Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Five best books about evil

Adam Haslett is the author of You Are Not A Stranger Here, a short story collection, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and won the PEN/Winship Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Zoetrope, and Best American Short Stories as well as National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts.

His debut novel Union Atlantic was published last year.

With Daisy Banks at FiveBooks, Haslett recommended five books on evil, including:
Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil
Paul W. Kahn

Tell me about your first choice, Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil by Paul W Kahn.

The question concerning the nature of evil is a longstanding one but I would go so far as to say that in this profound book, the philosopher Paul Kahn has gone a very long way in answering it. He argues that in our secular age we have given reason such a dominant place in our understanding of modern politics that we can only understand evil acts by individuals or nations as deficits of rationality. If the Hutus were simply rational, they wouldn’t have killed the Tutsis, and so forth. Thus, our response to what we see as evil takes an essentially pedagogical form. We first try therapy to increase the malefactor’s rational capacity, and when that fails, we turn to legal punishment. But this leaves us with no conceptual framework for distinguishing between the simply bad act and the evil one. In short, secularism has no explanation of evil.

Kahn, who, over his last several books, has been working to articulate what he calls a political theology of modernity, fills that void with his own compelling explanation of the existential origin of evil: evil is the refusal to acknowledge and confront our own mortality. The murderer is the person who tries to avoid the inevitability of his own death by taking the power of life into his hands. Such an avoidance and its resulting violence is not limited to physical abuse or attacks. There is evil inside marriages and families whenever one person tries to crush another mentally in order to ward off a sense of his or her own entrapment in a dying body, ‘a wasting asset’, as Kahn calls it, ‘pregnant with non-being’. Thus, evil and love exist always in close proximity.

Modern politics tries to cabin love and evil as the realm of private life and psychopathology, respectively. But what Kahn shows brilliantly is how quixotic this effort is, because popular sovereigns, just like kings and emperors, still demand allegiance and the sacrifice of their citizens in war if necessary to sustain the state. And ultimately these are not rational choices but acts of love for country that often result in what others regard as acts of evil visited upon them.

It’s difficult to do the book justice in such a short space because it not only raises but brilliantly explores some of the deepest issues of human meaning and political life.
Read about another book on the list.

The Page 69 Test: Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic.

The Page 69 Test: Paul W. Kahn's Out of Eden.

--Marshal Zeringue