It Is Possible to Deny Evil
Variations based on Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner
“It is possible to deny evil, but not pain.”
A group of political prisoners are discussing suffering and whether God exists. They’ve been in the revolution and they’ve seen lives and bodies torn apart. Soon enough, theirs will be torn apart too. They will lose their heads, but not even that will end the world’s pain. They are characters in a play, written in 1835 by Georg Büchner, while he was in hiding to escape counter-revolutionary persecution, as he perfected his perspective, as a student of medicine, on the incurable pain of humanity. They are also characters in the drama of our present: a present of pain for a future of darkness. The spasm of a single atom in pain tears asunder all of creation, one of the prisoners says. The human community and its longing for freedom from behind bars is connected, with those words, to the larger wounds of the world. It is the figure that takes up salvation in a godless world. What would happen if the prisoner had switched the sentence around? It is possible to deny pain, but not evil. Pain depends on a threshold of sensory and spiritual perception. We don’t know whether a tree uprooted by the wind suffers, or an insect crushed under our feet. With the right sensors or chemicals, we might never feel pain again. But in a world without pain, would we stop hurting ourselves or one another?
“Will this never cease? Will the light never grow dim and the sound never rot? Will it never get still and dark so we don’t have to hear and see each other’s ugly sins any longer?”
Blocking out a vision. Or repeating it so many times that we become immune to pain, and that excuses the evil we may do. From Büchner’s times to today, we’ve had nearly two centuries to come up with this solution. To stop seeing is to never stop looking. Until we feel nothing, until the disgust we might feel in our gut is numbed. But we aren’t asleep, in fact we don’t sleep at all. Opium is reality itself, streaming 24 hours a day. The end of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is naive in our eyes. Our eyes are as open as the main character’s during the final treatment scenes, but they aren’t bloodshot, and we aren’t vomiting, bound to the chair. We cling to it, to feel its comfort. Leisurewear is one of the best-selling fashion lines today. Organic cotton and thick socks are all we need to feel innocent and protected.
“What is it in within us that whores, lies, steals and murders? (…) We are puppets, our strings pulled by unknown powers; we ourselves are nothing, nothing! Swords in the hands of fighting spirits, only we don’t see the hands, as in a fairy tale.”
Evil is the scandal of thought. Discourse breaks in, weaving together conscience and will beneath the gleaming frontage of freedom. If we are free, we can do harm. Because we are free, we can harm ourselves. Evil is the drama of freedom. But who can bear the thought of having done harm freely? Who dares to say: “Yes, it was me! And I meant to do it!” In our culture, the expression of intentional and voluntary evil is the devil. Satan. He is the freest, because he can do evil freely. A being that is not us, so that we can continue to be ourselves. The spirits that move us, that drive our dreams and fill the waking world with nightmares have taken the form of monsters or gods; they may be crimson and horrifying or exquisite and seductive. Little by little they have lost their horns and their colours, their voices, their smells and their mermaid’s tails. They wear dress shirts and suits, they obey the law, they execute orders and follow the rules. Once upon a time they kept files, on the living and the dead. Now it’s all Excel, and they fight their battles with Excel sheets. But they don’t decide, they only comply. They don’t want anything, they merely proceed. They don’t desire, they adapt. They don’t intend to do harm; their evil is banal. Hannah Arendt scandalised the sanctimonious West by undemonising evil, when she stripped away all irrationality and savagery from the figure of Eichmann the bureaucrat. The strings that moved him were not supernatural. They were the strings of administrative rationality. Stripped bare. Arendt, however, died with a doubt: What if Eichmann had thought about it? Would he have done what he did? Was his evil, ultimately, not having thought? Evil, diabolical or banal: the scandal of thought.
“There’s a flaw in the way we were created, we lack something, I have no name for it. But we won’t be able to dig it out of each other’s guts, so why break our bodies open? Admit it, we are miserable alchemists.”
guillotine, guillotine, guillotine, guillotine, guillotine, guillotine, guillotine,
bonfire, bonfire, bonfire, bonfire, bonfire, bonfire, bonfire, bonfire,
cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross, cross,
galleys, galleys, galleys, galleys, galleys, galleys, galleys, galleys, galleys,
lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy,
rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape,
prison, prison, prison, prison, prison, prison, prison, prison, prison, prison,
opioids, opioids, opioids, opioids, opioids, opioids, opioids, opioids,
like, dislike, like, dislike, like, dislike, like, dislike, like, dislike, like, dislike
“We are no crueler than Nature and Time. Nature follows her laws quietly and inexorably; wherever man is in conflict with them, he is destroyed. (…) Should moral nature in its revolutions be more considerate than physical nature? If a law of physics is allowed to destroy what opposes it, should an idea not have the same right?”
Georg Büchner, with his playwright’s pen and his surgeon’s scalpel, offers us the temptation of an ultimate consolation: it’s not us, nor is it evil spirits. It is nature herself: the cruel mother who gave birth to all beings, her murderous children. It isn’t survival of the fittest. It’s just physics. The laws of action and reaction. The destruction of all obstacles as a fundamental law of nature. Yet, the character’s words leave two questions in the air: Why should moral laws be different from the laws of physics? And why should ideas behave any differently than material elements? These two questions break open the abyss that is us. The infinite distance of human inscrutability. Thought as unthinkable beyond all scandal. The impossible leap that gives rise to all desires that shatter the geometry of the heavens.