Thursday, March 03, 2011

The problem of evil

In recent months I have read quite a few of the remarkable writers coming out of Caribbean-American culture, such as Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic), Michelle Cliff (Jamaica), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Carlos Eire (Cuba), and, just now, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Dominican Republic). Let me comment on just one aspect of their work -- their often mind-numbing descriptions of life under dictators such as Cuba's Baptista, Haiti's Duvalier, and (with Diaz) The Dominican Republic's Trujillo, who ruled that country from 1930 to 1961 with ruthless brutality.

Of course, monstrously evil strongmen are not unique to the Greater Antilles, but I put down Diaz's book wondering how it is that anyone can be so gratuitously casual about human suffering. Yes, I can understand how natural selection might favor violent behavior in defense of the clan, but where does this taste for torture come from, this apparent satisfaction in seeing a fellow human subjected to excruciating agony far in excess of any defensive need? Out of what dark recess of human nature does such sadism spring?

Demonic possession? That age-old explanation doesn't fly anymore. And theodicy is a bankrupt game. We are on our own, wrestling with our own biological natures, trying to make the best of the cards nature and nurture have dealt us. Some of those cards are bloodthirst, power and greed. Others are kindness, humility and unselfishness. For every Trujillo there are Mirabal sisters. And I'll posit this: To the extent that empirical knowing and humanistic values have taken root in the world, the Toequemadas and Trujillos have been in retreat.

We can all aspire to the courage of the Mirabal sisters, and wonder what risks we might personally take to face down evil. We might also ponder to what extent we sublimate our own inner Trujillos in slasher movies and violent video games -- not to mention our very own national nook in the Greater Antilles where waterboarding had its day.

Science can study the genetic and cultural roots of violent and sadistic behaviors, but it is the writers -- the Alvarezes, Cliffs, Danticats, Eires and Diazes, for example -- who hold up the brightest mirrors to our faces. Great literature has always been on the side of the angels.