Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 3, Evil as Residual (or Hannibal Lecter)

Let me add a few clarifications to my last post.

The point I was making wasn't that modern people can't use the term "evil." Nor am I denying that once the term "evil" is admitted into human discourse that it might end up doing more harm than good. It might be safer, sociologically speaking, to keep the category evil on the shelf. This was, incidentally, the major theme of my series on monsters. It was the recognition that, while the monster category names something real in our experience (malevolent and violent Otherness), it is very often misused and applied to innocent people. This is vividly on display in the gospels. Jesus is accused of being demon-possessed and in league with the devil. Jesus is crucified and, thus, "cursed." And yet, Jesus is declared innocent by the Roman solider at the foot of the cross. This is the key to Rene Girard's reading of the gospel: Jesus, the innocent one, exposes how humans use religion (the Sanhedrin) and politics (Pilate and Herod) to justify violence.

All this is granted.

The point of the last post is that science has created means--biology (medicine, genetics) and the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology)--to explain human behavior. And when science has done its work with cases like Hitler we still feel that there is a residual, that some aspect of Hitler cannot be reduced to a scientific account. What we call evil is the experience of that residual. And, thus, by definition, evil can't be a scientific term. Evil is the malevolent residual that cannot be "explained" by the disciplines of psychology or psychiatry.

Again, to be clear, I'm not granting ontological status to this residual, saying that the residual is real. Of course, it could be. But science would deny that claim. That is all well and good. But what I am speaking about is phenomenological, the experience of a residual. Leaving metaphysics aside, it is a fact that the experience of this residual is real and pervasive, among the religious and non-religious. And, like it or not, the vocabulary of science, by definition, can't speak to or describe this experience. That's no fault of science. I'm just saying that science isn't poetry. Science is wonderful at describing the physical structure of the world but it does a crappy job at describing human experience.

By definition, religion is the vocabulary of the residual. Religion provides us language that is metaphysical or supernatural. Language of the residual. This is why I made the point in the last post that evil is a religious term, religion and evil speak to the experience of the residual, what lies outside the categories of science.

And yes, as I said above, I am aware of the dangers of reifying the category of evil. But I think everyone can agree that, as a phenomenological term, evil is speaking to the experience of a malevolent residual.

And here's my second point: This assessment is widely granted. It is simply one of the widely recognized symptoms of modernity. In a disenchanted age we lack the language to name our experience of the residual. We all have residual experiences but the only language that names these experience is "superstitious," the vocabulary of enchantment.

Let me give an example of what I'm talking about. Consider the movie Silence of the Lambs. It is a movie about evil and the experience of the residual. Hannibal Lecter, M.D. is the incarnation of evil. He is also one of the world's leading psychiatrists. Consequently, we are told in the movie, Dr. Lector can't be assessed or diagnosed with psychological and diagnostic tests. Lector can beat these tests. It's language of conquest. More, Lector can defeat, on their own terms and at their own game, the world's best forensic psychologists. In short, in Lector we see the defeat of science. Evil tosses around the tools of science as if they were child's toys, mere playthings. There is something in Lector that cannot be captured by psychology or science. Lector is a silver screen depiction of the residual. And we recognize and name that residual evil.

And this is only one example. In movies, novels and TV shows we see this same theme emerge time and time again. The truly evil character defeats the scientific experts. These experts often, then, turn to religious figures. They might wander into a church looking for answers or consult a priest. The character might start to pray. The experience of evil--the residual--draws the characters, as a last resort, to the religious vocabulary. Why? Because the person they are chasing is beyond criminal, beyond human categories. And, just as often, we see the truly evil antagonist defeat these religious shock troops. Hollywood knows it needs the language of the residual, the vocabulary of religion, to make movies which speak to human experience. Screenwriters are artists, not scientists. So they get what I'm talking about. But that doesn't mean that Hollywood is going to embrace organized religion! So priests in the movies are often killed by the evil figure (usually because the priest is a hypocrite). Regardless, the defeat of evil is going to rely on some sort of self-sacrificing goodness. The main plot of the movie is figuring out where that goodness is going to come from.

In sum, I don't think what I'm saying about evil, science and religion is all that new or controversial. It's simply an observation of what we see all around us.

Just go to the movies.

On to Part 4

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

9 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 3, Evil as Residual (or Hannibal Lecter)”

  1. Well, mysteriously, I dislike this explanation even more than I do the previous versions. Though I appreciate the effort. I mean, look, sure, Hannibal Lecter *the fictional character* triumphs over mean old science and we must "turn to religion" to explain or to assuage the angst. That's a plot device, not a real fact of existence. Does Ted Bundy really defy scientific analysis? I mean, sure, the horror remains because the horror refers to the knock on effect of his acts--their "residual" isn't "residual" because its inexplicable its residual because it remains behind after the act and the discord and awfulness and loss remains long after the act is explained/has taken place. That's true of other acts that are not clearly "evil" like suicide, or childhood illness, or accidental but funny deaths.

    I disagree that we need the language of supersittion, the vocabulary of enchantment, or anything else mystical to fully grasp the nature of evil or to deal therapeutically with its residual. And, of course, there's a difference between "fully grasping" and "dealing theraputically." Lets go back to Hitler--if we had caught Hitler and been able to fully psycho-analyze him. That is, put him on the couch and examine his idea of his motivations, fully know everything that went into his decisionmaking process, would we have been crushed to find that there was no "real" or satisfying explanation for the fact that he could turn millions of people into mere counters in a game of checkers, burn them up with no more thought than we give a match used to start the fire we toast marshmellows on?

    I wouldn't. I would neither be surprised nor dissatisfied with my analytic method. Isn't that the very meaning of Arendt's Banality of Evil? Many people, throughout history, have been guilty of crimes, large and small, which they themselves did not recognize as crimes. Murders that they thought were justified. Soul destroying acts of cruelty and indifference which they thought were merely de rigeur--cultural imperatives. Not only would I not be surprised to find that Hitler was one of these I wouldn't even think it needed to be attributed to a specific incident of horror in his own life, or a single teaching.

    I see lack of empathy with others, lack of connection, as the original sin that underlies most cruel and outrageous and evil acts. The inability of the actor to see himself in the position of those around him--even his enemies. So in that sense I see your version of "evil" as too distancing. There's nothing in Hitler that I don't get. And its because I get it that I will never be Hitler. But there is everything in me, Qua Jew and woman, that he will never get--and that permitted him to be Hitler.


  2. Richard, I came back to say that I so enjoy reading your posts. They are extremely thought provoking and I always find something new in them, even if I've read them a couple of times before. I only wish I could take a class with you.


  3. Hi Richard,

    Of course the problem with admitting that we live in "disenchanted" times is that God "was" part of the "enchantment." God, like evil, becomes--at best--a reification. The Church is left with a bad choice: give up any robust faith or use the sophisticated anti-intellectualism of the conservative church (full of question avoiding techniques of the kind Sartre exposes in his analysis of "bad faith").

    I'm pleased to say that I think Augustine gave the Church a way out of this unfortunate choice 1,600 years ago. I just posted on it. (I hope it's OK that I noted this?)


  4. Unfortunately, evil is a control, manipulation, co-ercion, oppression, or dismissing of the 'human". The "human" is defined in categories of the creative, which are not defined by "lines and definitions", such as exist in science. But, that does not dissolve religion from evil either.

    Any repressive regime, dogma, or way of defining a human that demeans, demoralizes human choice is "evil".

    Therefore, science and religion can be used for evil. It is only the values that we uphold in a free society that defines the humane and allows humans to "own" and develop their own life without interference.

  5. And I mean unfortunately, because human do try to control their environment, as this is how we understand our lives. Evil, therefore, is impossible to eradicate completely.

  6. Tracy,
    I'll admit that's a problem. Mainly I was simply trying to tread lightly, not wanting to make too big a claim and signal that was was talking about our felt experiences of evil rather than making the claim that evil is an ontological entity.

    And I'm very happy when you or anyone else points me and other to work or posts that expand the conversation. I find it very helpful.

    I appreciate your comments and disagreements. Your comments in the last post got me thinking about this post. And even though you didn't like this one either I enjoyed writing it and thinking about it. Disagreements aside, at the end of the day I just like thinking about stuff like this.

  7. You have noted this previously, Richard, but I wonder, following your last paragraph, if horror films are not the last bastion of cultural re-enchantment for the broader American public. A film like Halloween perfectly embodies what you speak to: a dangerous, untameable, inexplicable force of evil upending our expectations and outwitting the scientific explanations. If Michael were good, he might just be Yahweh in disguise! Is that our way of dealing with the banality of scientific explaining-away?

  8. Richard,

    Regarding "enchantment" and "disenchantment": it is easy to fool ourselves, despite our inner Hegel. It is not that we live in disenchanted times. It is that we exchange one form of enchantment, one spell for another--one kind of language for another--and call it analytical or modern or scientific or post-religious. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes it is not. Evil, not being ontological, is fungible violence and violation.


  9. I enjoy all your posts, Richard. I like thinking about this stuff too. And I don't think there's a right answer. So I have another question--what is the difference between people who watch something horrifying/evil and people who experience something horrifying/evil in their own lives? I mean, Brad talks about the film Halloween--I've never seen any horror films, and I don't even read authors like that--but it seems to me there's a fundamental difference between a person subjecting themselves to the viewing of a scary/horrifying film and a person who is actually undergoing torture and fear--for one thing one act is voluntary and the other isnt', for another one act can and will be terminated at the viewer's own discretion while true torture and evil can not.

    I guess what I'm saying is that looking to fictional representations about evil to discuss what we really think or perceive about evil in our own lives seems fraught with logical flaws. And yet it leads us to another series of related questions: why are (some) humans, even humans who have endured great evil in their own lives, drawn to fictional representations of evil. What kind of catharsis do horror films offer--or if they don't offer catharsis, what is the effect of watching them?


Leave a Reply