This argument employs evil obliquely, in order to consider the patterns certain positions fall into when oriented around that idea. Evil is associated with transgression of divine authority, with interruption of natural grace, with unnatural pride, with lust, with justification for the necessity of authority to restrain and punish evil.
Evil interrupts the steady flow of the quotidian. Evil is exceptional, evil is at the extreme other pole to the everyday. Evil is invoked when the behaviour so categorized is inexplicable. Evil is not an explanation; evil is the denomination of the exhaustion of explanation.
However, circulating around the notion of evil, a certain disposition of forces can be described schematically: knowledge of good and evil is the temptation which induces Adam into disobedience of god’s taboo, and the prize of this rebellion, which makes Adam a challenger to god’s authority. After the fall, there is human authority, god-proxies who take Adam’s gain, knowledge of good and evil, as a justification for aping god. And there is punished humanity which has to evade being the object of moral judgement in asserting, first, aesthetic distance, second, human intimacy.
1. (a) Of the many constellations of thought which consider the problem of evil, one is pre-eminent in Western culture, rooted in the early chapters of the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible.1 The proposition is that knowledge of good and evil is a loss, which separates humanity from nature and from god. The defining image of this notion, two people beside a tree, is found in Genesis 3. So, an atheological reading of this scene.
The first scene of evil, then, is where the loss is a double loss, the loss of intimacy with god, and the loss of unity with nature. In this scene, evil is unnatural. This is evil as the interruption of the otherwise continuous connectedness of everything, because if evil is simply a position in a field, a link in a chain, then it is superfluous, part of normal functioning.
Estragon: (irritably) What is it?
Vladimir:. Did you ever read the Bible?
Estragon: The Bible … (He reflects.) I must have taken a look at it.2
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden: and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. … And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. … And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? … And unto Adam he said, Because thou … hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake … And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.3
Is evil the first breach between god and creation? This narrative is so well known that it may escape our notice what exactly it asserts. Consider it afresh. The all-powerful god creates his creatures, but does not endow them with ethical knowledge, a condition of innocence marked by nakedness without shame. That the text makes the linkage (‘naked … not ashamed’) indicates hindsight, otherwise why would nakedness be linked to shame at all? Nakedness is shameful in the world after the expulsion from Eden, and it is only from this standpoint that the observation makes any sense. Shame is the awareness of having done wrong, as being naked is wrong in the post-lapsarian world. Nakedness in Eden is a natural unselfconscious condition. Awareness of right and wrong is precisely what Adam and Eve lack: they are natural humanity, as integrally harmonious with nature as all the other animals standing naked, shameless – and without ethical knowledge. Into this static situation is added suspense, for god imposes the first taboo, the ban on eating the fruit of one tree. Adam is told, for his own good, supposedly, that eating of that tree will be death. God makes no mention, either to ban access or to allow use, of the tree of life. Is Adam, at this point, immortal? We do not know. Why put that tree there, and then forbid it? Eve is enlightened by the serpent. The serpent lets her know that god has lied. Eating of the tree is not death. In this, the serpent does not lie: when the fruit is eaten, Adam and Eve gain ethical knowledge, and do not die. So, god made the first prohibition on the basis of a lie to his innocent creatures. God does not behave ethically towards his creatures. Indeed, Eve begins to gain ethical knowledge even before she eats, at the moment the serpent causes her to re-evaluate the tree independent of god’s taboo (‘a tree to be desired to make one wise’). Eve derives two impulses from the serpent: desire, and for wisdom. Two impulses god had not equipped her with. The consequences of ethical knowledge are immediate: self-consciousness, manifested as shame at nakedness, followed by the practical remedy of clothing, and furtiveness when god returns, manifested by hiding. As so often, it is not the breaking of the law, but, quite literally, the cover-up, which undoes them. God knows, by their shame, that they have transgressed. But god must also know, by their transgression, that they know that god lied. Can god be ashamed? Greek gods are shamelessly immoral. This one too? It seems not: his anger could be understood as the shameful anger of a liar caught out. Is this a text of god’s fall as well as humanity’s? God’s shame as well as humanity’s?
The theoretical consequence of ethical knowledge is shame; the practical consequence is expulsion. Both, ideally and materially respectively, figure alienation. A separation from nature, a broken relationship with god, a self-awareness which separates humanity from animality and from nature.
Notice, however, that god’s motive for the expulsion is not a simple punishment for transgression, but rather a policy of self-defence. God expels Adam and Eve because, having gained ethical knowledge, they might, by eating of the tree of life, also gain eternal life, which would make them ‘as one of us’. The tree of life was not forbidden, and had Adam and Eve had the knowledge to eat of it before sampling the fruit of the tree of knowledge … but they could not have done so, lacking the serpent’s knowledge. Divinity is revealed as being ethical knowledge plus eternal life. Or, at least, possessing these attributes makes one equal to, and therefore threatening to, divinity.
Before the breach with nature, only the serpent has awareness independent of god’s authority. The moral of the story is generally taken to be that humanity must heal its breach with nature and god; an alternative model would be that of the serpent; humanity must become a ‘subtil beast’. Certainly god seems to block such an alliance: god says to the serpent, ‘I shall put enmity between thee and the woman.’4 Where the serpent’s subtility came from is not revealed. Had it eaten the fruit? If the story is read, as here, without presuming god’s goodness or authority – as, with pagan gods, one assumes the latter but not the former–then god’s deception and petulant reaction are not justified, putting god in the wrong, and responsible for the breach.
The breach must be considered as twofold. The first breach, when the serpent and the fruit enlighten Adam and Eve, is a breach with nature in the form of self-consciousness which is figured as a first awareness of nakedness, addressed by the adoption of clothing. This leads to the second breach, with god, figured by the hiding from him. God’s realization that they have ethical knowledge leads to the expulsion and the setting by god of new terms in the relation between humanity and nature: the terms of hard labour rather than effortless existence. This is not an immediate consequence of self-consciousness, but god’s sanction against humanity for disobedience. In Christian teleology the breach with god is healed by Christ’s sacrifice, which could be viewed as god’s sacrifice for his wrongdoing against humanity in Eden. The breach with nature remains unrepaired. But the figure of the serpent, completely in nature but sufficiently independent to question the veracity of god’s claims, suggests a different reconciliation for humanity: with the serpent and against god. However the serpent gained its subtility, humanity can follow, in retaining ethical judgement, a judgement which condemns god, but may allow for reconciliation with nature, a reconciliation which need not be a mere return.
For a more orthodox reading from within the Christian tradition, Hegel’s argument that ‘as immediately natural human beings, we ought to regard ourselves as being what we ought not to be. This has been expressed by saying that human beings are evil by nature, i.e. they ought not to be the way they immediately are; hence they are as they ought not to be.’5 To Hegel it is ‘only with reference to cognition that human beings are posited as evil’.6 Hegel, in sum, concludes, ‘human beings become evil by cognizing’.7 For Hegel, although this is the story of the fall of humanity, the estrangement from nature and god is a necessary first step towards a later reconciliation at a higher level – with god, through Christ. But this is to accept god’s judgement against humanity, of sin, whereas an atheological reading, influenced by Bataille,8 might ask, why should humanity submit to the liar god?
Which leaves the question of a reconciliation with nature. God’s curse stands in the way, his imposition of enmity with the serpent and of labour as how humanity must relate to nature. Can this curse be lifted? Georges Bataille, reading Hegel through Alexandre Kojève, says the way back, the fiction of the nobility of nature imagined even by a writer like Jonathan Swift (‘the Houyhnhnms have no word in their language to express anything that is evil, except what they borrow from the deformities or ill qualities of the Yahoos’)9 is an illusion. Swift merely inverts terms; nature is noble, Yahoo humanity ugly, whose clothing is the most absurd symbol of estrangement from natural grace in the eyes of the idealized Houyhnhnms. This is not a resolution but a repetition with inverted values which still accepts separation. Bataille might seem to endorse this in phrases such as ‘The animal is in the world like water in water’10 but he goes on to say that ‘Man is the being who has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, avague intimacy.’11 In festival, Bataille argues, man seeks a reunion with nature through the operation of sacrifice in the realm of the sacred, but ‘to subordinate is not only to alter the subordinated element but to be altered oneself’12 which is the reality of the world of work, a world opposed to the intimate order, an order of ‘intimacy, in the trembling of the individual [which] is holy, sacred, and suffused with anguish’.13 The contrast is this: to the Christian and the Hegelian, humanity seeks union with god by a distancing from nature, whereas in Bataille humanity seeks an intimacy with nature which necessitates a sacred festivity. The sacred is the route back to intimacy with nature but, for the Christian, intimacy with god lies in a rejection of nature. But Bataille’s humanity can no more re-achieve natural intimacy than can the Christian, and the outcome, in the return of a consciousness of separation, is anguish.
If not through sacred festivity, an alternative passage might be aesthetic, the attempt to achieve intimacy through art. One place to think about this would be in the caves of Lascaux. Bataille wrote about the cave paintings of Lascaux as the birth of art. Bataille argued that the birth of representation this art work produces must be understood as a consequence of the painter no longer feeling part of natural animality but being separate: in this separation there may be a nostalgia, a wish to bridge the gap and return, but the way is barred and the reunion may occur only by other paths. The art is an excess, not a utilitarian activity but a celebration of the ability to represent the animal life surrounding the painter with an intimacy thought irrecoverable. When the figure of a man appears, insignificant, Bataille observes that it must surely be the first artist’s signature. The birth of art, a fecund birth which also births, in a dimension of transcendence, the essential ideas theorized by Bataille: taboo, transgression, law, the sacred and evil.
In Blanchot’s review of Bataille’s book14 he says, of the Lascaux painters, the subterranean paintings of Lascaux ‘make us enter into an intimate space of knowledge’.15 Bataille’s hypothesis, according to Blanchot, is that the paintings ‘are probably linked to … when man, interrupting the time of effort and work – thus for the first time truly man – returns to the source of natural overabundance … to what he was when he was not yet’.16
He breaks the prohibitions, but because there are now prohibitions and because he breaks them, he is exalted far beyond his original existence.17
The ‘loss’ leads to a greater gain. The art work, Blanchot says, is: