What Evil Means to Us

What Evil Means to Us

What Evil Means to Us

What Evil Means to Us


C. Fred Alford interviewed working people, prisoners, and college students in order to discover how people experience evil -- in themselves, in others, and in the world. What people meant by evil, he found, was a profound, inchoate feeling of dread so overwhelming that they tried to inflict it on others to be rid of it themselves. A leather-jacketed emergency medical technician, for example, one of the many young people for whom vampires are oddly seductive icons of evil, said he would "give anything to be a vampire".

Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Alford argues that the primary experience of evil is not moral but existential. The problems of evil are complicated by the terror it evokes, a threat to the self so profound it tends to be isolated deep in the mind. Alford suggests an alternative to this bleak vision. The exercise of imagination -- in particular, imagination that takes the form of a shared narrative -- offers an active and practical alternative to the contemporary experience of evil. Our society suffers from a paucity of shared narratives and the creative imagination they inspire.


For all things, from the Void
Called forth, deserve to be destroyed....
Destruction,—aught with Evil blent,—
That is my proper element.

—GOETHE, Faust, Part I

Sigmund Freud did not write very much about evil, or at least he did not call it that. In Civilization and Its Discontents he did, quoting the devil in these lines from Faust that equate evil with the Todestrieb, the drive toward death. Not just because the Todestrieb seeks destruction, but because it seeks the void, nothingness.

I too argue that evil is about nothingness—not just the nothingness we seek but the nothingness we dread. Evil has its origins in nothingness because it is no-thing: the dread of boundlessness and all that goes with it—loss of self, loss of meaning, loss of history, and loss of connection to the world itself.

Though I refer to Freud, among other analysts, and to philosophers, writers, and artists, I more frequently refer to my informants, as I call them: the men and women who talked with me about evil. It is they who defined evil in this way: not as a moral problem, not as a religious problem, not as an intellectual problem, but as an experience of dread almost beyond words. Evil is this experience, and evil is an attempt to master the experience by inflicting it on others.

Explaining evil is not the same as understanding it, an issue to which I return again and again. Even if I succeed in explaining the psychological origins of evil in dread, I shall not have explained the most important aspect of evil: why in the world do we live in a world like this one, a world . . .

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