An exhibition in Dublin Castle to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, a few weeks before the beginning of Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine, documented one family’s sudden dislocation from normal life to unthinkable nightmare. The early photographs in the exhibition, of family gatherings, of trips to town, of meetings with friends, give way abruptly to pictures showing the public humiliation of old men and of children lining up for transport to their extermination. The exhibition’s curator, Oliver Sears, whose grandmother and mother lived through the horror, recounts a story told to him by survivor that happened during the first few days of the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Richard Urbanski was seventeen when the Nazi’s took over Warsaw. On his way home from school, he witnessed a flat bed truck parked next to a four-story apartment building, with German soldiers throwing Hasidic Jews, still alive and breathing, from the top floor windows onto the truck below.
The Nazi invasion was not simply occupation by an invading army. It was an abrupt elimination of the sacred ordinariness that had governed people’s lives until then – the sacred ordinariness of family life, of trips to town, of meetings with friends, the scared ordinariness of love and respect for life.
So too with Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine. Once again, the entire mental landscape of the sacred ordinary has been shattered, just as brutally as the landscape of bombed out maternity hospitals, schools and apartment blocks that we see in the images coming out of Ukraine daily. As with Hitler, the psychopathology of one deeply disordered mind has torn asunder the fabric of values that gives life meaning.
The concept of evil is one that we shy away from in our secular societies, with its ramifications of the supernatural, of demons and the Devil. But Putin is evil, and the source of his evil is much more mundane. Putin’s evil, like that of Hitler, Stalin. Mao, and so many other tyrants past and present, lies in his utter incapacity to live from the sacred ordinary.
The cultural historian and ecologist Thomas Berry wrote of a transformative experience he had as an eleven-year-old boy. His family has moved to a new home on the edge of town, overlooking a creek and a meadow. Berry recalls the first time that he descended the hill, crossed over the creek and stood in the meadow. It was early afternoon in mid-May and the field was full of white lilies rising above thick grass. He recalls crickets singing and woodlands in the near distance framed by scattered clouds in a clear blue sky. Berry recounts how this early experience had such a deep impact that it became normative for him: “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple.”
While some of us might identify with Berry’s deep connection with nature, most of humanity identifies with a deep connection to other people. For most of us, our life orientations are simple too: whatever preserves or enhances those we love and our connections to them is good; whatever disrupts or destroys this sacred ordinariness is bad.
The roots of Putin’s evil lie in his incapacity to conceive of such an orientation as the basis for living. Over a century of studies on childhood development show clearly that adverse early experiences can leave individuals bereft of the capacity to relate to other people in empathic, loving or respectful ways. The labels that psychologists have for this condition varies, and includes malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychopathy. Whatever the labels, the shared underlying reality for individuals with these conditions is an inability to relate to others as human beings, or to gain sustenance from the ordinary everyday interactions that give life meaning. Cut off from the world of normal human relationships, they seek solace instead in a relentless pursuit of wealth and power. If others will not love them, they will command respect and servitude through status, fear and control. Envious of the love they cannot partake in, they seek to destroy the bonds of love and care that bind the rest of us together.
The images from Ukraine of mass murder, of families torn apart, of children’s corpses, of the frail and elderly forced to flee for their lives, demand of us a deeper understanding of Putin’s evil. Evil, in encountering goodness, seeks to destroy it. Beneath his all-powerful dreams of Empire, of the restoration of Russian “greatness”, of his command of armies and nuclear arsenals capable of Armageddon, lies a banality of evil, terrifying too in its emptiness. Beneath the bravado, the ruined cities, the shattered lives – and potentially too, beneath the mushroom clouds – lies an incapacity to love and an all-consuming envy of love.
In his poem Darkness Invisible, Ukrainian poet Yuri Izdryk laments how evil had become invisible in the world, like mist in air, so that we can no longer say that evil is here, evil is there. The sacred ordinary names the space that mediates love, tenderness, security – all the things Putin has been deprived of in his dysfunctional life.
But Putin has made evil visible again, and the Ukrainians fighting him in their stand to defend the sacred ordinary have made the necessary response to evil equally clear.
“while we two are together, I keep faith in light, love and warmth
and in mercy, which conquers invisible darkness
the shadows will fade, evil will surface – pathetic, a thing of no worth
and we two will laugh, we’ll laugh right in its face”