In honor of Halloween, the inimitable James Carroll has written Dance of the Demons, a mediation on good and evil, on the tendency to project danger onto others or the Other, and on the desire to have clear markers to distinguish the good from the bad. Costumes symbolize these markers. The witch must have a stigmata, so as to be clearly recognized. His meditation poses profound questions the resolution of which may decide the fate of the human race.
Halloween, and the attempt to clearly demarcate good from evil represent social as well as psychological questions. How to maintain the collectivity of the community while allowing for individual freedom. Are freedom and community irreconcilable? Can one truly accept the freedom of the witch, of the one who thinks (and act) differently? If one attempts such acceptance, is one then committed to a tolerance for true evil, as moral absolutists are fond of claiming?
The war in Iraq, Carroll argues, is a manifestation of the American way of distinguishing good from evil. Saddam was easily viewed as the new Satan, to follow in the line of Hitler, International Communism, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Evil Empire. Of course, he is one of the axis of evil, combining the earliest metaphor with one characteristic of our modern scientific world.
Like children reading costumes, we know the wicked from the good. We make our threats, seize our booty, and name the enemy, not thinking that we ourselves have become the world’s. For America’s children, this is play. For their nation, it is war. Trick or treat.
The question that bedevils us all is how to go beyond good and evil, to accept the moral ambiguity in each of us and thus in them, the Other. And how to not allow this recognition to paralyze us, to render efforts to improve the world impotent.
October 31st, 2005