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Evil by choice
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photograph by Arthur tress


BY NATHAN ENGLANDER

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ARTHUR TRESS

We've been asked to respond to evil in our fiction, and unlike the other authors, I have my whole body of work right here. [Laughter] I was raised very, very religious and now I'm very, very not religious, and I guess I was left with a superstitious belief in evil. Basically I'm an atheist with a real fear of divine retribution on this earth.

I could probably say a lot more about evil in writers than evil in writing. But in fiction, I don't really think there's room for a pure evil. I looked at my own book, which has a story set under Stalin, whom I softened, and a story centered on Hitler, whom I made a ghost Hitler. I'm more interested in evil as a force. For me, the interest lies in how people function under it--how a group of Jews live under Nazism, a group of writers under Stalin.

Similarly, in the books I love, when a pure evil is present it's almost always a condition under which the characters live, an umbrella evil. If I can anthropomorphize a bit and give a plague evil intent, then Camus' The Plague is an example. Or Kafka's The Trial. When I think of evil, injustice comes to mind.

I'm going to read you a midrash this evening, a story based on a line in the Bible. So I went back to the Old Testament, to Pharaoh and the 10 plagues, one of my favorite biblical stories. Pharoah is an evil character, ruthless, a slayer of children, but if he was purely evil, the narrative would be of no interest. You wouldn't need 10 plagues, you'd need one plague. If you've got a purely evil character, stick a knife in his eye and it's done. It's justified. If you look at the Bible as literature, then I think this is why, before the plagues, God says to Moses, "Va'ani aksheh et lev paroh," "And I will harden Pharoah's heart." If Pharoah had hardened his own heart, there would be no story. We are presented with someone who does evil things, but in the end there's this very clear line where God says, I am going to harden Pharoah's heart. In this case of an extreme evil, it's God that does the hardening. The Old Testament presents us with shades of gray, forces us to empathize.

I guess most of you probably know that at a Jewish wedding ceremony the groom breaks a glass under his foot. One of the things it represents is the destruction of Jerusalem, the fall of the Temple. Even under the huppah, under the wedding canopy, we don't allow for a pure joy.

In that same vein, on Passover, when we celebrate the exodus, the Jewish liturgy also recognizes the tragedy that took place for Egypt, for the oppressors. We say the Hallel prayer--a prayer of joy--on Jewish festivals. But on Passover we say a half-Hallel because we remember the Egyptians who died during the Israelite's redemption and therefore can't wholly rejoice. I thought back to the black-and-white world that I grew up in. The clergy, the teachers, may present a black-and-white world, may present a pure evil and pure good. But the books, the religions themselves, aren't that way.

Now I'm going to read you a midrash I've written. It's called "Clearing God's Name."



God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed. – Genesis 2:8

There is a common misconception about the order of things. When the Earth was tohubohu, and Up did not have the slightest inclination to separate from Down, and Wet did not intend to give way to Dry, God looked Earthward with Adam at His side.

"I will send you to that place," said God.

"I don't want to go," Adam told Him.

God began to lift the sky from under the sea. The roiling mass tried to hold its formlessness, earth clinging to the hand of God, trailing up toward the sky until it could go no further, the mountains born from failure.

"I will not go," insisted Adam.

God laughed. It was only the start, a gessoing of the canvas. With a giant spoon of stone, God scooped out the oceans, scraped out the lakes, and, as if considering a half-eaten slice of custard pie, turned the spoon over and scratched out all the rivers of the world. Adam was not impressed.

For Adam, He added color to the fish in the sea, placed billy goats on rocky ledges, and added to the ibex a second horn. Still Adam refused to descend. Eternity piled onto itself as the discussion continued, as God, laughing all the while, spruced up His little world. He hung fruit from the trees, hid milk inside coconuts and the udders of cows, turned some bees into hummingbirds and half the mice into bats. Still Adam would not go down.

God put lightning in the clouds, then thunder to chase after it. He taught the chameleons to hide and hinged the armadillo's once-solid shell. All this was for His own entertainment as much as Adam's; He knew what offer must be made.

"Keep your stubbornness. You can go about your business without any interference."

"I will go, then," said Adam.

God placed Adam on Earth, his body atop a hillock, his weight flattening the long virgin grass, the air around him at its sweetest, simply for never having been breathed by man before.

But Adam would not awaken.

God, that one and only time, came down to Earth. He sat on the right side of Adam at the top of that hill and whispered into his ear, entreated him, most politely, to come alive.

"There will be ostriches," He said, "and ospreys, and aardvarks, and sun-showers." A warm rain began and the new animals, unafraid, sniffed the feet of the body not dead but not born to life. God started the flowers pollinating and put a moon in the sky that would, throughout time, occasionally eclipse the sun. He made it so stars were not eternal, He sent meteors flying, started the sun spinning, and gave all the birds teeth. Looking up at the sky, God decided against the last two. He stopped the sun in its place and took the teeth from the mouths of the birds and gave them to the fish who were already blessed with brilliant color. The birds became jealous, and God gave them feathers without a second thought. He was most concerned with man.

Finally, He said, "There will be Eve." He fashioned her right there on the hill and placed her at Adam's left side. She waited in a most peaceful fashion to be woken into the world.

Obstinate and unalive, Adam offered no welcome, no commentary on the weather or the pleasant sensation of resting in the sharp, cool grass.

Adam had become shrewd at God's side. He had learned that dawn and dusk threw the same shadows, though they fell on opposite sides of the tree. He had learned, also, that Good and Evil were a single force--just as rain, if God deems it, will flood the bounty it creates. It was only in His image--with a sin for every kindness, a decision in every deed--that Adam was willing to walk the land. But God, so in love with His new Earth and His man and His woman, and excited, like any father, for all the joy to come, did not want to see pain in the eyes of His children. He did not want to hear the endless crying as night moved in a circle around the globe.

He was only trying to protect them.

"Fine," He said, reluctantly. "Fine, Adam. What is freedom without choice? You may have it." God pressed His lips against Adam's ear, to whisper into it the last of the gifts. "There will be Evil, Adam. You may have Evil as well as Good."

And Adam knew this to mean that he was free, a god himself, a maker of choices, that the future was no longer closed. Adam opened an eye and rolled over toward Eve, placed a hand on her shoulder to wake her, a kiss on that shoulder to welcome her to life, his head light, still dizzy with that first long breath.

God, then, went back, forever, to Heaven.

I only tell you this to set the story straight, out of fairness to God. For it is time that the misconception was corrected, that God's name was finally cleared of guilt.

In the beginning, on a hill, it was man who first turned his back on the Lord.

Nathan Englander's short stories have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. His first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was published in 1999. Englander received the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction in 2000, the same year his "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" was named an O. Henry Prize winner. "Clearing God's Name" is reprinted by permission of Aragi, Inc.


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