How do you represent evil in literature, art or film? Is it possible to get beyond the surface effects of evil to the malevolent heart, where choices are made and the fundamental moral drama is played out?
I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. (No, I haven’t seen the film yet – I was desperate to read the novel before seeing the film, so I’d come at it fresh and without knowing the ending.) It’s meant to be a study of evil, in the person of Pinkie, the teenage protagonist - but I’m not sure it works. [Minor plot spoilers follow]
He certainly does some terrible things, but he comes across to me more like a trapped animal than a moral agent. He’s heartless, he knows he’s doing wrong, but he doesn’t really know what the moral alternatives are as practical possibilities. He’s a bully, living off the strategies he learnt in the school playground. He’s constantly reacting, often with much cunning and forethought, but only once or twice does an almost metaphysical abyss open up before him, and the feint possibility of freedom become a reality.
This is from J.M. Coetzee’s introduction to the Vintage edition:
[In the person of Ida Arnold Greene creates] a stout ideological antagonist to the Catholic axis of Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie and Rose believe in Good and Evil; Ida believes in more down-to-earth Right and Wrong, in law and order, though with a bit of fun on the side. Pinkie and Rose believe in salvation and damnation, particularly the latter; in Ida the religious impulse is tamed, trivialised, and confined to the ouija board.
In the scenes in which Ida, full of motherly concern, tries to wean Rose away from her demonic lover, we see the rudiments of two world-views, the one eschatological, the other secular and materialist, uncomprehendingly confronting each other…
Rose’s faith in her lover never wavers. To the end she identifies Ida, not Pinkie, as the subtle seducer, the evil one. ‘She ought to be damned… She doesn’t know about love.’ If the worst comes to the worst, she would rather suffer in hell with Pinkie than be saved with Ida.
This last point is the most interesting aspect of the book: how love (however ambiguous) might bring you to want to be with someone in the depths of hell, rather than deny that love and lose them. But, in hell, wouldn’t you lose each other too? And are you really doing someone a favour by joining them on that road? Rose is worried that by choosing something ‘right’ (in Ida’s terms) it would be a betrayal of her relationship with Pinkie, of her faithfulness to him. It reminds me of Simone Weil, and her worry that to accept baptism would alienate her from all those who were not baptised.