The Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality

This week Christopher Watts was sentenced to three consecutive lifetimes in prison for the August murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He explained that he had hoped to start a new life with his girlfriend. After strangling his wife and smothering his children, Watts
buried his wife, Shanann, in a shallow grave and put his daughters, Bella and Celeste, in containers of crude oil. The Washington Post reports that neither prosecutors nor the surviving relatives of Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts who spoke at Monday’s hearing expected to ever understand how a seemingly normal person could annihilate his entire family. Watt’s parents, Cynthia and Ronnie Watts, could not believe their son had done such a thing but in light of his confession they asked only that Watts one day explain himself.  

It is not unlike expecting Adolph Eichmann (the “mastermind” behind the holocaust), to explain the holocaust. Though Eichmann offers a series of explanations – he claims he was simply obeying orders and that we must always follow the law – it becomes clear that Eichmann does not contain the evil but is contained within it.  The Gollum character, from The Lord of the Rings, reduced to an insipid, skulking creature, devoid of personhood or humanity may best capture this sense. Gollum cannot explain himself as his entire self is consumed by desire for the ring. Gollum would bring down the world, Watts destroyed his family, and Eichmann would have destroyed a race, in service to a counterfeit power, love, and law, which they served but could not presume to comprehend.

In two key places, in Corinthians and Romans, Paul provides an explanation for evil arising in conjunction with the ordinary circumstance of law, marriage, and family. In Corinth a man has initiated an incestuous relationship, which the entire Church is aware of and seems to approve.
The man is having sexual relations with his father’s wife – presumably not the man’s own mother, though the relation is not specified. In Romans, Paul pictures a circumstance in which law and love become pitted against one another, such that love is necessarily posited as transgressive. The latter explanation combined with the former circumstance provides a picture of how one might posit love, power, life, or being as in some way hidden by the law. As I explained here, one way to enact the law is by deploying it as a judge, a Pharisee, or one who deploys the law against others. The other way to enact the law is overt transgression. We might refer to the choices as either enacting the law from above, as if one is in the place of the lawgiver, or from below or the underside of the law from which one presumes the law marks what is of ultimate value by forbidding it.

This, of course, brings us back to Eden where the first couple presumed God was holding out on them by forbidding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They enacted the law – you will die – by transgressing. They imagined – perhaps even after the fact – that they had taken hold of life through the law by breaking the law. The law seemed to be a means for God to hide the really good stuff – being, life, special knowing. They would stand in the place of God – knowing good and evil, having life in themselves, and being the arbiter of their own law which they have
enacted. In Romans, Paul universalizes this circumstance in his illustration of the married woman who would consort with her lover (Ro 7:1-4).

The woman’s relationship to her husband is the prototypical social obligation, marriage being the foundation of the family and of society, but it is also the prototypical love relationship.  The problem occurs, according to Slavoj Žižek, when these two are pitted against one another; when‘social life appears to me as dominated by an externally imposed Law in which I am unable to recognize myself . . . precisely insofar as I continue to cling to the immediacy of love that feels threatened by the rule of Law’ (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 117).  The law can only be said to ‘bind’ when desire is in some way curtailed by the law.  Love, understood as synonymous to this sort of desire, an element deep within the self which only refers to the self, can only experience the regulation of law as an imposition on the true nature of the self. The woman whose husband is alive, but who has fallen in love with another man, experiences the law as that which opposes her love.  In fact, her love (her enjoyment or jouissance) is here synonymous with sin (The Monstrosity of Christ, 273).  Her notion that she is loved by her consort is, in turn, to imagine that deep within her is ‘some precious treasure that can only be loved, and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law’ (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 117).

Her ‘love’ is a symptom of the prohibition and the prohibition has its force only in the exception. The exception could be seen as creating the rule.  As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself (Reader, 45).  The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it.  If the woman in Paul’s illustration were to love her husband and not consort with other men, and if this were the universal case, the law would ‘disintegrate’.  The law functions in this sense like a psychoanalytic symptom: ‘A symptom . . . is an element that . . . must remain an exception, that is, the point of suspension of the universal principle: if the universal principle were to apply also to this point, the universal system itself would disintegrate’ (The Universal Exception, 171).

The woman, as the one who is subject to the law, represents an orientation of inherent transgression: ‘the subject is actually “in” (caught in the web of) power only and precisely in so far as he does not fully identify with it but maintains a kind of distance towards it’ (The Fragile Absolute 148). The dynamic of sin is an identity caught up in a web which tightens its grip the more it is resisted.  In Žižek’s description of the couplet law/sin, the law is a transcendent ‘foreign’ force that serves to oppress what is perceived as the love relationship (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The law becomes an obstacle to be overcome in order for love to be possible.

This sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment (jouissance) in which the obstacle constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband is a necessary part of this sort of consorting, as he is the obstacle that makes the sexual relationship with the ‘other’.  This construct is synonymous with sin: ‘“Sin” is the very intimate resistant core on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the Law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which the Law has to appear to the subject as a foreign power crushing the subject’ (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271).  The Subject is attached to a ‘pathological agalma deep within itself’ and it is attachment to this supposed exception or remainder that gives the law the spectre of an oppressive foreign force (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271).  There is a resistant core, a hold-out or remainder on the part of the Subject: ‘the notion that there is deep inside it some precious treasure which can only be loved and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law’ (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271).  The deception or illusion that sin works is to construe the law as a closure of identity which by its very nature – its absoluteness – excludes love. Sin mediates the law as a power over and against love.

The man in Corinthians, who would displace his father by marrying his father’s wife, is a portrayal of what Freud called the Oedipus complex (the origin, according to Freud, of the perverse relation to the law). This incestuous relation, as Paul notes, is specifically forbidden in pagan philosophy. The Roman jurist Gaius in the second century maintained, ‘It is illegal to marry a father’s or mother’s sister nor can I marry her who was at one time my mother-in-law or stepmother’. Cicero in the century before expressed disgust when a mother-in-law marries her son-in-law. The reason this is so disgusting may be precisely because this sort of incestuous relationship describes the ultimate taboo – a form of intended patricide. Freud thought it was the case that every male child wanted to kill his father and marry his mother. This sort of understanding pictures the father figure as the embodiment of the law. The father/law forbids what is clearly most desirable and most to be sought. Mimetic rivalry, in René Girard’s sense, is that we would be the father as the father has the essence – that which is most precious and this is evidenced in that it is forbidden to us.

The explanation for the lost object (Watt’s lost love or Gollum’s precious, or the woman who can only love her consort and not her husband) is nothing other than the ego.  As Lacan puts it, ‘It is one’s own ego that one loves in love, one’s own ego made real on the imaginary level’ (Seminar I, 142). It is posited as an ultimate reality (thus it is the real) but it is ultimately only ‘imaginary’.  This ego or thing is most precious – but of course in Paul’s explanation in Romans 7, “I” or ego is precisely what arises against the law. In Genesis the “I” arises subsequent to transgression and in Paul’s explanation the “I” is seen to be constituted as a conflict within the self. The ego is not simply split but is constituted as split – it consists of struggle and frustration. Desire for the self is a desire which  would bring down the world so as to gain the lost object. Where this desire is confused with life and love there will be no relinquishing of desire short of death.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.