It has been said that one of the most effective means by which evil can have its way is to convince us that we are too abominable to love. It’s not a bad tactic. When our faults are catalogued back to us, the inventory is hair-raising and earth-shattering.
This is one of the methods attributed to demons, unsurprisingly; they shock the conscious self through the exposition of things it knows but won’t look at, has suspected but never acknowledged. This takes the self to a place from which it is loath to return. Amazed at the true level of its depravity, it exacts a self-imposed exile and seeks its own annihilation.
And yet, for all of the destructiveness wrought by the demonic motive, there is something searching about it as well—a hunger perversely akin to the longing of those who seek a better end. Evil desires its level, but can only destroy it in the attainment. A famous literary work supplies the example.
In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the governess at a remote country estate—whose debatable sanity is the pivot point of the story—is convinced that her two young wards are beset by devils. The damned souls of the governess’s predecessor and her lover are stalking the children, at least as far as the protagonist is concerned. When the governess confesses her fears aloud, the incredulous housekeeper asks why the ghosts would want the children:
“To have them share their torments,” replies the governess.
In this reply lies the thrust of evil’s objective, which is the converse of love’s—to share bliss and joy. Evil wants company, as everything seeks a reflection of itself. It seems that the sharing of a reality is part of the sentient makeup, part of what the created being—even in its phantasmagoric state—most desires.
To impart, to divide what is and to give what is had—such is the longing of even the doomed; to have something else experiencing the same as that which is being experienced, in any form—even misery—is inseparable from the nature of any being, regardless of its condition. It may well be that the search for what is missing in us is the aspect of our souls that we know best, but to share what is possessed is an equal part, though less seldom noted. It follows that the great loneliness is what both the blessed and the lost most seek to avoid. Only the blessed can do so.
Because evil, though it can gain coevals by means of its work, cannot gain companionship the way that love can. The damned clutch and pull others off of the cliff, into the depths, but falling and dying are done alone—no one falling or dying feels himself a part of anything but himself, even if he were to do so alongside a host of others in an eternal collapse.
Evil can make its perfect twin, loss, as there is no variety in depletion, in absence and waste, but it cannot avoid the consequential desolation that comes from what it shares. There is only variety in creation, in the presence and fruitfulness from the union of love.
It also follows that the symbolic representation of evil is not a presence, but an absence, not a number, but a cypher. If love is X, then hate is not Y, but the absence of X, or “___” (even the “___” is inappropriate except insofar as it is meant as a representation of nothing).
Evil is as real as the faceless, formlessness of a famine that destroys as surely as do bullets and blades, but cannot be touched as they can. Indeed, the evil that bullets and blades do is not in their materiality of metal and steel; their objective manifestations are as neutral as water. Their evil lies in the use to which they are put—a use that is in turn as faceless and formless as the aforementioned famine.
Evil is the sucking vacuum, the hollow, sideless maw that swallows but is never filled. It seeks with the pull of hunger—the same fevered longing that we attribute to love.
But while evil would share its hunger and destroy in its bestowal, love shares and inspirits by the transmission. And what we have found remarkable about love, for lo these two thousand some odd years, is that though we may be every bit as abominable as evil describes us to be—love has no taste. Love spends freely, buys profligately; love wastes itself upon the wretched; all they must do is be open to the gift.
Image above is The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Füssli, Oil on Canvas, 1781. Image is public domain, licensed by Wikimedia Commons.
A. G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.