Thursday, March 22, 2018

In praise of vengeance

We are not supposed to covet vengeance.

We are taught that it's petty, unproductive, and not "virtuous" (whatever that means).

And yet, writers love it. In fact, it is one of the most common plots and character motivations in literature. I have been meditating for a while on just why that is. I believe part of it is living vicariously through books. Most of us, no matter how wronged we've been, will not retaliate, at least not to a level that would result in visits to hospitals, jails, or cemeteries. Enjoying a narrative free of real-life consequence gives the darker corners of our psyche an outlet, musing "ah, wouldn't it be nice."

I also believe that it prompts reflection. It forces one to consider just where that line is. How much do you allow to be taken away from you before you push back? How many Pearl Harbors and London Blitzes are permissible before responding with a Hiroshima or a Dresden? What would it take to get you to go that far?

Here is my own selection of a few texts I recommend for balancing the scales:

The Bible
It might sound counter-intuitive, but there are moments of great vengeance in the Bible. I really don't know what else to call the Angel of Death killing every first born in Egypt. "Blood is running red and strong down the Nile..."

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Abandoned and hated in a world he never asked to be in, the Creature meticulously and intelligently plans how to ruin his "father's" life and leave Victor Frankenstein with nothing. If you read this book and come away with any sympathy for Victor, well...I'd be interested in hearing how you'd justify it.
"If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear." Goosebumps every time I read that quote.

The Iliad by Homer
In this Greek epic, it's tough to find a character not after a bit of payback. Even the gods get petty with one another. Of course the ultimate moment of revenge is when Achilles hunts down Hector and avenges the killing of Patroclus. You've really got to hate someone to engage in Achilles' brand of vengeance.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Granted, this is novel is a warning of the dangers of seeking vengeance, but I cannot help but feel compassion for Ahab after losing both ship and leg, and to find his obsession for evening the score darkly compelling. I might be going down, but I'm taking you with me. "He tasks me...he heaps me..."
As one of my professors in grad school said, Moby Dick is also the greatest "I've got a really bad job", book.

First Blood by David Morrell
Before he became cartoonish in the late 1980s, Rambo was a Vietnam special ops veteran who came to a Kentucky town, just looking for a place to eat. Local police didn't like the looks of him and tossed him in a cell. This prompted flashbacks to his time as a POW. Rambo broke out of jail and headed into the wilds. A manhunt ensued. It did not go well at all for the pursuers.
After the cartoons and the toy line, Stallone brought the character back to its roots in 2008's, Rambo.
"You can't do it, Rambo."
"Yes I can, sir. They took first blood."

The Crow by James O'Barr
This graphic novel is heavy. I mean heavy.
A rape. Two murders. And a soul brought back from the other side of death to set all the wrong things right...namely by taking the guilty apart piece by piece. Born out of personal tragedy, this book is far darker and even more unrelenting than its film adaptation, yet also more beautiful.

Batman by various.
One night of murder and loss. An entire lifetime of seeking revenge.
As I once heard someone else say, "Batman is the ultimate story of someone who just never got over it."
Let's hear it for never getting over it.

"Let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
-the Book of Amos

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