From Publishers Weekly
An engaging if ultimately unsatisfactory argument in favor of the reality of evil by one of Britain's most distinguished Marxist literary critics. Analyzing some of Western literature's major pronouncements on evil from Thomas Aquinas to William Golding, Eagleton (Reason, Faith and Revolution
) pieces together what he sees as the defining features of evil in a rather unsystematic way, before grounding his own vision of evil in Freud's notion of the death drive, describing evildoers as suffering from an unbearable sense of non-being which must be taken out on the other. Despite its undeniably enjoyable verve and wit, the book's claims are undermined by a rather arbitrary use of source material as well as a belated and inadequate articulation of its major theoretical claim. Muddy talk about different levels of evil and an undeveloped but evidently important distinction between wickedness and evil suggest that the author's notions on the topic would be better served by a larger, more sustained work. Nonetheless, as an attempt to take seriously the reality of extreme wrongdoing without recourse to either religiously grounded certitudes or a total sociological determinism, it offers a promising alternative. (Apr.)
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In the altogether excellent Reason, Faith, and Revolution (2009), Eagleton wondered how it was that the “most unlikely people, including myself,” were talking about God. Here he talks about God again, pretty much willy-nilly, given a topic—evil—so antonymically correlative to the deity. To his credit, he begins by considering personal, psychological evil and throughout draws far more on secular literature and philosophy than on scripture and theology. From Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956) and Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), he draws a conception of evil as nullity, as radical lack of emotion and sympathy. Constant negation, characteristic of the narrator of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1967), and the radical freedom added to negation by Adrian Leverkühn in Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947) broaden the idea, and the witches of Macbeth and Othello’s Iago add “obscene enjoyment” to it. Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky are adduced before Eagleton somewhat surprisingly pronounces that evil is rather rare; more common and troubling is “plain wickedness, like destroying whole communities for financial gain.” An absorbing, stimulating, awfully entertaining discussion. --Ray Olson