A psychiatrist whom I worked with once observed that it is easier to personify evil than good. Coming from a Christian tradition, and with an anthropological bent, he suggested that in most cultures, especially in times of great uncertainty or crisis, demonic figures spring to mind more readily than angelic ones. Even God, typically represented as an elderly man with a flowing beard, is slower to materialise than Satan with his horns and trident.
The point is debatable, but my colleague argued persuasively that the tendency to summon up concrete images of evil has been aided and abetted for centuries by theologically minded poets (Milton, for example) and artists like Brueghel. I would add to the list the whole genre of horror stories and movies which have followed us into the 21st century.
Scientific explorations of these realms were pioneered by psychoanalysts of the likes of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, taking us from a religious to a psychological understanding of the split between Good and Bad. By disowning our own nastiness and projecting it onto some other person or group, they maintained, we were making it easier to arrive at a comforting explanation for the horrors which life throws at us.
Following in their footsteps, other socially minded analysts widened the discourse to suggest that groups, like individuals, were prone to the same tendency to oversimplify life by projecting badness onto other groups and claiming the goodness for themselves.
My own introduction to the concepts of Good and Bad comes from a Jewish tradition, not strongly religious by any means, but embedded in a respect for Jewish values, customs, history and traditions. It was therefore with considerable interest that I discovered the play by Ansky titled ‘The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds.’ The play is set in the 1850’s, in a Shtetl in Eastern Europe, a landscape familiar to my parents, who were born in Lithuania.
The play presents a demon from Jewish folklore, the dybbuk, a creature who enters the body of its victim and takes possession of it. The word dybbuk conveys the sense of something that sticks to a person and in effect takes over the soul of its victim, a truly horrific scenario. Usually the dybbuk is a malign creature with no particular relationship to its chosen victim other than the need to contaminate a pure and innocent soul. Ansky’s dybbuk, however, is a more complex character, representing a poor Jewish scholar who has dabbled in the dark arts after falling in love with a young woman whose wealthy father has rejected him as an unworthy suitor for the daughter. Rejected, the student collapses in a state of ecstatic grief and dies, or so we think.
In fact the student is by no means dead, but has entered the body of his beloved and taken her over on the eve of her wedding to the intended suitor. The dybbuk’s presence is announced when she speaks in a harsh male voice and pushes her suitor away, declaring that she will not marry him.
The elders of the community announce that she has been possessed by a dybbuk and solemnly proceed with the rituals of exorcism. At first these fail, but ultimately the power of rabbinic authority prevails. The dybbuk yields, but there is a terrible price to pay. In the closing scene (spoiler alert) the dybbuk, in the form of the scholar, walks towards the young woman and they embrace, to die in each other’s arms.
In this way the hopes and values of the wealthy father are thwarted, and a blow is struck for the triumph of love over paternal power, but the tragic ending of the play also speaks to a plea for reality. Can magical devices really overcome the power of the self? Perhaps this is what Ansky meant by his sub-title, ‘Between Two Worlds.’ The story hovers between the worlds of fantasy and reality. But who can partition that world into Good and Bad?