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The Aesthetics of Evil

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by Hans-Dieter Gelfert

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Adam and Eve in Paradise, Gemäldegalerie Berlin (Image: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Love and Evil are the driving forces of most, if not all, plots of dramatic and fictional literature. For a binary opposite of Evil one would expect the Good instead of Love – but Goodness, as every reader knows from experience, does not yield much aesthetic gratification. Aesthetics is concerned with the pleasure and displeasure of sensuous perception, which depends on the rise and fall of our level of arousal; expectancy and gratification, therefore, are the two basic sources of psychic pleasure. It is easy to see that goodness, no matter how much and in what shape, will not arouse much expectancy, because there is little point in desiring with our senses what our conscience forces us to demand, and any gratification it yields when it actually happens is only a confirmation of our trust in the moral order of the world. With evil, things are different. Whether we desire it against our conscience, or genuinely fear its imminence, it will arouse us to a high level, and when it actually happens the gratification will be either perverse pleasure or a cathartic upheaval of our moral beliefs. In both cases, in a fictional context, we are able to enjoy evil, either openly, in defiance of morality, or secretly, knowing that we are on safe ground. Therefore, the evildoer and the moral sufferer, the dragon and its slayer, the devil and the martyr are inexhaustible sources of aesthetic pleasure, provided they stay in the realm of fiction and make us only gather our moral forces without compelling us to give the signal for attack.

Having said that much, one can only wonder why the aesthetics of evil has attracted so little attention from literary scholars. Peter André Alt, professor of German literature at the Free University of Berlin, whose president he became in 2009, is not the first to break this ground, but he is the one who did so most thoroughly, by harvesting from widely dispersed fields of scholarship and shaping his material into a compendium of breath-taking erudition. 160 of the 712 pages of his book are taken up by notes and a bibliography of intimidating scope and completeness. The main part of the book is divided in seven chapters, the titles of which give an idea of the range and philosophical depth of his study. Chapter One echoes Nietzsche’s book on the birth of tragedy in its title “Prelude in myth: The origin of evil from the spirit of literary fiction”. In this chapter, Alt starts from Genesis and moves on to discuss the biblical sources of Lucifer’s and Adam’s fall and the theological debate about evil from Augustine to Kierkegaard.

Chapter Two is entitled “Enlightenment and psychology: New arts of the devil”. It is here that Alt comes into his own, since the first half of the chapter deals with German authors such as Georg Friedrich Meier, Jean Paul, Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, while the second half gives a lucid discussion of Freud and Jung in the context of the early history of psychoanalysis. Chapter Three, “The Shift towards introspection: Evil as seen from the inside”, begins with ‘black poetics’ in Schlegel and Rosencrantz, goes on to the ‘archaeology of the evil soul’ in Schiller and Jean Paul, dedicates over 20 pages to Kleist’s “muddled circumstances and soiled concepts” and ends with a discussion of Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Stefan George und Thomas Mann under the heading “From imagination to de-differentiation”.

9/11 Attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City. (Image remixed and released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic; source: Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter Four bears the title “Repetition as the literary manifestion of evil”. In this chapter, what is commonly associated with black romanticism comes most prominently to the fore. The subtitles give an idea of the subject matter: “The myth of hell and the phantasma of eternal punishment (Blake, Barlach, Sartre, Mann)”, “The rhythm of the orgy (de Sade, Mirbeau, Suesskind)”, “Satanic masses (Huysman)” and “Monotony and aestheticism (Sacher-Masoch, Wilde)”. A second structural feature of evil is added in Chapter Five under the title “The aesthetic pleasure of transgression: Extreme figures and deviating behaviour”. Here, too, the subtitles provide a guideline through the chapter: “Androids and vampyres (Shelly, Bram Stoker)”, “Crime in the spirit of the perverse (Poe, Stevenson)”, “Criminological case-studies (Lombroso, Krafft-Ebing, Gross)”, “The poetry of madness (Przbyszewski, Heym, Benn)” and “An invented sex (Wedekind, Weininger, Ewers)”. In Chapter Six, “Snapshots of excess: On conjuring up the monstrous”, Alt zooms in on the very centre of transgression. The chapter begins with “The killing of God as a rhetorical feast (Nietzsche)”, then goes on to the concept of ‘Holy pornography’ by Bataille, Genet and Foucault, turns to Kafka and the little known German writer Robert Mueller (who seems to deserve a rediscovery) and ends with “Narrated war experiments of violence (Ernst Juenger, Malaparte)”. The final Chapter Seven, at last, raises the question the reader would have asked right at the beginning: “Moral implications of immoral literature”. Here, the theoretical discussion of the views of Baudrillard, Wolfgang Iser, Karl Heinz Bohrer and Niklas Luhmann frames a detailed analysis of two contemporary novels: Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillants and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

Dennis Oppenheim: 'Device to Root Out Evil', sculpture, Vancouver, Canada. (Image released under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License; source: Wikimedia Commons)

The summary of the contents gives the reader an idea of what Alt has to offer, but it also reveals what he fails to deliver. In theological, philosophical and psychoanalytical terms he has a firm grasp of his subject, even more so, of course, when it comes to the phenomenology of evil in art, since this is what his study is about. One cannot blame a book on the aesthetics of evil for excluding the ethical aspects, but ignoring the social dimension is a different matter. Evil is something the evildoer does to a victim. This is a social relation and, therefore, must be dealt with as a material aspect of evil irrespective of its ethical evaluation. The other conspicuous gap in Alt’s book – in fact, the missing link in his chain of argument – is the total absence of that period in European literature where evil for the first time literally took to the stage, i. e. Elizabethan and, more precisely, Jacobean drama. From Marlowe through Shakespeare to Webster, Tourneur and all the other writers of ‘sex and crime’ plays in the Jacobean age, evil became such a central driving force that one can hardly understand why Alt mentions Marlowe and Shakespeare only in passing and leaves the others unnoticed. From Adam’s Fall to the end of the Middle Ages, evil had been a question of sin, which presupposed a hierarchical relation between God and the devil. But with the early rise of a middle-class society in England the medieval hierarchy underwent a slow and steady process of horizontalization, which transformed the theological concept of sin into the social concept of crime. Henceforth, evil was no longer something the pious man looked down upon deep in hell, but something he was confronted with at eye-level. The Elisabethan and Jacobean age was the first literary period in which the villain achieved the status of a hero, though a negative one. (If further proof is needed for the eye-level view of evil in a ‘horizontalized’ society, think of the United States, a society that likes to think of itself as having overcome traditional hierarchies, yet which at the same time is the most obsessed with evil).

The omission of the Jacobean drama is the gravest flaw of Alt’s book. This flaw, however, does not come unexpected in a book whose ‘Introduction’ begins with a quotation from Hegel. Alt’s method resembles more that of medieval scholasticism than that of scientific scholarship. Instead of referring to observations grounded in empirical data, he defers to authority figures such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Benjamin, Foucault, Baudrillard and Luhmann. This will leave readers with a more bottom-up approach to literature irritated and frustrated. On the one hand, one cannot help admiring Alt’s erudition, his power of penetration and the often lucid analyses of literary works, on the other hand one waits in vain for answers to questions so obvious that one can hardly understand why they are not raised. First: How is the fictional experience of evil transformed into aesthetic pleasure? Second: Under what social conditions is the public most likely disposed to crave for such pleasure? and Third: Where is the dividing line between the aesthetic and the ethical that must not be transgressed? Only this last question is addressed by Alt, but it comes like an afterthought and not as a target aimed at from the beginning.

Although Alt starts from the myth of Adam and Eve and works his way up to the very real horrors of Auschwitz and beyond, the whole book lacks a sense of the gravity of social history. Furthermore, it shares with much of German literary scholarship an undeniable touch of national – or, to be more precise, Continental – parochialism. No one in his right mind would underrate the impact of the French Revolution nor that of Kant and Hegel on the intellectual tradition of Europe, but these names and events stand for the climax of a development that had begun much earlier – to a large extent in England. Alt, like most of his German colleagues, tends to give Schlegel more credit as an innovator than he deserves. Although he does not explicitly date the “Shift towards introspection” (Chapter Three) around 1800, he at the very least makes his readers think so. But the founding fathers of introspection and the psychological interest in literature were the English puritans of the 17th century. They triggered what, via Shaftesbury, Richardson, the sentimentalists and the Gothic novelists, eventually made its way to Germany. Readers well-versed in fact-free Theory may feel elated by Alt’s brilliant command of what is en vogue in contemporary German and French literary debate, but those who crave for empirical insight will feel somewhat disappointed – and may well conclude that a writer of such acumen should have produced more solid enlightenment and fewer sparkling lights.

Peter-André Alt: Ästhetik des Bösen
C.H. Beck, Munich 2010.
ISBN-13: 978-3406605031
Hardcover, 714 pages, EUR 34.00 

Hans-Dieter Gelfert was Professor of English Literature and Culture at the Free University of Berlin until 2000, and was described by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as ‘one of the most prolific and most widely read Anglicists in Germany’. His most recent book, a major new biography of Charles Dickens, is published this month by C.H. Beck (Munich).

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