Saturday, October 29, 2011

Rationalizing Evil

Evil is not hard to recognize; it is hard to resist. How often do we recognize that someone or something is bad for us, yet we lie to ourselves and pretend it's alright? So long as we haven't utterly smothered our conscience, or suffer a mental illness, we have some sense that a person or action is bad for us. That "voice" might be very clear or may be just a quiet whisper. In any case, we are markedly good at rationalizing evil - at least those evils that we desire or find expedient.

Jonathan Harker demonstrates this early in Bram Stoker's Dracula. In chapter two, he clearly sees some things wrong with the Count. Dracula has a "cruel-looking" mouth with protruding and "peculiarly sharp white teeth". His "nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point." At the Count's touch, Jonathan cannot help but shudder. Even this early in their meeting, he can tell something is wrong. Something looks wrong, and it feels wrong.

Jonathan writes in his journal on that first night: "I doubt. I fear. I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul."

But what harm could one old man do? He's just eccentric. He must not have visitors often. I'm sure you can't get good dental and nail care in Transylvania.

Jonathan could have left that first night. He could have left the next day, when he finds the castle empty and without mirrors. He could have left after the second night, when Dracula discusses evil spirits or leaves suddenly with the dawn.

But, like many of us do with unfortunate ease, he ignores or explains away the warning signs that something is wrong. What harm could one more night in the castle do? I'm away from home already. I need to make this sale. This old man needs my help.

He writes next about cutting himself shaving: "This was startling, and coming on the top of so many strange things, was beginning to increase that vague feeling of uneasiness which I always have when the Count is near. But at the instant I saw that the cut had bled a little.... When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him..." He could have left when the Count recoiled from a crucifix and cast no reflection. Instead, he takes breakfast.

When he finally looks for a way out, there is none; he finds "doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted." We too often delay judgement against evil until it is too late. Sign after sign passes our notice - or, rather, is allowed to pass our notice - until we find that we, like Jonathan, are prisoners.

(On a related note, I'm looking forward to the upcoming Ignatius Critical Edition of Dracula. Catholic author and literature professor Joseph Pearce is the series editor, and the commentary in each volume is aimed at a traditional reading of the story.)

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