Literary Hub

How Do We Write About Evil?

Ece Temelkuran: Your new novel Hannah Versus the Tree is related to the concept of evil, so I was thinking of starting the conversation with there and talking about whether visiting evil through literature leaves a contaminating mark on the writer or the reader. Evil is a central issue in my book How To Lose A Country too. Considering that today that evil is circulated and multiplied like it has never been in human history, are we caught in a trap that makes evil more visible, significant and powerful than it actually is? I do believe that our perception of evil has dramatically changed in the last decades.

Leland de la Durantaye: Evil seems like a lovely, or perhaps I should say natural place to begin. A first question is, of course, whether evil is real, whether it exists, and, if so, whether it is of this world or transcends it. Which is to say whether we believe evil to exist in some substantial sense, or whether it is simply our name for the extreme limit of our understanding, that we draw a line and exile all incomprehensible action to its far side, branding it “evil” as a way of not thinking about it anymore. Is evil as Aquinas describes it, merely a privation? Is evil like dust gathering in the corners of things? Whatever the answer to those questions, my first book, Style is Matter, is about the problem of evil, in Eichmann, in Lolita, in art. As for my new novel, I’m less sure. There are indeed evil actions in it. There is a very brief but very intense glimpse into the animal heart of evil. But the bulk of the book is about something quite close to, but distinct from, evil, which is a response to evil: vengeance.

There is a line from Nabokov’s Pnin, “Harm is the norm.” If harm is the norm, if evil is the norm, it is not really evil, it is just the norm, it is what is normal here. The events you so brilliantly chronicle in modern Turkish history are at once evil and the norm. If the norm in response to violence and oppression is to tolerate it, to forget it, to shake one’s head and say, yes, that is terrible, but, as you say in the beautiful opening to Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy,  “this is Turkey.” Yes, it’s incredible, even incredibly terrible, but it’s life, it’s Turkey. Turkish history should not have unfolded as it did. The Armenian genocide should not have taken place. The coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, with their thousands upon thousands of victims, should not have taken place. But that’s Turkey. Which is not to say that there is anything special, or especially evil, about Turkey. What country’s history is more grisly than my own? The point is whether it is the global norm, the human norm. Can the world get better? Can it get better through art? Which returns us to the question of evil. Should the novel—should, say, your Mute Swans or Women Who Blow On Knots—present the norm or its exception, or some third thing?

In Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy you write that “Fascism spreads out over time. It does this by creating a hesitation reminiscent of hypothermia-induced sleep…It is the great illusionist of our times. It has the ability to make the bad look like the good.” Is fascism, as you describe it, another name for evil? You also write that “fascism doesn’t kill people from the outset; it transforms them,” and you talk about fascism as a kind of sickness. “World history has shown us that when the character of humanity is in enough disarray, entire societies can fall ill and take to their beds, never to get up again.” In this sense, is evil disarray, disorganization, atomization? Is there a point at which a culture becomes inoperable? Its illnesses incurable?

ET: On the contrary all you say here seems to me very much connected, even intertwined. And probably what I am about to tell you will be equally inextricably tangled. When I said that Hannah Versus The Tree is in fact about evil, as a matter of fact I was referring to vengeance whereas you seem to separate vengeance from evil and describe it as a response to the evil. Can the response to evil really be stripped of evil? Can we really design a responsive act against evil that is all good, both in its nature and its act? How wondrous that would be! Also it would certainly be an eternal remedy for our times as well. Yes, by the way, I describe fascism—when stripped off of its historical and social backdrop, and yes, in certain cases it can be—radical evil. But let me get more personal here—and therefore more literary. My two responses to evil have been road and writing, which has been inseparable since my teenage years. To go is to write and to write is to go, and most of the time going means leaving. This is how I respond to harmful act committed on me; I leave the venue behind to reinvent myself and the healing word.

To go is to write and to write is to go, and most of the time going means leaving. This is how I respond to harmful act committed on me; I leave the venue behind to reinvent myself and the healing word.

Literature might be even the side product of this process for me. This is hardly a form of power, rather it is—my favorite word in your language—resilience. Women Who Blow On Knots is a book about vengeance but at the end of the story it is not clear if the vengeance is fulfilled. Why didn’t Hannah in your novel leave? Why didn’t she choose to gracefully lick her wounds somewhere else to finally become someone else, a more mature soul? Away from the maddening banality of evil… Would you leave?

In regards to the name Hannah in Hannah Versus the Tree. Is the choice of the name totally irrelevant to Hannah Arendt? Knowing that you studied evil and therefore naturally Hannah Arendt, the choice of the character’s name doesn’t strike me as accidental. Arendt, not only as a political thinker but also and maybe more as a person, has been a curiosity to me especially after I left my country in 2016 and while writing How To Lose A Country. My Hannah, or our Hannah for that matter, has left the venue of the harmful act. Can you imagine Hannah Arendt not leaving Germany? Let’s say she managed to hide from the Nazis for a second. What would her writing be? What would her vengeance be like?

LD: You’re perfectly right to ask whether avenging a wrong is not really a continuation of it, just as you are right to ask whether a vengeful response to evil can escape evil, can stand apart from it, whether we can, as you say, “really design a responsive act against evil that is all good, both in its nature and its act.” And you are right to add, “How wondrous that would be!” Indeed it would be. And perhaps it is merely a fairly tale, merely a mythic notion, or even a messianic one. For there seems to be for many a messianic dream of violence, the dream of a violence that would interrupt the continuum of injustice, that would end it without partaking of it. But that’s hard to imagine.

What is easier to imagine is a wholly justified violence, something that we often see in art. Iago deserves his cage. More often in art we see violence that is justified, but only from a single side. Is Clytemnestra not justified in killing Agamemnon, he who sacrificed her daughter for wind? Is Orestes not justified in killing Clytemnestra, she who killed his father? And so on. What is truly horrible, on the Greek stage or elsewhere, is violence like that of Oedipus, a violence no one could deserve. Which brings us, in a way, to the question of radical evil you raise in your writings and in your question.

One way to approach the matter is to say that nothing is either inherently good or inherently evil, in which case there could be no radical evil. Radical evil would just be the name for whatever we cannot abide. But the matter is not so simple. When Kant asks about radical evil he is asking it in a literal sense: is evil rooted deep down in things, in the world, in mankind, in societies, somewhere, everywhere? But Hannah Arendt uses the phrase in a very different sense. For her, radical means not ‘rooted’ (radix), but profound, abysmally profound. As she wrote in a journal in 1950, “radical evil is that which should never have happened, which is to say, that which one can never make one’s peace with.” To this she adds a precision: that it is “also that which one must not pass over in silence.” For me, that resonates strongly with your writing, with your analyses and depictions, fictional and non-fictional, of Turkey.

You write very beautifully of the banality of evil and the evil of banality (as you call it), and quite naturally ask whether Hannah Arendt has anything to do with my Hannah. The answer is no. I’ve read Arendt’s books and letters and journals and am fascinated by her, but she was not a conscious influence. But you also ask whether my Hannah should not have walked away, and were she real, the answer would doubtless be yes. But one response to violence is, of course, violence, and that is Hannah’s response, albeit violence of an unusual sort. The question then is whether an act of violence could break a chain of violence. Perhaps violence is monolingual, perhaps violence only really speaks violence, and so if you want violence to stop, don’t speak to it in peace, love, and forgiveness. Speak to it in violence. That is certainly how my Hannah thinks at times. She is very young.

ET: My response to the question of how we should feel about immense evil is: are we obliged to feel? Coming from a country where emotional world is intentionally terrorized by the political power—yes, as you said I do think that in today’s world Arendt’s “banality of evil” is transformed into “evil of banality”—I reject to feel. The evil of banality does not deserve my feelings and it can and should only be met by my capacity of critical thinking, cold logic. This is my way of resisting against the intentional evil of the political act; to deprive the power from my emotional response. I observe excessive emotional response towards the political power in today’s world. To give an example, among the critics of Trump, being shocked or appalled and voicing these emotions repeatedly exhausts the intellectual capacity of Americans as Erdogan’s acts exhausted Turkish opposition once. All these emotions add up to, or become, a certain speechlessness of the human mind. More dangerous is the fact that all these emotions and their repeated expressions start to pass as opposition. I’d like to believe that we can do more than this.

The evil of banality does not deserve my feelings and it can and should only be met by my capacity of critical thinking, cold logic. This is my way of resisting against the intentional evil of the political act; to deprive the power from my emotional response.

You say “so if you want violence to stop, don’t speak to it in peace, love, and forgiveness. Speak to it in violence.”

I have to disagree as a moral duty. And as a human capable of critical thinking who happens to be a writer, I am obliged to think of a better way. Not that there is certainly a better way to deal with evil, but because by being a writer I have already undertaken a certain responsibility to offer a more humane and more intelligent way. Writing is a form of human existence if you ask me, and it is the most ambitious form which the claim of inventing or reinventing the good is immanent. And we are somehow responsible of the acts of our characters. I guess sometimes I am better a moralist then I am a novelist. That is why maybe when I was fictionalizing the political insanity of Turkey while writing The Time Of Mute Swans I had to invent ways to overcome the idea of evil. Alas, I couldn’t do it better then William Golding did in Lord of The Flies. Maybe mine is a claim in vain. Maybe literature, I mean good literature, in fact is incapable of inventing more intelligent ways for the good to prevail over the radical evil. But literature is as young as Hannah so both of them have still time to know better.

When writing about violence and evil I don’t enjoy the act of writing. I in fact feel tainted so much so that while writing How To Lose A Country last year I felt the urge to heal myself with joyful writing. So I wrote another book on the side, The Encyclopedia of Non-Existent Birds. Every morning I woke up and imagined a bird. Then I wrote Mongolian folk songs, rules for ancient Chinese wrestling, Scandinavian jokes, Russian tales supposedly inspired by these birds. I wrote the book to keep my faith in beauty and protect the idea that the beauty can overcome banality and evil. The book was published in Turkish so unfortunately I cannot send it to you to heal the wounds that I opened with the records of evil that I kept. Sorry about that.

LD: For the reasons you so beautifully describe, politics is exhausting by design, especially at present. Refusing then seems a valid response. Like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who would really prefer not to. But sometimes one cannot help but care and that indeed can create a tremendous resentment in the individual.

In regards to violence which could end violence, however, I misspoke, and meant something a little different. I don’t think that there exists, that there could exist, a violence to end all violence, a vengeance to close a cycle of vendetta. War breeds war. But my characters don’t feel the same as I. Not exactly. Hannah is aware of the moral imperative. And she considers it, as does her accomplice. But they choose vengeance. And are happy in it.

I can’t wait to read The Encyclopedia of Non-Existent Birds. Beautiful title, beautiful notion. I have written about certain philosophical matters that were slightly tedious to me, but beyond that I have always really enjoyed the act of writing. What is more, my violence is really very imaginary, whereas yours is really very real. I don’t know if I could know how to manage that strain. I doubt I’ll ever know. I admire you for it.

Leland de la Durantaye is a critic, translator, and professor. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a professor of comparative literature at the Claremont Colleges. His journalism and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, Artforum, The Believer, Cabinet, and others. Hannah Versus The Tree (McSweeney’s ) is his first novel.

Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist, novelist, and political commentator. She writes regularly for The Guardian and is the author of numerous books, including Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, Women Who Blow On Knots and The Time of Mute Swans. Her next book, How to Lose a Country: the Seven Warning Signs of Rising Populism, will be published by HarperCollins in February 2019.

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