Saturday, November 29, 2008

Time Out of Joint

"Demand me nothing; what you know, you know:

From this time forth I never will speak word."


We have had a month of relative, even sentimental political hopefulness, and a few days of giving thanks. Now the moral rhythm, as well as recent events, demands a return to the tremendous subject of human evil. (Ho Ho Ho to you too, dear reader, by the way; well, okay, I never was asked to be Santa Claus at work, I always wondered why).

The immediately infamous incident of the hapless Wal-Mart worker trampled to death during a pre-dawn Black Friday shopping stampede was enough to get me brooding (okay, it doesn't take much). Not only did the initial pressure of the mob lead to the appalling turn of events, but individual shoppers reportedly resisted attempts to clear the area for rescue efforts and for the sake of at least minimal dignity owed toward the dead. It is hard to think of a more grotesque reflection of contemporary capitalist consumption; may those shoppers relish their plasma TV's in complete moral equanimity! As commentary on our economy, it is a visceral, freakish and microcosmic counterpart of the recent Wall Street mayhem. Our culture satirized itself perfectly. I hear Sweden is awfully June and July.

I've always been interested in the way psychology has struggled to deal with the hulking fact of human depravity. We try to stow it away in little boxes like psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and situational and contextual predispositions to malfeasance (see Walmart, stampedes). The poets and artists have been much better, recognizing that this is, along with love, one of the great subjects. Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello derive much of their irresistible, infernal power from the central fact of nefarious humanity. It doesn't make for very pleasant drawing room conversation, however, and perhaps not for proper blogging, I don't know. So many other things are easier to talk about.

Moral indignation can be a very strong human emotion, and one that very likely has deep evolutionary roots. Particularly outside of the United States (well, and China), capital punishment is politically incorrect, but it can be surprising how often relatives of murder victims not only clamor for the death penalty, but want to be present when it is carried out. Reportedly one of the ten Mumbai terrorists was taken alive. How we wish he could provide some eloqent window into the darkness of those deeds! Unfortunately he will probably be, like Iago, morally mute; evil cannot ultimately justify itself, but neither does it have to.

The child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein postulated that we experience evil in ourselves first but, unable to bear it, project it upon others, in what she called the "paranoid-schizoid position" of infancy; for the baby, the Other is either all good (breast available) or all bad (breast withdrawn). She argued that moral complexity develops in the "depressive position," in which we recognize the Other as, inevitably, an amalgam of good and evil (it is "depressive" because the rage that, one hoped, could eradicate the Evil Other would also, it turns out, eliminate the Good Other as well; moral complexity is difficult and therefore disheartening).

But evil, like beauty, artistic capacity, or love is distributed unequally among individuals and, arguably, among cultures and epochs as well. Freud, famously shaken by the epic brutalities of World War I, was driven to postulate the "Death Instinct" as an explanation for the darker regions of our nature that he felt he had previously not adequately accounted for. This formulation turned out to be one of the most controversial and least substantiated of his provocations (and with Freud, that's saying a lot), but it does embody a psychological attitude that, I think, we don't have a good name for. It is the confrontation, not of the primitive babe, but of the average adult, with the moral abyss. Moral outrage we might call it, or moral disappointment. Or perhaps it is a kind of moral grief, a mourning of an ideal of human nature; of course, we know that idealists fall, hard.
Okay, no succumbing to the "spirit of gravity," but I also know I won't be setting foot in Walmart this holiday season. Actually, I am always surprised by how many patients mention trips to Walmart as a virtually pathognomonic stressor; no experience seems to set off a smoldering panic disorder, or sometimes something worse, so reliably. Of course, is this "mere" faulty anxiety, or rather the canary in the coal mine, a tell-tale sign of deep evolutionary wisdom?
"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think people have an innate desire for unambiguous demarcations between black and white; presence and absence; good and evil. That's why social norms, religions, and laws are constructed -- as a veneer to the seething confusion of existence's underbelly which constantly threatens to bubble over into rebellious entropy.

IN truth, people have a primordial instinct that deep down in the darkest caverns of their hearts lies a lawless universe of unpredictability where all eventualities are half-formed. They are all grey until they surface. So, in a desperate attempt to beat some of those nastier imps into submission, 'good' people will make a spectacular display of moral indignation. It is the scream of fear, recognition, and denial: 'I'm not your kind and I want the world to know (perchance I should one day slip)' -- and you will.

Who can say with absolute certainty that they don't have the will to kill?

The 'death instinct' and the 'survival instinct' are the ugliest heads of a one sided beast. Yes, confusion will always be life's clarity at best. So let us build monuments to goodness and badness, and hopefully everything will fall in line. But you know how the other queue always appears to be suspiciously shorter than the one you've chosen so you change, only to find the eventual opposite?..and then you perversely keep changing ad infinitum, sabotaging your progress; never reaching the end..just changing until you can't even remember what it was you queued up for in the first place. God, the colour grey is so damn blinding!

I think we're all like little gods nurtured by the demons of life.