The previous installment in this ‘About Evil’ series noted how Maximilien Aue, the narrator of Littell’s The Kindly Ones, managed to deny that Untersturmführer Döll was properly to be regarded as evil, despite his participation in exterminations as a guard at an extermination camp and despite the nonchalance Döll exhibits with his complete lack of concern for the “[l]ittle men and little women” of the camp who were there to be crushed “like stepping on a cockroach.” Aue insists that Döll was not evil by virtue of the simple fact that he cared for and was good “to those close to him”, and Aue goes even further to insist that Döll is respectable precisely because he is indifferent to all people who are not close to his heart.
It was also noted previously that the character Ikonnikov in Grossman’s Life and Fate stands in the starkest contrast to Döll inasmuch as Ikonnikov not only insists that he is free to refuse to contribute to the very same extermination in which Döll takes part, Ikonnikov also actually does refuse to participate and loses his life as a result.
But, here it is worth noting that Ikonnikov never resorts to – indeed, never even seems inclined towards – indicting as evil those who continue to contribute knowingly to the extermination program or even those who are in no way moved by the fact of that very evil.
For Ikonnikov, the evil which he has encountered is real, and it is indubitably evil. But, Ikonnikov is not interested in being able to identify or define evil. Rather, he is far more interested in what it is for something or someone to be “good”:
Few people ever attempt to define ‘good’. What is ‘good’? ‘Good’ for whom? Is there a common good – the same for all people, all tribes, all conditions of life? Or is my good your evil? Is what is good for my people evil for your people? Is good eternal and constant? Or is yesterday’s good today’s vice, yesterday’s evil today’s good? [p. 404]
It is as if his opening remarks are intentionally put forth in the most commonplace and uninsightful manner possible – that manner which best captures the limited extent to which most people concern themselves with goodness, regardless of whether they are well educated or not and regardless of whether they are well read or not. Rather than indicting as evil those who participate with evil, Ikonnikov seems far more interested in indicting people for the manners in which they think about good:
Many books have been written about the nature of good and evil and the struggle between them …
‘In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.’
What does a woman who has lost her children care about a philosopher’s definitions of good and evil? [p. 406]
Good is to be found neither in the sermons of religious teachers and prophets, nor in the teachings of sociologists and popular leaders, nor in the ethical systems of philosophers … [p. 407]
Despite his having claimed to no longer believe in the reality of God, Ikonnikov calls upon religious language as the most forceful way of expressing not only the utter reality of evil but also the reality of good:
When the Last Judgment approaches, not only philosophers and preachers, but everyone on earth – literate and illiterate – will ponder the nature of good and evil. [p. 404]
Ikonnikov then sets about to give some content to – some basis for – the form of those most common notions of good, the sorts of “good” with which he began his “scribblings” on those “dirty sheets of paper”.
I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages die of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every other city in Russia – men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble – yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers.
Now the horror of German Fascism has arisen. The air is full of the groans and cries of the condemned. The sky has turned black; the sun has been extinguished by the smoke of the gas ovens. And even these crimes … have been committed in the name of good. … Is it that life itself is evil? [pp. 406-407]
And then Ikonnikov sets about to obliterate the most common notions of good, including that hopeless variety which would have it that good is a fantasy to be abandoned upon the acceptance of the notion that reality itself is evil, by pointing to something commonly disregarded as insignificant when not outright senseless.
Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital ‘G’, there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother.
The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we would call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.
… this private, senseless, incidental kindness … is extended to everything living, even to a mouse, even to a bent branch that a man straightens as he walks by.
Even at the most terrible times, through all the mad acts carried out in the name of Universal Good and the glory of States, times when people were tossed about like branches in the wind, filling ditches and gullies like stones in an avalanche – even then this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atoms of radium. …
This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil!
This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind … It remains potent only while it is dumb and senseless, hidden in the living darkness of the human heart – before it becomes a tool or commodity … before its crude ore is forged into the gilt coins of holiness. [pp. 407-409]
The instinctiveness of this kindness – this good – as well as its strictly personal and hidden potency would seem to render it eternally alien to philosophical analysis and speculation. But, such is not actually the case. So long as it is realized that the good is not something which should suit philosophical purposes but that it is, instead, something to be served by philosophy, then and only then is philosophy qualified to address the nature of this good.
This, then, brings us back to the question of whether someone such as Untersturmführer Döll is evil if, or when, what has been described as “instinctive” kindness or goodness is absent from his person or acts. Also related to this matter is the question of whether anything can be done to foster or engender such an instinct. Then again, there is the matter of whether “instinct” is the best ultimate description for the kindness which Ikonnikov so closely associates with good.
To be continued …