The Problem of Evil

Brian Evenson

For me the problem of villains in literature turns on the problem of evil, and the problem of evil is not, strictly speaking, a literary problem. Nor is it exactly a philosophical problem. It is, as philosopher Lars Svendsen suggests, first and foremost a practical problem, tied to the need to eradicate suffering and to acknowledge our own culpability in allowing suffering to continue. But in literature this is only sometimes addressed.

In literature, at one extreme we have the kind of cosmic evil or horror found in H.P. Lovecraft's work, something so distant and demonic that it is completely outside of human understanding. This is in fact reciprocal: it doesn't understand us either, and ultimately has as little interest in us as most of us do in insects: we are flies to be swatted. In literature this leads more readily to monsters than to villains—Cthulu, for instance—and to beings beyond our ken. In order to have any access to this sort of evil, we need an intermediary, someone who has been touched or afflicted by them and changed, is beginning to lose their humanity but still is human. A person who can serve as a bridge between our world and its world.

On the other end of the spectrum is the kind of evil that Hannah Arendt calls banal evil: bureaucratic bean-counting evil that we find in people like Adolf Eichmann and others who enabled the holocaust but remain unable to comprehend the evil of what they've done, who fall back on phrases like "I was following orders". This is a thoughtless form of evil. Such characters are rarely found in central roles in literature since they seem, as Arendt herself suggests, two dimensional, banal and finally boring, so much so that we find great difficulty recognizing ourselves in them.

For a villain to be effective in literature, there must exist for readers the potential for a complex combination of recognition and repulsion. An ability for us both to see ourselves within them and also a desire not to see ourselves in them, to resist this identification.

In addition to the two extremes just mentioned, A Philosophy of Evil, Svendsen identifies two intermediary categories, Instrumental Evil and Idealistic Evil.

Instrumental Evil pursues the subjectively good while sacrificing the objectively good. In other words, such a villain does what he feels is good for himself—in the sense that it gives him an advantage or gain, for instance—at the expense of others. It is self-serving. These people, knowing that they are doing harm to others, choose to do it nevertheless for their own gain.

Idealistic Evil comes when someone is convinced of their moral good or rightness to such a degree that ideological conviction replaces common sense, where evil is done in the name of doing good. The men of strong moral conviction who burned people as witches in Salem fit well into this category to the degree that they honestly believed they were doing God's will. Rick Santorum does as well.

Villains in fiction generally fall in the middle categories. In someone like Cormac McCarthy's work you find a large range of villainy that covers a good deal of the spectrum and explores different manifestations of evil. We have Lester Ballard, a kind of thoughtless, banal character who falls into necrophilia almost by accident and with seemingly no real sense of the magnitude of his crimes, someone whose evil approaches stupidity. But we also have the "grim triune" in Outer Dark, who cut a swath of seemingly unmotivated violence—violence for violence's sake—across the novel, and in contrast to Culla Holme who abandons his child but then seems to have a certain amount of regret about the act, even tries to repair it. The grim triune we can't identify with, but Culla we can, and the brilliance of this novel lies in McCarthy's willingness to contrast these two kinds of evil and then articulate their hidden connections: the triune can be read as an external manifestation of Culla's internalized evil. There is Sylder from The Orchard Keeper, who strangles a man in self-defense and mentally reduces the man to offal in the process, but seems to have no regrets whatsoever about it, almost doesn't think about it at all afterward. There is Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, who reduces life to the relentlessness of chance, and is evil not only for being a killer but in abstracting justice down to the flip of a coin.

Then there is McCarthy's most memorable villain, Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, who seems almost superhuman in his ability to survive events that leave others scattered or dead. He is relentlessly curious about the world around him, but capable as well of recording what he sees and then destroying it, having no interest in preserving it apart from language. He can be arbitrary but also lawful, kind but merciless, and seems indeed to encompass all the range of human possibility and destruction. Considering all he knows and is aware of, his evil seems all the worse.

In my own work, villains shade often from the idealistic to the instrumental and back again with it being difficult at times to know when one becomes the other or to what degree they are self-aware. Borchert in Last Days is a true believer in the amputation cult he is involved in, or seems to be. He can be cynical as well, willing to do something manipulative either for a greater good or to gain more power—perhaps he doesn't always know which. In religion, where good and power sometimes become inextricably confused, this sort of evil is never too far away.

When a villain is someone that we cannot at least somewhat identify with, he begins to become abstract or cardboard, someone that we feel little human connection to and thus that we can dismiss as "other" and demonize. At the same time, if we do not feel a certain amount of repulsion, he no longer seems a villain, seems instead a kind of perverse hero. For Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the division between evil and good is not an external one but one that runs "right through every human heart," and if a literary representation of a villain does not make us aware of the presence of that line within ourselves, then it does very little either for us as readers.