A Good Look at Evil
Last Friday the galley proofs arrived for the new edition of my book, A Good Look at Evil. When the first edition came out, decades back, Temple University Press nominated it for a Pulitzer prize. Back then, since it didn’t get the award, I never realized that it counts as an honor to be nominated. But it’s probably why, once I forwarded the nomination letter to the current publisher, Wipf and Stock, they accepted the book for reprinting without further discussion. The second edition will include two new essays. One of them is the essay that – to my great surprise — created quite a stir when I read a shortened version this summer at the San Francisco Voegelin Society conference. The other new essay is quite different but also “outside the box.”
Both of the new chapters take the book’s thesis — that a good person’s life can be deciphered as a long, corrigible, nonfiction story, which an evil-doer will try cunningly and deliberately to mess up – and they show how that thesis applies to particular real-life cases.
Jerry (who is not given to flattery, not even to flattery of his spouse) thinks my new preface so persuasive that it should be sent to opinion-shapers for reactions.
I’m not against doing that, if he thinks it’s a good idea, but I can’t think who the opinion-shapers are, these days. I guess they’d be public intellectuals, people like the late Lionel Trilling or Susan Sontag, whose names everyone knew at one time. There were famous feminists, like Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, or the earlier Simone de Beauvoir who launched the feminist movement of the twentieth century. Where have all those stars-in-the-firmament-of-opinion gone?
Are there any opinion-shaping public intellectuals these days? Certainly it’s not as familiar a type as it once was. I can think of people whose opinions I value because their intellects are disciplined, their minds fine and their characters upright. But I can’t think of anyone whose intelligence and character have made themselves audible and visible in today’s static-saturated world!
It’s like spitting into the wind. We are exhausted in advance by the labor of keeping our own communicative life up-to-date. The questions having to do with its importance have trouble getting to the forefront of our consciousness.
Anyway, the galley proofs have arrived. In line with current practice, they’ve been sent as an attachment, for me to go through, looking for whatever needed corrections I can find. When it’s all good to go, and I have whatever endorsements can come in now, it goes to print. The cover designer gets to work.
I have to say that I’ve been reading through these galley proofs with mounting excitement. First, they look gorgeous. The content of the first edition has been fitted together handsomely with the new material of the second edition.
Second, I’ve now reread A Good Look at Evil, the first edition. It was my first book. It talks about “narrative” before anyone else that I know of did, if the term is applied to an individual’s life experience. By now, “narrative” is much talked of, but in the sense of something made up, not in the sense of something true.
The book also talks about evil in a way nobody has yet. It figures out how a Nazi thinks, in a way that anticipated the since-discovered transcripts of conversations that Adolf Eichmann, the man who implemented the Holocaust, had with his SS comrades in Argentina. When he could talk freely, not being on trial for his life, Eichmann did not pretend to be a nondescript bureaucrat who followed orders unthinkingly. Rather, he described himself as an impresario of mass murder and he was extremely proud to claim that feat.
In sum, A Good Look at Evil was ahead of its time when it first came out. And, so far as I can tell, it’s still ahead of its time. However, the thing that blows me away goes beyond the ahead-of-its-time factor. It also goes beyond the estimable quantity of research that went into some of the chapters — the ones on genocide, for example.
What blows me away is that I’m reading a book (mine, as it happens) by a very good philosopher! It’s original. It’s truly thoughtful. It’s philosophically literate. And it’s helpful, shedding light on the hard subject of good and evil as they are found in our actual lives!
How’d that happen? And how’d it escape my notice? I drew on it for all the work I did subsequently, but only noticed it in a glancing way. That I never paused to take it in, full on, is not exactly an accident. Nor is it entirely the effect of feminine self-erasure. What then explains it?
To know that one is x, one has to work on the project of being x. I would’ve had to stake out my opinions on the map of current opinions, doing it publicly and often. This involves reading the current stuff already occupying the territory. I would have had to show up in person to explain why other respected colleagues are not as right as I am. I would’ve had to read all their articles and books as fast as they came out in order to make known my partial agreements and partial disagreements with what the late writer Norman Mailer used to call “the talent in the room.”
Would I have been able to do that? Oh, I think so. If I was capable of writing A Good Look at Evil, I must surely have been able to do what had to be done to get known for the book – known by others and known by me.
So why didn’t I? The short answer is,
I didn’t want to.
I had real unknowns to confront, new territory to cross, tasks that belonged to my evolvement in my time.
I had my own life story to pursue.