When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.
Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?
For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:
“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.
Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:
“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).
Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.
While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:
“My Daddy beats my Mommyfrom “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!
In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.
“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.
Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).
Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.
Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.