Back in the fall of 2011 I was asked by a friend to try to provide a definition of evil. It was something I often talked about. What follows here is my rather sketchy attempt, notes merely, to delineate what is in truth an extraordinarily complex subject. To do justice, even to my own thoughts, on this subject would require much more time.
Furthermore I am going only going to discuss human evil and leave aside troubling questions about the incidental evils of earthquakes, mosquitoes and viruses. These natural evils do ultimately have to fit into a comprehensive answer to the question of evil, but I believe the real question here relates to that which we find in humanity. The capacity to choose to do evil things.
I have met a few people who actually don’t believe in evil. One woman, an established New York Times bestselling writer, told me that she felt that most things that were considered evils were really just extreme misunderstandings. In other words if people had just had more knowledge evil wouldn’t occur. My response to her… She lives in an incredibly sheltered world.
Let me enlarge that world a teeny bit with a couple of examples of what can only be described as evil.
The first comes from World War Two. In Poland, in late summer of 1944, the Russians were chasing the Nazis as they arrived at the banks of the Vistula River, which runs along the eastern edge of Warsaw. The Poles sensing that the Soviet Army was close rose up to overthrow their oppressors on August 1st. The Nazis were given such a bad time that they actually began to leave… That is until they realized that the Russians were not going to across the river. The Nazis then turned around. Then the city was leveled and more than 200,000 people died before the Poles capitulated near the end of September. The Soviet Army did not help, because they wanted to control Poland after the war. The atrocities got so bad inside Warsaw that troops under the German command even raided a cancer ward of Polish female patients. They were raped in their beds, burned alive and shot if they tried to escape. Illustrations of evil during wartime are endless some much worse than this.
A second illustration comes from the world of science. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted a series of experiments that showed that average people would administer what they were told were lethal electric shocks to unseen strangers at the behest of an authority figure. So focused were they on completing their tasks that they would violate their own consciences to order to perform their instructions. These tests have been replicated in various countries around the world with fairly consistent results.
Finally something from my own life. In the mid-Seventies I worked in a mental institution in California. It was a locked facility. When I first started working there I would come across one inmate named Bryan. I couldn’t tell if he was forty or sixty. He’d always greet me in the same manner. “Hi” he’d say in a high whiny voice. “Hi” I’d reply. “What’s your sign?” he’d ask. I told him I didn’t really follow astrology. “Oh…” he would sound dejected for an instant.“Is my mother coming today?” he’d finally ask. After a few days of this repetitious behavior I thought I’d respond a little differently. “Do you want me to find out whether your mother’s coming Bryan?” He beamed. “Could you?” “Yeah I’ll look into it for you.” “Thanks.” He smiled. I walked over to the nurses station and asked one of the other orderlies if Bryan’s mother was coming soon. He looked at me with a smirk. “Oh you don’t know…” “What?” I said. “Look in the patients record book.” He pointed to a stainless steel folder. I flipped it back, scanned down the page and read the following: “Bryan’s mother had him castrated at the age of six.” And the evil here is not only in the mother’s choice, but also in the ironic smirk of the orderly.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about evil ever since then… And I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First of all evil is connected to choice. It is not merely an ignorance of crucial bits of moral knowledge, but there is something actively added to the mix.
Secondly evil is a relationship. Or rather evil is a breaking of relationships. With Our family, our loves, our children, our friends, our animals, and land, our country, ourselves, and ultimately God. The lie is evil because it severs a relationship, even if only one side of the equation knows it. Likewise stealing, envy, prejudice, etc. are all breakers of relationships. Sex seems to be a zone that breeds strange forms of evil. It is not sex that is evil, rather it is the breaking of that bond of trust which is the real problem, especially when it is inevitable. And there is too much in our age that encourages a narcissistic selfishness with regard to fulfilling one’s “needs”.
One evil often breeds another. To damage a child is to create a crucible of dark possibilities. The abused child doesn’t necessarily become sympathetic with other abused souls. Au contraire, some do go on to abuse their own children.
Evil is often done when we are protecting ourselves. In other words our own pain is the justification for committing acts against others. I’m convinced that no evil is done in the name of being an evil badass. Everyone has a good excuse. Everyone is right in their own eyes. The distance between being a victim and a victimizer is narrow indeed.
The distance between great evil (war atrocities, rape, etc) and everyday evil (drunkenness, gossip, etc) is not very far at all. It could be argued that the smallest act of evil could unleash incredibly dark scenarios. A stupid fumbling advance at a house party sends a girl home on icy roads with too much alcohol in her veins. She crashes and dies on black ice. The boy later kills himself. The community is angrily divided about what to do about the town’s drinking problem. (This is a story I witnessed.)
Evil also tries to eliminate the effects of time. Evil wants it now. The most evil person would be the one who had the will and the means to get whatever was desired as near to the moment desired as possible.
Or look at it this way. You are walking down a busy city street. What can you do that will effect someone for the rest of their life in terms of evil? The options are nearly limitless. You can trip them, punch them, shoot them, push them into the path of an oncoming car, spit at them, yell at them, make derogatory remarks about their body, threaten them, even just laugh at them. And whatever you do will be remembered.
If you reverse this thought experiment and ask what can you do that is truly good to any person on that same street, the options are few. Because any action you do might be misunderstood, or inflame problems that you know nothing about, even a smile at the wrong moment could be construed as cruel. If you gave money to a homeless person, you don’t know if they’ll just go out and buy drugs or booze with it. The only positive thing I can think of would be to save the person from a car accident or a mugging. In other words to stop an active evil. To do real good takes time. You have to know a person’s needs. Good rarely happens instantly, unequivocally.
And so ultimately all questions about evil come back to ourselves, to our own desires, to what we are willing to do to get what we want. If life is only about having fun, feeling good, staying safe, then evil is already at our door. It will manifest itself in hundreds of small but insidious ways. And then the question is what to do about it?
That brings up the question of redemption… but that’s another much longer discussion. Maybe someday I’ll get to it here.
December 8th 2019
(This one was for Vanessa.)
I am currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Far from everything I have known, living the Anadromous Life on the edge. And hey! You can support our work here and for The Anadromist channels by through in some coin at PayPal. Click THIS LINK HERE! And if you give $!0 per month or more than $50 you’ll get audio lectures. Thanks!
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 4- Puppetry Can Do Everything
On to Berlin… The name alone conjures up some powerful images: Prussian soldiers, 1920’s decadence, Hitler, the Russians ripping the city to shreds, the Cold War and dances on the crumbling Wall. It’s all there and much more: A city obliterated by the past and a perpetual construction zone preparing for an unrealized future. City workers spend time erasing neo-Nazi graffiti, while the overwhelming Turkish presence raises questions yet to be answered. What does Islam mean in secular Berlin?
My very good friend Millay Hyatt met me at the Ostbahnhof. Millay has an endless curiosity about many subjects. She took me to a Stanley Kubrick exhibit, an abandoned amusement park, rows of endless communist era buildings and a monumental Soviet World War 2 memorial, among other places. She also aided me immensely by becoming my interpreter for two puppet theatres.
The first theatre, a shadow theatre called the Fuguren-Zirkel (Figure Circle), was run by an affable Austrian named Georg Jenisch. We watched romantic and psychedelic displays of light and shadow along with the music of Mozart’s Magic Flute. His entrancing figures were elaborately cut from malleable plastic or even flexible plastic mirrors to give an effect of not only shadow puppets but of light figures as well. Strange little figures danced around in a large circular window, the size of a pair of outstretched adult arms, and it seemed impossible that there was only one man behind the stage. His figures were based partly on Turkish shadow puppets. But he was also clearly influenced by the work of the brilliant silhouette filmmaker and shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. He was also a musician himself and composed music for his performances at times. Georg thought his figures should only move to music and never speak. This was similar in style to the Salzburg Marionette Theater where he had indeed worked. Puppet art had been more innovative in the 90s, he felt, yet he seemed to feel it was regrouping. Overall it was a courteous and friendly interview.
It was then time to see Das Weite Theater performing a piece called The White Hammer at Die Schaubude Theater, which was the funniest piece of puppet art I’ve yet to see. A small cuddly white bunny hops out onto the stage. It eats what appear to be real carrots. A sinister female puppet slinks out onto the stage and then without warning pounces upon the critter and slices open the rabbits throat in an exceptionally bloody scene of red cloth blood. I know this doesn’t sound funny. But trust me the abrupt U-turn between cute little bunny and mad slasher was outrageously funny. I mean who expects a white rabbit to be mercilessly slaughtered within the first few minutes of a play. (Don’t worry though the bunny’s ghost returns near the end of the evening.) The rest of the play was a comic farce based on whodunnits. Blockheaded puppets carved by Czechs moved in frantically satirical actions. One buck-toothed woman spun around in circles every time some the possibility of danger was even hinted at. The farcical movements were given to them by Torsten Gesser and Irene Winter. It was mostly just the two of them with as many as six large wooden hand puppets at a time. And they turned out to be excellent interview subjects. Millay Hyatt provided excellent help by translating their predominantly German speech.
As we spoke I began to piece together the story of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain. The Communist state, through direct Russian orders, funded puppet theatres. For years an artistic council planned the repertoire, which was mostly Russian Fairy Tales and folk tales. Before the Wall fell there were 17 serious puppet theatres in East Germany. Shows for adults began in the early 1980’s, notably a puppet presentation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper or as it is know in English the Three Penny Opera. (Brecht was known for his leftward leanings.)
Was criticism of the government present in these puppet shows?
“The puppet theatres did not feel as much pressure as the standard Theatre and the Opera did.” said Irene. “There was always a way to express criticism through puppetry in the GDR. You didn’t do it in a blatant way though, you used subtlety. People in East Germany were used to reading between the lines. So the audience could tell when something was being said.”
Was it done by allegory?
“Here’s an example?” Irene continued. “ We did a version of satirical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were soldiers in the forest watching everything. They were spies for the Queen. You didn’t have to spell out what this meant. Everyone knew it was a criticism of state paranoia. The spies in the forest were even wearing the uniforms of the state police. So we always expressed criticism. And sometimes the audience would read criticism into works where none was intended. And they would be thinking ‘Wow! They are so daring! They actually said that?’ But there were colleagues of ours who did try to speak in a more directly political way. And they did have trouble with the authorities”
Torsten added, “ Then, you did have a feeling that people actually heard you when you were being critical. Nowadays when you are critical they laugh; they don’t listen, nobody cares. But then, you definitely had the sense that criticism was effective.”
Did more people come to the puppet theatres then?
“Theatre was much more affordable back then.” Torsten remarked. “And it was considered a necessity. People were encouraged to go to the theatre from a very young age. The thought was, ‘If we can’t provide them with consumer goods, then we’ll provide them with culture.”
And after the Berlin Wall came down?
“It was a 180º turn.” Torsten said, “We had a professional career. Now we are freelancers.”
“In West Germany they weren’t working with puppets in a professional way.” Irene pointed out. “There weren’t university courses on puppetry. So West Germans were more self-taught or following older folk traditions. But there was no professional training.”
They had been cut off from puppetry in the West. And so it was a bit of a shock for them to see the accommodations that might have to be made to continue as puppeteers in the Western mode. Irene lamented some of the changes.
“So after the Wall came down the East German style began to become more of a popular entertainment mostly for children, although there was some movement the other way. But in the West is was more of an entertainment and in East Germany it was an art.”
When I asked them if they did shows for children they said “No! We do shows for families.” And the distinction was important for them. They didn’t want to be confined to the kiddie ghetto.
“When we have material, we think about what we are trying to convey, we don’t think about age groups.” Torsten explained. “ We try to get across the central idea, what we find fascinating in the material.”
When we did speak of contemporary children and their fixation on screens, they concurred with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost about the tangible reality of puppetry in communicating with modern kids. Irene called it the “live sensual nature” of the puppet.
Finally I just asked them the most basic, yet most difficult question: What is Puppetry?
Irene burst out laughing “Puppetry can do everything!”
Torsten agreed “It can portray thousands of images and fantasies.”
(Next: We travel to Poland to find some of the largest puppet theatres in the world.)
When in Berlin you MUST visit…
And Das Weite Theater
And don’t miss The Figure Circle
And remember to run these through translation tools if your German isn’t up to snuff. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak German, you’ll still find yourself truly impressed.
I need to say something about puppets.
I need to communicate something here, in this manner, about puppetry and it’s relationship to the world we are moving into. The problem isn’t that I don’t know what to say; the problem is that there is too much to unravel, too many long thoughts, involved histories, autopsies of other cultural manifestations. I’m also not quite sure who the reader of this little missive will be. I have to assume that most of the people who will read this, at this moment in 2011, have little or no interest in the subject. Then there are those who may find this introductory little essay who might have a professional interest. Yet I believe what I have to say can span the gap.
For most, certainly most Americans at any rate, the mention of puppets will immediately start hitting exactly the buttons I do not wish to hit. So let me just get this off my chest now and we’ll take it as given. Muppets are indeed puppets, but the world of puppetry is so much wider, so much deeper that I have to state from the beginning “Don’t think of puppets merely as Muppets.” Secondly, in a similar vein, puppets are not a children’s medium. (Any serious puppeteer actually reading this at the moment will wonder why I’m restating the obvious.) I would say that, without a doubt, for the vast majority of folks, puppets are for kids. To which all I can say to that is keep reading. Thirdly, puppets aren’t simply a quaint folk art, though they have a fascinating history. And finally for my lefty friends, puppets aren’t just for protest marches: cardboard turtles and political effigies. Puppets aren’t even exclusively humorous and ironic.
What then am I talking about? Punch? Absolutely. Guignol? Certainment. Shakespeare performed with marionettes? Often. Faust? Don Juan? Mozart operas? Nativity plays? Ballets? Modernist theatre? Puppet films? Seven times yes! Performed in little booths? In traditional theatres? In parades? In barns? In fields? In water? In the dark? Seven more times yes! They can make you laugh, but you knew that. They can make you cry. They can even frighten you. And they certainly can even make you think. They can defy truth, religion and God, because they can also speak of truth,
religion, God. Unlike actors they are perfect as abstractions, as personifications, as pageantry, as philosophy. But like actors they can be imbued with movement, with character and with a voice. Puppetry is an art that is only just now coming into it’s own.
And puppets can even enter into the historical realm. Consider puppetry in the Czech Republic: Folk and church puppets certainly existed there during the Middle Ages, but the proof is scanty. Serious puppetry was introduced sometime in the Baroque Era through English, Italian and German itinerant companies. Marionettes performed versions of Marlowe, Shakespeare and even Molière. The Czechs took to marionettes with great enthusiasm and soon began to produce their own little puppet plays as well as this classic repertoire. Marlowe’s Faust became a traditional favorite, likewise Don Juan (Don Giovanni) and biblical themes. And after the Battle of White Mountain in 1622, which resulted in Germanic language domination by the Austrians, puppetry became one of the few cultural venues allowed to smuggle in the forbidden Czech language. One of the characters inherited by Czechs was the Pulcinella, Punch, Kasperl puppet who was christened Kaspárek in the Czech lands. This loudmouthed creature was like an unhinged court jester who was by the late 19th Century, saying some awfully pungent things about the Czechs Austro-Hungarian overlords. One puppeteer claimed that the remarks were not his fault, but the puppet’s. But this was only the beginning.
Actually, by the mid- 19th Century, puppetry was beginning to take a familiar road in the Czech Republic, the road that leads to the quarantine of childhood. Yet by the turn of the 20th Century Czech puppetry was on a new track that would intensify itself through the darker days to come. Theatrical artists were beginning to discover the lowly hand puppet and shadow puppets had arrived with more visibility. And with a revival of the Czech language came a printing of several classic puppet plays. The first congress of Czech puppeteers was held in 1903, which would eventually pave the way for the formation of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette), the international puppetry organization. In 1912 the world’s oldest puppetry magazine, Cesky Loutkár, (The Czech Puppeteer) entered circulation. It continues today as Loutkár. Also in the early part of the 20th Century, puppets began to be discovered by modernists of various stripes. This just scratches the surface though. The real value of puppetry in the old Czechoslovakia can be seen by what happened during the Second World War.
This is a lecture on the same topic from a couple years later.
The Nazis occupied not only the Sudetenland but also all of the Czech lands during the war. The Czechs did not welcome the beast however. And one thing they had working for them was the impenetrability of the Czech language. Also the serious Germans did not at first fully grasp the place of puppetry in helping to preserve the language in the face of a previous Germanic Austrian suppression. They hadn’t done any basic research on how many puppet theatres there were in this small country in, say, 1936: 1,357. Nor how many puppet plays had been performed that year: 10,000. Nor did they grasp the significance of the rebellious Kaspárek in thumbing his Bohemian nose at the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Under the watchful eye of the Nazis Czech puppeteers found surreptitious ways to perform suspect material. The SS began the elimination of some puppet theatres in 1938.. By March of 1939 it was clear to the Nazis that puppet performances were clearly a danger to the propaganda of the Third Reich. They shut down Loutkár and the Sokol puppet institution. Underground anti-fascist puppet plays were held even when all Czech cultural manifestations were for a time halted. Meanwhile the plays of Josef Skupa, the greatest living Czech puppeteer, the inventor of the beloved Spejbel and Hurvinek, were presenting challenging allegorical works for their adult programs. These plays did not catch the attention of the SS overlords immediately. In fact they tried to use Skupa’s fame as a propaganda tool by claiming, falsely, that Skupa had performed for the Nazis in Germany.
But as the war entered it’s feverish final phase Czech puppeteers were snagged in the nets of the Germans. Many were tortured, imprisoned, tossed into concentration camps. Professor Skupa was thrown into a jail in Dresden near the end of the war. And in a supreme irony, he was able to escape when the murderous Allied bombs destroyed not only the city but the prison that held him. All in all, however, over one hundred Czech puppeteers were martyred at the hands of the Nazis. And yet in one of the most fascinating chapters of this strange story Czech prisoners at the Terezín and Ravenbrück concentration camps made miraculous puppet shows out of rags to entertain their fellow doomed inmates.
This, obviously, is something quite different from the cute childish figures that linger in the common perception of what a puppet can do. And just as plainly, these puppeteers did not conform to the happy-go-lucky stereotypes that again form the popular imagination of what puppetry can be. These were not simply puppeteers as counter-propagandists. This was puppetry as a courageous truth telling art.
And we haven’t even gotten to communist era yet! Great figures like the puppet filmmakers Jiri Trnka and Jan Svankmajer both ran afoul of the censors with their allegorical works. And puppeteers learned to speak with subtlety so that scripts might be approved, while the imagery might speak a different message entirely. And even after the Velvet Revolution puppetry still speaks in questioning tones about the value of all of that materialistic cash being injected into the Czech economy at the expense of the soul of the nation.
In short, in the Czech lands we have a clear case where puppetry was never simply reduced to a kiddie cute definition. But what is the value of even this sort of puppetry in this 21st Century hi-tech virtually networked media saturated world?
(See part two.)
Most of the Czech puppet history is found in Dr. Jan Malik’s book Puppetry in Czechoslovakia (Orbis, Prague 1948) and The World of Puppets Yesterday and Today (Museum of Puppetry, Chrudim, Czech Republic 1997) – both highly recommended.