actions and therefore what’s the justification for punishing him?
Eagleton instead appeals to psychoanalytic theory to examine these things and suggests that evil is linked to what Freud called the death drive; those who fall too far under its spell are subject to a sort of existential torment that can only be relieved by inflicting suffering, by essentially forcing others to share in what they see as the meaninglessness of the world. I’d say more about this but firstly I’m only half way through the book, and secondly I should say something about the photograph above. It’s a shot from another Absolut Fringe production, Tromluí Phinocchio / Pinocchio – a Nightmare by Moonfish Theatre. It’s an adaptation of the Pinochio story that takes it into some very dark places indeed, though having said that, like a lot of early children’s literature, the original story itself is rife with death, cruelty and hardship anyway. The photo is a six minute exposure of a scene where the owner of a puppet theatre is threatening to burn some of his performers alive by pouring petrol on them and lighting them up. There’s a modern tendency to try and sanitise fairy tales for children, as if they can be shielded from evil, but in reality most of them can take this stuff in their stride a lot better than we tend to give them credit for. There were a bunch of kids at this, including my own six year old daughter, and all of them seemed pretty non-plussed by what seemed to me to be a fairly terrifying scene.
Eagleton has a fair bit to say about children in his book, referring to literary sources like Lord Of The Flies and films such as The Exorcist. There is something particularly disturbing about the notion of evil in children, something that The Exorcist obviously plays on, as well as more recent movies such as We Need To Talk About Kevin. We like to think of children as being inherently good and innocent, but really they are blank slates who gradually learn empathy and socialisation as they gain more experience of the world. Maybe the reason The Exorcist is so frightening is that we subconsciously recognise that this potential for badness is there lurking under the surface all the time. This lack of experience might also be the reason why a child can contemplate the thought of someone burning someone else alive with petrol, as they are secure in the knowledge that it’s just a story. To an adult though, such stuff has inevitable resonances with necklace burnings in South Africa or monks immolating themselves as a form of political protest in Asia. For us, it’s real. I read the book of The Exorcist as a teenager and the most frightening part was not the lurid descriptions of demonic possession, but the short quotes at the start that described tortures inflicted on people by the Khmer Rouge.
A few years ago I went to see Eli Roth’s film Hostel when it came out in the cinema. It’s a piece of garbage, and I think I knew this before going, but I wanted to test myself to see if I could handle watching it. At the time there seemed to be a real trend, especially in art-house cinema, for depictions of extreme violence. I am squeamish about watching things like that and as a result a lot of cinema was passing me by. Hostel was notoriously violent and nasty so I figured that if I could deal with that, then I could surely deal with anything Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier were likely to throw at me. As I said, it was total trash, and after the initial shock of the first ugly scene, it became fairly laughable. All the same there was something that profoundly irritated me about it, about the notion of depictions of torture as cheap entertainment. I couldn’t help imagining an Iraqi who had a family member die in one of Saddam’s cells (or indeed in the cells of one of the grisly militias who ran riot in his wake) finding out that people were sitting in multiplexes munching popcorn watching this sort of thing for fun. It occurs to me now that there’s an immaturity at work here on the part of the film-makers; like children who can’t comprehend the seriousness of someone being burned alive with petrol, they can’t comprehend the seriousness of what they are depicting in their film. This is not to say that such matters should not be the subject of cinema or theatre or art, but rather that if they are, then they demand a seriousness of treatment that seems to be beyond the likes of Eli Roth. This stuff is perhaps best left to the grown-ups.
It would be wrong of me to conclude this without saying something more about Pinocchio, lest I give the impression that it’s some sort of dark horror-show. It’s not of course: for the most part it’s a hugely entertaining, imaginatively staged, and very funny production. It’s got a brilliant way of incorporating Irish in such a way that even those of us with a tenuous grasp of Gaeilge can follow what’s going on. It’s also got a lovely Brechtian line in exposing the mechanics of theatrical illusion to the audience. For example, there’s a lady doing live Foley sound effects who is visible to the spectators at all times. I saw it twice and really enjoyed it both times. Their Dublin Fringe run is finished but according to their website they are going to be putting it on as part of the Galway Theatre Festival in October, so if you are down the West I recommend checking it out, and don’t be afraid to bring the little ones with you.