“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”
— Joseph Conrad
“The systems of explanation, historical and psychological, that we employ to explain ordinary human behavior, however extreme, cannot explain Hitler, who represents, (theologian Emil) Fackenheim believes, a ‘radical evil,’ an ‘eruption of demonism into history…’”
— Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler
“All mankind needs to become the monster he truly is, is being told he can.”
— Magda, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
Mankind was on a runaway train in 1938, highballing toward the abyss. The last year of “peace” before the Second World War began in earnest had started with the Rape of Nanking, in which the armed forces of Imperial Japan indulged in a grotesque orgy of slaughter in the Chinese city, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead. The Third Reich’s Anschluss in Austria was followed by the humiliation of the Jews of Vienna, who were forced to get on hands and knees and scrub the city’s streets. By the autumn, when the Wehrmacht rolled unopposed into what was left of a diplomatically dismembered Czechoslovakia, the war clouds on the horizon had built to a towering black wall rolling inexorably down upon civilization.
The world was living for real in the shadow of the fictional prophecy that forms the bedrock of Showtime’s new horror tale, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels:
“A time will come when nation will battle nation, when race will devour race, when brother will kill brother, until not a soul is left.”
City of Angels is built around the seething racial tensions that simmered just below the golden surface of Los Angeles through most of its history. The planned Arroyo Seco Motorway (eventually the 110 Freeway running from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) will displace a Mexican-American neighborhood, just as the construction of Dodger Stadium would clean out Chavez Ravine two decades later. Nazis are infiltrating the film studios and the aircraft manufacturing plants. A ritualistic murder has left four mutilated corpses in Dia del Muertos makeup arranged on the concrete bed of the dry L.A. River. All the golden metropolis requires is a spark to erupt in a consuming conflagration.
Magda, a shapeshifting demon, seeks to provide that spark in order to reap a harvest of souls that her anguished sister, Santa Muerte, must escort to heaven — or hell. The demon is an agent provocateur — she does not create conflict, she exploits it, setting race against race, brother against brother.
Magda does not cause men to do evil — she simply gives them permission to be what they are. She plays upon men’s lust — for power, for sex, for meaning, for ecstatic action, whispering seductively into their ear that they can.
As a theory of evil, this folkloric conceit not only has legs, it dances like Judge Holden dances in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, never sleeping, never dying.
For years, I subscribed to Joseph Conrad’s materialist aphorism quoted in the epigraph at the top, believing that man generates his own wickedness. Yet, I’m not sure I ever fully believed it. Hell, I’m not sure Conrad really believed it, either. Is there not something uncanny about Kurtz (a trait even more pronounced in his incarnation as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now)?
More than two decades ago, I read Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, which remains one of the most potent pieces of historical exploration I have ever encountered. And I could never shake Emil Fackenheim’s characterization of Hitler, Nazism and Auschwitz as “an eruption of demonism into history.”
I still remember the frisson I experienced in reading the words: I instinctively felt them to be terrifyingly true.
Thus, I was startled, even shaken, by the manner in which Magda exerts her power in City of Angels — for she bridges the divide between the materialist insistence that man is sufficient unto himself in his capacity for evil, and the concept of “radical evil,” something that exists in some spiritual-yet-tangible form just outside our ken.
This is why Story matters — it gives us a visceral way to understand a world only dimly perceived.
Philip Caputo, in his brilliant Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War, posited that most men have a moral safety net that keeps them from falling headlong into the abyss, even under the great strain of war. There is danger that that moral safety net may fray, or that there may be a hole in it — even decent men are capable of slipping into evil acts that haunt them for the rest of their days. But Caputo understood that for some men, there simply is no net… and there is no bottom. If there is a demonic embodiment the spirit of evil, it can rent the one and own the other.
The men without a net are the men to whom Magda might most productively whisper her sweet nothings, the men for whom all that is required is a permissive environment to conjure forth the monster that he is. Offer him the cover of chaos, or place state power in his hands, and you have an eruption of demonism into history.
The 20th Century served up many such permissive environments. There is a case to be made that the explosion of the First World War in August 1914 ripped the lid off of Hell and we’ve never been able to get it fully secured since.
War and revolution and the utopian ideologies of Bolshevik Communism, Japanese Imperialism and National Socialism whispered “you can” to a witches brew of souls who made the very most of the opportunity to become monsters. And the act of battling monsters created more, even on the side of the angels, just as Nietzsche had warned:
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
I have taken up the trail of the strange and demonic Baron Roman Federovich von Ungern-Sternberg — a partisan warrior, mystic and madman who cut a bloody swath in Central Asia during the Russian Civil War.
The man and his actions are so outlandishly savage that they qualify under Fackenheim’s framework of “radical evil.” (And how the Bloody Baron — a vicious anti-Semite — would froth at being held to judgment at the bar of a Jewish theologian).
As his biographer James Palmer acerbically noted:
“You had to really go above and beyond to stand out as a sadistic lunatic in the context of the Russian Civil War, but he went that extra mile.”
The Baron built a native army leavened with renegade Russians to build a power base in Mongolia. His driving ambition was to leave “an avenue of gallows” from Mongolia to Moscow, where he would swing Bolsheviks and Jews, enemies of the divinely ordained monarchical order of the universe.
There is something atavistic about the warfare in Central Asia during this period, even though the ragtag armies were armed with bolt-action rifles, machine guns and even some modern artillery. Ungern-Sternberg’s conquest of the Chinese-occupied city of Urga in Mongolia in the winter of 1921 was an evocation of hell, a kind of steppe Blood Meridian.
Peter Hopkirk wrote in Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia:
“The main gates were immediately blown open with grenades and the triumphant attackers, lusting after Chinese blood, poured in. A massacre of the demoralized garrison now followed. (White Russian officer Dmitri) Alioshin, the sole participant to leave an account of the fighting, describes the scene:
‘Mad with revenge and hatred, the conquerors began plundering the city. Drunken horsemen galloped along the streets shooting and killing at their fancy, breaking into houses, dragging property outside into the dirty streets, dressing themselves in rich silks found in the shops…’ Wherever they could be found hiding, Jews were killed, their women first being raped… Many of the attackers were now so drunk that one Cossack began killing his own comrades, until he himself was shot…”
The Bloody Baron would finally be abandoned by his men and captured and shot by the Reds he despised as much as he hated Jews.
The Bolsheviks, of course, produced a mighty share of demonic figures. Stalin sucks all of the oxygen out of the room, but his great rival Trotsky thrived no less on the opportunity to give free rein to his sanguinary impulses. And Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the dreaded Soviet secret police the Cheka, could scarcely conceal the demonic fire that burned within.
The souls devoured by such men still cry out for those with ears to hear.
Extreme wealth and limitless power, the chaos of war and revolution, racial and ethnic hatred, the messianic conviction that the creation of an earthly utopia justifies all action … any combination of these explosive elements prepares the path for the advent of evil. They await not a spark, but a mere seductive whisper, a voice out of the void murmuring, “You can.”
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