The problem of evil is always with us, yet for most of us it is a problem only in theory. Evil is what happens to others, and those responsible for it are somehow never the people we know. We are assured that in the right—that is, the wrong, the catastrophically wrong—circumstances our neighbors will turn into a mob, most likely with us among them. But in our hearts we cannot quite believe it. What circumstances, we ask ourselves, would compel the Smiths and the Joneses to take to the streets with burning brands, baying for the blood of the innocent? And what social disaster, however terrible, would drive us to join them? All the same, it happens; history reverberates with the roars of the mob and the cries of its victims.
Evil does not have to be a public event, and works most insidiously in private. Nor does it always involve blood and burnings. Henry James, an artist with the most acute ear for the nuances of wickedness, takes us into the darkest depths of the human heart: think of that moment in The Portrait of a Lady when we realize what Madame Merle has been up to all along, and how she has sacrificed everything, even her daughter, to her thwarted love for the devilish Gilbert Osmond. And when T.S. Eliot in The Family Reunion unleashes the Furies in Lady Monchensey’s drawing room it is to show us not the barbarousness of ancient Greece but the savagery at the heart of modern civilization.
Religions account for evil by personifying it as the work of this or that kind of devil. The Prince of Darkness invades the lightsome souls of men and makes them mad. Or perhaps, in a subtler formulation, the Devil resides in us, or is ourselves. As Emerson has it, a man is a god in ruins, and what, one asks, should a ruined god naturally do but evil? The English novelist Hilary Mantel had, according to her own account, a moment of Jamesian vastation, at the age of seven, in the back garden of her mother’s house. Playing there, she catches sight, if that is the word, of something in the long grass, “the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air.”
There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. I can sense—at the periphery, the limit of all my senses—the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking; as if pinned to the moment, I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing. It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away …