The nature of evil


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Category: Reviews Date: 17 Nov 02

Biologist Lyall Watson in his gripping book Dark Nature, A Natural History Of Evil forces us to confront the evil that lives in all men, and yes, in us all.


Watson argues that although we like to see ourselves as superior to animals, “animals plus”, it is vital if we are to understand ourselves more fully to see ourselves not from the top down by excluding humans and human nature from the rest of nature, but from the bottom up incorporating humans with plants, animals and environment.


Watson, while drawing parallels with the nature of animals, produces overwhelming evidence that behaviour we are fond of dismissing as ‘animal like’ and ‘evil’ has always and continues to exist in mankind, in all cultures.


His concern starts with the perplexity we all share when a 92-year-old deaf and blind widow is shattered by a young assailant, or the anguish we feel when two ordinary 10-year-old boys kidnap and torture a baby before beating him to death; with our incomprehension when a law student who has savagely raped and murdered at least 28 women “has dozens more women exactly like his victims blushing and giggling on the front benches of the courtroom during his trial.”


Watson gives us numerous examples from the concept of human sacrifice and ritual in the New World to the brutal and systematic terrorist that allows his pregnant wife to be a human bomb in an aircraft; the cruel and systematic murder of six million Jews; everyday rapes, murders, torture, and wars throughout history, particularly relevant now as America prepares for another senseless war.


Conflict, says Watson, is easy to understand. It is peace that needs explaining. He refers to a survey of 130 social systems in which just six were described as peaceful in the sense that they were not involved in collective violence.


“To overcome the notion of personal aggression without the option of submission, of lethal risk without the possibility of appeasement, modern war has had to pretend to be something other than what it is. But we are running out of excuses. Technology so devastating that it threatens the survival of the planet has put paid to the pretence that war is a continuation of politics by other means.


“The Roman evasive ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war’ once seemed a valid argument in favour of deterrence; but it looks threadbare in the face of armaments that seemed to guarantee nothing but mutually assured destruction.”


What are the roots of evil? The answer says Watson is in our genes.


“Genes are simple-minded and mean spirited. They have no vision and cannot be expected to have the welfare of the whole species at heart.”

Which is why we can’t downplay “the reality of genetic inheritance or trying to mask the extent of continuity between ourselves and other animals.


“Jung was convinced the Shadow was more than a symbol, than it really exists: ‘It is as evil as we are positive…the more desperately we try to be good and wonderful and perfect, the more the Shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive… The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the Shadow descends to hell and becomes the devil.


“For it is just as sinful from the standpoint of nature and of truth to be above oneself as to be below oneself’.”


“Evil” says Watson is not simply an absence of good, it is an absence of balance with good, and becomes manifest by such disequilibrium in a human being.


The only real danger perhaps is already in us, not lurking in some infernal pit. There is little merit in searching for evil in witches, devils, demons or other scapegoats. We are it. In the words of cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight it.” Chilling words, warmed with the most hopeful of human attributes, freewill.


“Charity doesn’t come naturally to us. It is the result of deliberate choice, of a conscious decision to revolt against the tyranny of the genes.


“We were social long before we became human. And in that long social experience lie the biological origins of virtues such as compassion, empathy, love, conscience and a powerful sense of justice. We sign contracts. Submit to laws, and hitch our reputations to public declarations of loyalty to friends and mates.


“These are not tactics to defeat someone else, but tactics to defeat the darker part of our selves.”


The real wars are within us all. It’s up to each of us to defeat our shadows, our dark selves.


At first glance, its cover with photographs of Sam Selvon, Lakshmi Persaud, VS Naipaul, Seepersad Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, Stella Abidh, Shani Mootoo and FEM Hosein suggests Dr Kris Rampersad’s newly-launched book 'Finding a Place – IndoTrinidadian Literature' is a literary critique of these writers and their work.


In fact, the fading newspapers beneath the photographs suggest a more subtle and compelling connection. Dr Rampersad’s ground breaking work is built around little known and rare publications produced by IndoTrinidadians over a hundred years (1850-1950) – The East Indian Advocate, Herald, Patriot, Weekly, Observer, Presbyterian, Koh-i-noor Gazette among others. It unearths lost chunks of our history, presses us to rethink the Indian experience in the New World, and lights up through her research the lost and faded pioneers of IndoTrinidadian writing.


“It was in the (East Indian) Weekly,” she writes in chapter five, “that the first writers found an outlet for their wish to write. Through its reports and focus, they found the subjects and themes that would dominate later creative fiction.


“The issues of adaptation to a new society, cross-culturation, the struggle for promotion and acceptance, acquiring wealth, biracial marriages… later became subjects and themes for the creative fiction of IndoTrinidadians.”


In her introduction, the author asserts that her book, which quotes articles, letters to the editor and editorials from rare, lost or forgotten publications, “maps a process of literary development.”


She writes: “It becomes obvious from this study that a writer like VS Naipaul did not arise as an aberration, but from realities within the society in which he grew up. The desire to write came out of a century-long tradition of yearning and aspiring towards that goal, within which was encapsulated the need to be understood and accepted by the society which was now being claimed as home.”


I had seen Dr Rampersad, looking incongruently girlish the evening of the launch, among heavyweight university academics asserting that we all have only a partial view of the world based on our individual experiences and influences, which is why we each need to write our stories so we can understand one another.


Although Finding a Place is rooted in academia, it reads like investigative journalism at its cutting edge. The writing is lively with evocative images, plump with analysis and context, (so that in some ways it is a one-stop shop for the history of the IndoTrinidadian’s experience in the New World) and the material as fascinating as unexpectedly discovering fading letters of a grandparent and seeing them in their youth.


“The book began with a vague notion, a philosophical position, that of understanding how the many strands of our society have evolved. After that, I looked at the Koh-i-noor Gazette which was one of the few of the 12 publications available in the National Archives,” Dr Rampersad said later in an interview.


“A whole lot has disappeared. When I was looking for material, people would say ‘we just moved and threw away old papers.’ I didn’t locate The Herald and The Patriot until the end of the study, then I had to redo other chapters to accommodate the new material.


“Practically all the issues raging in the 1860’s and 70’s are relevant today – the questions of voice and voicelessness, of national identity; of how much allegiance do we owe to Africa, to India.


“There are instances in the book that manifest how politics and self-interest divide groups such as the split that caused the demise of The Herald, a paper that saw itself as a unifier among races. The political faction produced a rival paper The Patriot. The Herald’s noble literary ambitions suffered, its editor got disillusioned, and the paper died.


The study, adds Rampersad, “explodes the myth that IndoTrinidadians were insular since it demonstrates so much interaction within the society without animosity. For instance, the East Indian Weekly had an Afro-Trinidadian publisher. The paper shows Hindus, Muslims, Christians working together, for example, on the issue of destitute indentured labourers and championing national issues from flooding in Laventille to the need to develop Carnival.


“Today you won’t hear anyone calling themselves a ‘Christian Hindu,’ but that was common then. The term ‘An IndoTrinidadian’ has its first recorded usage as a pen name, as early as 1888.


“Perhaps the society was much more tolerant than we are today, recognising that all peoples need to assert their identity. Nobody at that time had a problem with people having a press for themselves. The Creole population had The San Fernando Gazette, the upper classes The Port-of-Spain Gazette, so when The Koh-i-noor Gazette came out, most felt it was about time.”


Finding a Place debunks old myths of the IndoTrinidadian as insular or un-intellectual by producing overwhelming evidence that this group, like the Afro- and Euro-Trinidadian, was grappling with an identity that remembered the Old, and actively interacted with the New World.


“Trinidadians don’t realise the great struggle it was for IndoTrinidadians to get the vote in the country. When the Franchise committee on granting universal suffrage wanted to introduce a clause that only people who could read and write English should be able to vote – at that time that was about 70 per cent of the Indo population. Agitation in the press got that clause removed.”


Even as IndoTrinidadians gave up their language and adapted English for mobility, says Rampersad, they found other ways to streamline Indian culture and language, other ways of evolving while retaining a sense of their roots. This was manifested in the oral tradition, in chutney and Pichakaree, and the oral traditions fed into the writings.


Dr Rampersad’s premise is that everybody is searching for roots and identity at a time when technology and travel makes it impossible for people to be insular, and many see themselves as multicultural entities. She hopes her book will become a module for others to look at their own groups.


Finding a Place is a must read.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur