The Notched Wing

Helen Tara Hughes – Poetry, Fiction, Film, Phantasms

on Goodness and Evil…

Israeli writer, Amos Oz, was recently awarded the Goethe prize in Germany. He has been a strong advocate for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. I found his acceptance speech quite powerful, and have excerpted it for you below.

I wonder if art and music does make a difference, if it somehow armours the individual, empowers them in their own future choices between two less-than-ideal options, one of which might not truly be considered to be “Good”, but which may be infinitely more satisfying.

I wonder what part the daily meditations and mindfulness practices and rows and rows of self-help books in the bookstore, play in that moment of choice in which the Individual is isolated, facing down free will in their mind’s eye, choosing between 2 courses of action – the ‘Good’… and the not-so Good.

But dare we call the not-so-Good choice “evil”?

Even if it is as mundane, as ordinary as keeping the money someone left at the bank machine? Does the individual stop in that lonely moment to name this choice “evil”? Or does the individual feel only Temptation to take the choice which, in that moment, only seems more alluring, or more active, more practical, or more advantageous than the other choice?

I think these daily slip-ups, and the “little white lies” which are such a part of our lives, erode our capacity for truthfulness and Goodness.

It took me 3 days, reading and re-reading Mr. Oz’s acceptance speech over breakfast to feel I really could retain and understand it. I hope that you find it as thought-provoking, and as worth re-reading, as did I.


A section of the speech given by Amos Oz, on receiving the Goethe Prize in Frankfurt, Germany.
Some previous winners of this award include Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer, and Sigmund Freud.

“Personally, I believe that every human being, in his or her heart of hearts, is capable of telling good from bad. Even when they pretend not to. We have all eaten from that tree of Eden whose full name is the tree of knowledge of good from evil.

The same distinction may apply to truth and lies: just as it is immensely difficult to define the truth, yet quite easy to smell a lie, it may sometimes be hard to define good; but evil has its unmistakable odour: every child knows what pain is. Therefore, each time we deliberately inflict pain on another, we know what we are doing. We are doing evil.

But the modern age has changed all that. It has blurred the clear distinction that humanity has made since its early childhood, since the Garden of Eden. Some time in the 19th century, not so long after Goethe died, a new thinking entered western culture that brushed evil aside, indeed denied its very existence. That intellectual innovation was called social science.
For the new, self-confident, exquisitely rational, optimistic, thoroughly scientific practitioners of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics – evil was not an issue. Come to think of it, neither was good. To this very day, certain social scientists simply do not talk about good and evil. To them, all human motives and actions derive from circumstances, which are often beyond personal control.
“Demons,” said Freud, “do not exist any more than gods do, being only the products of the psychic activity of man.” We are controlled by our social background. For about 100 years now, they have been telling us that we are motivated exclusively by economic self-interest, that we are mere products of our ethnic cultures, that we are no more than marionettes of our own subconscious.

In other words, the modern social sciences were the first major attempt to kick both good and evil off the human stage. For the first time in their long history, good and bad were both overruled by the idea that circumstances are always responsible for human decisions, human actions and especially human suffering. Society is to blame. Painful childhood is to blame. The political is to blame. Colonialism. Imperialism. Zionism. Globalisation. What not. So began the great world championship of victimhood.

For the first time since the book of Job, the devil found himself out of a job. He could no longer play his ancient game with human minds. Satan was dismissed. This was the modern age.

Well, the times may be changing again. Satan might have been sacked, but he did not remain unemployed. The 20th century was the worst arena of cold-blooded evil in human history. The social sciences failed to predict, encounter, or even grasp this modern, highly technologised evil. Very often, this 20th-century evil disguised itself as world reforming, as idealism, as re-educating the masses or “opening their eyes”. Totalitarianism was presented as secular redemption for some, at the expense of millions of lives.

Today, having emerged from the evil of totalitarian rule, we have enormous respect for cultures. For diversities. For pluralism. I know some people are willing to kill anyone who is not a pluralist. Satan was hired for work once again by postmodernism; but this time his job is verging on kitsch: a small, secretive bunch of “shady forces” are always guilty of everything, from poverty and discrimination, war and global warming to September 11 and the tsunami. Ordinary people are always innocent. Minorities are never to blame. Victims are, by definition, morally pure.
Did you notice that today, the devil never seems to invade any individual person? We have no Fausts any more. According to trendy discourse, evil is a conglomerate. Systems are evil. Governments are bad. Faceless institutions run the world for their own sinister gain. Satan is no longer in the details. Individual men and women cannot be “bad”, in the ancient sense of the book of Job, or Macbeth, of Iago, of Faust. You and I are always very nice people. The devil is always the establishment. This is, in my view, ethical kitsch.

In my view, the ultimate evil in the world is not war itself, but aggression. Aggression is “the mother of all wars”. And sometimes aggression has to be repelled by the force of arms before peace can prevail.

Lotte Wreschner settled in Jerusalem. Eventually she became a leader in the Israeli civil-rights movement, as well as a deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek. Her son Eli and my daughter Fania are both civil rights and peace activists, as are my other children Galia and Daniel.

Let me turn back to Goethe, and back to my feelings about Germany. Goethe’s Faust reminds us forever that the devil is personal, not impersonal. That the devil is putting every individual to the test, which every one of us can pass or fail. That evil is tempting and seducing. That aggression has a potential foothold inside every one of us.

Personal good and evil are not the assets of any religion. They are not necessarily religious terms. The choice whether to inflict pain or not to inflict it, to look it in the face or to turn a blind eye to it, to get personally involved in healing pain, like a devoted country doctor, or to make do with organising angry demonstrations and signing wholesale petitions – this spectrum of choice confronts each one of us several times a day.

Of course, we might occasionally take wrong turns. But even as we take a wrong turn, we still know what we are doing. We know the difference between good and evil, between inflicting pain and healing, between Goethe and Goebbels. Between Heine and Heydrich. Between Weimar and Buchenwald. Between individual responsibility and collective kitsch.”

Read the extended article, adapted from his acceptance speech, here

Author: smallboy

Helen Tara Hughes is a writer, producer and actor. An award-winning theatre performer, she cut her teeth in classical and new work at major theatres across Canada, including the Stratford Festival. Her first taste of documentary work – a POV radio documentary for CBC’s ‘Outfront’ – gave her the documentary bug, and in 2009 she transitioned into Producing with the feature documentary, Goodness in Rwanda. As a writer, she has been published by, Eros Digest, and TWISI, and has a book of short stories that will be published in the fall of 2012. As a filmmaker, she creates short films based on poetic writing. She moonlights as an Asst Producer and Coordinator for documentary, factual, and independent films, and is developing a slate of her own media projects for 2013.

Comments are closed.