In the wake of my letter of a few weeks ago about Oskar Gröning, the ninety-three-year old ex-SS officer on trial in Germany for his participation in the murder of about 300,000 people in the course of a few months in 1944, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good person or an evil one. Other than when serving as one of Hitler’s willing executioners, after all, Gröning was a normal member of society and a productive one. He worked. He married. He raised a family. He collected stamps. He played sports. He wasn’t a monster who could only do evil, therefore, but merely a man who once, and only in the course of a few years, participated in the perpetration of an unspeakable crime. For some reason, his story and the questions it raises have stayed with me in the weeks since I wrote about his story and his trial. And that story and those questions have prompted me to revisit some of my favorite questions about human nature, about a few of which I’d like to write today.
What does it mean to be a good person? Does it mean to be one who does good? What if one also does evil? Can good people do evil? Or does make them by definition not good people? And what about the inverse? Can evil people do good? Or is the more reasonable approach simply to accept that people can be good and bad. That most people spend their lives doing good and bad things. That people are capable of mostly sticking to pre-embraced principles, but that even the saintly occasionally crumble under the weight of the kind of pressure to conform that momentarily feels to them unbearable. That the natural human condition is for most of us alternately to be saintly and sinful as we stumble down the path from cradle to grave possessed both of the will to embrace the principles of moral excellence and the capacity occasionally to betray those same principles out of sloth or greed, or out of weakness. And, indeed, if the labels “good” and “bad” relate solely to our deeds—in other words, if we aren’t anything at all other than what we do—then doesn’t it follow that we aren’t really anything at all other than the walking, talking aggregates of our deeds? Are our deeds all there is to our moral selves, then, and the rest mere blather? To ask the same question from a different vantage point, is there a fundamental potential to do good in us all—creatures, all of us, created in God’s image—that we are free either to access or to deny? That sounds closer to how things generally feel to me…but that notion implies that there is no such thing as a fundamentally good person, or a fundamentally evil one. That some people become Oskar Grönings is not to be explained with reference to their intrinsic or innate badness, then, but with simple reference to their failure meaningfully to embrace their own potential to do good. And that basic notion of badness as moral failure rather than innate depravity is the idea I’ve been wrestling with as the trial in Lüneburg has unfolded and witnesses to the Nazis’ crimes at Auschwitz have come forward to speak.
I’ve just recently read two remarkable books that deal with these questions in a fully engaging way. The first, Akhil Sharma’s book, An Obedient Father, is the story of Ram Karan, a despicable character in almost every way. He molests his own granddaughter, mimicking his own vile behavior with his daughter Anita, his granddaughter’s mother, when she, the mother, was a girl of twelve. He is a corrupt and dishonest man as well who earns his living collecting bribes for his corrupt and dishonest masters in the New Delhi school system, which itself is merely a front for crooked political activity of the kind at which Ram excels. Nor does he have any loyalty even to his own bosses, whom he betrays in the wake of Rajiv Ghandi’s assassination when he understands that he himself will pay a huge price for sticking with the men who have given him whatever limited but highly lucrative power he has in the world. He is also obesely fat, which girth is depicted not as a moral failing in and of itself but rather as the outer manifestation of Ram’s inability to deny himself anything at all that he’d like to have and that he finds within his grasp. He also drinks way too much.
Ram has basically no redeeming qualities at all. And yet, right in the middle of everything, this vile human being shows himself capable of great courage and, in the middle of a riot, personally steps forward to save the lives of a woman and her two children, strangers he doesn’t know and to whom he has no prior relationship. More to the point is that there is no obvious way for him to benefit by stepping into the melee—and truly risking his life—to save innocents in danger merely because they are Sikhs and the mob surrounding their shop has concluded, incorrectly, that Rajiv Ghandi’s assassin too was a Sikh. And so we are presented with a rich, intriguing portrait of the anti-Oskar Gröning. The latter is a man who lived a normal, mostly decent life but who succumbed at one specific point to the inclination to participate in a crime so great that even now, more than seventy years later, its details still seem to some extent unimaginable. Ram Karan, on the other hand, is the inverse: a man whose every waking minute is given over to corruption and venality but who in one soaring moment does something magnificent and kind, a deed of true selflessness that could easily have cost him his life.
Born in Delhi, Akhil Sharma did his undergraduate work at Princeton and then ended up studying law at Harvard. Now he teaches writing at Rutgers and just last year published his second novel, Family Life, which is on my list to read this summer. I think you’ll find An Obedient Father, published in 2000 by Farrar Strauss Giroux, well worth your time: repulsive in many of its details, it somehow manages to end up as a compelling, fascinating portrait of human behavior in all its maddening complexity. It rings true in many ways and, in its own way, it constitutes a very interesting answer to my initial question about the relationship of being and doing in the context of living. I recommend it to you all.
The second book is John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, which I’ve just finished reading. At forty-four and so exactly the same age as Akhil Sharma, Boyne is still counted among Ireland’s younger authors. Most of my readers will know him as the author the young person’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was later made into a successful movie that I wrote about at length about six years ago after seeing on an El Al flight home from Israel. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see my comments.) But he is on entirely different ground in this latest of his novels, ground that is in every sense his own native soil.
A History of Loneliness is the story of Odran Yates, a young Irish boy who is pushed into the seminary by his mother in the wake of a devastating tragedy that took her husband and her youngest son from her on the same day. (I won’t give the specifics away so as not to ruin the book for any of you who might read it. But the author’s account of that day is something that I expect to stay with me for a very long time.) And so, as a boy of seventeen in 1972, Odran enters the Clonliffe Seminary in Dublin and is assigned as his roommate one Tom Cardle, a boy who unlike Odran—who is at least willing to take his mother’s word that he has a calling to the priesthood—truly hates the seminary and all it implies about his personal future.
As we move forward and backward through time—the book is structured in such as way so that every successive chapter is situated in a different decade so that you only learn some of the most crucial details about the beginning of the story towards the end of the book—you begin by thinking that the book is about Tom Cardle, that this is Odran telling us his friend’s story. And it is a horrific story too, one that features not years but decades of abuse of innocent boys entrusted to his tutelage or his spiritual guidance. But as I approached the end of the book, I suddenly realize that this was not Tom’s story but Odran’s, that the interesting character—and by far—was the narrator, not his roommate. He is a good man, Father Odran, one who accepts his vocation and spends his life teaching in a Catholic high school and then serving in a parish near Dublin. Odran is kind and just, a decent young man who grows in the course of a lifetime into the kind of avuncular pastor that any Catholic would want as his or her priest.
But in all that good, there is also bad: as the years pass, we realize that he has known about his roommate’s depravity almost from the start, depravity that among much else has eventually led to the suicide of one of Tom’s young victims. Nor is it irrelevant that among those victims is one of Odran’s own nephews, for whose abuse and subsequent troubles he, Odran, realizes himself to be at least partially responsible. And so we are left to contemplate the portrait drawn of a good man who does a terrible thing…and the fact that his is a sin of omission, that he does that terrible thing not by doing but by not doing, by not speaking up, by not having the insight to know what he should have known and not finding the courage to speak up when he should never have been silent—that seems only to make Odran’s story that much more interesting to contemplate, not to make his behavior any easier to excuse or less challenging to explain.
Both books, Akhil Sharma’s and John Boyne’s, are well worth reading. Both are upsetting in some ways, but elevating in others. More to the point is that both are very accomplished portraits of human beings who resist our natural impulse to label people as one thing or another. In every meaningful sense, the books’ protagonists, Ram Karan and Odran Yates, are men who are defined by their deeds, by their actions (which category in Father Yates’ story includes inaction). They couldn’t be less alike, these two characters. My guess is that, in some cross-over novel in which they somehow met, they wouldn’t like or understand each other. But we, the readers, understand them both…and profit from what the authors who created them have to say through their artistry about human nature. That we can see ourselves clearly in portraits of men who by every measure could not be less like us, and who engage in behavior we cannot possibly imagine ourselves mimicking—that is the sign of good writing that draws readers in and, by holding up an invisible mirror, allows them to see themselves all the more clearly. I recommend both books to you highly!