“I myself am hell”

–    Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour” (quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost)


“Around this character he has thrown a singularity of daring, a grandeur of sufferance, and a ruined splendour, which constitute the very height of poetic sublimity.”

–    Coleridge on Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost


 “The horror! The horror!”

–    Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness

Marlon Brando as Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now


In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the heart of the title is a beating, human one: evil is in us, even defines us. As a child I attended a small Catholic convent school. The Catholic Church, too, thinks evil is within us. That dazed, newborn baby resting on the exhausted mother’s chest is already fallen, guilty by way of inheritance of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. But then it is baptized, and this sin is washed away—the child is redeemed through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. All this is quite a lot for a baby to take aboard, but there’s plenty of catching up later. Evil is banished from our hearts, or as the Church says, our souls, and from then on, it’s a force on the outside, trying to get in. The task of the Catholic child is, above all, vigilance: Satan, like the Big Bad Wolf, is prowling, and we must build defences strong enough to withstand him.



I was taught by nuns who looked rather like those in The Sound of Music—dressed in black, with black veils and black habits and black shoes—we didn’t often see their shoes. A starchy white wimple concealed hair, ears, neck; in the middle of the wimple was an oval hole filled by an oval, abbreviated face: the cluster of eyes, nose, and mouth. The wimples in The Sound of Music were more extravagant and revealed more face than the ones I remember – maybe a Hollywood touch. The only other parts of the nun that were visible were her two hands. As a bride of Christ, she wore a wedding ring.


I had been going to Mass on Sunday since I was a baby, so this wasn’t at all odd. What was strange was when, towards the end of my primary schooling, one of the nuns appeared with a chestnut-coloured lock of hair escaped from her wimple, damp against her forehead. Not escaped—it had been set free, deliberately. I had never contemplated the fact of a nun’s hair before. If she had hair, what else did she have? Other changes occurred. Habits that formerly brushed the floor became shorter, revealing black-stockinged calves. The wimple receded, leaving the face fully exposed. One nun—a rather advanced young woman, with Nana Mouskouri glasses, who taught the primers—started bringing her guitar to school. We could hear her leading the children in song from our own classroom down the corridor.


The Church was changing, softening. The priest faced the congregation in the Mass, for some of the time at least. He spoke in English, not Latin. Occasionally, in the sermons that often seemed to gravitate towards technical points concerning the 16th century Council of Trent, the elderly priest would make a joke, and a murmur of surprise and appreciation would ripple through the congregation. The priest started to place Communion in the communicant’s hand rather than on the tongue. My mother was especially opposed to this, and to this day, along with some others of her generation, she stubbornly keeps her hands folded in prayer and extends her tongue to receive the Host.

Saint Maria Goretti


But though some of the outer edifice was beginning to crumble, at the core was hard certainty. There was good and there was evil, there was Heaven and there was Hell. In between was Limbo, where the unbaptized dead babies went, and Purgatory, which was a kind of waiting room where those who were bad but not damned sat around until the prayers of the rest of us reached a crescendo in God’s ears, and they could be admitted to Heaven. One morning a nun told us the story of Maria Goretti, a child martyr who resisted a would-be rapist to the death. “She never gave in!” the nun said. Her eyes bored into us. “She never gave in.” We were appalled and thrilled. As she lay dying, Maria forgave her murderer, who subsequently repented of his evil, attended Maria’s canonization, and ended his days working as a gardener in a monastery. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of rape victims and also of chastity. Images of her tend to be idealised portraits partaking of the iconography of the Virgin Mary.

 We memorised the Seven Heavenly Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Ten Commandments, the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Creed. We went to Confession, and celebrated our First Holy Communion, the little boys in white shirts and clip-on ties, the little girls in bridal dresses and veils. Altarboys in purple soutanes with white surplices helped the priest during the Mass, lighting and snuffing candles and fetching and carrying. I had bursts of devoutness, and rode my bike through the frost to early morning Mass. Some of the kids at school weren’t as devout as all that. There was even a gang called the Devil’s Disciples. They had gone to the other side, and had a certain glamour. Still, they knew there were sides. I was often fearful of committing some unforgiveable, mortal sin, and spending eternity burning in Hell. Much later, when I read the chapter in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen is terrified by the priest’s richly detailed description of the horrors of Hell, I was remembering as much as reading.

Dante’s Hell, by William Blake


I was irresistibly drawn to sin. On the long walk home from school, I’d recite under my breath, “Shit, bloody, fuck. Bloody, fuck, shit. Fuck, shit, bloody.” Every word was condemning me to God knows how many years of fiery torment, but I couldn’t stop. “Fuck, bloody, shit.” My soul was a slab of pale meat somewhere beneath my heart, and every sin was a telltale black spot, a lesion, its magnitude dependent on the gravity of my wrongdoing. I would imagine my entire soul, blackened and horrible. It was a wonder the Confessional Box didn’t spontaneously combust.

I know now that evil is a social, cultural construct, etc, etc, but at the same time I know it’s real, and maybe fundamentally. These days I think of it as a sometimes horrifying, nullifying absence of kindness—in people’s dealings with one another, and even in some landscapes. I remember driving for hours once to a deserted strip of coastline to go diving, and then not even putting my foot in the water—there was such a sense of desolate hostility there. In her book about the Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt talks about the “banality of evil”. It’s one of those perceptions you instinctively assent to, but it’s the agents of evil—people like Eichmann—who are banal. Evil itself, abroad, terrible, is scary as hell.

4 Responses to Evil

  • Karen says:

    I can remember years ago having an interesting conversation about this with you very subject. You were the first person who didn’t sling off when I told you I had found the Sopranos the most thought provoking TV series ever made. I thought that, under its veneer it was actually about the concepts of good and evil and more insightful than far more serious approaches to the same subject. One moment you liked Tony, the next you were repulsed by him and the same was true of all the cast. Nobody was all black or all white. It left me thinking that evil isn’t tangible in the way the Church tries to make it. The ingredients for it lie in everyone and are made up of thousands of individual and perhaps innocuous choices each of us make every waking hour. Someone has given me too much change – should I tell them and give it back, or keep it ? There is a bloodbath in Syria and nobody is doing anything – should I say something ? All those little, seemingly random moments, lead on to other choices that have the potential to lead onto good or evil. So I think yes, evil exists within each of us but not in the way the Church tells it, but in concert with good ; also that it is really only individual circumstance and personal choice that makes the difference in outcome.
    As for the Church itself, my worry about all religions and Catholicism is a good example, is that they can blind adherents to evil by teaching them they are somehow special and superior because they are part of the one true religion. By making evil ” out there” they can contribute to followers looking outwards to watch for it, instead of inwards. So if it was me Tim, I’d give up on Mass and head to the DVD store for more research on this ;)

  • Tim says:

    I remember that talk. Oddly, I remember the example of being given too much change, rather than The Sopranos, because it had happened to me not long before. I walked down the street a dozen metres, knowing I had an extra $10.00 in my pocket, yet not really acknowledging the shopkeeper had made an error… The more distance I put between myself and the shop, the weaker the moral imperative to return the money. But I did return it, because my inner agitation only increased. So it was that feeling of guilt that made me turn around – feeling better about myself was more important than the $10.00. That’s Catholic ethics in action. By the way, I stopped going to Mass a lifetime ago! But I still feel its pull.

  • shelley says:

    As Kathy rightly suggests, we can’t explain how we can love the flirty and family man in Tony Soprano even when we know he’s a cruel killer. I think humans like binaries – from our eyesight depending on contrast, to our ideas of good and evil. We like the definite, the whole and the indivisible. On/off, male/female, black/white, yes/no, right/wrong, good/evil. We can’t quite comprehend the liminal – edges need to be hard and fast, rather than blurred and bleeding. Perhaps this is why evil is so scary and also so sacred – it may always be present and we are all capable of falling into its grey edges. It doesn’t have a steep precipice to fall into or a hard barrier to work though, we can just find ourselves within its boundaries without realising how we got there or whether we even made a conscious decision to go bad. Perhaps guilt is our tether helping us recognise the darker greys so we can haul ourselves onto the good side.

    • Tim says:

      Maurice Gee does evil really well – his writing’s often located in those betwixt and between places you mention, creeks and estuaries rather than river and ocean. But there’s also often a small-town Gothic atmosphere there, which casts a sort of glamour over it. Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow, too.

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