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Marcus, P. (1999). What evil means to us. By C. Fred Alford. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1997, 185 pp.. Psychoanal. Rev., 86(3):471-474.

(1999). Psychoanalytic Review, 86(3):471-474


What evil means to us. By C. Fred Alford. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1997, 185 pp.

Review by:
Paul Marcus, Ph.D.

C. Fred Alford, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of such excellent books as Melanie Klein and Critical Social Theory (1988) and the Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy (1994), has now written a most interesting volume on how we experience evil—in ourselves, in others, and in the world. Based on focused interviews with prisoners, working people, and college students, Alford has approached this daunting subject largely from a Kleinian and object relations point of view, interweaving his insights with the ideas of such great thinkers as St. Augustine, Dante, Nietzsche, Milgram, and Arendt, to name a few. It should be emphasized that Alford has not tried to write an analytically rigorous treatise on the problem of evil; for example, he does not make exacting distinctions between different types of evil, or between evildoer and evil deed. Rather, his book is a beautifully crafted psychoanalytic meditation on the experience of evil, for example, in a prisoner interviewee who had shot a young girl in the head and hog-tied a middle-aged man and executed him during a robbery. Alford often returns to the Holocaust as well as the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides as examples of evil on the grand, collective scale.

What is evil according to Alford? “Evil is pleasure in hurting and lack of remorse” (p. 21). “Evil is closely allied to sadism, and sadism to dread” (p. 19). Drawing from Thomas Ogden, Alford suggests that what people mean by evil emanates from “formless dread” of our presymbolic, preverbal experience, the “autistic-contiguous” position, the fear that the self is dissolving. Formless dread is the terror of formlessness, the loss of context, meaning, and containment, where boundaries vanish and things that should separate merge into each other. “The root of evil”, asserts Alford, “is the experience of uncontained, undifferentiated dread. We are evil when, instead of knowing our dread, we become it, trying to inflict it on others, as though they were a thing. The psychopath is the extreme example, but we all have psychopathic moments” (p. 19).


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