Imaginal Evil

It’s the eve of Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating some of the most nightmarish events in the history of the Jewish people.

As part of the exploration of Imagination as the activity of engaging with the “inner dimensions” of our lives, I am asking today:  How we can enter into the dark side of the Imaginal world?

One way, the most prominent in Jewish tradition, is through the poetry of the lament. The biblical book Eicha or Lamentations describes the disaster after the destruction of the First Temple and attributes the events to the sins of the people and especially their leaders. Eicha means “How?!” as in “How can it be, that such a thing happened!” American slang, with its customary vulgarity, has an expression that captures the idea.

Tisha b’Av has its own darkness.  In its origins – the refusal of Jews to follow God’s command or listen to His prophets – we find the same archetype of self-alienation from God that we encounter in the “fall” from Eden.  But today we are not promised a renewal, even a difficult one like that of Adam and Chava. We mourn and pray in the face of complete darkness, when God “hides his face.” We say Kinot, dirges or elegies, remembering how we were promised only that “your carcasses will fall in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:29) for forty years. We remember also the devastation of the Holy City, exiles and murders throughout Jewish history, and destruction eventually coming to the world (with World War I, which began on Tisha b’Av). The prophet does say, “Daughter of Zion, He will no more carry you away into captivity” (Eicha 4.22), but on Tisha b’Av we do not know when that promise will be fulfilled.

If we don’t like this version, the fall or rebellion of humans followed repeatedly by darkness, penitence and return, we do have other choices. A different mythic framework is a cosmic battle between good and evil:  evil occurs because a force in the universe, operative in humans but also beyond us, perpetually destroys or distorts good works. Humans can only pray, with penance, to be delivered from it. They may experience some gratification in life, but true goodness only after death. This is the message of religions of salvation in an afterlife.

In another form, such as the stories of the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, the gods struggle among themselves, and the sad events on earth are largely the effects of their quarrels. Occasionally a human hero will rise above the fray, but while his efforts are admirable and virtuous, he usually meets a tragic end. The greatness of a human being is the effort of valor (the warrior) or force of character or thought (the ethical man or philosopher), even if it is doomed.

Another version:  Evil or chaos is a force in the world, but good triumphs as the individual follows Spiritual Truth (or an Angel or Teacher as in Sufism) to rise above it, not only for himself but to spread the light to others by example or teaching. Traditional Buddhist teaching is also in this mode, although the usual word is “suffering,” rather than evil.  In its psychological dimension, suffering is caused by humans, not by specific sins but by craving, desire, attachment. When we realize the truth of non-attachment – attaching ourselves only to the Light or enlightenment – we disarm and dispel suffering.

The full Jewish teachings of returning to God combine penitence (like the prayer of a suppliant as on Tisha b’Av), the good deeds of a valorous person (like the hero, not necessarily with a tragic end), and the inner work of striving to conquer one’s ego. The Hasid is somewhat like the Buddhist, determined to “nullify the ego,” and at the same time like the Sufi, to “cling to God.”

Yet the Jewish tradition is not entirely satisfied with this because it’s an individualistic solution. Christianity and Islam also speak of the redemption of the world, not only of individuals. So the “problem of evil” remains, because these myths imply that only as individuals can we escape, and perhaps not for long or not till after death.  (Group salvation might come then, in some religions.)

Perhaps there are other myths that take account of our interconnected state?

How about this?   Evil is relative, and some people are more evil than others. Almost everyone agrees that the most evil are those who willfully dominate others to extract benefit from them.  In this situation, “good” becomes rebellion to correct the imbalance of power, overthrowing domination.

A familiar line representing this orientation is that of Cassius, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Evil triumphs, he is saying, because of human fear or passivity; he advocates assassination. The playwright does not support Cassius, however; murder and overthrow of government is no solution.

Yet, the purity of righteous revolution remains part of modern collective mythology:  the “revolt of the proletariat” in Marxist thought, or “liberation theology.” The idea is that those who have been downtrodden, or the leaders they choose, will rule more beneficently. Even American democracy was established on this foundation:  “When in the course of human events” tyranny triumphs, it is the right of the people to rebel and establish a new government based “on the consent of the governed.”  But in practice, “the governed” meant free, property-owning white men.  Elsewhere, the revolutions have not stayed “pure” either.

The opposite view would be that those who have experience in ruling, whose families have ruled, or who have ruled in other realms like finance or military, will rule best. The idea seems more plausible to the modern psyche than mythic figures, but it is no less imaginal by which, again, I do not mean “imaginary”: they express reality seen in a different light, through the Imagination.  These masters of the universe have replaced good and evil angels, or gods and demons. And like the old gods, they have their “powers” – war instead of thunder, finance instead of fertility. Their losses and gains filter down to other earthlings.

One more modern myth seeks to explain why someone would seek power, even to the point of cruel dominion over others. I have used it myself in these pages.  More specific than “craving” and deeper than “pride,” this myth seeks the origin of both, and finds it in trauma. Trauma of birth, of infancy, of childhood, of a terrifying experience later in life like war, rape, or torture – these are the sources of evil.  A perpetrator of evil must have suffered abuse, and we are seeing the after-effects, sometimes transferred down through generations.  And yet this too reminds me of an ancient imaginal pattern, expressed in the biblical verse from God’s great revelation at Sinai, “I take account of the sin of the ancestors upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth of those that love me…”(Exodus 20:4-5).

Trauma, of course, is also a sprite bursting forth from the imaginal world. Memory, preserved in story, is its vessel.  Which is not to say that the story of trauma is false.  Or that it is true. Neither is the story of sin and iniquity. Such stories are the stuff that we are made of.

Whether the story is about our “inside” or larger forces “outside” probably doesn’t matter much either; only that we are accountable to it.  Truth, after all, is the accumulated result of imaginal tellings to which we have all agreed.  At some point most of us stopped consenting to leprechauns and faeries, and instead became fascinated with quarks and photons.

The natural world is of God’s presenting and the creatures’ consenting.  The creatures also present, to one another and to God, and She consents (or not).

Does it matter which myth you choose?  Yes it does, but not because one is better than another, or because anyone knows “how it will turn out.”  What matters is that it thrills you and energizes you in love of the world and God, and sustains you in courage to resist those who would destroy that love.

Is this not another individualistic choice?  Yes, but it relies on love, and love is inherently shared. That is a discussion for another post.

Tonight and tomorrow we face the darkness.  See your darkness for whatever it is – what terrifies you, stops you dead in your tracks, leaves you desolate, raging, or falling through what seems like an endless abyss.  Feel it:  let the darkness both stir within you, in your heart and your body as well as in your mind.  Speak to it, within it.  You will find its boundaries – for it is not endless – and beyond that you will begin to sense light.  Daughter of Zion, you will sing again.

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