Philosophy can be, rarely perhaps, a call to a sane place, a resolve to take time to consider the Other, to understand and overcome the space between. In quite ordinary and extraordinary ways, this begins over again the elemental process of healing, of becoming whole. This is not the only or even the primary task of philosophy; but in a secular age, one in which everything is negotiable and most things for sale, the convergence of the philosophical and poetic is a still point of access to such elemental passions of the soul.
Evil is a primal word, a sound that was in the dawn of consciousness. We wonder about this sometimes. Can it be understood at all? Is evil, in this absolute sense, not beyond the frame of understanding? At least, of common understanding?
We know, as decent people, that there is an imperative which guides civility—to somehow develop the capacity to see the evil in ourselves, as well as the good in others. But why is this such a terribly hard thing to do? Why is it we accomplish this so rarely, and for such brief moments in our individual and collective lives?
Many answers have been and are still given: we are too angry, or too impatient, too frustrated, too greedy, or too unhappy—or simply sometimes the world is too much with us and so we are too busy, preoccupied, or indifferent to see the good in others or the evil in ourselves. But in the cruelty of the wanton act, the natural pain of life takes on inhuman palor and becomes, somehow, unnatural, perverse, terrifying, and grips our lives from inside.
The moral point is on the surface of it: we must each learn to recognize in ourselves, the other, and in the person of the other, ourselves—both evil and good. But there is something else, something deeper we recognize, sometimes with the shock of the intimate and familiar. It is only then that the word is primal: Evil—inside us is the alien, the wholly Other. Understanding here is without precedent. We must somehow come to terms with the paradox of Man, acknowledge that at the core of his being is something other, something inhuman. It is this that most frightens us; it is the most basic obstacle to understanding evil, and of doing something with this understanding. To reach this point something more is required, something deeper, elemental, something primal.
Paradoxically, human beings cannot be cured of the inhuman: the Other is at the beginning, the dark out of which comes light; a deadwinter universe from which energy emerges in the sound of spring. At this absolute reach, if anything is possible it is not curing but healing, a making whole of person and community, a realization of kinship and kindness toward all things we are and are not. Nothing less will meet the face within the force of the evil within.
This may seem an impossible task left to language and understanding, even to the broad ranges of thought represented in the languages of poetry and politics, law and science, literature, history, and theology. What more is possible? For each it may be different—the resonance of music, the movement of dance, the revelation of seasons. It is in celebration of wholeness, however it is done, that reconciliation is finally effected—the elemental healing of mind and body and spirit. Without such integration, no heroically wrought product of language or intellect can unburden the spirit of fear or loosen the residuals of memory, of guilt and shame.
Nietzsche recalled, in the archaic language of Greek myth and drama the creative power in the tragic celebration of life and death, before Aristotle refined trgaic drama into a therapeutic exercise of public katharsis. Realizing this original possibility in literature and philosophy, we become less dangerous to each other and to ourselves. There is evil—it is not alien to me. It may be creative or destructive; I may make use of it or fall victim to it; it has positive as well as negative character. In the narrow margin of what can be investigated in the brief space of a paper, the point is this: what understanding may lack in explanation, can be made whole in celebration. What cannot be said may still be shown. This is the genius of art: to see in so many ways, from so many vantage points—a seeing which is also affirmation.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Kimmel, L. (1990). Boundaries: The Primal Force and Human Face of Evil. Analecta Husserliana, 28, 569-579.