Here’s a mental experiment: look at whatever you have decided “constitutes evil” in more concrete instances as organic in the sense of self-sustaining and viable, but possibly still self-limiting in its appetites. Picture it as an attitude in the physicality of a stage villain, a breathing pattern and a gestural sensibility for violence that is reactive but not driven from without, an unease with one’s environment that’s impassive but untenable, a disturbing force that is autonomous and mortal.
Physicality and critical thinking go hand in hand – to let your body speak to you in metaphor about things that would seem more intellectual and are normally encountered in abstraction is a rare skill. Excellent stage combat in actors conveys this connectivity, and has dramatic intelligence, not just as an expression of violence but also a display of subtlety and pause. Heath Ledger’s performances were deeply informed by his study of modern dance, and profoundly expressive in gesture and poise.
There is an animalistic simplicity to stage villains – they struggle against all odds to survive the fragile worlds that they disrupt.
Kipling wrote in The Bull That Thought, that in the bull-ring he “raged enormously; he feigned defeat; he despaired in statuesque abandon, and thence flashed into fresh paroxysms of wrath – but always with the detachment of the true artist who knows that he is but the vessel of an emotion whence others, not he, must drink.”
They are performative caricatures of evil, more afraid of inconsequence than death. Death as a backing for mirrors is a sterile aesthetic theory, the apocalypse genre and its “human shadows bright as glass” is too morbid. Shadow catching frightens us into awe. The embodied image of a victim, or a villain, stirs mimetic imaginative forces in the audience – identification, sublimation, catharsis. Resistance to the final act in which “everyone who is marked for death, dies.” The rich vibrations of denial in the heart.
Fear is an experience of particular interest to Christian Bale, multidimensional and subversive. One can crouch in fear the better to revel in an intertwined discovery of courage, or smile in fear over an intellectually overwhelming irony, step towards fear in defiance of intimidation, or stumble in abject fear of indifferent consequence.
The scene in Alexander at night when he genuflects in honor of Fear highlights the importance of accepting vulnerability, respecting its capacity to overwhelm other forces, and studying the means to exploit its effect on oneself and others. Respect for fear is where courage and self-knowledge knit together. A villain is practiced in deploying fear, and a villain’s imposture is a consequence of living submersed in it.
My favorite fandom is one in which ideas like fear and compassion loom over the plot like engines of disaster and little truths about the human condition ambush the characters like carnival masks in a Boschian dream.
The emotional logic of magic in The Legend of the Seeker gives rise to archetypal battles rather than convincing illusions, in a world of relationships that don’t have a legitimating context in a world without magic, thrusting into relief deep schisms in the stilted psychology of symbolic expressionism, foregrounding characters whose attributes are larger than life and whose lived experience is epic in scale.
Character moments sometimes register like an idea fixé held in place, a subtle mask contoured by the multidimensional pressures of cognitive dissonance against character and plot, symbolic action and empirical ghost. The articulate tensing of intrinsic freedom against psychosocial constraint.
Quoting Susan Sontag on dissonance and ethical experience:
“The incomparable early 20th century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:
“I’ve discovered that I’m always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that…. In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.”
Yes, everyone is a bit like that, but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience.
Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, which give joy, it remains a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness.”
On the suffering of others, she gives the example of an earthquake: “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”
Just as I wondered why Eckhart Tolle is more interested in enjoying the “now” without noticing his perspective on it is limited by the “here” Sontag asks, “Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? … Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio….
“To be a traveler – and novelists are often travelers – is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very different world you have visited and from which you have returned home.”
Somewhere in the world, someone is warming to battle, saying, like Shakespeare in Coriolanus:
“Let me have a war, say I: It exceeds peace as far as day
Does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d, deaf, sleepy,
Insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war is a
Destroyer of men.”
Someone is stoking the appetites for violence with the rhetoric of victim-blaming and its subliminal narrative’s naive expressions of imposture, invoking free rider social anxiety, estrangement, latent attitudes towards shirking, instinctive exclusionary threat displays and the language of non-exclusionary vulgarity in posturing. Someone is reframing the rictus of a fear grimace as a mask of rage, calling in debts, condemning a deferred presumption of decency, channeling actual bystander attitudes towards other bystanders and reciprocity, harnessing the nameless confusion of social animals into the traces of war.
Someone is unleashing and amplifying the cruelty of micro-aggressions practiced in the informal policing of the frontiers of justice, tacit reminders of inequality given not without satisfaction, even if the aggressive nature of the behavior is unacknowledged out of social pressure to keep the peace.
Cruelty is easy to disown. At the frontiers of justice, passive gatekeepers without keys appear to be toying with the alternatives (assist or obstruct passage) every time they acknowledge someone on the other side. They are merely posturing to maintain position on the better end of the social contract’s Pareto optimal sum of political fair-mindedness.
Gloating, posturing, fear, uncertainty, depravity and imposture are a potential blemish on stardom, and the grimace is underrepresented in film apart from the stock villain. Such a villain is a favorite in contemporary criticism of the Iliad, in the very modern Thersites, tragically out of step with the epic love fantasies and military ethics of his time.
A holistic concept map of his foibles would link ugliness and thwarted aggression, soothing and patronizing gestures, imposture and irony, disgust and desire, initiating violence and defending self-efficacy, miscommunication and indifference to strangers, the attention economy and stop-go posturing, phrasebook conversation as the formulaic bent of high diction and indirection as an ambivalent or inattentive vagueness.
I would use the concepts of cognitive bias, working memory, compartmentalizing and strain on the attention economy to develop an abstract theory of ugliness fit to explain the antithesis of a charismatic hero. Errata, grudges, divided loyalties and excessive interests belie a villain’s imperfectible nature, making his virtues forgettable and his failures decisive. He will come to want revenge for being born.
The foibles of the villains in The Legend of the Seeker have overtones of BDSM sexual fantasy, ritualized and sardonic. Porn is a garish metaphor for the strained idea of inter-subjectivity in contemporary identity politics. The boundaries issues, the mutuality deficits, the resentment masking (forced irony as sublimated hatred), all devolve into rote penetrative violence governed by reactive interpersonal dynamics (push and push back w/o pull, ‘telling’ instead of using ‘indirection’, rape scripts instead of seduction). BDSM porn may be richer in symbolic language and relational innuendo, but is still preoccupied with power and its confrontation.
If mainstream film is governed by a market that parallels that for porn, the horror genre is the most emblematic of vulgarity. The banalization of violent pornography in horror films humanizes female protagonists with contemporary plots that take the objectified heroine off her pedestal and establish “she’s no victim, but that is distress.” The distress is guaranteed, exaggerated, inane. Horror films elicit, by repetition and predictability, a matter-of-fact sort of stage feeling about the universal experience of unrelenting vulnerability to interpersonal violence.
In 1944, Orwell wrote a column about what he called “a very dangerous fallacy, now very widespread in the countries where totalitarianism has not established itself. … The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside …. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an autonomous individual. The secret freedom which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. Philosophers, writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people .. Take away freedom of speech, and the creative faculties dry up.”
The subversive energies of violent pornography transgress the vulgar politics of Pareto stability and the impassive obscure with splashy narratives of overpowering force and indiscriminate disruption.
Bertrand Russell speculated that there might be innocent pastimes that could restore the “zest” to indolent headhunters in conquered corners of the Amazon who had been forbidden their favorite sport and grown degenerate in the lassitude of postcolonial angst. Maybe not; the glory they missed had not been and could never be apolitical, without being trivialized.
Pornographic and Hollywood villainy is neither apolitical nor uncensored, a sphere for indulging the senses that embodies the political and dramatizes the radical within the permissive bounds of the trivial, a call of the wild “for entertainment only.” Rousing, provocative, peculiar, destructive, the rise of a villain worth contending with is a spectacle that evinces appetites outstripping the world’s patience in all of us. For the stage villain is the evil genius we choose to identify with, the one who can only be outdone in our estimation by a hero of unusual charisma and supernatural prowess.
“The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,”
– Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe
Such a villain is not defeated – he is undone. He must hide in his strengths the seed of their own destruction, overreach in the fatal direction, foresee his own doom and collapse into nihilism, succumb to a performative defiance of what the world holds possible.
“The trouble with reality is that it anticipates the hypotheses that deny it.” These are the same expectations that explain why “not only does reality offer no resistance to those who denounce it, but it escapes those who take its side. It may be a way to take revenge on those who claim to believe in it in order to transform it: sending the zealots back to their own desire. In the end, it might be more of a sphinx than a dog.” Baudrillard again.