I finished reading a book called On Evil by Terry Eagleton this week. It was fascinating. I don’t often contemplate evil. Why would I? It is simply not an enjoyable thing to do. But I enjoyed reading this book. It made me think about things in a different way. So how can I explain what it said? I think a superhero analogy is in order.
Have you ever considered Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker? He won a posthumous Oscar for it and quite deservedly so. He was creepy, unsettling and cool all at the same time. But what was so good about it really? Many people talked (and still talk) about how he inhabited the role, became the Joker as fully as he could. He was a very good method actor. But how did he do it? What makes people say this about him?
I think the answer lies in the nature of the evil he portrayed. We’re used to low levels of evil in our world. Systemic evil, the evil of bureaucrats – things that Eagleton calles wickedness. They happen not because of any one person’s personal evil nature, but because evil exists in the world and it manifests itself in the unfairness of systems. Unfairness is a form of evil, but not an earth shattering one.
The Joker, however, is definitely earth-shatteringly evil. He is evil simply to be evil. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That’s the quote people remember from the movie. It sums the Joker up nicely.
Eagleton says something slightly more philosophical about this kind of evil.
“Let us return, then, to the question of whether evil is best seen as a kind of purposeless or nonpragmatic wickedness. In one sense, the answer is surely yes. Evil is not primarily concerned with practical consequences. As the French psychoanalyst Andre Green writes, “Evil is without ‘why’ because its raison d’etre is to proclaim that everything which exists has no meaning, obeys no order, pursues no aim, depends only on the power it can exercise to impose its will on the objects of its appetite.” … Yet the evil do have purposes of a kind. They seem to lay waste simply for the hell of it, but this is not the whole truth. We have seen already that they visit violence upon those who pose a threat to their own identity. But they also smash and sabotage to ease the hellish conflict in which they are caught.”
Eagleton believes that evil people like the Joker are also in pain and they seek to ease that pain in diabolical ways.
Is the Joker in pain? Perhaps. He certainly has a death wish. In almost all the iterations of the Batman-Joker animus, the Joker taunts the hero to kill him. The fact that Batman does not kill makes him the hero. The fact that Joker wants to destroy that hero by making him stoop to Joker’s own level is partially what makes him a villain. Joker wants to die, sure, but he also wants to take down the symbol of goodness with him. Somehow, he seems to think that will make him happy, though why he is unhappy is never really explained.
This desire to destroy Batman’s goodness is also part of Eagleton’s conception of evil.
“Part of the rage of the damned, as we have seen, is the knowledge that they are parasitic on goodness, as the rebel is dependent on the authority he spurns. They are obsessed with the virtue they despise, and are thus the reverse of religious types who can think of nothing but sex.”
Again, a theme of the Joker is that he would not exist without the Batman. In fact, in Frank Miller’s amazing Dark Knight comics, when Batman disappears for awhile, so does the Joker. The Joker is held in an asylum and treated and he becomes an almost normal being. Without the Batman, his desire for the crazy evil he represents has gone. Only when the Batman resurfaces does the Joker go back to being evil. (Side note: as far as ethical conundrums go, Frank Miller is perhaps one of the best writers of any medium on those points.)
These are just a few of the things from Eagleton’s book. Honestly, it is a thought provoking read. Some of its concepts are complex and take a bit of thought to understand, but for me, the Joker helped that understanding along.
But more importantly, it got me thinking about the Jokers you find in the real world. Evil is not as clear cut as you think it is. Some of the traits of evil, then, are found in people and systems that we think of as “good.” Good and evil are really two sides of the same coin and they share some characteristics. For instance, that second quote from Eagleton’s book notes that some religious people are sex-obsessed, just like evil is obsessed with the virtue it does not have. These kind of similarities are important and knowing that makes you look at supposedly good things with a far more informed critical eye.
Evil is something that we do not consider enough. Eagleton is duly critical of liberals who look at the world like everyone is good and have rose colored glasses on. I have been guilty of this at times. We don’t want to believe that evil exists, but it does. More importantly, it is rarely what we think is evil. ISIS, terrorists, black ops who torture innocents – these are not the be-all-end-all evil they sometimes get called. They are almost too obviously bad to be truly evil.
So what is evil? It is rarely as obvious as the Joker’s kind of evil is. But being able to look at something and notice what it has in common with the Joker is a good first step to being able to figure out what is.