LOST UNDERSTANDING

Augustine says evil does not exist. Everything that is, he says, is good. Good is an entity. Evil is not; evil is merely the absence of good. It has no proper existence of its own.

This is an outrageous statement. It contradicts what our hearts tell us. We may perhaps allow that a man who absconds with the cash is a mere crook_ may even be a bit likeable. But Hitler now: Hitler was evil, Absolute Evil. There are shades of grey, yes, but then there is black. A difference in kind. We tend to think of evil on that level as a tangible something in the world, like electric current. We see evil as an elemental force that people like terrorists can tap into. And of course there is literature, full of evil. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, in reference to Bataille and de Sade, “The search for fulfillment via the enjoyment of cruelty forms part of the human psyche.”

But no: Augustine, to break the spell, would remind us that these are only books. And Hanna Arendt says, “Evil is a matter of thoughtlessness, a refusal to use reason as we should. . . Our souls are made to work.”

Ruth Kluger was a 12-year old Austrian child who survived the concentration camps of the Second World War to write a book, Weiter Leben. Susan Neiman quotes her as saying that the people who worked in places like Auschwitz, where Kluger spent some months, could not function without what she called `lost understanding.’ This phrase caught my attention so sharply that I sent for a translation. The book is interesting, but nowhere could I find those words or anything like them. By that time however, I had come across a description by the scholar E.R. Dodds of an incident from the Iliad. Agamemnon in an irrational outburst had publicly humiliated Achilles, their prime warrior, in front of the entire army. He explains later, in a kind of apology, that Zeus had “taken away my understanding” (Dodds’ translation).

The major mindset in the western world is obviously that of secular people, at home with rational thought. Cool people, unencumbered with emotion. Admirable people, men for the most part, they make possible our western technology-based society. They score high on the so-called intelligence-quotient tests. They overwhelm us with sheer fact. Rational thought has been such a success that sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any other kind. A rather circular sign in the fish market reads EAT FISH. FISH MAKES YOU SMART. SMART PEOPLE MAKE MONEY. WITH MONEY BUY MORE FISH. Just so: Technically minded people invent more technology, and technology encourages more technologists. They know. They know all about things, they know how things work, they know how to do things, and they get things done. Had the world been left to people like myself we would still be living in caves.

But to know is not necessarily to understand.

Rational thought works best in closed situations like the design of an engine, or double-entry bookkeeping, or the tightly focused speculation of pure science. The world, the human comedy, isn’t knowable in that sense, and is in many ways it is out of control. It is a place of irrational behavior, paradox galore, Hobson’s choice, misunderstanding, delight, despair, political rant, theological rhetoric, bravery, ambiguity, generosity, duplicity—sometimes both in one person—, tons of wellmeaningness, masochism, naivetИ, cynicism, charm, ambition, questionable motives. And chance_sheer blind blundering chance, a very heavy player in this comedy where everything at times seems contingent on everything else.

The rational mind has difficulty dealing with this. It requires intelligence, and intelligence is not an extension of the intellect; it lives in another part of the mind. Intelligence is at ease with ambiguity, its language is imagination and empathy, the ability to see deep into the minds and the hearts of other people. Even terrorists? Especially terrorists.

Unfortunately, for most of us this deep intelligence is fragile, easily swamped by hunger, poverty, rage: it is only too easy to fall into evil.

I once experienced unmistakable evil in myself. Going home late from work I stopped at a newsstand. A young man was standing in the less well-lit part of the room. As I passed him he muttered something in a low voice that I couldn’t quite catch. I asked him to repeat. He said, “How’s your hump?”

My thoughts stopped while I tried to believe I had heard what I thought I had heard. Then he said, “Arrrhh! the cripples all come out at night.” Got me, right to the core of my being; I have a pronounced and obvious curvature of the spine. I turned away, but as I did so an elusive movement flickered in my mind.

Thinking about this on my way home I recognized my response, faint but unmistakable: homicide. A rock, an iron bar. . . . Was this coming from me, the most peaceable of people? Yes. There we had been, the two of us, united in this brief symbiosis. Evil for evil.

But then, at almost the same moment, I could see that in some way, violence is what he was looking for—violence with himself it may be as victim? It was clear what a lonely tormented person he was.

Evil then doesn’t permeate the world as an entity any more than good does. We see good men do things that result in evil but we cannot properly speak of an evil man, only the breakdown of understanding.

It’s hardly surprising that the faculty of empathy breaks down in the face of the hunger and violence that rack much of the world. We have less excuse in this country, but self-interest is just as effective. I am thinking of the curious phenomenon of welfare.

Welfare is, as everyone says with a sigh, a problem.( To people on welfare it’s THE problem, of course.) The standard political response is to throw money at it in the hope that it will go away; it doesn’t. The difficulty is not money but form. I mean form as a set of common attributes that would make its members stand out. People on welfare cannot be perceived as a group or type of person because they dress like everyone else and they eat the same food when they can afford it. They share our ideas of a decent life. They are as varied as anyone else. They have nothing in common. They are almost unique in this respect. Other groups in our world are defined by their commonalities. We who were once a ragbag collection of useless `old people’ have now become Senior Citizens, if you please: we are defined as old. The imposition of a mandatory retirement age firmed up our category and old age pensions consolidated it. Our state is old, our oeuvre so to speak is to die.

Indians have been dignified as `Native People’ and the state now negotiates with them. Metis, on the other hand are defined not by what they are but by what they are not, the state cannot recognize them because as a group they lack form. Prisoners in jail are the most rigidly defined. People in jail are somehow more respected than people on welfare. Given the costs of keeping people in jail it is extraordinary that nobody ever complains about prisoners wasting the taxpayer’s money.

But all this is well-known; my concern with welfare is quite specific. It has to do with small children whose parents are on welfare. It is by now well known that a child must master a language within about the first five years. If it doesn’t happen within that time it never will. The child will be able to talk, and perhaps fill out a questionnaire, but they will never be articulate, they will have a comic book understanding of the world, and consequently, their lives will be arranged by other people.

A baby learns from looking intently into its mother’s eyes, watching her face, and listening. There is an intensity to this gaze that I have never seen on an older person. It’s a serious matter; a lifetime is at stake. The child somehow sorts out the syntax or grammar that underlies all speech. Linguists seem unclear about his process. Mothers know even less than the linguists, but they understand what is happening. I have a note from the time my oldest son was becoming articulate (the first child is always the most vivid):

During those first weeks and months John would look into my eyes and it seemed to me he was asking a question, but not knowing what question to ask. There was, apparently, nothing at the back of his eyes. This is what makes looking into a baby’s eyes such an odd sensation. Sometimes he frowned and looked obscurely troubled, but perhaps this was my own trouble that I read there.

If the child’s mother, or someone else, cannot find the time for this mutual gaze, then it will not happen. Babies, whether rich or surviving welfare, are the most important people. This country is going to need children who grow up articulate and curious about the world and who will be competent to live well. I can’t understand why politicians find this so hard to grasp. Have I missed something?

Given the limitations of the modern technical mindset and the self-interest of the powerful, not to mention an education that prizes cleverness over intelligence—from where will emerge the wisdom to sort through the coming dislocations? It seems clear that before sanity emerges from chaos millions more will have to die. I am glad that I will not be around to have to deal with the inevitable confusion and dismay.

There are two things that impress me about us humans: we are extraordinarily tough and resourceful and, when push comes to shove—brave. That’s on one hand. On the other, there is the uncanny marksmanship with which we shoot ourselves in the foot, over and over and over.

Still . . . . An evening long ago. A friend, now dead, raised the wine bottle questioningly. I looked in my glass and said without thinking “It’s still half-full,” and then I laughed: I had demonstrated the definition of the optimist.

And so I am, perhaps naively. But Hanna Arendt, who knows far more than I do, says, “We are naturally corrupt, but not corrupt by nature . . . We may still be at home in the world.”