Saturday, May 05, 2007

Further Thoughts on Evil 3

Further Thoughts on Evil 3

I have already written in these pages that it would seem likely that my fascination with the topic of evil began with my viewing of the wonderful 1970s series called The World at War, an excellent documentary series in 26 parts on World War 2. It was narrated by the famous actor Sir Laurence Olivier and directed by at least six different directors, and was a marvellous collaborative exercise between the BBC and The Imperial War Museum. The list of those interviewed was enormous and so this series of documentaries is a magnum opus of historical research. The newsreel was moving and all too real, while the episode dealing with the evil of the concentrations camps was far too disturbing and had a lasting effect on my young mind. I was then 15 years old and was bowled over by the depths of man’s depravity and the extent of his inhumanity to his fellow man – in the words of the famous American war poet, Randal Jarrell, about whom I wrote in a previous post some years back, “man is a wolf to man.”

Also, I was also transfixed by the mesmeric effect of the inimitable voice of Laurence Olivier as narrator. Then, one episode had the famous, even infamous quotation from the wonderful German Romantic writer Heinrich Heine: In his 1821 play, Almansor, this German writer, referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, during the Spanish Inquisition — famously wrote: "Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings." ("Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.") One century later, Heine's books were among the thousands of volumes that were torched by the Nazis in Berlin's Opernplatz in an outburst that did, in fact, foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust.

In Anthony Read’s excellent history, The Devil’s Disciples: The Lives and Times of Hitler’s inner circle, (Pimlico, 2004) we get a rather comprehensive insight into the minds of Hitler’s henchmen . At the end of the Prologue we read that Hermann Goering, the cleverest and most suave and polished of the dictator’s followers and the highest ranking, revealed to an American psychiatrist at Nuremberg, Dr Douglas M Kelley, that “his basic motive had been that single, driviung ambition – to achieve for Hermann Goering supreme command of the Third Reich.” (op.cit. pp. 9-10). Goering let nothing or no one stand in the way of his objective, admitting also to Kelley, the reason why he had murdered a close and former friend in the Nazi Party – “But he was in my way…” (ibid. p. 10).

Anthony Read reveals that practically all the leaders of the Third Reich cut a pathethic figure at ASHCAN where they were first kept immediately after capture – Arthur Seyss-Inquart arrived limping and with very thick spectacles; Hans Frank in an ambulance after slashing his wrists and throat while Goering was the only one to retain his suavity and composure and in the words of Britain’a judge at Nuremberg, Sir Norman Birkett, he possessed “immense ability and knowledge,” and “was suave, shrewd, adroit, capable, resourceful…and full of self-confidence …” (ibid p. 9)

As we read about the miserable wretches that these so-called upper eschelons of Hitler’s Third Reich turned out to be – pathetic, cowardly and lacking in self-confidence – one is quickly reminded of Hannah Arendt’s beautifully apt phrase, which she used when commenting on the Eichmann trial, “the banality of evil.” In other words we are astounded that such pathethic figures of men - for the Nazis were almost all totally men who believed in keeping women firmly in their place – had managed to wreak such havoc on the world in general and to have attempted the total extermination of one particular race and many minorities. One is inclined to go along with Arendt that evil can be indeed so banal. It often appears to be that the Nazis were the “accountants of death and torture” if I may coin my own phrase, insofar as they kept meticulous accounts of those whom they imprisoned and subjected to the most horrific punishments and even scientific experiments. I am always taken aback by those sad pictures of piles of boots, items of clothing and spectacles taken from their prisoners and meticulously counted and redistributed to others.

Above I have placed a photograph I took of one of the watch-towers of the Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich. I took this picture in December 2005.

To be continued.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Further Thoughts on Evil 2

Further Thoughts on Evil 2

I finished the last post by referring to the more “holistic” presentation of the character Tony Soprano in the American Mafia Soap The Sopranos. As an avid viewer of an almost addict nature of this marvellous series I can honestly say that I am genuinely disturbed by this fact. I am genuinely disturbed that I can see some areas of good in Tony Soprano. The producers of this show have managed to achieve what to my mind at least is a Shakespearean understanding the human psyche and of human motivation.

The viewing of the wonderful German film The Downfall produced the same reaction in me. I began to find myself beginning to have some little sympathy with the dreadfully flawed and evil character of Hitler. This fact disturbed me then and continues to disturb me. This reaction to both Tony Soprano and to the depiction of a more “human” (though not humane) portrayal of Hitler is the result of good drama, of good ethical and moral drama. How can I even use those words “moral” and “ethical” with respect to both these dramas? Quite simply because good drama and good literature and good cinema seek to present an honest account of human motivation, an honest account of humankind in the round as it were, not just the warts and all, but also those kindlier characteristics of so-called monsters!

Indeed, as a teacher who has studied the literatures of Irish, English and Italian languages over the years, I find grave fault with the slipshod and careless use of language. When we find newspapers using headlines like, “Hitler the Monster,” we must begin to question such an obviously crass use of language. What does “monster” mean? Let the writer of the headline look up the OED or some other useful dictionary. King Kong was a monster as was Frankenstein. Some might even say the wonderfully fine human being John Merrick was a monster, he who was also called by that horrible description The Elephant Man because of his horrific bodily deformities. We're not all too sure of what we mean by monster are we, short of the fact that the word gets the hair standing on people's necks?

And so we are disturbed by good drama, and why should not we be? I remember a good priest who is a friend of mine often saying, and it is so true, that “Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.” When we are disturbed our consciences are being awakened, our sensitivities are being deepened, our understanding of human nature is being brought to deeper ground and our compassion for all humankind is being extended. It is possible to love the weak and deformed. It is possible to love the criminal and insane – albeit with great difficulty. It is possible to love our enemies – albeit with considerable difficulty also. It is possible to come to terms with the more evil parts of ourselves, that is our shadow parts and by incorporating these latter into a whole within our psyche we stop short from projecting these weaknesses and evils onto others. In this way we begin to avoid evil in the world by avoiding confrontations solely as the result of our more adolescent and ego-ridden projections.

Above I have placed a picture of the setting sun through the trees in Newbridge House as a sign of hope in the darkness. I took this picture late summer 2006.

To be continued

Further Thoughts on Evil 1

Further Thoughts on Evil 1 There is a word that I think sums up much of the attitude to evil, or that at least sums up our reaction to seeing acts of evil being committed and that word is demonization. During every war, whether internecine or international, one side will demonize the other. For any parties at war the combatants on one side are always “right” and the combatants on the other always “wrong.” Needless to say, this is a gross oversimplification of matters, but during disputes even, never mind wars, oversimplifications are indeed rife. Propaganda takes the place of objective news for the most part. Then there is the further “evil” of believing our own propaganda, swallowing whole gross exaggerations and prejudices and allowing hate for others to consume us. Historically in Northern Ireland before the present settlement, those with politics of an extreme orange hue would have seen Gerry Adams as the devil incarnate, while those of an extreme green hue in politics would have seen Ian Paisley as the hoofed one. One can trace the history of the deification of ones own nation and heroes and the demonization of the nation and heroes of the opposition/enemy even with rudimentary historical or analytical skills. Somehow or other, the enemy is always painted in the blackest terms. As a boy, I read many comic books like the Hotspur and other combat- based magazines. Therein, the Germans were quite simply caricatured as ugly brutes that were cruel, deceitful, cowardly and murderous at every opportunity, while the Brits were drawn as handsome, honest, brave and fair in battle. It is always easier and less complicated to use these polar extremes, blacks and whites, good and evil, bright and dark to paint a not too complex version of our world. To colour in all the shades in between is a harder task indeed. We do not like to admit that life is much more complicated than we would have ourselves and indeed others believe. Not alone are there many shades of grey in between black and white, but there are many other colours there as well, and all these colours also have their own respective shades. To my mind, Shakespeare and every middling to good dramatist paints characters that are whole or holistic or more three-dimensional. Shakespearean heroes all have their fatal flaws which lead to their downfall. Likewise, great novels and films have less extreme cardboard or two-dimensional characters. The great and powerful television series The Sopranos comes to mind here. Tony is a very believable and scary character. Why? He is capable of being a loving husband and father. At the same time he is capable of cheating on his wife and murdering both former friends and foes alike. He is also capable of doing work on his own feelings by attending a therapist. In short, we begin to like Tony Soprano. This in itself leaves us very uncomfortable indeed. This mafia boss or capo has good points and bad points. He’s not all evil and he certainly is not all good. So Tony is not demonized by the programme. Rather he is painted in the round – with his many good points as well as his many bad ones. This, to my mind, is what makes The Sopranos a super show and it is precisely what makes it so popular. In summary, then, humankind, come of age, begins to understand the complexities of the human psyche or the complexities of being human or the complexities of the many moral dilemmas in which it finds itself embroiled. It is here where Jungian psychology can help us greatly. Jung was forever pushing the idea of the “wholeness” of the psyche, about the good and the bad mixed into the stew that goes to make up the human personality. There are no easy solutions to any human or moral dilemmas. By the same token there are no easy solutions to the many thorny questions posed by the mystery of evil. Above I have placed a picture of Falung Gong practitioners which I took Christmas '06 in O'Connell Street. Practitioners of this meditation/art are both persecuted and imprisoned in China. The Chinese communist party persecutes them because anything that teaches people to think for themselves is by nature evil. To be continued.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thoughts on Evil 5

Thoughts on Evil 5

In this post I should like to dwell on the mystery of suffering. I am basing these thoughts on an article I wrote in June 1991 and which appeared in Reality magazine of that date. I had been exploring this topic with my 6th form religion class at the time and had sent in a short article as a result of our deliberations. I should like to share with you some of the thoughts I had then and which were published in that little “religious” magazine.

I stated that we could look at suffering in two ways. Firstly, we might regard it as a remote problem which leaves the mind boggled and affronts our humanity. Say, for instance we dwell upon the suffering of the poor people of Iraq who have to undergo massive suffering – countless Iraqis killed and maimed daily which we can view so readily on our TV screens and in our newspapers. However, this is a remote problem for us, but it certainly does affront our humanity. We feel compassion for these poor unfortunates. On the other hand we can also look on suffering as a mystery through which we struggle here and now in our everyday lives. Our response to the long and painful illness of a friend, the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a marriage, or being made redundant, all belong to this second way of viewing suffering – that is, suffering as a mystery to be lived. In this latter aspect there are no easy answers, rather hard won wisdom, or if we are believers, the very test of our faith.

Having lived through, and reflected upon, with the help of others, whatever suffering we experience in our lives, we can come up with some points of illumination, certainly not clear and cut answers which miss the point altogether. What we gain at this level of reflection on lived experience can help us to put global suffering into context.

We must, when talking about suffering, guard against simplistic and trite answers. For example, suffering is sent by a rather cruel God to test the strength of our faith. Such answers, Christians say, give people a false image of God: a rather tyrannical figure who likes to torture his creatures. All we can do is search for insights – there are no full and complete answers.

Some Points of Illumination: (I) When we look at life we see a cycle: growth, decay, death, new life, growth again and so on and so forth. Growth does not and cannot occur without pain. To grow into a mature human being requires much sacrifice and consequent pain. What rose bush will grow properly without pruning? What child will grow without correction? What race will be won without training? What exam will be passed without the toil of study?

(II) What if no pain? How about the existence of love and care in the world? How would these exist if there were no suffering, no pain, and no death? People get sick and go to hospital. Families, nurses and doctors care. Where would the caring professions be (priests, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers) if there were no suffering? Would there be caring and loving in the most perfect of perfect worlds in which no suffering existed? In our relationships we support one another in our weaknesses and sickness. A couple’s love for each other grows through the joys and sufferings which life metes out to them “for better or worse.”

(III) Another point of illumination is the importance of perspective. When we look at things from close quarters we see neither pattern nor design. If we stand very close to a painting we see nothing but brush strokes. It is only upon standing back and viewing it from a distance that we see the overall picture. Likewise when we endure suffering, we may not appreciate what good or benefit may result from it, later, in our lives. A personal injury may lead us to appreciate the value of our health and to take up beneficial bodily exercise. Like the hiker who has reached a vantage point on the mountain we can view our difficult ascent. We realise that all the twists and turns eventually lead to a destination – to some good. In traditional terminology a Christian would call this the providence of God, He who brings good from every evil.

(IV) The Dark Night of the Soul: Suffering is a dark mystery which is very difficult to fathom. I quoted the French theologian Eugène Joly in a previous post to the effect that a mystery is not a wall off which we bang our heads. Rather it is an ocean into which we plunge. I love this metaphor for suffering. We just have to go through it as best we can and to learn to endure “the slings and arrows” of our own personal “outrageous fortune.” In this deep sense there is wisdom in the motto of the RAF – “Per ardua ad astra!” St John of the Cross endured his own personal mental and spiritual torment which eventually served to make him a stronger and better human being. In the darkest night a candle of hope can always be lit. There is light at the end of every tunnel. It is often said that the darkest moment is the one before the dawn. Is it any wonder that when dealing with the mystery of the co-existence of Good and Evil philosophers, poets, theologians, mystics, saints and Jesus Christ himself reached for the contrasting imagery of Night and Day? One could do a marvellous survey of the Bible in terms of these images – as indeed one could do a wonderful study of Shakespeare’s plays using the exact same images.

(V) The Importance of Polar Opposites: Many scholars from antiquity right up to recent times have adverted to the essential tension of polar opposites. They would point out simply and succinctly that one cannot have one without the other. We would not know what the day is, were it not that we experience the night and vice versa. Likewise with respect to good and evil – we should not know one without the other.

Above I have placed a photograph I took of my mother with her nurses in St Mary's Phoenix Park. The caring professions exist because there is illness (by definition evil) in the world.

To be continued