The Serpent Spent

Earlier ages were better at pictorial depictions of evil because they believed in its existence. Our own therapeutic society prefers to think of evil as an outmoded concept that gives way to material and psychological explanations. A strain of received wisdom has it that the concept of sin is as outmoded as phrenology. Wickedness, properly understood, is an antique construction, a bit of by-gone make-believe. Or so our psychologized, adjustment-crazed culture would have us think.

Were he alive today, Albrecht Durer would be hard put to imagine the 7-headed Beast of the Apocalypse. To imagine evil, one has to imagine the good, or Good. In other words, God. In the 15th century, wrong-doing was not reduced to mental illness, social conditioning, or a figment of narrow, punitive minds. Durer’s Beast, emerging from the seas to make man worship it, could never have been discounted, never psychologized or politicized away.

Durer’s Beast

Walter Russell Mead, commenting on a lethal shooting spree in Norway two years ago, wrote something that I copied and kept. In The American Interest , he meditated on the illusion that democracy, scientific progress and affluence bring security and moral progress. He ends his column on the mass murders with this:

The only conclusion that makes sense to me is that human beings are stuck in a condition of radical uncertainty. Something big and earth shaking is going on around us, but the information we have does not allow us to predict where it all goes.In my view, this is one of the reasons that belief in a transcendent power beyond the human mind is intellectually necessary to grapple successfully with the realities of our time.
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When the determinist progressives threw God under the bus, they threw away the possibility of an integrated world view that has room both for scientific and rational analysis on the one hand and a honest, unsparing appraisal of the radical uncertainty around us on the other.
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We still live in the Age of Apocalypse that opened in World War Two when Hiroshima and the Holocaust delineated the essential problems of the new and possibly last era of human civilization. Mankind has long had the potential for radical, desolating evil; today we still have that potential among us, and we have united it to the power to end all life on earth. We live with one foot in the shadows and another on the high and sunny uplands of democratic and affluent society. We have one foot in Norway and the other in Hell and nobody knows where we step next.

Mead’s post is essentially an essay on our ideas of history. He attempts to make the case moral philosopher Mary Midgley made in Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay : that moral evil, too, has its natural history. It is rooted in our freedom and, consequently, calls out for judgment—the very thing contemporary art tries so hard to evade.

Lucas Van Leyden. The Fall of Man (c. 1529)
Lucas Van Leyden. The Fall of Man (c. 1529)

The gravity of older depictions, products of a shared moral tradition and patterns of expectation, gives way in our own day to the merely gothic. Cartoony horror shows take the place of pictorial signs of evil that arose within a coherent culture and a comprehensible context. We are left with pastiches like Mariano Villalba’s, part parody of the old memento mori, part burlesque in the spirit of the Rocky Horror Picture Show:

Mariano Villalba. Evil Circus (2010)
Mariano Villalba. Evil Circus (2010)

Villalba’s rendition has more in common with Alice Cooper than Durer. It offers chills, the frisson of entertainment. It has neither the capacity nor intention to call viewers to reflect on the condition of man. It is indifferent to issues of our spiritual survival. It just wants to thrill. And sell.

As the religious imagination wanes, so does the pictorial one. The great mythic structures dwindle into anecdote. A culture that has lost its Judeo-Christian soul and biblical frame of reference is crippled in portraits of evil. Without the Lamb there is no serpent. No Beast.