Being of Irish extraction, despite my surname, I have a weakness for stories. I say weakness because stories have their place – just not first place.
What is a story? A story is a coherent portrayal of a real or fictitious event that speaks to the human condition. It matters less whether a story actually happened than whether it has been wrung from the heart and mind of a good speaker or writer. A compelling story conveys, at an emotional level, a truth about the human condition.
Here’s a story. I met the devil once in Russia, not long before the Soviet Union collapsed. It came through my charismatic and powerful host, tested me to the depths of my being, and changed the course of my life.
It was January 1990, and I was in the USSR on invitation after starting a joint venture company with purportedly the leading example of perestroika. Andrei and his wife Vera were very hospitable, and even gave me their bed in their spacious Moscow apartment. Though I didn’t speak Russian, after a week, I had formed a relationship with their two sons, and almost felt part of the family.
So it was that I was invited to their eldest son’s 13th birthday party, which, as I was informed, is a very significant occasion in Russia’s male-dominated culture, since it marks a boy’s entry into manhood.
I was the only guest, and as is the custom in Russia, we drank a few vodkas, which more than a few shots as served in America.
It was a lovely dinner, and on the way back Vera, who had about as much English as I had Russian, said something out of the blue, or black, about evil. With American insouciance I tossed a bon mot into the backseat, where the four family members sat as I rode in the front with the driver. “If you remain with your fear,” I said off the top of my inebriated head, “evil can’t touch you.”
An inhuman voice, metallic and malevolent beyond description, and sounding like it emanated from half a mile behind the car, came through Andrei’s mouth. Dripping with evil that I had never experienced before or since, all it said was, “Is that so?”
In a single moment I went from being inside a swirling Russian Christmas bubble to the pit of hell. The veil had been ripped open, and the scales fell from my eyes. I saw torture, mass murder, and suffering on a Stalinesque scale, which of course had actually occurred under Stalin.
Without thinking it first, and with sudden sobriety, I did what I had superficially said foolishly inebriated: I held to my own fear. I rode a roller coaster of terror, and for half hour I couldn’t speak.
It passed, but I was irrevocably changed. It took a year of philosophical inquiry to understand what had happened, and to develop a non-theologized, non-psychologized philosophy of evil.
My longtime fried from philosophy graduate school, Dan, asked the right question: “What would have happened if you ran away from your fear?”
It was instantaneously clear, and my response was immediate: Either I would have been shattered into a million pieces never to recover; or it would have owned me.
So is this story true? It happened, and this how I understand it. But was the meaning created, or discovered? And what is the meaning?
The meaning is that there are dark forces in human consciousness that intend to destroy us if they cannot possess and control us. So are we are here for a reason, not just reasons of our making?
I’m finding it harder to feel that life has intrinsic meaning. But if life has no meaning except the meanings we make, then how and why does evil exist?
Not that evil is supernatural, or existed before man, and creatures like man wherever they evolve in the universe. So is the transmutation of potentially intelligent species such as Homo sap a a gauntlet that we must consciously run, whether we like it or not?
Clearly, if we only create meaning from our own minds, then there is no intrinsic meaning to life. The predominance of darkness and evil, even though it’s self-generated, would seem to make man doomed. For there are very few people, and the verdict is out on whether one will be counted among them, who can transcend collective darkness.
There is growth, but there is no such thing as social and psychological progress. Even so, is there a cosmic intelligence that cares about potentially intelligent life?