Daring to Look Evil in the Face

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As some of you may recall, I learned about Jordan Peterson and his work less than a month ago, and I dived into it feet-first. One book that he mentioned repeatedly, which likewise I had never heard about, was The Gulag Archipelago by Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

I figured, well, Peterson thinks it’s an incredibly important read, the author won a Nobel prize, and some scholars consider is the best non-fiction book of the 20th century, so, yeah, maybe I should buy it. So I did.

I am only 10% of the way through the book, so it’s somewhat presumptuous of me to write a post having anything to do with a book whose surface I’ve barely scratched, but even with this modest exposure, I have some thoughts I’d like to share based on what I’ve read so far and what thoughts it is conjuring.

Solzhenitsyn spent years inside the hellish Soviet gulag system. The first portion of the book I’ve read describes various methods of arresting people (and there were tens of millions of them), interrogation techniques, and torture methods.

I don’t enjoy seeing or reading about evil, ugly stuff. I’ve never liked horror movies. I don’t look at videos that I know are violent or gruesome. I don’t even like movies focused on loud, fast cars, since I consider them dirty, noisy, and unsettling. So the last thing I want to examine is dozens of different techniques of torturing and tormenting people, but there it is, right in front of me.

I highlight just about every book I read, but after I got the the 14th torture method, I just stopped. For one thing, why on Earth would I highlight such stuff? (I wonder one day if an authority will pluck this book off my shelf and ask why I am highlighting torture methods). And, in a way, I began to feel like I was obliquely participating in the evil. So I stopped, only to resume later when different topics were discussed.

What’s confounding for me is the illogic of it all. I try to understand the actions of a person by way of their motivations, and I cannot comprehend how anyone could engage in the deliberate and sustained harming of others. I can certainly understand in a fit of rage how people could do harm. If someone attacked one of my children, could I kill them? I think so. But as I read about what went on for decades in the Soviet Union, questions flood my mind. Among them is – – how could it not be that Russia dedicate heart and soul to the vilification of Stalin’s memory? This man was pure evil, as were the “organs’ of his state. Every urinal in the country should be crafted to resemble the man’s open mouth.

But I digress. In Peterson’s examination of human evil, he seeks principally to find out if he himself could be capable of such things. Would Peterson have made an effective guard at Auschwitz, for example? Solzhenitsyn openly makes the same point. He makes plain early on that humanity is not neatly divided into 92% good people and 8% evil people, and our only challenge as a race is to round up the 8% and vaporize them.

Instead, he states, in a Jungian tradition, that every single one of us has the evil within. The seeds are already there. Sometimes their blossom into their horrible fullness. Other times, I suppose, the seeds are dormant for a lifetime, and the human life in which they were planted passes from this Earth without having harmed another. I would like to think that most of us would desire to be such a person.

The word that comes up the most regarding this book is “depressing”. In the introduction to the book, they mention how the unabridged three volumes, which span 1200 pages, are a telling sign, because the second volume sold far fewer than the first, and the third volume far fewer than even the second. People just don’t want to read any more of this awful stuff, because it’s so damned soul-crushing.

I’ll see how it goes for me, and if I complete the book, and it shakes me anywhere like I anticipate it will, I’ll certainly do another post. It’s a tough read, however, and I strongly suspect it will change me, and hopefully for the better.