Saturday, April 20, 2013
Did anyone write better revenge stories than Edgar Poe? Many have read "The Cask of Amontillado," the tale of the man who "walls up" another man who has insulted him (we never learn the nature of the insult). Less well known--but even more violent--is one of the last stories he lived to see published, "Hop-Frog."
It's the story of the revenge of a court jester, a dwarf, physically handicapped, whom the king relentlessly mocks and degrades. This is bad enough--but when the king also abuses Trippetta, Hop-Frog's love (he throws wine in her face), this is too much. Hop-Frog concocts a grotesque revenge plot at a masquerade for the king and his ministers. By the end, they are all hanging from the ceiling, in flames, while Hop-Frog and Trippetta make their escape.
Literature is full of revenge stories. In Genesis, God himself practices it--banishing Adam and Eve. And then there was the flood ... and don't forget that stuff in Sodom and Gomorrah ... Things didn't turn out well there. Odysseus slaughtered all the suitors. Iago got a bit of revenge, as did John the Bastard in Much Ado About Nothing. (Though things didn't work out too well for either of them afterwards.) Romeo's revenge in R & J doesn't work out well, either. Twelfth Night ends with Malvolio's dark promise of revenge. And in Titus Andronicus appears the grisliest scene in Shakespeare: A mother unwittingly eats a meat pie made with her sons' bodies--her sons who have raped and blinded and disfigured Titus' daugher, Lavinia. And on and and on in Shakespeare.
The bloodiest passages in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn concern the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, a feud whose origins no one in the two families seems even to know. Huck sees his young friend Buck Grangerford shot down right in front of him. He sees the brutality, later, of the Duke and the King, tarred and feathered by a vengeful mob. And Huck learns: Revenge has no end.
And is there a plot device in the movies more common than revenge? Comedy, action film, drama--doesn't really matter. There it is, revenge, often at the very heart of the story. I recently saw Snatch, the 2001 Guy Ritchie film. In that one, Brad Pitt exacts a bloody revenge on a mobster who has killed his mother. Man on Fire (2004) has Denzel Washington pursuing (and torturing and killing) the kidnappers of a little girl. Liam Neeson has made a career of employing his "special set of skills" in the service of revenge. One of his latest--Taken 2--uses a double-revenge plot: The bad guys from the original Taken want revenge on Neeson for killing their friends and family; Neeson then exacts revenge on them for messing again with his family.
I could go on for pages ... but will mention only the recent TV series Revenge--blood and gore in the Hamptons. Very popular.
There is surely something cathartic about imagining revenge. Every time I've been wronged by someone, I've entertained rich fantasies about the payback (the title, by the way, of a 1991 Mel Gibson revenge flick) I'd like to practice on him or her (yes, some hers have been on my list). But I honestly don't think I've ever set out to actually perform revenge on someone. Okay, in third or fourth grade I stole a bully's basketball and flattened it with a butcher knife. But the guy never knew who stole the ball (proof: I'm still alive), and it's an incident I cannot today recall without horror. Who was that person who did that?
I'm thinking about revenge today, of course, because of the events in Boston. I've heard some amazing things on television--read some amazing things on Facebook. People are enraged (as I am) about the slaughter in that city. The lives lost, the lives ruined. It's staggering. Revenge is in the air. I've read a number of descriptions about what we "ought" to do to the suspect--if he survives his wounds. Most involve horrific deaths--the sort that he and his brother apparently visited upon some people who were doing nothing but enjoying their lives that day. Would serve him right is the refrain appended--tacitly or explicitly--to the descriptions.
Well, maybe it would serve him right. But it would serve the rest of us wrong. Here's what I think we ought to do: try him, convict him (if he's as guilty as he seems to be), sentence him to life without parole. And spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened and why. How and why did these young men turn this way? Decide to do what they did? And how is it that they were capable of walking through a happy crowd, knowing that they were carrying on their backs the instruments that would wreak such devastation? What kind of person can do that? Are there ways we can more reliably identify such people before it's too late?
I believe, too, that revenge diminishes us. An eye for an eye, as someone once said, leaves us all blind. I know, of course, that if I had lost a child in Boston--if I or a loved one had been maimed--I would full of grief and anger and, probably, a desire for revenge. Remember in Much Ado when Leonato's brother, Antonio, tries to calm Leonato, who is enraged because of the outrage done to his daughter? Leonato turns on his brother ...
I pray thee, cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve: give not me counsel;
Nor let no comforter delight mine ear
But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine.
Bring me a father that so loved his child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelm'd like mine,
And bid him speak of patience;
In other words, don't try to comfort me--not unless you've experienced what I have. Otherwise, you can't possibly understand.
So, yes, in some ways I don't know what I'm talking about. I have not suffered such a loss. And I'm grateful that my imagination is too weak to accommodate me.
But I do know this: We can learn little or nothing from a dead man. From a live one, perhaps, we can learn some things to help us prevent a sequel. I far prefer that thought to the bloody image of a terrorist bomber paid back in kind.