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Evil, Ethics, and the Imagination: An Interview with Richard Kearney, Part I

In this three-part interview, the illustrious Irish philosopher Richard Kearney explores the human experiences of evil. Part I of the interview considers theodicy and human responsibility for evil by contrasting Gnostic understandings of cosmological evil to St. Augustine’s understanding of evil as the privation of the good. During the course of this conversation, Kearney characterizes the human imagination as a creative capacity that can be turned to both good and evil purposes, and he urges us to develop “an ethical imagination responsive to the demands of the other.”

The Other Journal (TOJ): I’d like to begin our discussion by taking you back to one of your earlier books, The Wake of Imagination. This book, as well as much of your subsequent work, defends the importance of the imagination in human life and seeks to retrieve this capacity from the philosophical and religious neglect it has suffered in modern Western intellectual history. Yet you also show how our imaginative capacities can be turned toward evil purposes. I’m thinking here especially of your first chapter, which discusses the Old Testament’s prohibition of the divine image as well as the Hebraic suspicion of our mimetic desire and ability to imitate God’s creative activity. In this discussion, you also introduce the rabbinical golem legend, a cautionary tale that issues a warning about the destructive potential of human creativity. Could you elaborate on whether the golem legend and the Hebraic understanding of imagination still have lessons for us today, particularly in terms of how we’re to come to terms with evil?[1]

Richard Kearney (RK): There’s a lot in that question. Let me begin with the golem legend. I provide more details about the background of the legend in The Wake of Imagination, but it is clearly a Jewish tale from the late Middle Ages. In the Judaic tradition, this creation of a homunculus in our own image and likeness was seen as a repetition of Yahweh’s creation, God’s creation of Adam. So the Golem is in a way the one we create in our image and likeness just as God created Adam in His image and likeness. In that sense, the creation of the golem by Rabbi Loew of Prague was a very holy act, and the golem served to protect the people and do all kinds of chores in the ghetto. The catch was that to render the golem lifeless the Rabbi had to remove the shem, or holy writing, from the golem’s forehead; otherwise, the golem would have autonomous life. One day the Rabbi forgot to remove the shem, and the golem went off and wreaked havoc, bringing everything to destruction, until the Rabbi came back and removed the shem, and the golem fell into dust.

It seems that the tale is saying that when we create, we should always create in the spirit of the good. In the Judaic heritage, there is a sense that our power of creation is not uniquely our own but that it is beholden to some principal of otherness. For Plato, that principle of otherness is the good, and for the Abrahamic tradition that otherness is also the good, as it is God, the source of the Ten Commandments and so on. And so our creative, imaginative power to shape and form and figure (a power known as yetzer) is a gift that can go in two directions. We have inherited God’s power to shape and form—this is seen in the common root between yetzer and the words for creator (yetzor), creation (yetzirah), and the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah)—but we have also inherited, as it were with Adam, both the Yetzer Hatov and the Yetzer Hara, that is, both the creative capacity for good and for evil. So from the very beginning, because we’re created in the image of the good, or God, we have this ability to repeat that good or to deviate from that good and, as it were, presume and pretend that we are the sole originators of our own creative capacity.

We, of course, see this in the Adamic story, where the serpent tells Adam and Eve that they will “be as gods” if they set themselves up as the pure creators of the world rather than as cocreators with God (see Gen. 3:4). And it comes down to the same question for us: do we do this on our own, or do we do this with the Other? It’s up to us to make that choice, which returns us to the golem—you should never create a golem on your own; you should always do it in dialogue with others. So both the Adamic story and the golem legend are cautionary tales that remind us that we’re not allowed to create solely out of our own will but that we should do it in dialogue and community.

The solitary imagination can become self-sufficient and cut-off in itself, and then it forgets that it is, to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he defines the primary imagination, the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.”[2] This is quite extraordinary—Coleridge is taking this biblical, Abrahamic, rabbinical notion and placing it at the very heart of the first major philosophical exposé of English-speaking romanticism, a generation after Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. He’s enunciating this power of the transcendental productive imagination, which is human, of course, but he’s saying this imagination is a repetition in our finite minds of the divine act of creation. So even in the most humanistic anthropological affirmation of creative power we see that we mustn’t forget that our creation is the repetition, reactivation, or refiguration of some creative power that both precedes and excedes us.

TOJ: Do you see any contemporary analogies to the evil imagination?

RK: Technology run amuck—technology that is independent of ethical principles. By that I don’t advocate moralism or judgmentalism. To juggle Shakespeare, technology is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so; and thinking is ethical thinking when it comes to good and evil. It is up to us.[3] For example, there’s nothing wrong with atoms, but there is something wrong with dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima. The atomic bomb is the golem run wild. There’s nothing wrong with trains, but there is something wrong with trains running to Treblinka packed with poor, unfortunate Jews. Adolf Eichmann’s railway system is the golem gone mad.

One can say the same thing about any contemporary technological device. There was a discussion on NPR recently about whether Facebook should eliminate its minimum user age, which is now set at thirteen. And there are advocates, including Mark Zuckerberg, who say there should be no limit. To quote Paul Ricoeur, “Imagination knows no censorship.”[4] Thus, at the purely aesthetic level, we should be allowed to imagine anything. But when you go beyond the realm of art into the realm of action, ethics come into play. For example, you can watch all the pornography you want, but ethics prevail as soon as that pornography causes you to move into the realm of pathological behavior that is injurious to others.

On the other hand, there’s an old argument that we should burn the Marquis de Sade’s books because they are pornographic, but I would say no, we shouldn’t burn his books: they teach us something about certain perversions of human sexuality. In his own way, Sigmund Freud exposed some of these perversions too, and if we don’t know about them, then they may be repressed and be acted out in other ways. There’s something about literature and psychoanalysis that can lead us into a realm of dark sexuality that needs to be reckoned with. The Greek myths also did that for us.

And that’s where narrative comes in. I think imaginary narratives should have free reign, no matter how evil they are, until the point that those narratives bleed into action. Therefore, although Facebook seems pretty neutral—and for the most part it seems like a very good thing—there should be certain ethical limits to its usage because of how it affects people’s lives. I believe that the technology of social media can be extremely emancipatory—look at the Arab Spring; look at the way people can communicate all over the world—but there are aspects of the Internet that may, in certain future circumstances, be subject to questions of what is good. Take the examples of child pornography, incitement to genocide, or the like. These are very complex and delicate considerations that involve a critical dialogue between the aesthetic imagination and ethical imagination. My basic argument in The Wake of Imagination is that this conversation is very important today. With the aesthetic imagination, we have poetic license, and the ethical should not censor or interfere directly with art, but when it comes to politics, when we move from art to life, there is a distinction, and that’s where it’s important to ask questions about whether something is good.

In the famous New York case to ban James Joyce’s Ulysses because of a rape fantasy, the defense pointed out that no one was ever raped by a book. They correctly argued that Joyce’s book should not be censored because of an imaginary scene. By contrast, if art is misused, as it can be—and this is equally true of virtual technology—and if that misuse actually has a murderous impact on people’s lives, one has to question the ways in which we adjudicate the passage from art to life, not necessarily the original work of art. Imagination, or art that’s produced from the imagination, is neither good nor bad, but interpretation makes it so; and for a book like Ulysses, the interpreter is the reader, who after reading the book applies it to his or her life. Or as Ricoeur puts it in Time and Narrative, the formal configuration of the text is followed by the ethical refiguration of the reader. The work of Joyce or the Marquis de Sade is not evil (though the latter may be, like certain other literary works, about evil). It’s when we bring the imaginary life back into real life that the question of the ethical imagination comes into play. Literature is always a hermeneutic circle from action to text to action.

TOJ: In The Wake of Imagination you raise as a normative ideal something that you call “an ethical imagination responsive to the demands of the other.”[5] That would be an example of imagination that’s operating in life, correct?

RK: Yes, that would be an imagination in the life world (Lebenswelt); but I would also argue that the poetical imagination in art is one that opens up an ethical sensitivity in us. It opens us to other ways of thinking, living, and being. Here I am, an Irishman in Boston in 2012 reading Anna Karenina, for example, and suddenly I’m a woman in nineteenth-century Russia, and I’m committing suicide. That’s what imagination can do. The artistic imagination can, as King Lear says, expose oneself to “feel what wretches feel.”[6] And that vicarious literary imagining, it seems to me, is already protoethical in that it’s opening us up to acts of sympathy, to living as others lived, and to living as if we were them. And that’s an ethical sensitivity that I think can help us to live better.

Of course, there are misuses of imagination as well. We can go the other way and close ourselves off from others, and then it can become voyeuristic, egotistical. It can generate a kind of narcissism that feeds upon itself, and then we believe, as the serpent says to Adam and Eve, that we shall be as gods, that is, sufficient unto ourselves (see Gen. 3:4). It seems to me that the imagination that thinks it is sufficient unto itself and has no other beyond, no vis-à-vis outside of itself, is on an unethical path.

TOJ: So what saves imagination from this narcissism?

RK: One of the things that saves imagination from itself is that imagination can open the self to the other. You see what I mean? It can go both ways. It seems to me that imagination is an expression of our golems—regardless of whether we are talking about ancient Jewish tales or referring to our contemporary technology, our Facebook, our digital communication, our nuclear energy, and so on. Imagination is a golem with two faces.

TOJ: Reprogenetic technology?

RK: Exactly. That’s where the good and evil imagination is at play. Most of these technologies are neutral in themselves; it’s the way in which they are used that goes one way or the other, and that is dependent on our imagination. Going back to the Hebraic imagination, something that I think is very important about the biblical story—and I’m taking this philosophically here, as a story on par with many of the Greek stories, and not making a truth claim for it as sacred Revelation—is that much like the story of Prometheus, it is a story about imagination and how it works in terms of good and evil. I have always found a certain Talmudic reading of Genesis (developed by Eric Fromm and others) fascinating: six days of creation and then leaving the seventh day empty as a sabbatical space for humans to cocreate with God, with the good, and with the Torah (a word which means “direction” or “way”). God leaves that day free so that we might cocreate or not, so that we might keep or break with the covenant. The seventh day is an invitation to complete creation. This is a refusal of theodicy. The seventh day is left for humans to complete and therefore to direct creation in an evil or a good direction. A good direction is imagination responding to the call of the other, whereas an evil direction is an imagination that has closed itself off from alterity, strangeness, transcendence, foreignness, surprise.

TOJ: Perhaps one specific way the human imagination is put to destructive purposes is through scapegoating or through the imaginative representation of an excluded other as somehow monstrous. This is a theme you deal with at length in your book Strangers, Gods, and Monsters. As René Girard reminds us, this human tendency is productive in so far as it quells the violence associated with mimetic rivalry or our desire for what the other desires, at least for a time, and thereby brings temporary peace to a strife-ridden community. Girard thinks that the Jewish and Christian stories reveal this mechanism as unjust: unlike mythological narratives that mask the scapegoating mechanism by describing the scapegoat as somehow guilty, the Judeo-Christian narrative reveals the scapegoat as not guilty, but innocent.[7] Yet the human tendency to scapegoat continues undiminished. What does this tendency say about us? Is it perhaps an example of a bad narrative, a story that misidentifies the other?

RK: I think that’s a very good example of scapegoating imagination. There are two forms of perverse imagination: there’s propagandistic imagination, which uses images to vilify and scapegoat others, and there’s pornographic imagination, which uses the other as a consumer item. I would put scapegoating, as Girard shows, as the first example of the propagandistic. We project evil onto the other. We reduce the other to the level of the nonhuman, to the level of the animal, the monstrous, the diabolical. Take anti-Semitism. If you look at the portraits of Jews in medieval Europe, they had the feet of goats, the ears of serpents, the skin of lizards. Those artists combined different animal qualities in order to dehumanize Jews. Hitler later called them “vermin.” And in Rwanda, those who perpetuated the genocide called their enemy “cockroaches.” This propaganda was repeated again and again on the radio.

The very notion of teratology, the creation of monsters, is an expression of our fear of our own earthliness, our own darkness, our own depth. It’s a fear—be it legitimate or illegitimate—of our terrestrial origins, which we then project onto outside monsters. And in fact Claude Lévi-Strauss points this out in Structural Anthropology: mythologies very often begin with a hero defeating a monster, say Cadmus defeating the dragon or Oedipus outfoxing the Sphinx. This is always an attempt to personify in an alien and alienated fashion that part of ourselves that we most fear, and we then project it onto others so that we don’t have to deal with it ourselves. We become the pure and they become the impure. But of course, it’s not the monster that’s impure. It’s not Moby Dick that’s impure; it’s Ahab, who sees himself as utterly pure, having projected evil onto the whale but at the expense of his own humanity, because he then doubles into the sinister Parsee who is his double, dark self and who propels him to destruction. So scapegoating leads to the dehumanization not just of the other person—the Jew, the black, the Tutsi, whoever it happens to be—but it also leads to the dehumanizing of the agent, as in the case of Ahab, Hitler, and others.[8]

One way to overcome evil is to stop putting it onto others uniquely and to see that there is also a dynamism going on in ourselves. It’s the oldest story in the Bible—take the beam out of your own eye before you start condemning your neighbor. There’s that work of self- understanding that must be done, because whether we’re listening to Socrates, Augustine, or Freud, we learn that the unexamined life is not worth living. And with Ricoeur, I would add that the unnarrated life is in some respects not a fully humanized life.

The other thing I would say is that I agree with Girard’s understanding of scapegoating and periodic blood sacrifice as attempts to project evil onto some demonized minority or outsider. The only place in which I disagree with him is in his suggestion that it’s only the Abrahamic tradition, and most explicitly in Christianity, that scapegoating is exposed. He doesn’t talk much about Islam, if at all, and in some of his later work he says that it’s prefigured by Judaism in the story of Job and so on; but there’s a certain Christocentric exclusivism, it seems to me, in Girard’s approach. I agree with his general analysis of anthropology and philosophy and ethics, but I disagree with that exclusivism. I absolutely think that he’s right that the Christian crucifixion is a sacrifice that exposes the mimetic scapegoating process; it exposes the evil mechanism at the very root of blood sacrifice because it shows Jesus to be innocent. But I think it’s not only Christianity that does that—and here I’m in agreement with Simone Weil in her book Letter to a Priest—where she says we can find the good, and more particularly the ethic that challenges the scapegoating mechanism, in other narrative traditions, mythologies, and wisdom traditions. There are other spiritual cultures—Weil mentions the Homeric and Asian—that expose the very roots of our own mimetic and scapegoating strategies. Take Prometheus, for example. I mean, Christianity happens to be my particular narrative and wisdom tradition, but I don’t want to exclude the Hindus, the Buddhists, and even the good old pagan Greeks from having access to the ethical truth that challenges the scapegoating mechanism.[9]

I think it’s interesting that in the Adamic story of the fall, the serpent, who is a nonhuman creature, is outside of Adam: this raises all kinds of questions about whether Adam or the serpent is responsible for the first sin. If Adam was seduced by the serpent, we must ask how the serpent got into the garden in the first place, why God allowed it to happen, and why God allowed Adam to respond as he did. And this is where the theodicy enters in: Was this all part of a divine plan? Because if Adam and Eve hadn’t transgressed and eaten of the forbidden fruit, there would be no history. There would be no Christ, who is the felix culpa, the redemption of the happy fall. And for Christians, it is a happy fall, because it allows for Jesus Christ to become incarnate in the story of Christian revelation. That’s one way of looking at it—that it’s all part of a divine plan. Poor old Adam, like poor old Judas, was simply playing out a role that is preordained and prescripted. This is something that I would definitely challenge. I would argue that that the serpent is a scapegoat that Adam has created and projected to exonerate himself. As Adam and Eve say afterward, “It was the serpent who seduced us. We’re not responsible.” They might have gone further and said, as we read in certain Talmudic commentaries, “The serpent seduced us. It’s God’s fault, not ours!”

TOJ: So in Girardian terms, you see the Adamic narrative as masking the innocence of the serpent by making the serpent a scapegoat. And so that entire reading of the fall being necessary as part of God’s plan leading to Jesus as the felix culpa would be, in Girardian terms, a mythological reading of Christianity?

RK: I think it probably would. I’m just doing anthropological hermeneutics here, not theology proper, because what I’m saying is that there may be a projection of the human imagination onto the serpent to the extent that Adam and Eve would be saying we’re not responsible for our choices and that instead the serpent is responsible. Perhaps the serpent is a projection of Adam and Eve’s imagination; perhaps they’re saying to themselves, “We can be as gods if we make ourselves perfect and blame everything on the tempting demon”; and so it’s the imagination talking to itself. I see this as evil imagination—it’s not somebody else seducing the imagination; it’s the imagination seducing itself.

On the other hand, there is something to be learned from this narrative, which is that we humans sometimes experience what Kant calls “radical evil,” which is something so inexplicable and so horrendous that it surpasses the limits of human understanding. When that happens, something in us responds by referring to that inexplicable, horrendous act as inhuman. And that’s important. Neither of these versions of the Adamic story is good or evil, but thinking makes them so.

We’ve got to unpack such stories in different ways, and there’s something legitimate about the suggestion that evil is not just something that we do with a conscious, lucid choice, as Jean-Paul Sartre might maintain; it’s something we’re responsible for—I think that’s the bottom line—but there are also other factors at play, such as the unconscious or other agents. We’re not fully aware that what we’re doing is radically evil. There’s something outside of me—call it my DNA, my ancestral drive, my unconscious; call it collective suggestion, mass hysteria or propaganda—but I am ultimately responsible for making the choice to do good or evil. What I’m arguing against is the deterministic notion of cosmological evil, which would be a kind of gnostic notion that good and evil subsist out there as two ontological forces—divine and demonic—that are completely independent of our choice or responsibility. I believe in the “sovereignty of the good,” to borrow a phrase from Irish Murdoch, and I’m Augustinian in that I think evil is the absence of the good, the privation of the good, the privation of being. And in that sense, evil doesn’t exist independently of the human.[10]

In short, I subscribe, like Augustine, to an anthropological notion of evil. But there is no easy answer. The age-old question, Unde Malum (“Where does evil come from?”) will never be fully answered because there’s always something inscrutable to evil. In that sense, I don’t think Sartre has the whole answer. He would reduce everything, as would many modern rationalists, to conscious choices, and I think that makes sense up to a point; but there’s also something else, something that is at once anthropological and beyond the limits of anthropological reason. Evil is rooted in the human, even radical evil, but it’s rooted in the inscrutable depth of the soul such as we have not yet and maybe never will be able to completely comprehend. And again, that’s not to say it’s cosmological or ontological. I think the move from cosmological evil, which exists in many of the myths—that evil is inscribed in the universe and nature in some ineluctable and insurmountable way—is basically compromising the human part of creation. Thus, I’m for the movement away from Gnostic/cosmological evil to existential/anthropological evil, which I think is also the Judeo-Christian move: more and more we’re aware that we are the ones who are responsible for what we do, not that the gods are pushing us around, as we believed in much of Greek mythology. But even when we embrace the anthropological account of evil, imagination will still have a role to play in giving us narratives that express certain enigmas and mysteries of good and evil that reason itself cannot fully fathom or comprehend. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth’, as Hamlet says to Horatio, ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

[1] See Kearney, “The Hebraic Imagination,” in The Wake of Imagination (London, UK: Routledge, [1988] 1998), 37–78.

[2] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, 2nd ed. (London, UK: William Pickering, 1847), 297.

[3] See William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2.239–51.

[4] Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 3 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 271.

[5] Kearney, The Wake of Imagination (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998), 395.

[6] Shakespeare, King Lear, 3.3.34.

[7] Girard develops this theme over the course of several works. See Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1979); The Scapegoat (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1986); and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).

[8] See Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, vols. 1–2 (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1967); and Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1851).

[9] See Girard, Violence and the Sacred, The Scapegoat, and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World; and Weil, Letter to a Priest (New York, NY: Penguin Books, [1951] 2003).

[10] See Murdoch, Sovereignty of the Good (London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970); and Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Augustine Catechism: The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008), 40–41.

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Richard Kearney :
Richard Kearney holds the Charles Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College and is visiting Professor at University College Dublin. He is the author of over twenty books on the philosophy of religion, art, and culture. These include The Wake of Imagination, Poetics of Imagining, On Stories, Strangers Gods and Monsters, The God Who May Be, and most recently, Anatheism: Returning to God after God.
Ron Kuipers :
Ronald A. Kuipers is Associate Professor in philosophy of religion at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Critical Faith: Toward a Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and its Public Accountability and is currently putting the finishing touches on a book-length introduction to the philosophy of Richard Rorty for Continuum Press’s Contemporary American Thinkers series.