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Once upon a time my 5 year old grandson, Erik, asked me to take him to visit Malaspina College. I did. I took him to my office, then to the library, to the gymnasium, and to the cafeteria. He remarked with interest on each of those locations, particularly the cafeteria where we had stopped for a snack. As we walked back to the pickup he looked up and said, "But where is Malaspina College?" Erik, as a five year old, had made what Gilbert Ryle called a category mistake. There is nothing above or beyond the buildings, the faculty, the students, that constitutes Malaspina College - the name just refers to that collection of things and not to some metaphysical entity above and beyond.
There are times in Out of Eden when Kahn is looking for "evil" in some metaphysical or ontological place, a place quite as impossible to point to as pointing to something more than the individual constituent components of any referring term like "Malaspina College". He spends several chapters trying to track down and locate for analysis this "evil" that he tells us in the first line of the book is an essential part of us: "Evil makes us human."
Once upon another time I taught a "Philosophy in Literature" course in which I used the Bible as the textbook. One of the assignments for students was to write a creation myth of their own following the lines of the creation myths in Genesis. We had a great time reading and talking about those modern day myths. What did we learn? What you get out of a myth depends on what you put into it. Intention, text, interpretation. Feminists in the class were sure to build feminism into the fabric of the story. One young male student from the USA even built the right to bear arms into his myth!
Kahn goes to the Genesis stories to read out different points "in order to press the inquiry" into the nature of evil. Each of his five chapters returns to some reading of the various etiological myths found in Genesis. He concentrates on the Fall to suggest that it is our awareness of finitude that brings about evil - we are terrorized by our awareness of death ("The argument I pursue is that evil arises out of the way the free subject responds to the awareness of his own death.") and the lack of "ultimate meaning" we experience once we are ejected from the Garden of Eden by our wilful behaviour. Using this strategy Kahn considers evil within a family, society, and polity. On the way he laces each chapter with a few anti-liberal, anti-Rawls, and anti- Arendt comments.
We learn that for Kahn evil :
· is love gone wrong;
· appears in the biblical account when humans act;
· is the flight from recognition of mortality;
· is embedded in the soul of man.
Kahn states that the enlightenment emphasis on reason and science is blind to the actual state of affairs to be found in the world and that faith is superior to reason and the Judeo-Christian world view superior to the Greek world view. Faith, he states, is what connects us to ultimate meaning. He writes, "The object of reason may be truth, but truth without faith will not redeem man."
The vocabulary employed in the book is religious. "Faith" - "ultimate meaning" - "magic"- "sacred" - "transubstantiation" - "God" - "Christ" - "soul" etc., and each chapter returns to Genesis for support for a particular take on metaphysics and the nature of things. We are told, for example, that faith connects us to ultimate meaning. But what exactly does he mean by faith? Much of the problem with the "f" word comes about because of a built in ambiguity - Faith/faith: Faith = belief without compelling evidence; while faith = trust, or beliefs that are knowable in principle. When my Catholic acquaintance eats the wafer he has Faith that it will transubstantiate; when I go to start my car in the morning I have faith that it will start. If my car does not start it is possible in principle for me or a mechanic to determine what's wrong. If the wafer does not change to the flesh of Christ conversion is the only solution. And one wonders what on earth (or in heaven) "ultimate meaning" might mean. ("Meaning enters the world through the magic of transubstantiation." ) One wonders just how this magic is working to produce meaning here on earth where our problems seem to be rather mundane ones of over population, greed, aggression, and belief in ultimate meaning. In fact, can there be evil without religion? As Steven Weinberg says, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."
Out of Eden is a difficult book to read. In addition to the religious vocabulary which is vague and unclear there are passages which suffer from a different lack of precision. For example,
We may no longer live in a world of the sacred, but we continue to live in one where we are very much aware of the threat of that existential loneliness that was Adam's fate before Eve. We no longer know how to speak of this world. Still, we have no better cure for this loneliness than the two-become-one of love. And, as is already clear from the myth, not even this is enough, for love cannot save us from knowledge of our own death. When we demand this of love, we become evil.
The liberal sprinkling of demonstrative pronouns makes this passage difficult to unpack. So much depends upon the claim that it is our knowledge of our own death that drives us to evil. But that knowledge is neither a priori, intuitive, nor instinctive.
John Habgood, reviewing the book for the TLS writes, Out of Eden is a rich and fascinating book full of unusual conjunctions and insights. Its meditative tone tends to lapse occasionally into sententiousness; the following utterance is fairly typical: “Every symbolic order, I suspect, has a rhythm which moves between transubstantiation and labour”. I am shamefully unclear as to what that sentence actually means. When Kahn resorts to straight exposition of Genesis, however, or to historical analysis, he can be clear and convincing, but there are too many sections in which the high level of abstraction can lead to frustration and bewilderment. It is worth persevering, however, because the book is full of unexpected insights, and there is much to be learnt from the way in which a scholar deeply immersed in both Judaism and Christianity interprets some of the foundation stories from both traditions. Evil, he concludes, is not banal; it is the opposite of love, a symptom of our rage against mortality, a false understanding of who we are, and what we are meant to be." [Source]
The conclusion of the book, "Tragedy, Comedy, and the Banality of Evil", is quite excellent, and should be read first. Kahn writes, "Every Jewish scholar raised in the postwar period feels a need to write his or her book on the Holocaust. This has been mine." The disagreement with Arendt is sketched out in this chapter in some detail and is worth thinking about while trying to understand the nature of evil and the condition of the human in the natural world we find ourselves sharing now that we are out of Eden.
© 2011 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.