May 24, 2019
Thanks to James Keller, HMU student, for today’s post.
Borrowing from Bradbury, Great Books Chicago 2019 was titled: Something Wicked This Way Comes. Taken as a statement rather than a title, it is a somewhat comforting thought—at least initially. If the wicked thing is coming, it is something outside and not of ourselves. It is something foreign to humanity, perhaps a distortion of humanity, but not endemic to humanity. But comfort turns cold when one asks, from where does this wicked thing come? From where does wickedness itself come? How is it that otherwise good people sometimes perform horrifying acts of violence? How is it that people have at times submitted themselves to great oppression, and worse, that they have become complicit in aiding the oppression of others? Lingering in the back of the mind is dread, the fear that wickedness is not something foreign after all, but something to which any one of us might be prone under the right—or rather, wrong—circumstances. Whence wickedness?
Among the readings at Great Books Chicago 2019 was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that short story, a murderer and thief who has adopted the name, The Misfit, explains the source of his own wickedness. The cause of his criminality is rooted in his doubts regarding the resurrecting power of Jesus. If Jesus did indeed do as he claimed to have done, The Misfit asserts, then one has no choice but to follow him, but “if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (71-72). He goes on to say that he wishes he could be certain whether or not Jesus raised the dead, because, if he had certain knowledge of the resurrection, he would not be like he is. But, the reader asks, why should religious doubt lead The Misfit to the mistreatment of his fellow human beings?
The search for an answer to this question involves other related questions: Why these pleasures? If one said that without a resurrection, one might as well devote himself to the pleasures of the moment, it does not follow that those must entail violence. Pleasure comes in many forms: food, sex, alcohol, art, fine conversation—perhaps about great books—sports… and so on. Why, then, does The Misfit focus on the pleasure to be derived from violence? And then, If there is no pleasure but meanness, why does he say about killing the grandmother, “It’s no real pleasure in life”? (73). By studying these questions, we may understand how The Misfit’s religious doubt is the root of his wickedness.
The limited pleasures of The Misfit grow out of a unique form of despair. For some, moral despair is induced by the belief that one is unable to improve, due to a natural badness or weakness of character. Because they find it unthinkable that they could morally improve themselves, they no longer make the attempt. This is just who I am. But this is not the source of despair in The Misfit. In his case, he cannot fathom why he ought to be punished. He relates the story of being imprisoned, despite being unable to remember the original crime. He is told that he killed his father, but he does not believe this to be true, claiming that his father died of the flu some time ago (69). An ambivalence marks his speech regarding his punishment. On the one hand, he suggests that he was rightly punished: “They had the papers on me” (69). But on the other, he expresses mistrust in the system that punished him, saying that no one ever showed him those papers and that from now on, he makes sure to keep a copy of all papers, with signatures: “Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see they do match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right” (71). Indeed, he calls himself “The Misfit,” not because he feels no sense of belonging, but because he knows of no crime he committed that merited the punishment he received (71). Moreover, he expresses indignation that punishment is dispensed arbitrarily, with one being “punished a heap,” while another is not “punished at all” (71).
The fact that The Misfit is punished for an unknown crime is the motivation for his malevolent behavior—a case of “Let the crime fit the punishment.” His is a despair that grows out of his perception that the world is fundamentally unjust. If one is going to be punished, despite having never performed a crime—at least that he can remember—then he might as well be a criminal. He might as well do something worth punishing. His criminality is a twisted attempt to restore justice to the world by making himself worthy of his punishment.
But, if The Misfit’s criminality is an expression of his despair, then it can bring him no joy. This is one reason killing the grandmother and her family brings no pleasure. It is true that he sees something good in her before killing her, and this seems to produce a sorrow in him over killing her. He seems regretful when he says: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (73). But the statement, “It’s no real pleasure in life” is broader than the regret of the single action. He expresses the lack of pleasure in the violence altogether, which supports the notion that his violence is an expression of his despair.
The Misfit’s despair and his complaint against the system can be read as a complaint against the doctrine of original sin. If one is born into the world worthy of punishment for the crimes of his forebears, crimes of which one has no memory, one response to that might be to be worthy of the promised punishment. The Misfit likens his punishment to that of Jesus, with the only exception being that “they” had no papers on Jesus (71). Both punishments appear to him to be unjust. Yet, in theory, Jesus was able to ultimately overcome death, i.e. reverse his punishment, while The Misfit cannot do so himself, except through belief in Jesus’ power to raise the dead. Through belief in the resurrection, The Misfit would be able to escape the punishment of death which he inherited. But, because he lacks certainty, he is left with the notion that he will be punished for crimes unknown to him, to a degree he cannot imagine having merited.
For The Misfit, then, the root of his wickedness is his religious doubt, the uncertainty that he merits death as a punishment and the uncertainty that he can be delivered from that death by Jesus. The belief that he will be punished, whether he is wicked or not, inspires him to pursue the pleasure to be found in violence. But, being motivated by despair, that violence cannot be an object of enjoyment, only an expression of rage against his perception that the world is unjust.
It will be obvious to the reader that the source of The Misfit’s wickedness is not the source of all human wickedness. The other readings at Great Books Chicago furnished other—perhaps “answers” is too strong a word—avenues for considering the origin of wickedness. They furnished us with good material for discussion. And, if it is a troubling notion that humans are capable of so much evil, some comfort is found in discussing the matter with others, looking together for the roots of wickedness within ourselves that they may be uprooted and never bear fruit.
I wish to express my gratitude to the organizers, speakers, discussion leaders, and fellow readers of Great Books Chicago 2019 and to Harrison Middleton University.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Vital Ideas: Crime. Ed. Theresa Starkey. Great Books Foundation. 2011, pp. 53-73.
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