Handfuls of Dust and Splinters of Bone
Note to readers: I wrote the bulk of this essay in 2010, and returned to it sporadically over the years since. I have spent the last week shaping it into publishable form, but I have scrupulously avoided updating it with examples from the Covid era. Why? Because I want to make it clear that despite the Orwellian dimensions of the Covid response, the phenomenon I describe far transcends that issue. “Evil” did not start in 2019.
Because this essay is around 12,000 words, I have divided it into six parts, which I will publish every two or three days. The first part has ideas I’ve written about a lot. Later sections where I go deep into Orwell’s thought will be new, especially regarding the revolutionary brotherhood. An unexpected light, a guiding light, is hidden in the depths of 1984.
Part 1: The Origin of “Evil”
Looking at the state of the planet today, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that evil is running the world. Everywhere, it seems, vast impersonal forces conspire to destroy all that is good and beautiful. Green spaces and living soil are paved over, made into parking lots and strip malls. Rain forests are cut down, fisheries exhausted, soil washed into the sea, wetlands drained, lakes polluted, the atmosphere poisoned, all to feed a money machine that serves no authentic human happiness. People disappear into secret prisons, walls and fences go up everywhere, indigenous tribes are forced off their land, coups depose leaders who would return power to the people. Wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, whole nations and peoples devote their productive lives to debt service. Every night a billion people go to bed hungry. And all of this happens through the actions of human beings. We cannot blame any agency external to ourselves.
Some people believe that it is not “vast, impersonal forces” that conspire to destroy life and beauty, but rather conscious, deliberate forces: an Illuminati, a Satanic cabal. When monstrous things happen everywhere, it is natural to conclude that some monstrous force is behind it all, manipulating social institutions toward evil ends. Elsewhere I have written about the truth and shortcomings of conspiracy theories. Here I will say just this: conspiracy theories give mythic form to an authentic perception that the world is in the grip of something inimical to life.
By “mythic form” I do not mean myth in the sense of fantasy. Just because something is mythical doesn't mean it isn't also real. More than conventional science can acknowledge, reality is a social, cultural, and psychic construct. In any event, whether or not there is a conscious conspiracy of evil, certainly there is an unconscious one. How else the fiendish orchestration of the pillage of nature, culture, and spirit? Perhaps the myth of an evil Illuminati and the shadow realities that surround that myth are the psychic clothing we put upon something that is very real, though abstract: the force of evil in this world. Even if there is “in reality” no dark cabal, if the world operates as if there were, then what's the difference? Is it not then necessary to fight the forces of evil with the forces of good?
Actually, no. The whole model of good versus evil is a myth as well, a story that partakes of some of the deepest and most damaging ideologies of our civilization. I could tell you that there are no “forces of darkness” or “forces of light,” but that would be less true than this paradox: In the great cosmic battle between evil and good, evil’s most powerful weapon is the idea of a great cosmic battle between evil and good.
I am communicating with paradox to preempt any simplistic misinterpretation of what I mean to say. For instance, I’m not saying “Evil doesn’t exist.” What I am pointing to is that by using these terms, we miss something crucial to understanding them. In this essay, I will attempt to unlock this paradox using what is arguably the clearest, most direct literary study of evil ever conceived: George Orwell’s 1984.
The idea that the world is a battleground between two opposing forces, Good and Evil, draws from two historical taproots, one shallower and one deeper. The shallow one dates back only as far as agricultural civilization. The battle of good versus evil replaced earlier cosmologies in which various polar forces were essential parts of an overall perfection, an organic harmony. For pre-agricultural cosmologists, the notion that good will one day triumph over evil would be as absurd as to hope that day will triumph over night, or summer over winter, or preservation over decay. It would be as absurd as for you or I to hope that one day, protons will triumph over electrons.
Absurd though it may seem, civilization has enacted this ambition in ruinous ways. The apparent triumph of man over woman, of reason over feeling, of human over nature, of mind over matter, of quantity over quality, and of science over spirit has left a hollow husk of a world. None of the victors can truly be themselves without their counterpart; ultimately, the vilified and defeated other includes ourselves.
Concepts of good and evil arose with agriculture, when humans began to expunge the weeds and the wolves, and to spread domesticity across the land. No longer were we part of the wild; separate from us, the wild became first a concept and then an enemy. Evil became associated with chaos, good with order. Accordingly, the idea of progress arose as well. It was the destiny of humankind to become lords and masters of nature, to subdue its cruelty with kindness, its chaos with predictability and security. In the last few centuries we have dreamed of completing this conquest: leaving nature behind altogether to ascend into space; transferring consciousness into a silicon matrix; subduing the cellular processes of death to live forever.
The second, deeper taproot of the division of the world into good and evil is the social dynamics of belonging and exclusion. Those who belong, whom society accepts and validates as full human beings and full members of society, are good. Those who fail to qualify, whether or not through any fault of their own, are evil. To quality, one must abide by the customs, respect the taboos, wear the garb, profess the opinions, and display the regalia that everyone accepts as correct. Certain taboos and morals are nearly universal across human societies (murder, close-family incest), but most are specific to a given culture.
One sign of the inextricable association of good and evil with belonging and exclusion is that any external enemy, whether a hostile tribe, a force of nature, a virus, or a foreign power, will always mirror an internal enemy: the traitor, the heretic, the fifth columnist, the sympathizer, the unpatriotic, and so on. In other words, the external enemy offers a way to divide one’s own society up into the good people and the bad people.
These two taproots draw from the same poisonous aquifer. We might call it “othering.”
Today we are in the midst of a deep transformation in human consciousness as we realize that this program of control, this campaign of conquest, has reached a limit. Despite a millenia-long war against it, evil still seems to crop up everywhere, irrepressible, in ever-mutating forms. The perfection of control is as distant as ever, despite technology that reaches to the genetic, molecular, and even subatomic level. Insecurity, illness, injustice, violence, and death are no less a part of life than they were ten thousand years ago. A million conveniences—heating and air conditioning, machines to do our labor, food at the touch of a button—promise limitless comfort, yet physical and psychological torment invade our safe spaces nonetheless. We have nearly won, it seems, the war against nature, only to find ourselves on the losing side.
The division of the world into good and evil has an interior dimension as well, in which the war against nature manifests as a war against the self. Reason or spirit opposes the “baser instincts”, the remnants of our animality, our wildness. The good person is one who successfully resists selfish desires, holding him or herself to an ethical or moral code, exercising self-control, exercising “party discipline.” Any lapse in this regime of control we see as a failure of character, passing judgment upon ourselves and others, casting them into the category of evil.
Whether in its interior or exterior manifestation, the War against Evil has left ruin in its wake. Human beings have committed unspeakable acts against other people, the planet, and themselves in the name of fighting evil. What politician, what dictator, hasn't considered himself to be on the side of good?
What side, for that matter, are you on? If there is indeed a cosmic battle between good and evil, and the time has come to register your support, which side are you on? The side of the shadow government, the reptilian aliens, the military-industrial plotters, the cabal of bankers despoiling the planet? Or are you on the side of the angels and the archangels, the ascended masters, the beings of light? You don't have to be a New Ager for me to pose this question to you. I could equally ask if you are on the side of the moral, or the immoral; the ethical or the unethical; the people who get it or those who don't; the side of justice or the side of white supremacy; the side of science or the side of superstition; the side of facts and reason, or the side of ignorance; the side of the believer or the side of the infidel; the side of freedom or the side of those who hate freedom. All of these are code-words for the same psycho-social split: good or evil, us or them.
The category of evil provides targets against whom we feel at liberty to direct our hate and rage. This hate and rage comes from a very real source, for indeed the system we live in is monstrous. Our hearts tell us that a more beautiful world is possible, and occasionally we experience a glimpse of it. Imagine, after a lifetime of Doritos, you eat a tortilla in a Mexican village made from freshly ground corn, and its deliciousness is beyond anything you ever knew existed. Have you ever had such an experience? That is the difference between the world we are used to, and the world that can be. It is quite natural to respond to its loss with rage. But because we don't really know what we have lost, nor can identify who or what has taken it, we turn to any substitute available. We do not understand how or why we find ourselves in a lesser world, but “evil” absolves us from understanding, for it is an elemental characteristic, a final explanation. “Hitler was just evil. Some people are just evil.” No explanation beyond that is necessary, or even possible, and no response is valid except to destroy the evil thing.
And then there is the uncomfortable suspicion, “Maybe I am just evil too.” Have you ever had that suspicion? Religious mystics are quite familiar with it. In Christianity it informs the Calvinistic doctrine of the Total Depravity of Man, a teaching that, once you immerse yourself in it, is quite compelling, quite inescapable. In Buddhism the same doctrine takes the shape of the humiliating realization of how much of one's life came from ego—even and especially one's attempts to transcend ego!
The question that faces us today, as we begin to succumb to exhaustion in the War against Nature, the War against the Self, and what Steiner called the War of Each against All, is how to create the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible. How, when we face a monstrous Machine, can we create its opposite, when to fight that Machine brings into the world only more fighting? We are tired of fighting. After five thousand years of crusading for good, we have around us a ruin, cheap and ugly, bloated excess alongside crying destitution, dying languages, dying cultures, dying forests, dying seas, dwindling insects, fish, and amphibians, radioactive waste, PCBs in every living cell, concrete scabs spreading across the soft earth. No normal person wants such a world. Thus we call it abnormal, incomprehensible, abominable, and grope for that final explanation for all that is wrong: evil.
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