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Our Evil Imaginations

The story of the Flood is preceded and followed by unkind remarks of God on the nature of human imagination. In Genesis 6:5, at the end of last week’s portion, we are told:

And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The story of the Flood ends with God swearing, in Genesis 8:21, that

I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth…

Assuming this biblical proposition is valid, when exactly does the imagination start to have the capacity for evil?

In order for us to make a choice, our imagination must be able to present us with various possibilities, and to permit us to visualize their effects if acted on. These capacities must be in place by the time a child first makes a free choice. And the imagining of evil possibilities dates, we are told, from this time in our lives, even if the evil we imagine as youngsters couldn’t be very evil.

The earliest memory of an action of my own that illustrates the biblical observation is this: Late one afternoon, when I was 5 or 6, my mother sent me off to bed early as punishment. More than 50 years later I can still recall the moment I continued to cry after I could have stopped, the moment of choice after which my sobs were false, and the sense of triumph when she came at last to comfort me. My first small conscious revenge.

My poor mother was being manipulated by her devilish child, who knew how to use guilt to get what he wanted. This may not be worthy of eternal damnation, but all the elements are there. At a tender age I already had acquired the capacity to imagine myself dissembling and to imagine, accurately I should note, the effects that my falsehood would have on someone else. All this was in place, and was placed in the service of revenge.

We adults need no other capacities than these to create confrontations and the slide into conflict. Even those of us who have matured into wisdom and serenity to the point where we never would do such things still must face the problem that Doris Lessing has one of the characters describe in her 1962 novel, “The Golden Notebook”:

Every bloody one of them’s got a history of emotional crime, oh the sad bleeding corpses that litter the road to maturity of the wise and serene man or woman of fifty-odd!

I read this when I was in my 20s, and I put a little pencil mark in the margin since it seemed worth remembering. But I forgot it, and only rediscovered the passage when I dusted off my old copy of the novel a few years ago when I was, alas, well over 50 myself.

The story of the Flood, as I’ve said, is framed by observations on the evil nature of the human imagination, which is, of course, needed to produce the emotional crimes that lead to maturity, which remain with us in our memory. In a similar spirit, our Sages, who were nothing if not realists, have pointed out that Noah saved all the beasts that were ritually unclean as well as the kosher ones. These and other aspects of the story are obviously part of an emblematic narrative, something with the feel of an allegory. What is its overall structure, and what social or psychological processes correspond to this narrative?

The story has the following structure: A corrupt old order existed; it is destroyed in such a way that every unique element in the old order is preserved, and is let loose again in the new order. All the clean and unclean elements from the past will flourish again in the new dispensation. Nothing new has been created, and nothing has had its character altered. Human imagination has the same capacity for evil before and after. The only systemic change recorded is that this capacity for evil, which was rejected before, is now, with reluctance and repugnance, accepted.

As for the application of this model to, say, the politics of radical social change, such as the 20th century’s experiment with communism, or the belief that radical changes in an individual’s psychology can come about through talk, or the hope for lasting peace on earth, I’ll leave all that to the experts. I can point out, however, that making a New World Order in which the imagination of the human heart is pure and peaceful is something the Creator of the Universe Himself didn’t even try after His first attempt failed.

David Curzon is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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