The Presentation of Evil in Literature: Panyushin, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Raymond….

Russian journalist Valery Panyushin, who writes for Kommersant,  recently spoke on Radio Kultura. I’m paraphrasing a translation here in which Panyushin states that there are “two basic cultural traditions in Europe. One is called, conditionally, the ancient Greek, and the other is called, conditionally, the christian.”

Panyushin argues: “the ancient Greek tradition presupposes evil exists simply as a mistake of the good whereas christianity presupposes that evil exists in and of itself, by itself.”

Panyushkin says that he “loves Pushkin, Tolstoy, Nabokov and Pasternak,” but admits that he has “a very difficult relationship with Dostoevsky and … Platanov, because in them, evil exists, it’s not simply a mistake of the good. It really exists and maybe they are right, but this makes me very sad and I rarely reread them while I reread Tolstoy every year.”

This excerpt from the radio broadcast got me thinking. When I read Dostoevsky’s The Demons a few years ago, I found it extremely disturbing, so much so that I delayed dipping into Dostoevsky again.

Then I started to think of other books I had really enjoyed but that I found disturbing. The Derek Raymond novel He Died With His Eyes Open immediately came to mind. He Died With His Eyes Open deals with some evil, horrible people. The book is incredible but at the same time, it got under my skin.  I turned the last page, and I felt that I needed to recover before starting the second Factory novel in the series. Is this what Panyushin means?

Derek Raymond’s fourth novel, I was Dora Suarez is notorious for being both his best and his most “repulsive” work. I have yet to read it, but it’s reviewed over at Pechorin’s Journal. Raymond (real name Robin Cook) said this about the toll of writing the book:

Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once.

He added:

If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up–if you do come up.

So according to Raymond, writing about evil also comes with a price. Reminds me of Nietzsche’s epigram:

Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Beyond Good and Evil Epigrams and Interludes 146 )



Filed under Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, On Writers, Raymond Derek

12 responses to “The Presentation of Evil in Literature: Panyushin, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Raymond….

  1. Interesting post.

    I hadn’t really though about all this in terms of cultural traditions, but the idea of not being able to read “the evil exists” tradition is interesting. I find the idea of “pure” evil disturbing – I’m thinking of Susskind’s Perfume and McCarthy’s No country for old men – but I am not (yet anyhow) put off reading it. In other words, I find the idea chilling (not to mention scary when thrown around on the world political stage) and it’s somewhat against my world view, but fascinating nonetheless.

    Does reading about evil have the same impact as writing about it? I hope not, or I’m in trouble.

  2. I hadn’t thought of it in these black and white terms either–although placing the depiction of evil in literature in one of these two schools of thought does clarify things.

    For example, while I really, really thought Raymond’s book was phenomenal, I am dragging my feet to read the next one–part of me wants to read it, but at the same time I know it will be disturbing. I suppose I have to be in the right mood for it.

    I put off Dostoevsky for the same reason, but Notes From Underground did not trouble me ( I thought it was very funny)–whereas The Demons was quite troubling. For part of the book, I was waiting for a murder to occur and the sense of dread built with each page.

  3. Interesting article. I suggest a reading of The Screwtape Letters!

    In my reading I never felt closer to evil than with Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. I think Dostoevsky would have approved of it – although its malignity exceeds anything he wrote (in my view).

  4. The second and third Raymond’s are disturbing, but lack the power of the first and fourth.

    That said, the common feature is a banality of horror. A lack of imagination. Evil in Raymond is pathetic, contemptible, and somehow all the more terrifying for that.

    Interesting post. The Greeks to an extent saw the universe as essentially amoral, one found one’s own morality within it through philosophy and the pursuit of the good. The Christians see it as essentially dualist, good and evil both exist and are real.

    Though one can overlplay the differences, Plato is a big influence I think on Christian ideas of god.

    Interesting post.

  5. Tom: Now I am going to have to disturb myself and check out those books.

  6. Max: I thought the femme fatale type (can’t remember her name) in He Died With His Eyes Open was a real piece of work. There is evil on the loose in the book. Staniland monkeys with it or unleashes it.

    For me, the most interesting thing about the radio broadcast was it offered a possible explanation for why I was delaying opening up another Raymond novel. I should be diving back in!

  7. Barbara was it? She reminded me of Netta in Hamilton’s Hangover Square. You’d enjoy that I think, if you’ve not read it.

  8. For some reason I remember the Raymond character being the worst of the two (Raymond & Hamilton.

  9. Great post! You wrote well about the subject matter such that I’m quite disturbed! I don’t know which view of evil I subscribe to. Though, I do enjoy Dostoevsky more than Tolstoy. For me, how the evil is presented is important too.

  10. It seems a simple little point (evil in literature) but it gelled for me on the issue of its disturbing after-affects.

  11. Interesting post.

    Nothing disturbed me more than If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. Non fiction evil.
    I remember very clearly it took time to recover, as if I were catching my breath after diving.
    I’ve watched Literature or Life by Jorge Semprun sitting on my shelf for a while before starting it, because of Primo Levi’s book.

  12. Since writing this post, I’ve added up the most disturbing books ever read.

    Re: Primo Levi, yes the same sort of thing with Elie Wiesel. I count Night as one of my top books, however.

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