The Problem of Evil in The Argentinian Virgin

Bad things happen to good people. Physical disability and natural disasters seem to afflict us with no particular regard for our moral characters. For those who believe in a benevolent omnipotent god and that we are given only this one life, its apparent unfairness poses a difficulty long recognised by theologians and sometimes called the Problem of Evil. The most popular solution seems to be that the contradiction between God’s benevolence and the unjust cruelty of actual events is only apparent; and that from a”higher” perspective that is denied to us everything will be reconciled. This solution has to be accepted on faith, and its unsatisfactory nature is frequently seen when people, who have maintained their faith when all the bad stuff was happening to someone else, lose it when it happens to themselves. To a rationalist, on the other hand, it’s simply unreasonable to believe on”faith” something that is contradicted by the evidence. One could believe in Santa Claus on the same basis.

The Problem of Evil arises most acutely if God is simultaneously the Creator of everything, because he has no excuse for things being the way they are. On the other hand, if Satan, for example, were the Creator, then some of the nastier aspects of reality would be readily comprehensible. This way of looking at the issue was adopted by a loose grouping of minority Christian sects called the Gnostics. In their scheme of things, the True God has nothing to do with Time and Matter, whose inevitable consequences are death. Rather the Gnostics posit an additional though subordinate deity, referred to as the Demiurge, who has taken the concept of a perfect reality from the mind of the True God and embodied it in a corrupted form in the world we see. If you imagine an imperishable diamond fashioned out of perishable sand, you’ll have some idea of Gnostic cosmology, and you’ll note that the world isn’t absolutely evil: merely corrupted. It’s for this reason – because it still reflects its origins in the mind of the True God – that we are able to find elements of goodness and beauty even among the horrors. Nevertheless, the Gnostic scheme isn’t without its own problems. If the True God were both benevolent and omnipotent, he would be able to put a stop to the machinations of the Demiurge. Why doesn’t he?

This is by way of general background. For more about Gnosticism see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism. In The Argentinian Virgin none of the principals expresses an overt religious affiliation, though the narrator is a nominal catholic. Nevertheless the character and actions of Tom Rensselaer are profoundly affected by his awareness of the Problem of Evil. It first shows itself in the incident of a fatal accident when two of the town boys are climbing the cliff below La Pinède and one of them falls. According to Tom’s account a rock comes loose from the cliff face; it is about to strike the first boy, but he is able to deflect it with his hand so that it hits the second boy, who falls and dies. Both boys are innocent; neither deserves to be killed by the rock; and in that sense it would seem to be immaterial which one dies. Even so it troubles Tom that the first boy, by protecting himself, causes the second boy to die.

Tom’s response to this fairly banal event, which doesn’t affect him personally, is an outcome of his general view of the world, which the narrator recalls many years later. In their conversation Tom makes clear, in terms reminiscent of Gnosticism, that he regards creation as impersonally indifferent to humanity. Unlike the Gnostics, however, Tom doesn’t suppose the existence of any True God behind the apparent reality of Time and Matter. He accepts it bleakly for what it is, and his”solution” is to try to act in a moral way without any expectation of reward but simply because human beings, by acting morally, protest at the injustice done to us by an amoral universe. That said, among the last facts known about Tom (as reported by private detectives commissioned by Ben Benedict) is that he attends a small women’s group called the Gnostic Gospel of the Divine Sophia. Ben gives this information to the narrator without comment. We don’t know if Tom accepts Gnosticism and is”saved”. In fact we don’t know what finally becomes of him: he simply drops from view and may have died in misery. Consistent with his philosophy, Tom receives no reward for acting rightly: there is no uplifting coda to his story except that imputed by the narrator at the end of the book. But that is Pat’s conclusion, not Tom’s; and he tells it to save himself, not Tom.

The story of the two boys is only important as an example of a particular dilemma that confronts in less obvious ways all of the principal characters. Ultimately this moral problem flows from a decision taken by Teresa for the sake of her daughter. In the face of an unjust threat to Katrina, Teresa must decide if she has the right to avoid its consequences by making them fall on Tom. And Tom has to decide if he will bear with the disaster when it happens. On one view, this is a Christlike mission.