By James Dawes
Harvard University Press – £19.95
I do believe there’s a lot to be said for writing about things in such a way that most people can relate to. Regardless of the subject matter, whether it’s poetry or philosophy, music or madness, theology or torture. I mention the latter because torture is one of the prime areas brought to bear throughout Evil Men by James Dawes.
A book that to my mind, really ought to have touched, if not effected the reader in a far more profound way than it unfortunately does.
Referring to many first-hand discussions with convicted war criminals of the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945 (upon which this book is fundamentally based), the author occasionally summons the reader unto a certain considered darkness, that is no more disturbing or dare I say it, substantially revealing, than that which is currently taking place in Syria.
To be sure, I’m none the wiser for having read this book – regardless of how staunchly I wanted to be. The revelations by an assortment of the very soldiers who perpetrated some of the worst crimes imaginable – such as murder, rape and medical examination upon living subjects – remain subliminally confined within the parameters of the far too clinical and the far too scientific.
None of the reasoning behind any of the barbarity, let alone any of the physical and emotional hurt it must so obviously have caused, is quintessentially divulged. As a result, much of the book reads as if we should already know the reasoning behind why one person, or several, simultaneously, can do such ghastly things to another person.
By quoting the scholar Dorothy Hale towards the end of the book – one of many scholars who is currently working to integrate theoretical work into the language and rhetoric of human rights – Dawes draws our attention to the ever increasing underlying acceptance of flippant and/or spontaneous cruelty: ‘’The all-too visible incarceration of subjectivity by aesthetic form is decried as an abuse of representational power. The author who must more or less use a character for his or her expressive ends is felt to be exploitative. The reader who identifies with a character worries about emotional colonization. And the reader and author who feel only the aesthetic thrill of the character’s fate carry the guilt of the voyeur.’’
Upon reflection, this can be especially relevant with regards the character-driven world of inexorable callousness within certain dramatized literature; such as that found within the character traits of both protagonists in Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Not to mention the filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as a whole.
Yet, rather than embrace the almost bankrupt humanity of this book’s sordid subject matter, Dawes tries exceedingly hard to ultimately decipher, if not deliver. This is partially evident, where he writes in immediate response to the above: ‘’This guilty pleasure, however, is precisely the starting point of a literary ethics. In novels, the argument goes, we encounter characters as simultaneously free persons and constrained aesthetic artifacts. They exceed our ways of knowing, and because this unsettles us, we seek to reduce them to limited things that we can understand. In this way, literature holds up a mirror to our own being in the world, allowing us to see – or rather, to experience – the way all of our human possibility ‘’is produced in and through the operation of social constraint.’’’’
Surely ‘’the operation of social constraint,’’ is the very premise upon which Evil Men is based? ‘’The operation of social constraint’’ is the ultimate presupposition that the author endeavours to comprehensively dissect, no?
And in so doing, hopefully engage and enlighten the reader.
Rather than truly touch on the underlying behaviour behind the potential for despicable cruelty, James Dawes, has within these 224 pages, done much to further the argument; but very little to quench any philosophical thirst for profound reasoning.
As he poignantly states at the very outset of this academic analysis: ‘’If Elie Wiesel is right in saying that to forget is to kill twice, then the Second Sino-Japanese War never ended. It just shifted to the landscape of memory.’’
Evil Men is something of juxtaposition: it may well ensure that evil men aren’t forgotten, but in so doing, it does much to elongate the painful landscape of memory itself.