Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Evil

Rae Langton’s review of Terry Eagleton’s On Evil in the TLS (“All About Death,” TLS, 9/23/11) begins at the crossroads of Christian theology and psychoanalytic pathology. “Eagleton’s project is to regard evil in terms of a Freudian morality play that doffs its cap, in all the right places, to its venerable Christian forebears,” Langton remarks. Later Langton says in commenting on Eagleton’s thesis, “The special character of evil is to be located in its attitude, its death-seeking desire to somehow make a nothingness of being.” Not surprisingly Eagleton, being a prominent literary critic, uses literary sources to make his point, amongst them, William Golding’s Pincher Martin, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Eagleton quotes Greene about Pinkie, the iconic criminal at the heart of the novel thusly, “God couldn’t escape the evil mouth which chose to eat its own damnation.” Leverkuhn, the protagonist of Doctor Faustus presents a unique twist on evil as he flirts with his own annihilation for the sake of art. Langton is critical of Eagleton to the extent that he finds limiting evil to being “an attitude to non-being he leaves out some of its more mundane features.” Finally Langton asks “Will readers be charmed by this Freudian rendition of original sin?” as the roots of the Holocaust are sought in what Langton describes as the weak reminding “the powerful of their own inner nothingness.” Langton admits that Eagleton pre-empts criticism by eschewing the very examples he supplies offering up Kant who “described ‘radical evil’ as a fundamental egoistic choice to place our own ends above those of others.” In the end Langton dismisses Eagleton’s “Freudian Calvinism,” saying “there is need for social change that will render evil less reasonable and readily learnable” urging Eagleton to write “another book on evil, giving voice to his Marxist Jekyll, instead of his Freudian Hyde.”

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