Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rage, Revenge, Ressentiment

Near the end of  the movie Tombstone--which is still one of my all-time favorite Westerns--Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are talking about the villain, Johnny Ringo:

Earp:  What makes a man like Ringo, doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc:   A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. 
Earp: What does he need?
Doc: Revenge.
Earp: For what?
Doc: Bein' born.

Ringo is an old-school bad guy. He's one of those nihilistic villains that moralistic types (read: most of us, whether we admit it or not) like to dream up as a foil for heroism. The movie makes him a sort of Old West Antichrist who thunders through the landscape, leaving murder and mayhem in his wake. Westerns, in case you aren't a fan, have a lot of apocalyptic imagery. The Four Horsemen theme is almost a cliche--hence the Eastwood classic, Pale Rider. 

Westerns are quintessentially American in their insistence that good and evil are easily distinguishable. In Tombstone, the bad guys conveniently wear blood-red sashes, which gives them a sinister yet fashionable flair amid all the dust, dirt and moral ambiguity. Because, you know, guns don't kill people-- people kill people. People with black hats, or red sashes, or maybe hoodies.

We are a simple people, we Americans. Ever since John Winthrop declared our nation to be a City on a Hill, a shining beacon of virtue the rest of the world can only aspire to emulate, we've had a hard time with moral gray areas. The City on a Hill, like that high note in the Star Spangled Banner, is often just out of reach--if only we could get rid of the witches, the communists, the liberals, the right-wingers, the feminists, the tea-partiers...well, if we could just get rid of them, we would be awesome. And if we can't, we can at least imagine someone who might do it for us. A lone hero, armed with moral certainty and a six-shooter, will set things right.

But we don't even need this guy, really. What we need are villains. Really nasty, apocalyptically rotten bad guys. Facing off against these guys, anyone can be Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne. Because all heroes really need are unrepentant nemeses, people who deserve the nasty, violent ending the movie or story has planned for them. Otherwise our pleasure in movie violence would be kind of wrong, wouldn't it?  Twisted and voyeuristic. We can enjoy seeing someone get his head blown off if he's a really rotten person, because we get to feel morally righteous and enjoy the blood and gore. Let's face it, moral relativism and ambiguity put a real damper on our primitive notions of justice, not to mention our cinematic bloodlust. We need--morally, culturally, and aesthetically--our bad guys to be irredeemably evil. And the best kind of evil is the kind that has absolutely no motive, really, except the psychic and sometimes erotic pleasure of causing others pain.

According to Doc Holliday, Ringo wants "revenge for being born."  Hard to get your head around that--unless you're, like, a sociopathic killer. Or a charismatic, villainous leader a la Charles Manson, Hitler, or, in the fictional realm, Iago. As far as we know, neither Manson nor Hitler actually killed anyone with their own hands. They just inspired and goaded others to do it for them. These guys, of course, are more dangerous than your average run-of-the-mill Norman Bates, because they can influence others--often many others--to do their evil bidding. So why do they do it? Because it's a rush, I guess, having that much power over people. And because like Ringo and Iago, they had a big hole somewhere in the middle of them. About where we like to think The Soul resides. I know, that sounds like psychopop babble. But what else do we have? Moral philosophers haven't done much better than that, despite centuries of trying the explain the Nature of Evil.

This is what Iago means, I think, when he says "I am not what I am." There's a hole where my essence should be. Or maybe, "I am a theatrical construct, a creature of no substance." In a previous post, written way back when I was blogging Richard III, I called this kind of moral emptiness "ontological evil," by which I meant the kind of evil that recognizes itself as such, and revels in its awesome wickedness. You can check out that post here, if you are so inclined. Ontologically evil villains are usually in the comic book mode, like Lex Luthor or The Joker. At the time, I took the typically liberal/humanist position that ontological evil was itself an ideological fantasy, i.e., something invented to sway public opinion, often in evil or immoral directions. Thus, for Hitler, Jews were ontologically evil. He saw himself as the hero in a Manichean melodrama, sort of. He didn't realize that history would have quite another take on the business of genocide.

Now, however, I'm not so sure about what I wrote then. The opposition between "psychological" evil (e.g., Norman Bates) and "ontological" evil (e.g. Dr. No, the Joker, Lex Luthor) seems too simplistic to me. I think there's a third category, right in the middle, which is where most of us live. Somewhere between insanity and comic-book villainy. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard called this state "ressentiment," using the French word because it more accurately describes the self-justifying solipsism of evil in the modern age. Or, you know, because French words sound cooler. (Hannah Arendt would call this kind of evil "banal," but that word only makes sense in a world where one still values nobility and honor. Which, sadly, we don't.) The modern man of ressentiment feels his emptiness, his inferiority, his failure, and projects it outward onto an external scapegoat. This man sees himself as "good," but only in relation to the evildoers that are making his life a misery. He is, first and foremost, a victim. And as a victim who feels powerless to fill the lack of nobility in himself, the "great big hole," he schemes behind the scenes. He plots, and while he plots, he continually narrates to himself the list of wrongs that have been done to him and his kind.

You can see how the Internet has, among other things, fed the soul-sucking fires of ressentiment. There are lots of people out there seeking revenge for being born. People who, like Iago, "are not what they are"--i.e, people who are no more than the aggregate of the wrongs they imagine have been done to them. These people are very active on the Internet. Because the Internet is a place--or rather an ontological limbo--that rewards people for being "not what they are." It's pure theater, in all the ways the Puritans feared back in Will's day. It allows enraged victims to anonymously slam anyone and everyone deemed responsible for his/her victimization. It is the vehicle of passion and rage in what is essentially a passionless era.

Hmm. Topic for another time, perhaps. Now, back to our man Iago. Othello has been re-assigned to Cyprus, remember, before even consummating his marriage, and has given his wife into the "conveyance" of his good bud, "Honest Iago."  I'll have more to say about "conveyances" and "honesty" later.  For now, we're left with Iago and Roderigo, the latter contemplating suicide in the face of Desdemona's marriage. Iago gives him a pep talk:

Oh, villainous! I ha' looked upon the world for four times seven years, and since I could distinguish between a benefit and an injury I never found man that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say I would drown myself for love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.

There's a lot in this passage. First, we find out that Iago is only twenty-eight years old! That was older then than it is now, but really, he seems like a bitter old guy from our modern perspective. But maybe that's because of our inherent bias toward youth. It's certainly possible for people to be rotten at any age.  Iago claims that he, alone among men, knows how to "love himself." He doesn't mean "love thyself" in the new-agey sense of accepting yourself, faults and all. He means "look out for your own interests." Value yourself above all others. Make yourself--your needs and desires--the center of your moral universe.

We're all pretty good at this now--mostly because we've confused, or perhaps synthesized, these two ideas of self-love. Self-acceptance slides pretty easily into self-justification, unless you've got armed guards at the gates of your psyche. And if you do have those, you've probably got other problems. 

Like Richard III and, to a certain extent, Lear's Edmund, Iago is a modern guy. He believes in the Self, in getting ahead by your wits rather than your connections. He's socially on the borderlines, hobnobbing with the upper classes, but resenting them because he won't ever belong. He hates Cassio for being a foppish aristocrat, hates Othello for what he sees as pandering to the upper classes. He doesn't hold with old-fashioned notions of "virtue" or moral behavior. He is, at least on the surface, a rationalist, seeing love as a mere offshoot of lust. To Iago, power is the engine that drives the machine of the world, and will--not honor, or love, or virtue--is its fuel:

Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

This little speech could have come straight out of a self-help book, couldn't it? No one today would disagree with any of this. It's all on us. We don't need no stinking moral guidance! We have the power to improve ourselves or let ourselves go to seed. This idea is the basis for our American notion of success, as something distinct from class or heritage. But for Will, it was also an insidiously baseless way of looking at the world. Because virtue is not a fig, it's the very stuff that makes our garden grow. Without it, weeds suck up all the psychic nutrients, leaving us with an ugly, chaotic mess.

And where does virtue come from? From breeding. From honoring the right order of things, i.e., the Old Ideas of nobility, honor, and social hierarchy. Iago himself proves this in the play--without a virtuous, noble foundation, will runs amok and destroys the world. In Hamlet's terms, life becomes an unweeded garden, full of poisonous undergrowth that chokes the life out of anything good, or nurturing, or beautiful.

Oh, and you gotta love the phrase "manured with industry." It echoes into the future with depressing, but obviously unintended, environmental implications....

Well, this post was several months in the writing. Time to be done with it, and move on. As Iago says, "there are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered." Hopefully there are a few more blog posts, as well.


  1. Hi Gayle

    Using the wrong section of the blog to contact you, but I was wondering if you'd caught up with this?

    Hope you're keeping well, and very glad the blog is still going. I directed a compilation show called 'Clamorous Voices - Shakespeare's Women' a couple of weeks ago and recommended your writing to the cast.


  2. Hi Jonathan--the link came through in the email, although not here. Wow, how fascinating! If the remains are Richard's, it's interesting that he did in fact have some spinal deformity. I had always assumed that was part of the "Richard myth," in keeping with the medieval idea that a corrupt spirit is manifested in one's physical appearance. I will be on the lookout for followups as the lab results are released.

    Thanks for your continued interest in the blog, and for recommending it. I have been unable to get more than a post done every few months of late--Othello, while a really interesting play as a performance, just isn't inspiring me as a reader as much as I had hoped. I really want to work on that other Richard--as a Chaucerian, I have always been interested in Richard II as both a king and as a Shakespearean character. I also think there are interesting parallels with our current probably, whenever I do finish Othello, I will read/blog that play. I realize it's not going to garner much interest from the outside world--most consider it a minor work--but I am pretty much writing for my own amusement these days, so...

    Anyway, great to hear from you, and thanks for the cool link!

  3. Hi Gayle - looks like the blog won't allow the posting of links, then. In which case, here's an excerpt from something on the subject that I wrote for elsewhere:

    "I don't think there'll be any serious impact on our reading of the Shakespeare play. It's been blatantly obvious for years that the theatrical Richard III bears no relation to the historical personage. Of course, the scoliosis may close down debate about the extent of the myth-making with regard to one specific aspect of his life - his appearance. But no serious historian pushes the full Olivier/Spacey look, kyphosis, which the osteoarchaeologist took pains to rule out. Many have speculated as to the degree to which one of his shoulders may have been slightly higher than the other and suggested likely causes, but that's as far as it goes.

    "The word coming out from Leicester is that when clothed - and, especially, richly clothed - any asymmetry would have been almost imperceptible, and one suggestion is that the physical quirk of a curve in the spine only entered popular currency when the body was stripped and displayed for three days after Bosworth. It was then exaggerated by propagandists as an outward signifier of inner monstrosity."

    I always think the most interesting character in 'Othello' is Emilia. There's something so raw and utterly real about her cynicism regarding relationships. And when I did the Shakespeare's Women thing, a couple of her speeches were among the first I decided to include.

    Very much looking forward to you blogging 'Richard II'. Always been one of my favourites and when I did my degree dissertation it focused on RII and RIII as plays bookending the main history sequence. There's a consistency of world-view in them in a way that's not the case with the Henriad.

    Seen RII on stage several times and never been disappointed. The first (Alex Jennings) was conceptually the most interesting and used changing period costume to indicate the providential universe being replaced by one of Realpolitique - albeit that Bolingbroke, ironically, clings to the former.

    Another starred Fiona Shaw as Richard, which was fascinating in how it looked at gender.

    Anyway, all that's for the future, and I know whatever you write will be erudite and thought-provoking, as usual!


  4. Hi Gayle! I didn't see contact info, so I hope you see my comment here. Long time no "see!" Just like you, I stopped blogging a couple of years ago (I've kept Writers Corner, just archived it), but I wanted to give you an update. I'm finally getting published! Here's my new website:

    Just felt like touching base. I've been combing through some old blog entries of mine and saw your comments and remembered how kind you were to read my blog. Take care!