Thursday, 16 November 2006

Into The Mind of Evil

This post has nothing to do with the Doctor Who story of the same name; nor is it going to attempt to prove or explain the existence of evil. I'm just going to take it for granted for the moment that it exists, and that Hitler and Stalin are it.

It is simply that I'm reading Michael Dobbs's book "Churchill's Triumph", which is quite entertaining; but there is a page early on which seems to be inside Stalin's head, explaining his motivation. I was struck by this, because it seems to be a massive literary conceit (in both sense of the word). As someone who dabbles in verse in another side of his life, such an enterprise would always strike me as in terrible taste, invariably trite and inaccurate, and arrogant. I'm not accusing Dobbs of this - that is how I would feel attempting the same thing. Recently I've read Ron Rosenbaum's book (Explaining Hitler) which surveys with varying degrees of sympathy, the historians and psychologists who have tried to produce an explanation of Hitler's evil. Throughout the book he keeps returning to the fear that to explain is to excuse, and so the most vivid passages are those recounting his discussions with Claude Lanzmann, who makes the insistent point that resort to explanation is itself utterly inappropriate. Rosenbaum refuses to make a final judgment, perhaps dazed by the consequences of getting into that kind of mind.

To pass, in the course of a page, lightly through the mind of a man who committed such atrocities, whose behaviour was so inexplicable - in the Dobbs book at least, seems to render Stalin just a cheesed off bloke with an axe to grind, downplaying the intent-to-suffering-and-power that must have lurked - how? where? why? - in him. But even if this explanation accounted, in however exaggerated a form, for his actions; to skate so superficially across it is to me worse than pointless. A character like Stalin cannot be given depth or background by a page purporting to be in his head: he is only minimized, cariacatured, his victims dehumanized.

It returns me to my initial question: is this endeavour possible, let alone desirable? I say it seems in poor taste because it seems like a great reduction of suffering. Perhaps the minds of such people should be left to die with them. This is not to say that a work of history, say Ian Kershaw's Nemesis, cannot tease out threads of thought from events, speeches, diaries - to propose an overarching "motivation", like you would with a soap opera character, is to say more than that these are just humans (which we must say at every available moments) - it is to say there is an easily-acounted for continuum between everyday experience and great evil. A good but not really complex book like Churchill's Triumph cannot do this, even if it were possible. If it were, we would need a Tolstoy to attempt it. I am not sure I can see any.


james higham said...

Living over here in the land of Stalin and still with the vestiges of his legacy, he is indeed complex. General Vlasov's treachery was, in his own words, a result of his estimate of Stalin as a complex but ultimately destructive man and many post-Soviet thinkers here attribute to him the annihilation of the Russians most able to carry Russia forward today.

The Tin Drummer said...

And if you could understand, explain, comprehend, this man - would it be right to represent his inner thoughts as part of the narrative of a much wider book? I am really enjoying Churchill's Triumph, but I really have problems with trying to get into Stalin's head in the way that Dobbs does. It disturbs me - I find it almost immoral.

"Mao thought back to his days on the Long March. He remembered the iniquities, the indignities - I'll show them, he thought, I will recover every ounce of fat I lost in those dark days, and more besides."

It just doesn't cut the mustard, and not just because I am crap at writing - something about it is wrong, like Milton including God in Paradise Lost. One of the world's greatest poems, but you cannot have God speak, and keep your artistic integrity, surely. Same goes for Stalin.

James - tell me, what do Russians really think of Stalin, or Kruschchev? What do they make of things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, which we're brought up to think was a victory for the west (..."the other guy just blinked"...)? Is Gorbachev revered, or hated, as I have heard sometimes?

james higham said...

Stalin - the older generation who were brainwashed - they revere him still but suspect all is not well but won't admit it. All others see him for what he was now.

Gorbachev will never be forgiven for his actions in the Baltic States and his shameless playing up to Reagan and desire for international stardom. Yet there are those who like him.

The Missile business is one they're proud of in that they stood up to America but it's never spoken of much.

Don't forget they're are two new generations now for whom these things mean little except a note in the history books.

Basically, China and the US are the feared enemy although US goods and culture are everywhere.