Satanic Masters

On Evil by Terry Eagleton

Books Faith Literature Social Affairs Welfare State
Jon Venables: A Killer by nature or nurture?

According to an English Evangelical bishop writing in 1991, the clear signs of Satanic possession include inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, a false smile, Scottish ancestry, relatives who have been coal miners and the habitual choice of black for dress or car colour. Some of us associate evil with different circumstances — for instance, those in which two ten-year-old boys tortured and murdered a toddler in Liverpool 17 years ago. Terry Eagleton bases the first chapter of his book On Evil on this case. Not once in this chapter does he refer to the killers or their victim by name, and not once does he need to. The murder of Jamie Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was uniquely traumatising enough for it to be burned into our collective memories (yet not unique enough almost to happen again last year in Edlington).

Eagleton starts his book with this case for the same reason that I’ve started the review with it — because we both know that it makes our writing infinitely more interesting. Because the thing that sells almost as much as sex is evil. Because Huntley and Carr, Hindley and Brady, Venables and Thompson are all sure things when it comes to a good news story, even years after the crime. (In the last few months, both Huntley and Venables have graced the front pages of the papers.) There is something about evil that absolutely enthrals us — even more so if it involves women or children — and there is something terrifyingly thrilling about the thought that there are monsters, psychopaths and sadists in our midst. On Evil is laced with these villains and anti-heroes, both real and fictional, and automatically becomes much more absorbing because of this: Pinkie, in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, with his “slatey eyes…touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went”; the nihilist Iago, who seeks to destroy the angelic pompousness of Othello; even Satan himself, who cries “Evil, be thou my good!” in Paradise Lost

We classify such killers as monsters in order to separate them from the merely wicked, and to separate them from ourselves. After all, life would be pretty unbearable if we were to believe that evil was commonplace or something that we could all succumb to in the right circumstances. Evil has to be a category on its own, that exists above and beyond understandable human behaviour. 

Eagleton is out to spoil this illusion that we’ve created for ourselves, arguing that evil isn’t as mysterious or incomprehensible as we may like to believe.

A police officer involved in the investigation of Jamie Bulger’s murder said that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits he knew he was evil. Eagleton sees this as a “pre-emptive strike against soft-hearted liberals”, a ploy to secure full punishment for the boys by arguing that their actions were without rhyme or reason and couldn’t be explained away by looking into Thompson’s and Venables’s backgrounds. Evil people are therefore evil by nature, not nurture, and must be punished as such. They are like it from birth, like Kevin in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, who, to some, displays sociopathic tendencies even as a baby. Unfortunately, this is a circular argument: if someone is evil by nature then they can’t really help who they are and what they do and are, perversely, innocent. They have been born with a disease or psychosis. 

These circular arguments are symbolically important — the endless cycle of evil, guilt and self-loathing, the witches of Macbeth who live in cyclical time, who dance in circles and follow moon cycles, all help to represent the futile and constant nature of evil in our lives. Time isn’t linear so that one day we’ll progress past evil — time is cyclical, so that evil is always with us. Eagleton wishes to break this cycle and dispel the myth of evil as a “fixed ontological feature of the human condition”. It’s not that people are evil and there’s nothing we can do about it, or that people are innocent because their circumstances have forced them into evil acts. It’s understanding that evil can exist and still be explainable. 

In On Evil, Eagleton relies on Freud for an explanation, arguing that the modern age has witnessed a transition from traditional religious explanations of evil to psychoanalytical theories. Instead of the soul, we have the psyche; theology becomes psychoanalysis; original sin is now identified as repression. And with the Freudian explanation, evil is all about death. In each of us there is a deadly yet delightful drive to destruction, a “malignly sadistic force”, as Eagleton puts it, a drive to absolute nothingness, an “orgiastic revolt against meaning”. Many of us are able to keep this death drive under control, but for those who are deficient in the art of living this becomes impossible, and we seek meaning in sadism or masochism. Aristotle said that living is something you get good at over time, but if you grow up without love, comfort and security, without friends and relatives who will bring value to your life, then the art of living might be a skill that you never acquire. If your life is terrible enough to create a “raging hatred against one’s own existence” then the desire to prove that life indeed has no value by ruining another’s can take over. So many — though of course, not all — people that we would consider evil, including Venables, Thompson and the Edlington boys, have grown up in this kind of environment. When criticising the social conditions that exist under capitalism, Eagleton almost classifies evil as a political ill, as something that wouldn’t exist in a socialist utopia. 

However, this “almost” is important. He argues that most people who commit horrific acts are actually wicked, rather than evil, because of their social background. Evil, he believes, must go above and beyond purely vicious acts. It does, indeed, have some kind of mystery to it. And so again we’re pulled back into the circular argument — one that Eagleton promised to release us from without having to use arguments that involve religion or senseless monsters, but one that his politics does not go far enough to overcome. 

It’s unsurprising that On Evil is a confused and somewhat vague book. After all, it is written by a Christian Marxist who must always be attempting to reconcile his Christianity with a political ideology that denounces religion while promoting its own dogmatic creed. It’s compelling purely for its subject matter and Eagleton’s language and examples are always inventive — until he throws in a bit of Texas-bashing here and there, which is both boring and predictable. His final thoughts on terrorism are extraordinary in their inability to come to some kind of conclusion, Eagleton being so torn between wanting to recognise immoral acts without condemning them: this is symptomatic of the whole book. But most striking is the question that On Evil presents to us, which is the very question that Eagleton wanted to tackle. How does one explain evil without the help of God and Satan, or a few monsters here and there? If we all have a death drive within us, why is it that some of us can’t contain it? If it’s not only about social background, then what does determine it? 

As a secular person who doesn’t want to dismiss all evil acts as those committed by deranged and incomprehensible psychopaths, what am I supposed to believe? We, the readers, have come full circle. Is pure chance the only thing an atheist has to break these cycles of evil?