Saturday Review: Essay: The devil's progress: Modern social science
has banished concepts of good and evil. But, argues Amos Oz,
literature, from Shakespeare and Goethe to Grass and Boll, gives us
truer insights into human nature

The Guardian - United Kingdom; Sep 03, 2005
AMOS OZ

When I was a child in Jerusalem, our teacher at a Jewish orthodox
school taught us the book of Job. All Israeli children, to this day,
study the book of Job. Our teacher told us how Satan travelled all
the way from that book to the New Testament, and to Goethe's Faust ,
and to many other works of literature. And although each writer made
something new of Satan, the devil, der Teufel , he was always the
very same Satan: cool, amused, sarcastic and sceptical. A
deconstructor of human faith, love and hope.

Job's Satan, like Faust's Satan, enters upon a wager. His big prize
is neither a hidden treasure, nor the heart of a beautiful woman, and
not even a promotion to a higher position in the heavenly hierarchy.
No: Satan enters a gamble out of some kind of didactic urge. He
wishes to make a point. To prove something, and to refute something
else. With enormous argumentative zeal, the biblical Satan and the
Aufklarung Satan try to show God and his angels that man, when given
the choice, will always opt for evil. He will choose bad over good,
willingly and consciously.

Shakespeare's Iago may well have been motivated by a very similar
didactic zeal. Indeed, so it is with almost every thorough evildoer
in world literature. Perhaps this is why Satan is often so charming.
So beguiling. John Milton may have misunderstood the devil when he
called him "the infernal serpent". Heinrich Heine knew better when he
wrote:

I call'd the devil, and he came,

And with wonder his form did I closely scan;

He is not ugly, and is not lame,

But really a handsome and charming man.

A man in the prime of life is the devil,

Obliging, a man of the world, and civil;

A diplomatist too, well skill'd in debate,

He talks quite glibly of church and state.

Man and the devil understood each other so well, because they were,
in some ways, so alike. In the book of Job, Satan, the perverse
educator, intimately understood how human pain breeds evil: "Put
forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee
to thy face". And Shakespeare's witches, in Macbeth , could sense the
arrival of an evil man from afar: "I feel a pricking in my thumb;
something wicked this way comes." Goethe, for his part, observed that
the devil, like so many human beings, is simply a selfish charmer. "
Der Teufel ist ein egotist ." The devil is an egotist. He only helps
others in order to serve his own ends. Not, as God and Kant would
have it, for the sake of the good deed alone.

And this is why, ever since the book of Job, and until not so long
ago, Satan, man and God lived in the same household. All three seemed
to know the difference between good and evil. God, man and the devil
knew that evil was evil and that good was good. God commanded one
option. Satan seduced to try the other. God and Satan played on the
same chessboard. Man was their game-piece. It was as simple as that.

Personally, I believe that every human being, in his or her heart of
hearts, is capable of telling good from bad. Even when they pretend
not to. We have all eaten from that tree of Eden whose full name is
the tree of knowledge of good from evil.

The same distinction may apply to truth and lies: just as it is
immensely difficult to define the truth, yet quite easy to smell a
lie, it may sometimes be hard to define good; but evil has its
unmistakable odour: every child knows what pain is. Therefore, each
time we deliberately inflict pain on another, we know what we are
doing. We are doing evil.

But the modern age has changed all that. It has blurred the clear
distinction that humanity has made since its early childhood, since
the Garden of Eden. Some time in the 19th century, not so long after
Goethe died, a new thinking entered western culture that brushed evil
aside, indeed denied its very existence. That intellectual innovation
was called social science. For the new, self-confident, exquisitely
rational, optimistic, thoroughly scientific practitioners of
psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics - evil was not an
issue. Come to think of it, neither was good. To this very day,
certain social scientists simply do not talk about good and evil. To
them, all human motives and actions derive from circumstances, which
are often beyond personal control. "Demons," said Freud, "do not
exist any more than gods do, being only the products of the psychic
activity of man." We are controlled by our social background. For
about 100 years now, they have been telling us that we are motivated
exclusively by economic self-interest, that we are mere products of
our ethnic cultures, that we are no more than marionettes of our own
subconscious.

In other words, the modern social sciences were the first major
attempt to kick both good and evil off the human stage. For the first
time in their long history, good and bad were both overruled by the
idea that circumstances are always responsible for human decisions,
human actions and especially human suffering. Society is to blame.
Painful childhood is to blame. The political is to blame.
Colonialism. Imperialism. Zionism. Globalisation. What not. So began
the great world championship of victimhood.

For the first time since the book of Job, the devil found himself out
of a job. He could no longer play his ancient game with human minds.
Satan was dismissed. This was the modern age.

Well, the times may be changing again. Satan might have been sacked,
but he did not remain unemployed. The 20th century was the worst
arena of cold-blooded evil in human history. The social sciences
failed to predict, encounter, or even grasp this modern, highly
technologised evil. Very often, this 20th-century evil disguised
itself as world reforming, as idealism, as re-educating the masses or
"opening their eyes". Totalitarianism was presented as secular
redemption for some, at the expense of millions of lives.

Today, having emerged from the evil of totalitarian rule, we have
enormous respect for cultures. For diversities. For pluralism. I know
some people are willing to kill anyone who is not a pluralist. Satan
was hired for work once again by postmodernism; but this time his job
is verging on kitsch: a small, secretive bunch of "shady forces" are
always guilty of everything, from poverty and discrimination, war and
global warming to September 11 and the tsunami. Ordinary people are
always innocent. Minorities are never to blame. Victims are, by
definition, morally pure. Did you notice that today, the devil never
seems to invade any individual person? We have no Fausts any more.
According to trendy discourse, evil is a conglomerate. Systems are
evil. Governments are bad. Faceless institutions run the world for
their own sinister gain. Satan is no longer in the details.
Individual men and women cannot be "bad", in the ancient sense of the
book of Job, or Macbeth, of Iago, of Faust. You and I are always very
nice people. The devil is always the establishment. This is, in my
view, ethical kitsch.

Let us consult our own most gifted adviser, der Geheimrat
[councillor] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Let us look at his
West-Eastern Divan , one of the earliest great tributes of western
culture to its own curiosity and attraction to the east. Was Goethe a
condescending "orientalist", as Edward Said might have him? Or was he
a multiculturalist, in the fashion of today's guilt-ridden Europeans
paying lip service to everything distant, to everything different,
everything decisively non-European?

I think Goethe was neither an orientalist nor a multiculturalist. It
was not the extreme and imagined exoticism of the east that tempted
him, but the strong and fresh substance that eastern cultures,
eastern poetry and art may give to universal human truths and
feelings. The good, and indeed God, are universal:

God is of the east possess'd,

God is ruler of the west;

North and South alike, each land

Rests within His gentle hand.

Even more so, love is universal, whether it is for Gretchen or for
Zuleika. So a German poet may well write a love poem for an imagined
Persian woman. Or for a real Persian woman. And speak the truth. And
yet more touchingly, pain is universal. As one of the finest poems in
the West-Eastern Divan has it:

Let me Weep, hemmed-in by night,

In the boundless desert.

Camels are resting, likewise their drivers,

Calculating in silence the Armenian is awake;

But I, beside him, calculate the miles

That separate me from Zuleika, reiterate

The annoying bends that prolong journeys.

Let me weep. It is no shame.

Weeping men are good.

Didn't Achilles weep for his Briseis?

Xerxes wept for his unfallen army;

Over his self-murdered darling

Alexander wept.

Let me weep. Tears give life to dust.

Already it's greening.

Goethe does not recruit the east to prove anything. He takes humans,
all humans, seriously. East or west, good men weep.

I would like to take a moment here to weep for Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe. I would like to weep for Weimar. Because Goethe's Weimar is
gone for good. Even Thomas Mann's Weimar is gone and cannot return.
Not that Weimar today is not a pretty, well renovated historical
town. But Weimar today lies across the forest from Buchenwald.

We may lament the passing of memories, the fading of landscape, the
growth and change of old towns. But this is not what we are lamenting
in Goethe's Weimar. Not the teeth of time, but the extreme and total
evil of man, have taken Goethe's Weimar away from us.

Mann, in his novel Lotte in Weimar , made Charlotte Kestner, who was
once Lotte Buff, the real-life beloved of the young Werther, come to
visit the old and famous Goethe in Weimar. Lotte in Weimar is an
exquisite study in the slow fading of recollection: even when Goethe
was still alive, the old Goethe-Zeit was slipping away, becoming the
stuff of legend. That is normal; that is the way human life and
memory, human homes and streets, flow and ebb as history moves on.

But Goethe and his old love Lotte could still walk together to the
woodland outside the town of Weimar, and observe the blissful,
tranquil scenery of the Thuringian countryside. And maybe they could
walk up to the beautiful oak tree there, known for many years to come
as Goethe's oak tree. And years went by, and generations died, but
the oak tree was still standing. Until it was bombed by an allied
aircraft toward the end of the second world war. And Weimar became
the neighbouring town, the "market town", of death camp Buchenwald.

And so, the German Nazis killed not only their victims, but also the
slow ageing innocence of Weimar and Goethe and Lotte. The subtitle of
Lotte in Weimar is "The Beloved Returns". But the beloved can no
longer return. Not for evermore.

Which brings me from Lotte Kestner-Buff to another Lotte, Lotte
Wreschner, the mother of my son-in-law. She was born in Frankfurt am
Main, 174 years after Goethe and not far from his house. Not for
nothing did the name Lotte run in her family: she grew up in a home
full of books, shelves upon shelves of German, Jewish and
German-Jewish spiritual treasures. Schiller and the Talmud. Heine and
Kant. Buber and Holderlin. All were there. One uncle was a rabbi, the
other a psychoanalyst. They all knew Goethe's poetry by heart. The
Nazis imprisoned her, along with her mother and sister, and sent them
to Ravensbruck, where the mother died of typhus and hard labour. She
and her sister Margrit were transferred to Theresien-stadt. I wish I
could tell you that they were liberated from Theresienstadt by peace
demonstrators carrying placards saying "make love not war". But in
fact they were set free not by pacifist idealists but by combat
soldiers wearing helmets and carrying machine guns. We Israeli peace
activists never forget this fact, even as we struggle against our
country's attitude towards the Palestinians, even while we work for a
livable, peaceful compromise between Israel and Palestine.

Lotte and Margrit Wreschner came home to find all the books waiting,
but none of the family. Not a living soul. Margrit Wreschner can bear
witness to what all survivors of that mass murder can tell. There are
good people in the world. There are evil people in the world. Evil
cannot always be repelled by incantations, by demonstrations, by
social analysis or by psychoanalysis. Sometimes, in the last resort,
it has to be confronted by force.

In my view, the ultimate evil in the world is not war itself, but
aggression. Aggression is "the mother of all wars". And sometimes
aggression has to be repelled by the force of arms before peace can
prevail.

Lotte Wreschner settled in Jerusalem. Eventually she became a leader
in the Israeli civil-rights movement, as well as a deputy mayor of
Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek. Her son Eli and my daughter Fania are
both civil rights and peace activists, as are my other children Galia
and Daniel.

Let me turn back to Goethe, and back to my feelings about Germany.
Goethe's Faust reminds us forever that the devil is personal, not
impersonal. That the devil is putting every individual to the test,
which every one of us can pass or fail. That evil is tempting and
seducing. That aggression has a potential foothold inside every one
of us.

Personal good and evil are not the assets of any religion. They are
not necessarily religious terms. The choice whether to inflict pain
or not to inflict it, to look it in the face or to turn a blind eye
to it, to get personally involved in healing pain, like a devoted
country doctor, or to make do with organising angry demonstrations
and signing wholesale petitions - this spectrum of choice confronts
each one of us several times a day.

Of course, we might occasionally take wrong turns. But even as we
take a wrong turn, we still know what we are doing. We know the
difference between good and evil, between inflicting pain and
healing, between Goethe and Goebbels. Between Heine and Heydrich.
Between Weimar and Buchenwald. Between individual responsibility and
collective kitsch.

Let me conclude with one more personal recollection: as a very
nationalistic, even chauvinistic, little boy in Jerusalem of the
1940s, I vowed never to set foot on German soil, never even to buy
any German product. The only thing I could not boycott were German
books. If you boycott the books, I told myself, you will become a
little bit like "them". At first I limited myself to reading the
pre-war German literature and the anti-Nazi writers. But later, in
the 1960s, I began to read, in Hebrew translations, the works of the
post-war generation of German writers and poets. In particular, the
works of the Group 47 writers led by Hans Werner Richter. They made
me imagine myself in their place. I'll put it more sharply: they
seduced me to imagine myself in their stead, back in the dark years,
and just before the dark years, and just after.

Reading these authors, and others, I could no longer go on simply
hating everything German, past, present and future.

I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to
fanaticism and hatred. I believe that books that make us imagine the
other, may turn us more immune to the ploys of the devil, including
the inner devil, the Mephisto of the heart. Thus, Gunter Grass and
Heinrich Boll, Ingeborg Bachmann and Uwe Johnson, and in particular
my beloved friend Siegfried Lenz, opened for me the door into
Germany. They, along with a number of dear personal German friends,
made me break my taboos and open my mind, and eventually my heart.
They re-introduced me to the healing powers of literature.

Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool. It is, in my view,
also a major moral imperative. And finally, imagining the other - if
you promise not to quote this little professional secret - imagining
the other is also a deep and very subtle human pleasure.

Amos Oz's memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness is published in
paperback by Vintage. To order a copy for pounds 7.99 with free UK
p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875. This article is
adapted from a speech given by Amos Oz when he was awarded the Goethe
prize in Frankfurt on August 28.