Mea est ultio et Ego retribuam (II)
Monday, 2005-03-28 | Classic Gin
Yesterday we looked at the tension that inheres in the question of whether to avenge or to leave vengeance to the gods; today we'll take a brief look at the problem of mimesis in revenge.
Part of the reason that revenge stories often verge on the satirical has to do with the general rules of satire. As the etymology of the name for the genre suggests, satire (Latin: satura) has t
o do with saturation; literally it means 'enough.' As most stories of revenge demonstrate, exact revenge is seldom possible; let's say that the transgressor is the revenger's uncle and kills the revenger's father and marries his mother. If revenge simply had to be perfectly mimetic, then the revenger would be shit out of luck unless he could find some way to kill his own grandfather and wed his grandmother and also be his uncle's uncle.
Revenge stories thus have much to do with deciding how to pay back the initial offense; how much is enough and how much would be too much. This is also why revenge stories veer naturally into satire, a genre where such considerations are fundamental at all moments of the story. Swift's Modest Proposal wouldn't be very good political satire if it went on for pages and pages describing various ways to prepare an infant if one intended to eat it; it would become something like culinary satire or child-rearing satire.
Due to the fact that perfect mimetic revenge is often simply impossible, we are forced to evaluate revenge in terms of its relative effects. If the transgressor kills the revenger's child and the revenger kills the transgressor's child in turn, we seem to have a perfectly mimetic revenge. What if the revenger's child was his firstborn son and set to inherit his lands and titles? What if the transgressor has numerous children, none of whom will inherit any substantial amount of lands or significant titles? Would it seem fitting revenge to kill his 'favorite,' or would fitting revenge have to take some other form? Maybe if the revenger killed one of the transgressor's children, baked him into a pie and fed him to the transgressor? Is that too much, or is it enough?
The question of mimesis has everything to do with the verge on satire (it is also the reason we say 'tit for tat' and not 'tit for tit' or 'tit for tit and also tat and additionally a second tit and another tat'); if the revenger takes too much revenge, the revenge he takes seems to make him monstrous and not heroically vindictive or vengeful. If he takes way too much revenge, if he flies completely off the handle, then we seem to have entered into the realm of satire--the idea of revenge itself seems to have become the object of our critical attentions.
Revenge, additionally, when it veers too far from a kind of mutatis mutandis mimesis, might become something else entirely (i.e. not satire and not a revenge story). A contemporary example illustrates this best.
In Mel Gibson's Braveheart there exists, following the betrayal at Falkirk, about 20 minutes that I like to call the 'conscience suite.' During the conscience suite, we're shown various images of Robert the Bruce's troubled conscience and come to recognize his intellectual/emotional interiority as something between a wasteland and a blazing inferno; his demons howl; he stands in a blue inferno, surrounded by the dead and dying and looks with wide, terror-filled eyes, upon nothing; the film is telling us in no uncertain terms that he is haunted by his conscience.
The conscience suite is resolved as William Wallace is literally and figuratively apotheosized. As he runs to the top of Olympus in patently obvious mimesis of Christ or Hercules in their moments of apotheosis, we're treated to scenes of his triumphant vengeance. Wallace is unlike a man at this point--he is divine. He has become to howling demon, the restive conscience that stalks and kills us from within. It is no coincidence that Mulroy is paid his 'wages' (whacked in the face with a lead ball) in his bedchamber, his thalamus--Wallace's betrayal at Falkirk makes him, even if only for a moment, into a divine figure; he becomes the physical enforcer of conscience, the reified gnawing feeling that drives men to madness and suicide. Those who betray Wallace (Mulroy and Lochlan) are not subject to his revenge as much as they are subject to the inexorable consequences of betraying Wallace and his fighters to death--a tormented conscience, illustrated in Mulroy's case by his nightmare of Wallace riding through flames to get him, that demands their lives as recompense for having wronged it.
Thus Wallace is not a revenger. What looks like his revenge is not a person's revenge, but the revenge that our own consciences have upon us; it is revenge but there is nothing of the familiar revenge story about it (e.g. determining the proper mutatis mutandis mimesis, deliberating on what course of action to take, etc.).
So we see that mimesis has a lot to do with the question of revenge from a formal standpoint. Considering yesterday's ruminations on revenge, then, we have a very problematic concept.
On one hand, we're urged to leave revenge to the gods. On the other, we're urged to take revenge ourselves if it looks like the gods aren't going to do it themselves. We've also, before we take revenge, got to figure out how to revisit the transgression upon the transgressor in such a way that it will cause him suffering approximately equivalent to his own; if we don't revenge enough, we haven't revenged and if we revenge too much we haven't revenged so much as acted monstrously or in such a way as to cause our revenge to become less important than its magnitude.
Revenge is thus fraught and freighted. It is very difficult to know when or if to exact it and how.