The Problem of Evil: Campus, 1968
A Short Story
Elena was saying something about how exploited the TA’s were. Maureen, who was also a TA, leaned her head closer, trying to hear her above the din of the students’ chatter in the cavernous auditorium. Then Elena suddenly sat up and pointed toward the front.
A short man with long, wavy white hair was rapping a ruler against the podium, attempting to get the students’ attention. He began clearing his throat authoritatively.
“Uh, oh,” Elena groaned. “That’s Guerin.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he repeated loudly, followed by more impatient rapping.
Gradually, the roar subsided.
“Ladies and gentlemen.”
Elena covered her face with her hand to hide a smile and shook her head in disbelief. Maureen knew Elena thought it was absurd to continue using such an arcane expression in the Age of Aquarius.
The professor waited for complete silence, then raised his eyes to the ceiling.
“I’m sometimes asked,” he began, “what is the value, what is the purpose of a liberal arts education?” He spoke in an elegant, clipped style, with a slight French accent.
“Not this rap again,” Elena whispered, then added, “at least it’s short.”
“Why should I bother to study literature, history, art, music?” Professor Guerin paused to remove his glasses, wipe them, all the while continuing to stare at the ceiling. Students glanced at one another with knowing smirks.
“And my answer,” he continued, “is that it is these subjects that make us fully human.”
Suddenly there was a cry from the back of the auditorium. “Bullshit!”
A ripple of snickers ran through the audience. Everyone turned toward the shout, but it wasn’t clear where it came from. Professor Guerin paused and put his glasses back on.
“Literature, the great works of art and music, are what constitute civilization. They are what distinguish us from animals. They are what make us truly human. They manifest the nobility of man.”
“Bullshit!” The cry came from the back again. Once more everyone turned. This time it appeared to have come from a boy who was wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat with a large yellow feather.
“Shut up!” came from the front of the hall. Scattered boos and hisses passed through the room.
Guerin continued, “You, ladies and gentlemen, have a privilege granted to few. You have the privilege of engaging in dialogue with the great minds of man.”
“Elitism!” This time the voice was feminine, coming from another part of the hall.
“Right on!” came the original voice from the back.
“And so,” Guerin hurried on, “I hope you will appreciate the richness … the golden gates … ”
“It gets worse every year,” Elena whispered. “I think he’s losing it.”
Finally the lecture ended and the students poured out of the hall, laughing and shouting. Elena and Maureen lingered in the lobby.
“I have to say I agree with the students,” Maureen said. “His talk was a bit much.”
“Oops, watch it,” Elena said in a low voice. Guerin was approaching them.
“Professor Guerin,” Elena said, “I want you to meet the new TA, Maureen Devlin.”
“How do you do?” he said, extending his hand and bowing slightly.
“You have the course syllabus?” he asked Maureen directly.
“Yes, I do,” she said politely.
“We start with Voltaire’s Candide,” he said.
“Yes, I know.”
“Are you familiar with Candide?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” Maureen lied, figuring she would be, at least, by the time her section met.
“Good, well, we’ll see you next week then.”
As Maureen and Elena walked down Bascom Hill, they passed a small gathering at the base of the Lincoln statue. Maureen noticed the boy with the cowboy hat and yellow feather who had heckled Guerin’s lecture. A speaker was standing up on the ledge in front of Lincoln’s knee. They paused to listen.
“Saigon has become an American brothel … Daily we pour thousands of pounds of napalm on innocent people … Do you know what napalm does?” The speaker, wearing shredded jeans and a red tee-shirt, was hanging on to Lincoln with one hand and shaking his fist with the other. His voice rose to a crescendo.
“It sticks to the skin and burns,” he shrieked. He pulled both hands together and slid them down his sides, as if peeling off his skin. “It’s torture. That’s what it is. And who is responsible? Who makes napalm? We know who!”
“Dow!” called a voice from the crowd.
“Dow Chemical,” another voice added.
“Boycott Dow!” a woman screamed from the other side of the group.
A chant began. “Boycott Dow! Boycott Dow! Boycott Dow!”
Maureen found herself walking in step to the chant as they proceeded down the hill to the Memorial Union for lunch. “Boy-cott-Dow. Boy-cott-Dow.”
A few days later Maureen met her first class, a discussion section of Guerin’s course: “Masterpieces of Western Literature.” On the long hike up Bascom Hill she ran into Elena. They climbed the rest together.
“Are you nervous?” Elena asked.
“A little,” Maureen admitted.
Maureen entered the brightly lit classroom. The students were scattered about at desks
that seemed chaotically arranged. Upon noticing the new teacher, they stopped their chatter, one by one, and began scrutinizing her. Maureen felt uneasy. She glanced at her watch. It was time to start. She looked up. Their faces were impassive, unimpressed, waiting for her to prove herself. She took a deep breath.
“The first work we read is Candide. That’s for next week.”
A student in the corner raised his hand. It was Tex, the boy with the cowboy hat and yellow feather who had heckled the professor.
“Yes?” she said.
“What do you think of this asshole professor we have?” he asked. The others snickered.
Maureen smiled. “I don’t really know him.” she said. “I’m new here. I just met him the other day.”
“He’s a fucking asshole,” Tex insisted.
By their next meeting, feeling a bit like the protagonist of Voltaire’s novel herself, Maureen was prepared to teach Voltaire’s Candide. It was in many ways an appropriate work for the times, she told her class, because it raised the basic problem of how to respond to evil in the world. What should we do about it?
Maureen briefly summarized the plot: “OK, so we have this guy, Candide. He had ‘an honest mind’ and ‘great simplicity of heart,’” she said, quoting from the text. “That’s why they called him ‘Candide.’ You know, like candid.”
One girl smiled. The others were either staring vacantly about or gazing at their books.
“So, he’s kicked out of this Eden-like place at the beginning of the novel and into the harsh, cruel world,” she went on. “And his main philosophy is: ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.’ What do you think of that philosophy? Let’s see … ” She looked down the list of names on her class roster. “Naomi Stern. Is Naomi here?”
A girl wearing a tie-dyed muu muu with bushy frizzled hair and an electric pink headband reluctantly raised her hand.
“Naomi, what do you think of Candide’s philosophy that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds?”
“It’s absurd,” she said. “Obviously.”
“Why do you say that?”
Naomi looked bored. “Well, nobody in their right mind could think this was the best possible, imaginable world, or that everything that happens is for the best.”
“And yet this was a major philosophy in Voltaire’s time,” Maureen said. “It was actually the philosophy of Leibniz.”
Maureen wrote L-E-I-B-N-I-Z in chalk on the green board. “It was this philosophy that Voltaire was trying to debunk,” she went on, writing S-A-T-I-R-E on the board. “It makes fun of a particular convention or belief.” The students dutifully wrote “Leibniz” and “satire” in their notebooks—words that might reappear, they knew, on exams.
Maureen continued. “But it wasn’t just Leibniz who held this kind of philosophy. Most religions have a philosophy similar to this, because they all have to deal with the problem of evil.” She contemplated writing ‘problem of evil’ on the board but decided that seemed too reductive.
“What do we mean by the ‘problem of evil’?” she asked. “Let’s see.” Glancing again at the list of names, she said, “Schroeder. Jeff Schroeder. Are you here?”
A neatly dressed boy with a crew cut raised his hand in the corner. “Jeff,” she said, “what is the ‘problem of evil’?”
Jeff shrugged. “Beats me.”
“OK. Let’s see. Marilyn O’Neill. Is Marilyn here?” Marilyn raised her hand. Marilyn had an intense, hostile stare, which Maureen had noticed when she first entered the classroom. “Marilyn, the ‘problem of evil’?” Marilyn shook her head.
“Anyone?” Maureen asked. “Does anyone have any ideas about the ‘problem of evil’?”
A girl Maureen recognized as Julie raised her hand. “Doesn’t it have something to do with explaining why bad things happen?” she asked.
Maureen nodded. “Yes, that’s just it. The ‘problem’ is to explain why bad things happen: why there is war and starvation, why people are killed, why they get ill, why some are deformed, why we get diseases. Why do these evils exist? That’s the basic problem.”
“Now,” she went on. The students were listening now. She felt herself opening up to them. Even Tex stopped staring coldly out the window.
“Now, most religions and a philosophy like Leibniz’s say that evil is just part of the picture. We don’t see the whole picture, so we don’t realize that these evils contribute to a greater good. In other words, God has some purpose in allowing this kind of suffering to go on. And Leibniz thought that each evil was just a small piece in some larger harmony. That if you could see the whole harmony, you would see it was good, or the best of all possible worlds.”
“That’s bullshit” came a voice from the back.
Maureen laughed. “Well, that’s just what Voltaire thought and why he wrote Candide: to point out that the evils are too real to be explained away or rationalized or justified by some theory or abstract scheme.”
“The problem is Voltaire makes all these evils seem funny,” Julie complained.
“Well, can you give an example?” Maureen asked.
Julie quickly flipped through the book. “Well, like here,” she said. “He’s describing how the war was producing ‘such a harmony’ … on page five.” Everyone turned their pages. Julie read on. “old men, stunned from beatings, watched the last agonies of their butchered wives, who still clutched their infants to their bleeding breasts; there, disembodied girls, who had first satisfied the natural needs of various heroes, breathed their last.” She paused. “He makes it seem like this is some sort of joke that disproves his… ” she pointed to the board, “Leibniz, or whoever’s, theory of harmony.”
“That’s a good point,” Maureen said.
Julie persisted. “I mean, this is the kind of thing that’s going on in Vietnam. And it’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not,” Maureen agreed. “But I don’t think Voltaire means to say these things are funny. Just the opposite.”
Maureen took a breath. “Voltaire,” she began, “Voltaire is trying to show that we should beware of abstract schemes—like Leibnitz’s ‘harmony’—that justify evil, for they just allow the evil to continue. Sometimes they even contribute to it.” She hesitated, adding, “as, for example, in Vietnam, we have the abstract ideas of ‘Americanism’ and ‘Democracy’ to justify bombing villages and killing people.”
“Right on!” Tex shot his hand up in a power fist.
She paused, looking at the group, then she stared out the window at the lake in the distance.
“There’s one more issue I want to bring up,” Maureen continued, “and that’s the ending. ‘After seeing all these evils throughout the world, and worn out by his adventures, Candide decides that the best course is just …’” she turned to the back of the book and read, “the course advocated by the Turkish philosopher on page seventy-six who said: ‘I never listen to the news from Constantinople; I am satisfied with sending the fruits of my garden to be sold there.’ And Candide concludes, at the very end, ‘we must cultivate our garden.’ That is the only way to live. Don’t get involved in ‘the news from Constantinople,’ the politics of the day. Just mind your own business, do your own thing. That is all we can do about evil in the world.”
She paused and looked at their bowed heads. They were marking their texts.
“Do you think this is the answer?” she said. “Is this the proper response to the world’s evils … to cultivate our gardens—just mind our own business?”
She looked out at them. One by one they were shaking their heads.
“No,” Julie said aloud.
“That’s bullshit,” Tex called out.
“Because that way evil just continues, if nobody ever does anything about it.” It was Naomi, the hippie, who was speaking this time.
The bell rang. They all began slamming their books and rising from the chairs.
“OK,” Maureen called. “Next week is Faust. See you then.”
Julie hung around after class.
“Here’s my Drop/Add card to sign,” she said. “That was a good class.”
Walking down Bascom Hill, Maureen reflected on the class. Was that truly the only way—to cultivate one’s own garden? She thought of her mother, who happily does just that year after year, causing no one harm. Who could fault her? And yet, Martin Luther King spoke of the ‘appalling apathy’ of the ‘good people’ who allow evil to continue unchecked. She thought of Tracy, her friend in the Weathermen. At least Tracy was doing something to fight evil. Then there was Simone, the nun in the apartment next door who quoted Bonhoeffer; “We must fight against war, poverty, ignorance, disease–everything that impedes the occasion of grace.”
Maureen thought about that. She wasn’t religious herself, but she felt she understood what Simone meant by grace: everything good, everything bright, everything that allowed things to flourish. Life itself. . .
One day in October not long after, Maureen was climbing up Bascom Hill, headed for an afternoon class in Renaissance lit, when she noticed an acrid odor in the air. The smell intensified as she reached the crest of the hill. She could hear shouts in the distance. Wisps of smoke drifted by. Maureen was puzzled. Her eyes began to water.
As she started down the back of the hill, she could see that a crowd had gathered by the Commerce Building. It’s tear gas, she realized. A row of police were lined up holding their night sticks before them in a brace by the building entrance. Oh, she remembered, the Dow demonstration! Students had planned to demonstrate against a recruitment scheduled that afternoon by the Dow Chemical Company in the Commerce Building.
She reached the edge of the crowd. Screams and shouts were coming from within the building. “What’s going on here?” she asked a woman standing next to her, whom she recognized as Sarah, one of the other TA’s in her department. She was from Georgia, Maureen recalled, and was wearing a strangely inappropriate long white dress, like something out of Gone With the Wind.
“Oh, it’s awful,” she exclaimed, grabbing Maureen’s arm. “They’re beating the students in there. The police have clubs.”
Just then there was a roar from the crowd. “Pigs! Pigs!”
It was hard to see what was happening. Police appeared to be dragging a student out of the building. Maureen jumped up on a stone ledge to get a better look. She saw police nightsticks raised ominously.
“Oh, no!” she cried. “They can’t do that!”
“What is it?” Sarah asked.
“They’re hitting them! The students!”
Another group of police came out, dragging a student to the police van. Other police ringed the event, holding their batons up as a barrier, keeping the crowd back.
“Pigs! Pigs!” The cries came from the crowd. “Off the pigs! Off the pigs!”
“Let me see,” Sarah jumped up on the ledge.
“Oh, my God,” she screamed, holding her hands to her chest. “They’re bleeding.”
The crowd grew more and more angry, chanting “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” as one student after another was dragged from the building. Once again a spray of smoke shot over the group.
“Tear gas! Tear gas!” rose the cry.
Maureen felt as if she’d been slapped in the face when the stinging vapor reached her. She couldn’t see.
“Can you believe,” Maureen said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve, “right now I’m supposed to be at a class on Western civilization?”
“Forget about Western civ,” Sarah said. “We’ve got to do something about this. We can’t let this kind of thing happen. They can’t just come in here like that, like thugs, like Gestapo, beating up our students. They don’t have to use those clubs. Those kids aren’t armed. It’s outrageous.”
“Boy-cott Dow! Boy-cott Dow!” The cry arose from the crowd as a police van carried off the remaining protestors. Maureen shook her head in disbelief, remembering what Elena had once said about the university being in collusion with the corporate powers. Here was a graphic illustration. The state, the university, and the corporation in collaboration against students who were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. She thought about her friend Tracy, who’d scoffed at her belief that freedom of speech existed in America.
The next day a rally was held on Bascom Hill by the TA’s to protest the university’s brutal handling of the Dow demonstration. When Maureen reached the crowd, she was startled to see Sarah up on a platform addressing the group, which included hundreds ofTA’s and students. She was wearing the same white dress she’d had on the day before, now adorned with a red armband, the insignia the TA’s had chosen to show they were on strike.
“And now they’re denying it,” Sarah was saying. “Did you see the president’s response? Lies! Lies!” she said, waving a copy of the Daily Cardinal, the student newspaper. “I saw it with my own eyes, the police beat up the students. They cracked their heads. They were bleeding. We can’t allow this to happen. We must join the strike and protest this outrageous atrocity.”
Elena came up to Maureen. “Sarah’s taking it rather hard,” she said in a low voice.
“But she saw it all,” Maureen said. “And I did too. It was atrocious. And right here in Madison!”
“I know. I know,” Elena said.
Maureen looked at Sarah. She had stopped speaking and was coming to join them. Maureen went up to her.
“I support you,” Maureen said. “We should go on strike.”
Sarah suddenly saw Maureen. “You were there,” she said, grabbing her arm, “Go up there and tell them. Tell them what it was like.”
Maureen stepped back, startled.
“Go on up there!” Sarah shouted.
Maureen hesitated. She’d never spoken before a huge crowd before.
“Go on!” Sarah urged, pushing her toward the platform.
Maureen found herself propelled forward. She turned around to face the crowd. Everyone seemed to be milling about restlessly. What would she say?
She stepped up on the platform and cleared her throat. Seeing a new speaker, the crowd quieted.
“I was there, too,” she began hesitantly. “They were beating up innocent students—our students. That’s wrong,” she continued. “You know it’s wrong.” She spoke directly to the crowd and began to feel a connection with them. “The students were just peacefully exercising their rights. We have to take a stand. This is our university. It doesn’t belong to Dow Chemical. It doesn’t belong to the U.S. Army—or to the Madison police.”
The crowd broke into applause.
Someone shouted “Boycott Dow!”
“Right on! Right on!”
“We have to take a stand,” Maureen cried out above the shouting. “I urge you to join our strike. TA’s ON STRIKE!”
The crowd broke into the chant, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Maureen joined in the chant and raised her arm in the power fist salute. Then she stepped down.
Elena patted her on the back. “Good girl,” she said enthusiastically.
Maureen felt exhilarated. Sarah came up and kissed her. “Thanks,” she said.
The next class discussion after the strike was on Faust, which the students didn’t like.
“He tramples over everybody,” Marilyn O’Neill exclaimed. “Look at what he did to Gretchen; he just abandoned her when she got pregnant. And those peasants at the end, he just ran right over them.”
“Philemon and Baucis,” Maureen said.
Naomi raised her hand.
“Yes?” Maureen recognized her.
“I think Faust is a symbol of corporate imperialism, like the US government in Vietnam, just running over everything, destroying everything in the pursuit of its goal.”
Tex chimed in from the back. “Do you know what a marine captain said over there last week? He said, ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.’ That’s sick, man!”
“Yes, it is,” Maureen agreed. She paused. “Perhaps we could say that Faust represents a certain tendency in the Western spirit … ”
Tex interrupted with a groan. “That’s Guerin’s line, man.”
“Well, there’s some truth to it,” Maureen insisted. “Anyway, let me finish.” Tex settled back.
“A certain psychic tendency to pursue one’s goal regardless of the consequences, to climb to the top of the ladder no matter how many bodies you have to climb over. In other words, the capitalist ethic. It’s amoral. The means don’t matter. All that matters is the goal, the … ”
Tex interrupted again, “and the goal is profit.”
Naomi turned around, “Let her finish,” she said angrily to Tex.
“All right,” Maureen said, “that’s enough for today. Next week is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, continuing the theme.”
After class Julie came up.
“Yes?” Maureen smiled. Julie was becoming one of her favorites. “You were rather quiet today,” she said.
“Well,” Julie hesitated, “I didn’t like the book. We read it before in Norton’s class on Romanticism. I didn’t like it then either. I agree with Marilyn. He shouldn’t have screwed Gretchen like that. She was worth something, even if she wasn’t a genius.”
“Yes, I agree,” Maureen stuffed her books into her bag. “But I’m afraid we didn’t stress the symbolic aspect enough.”
Julie stared absently at her.
“Professor Devlin?” Julie repeated.
“Did you happen to notice that girl in the back of the class with the broken arm? With the cast on?”
“Yes, I did. The quiet one? She doesn’t talk much.” Maureen remembered a shy, intense girl who often wore an army jacket and a beret.
“Yes, her name is Wendy something.”
“Well, she got that broken arm at the demonstration.”
“The Dow demonstration?” Maureen exclaimed.
“Yes, she was hit by a police stick. It cracked her arm.”
“Oh, God,” Maureen said. “How awful, I wish I’d known.”
“Oh, she doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
“I see. What year is she?”
“Sophomore. She’s in my dorm.”
“I see. Where is she from?”
“I’m not sure. Cross Plains or Menomenee. Some small town.”
“And Professor Devlin?”
“I thought you’d be interested that she said it was reading Candide, or rather our discussion of it, that made her see how important it was to take a stand against evil.”
Maureen felt her skin prickle. “She did?”
“Yes. I thought you’d like to know.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Maureen did not know what to say. Julie seemed to think she should be elated that the class was having such an effect, but Maureen felt shocked. She did want students to respond to her class in a real way; she did want it to affect their lives. But such an immediate translation made her hesitate. Was she responsible for Wendy’s actions? Was Wendy really old enough to make her own choices? What did a nineteen-year-old from Cross Plains, Wisconsin, know? She could have been killed. Still, we send them to Vietnam at that age, Maureen reflected. Innocent victimsshuttled this way and that by powers beyond their knowing. Maureen did not want to be one of those powers. If only she could sit down with Wendy, with each of them, to thoroughly explore their courses of action, to make sure they saw all the consequences, to make sure their decisions were responsible. But she knew she could not; her influence was partial. In the future, she thought, I will have to explain more fully. I will take more time. I will ease your mind. The words of the Simon and Garfunkle song came to mind. Maureen knew it by heart: I’ll take your part / When darkness comes / And pain is all around / Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down.
She slung her green book bag over her shoulder and walked down the hill. A bridge over troubled water. I love them, Maureen realized suddenly, as she passed by Lincoln. I love my students.
“Did you see this? Elena, who was sitting at her usual table in the Union, pushed the paper to Maureen who had just sat down. It was The Capitol Times.
“What is it?”
“A letter from some G. I. in Nam wrote home to his parents up in La Crosse. They printed it in the local paper.”
Maureen picked the article up.
Dear Mom and Dad:
Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself.
When [our] helicopters landed we were firing the moment we hit the ground. We fired into all the huts then we burn these huts and take all men old enough to carry a weapon. Everyone is crying, begging and praying that we don’t separate them and take their husbands and fathers, sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.
Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions, and food. Yes, we burn all rice and shoot all livestock.
Today a buddy of mine told [an] old man to get away from [a] hut. [He was going to throw a grenade in.] As he pulled the pin the old man got excited and started jabbering and running toward my buddy and the hut. My buddy threw the grenade. After the explosion we found the mother, two children and an almost new-born baby. That is what the old man was trying to tell us!
Maureen lay the paper down.
“That’s Nazi stuff,” Elena said.
“Yeah,” Maureen said, her eyes filling with tears. “What has happened to this country?”
“Hey, Professor Devlin.” A voice came from behind, as she walked down the hill. Maureen turned. It was Jonathan, one of her students.
“Professor,” he said, out of breath. “Professor, I need to talk to you. About doing some extra credit. My grade isn’t so good.”
Maureen reflected. As she recalled, he’d gotten a C- on his last exam.
“I need to bring it up,” he rushed on. “See, if I flunk out, it’s curtains for me.” He drew his thumb across his throat as if slashing it. “Off to Nam.”
“Don’t worry,” Maureen reassured him. “You’ll pass.”
“Oh, gee, professor. Thanks. Thanks.” He drifted back. “You’re great,” he called, as he waved and ran down the path.
Maureen shook her head, smiling, and turned toward the choppy gray lake.
Note: This story is an excerpt from an unpublished novel about the 1960s antiwar movement. As it is a piece of fiction, some of the historical events have been telescoped. For example, the Dow demonstration at the University of Wisconsin actually took place in October, 1967. The author was a TA at the UW-Madison in 1967-68.