Writing About Evil

The title writing about evil is somewhat misleading because I’m not sure that it can be achieved, at least not directly, in a meaningful way. I’m not even sure it exists as a category that is separate from any other description of the things we do as human beings. Cruelty is everywhere, either through neglect, disregard or intentionally as a source of dubious pleasure. And we might not be alone, it has been said that chimpanzees occasionally enjoy killing and maiming in the way that some people apparently do. Violence can become intoxicating, either as a participant or to watch. We can kid ourselves that boxing or cage fighting is a supreme form of athleticism, but if no one got hurt, it wouldn’t be the same.

Some people, men especially, enjoy violent action. Films and novels are full to the brim of victims being hacked to pieces, raped, beaten, enslaved, tortured, degraded, ritualistically abused and murdered. It is ordinary, accepted, a routine part of the way very many of us find excitement. It is so unexceptional that you can see people being brutally killed on television at any time of day or night throughout the week. Seeing someone fictitiously but graphically having their brains blown out is even more acceptable than seeing a naked person. Nudity is taboo on primetime TV, but not sadism.

It’s not surprising really. Physical abuse has a long history of public performance, from hangings in the village square to the kind of torture featured in the opening of Foucault’s “Discipline and Punishment”. It makes sense, therefore, that we perpetuate this for our continued entertainment. Or maybe, as others have claimed, this use of violence is artistic, a way of exploring human nature through film, literature and many other media? No matter that the content is disturbing, but at the same time gratifying for some, it is held to be legitimate in that it explores the dark side of human nature, and thus reveals us to ourselves.

Well, I’m not convinced it serves this last purpose. Almost always what we get is some or other depiction of acts rather than intentions and drives. In other words, we are shown behaviour, and we are told that this is heroism, revenge, suffering or evil. In fact, if we consider the difference between showing and telling, it’s more the case that we are told these actions we are confronted with are this, that or the other. In the absence of any means of portraying the deep dark id that spawns these acts, we are left instead with its consequences; a dismembered arm or the broken body of an invariable beautiful teenager. Signifiers abound, but nowhere is evil, disease or the simple truth of our nature revealed in its essential character.

I met a gang leader once, a person who had, face-to-face, hacked other people to death. He kept me waiting at first, and then sat down and we had coffee and talked about this and that, things of no real consequence. I’d looked forward to the meeting, I had wanted to get some sense of what such a person would be like in the flesh. I got what I wanted, and he needn’t have said a word. I’ve been around, and like lots of other people I have by chance or misguided design been in places it was propably wiser to avoid. I’ve climbed high, remote mountains and sailed in big seas. I’m not generally nor especially intimidated by physical threats, but this man was something else. He chatted pleasantly and respectfully and offered no intentional threats whatsoever, but he was full of unspoken menace. His eyes harboured no empathy, there was a “lack” that I cannot describe. Whereas everyone else I have ever met predominately conveys emotions of some description, he had instead an overarching presence that was somehow spun from a deep source of unspoken power.

I had a friend with me. A highly confident, physically strong person I’ve never seen afraid of anything. When we came out of the meeting we just looked at each other. We tried to describe what we had felt, but there were no words. The only thing we could share was the judgement that you would never, ever cross this man. Looking into his eyes was like staring at a giant, grey wave about to break over you in the middle of a storm. The ocean has no regard for souls, it just is. I discovered that there are people like that too.

Later I got into doing research on drugs, and I’ve met drug dealing gang leaders behind the iron doors of their apartment, had a drink bought for me in a illegal club by a guy who had just carried out an armed robbery, I’ve chatted on the street with a contact who had a shotgun under his coat because people were trying to kill him, I’ve interviewed a murderer in prison, sex workers, dealers, junkies and a few with dark secrets they were unwilling to reveal. I’ve worked with the young members of a gang, one of whom through uncontrollable rage killed someone for not buying them a pack of cigarettes, but I’ve never again met anyone who personifies physical menace so casually, in such a natural, unaware manner.

You see, I cannot describe the experience. You still do not know what I mean. We simply do not have tools to capture the deep, unspoken dark heart of another human being. We cannot portray evil, only the recipients of its attention will grasp its true nature.

So, then, what can we do as writers to mitigate this problem? I think the first rule has to be that we should be uncompromising, not in the sense of moving on to yet more graphic depictions of physical violence, but instead with respect to the characters we create. We should never redeem the source of violence or exploitation. John Fowles understood this when writing “The Collector”, but in every other example I can recall, the writer or director allows some of their own humanity to drift into the picture and offer some olive branch to other interpretations of human nature. The killer will love cats, or their mother, or will let someone go when they could have killed them. They might be a loyal gang member, a good son to an impoverished parent, it will be due to their past, or some other humanitarian device will be used. The list is endless, but in each and every case the truth is lost to the folk myth of some ultimate redemption.

In the satire “Spaceship over Vancouver” there is played out a dark portrayal of politics and politicians in a crisis. A reader emailed me a critique of the book that had at its centre a dislike of the relentlessness of the approach. He wanted some relief from what he described as the “white heat” of the narrative and the venomous nature of the treatment of politicians. He wanted the fictional Prime Minister to be allowed salvation, instead of being killed in an offhand, trivial manner. And he also wanted there to be an element of love between some of the central characters. I wrote back and explained that there can be no softening of the heart when we write about crimes against nature, democracy and humanity. We don’t live in a fairy tale, there is menace out there and although this is revealed in barbarous acts against each other, the environment and other species, it actually lies elsewhere in the hearts of minds gone awry. As writers we need to explore how we can portray this effectively, to show the irresistible power of the mind that moves the hand that strikes the blow or signs away our rights. We need to look more deeply and offer no sanctuary, because only then will we be able to uncover the heart of darkness that reaches out from so many of us to wreck lives and destroy our ways of life over and over again in the fulfilment of a shadowed, unspoken secret.

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