Human concepts – too human – of good and evil confront us continually with reductionist notions of human existence. No man or woman is entirely good or evil. Our actions are bipolar, and the ethical power of these actions only reveals itself as congruent, or incongruent, with time. However, world history has also revealed terrible examples of evil, as State policy, undermining the civil and human rights of entire nations, as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The poet, Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), lived close to the horrors of Stalinism. Throughout his life, he conferred with the world on that which had touched his life, and on the existential tools, for want of a better phrase, with which he was able to resist. In a speech delivered at Williams College in 1984, Brodsky touched on some very important points about the existence of evil – beyond a strictly theological point of view, as a social condition and form of oppression – as well as a way we can face it so as not to become passive victims.

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life, you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” 

To radically differentiate ourselves from adherence, from all collaboration with the origin and action of this evil, is that which gives us the freedom to survive it. If evil, Brodsky seems to say, is the social operation through which victims are produced, both homogeneous and equal, it’s necessary that the individual prevails over that homogenization and manage to face it by differentiating everything possible from the aggressors:

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.

To be treated as a victim, moreover, “often has a narcissistic aspect,” insofar as it neither seeks reparation nor demands justice, but can be perpetuated as pure victimization.  This allows, for example, governments to bear clean consciences while creating welfare policies that don’t repair any damage, but improve their own images in public opinion. Brodsky continued, “evil takes root when a man begins to think he is better than others.”

Thus, instead of putting ourselves in the positions of victims (or allowing aggressors or the source of social evil to treat us as such), Brodsky offers a startling reading of the well-known biblical passage, “The Sermon on the Mount” (Luke 6:29).  But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”

Rather than appeal to passivity and sacrifice, Brodsky’s reading incites active resistance, allowing evil to prove itself inoperative to the extent of its absurd demands:

The meaning of these lines is anything but passive for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.

Why is this admonition biblical? Because Brodsky says:

The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

Brodsky concludes that presenting the other cheek is a solution that can’t be carried out on any mass scale.

I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking about these things: because turning or not turning that other cheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The encounter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always your skin, your coat, and cloak, and it is your limbs that will have to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyone about the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong, indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your minds a cliché that harmed so many and yielded so little. I also would like to instill in you the idea that as long as you have your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.

 

*Image: Cate Storymoon – Flickr / Creative Commons

Human concepts – too human – of good and evil confront us continually with reductionist notions of human existence. No man or woman is entirely good or evil. Our actions are bipolar, and the ethical power of these actions only reveals itself as congruent, or incongruent, with time. However, world history has also revealed terrible examples of evil, as State policy, undermining the civil and human rights of entire nations, as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The poet, Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), lived close to the horrors of Stalinism. Throughout his life, he conferred with the world on that which had touched his life, and on the existential tools, for want of a better phrase, with which he was able to resist. In a speech delivered at Williams College in 1984, Brodsky touched on some very important points about the existence of evil – beyond a strictly theological point of view, as a social condition and form of oppression – as well as a way we can face it so as not to become passive victims.

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life, you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” 

To radically differentiate ourselves from adherence, from all collaboration with the origin and action of this evil, is that which gives us the freedom to survive it. If evil, Brodsky seems to say, is the social operation through which victims are produced, both homogeneous and equal, it’s necessary that the individual prevails over that homogenization and manage to face it by differentiating everything possible from the aggressors:

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.

To be treated as a victim, moreover, “often has a narcissistic aspect,” insofar as it neither seeks reparation nor demands justice, but can be perpetuated as pure victimization.  This allows, for example, governments to bear clean consciences while creating welfare policies that don’t repair any damage, but improve their own images in public opinion. Brodsky continued, “evil takes root when a man begins to think he is better than others.”

Thus, instead of putting ourselves in the positions of victims (or allowing aggressors or the source of social evil to treat us as such), Brodsky offers a startling reading of the well-known biblical passage, “The Sermon on the Mount” (Luke 6:29).  But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”

Rather than appeal to passivity and sacrifice, Brodsky’s reading incites active resistance, allowing evil to prove itself inoperative to the extent of its absurd demands:

The meaning of these lines is anything but passive for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.

Why is this admonition biblical? Because Brodsky says:

The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

Brodsky concludes that presenting the other cheek is a solution that can’t be carried out on any mass scale.

I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking about these things: because turning or not turning that other cheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The encounter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always your skin, your coat, and cloak, and it is your limbs that will have to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyone about the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong, indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your minds a cliché that harmed so many and yielded so little. I also would like to instill in you the idea that as long as you have your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.

 

*Image: Cate Storymoon – Flickr / Creative Commons