One winter day in the mid-fifties, a group of us fourth-grade boys
gathered during lunchbreak at the brick wall at the far end of the
schoolyard, a place far from the teacher monitors who, with hands
in coat pockets and cigarettes in lips, were scanning the swirling
games for evidence of trouble. Joined in a rough huddle, we passed
a photograph from hand to hand. It showed Adolph Hitler and a group
of German officers. The Fuhrer was smiling, and the soldiers were
smiling, and everyone was dressed in uniforms and caps. The curious
and wonderful thing, though, was that while the soldiers stood in
polished boots, the Fuhrer did not, and one could therefore see
that in fact he did not have feet but cloven hooves. The story told
by the boy who had brought the photo to school (claiming to have
found it in a drawer in his father's desk) was that Hitler was asleep
when word of a great victory reached him, and he leapt from bed
and rushed out to celebrate with his colleagues, forgetting to put
on the jackboots that he used, under normal circumstances, to conceal
his true genus.
For those of us gathered at the wall, the evidence before our eyes,
and the import of that evidence, seemed reasonable, salutary, even
comforting. Like most well-raised and well-protected children, we
were confirmed dualists: good and evil were the opposing powers
that made life intelligible, whether in Yankee Stadium, in the war
with International Communism, or in the Hopalong Cassidy shorts
that opened children's matinees at the neighborhood movie palace.
That Hitler was Satan, and not human, made perfect sense given what
we knew of his desires and bloody accomplishments--made more sense,
in fact, than anything we had been taught, or might have overheard
or imagined on our own (or, frankly, would later learn).
I'm not sure when my personal fling with dualism ended, but the
letdown seems to have been gradual, as happens in most cases, and
it was certainly complete by 1961, when Adolf Eichmann--spectacled,
sallow, diffident, the kid who gets picked last for dodgeball--went
on trial in Jerusalem for carrying out Hitler's plan to have Europe's
Jews killed as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I was a teenager
then, and so I knew the world for what it was: a road accident,
a folly, a joke that wasn't funny enough; and I knew as well what
Eichmann's feet were like. They were yellow-white and clean, like
wax on an old candle, with faint traceries of red and blue blood
vessels alongside the slim, girlish ankles; with arches that ached
after a post-dinner walk or a trolley ride on which Herr Eichmann
was obliged to stand because he had given his seat to an elderly
woman. The toes were rather small, and somewhat mashed by their
years in pointy-toed boots and narrow shoes. The toenails were clipped
straight across and close, probably once a week, following a warm
Primo Levi, who had the misfortune to become one of the 20th century's
most accomplished students of evil, once noted that it was self-conscious
artistry that distinguished the real thing from all its wannabe
cousins--like stupid brutality or crude barbarism. "Arbeit
macht frei," over the entry gate to Auschwitz, was the
sprightly touch of evil, as was the inmate orchestra that played
Mozart while the doomed were invited down from their railroad cars.
In more recent years, Levi's standards were nicely met by the Serbs
who paraded naked Serb women before naked Bosnian male prisoners
and then dismembered the Bosnians who showed the slightest natural
physical response. And biblically, the Serpent's use of Eve as a
way to bring Adam to sin against God and at the same time place
a chasm forever between man and woman certainly makes the grade.
I was mugged once, kidnapped once, and once knew a sadist. But I
am no expert on evil. Further, I confess to finding it dull, inert,
platitudinous matter, like Eichmann's feet. Auden, in my view, got
it disdainfully right in "September 1, 1939": "I and the public
know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done
/ Do evil in return." The accounting couldn't be simpler. The airplane
aimed at the office lounge? The pension plan laid bankrupt? The
bomb in the rented truck beside the day care center? Not a problem.
You may need to check back a few years, but somewhere on a balance
sheet or in an auditor's note you'll find the entry that seems to
equalize the books: a pinched childhood, an unjust treaty, a dog-toothed
god who sends signals.
I know very well what theologians say about the mystery of evil.
For me, however, goodness, not evil, is the mystery. What complex
logarithm could allow us to predict the trajectories of the WTC
stair climbers, or of those who stayed behind with frightened colleagues?
Or of those who called the answering machine at home to swear unregretting
love from the edge of eternity, or of those who backed away from
crowded elevators, saying, "No, you first. Please"?
Our story on the art of evil, conceived long before September 11
but perturbed, like so much else, by the events of that day, begins
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