A Secular Problem of Evil

By Andrew Stahl

“Man, seek the author of evil no longer. It is yourself.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile

How can I even write this essay? How can anyone write about evil?

I’m afraid that willy-nilly I’ve contrived for history a book’s sewn spine, a book’s soft closure, its comfortable oblong hand-weight, when it ought to be heavier than Hercules could heft. History is relentless, but now it has a volume’s insistent kind of time. And hasn’t the guilt and innocence I speak of there become a simple succession of paper pages?

William H. Gass

William H. Gass demands early in his fittingly mammoth novel The Tunnel, the private reflections of a historian attempting to write the introduction to his magnum opus on Nazi Germany. (When I read the book, I took a month-long break. I don’t know if that’s a sign of the novel’s success at its task, or my failure.) This question is not of the defeatist, rhetorical kind, such as a certain register of “How can poetry be written after Auschwitz?” The point of asking is to find the answer. 

Representing evil is a problem of not trivializing it, of making its horrors understood. Kohler, the protagonist of the novel, cannot write the academic introduction he set out to: he feels that his book of history, in somehow trivializing the evil of the Nazis, in not making their horrors felt, leaves them unknown. Representation then becomes a facet of the problem of comprehension. Like quantum mechanics, our ordinary modes of explanation break down at this level, only this time for being too big. “Men cannot imagine such numbers. They can only perform them.” The traditional problem of evil asked how evil is compatible with the existence of God. In Gass’s secular reworking, the problem is how to comprehend it. 

Gass sees much standing in the way of understanding it, however. His great preoccupation with evil centers around the Second World War, for the usual reasons: its unending flood of horrors, that it – unlike WWI, also horrible and in many ways the pivotal event of the 20th century – has not passed out of historical consciousness, the bag of rhetorical tricks used to deflect its horror. These latter are a favorite topic for Gass. They share an attempt to divorce humanity from evil. It comes from God, and so it is neither evil nor human; or perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all, so not evil; or it was a unique product of German… something, so not human as such. Most commonly evil is made to stand outside history, as if understanding could only diminish its horror, and as if it stands outside all human life. Obfuscating the problem is made to seem like the only acceptable way of facing it.

What is evil? Gass’s contribution is in showing how our habitual thoughts, in trying to balance these opposed desires – we might say, the simultaneous draw to understand evil and fear of succeeding – make a mystery of evil and its causes. If evil is made to stand outside all human purposes and actions, it will seem to come from nowhere, to be something done to us and not by us. Where can we look to explain it if not humanity? Evil, for Gass, is the product of our “everyday” – what a word! the mirror image of the desire to dehistoricize evil – our everyday resentments, jealousies, lusts, and so on. Thus the initially confounding device of The Tunnel: if his book of history, filled, presumably, with copious information on the evils of the Nazi regime, trivializes them, how do the memories of one man not do the same? 

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