Evil and the Devil

 

The seventeenth issue of the journal n+1 is now out and the theme is “Evil.”

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For those not familiar with the relatively young publication (it was founded in 2004), n+1 is a self-described “print magazine of politics, literature, and culture,” which features thematic issues published three times a year. Some past themes have included “Happiness,” “Bad Money,” Conversion Experience,” “Awkward Age,” and so on. It is a journal that has received both critical acclaim and scarring criticism, both for good reason. It has published daring and creative fiction, offered insightful social commentary, and provided a new outlet for young and talented writers and critics. However, as The New Yorker literary critic James Wood (among others) has pointed out, the editors – mostly Brooklynites who fancy themselves the young turks of a rising intellectual scene – are often scathing in their critique, rarely matching constructive criticism or positive acclaim to their harsh deconstructions.

Founded by five bright but discontented writers who were dissatisfied with the current state of literary criticism and the general “intellectual scene” in the United States, n+1 is a publication to take seriously. Edgy though some content can be at times, the editorial commitment to critical theory and serious literary consideration has kept me coming back to see what’s new with n+1.

Two really interesting pieces of fiction in the “Evil” issue captured my attention this week. The first, a story titled “Fish Rot” by Rebecca Curtis (author of the book, Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money) is a piece that packs in a lot. Ostensibly centered on the effects of a disease called “Fish Rot,” the existence of which is denied by many in the fictional society in the spirit of early HIV-AIDS denial, the story unfolds in unexpected ways. Treatment of family dynamics, the desire to be desired, the healthcare industry, and an unexpected Faustian twist (this is the Evil issue after all) make for an interesting read.

The role of “the devil” throughout and in conclusion is a particularly fascinating commentary on how evil or circumstances or malice might be understood in an admittedly “secular” key. The place of “foxhole faith” is also presented in an interesting way. Rather than seriously consider changing her life, the protagonist quickly bypasses the whole faith question for a more immediate, pragmatic solution. Perhaps this is why, toward the end, the devil confesses to her: “I’m Satan. Actually, I’ve had a crush on you for a long time. I like you” (58).

The second installment of fiction comes in a piece presented as the first act of a play, titled “SIXSIXSIX,” by Gregory Moss. It is fun and spooky and captivating to read. The published story opens with an epigraph from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, which is apparently an unavoidable homage when writing about the devil in modern fiction (or at least in issue seventeen of n+1. Unlike Curtis’s story, Moss’s play appears more explicitly about the devil, various encounters with the character and the way in which evil is made manifest in subtle ways through human decisions and actions. The writing is sparse (it’s set up as dialogue, of course), but the effect is striking.

What is it about so-called “secular” interest in figures like the devil? Can one even talk about evil or the devil without necessarily implying sin or religion, regardless of the theological acuity in play?

As a lifelong student of theology, an ordained Franciscan friar, and a believer, I couldn’t help but read centuries-old theological themes into the texts and wondered how much the authors were aware of the depth of the tradition they invoked. What does it mean for the world of literary, cultural, and political criticism that a whole issue of a journal the caliber of n+1 would be devoted to the theme of “Evil” and that two large contributions would focus on the figure of the devil?

I suppose, like all readers of the “Evil” issue of n+1, I am left to ponder the meaning and implications of the creative expressions of others according to my own horizon of faith and theology. I am at least glad that I have that, for I feel I can appreciate the truth of the art as fully as I'm able because of it.

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