the following passage is taken from "living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil" by stephen batchelor. his narrative at this point discusses the old view of the "devil" as an action agent of "evil," as a person or entity of g_d like stature, most epitomized in milton’s "paradise lost," and then transformed into modernity's view of it being internalized fault rather than, in batchelor's words, "... a feature of reality itself." in short, the modern's view of evil is a function of psychological analysis.
but, says batchelor,
[a]n impersonal sense of evil nonetheless persists. in his poem 'destruction," baudelaire writes:
ceaselessly the demon races at my side;
he swims around me as an impalpable breeze;
which i inhale—i feel the burn in my lungs
and fill them with eternally guilty desire.
the poet suspects that the source of this disturbing but irresistible feeling is something dynamic but insubstantial existing apart from himself (“an impalpable breeze”), over which he has no control but which he cannot help breathing. although “guilty desire” seems irredeemably “mine,” i do not choose to feel such an emotion. it happens to me, breaks into consciousness, as though it came from elsewhere. being prone to such random attacks on the privacy of my soul, i become subject to the destructive potential of the demonic. “when we breath,” says baudelaire, “death’s invisible river/pours into our lungs with faint moans.” in capitalizing “death,” baudelaire links it to “devil” and “demon,” recalling the theological identification of death with satan and anticipating the freudian struggle between eros (desire) and thanatos (death.)
the european enlightenment of the seventeenth century inaugurated a period in which the demonic lost its identify, leaving us unsure of what, if anything, it stands for. the soul of early modern man found itself split in two: detached cartesian reason at oddls with exuberant worsworthian emotion. since the rationalists believed in systematic human progress and the establishment of an ordered world, they demonized chaotic outbursts of unbridled emotion that threatened their goals. the romantics, however, asserted the primacy of feeling and regarded any attempt to impose abstract rules, controls, or measurements onto the spontaneous fluidity of life as a form of demonic inhibition. nietzsche regarded the moribund state of european civilization as the legacy of a stifling apollonian tradition of repression that needed to be revitalized by a resurgence of dionysian energy and passion.
over the past hundred years, management of this conflict within individual human minds has largely fallen to psychologists and psychotherapists. freud understood our anxious sense of self (ego) to be forged of two opposed and irreconcilable forces: the blind drives of biology (the largely unconscious id) and the moral constraints of society (the superego.). both these forces are characteristic of mara: the tempestuous longings and fears that assail us, as well as the views and opinions that confine us. whether we talk of succumbing to irresistible urges and addictions or being paralyzed by neurotic obsessions, both are psychological ways of articulating our current cohabitation with the devil.
by identifying boredom as a primary evil, baudelaire understands the demonic more as oppression and inhibition than as violent or erotic abandon. for when we do transgress, we do so guiltily.* “we steal a secret pleasure on the side,” he says, “that we squeeze hard like an old orange.” this disturbing awareness of being psychologically and morally ensnared by forces we scarcely comprehend reappears in the novels of franz kafka. “someone must have been telling lies about joseph k.,” opens the trial, “for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” poor k. never finds out why he was arrested, fails to penetrate very far into the labyrinth of the judicial system, and finally is executed. the devil as “a liar” and “a murderer from the beginning” who blocks our path (arrests us) has assumed the guise of sinister, invisible powers that without apparent reason invade and destroy an ordinary person’s life. this acutely secular entrapment is captured, by the spare, halting prose of samuel beckett: “suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn’t anymore, i couldn’t go on. someone said, you can’t stay here. i couldn’t stay there and i couldn’t go on.”
in confronting the demonic with little prospect of redemption, these writers practice a curiously civilized kind of nihilism. while appearing to shun any hope of religious salvation, they achieve, at least momentarily, a secular salvation in the transformative workings of their art. their despair is redeemed by becoming a beautiful despair. baudelaire admits as much in one of his projected prefaces to les fleurs du mal: “it seemed to me pleasant, and all the more agreeable as the task was difficult, to extract the beauty of evil.” (baudelaire’s italics.)**
the poet enjoys an aesthetic pleasure in the very act of coming to terms with the demons that torment him.*** just as knowing mara frees buddha from mara’s grip [does it?:jj. did knowing al fatah free the radical from the grip of evil? does knowing hamas free the french intellectual from the grip of evil?], reimagining the devil loosens the bonds with which the demonic binds the poet. [or does it merely lend the poet this delusion?:jj.****] the stifling desperation evoked in the poems contrasts with the effortless and fluid rhythms of each verse. describing his plight as the hands of the demon, baudelaire seems to be borne away on the “impalpable breeze” that envelops him:
so, he leads me, far from god’s sight,
gasping and broken with fatigue, in the midst
of boredom’s profound deserted plains
and throws in my bewildered eyes
soiled cloths, open wounds
and the bleeding apparatus of destruction.
this “apparatus of destruction” is the systemic violence that permeates and infects the totality of contingent events. for created things are subject to breakdown, corruption, deception, and extinction. they are ultimately unreliable. no matter how well we care for this organism of flesh and nerves and blood, it will one day fail us. “the undependable lord of death,” remarks shantideva, “waits not for things to be done or undone. whether sick or healthy, this fleeting life cannot be trusted.” the stuff of which were are made, that allows the possibility of consciousness, love, and freedom, will also destroy us, wiping out that poignant identity of a sensitive creature with an unrepeatable history, who has become a question for itself.
disease, ageing, and death are forms of an internal violence that afflicts all creatures; whereas natural disasters, viral infections, and terrorist attacks are examples of an external violence that threatens to break out everywhere. the globalized, interconnected world has become a body that is prone to these outbursts without warning. in a way that Baudelaire could not have imagined, we are capable of feeling the instability and vulnerability of the living system of which we are a part and on which we depend. Whether it be the appearance of a virus, a hole in the ozone layer, or a hijacked plane, such events are rapidly and vividly made known through the electronic media. they do not have to impinge on our personal existence or occur very often to frighten us. mara’s most effective weapon is sustaining a climate of fear.
cancer cells and suicide bombers share the capacity to occupy the space of one’s body without one’s consent. every act of violence is a violation of the integrity of my enfleshed being. whether it be the breaching of my skin, my immune system, or my right under law to live unmolested, a violent act is an intrusion into the intimate space i cherish as my own. whoever or whatever deprives me of the right to that space violates me. that violence is a form of rape is implied by the french le viol (rape) and violer (to rape). whenever humans resort to violence, men are murdered and women raped. that inviolable space they regard as their own is penetrated against their will by a bullet or a penis.
acts of genocide, child abuse, and terrorism are perpetrated by educated, civilized and religious people. the willingness to violate others furtively behind closed doors or defiantly in the name of a higher good (the survival of a nation or the truth of a religion) is readily concealed behind a smiling or pious exterior. when these evildoers are exposed, the world heaps scorn and hatred upon them, apparently unaware of the violent impulses from which its own reactions stem.
“it is more difficult to love g_d than to believe in him,” said baudelaire elsewhere in his abandoned preface.
by contrast, it is more difficult for people of this century to believe in the devil than to love him. everybody serves him, but no one believes in him. the sublime subtlety of the devil.
i may sincerely believe in doing good and renouncing evil, but my thoughts and actions often suggest that i wholeheartedly do neither. in the quiet and lonely solitude of the soul, inadmissible urges co-exist with yearnings to act justly and kindly. both exert an equal claim on my attention. i oscillate between them, one moment consumed by self-loathing only in the next to be granted access to a rapture of compassion. it is here, in the heart of this inner space, that we first face the challenge of living with the devil.” ******
stephen batchelor, “living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil.” riverhead books, penguin group, new york, 2004, isbn 1-57322-276-3.
john jay @ 10.31.2010
*boredom seems the cause of most depravity, does it not, in the sense that boredom cries for stimulus to relieve its stultification, and hence we see the spectacle of social elites engaging in fist fucking at club 54, violating more than several social inhibitions, as they displayed their carnal natures in public. it is the triumph over sensation over emptiness, something which seems to me to “animate” craigthorpe’s photography of gay men engaged in the search for the ultimate fetish, as though it were truth itself. how will they ever recognize it, how does the truth of sensation announce its presence? is it the “holy grail” of the “perfect” penis?
and, this notion also gives us insight into another evil of terrorism. it is one thing that the terrorist perpetrates an evil, such as blowing up a bus load of individuals we would see as innocents in regard to the conflict the terrorist celebrates. it is quite another that we, as witnesses, seem to possess an almost insatiable appetite to view these matters, and that we take a perverse sense of being entertained by seeing such things, that we are complicit in the evil which is perpetrated by another on innocents because we take pleasure in witnessing it.
this is, in fact, evil.
and, it may explain why we as witnesses feel a kinship with the terrorist, because he has fed our insatiable desires to be free of boredom. we become a macabre audience to the obscene. and, in this, we are no different than the crowds at studio 54 who cheered the fist fucking.
this complicity is evil.
and, we sense it. we know we are being evil. i have refused, for instance, to watch the films of daniel pearl having his head cut off in the banal theatricality of his execution. i will not be an audience to that evil, and i will not share in it.
i want no tingle up my leg, watching such horror.
**do we not do the same precise thing by the transformation of evil into the mundane, such as in the works of quentin tarantino, when evil in made mundane and banal by its repetition.
this is the trouble faced by the terrorist, as seen very precisely by ayn rand in his works on aesthetics, when she recognized the need for the terrorists, as street vaudevillians and political thespians, to keep the attention of the audience rapt and fixed on terrorist activities, by making them ever more brutal and horrific, so that the audience does not become habituated and bored with it.
and, yes, complicity in this is as evil as the acts of perpetrating such evil upon innocents.
***this is the very definition of complicity in evil acts, for its transforms the evil act into a sort of aesthetic, and an act to be perceived, understood and conceived as an aesthetic. this explains, in a single deft sentence by batchelor, the european intellectuals rapt absorption in the act of palestinians who blow innocents into vapors and smithereens with bombs that are indifferent as fate to the destruction they wreak.
****i find revealing insight in batchelor’s observation here, but to a limited degree, because i believe he has missed a fundamental point here. in capturing evil in the midst of the artists creative impulse, in transforming evil into something of an aesthetic to be regarded and in taking artistic joy in the process of this transformation, the artist has also done something else, I believe, which in the context of our understanding of terrorism is also an evil complicity with such terrorism. and, that is, by this transformation, the artist, the intellectual, the historian, the journalist, has also relieved himself, absolved himself, removed himself from any personal responsibility from dealing with or preventing that evil.
have you ever wondered after the photographer who films the planting and explosion and the destruction and death of an i.e.d., and yet does nothing to prevent the death caused by the explosion or the terrorists who made the device? or, over the american woman photographer who took a picture of an iraqi sniper about to fire on american troops, and did nothing to warm those troops, and who exhibited that picture to rave reviews as “art?” or, photographers who record all manner of evil and do nothing to stop it, even while it is committed in their presence, and even while they are complicit in perpetrating it because they glamorize it?
what gives the new york times photographer the moral standing to take a picture of my murder without acting to stop it, what gives such a person the right to remove himself from the course and path of humanity, in the name of an aesthetic.
this act of removal of one’s self from evil, to distant one’s self from the commission of a known evil, is, in my view, evil in and of itself, because it denies the responsibility that we each have one to the other.
******i have not finished reading this book.
but, to this point, i have not found any “meditation” on “good” as promised in the book’s title.
and, while i have found much of interest and insight in it, i am greatly disquieted by portions of it, as well. there is a resignation to evil here that puzzles me, almost the suggestion in the closing remarks of the quoted portion above, that if we simply put a studded collar on the devil at the end of a sturdy leash we can keep tabs on him, and minimize the mischief he might otherwise bring about if we were stranger to his capacities.
now, there is some logic to this position, especially if we recognize in evil coequal status to what we conceive as “good.” we can no more defeat “good” as a force “in and of itself” and “of its own reality” any more than we can stop the motion of the waves at the shore. and, if we conceptualize evil as coequal, we can see the impossibility of defeating it.
but, to me those observations hardly confirm the wisdom of sleeping with the devil under the bed, or thinking that familiarity with him on the end of the leash is going to make us any less susceptible to his blandishments, or the temptations he offers, or the undermining of our intent, or the stumbling blocks he puts in the way of our paths in life, and toward righteousness.
i think, like jesus with john the baptist, or in his conversation with satan before he submits to arrest by the soldiers, we must fight the devil at every turn and with every device we have at our disposal, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
i am, therefore, against accommodating the bastards, and against accommodating the bastards who serve him.
i think no good comes from sleeping with the bastards under the bed.