The Absolute

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The following is a lecture that I delivered on June 28 in Milan, Italy, at La Milanesiana, a festival devoted to literature, cinema and science. I was invited to speak along with seven Nobel Prize winners (including Eli Wiesel, Wole Soyinka), the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, and the British novelist Martin Amis. The festival is sponsored by the Italian newspaper, La Corriele de la Sera, where this lecture was reprinted. It is also being translated and reproduced in Bernard Henri-Levy's magazine, "La Regle De Lajeu." The subject that all of us were given was "The Absolute," and this was my take on the absolute.



What we say is irrelevant to what is and we can only speak about what is once it's proven to be.

Galileo could not prove his theory that the earth revolved around the SUN and not the other way around, but he wanted the Church to accept it anyway and to revise its doctrine accordingly. The question was put to Galileo that if the earth revolved around the sun, why did the stars not seem to change position? Galileo's response was not convincing and we all know the rest of that story. It wasn't until the 19th Century that the theory was in fact proven and is now in the pantheon of the ABSOLUTE.

According to Robert Fogel, a Nobel Prize winning economic historian, human biology has changed over the past 300 years and never more than in the previous century. People are taller, heavier, stronger, more resistant to disease. We live longer and suffer fewer chronic diseases. This phenomenon is unique to humans and to the 7000 or so generations that have come before us.

What has not changed in the human equation is the thin line between good and evil within all of us. In an ever-changing universe, this is the one absolute of which I'm certain; we are in a constant struggle for our better angels to triumph over our demons.

I do not refer only to an act such as murder, but to impulses that lead to deception, aggression, torture, starvation and cruelty. The human mind can create heaven or hell on earth.

The theme of all my films is this potential for good or evil. I have never portrayed pure heroes or villains because I believe the "crooked timber of humanity" contains equal measure of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Forty-five years ago, I watched the execution of a man named Vincent Ciucci.

He was the last man to die in the electric chair in Chicago. He had been convicted of murdering his wife and three children, then setting the house on fire. Every moment of his execution is etched in my memory to this day. I was one of thirty witnesses, all male. The others were mostly journalists, family and friends of Mr. Ciucci. I had gotten to know him while making my first film - a documentary about another man on Death Row.

As witnesses, we entered through a long tunnel leading from the criminal Court House to the County Jail. We were searched and had to leave all our belongings, including belts, with the guards. Our wrists were stamped with the name of the County Sheriff - Frank Sain. We were certified 'SAIN,' and the stamp was checked at various points along the way.

The execution took place at one minute past midnight. At a signal from the warden, the prisoner was led in blindfolded and placed in the electric chair (Sheriff Sain had proudly displayed a scale model of the chair on his desk.)

At a second signal, three guards in another room each pressed a button sending 3500 volts of electricity into Mr. Ciucci's body. Then two more signals and two more jolts. The three guards had been selected to push the buttons so that no single person would be totally responsible for the lethal dose. Ciucci's body soon went limp, bloated and turned beet red. Smoke rose from his thighs as a metallic screen was rolled down with a loud clatter. After a few minutes, the screen was raised again to reveal Ciucci, unbound, lying across the electric chair in a crucified position, being examined by a doctor, who signified his death.

A half hour later, we reclaimed our personal items and were dismissed. Outside, all streets surrounding the jail were crowded with people in automobiles and standing along the curb. They were there because of a rumor that you could see the lights blink in the jailhouse whenever the electric current was dispatched. It was just a rumor, but the crowds came anyway. They always did. As I drove into the early morning fog, my last image was of a lone woman, crying, in the doorway of the Criminal Courts Building waiting to claim the body: Vincent Ciucci's mother.

The stamped "SAIN" was visible on my wrist for months, but the event in which I had participated was anything but sane.

I liked Vincent Ciucci. I knew him for about 6 months. He had pictures of his 3 young children scotch-taped to his cell wall on Death Row and he used to say to me, "I could never kill these kids. Look at these beautiful faces. They were my life." Tears would flow. His and mine. I don't know if he committed the crimes for which he was convicted. A jury thought he had and his execution was the will of the people, meticulously carried out, but it seemed as repugnant to me as the act for which Mr. Ciucci was condemned. "This is a universe where justice is accidental and innocence no protection,' said EURIPEDES.

I believe that God created this universe and all within it, including Satan. Today we have more reason to be concerned about evil than ever because we are now balanced on the brink of extinction. In the past, every problem had a solution, if only we could find it. Now, there are people who have a deep and passionate intent to subjugate others and to use ultimate weapons. Should these be deployed, they will be accompanied by solemn rationales. The will of God or Allah, or another deity will be invoked, along with the goal of making the world safe for this or that political or religious philosophy.

The world was shocked by pictures of United States soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. How could seemingly normal people behave so sadistically? But a Stanford University study in 1971, using students as prisoners or guards in a simulated jail, showed almost identical results to the Abu Ghraib situation some 35 years later. Most of the subjects of this study and most of the guards at Abu Ghraib attended church regularly.

Religion has always played a part in social reform, but too often hatred has been preached from the pulpit as well. Whenever religion has had state power there has been witch burning, crucifixion and the Inquisition.

Among the countless victims of crucifixion, the most famous was Jesus of Nazareth. But crucifixion was practiced throughout the ancient world - in Rome and in Jerusalem by the Jews as well as the Romans, in India, Northern Africa, Mesopotamia and Greece, from the 7th century before Christ to the 4th century after his death.

Evil often appears in the guise of goodness, behind the mask of sanity, but is it part of God's plan? If evil does not exist, what is it that transforms the actions of a Stalin or a Hitler into death and destruction for millions?

During the 12 years of the Third Reich, Hitler built gas chambers and death camps and produced daily quotas of dead bodies. Stalin demanded that Russian children denounce their parents and he ordered 20 million of his own people put to death. The French Revolution brought similar results.

These hideous crimes may have been conceived in the mind of one man, but they were carried out by thousands of ordinary citizens in the name of duty and obedience.

The German people were traumatized by defeat and humiliation after World War I, but to attribute the mass murder of six million people to the madness of a single person lacks persuasion. All the social conditions aside, the only thing that explains the Nazi atrocities to me is the demonic possession of an entire nation followed by an apocalyptic exorcism.

Hitler is the personification of evil, but he was a choirboy who liked to read "Westerns" and play "Cowboys and Indians." He loved art, music and architecture and sought a career in each of these disciplines. His passion was opera and he tried unsuccessfully to become an opera designer. He loved his mother, Klara. In 1907, while suffering from breast cancer, Klara was treated by a Jewish doctor, Eduard Bloch.

Hitler saved his Kronen to pay for her treatment and cried when Dr. Bloch told him his mother would not survive. She died that same year. After settling the doctor's bill, Hitler embraced him, bowed and said, "I will be grateful to you forever." Thirty-three years later, Dr. Bloch recalled, "I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler." After the Nazis came to power, Dr. Bloch appealed to Hitler who allowed him to immigrate to America. In 1941, he wrote an article for an American magazine in which he said, "favors were granted to me which I feel were accorded no other Jew in Germany or Austria."

I made a documentary about Fritz Lang, who told me that in 1933, he had been invited to take charge of the German film industry by Joseph Goebbels. When Lang reluctantly told Goebbels that his mother was Jewish, Goebbels leaned forward, smiled and said, "Herr Lang, we decide who's Jewish."

Hitler and Stalin are considered abnormal. They've been "psychoanalyzed" at a distance of half a century, but in their time, they were successful politicians whose words inspired millions of followers to whom they seemed sane and logical. Their perversity was concealed behind the mask of sanity.

Primo Levi wondered if his time at AUSCHWITZ was an aberration or a glimpse into the perpetual heart of darkness, the true condition of humankind.

A recent study by the U.S. Secret Service concluded that there was no predictable profile of a mass murderer. They come from a range of backgrounds. Some have histories of violence, most do not. The behavior of most mass murderers is not impulsive or "out of the blue." It is often the end result of a logical process. Why they do it has never been satisfactorily explained. Neuroscientists can scan the cortex of the brain and point to genetics as the cause of violence, but people with abnormal chemical activity often do not commit violent crimes.

What explanation is there for the actions of a twenty-three year old South Korean student name, CHO SEUNG-HUI, who killed thirty-two of his fellow students and teachers last April at Virginia Tech University before killing himself, in what has been called the worst massacre in American History?

CHO was a quiet young man who kept to himself. A student who shared the same dormitory with CHO said, "he didn't seem dangerous in any way." He was never known to have threatened violence. As a youngster, he attended a Korean Presbyterian Church. "He was a smart student who could understand the meaning of the Bible," his pastor recalled. Two years ago, he was examined by a psychiatrist who found that "his insight and judgment are normal." A reporter for Newsweek Magazine theorized, "Somehow, somewhere, someone planted an evil seed in Cho." "Possibly," the reporter suggests, "the Devil himself."

For over 2000 years, the idea of God has been the central concept of Western civilization. In our enlightened times, belief in God and the Devil is widely considered speculation without foundation. But the horrors and triumphs that make up the history of humankind show that good and evil are inherent in human nature and merge into one.

The philosopher GIAMBATTISTA VICO reminds us that the Homeric Greeks were cruel, barbarous and oppressive, but they created the Iliad and the Odyssey.

In THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, the Devil speaks to Ivan: "You are not someone apart. You are myself." Ivan replies: "You are the incarnation of myself, the nastiest and the stupidest of my thoughts and feelings. You are myself. With a different face."