When the concept of evil has been dissected, it’s traditionally been under the supple lenses of art and religion rather than science. A rare exception is Lyall Watson’s Dark Nature, which deploys the tools of anthropology, evolutionary biology, even astrophysics, leaving no stone, earthbound or otherwise, unturned. Naturally, one notion that comes up is that of the sunnum bonum, the “just right,” i.e. the Goldilocks principle. Evil, in this view, is disharmony, the harmless or benign done to excess. Indeed, Watson points out that “evil” derives from the Teutonic “ubilez,” “up or over.” Watson also suggests that what we call evil and what we deem good might exist in a sort of an uneasy tension, a push-pull analogous to how forces in the universe interact—think about protons and electrons and their charges, or the way in which gravity and inertial velocity keep the very planets in their orbits. As far as we know, on only one of these planets does evil exist. Yet Watson muses on whether a black hole, the epitome of destruction smack dab in the heart of a galaxy, might be the cosmic analogue of evil. This sounds a bit like modern-day, astrophysically-enhanced mythmaking, but on the whole surely reflects something of our palpable intuition that evil is something we contain only through struggle, through suppression or repression, the deterrence of law or shame, the viral media being our latter-day scaffolds. If the archetypal devil and angel squabbling at the shoulders, in ceaseless tangle for our souls, sounds too Sunday Schoolish, switch out limbic impulses for the devil and a highly-activated frontal lobe for the angels; the tension, regardless of the language into which it is translated, persists.
In Bradford Morrow’s striking debut collection of short stories, The Uninnocent, released late last year, one can see both of these in action; in many cases, it is characters’ excesses, their going “up and over”—obsessive hoarding, fear, revenge fantasy, greed, or simply being soused 24/7—that hurtle them into their tailspins, equally likely to result in their self-destruction as that of a nemesis. But what, one might rightly inquire, provides the countervailing force, the gravity that keeps these stories from collapsing into black holes devoid of hope or redemption? Continue reading