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Plain Evil

This week’s parasha is a reminder of why we must never exaggerate evil, a lesson ignored by recent pop culture hits, from TV’s Damages to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy

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Glenn Close in Damages. (DIRECTV)

Last week, in the midst of a stifling heat wave and on the recommendation of a trusted friend, my wife and I sat down to watch the first season of the critically acclaimed television series Damages.

The plot is as hot as the weather: We’ve only watched a few episodes, and already we’ve seen three or four major twists, dead people, dead animals, and a handful of New York apartments so ridiculously opulent that one imagines they can only be had by committing crimes far more heinous than those investigated by the series’ fictional lawyers. The cast, governed by the incomparable Glenn Close, was superb. The show was beautifully shot, reasonably well written, and smartly edited. And yet it left me with an uneasy feeling: It was just too evil.

In the Damages fictional universe, evil is treated with both reverence and glee, like an ice cream truck stumbling down a suburban street dense with children on a summer afternoon. If a practical goal can be achieved by being just a little bit evil, the show’s characters opt for being a lot, and if an absolute villainy is required, they orchestrate ingenious ballets of betrayals, lies, and abuses, all while looking great and grinning contently. It’s the Las Vegas theorem of morality: If you’re going to sin, you might as well go all the way.

This is a good prescription for drama—Damages started its fourth season on FX earlier this month and is enjoying a robust viewership. It’s also a dangerous one: Of all the things popular entertainment shouldn’t turn into trivialized pulp, evil is near the top of the list.

Evil—do we need reminding?—is both real and readily present; its demons—the murderous, the greedy, the hateful—flutter everywhere. But it never looks as good as Glenn Close, nor are its plots so perfectly coiled. Often, evil is no more than a dead-eyed and dull corporate executive, chewing on stale argot and robbing millions, or a man stirred by ignorance and fear to take the lives of others. In other words, evil is so terrifying precisely because it looks nothing like it does on Damages. It is not frequently banal, but it is always plausible, always present.

Which makes it all the more insulting when writers or filmmakers see the need to guild the lily—as if bad wasn’t bad enough!—and present us with a Grand Guignol. For a lesson in just how offensive this artistic overkill can be, compare Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with Henning Mankell’s The White Lioness. Both are Swedish thrillers. Both revolve around a similar axis, featuring a murderous former KGB agent finding shelter in rural Sweden after communism’s collapse and perpetrating horrors. And both propel otherwise ordinary protagonists into a massive conspiracy with international implications.

The similarities end there. Larsson, a lumbering writer—“Jonasson saw lighting out over the sea. He knew that the helicopter was coming in the nick of time. All of a sudden a heavy downpour lashed at the window,” goes one characteristically inelegant phrase from the book—knows no better way to advance his sophomoric plot than by setting small charges of shock. That KGB guy? He’s also a sadist rapist who had fathered seven children in various countries throughout Europe, one of them a murderous hulk. His daughter? A bisexual hacker with a Gothic fetish who is raped, sodomized, and brutalized in many ways over many uncomfortable pages. The psychiatrist who orchestrates much of her torment? Why, he wouldn’t be complete without also being a pedophile.

Mankell, hallelujah, knows better. Perhaps the greatest thriller writer alive today, his former Soviet agent is a very evil man, the kind of chappy who, in the novel’s first pages, shoots a woman for no apparent reason and then goes on to shoot many more. But he’s also a human being, and one we can sympathize with: A professionally trained killer who had spent a lifetime serving an empire that no longer exists, he careens from kill to kill just trying to survive. How much scarier he is than Larsson’s cartoonish psychopath.

And yet, Larsson’s books are read by tens of millions, while Mankell’s, still popular, are not. One’s work is soon to be a major Hollywood motion picture starring Daniel Craig, the other’s a PBS miniseries featuring Kenneth Branagh. We need our killings supersized.

In this week’s intricate parasha, the Torah warns us against such tendencies. The story introduces the concept of the cities of refuge, six towns to which men who have killed unintentionally can flee the wrath of those relatives of the victim wishing to avenge the blood.

Emmanuel Levinas, the late French philosopher and Talmudic scholar, found this seemingly straightforward concept troubling. Isn’t God, he asked, omnipresent, and able to protect the innocent wherever they are? And aren’t we, as Jews, instructed to take refuge not in a city but in the Torah? These, he writes in Beyond the Verse, are all true assertions, but they ignore a key fact: We are, none of us, truly innocent.

“In Western society, “ he writes, “free and civilized but without social equality and a rigorous social justice—is it absurd to wonder whether the advantages available to the rich in relation to the poor … are not the cause, somewhere, of someone’s agony? Are there not, somewhere in the world, wars and carnage which result from these advantages?”

There are, of course, many such wars, much such carnage. And that, Levinas brilliantly argues, turns our own cities, the shining metropolises in which we live, expecting justice and protection, into cities of refuge. We are all, he writes, mostly innocent but nevertheless also somewhat guilty. We partake in oppression every day—of the poor, of the needy—but, mostly, we aren’t even aware of it. We are, he argues, asleep, human beings who are yet to wake up to the full potential of the bliss and responsibilities involved with being human. Like the inadvertent murderers in this week’s parasha, forced to leave their own towns and flee to the confines of the designated six cities, we moderns, too, live in constant exile in our own homes.

Or maybe this condition is not limited to moderns at all. Perhaps the Torah dedicates so many resources to protecting killers—even if they acted unintentionally—because it knows that without too much provocation, we can all turn murderous, and that without refuge, we’d never have a chance to restore that intricate balance between good and evil each of us strives to keep each day.

If only pop culture followed suit. If only our villains were presented at the twilight of morality rather than basking in the harsh sun of pure evil. There’d be fewer juicy roles for Glenn Close, but we’d all be better off.

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C. Beth Burch says:

Great piece by one of my favorite Tablet writers! But you need sharper editors. It’s “gild the lily” rather than “guild the lily, a usage of ” guild” that doesn’t quite make sense. To gild a lily is to make it artificial, bejeweled, golden–something totally unnecessary because it is already a thing of splendid natural beauty.

Your article is so RIGHT ON. After hearing about the DAMAGES series for years and the great performance by Glen Close, a very good actress, I as delighted to begin to watch all the reruns ON DEMAND and tuned in for the first time. However, after viewing the first two hours of this series, which were very well produced, etc. the content and the characters were incredibly disturbing to me, and to my partner, that we actually shuttered at what we were seeing depicted on the screen.
Thanks for expressing exactly what I am trying to say.

Asherz says:

“This week’s parasha is a reminder of why we must never exaggerate evil”.
On how thw Torah views evil I would direct our Tablet exegete to last week’s sedrah, Matot. Here we learn what is to be done to the nation of Midian, a people that perverted the Israelites in their journey through the desert. This is in contrast to the inadvertant manslaughterer who kills another inadvertantly through negligence. The Creator differentiates between these types of evil doers, and instructs us how to deal with true evil and, Mr. Leibovitz, these should not be soft pedaled either.

C Burch correctly corrected “guild” to “gild”.
The next letter from Paula uses “shuttered” instead of “shuddered” but it actually made some sense in a humorous way of thinking!
Shudder to think about closing the shutters to our minds…

Levinas says that Western society is “free and civilized but without social equality and a rigorous social justice.” By separating social equality from social justice, it seems that Levinas sees social equality as synonymous with economic equality. How can a society with an enforced social/economic equality be considered free?

dano says:

Factual point: there are actually 48 cities of refuge, the six mentioned and the forty two cities allocated to the Leviim.

But the article makes the most tenuous connection to the parsha. Killing someone unintentionally, perhaps due to some negligence, is a far cry from the fictional evil doers described in the article. As they say in Hebrew, “Mah Kesher?” (Lit: what is the connection; meaning, “What the ? are you talking about?!)

The following paragraph also is simplistic:
Emmanuel Levinas, the late French philosopher and Talmudic scholar, found this seemingly straightforward concept troubling. Isn’t God, he asked, omnipresent, and able to protect the innocent wherever they are? And aren’t we, as Jews, instructed to take refuge not in a city but in the Torah? These, he writes in Beyond the Verse, are all true assertions, but they ignore a key fact: We are, none of us, truly innocent.

God protecting the innocent? Then there would be no free will – the issue is more complex. Take refuge in the Torah? What are the geographical coordinates?

Sorry, but it just doesn’t make any sense.

Mah Kesher?

VHJM van Neerven says:

Mr. Leibovitz’s “good drama” is precisely the reality of today, prescribed by Ayn Rand for well-functioning capitalist individidualism. Pupil Alan Greenspan, a true follower, helped create the evil we all live today.
And that, Mr. Dano, answers your “Ma kesher?” We are all involved in this system, like it or not. Great evil becomes banal as soon as the numbers are high enough. Today, we are talking millions of victims, billions of people, kazillions of money. Evildoers are innocent; they have no idea of the repercussions of their actions. Ask our statesmen and our voters: all are full of good intentions.
Larsson’s book has been made into a three part series (last year, IIRC) and been aired in many countries. The frightening thing in it is, that amongst the everyday evil, some real hellish people with tremendous power don’t even care whether they are innocent or not. They do not struggle with guilt, as most of us do, they take genocide, wars they made and our poisoned environment in stride. The series makes perfectly clear that government nor police want to stir up the current status — they are, after all, part of it.
Best to repeat Levinas: “In Western society, free and civilized but without social equality or a rigorous social justice, it is not absurd to wonder whether the advantages available to the rich in relation to the poor (…) are the cause, somewhere, of someone’s agony. Are there not, somewhere in the world, wars and carnage which result from these advantages?”
Exactly so. Levinas is not concerned with economics, but with power and the lack of honor it engenders.
Agony has become so common, we no longer see or feel it. Drama, if it still wants to teach us about evil, has to overstate and overact to bring the message of good will. Today, it has to go against an enormous evil in all of us. Lord nor law can protect us. Our only refuge –if any– is in a wondrous number of human cities in the wild yonder.

Rabbi Y. Ginsburgh says: “It’s harder to see the good in a bad person than to see the bad in a good person. “Good in bad” = “bad in good” = 289 = “good” (17) squared.”

It is not impossible, just hard. After reading Liel article, he sort of predicted the riots in London. The connection to Swedish suspense pulp fiction is iconoclastic, like Tarantino movie almost 15 years ago.

Last night I read, with just thee other people and a Rabbi, the Lamentations. I doubt many of us read those. It tells how Jewish mothers ate their infant daughters to survive the famine and humiliations after the fall of the Temple, among many other atrocities. It is the lowest level we have ever been in our Talmudic history.

From now on all the bad will turn into good. Yet not any single character in our history behaved as linear and simplistic like the KGB templates in the Swedish books of Larsson and Mankell. As Liel said, we are all criminals and saints, varying proportions.

I’d never heard of Emmanuel Levinas before this, probably because he was a “French philosopher and Talmudic scholar”, which are two categories of writer I strive to avoid. He must be absolutely deadly! This is shown by his “idea” that lack of “social equality and a rigorous social justice” somehow are the root of all evil. Levinas makes his point with a rhetorical question about “absurdity,” but he’s just making the type of ordinary and trite and attack on capitalism one would expect from a high school sophomore, while trying to look clever, in a French, Talmudic scholar kind of way.

People are oppressed all over these days, like they always have been. But however you define “oppression” there is much less of it today than ever before in history. That’s because, more than ever before in history, people are free to the “pursue happiness”, ie, pursue “advantages” that others don’t have, ie, defy “social justice”. If we’re going to define the workings of an impersonal and amoral economic system (capitalism) as “evil” then true evil will emerge. The ex-USSR is proof enough of this: fifty millions died because they “partook of oppression of the poor and needy,” ie, they were kulaks or wannabe kulaks or someone said they wanted to be kulaks. Or something.

You made some first rate factors there. I appeared on the web for the difficulty and located most people will associate with along with your website.

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Plain Evil

This week’s parasha is a reminder of why we must never exaggerate evil, a lesson ignored by recent pop culture hits, from TV’s Damages to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy

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