Power, Love and Evil: Contribution to a Philosophy of the Damaged
reviewed by Peter J. Leithart
Power, Love, and Evil bills itself as a contribution to “philosophy,” but Wayne Cristaudo, an Australian philosopher who teaches European Studies at the University of Hong Kong, is not interested in ivory-tower speculation. With an ear to popular culture and an eye on modern politics, he investigates love and evil in a world where psychology, popular music, novels, and politics manifest a preoccupation with damage.
We cannot understand damage without grasping the power of love and evil. “What is real is generative,” Cristaudo writes in the first line of his book. Love is the most potently productive power in human life. It is the force that moves all our actions and desires. And because it is most generative, it is most real.
Evil is “love in reverse” or, in a more Dantesque phrasing, “misdirected love.” It appears when we love “phantasms” or the “demonic”: idols and ideologies and false messiahs. Anything can become phantasmic, and Cristaudo believes that in the history of the West, law, the church, the state, art, and many other institutions have at times become objects of idolatrous devotion and therefore producers of evil.
Even when love is directed toward the wrong object and becomes evil, it generates. Hitler and Castro could not have achieved what they did if they had not elicited the passionate love of their people.
In Cristaudo’s analysis, damage and evil are mutually reinforcing. Germans who loved the phantasms of Hitler and Nazism damaged others and themselves on a massive scale. On the other hand, the damage done by evil is itself evil. The catastrophic damage of the Holocaust is evil.
Cristaudo’s analysis is most powerful, though, when he examines how damage produces evil. People often turn to evil in response to the damage they suffer, in an effort to make others bear some of their pain. Cristaudo draws out the logic of damage with a moving account of the life of murderer Gary Gilmore and a sensitive reading of Josephine Hart’s novel Damage.
Gilmore and Hart’s protagonist Anna Barton are souls haunted by damage; Gilmore is the product of his family’s intergenerational brutality, and Anna of incest. Both seek retribution by wreaking damage on others. Victims of the sacrificial slaughter of others, they aim at a perverse kind of justice by bringing others to the altar.
This effort to escape damage is a phantasm, a false path of “redemption” from evil. In this way, the misdirected love that is evil generates and proliferates, creating more damage and more evil.
What can stop this cycle? Not law. The West puts too much stock in the potential of law, and when evil continues despite our efforts to prevent it, we become disillusioned or try to fix the problem with more law. Cristaudo sees the contemporary despair about justice (in, say, the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault) as the flip side of an earlier overestimate of the power of justice (in, say, the American liberal philosopher John Rawls).
Sublimating or “alchemizing” evil is not a solution either. Alchemy occurs when “love strikes a deal with evil by recognizing its truth as a form of energy while seeking to find an outlet in which love can flourish.” The Greeks were notable alchemists, inventing Olympic games, the theater, and democracy as mechanisms for directing evil away from destructiveness.
Competitive combat that would produce damage, for instance, is circumscribed by a boxing ring or a racetrack. Raging Achilles is calm and generous during the games in Book 23 of the Iliad. At best, though, “alchemy” can only defuse, it cannot arrest, the cycle of damage and evil.
Intriguingly, Cristaudo suggests that damage teaches lessons that can be turned against evil and the damage evil causes. Most of us have not suffered as much or done as much damage as Gary Gilmore, but, being naïve, we have thus unwittingly permitted evil to flourish. Evil takes us by surprise, and we often respond feebly and late. The political impact of our failure to reckon with the generative reality of evil is great: The modern West has no categories to fathom the evil of militant Islam, for instance.
Given our inattention, damage, in both the minor form of psychic pain and the major form of catastrophe, has its salutary effects. It wakes us from our stupor, and exposes the power of evil. It “is life’s way of imprinting knowledge about the real [that is, the “generative”] upon us in the only way it can if we refuse to move willingly by love—through terror and pain.” Love and damage are life’s two greatest teachers.
This is why, despite their destructive potential, damaged people like Gilmore and Barton are magnetic. They seem to have plumbed depths hidden from the rest of us. Knowing that the “normal” is not necessarily the “real,” they are also highly sensitive to the tiny damage we all cause others by our petty lovelessness and inattention.
Neither law nor alchemy nor the lessons of damage, however, can stop evil or undo it. Only another potency can do that; only love, courageous love, the sacrificial love of the saint. Power, Love, and Evil can be summed up as an elaborate confession of faith in the affirmation of the Song of Songs: “Love is stronger than death.”
Love comes to ultimate expression in sacrifice, but rightly directed love and misdirected love produce radically different sorts of sacrifice. Love of phantasms sadistically seeks to sacrifice others or masochistically massacres the self.
Phantasmic love can take the “noble” form of heroism, but Cristaudo sees that the martyr is at the opposite pole from the hero. Martyrs sacrifice for others, and though they accept death, their sacrifice affirms life because it affirms love. Martyrdom absorbs evil rather than spreading it.
Cristaudo’s thought is intriguingly unclassifiable. He is deeply read in the Western tradition, but he pops off the names of rock groups and songs with easy familiarity. He defends the market as a space of creative energy that can produce great-souled people, but also defends rock bands from hell because they offer release for nihilistic despair and are a means for uncovering realities we’d prefer to ignore.
His relation to Christianity is ambiguous. He puts the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love at the center of his philosophy, epistemology, and social theory. Yet he endorses a Joachimite “Johannine” age of religionless faith. Following Bonhoeffer and the German-American thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, he argues that we need to “move beyond and outside the circulatory system” of established religious symbols, rites, and dogmas if we want to preserve “the genuine sacredness they contain.”
This leaves a number of his central arguments hanging in the air. Without a dogma of the Trinity, what basis do we have for saying God is love? Without a dogma of incarnation and atonement, what drives saints to self-sacrifice? Don’t martyrs draw the blood they shed from the very “circulatory system” that Cristaudo thinks we need to leave behind?
He cites the Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig’s arresting suggestion that “God’s work is his people.” Rosenzweig refers to Israel, but where, for Cristaudo, can we locate God’s work?
Nevertheless, full of surprising turns of argument, Cristaudo’s book is psychologically incisive, historically informed, sometimes achingly poignant, and at times profound. Living where Western civilization crosses the orient, he has something of the outsider’s insight into the maladies of the West. All of which makes Power, Love and Evil an unusually penetrating analysis of our world.
Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy and Against Christianity (both from Canon Press). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Damage Control” first appeared in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.