by Madeleine Kando
I have to tell you a secret. My favorite movies are the ones that have some kind of revenge as their theme. Like 'Rob Roy' or 'The Brave One'. They tap into a very deep seated emotion: a feeling of deep satisfaction when a wrong has been put right by the vengeful act of the victim turned hero. In 'Rob Roy' the wronged hero is played by Liam Neeson, a giant of a man. In 'The Brave One' the hero is played by Jodie Foster, one of the smallest actresses I know. They both get even with the bad guy(s) and live happily ever after.
Revenge and the act of vengeance are a very old practice in the history of mankind. Every primitive society practices the art of revenge, and the older the society, the better it is at it. From the Scottish clans to the Japanese Samurai class, revenge was the way people doled out justice.
Vengeance is sweet. 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' says Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Waiting to take revenge until the one that harmed you least expects it, is the best way to take revenge.
Another proverb, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius, states that "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." The implication here is that a desire for revenge may ultimately hurt the seeker as much as the victim.
To me, the most efficient type of vengeance is the one that, by eliminating the bad guy, stops the cycle. And eye for an eye. End of story. The worst kind of revenge is the one that creates a vicious cycle like the vendettas in Sicily. You killed my brother, so I kill your sister, so you kill my uncle, so I kill your father. etc. etc. You get to enjoy the satisfaction of getting even, but your revenge has a price tag: you expose yourself to a never ending series of retaliations, until no one is left to take revenge on.
That's probably why vengeance is now considered too primitive and too inefficient a way of making things ‘right’. It has been replaced by our legal system. We are now ‘civilized’ and sue each other to take revenge. We are so civilized that we lock up people by the millions, and we occasionally execute a few. Now THAT’s the real American way of revenge!
But what is the origin of vengeance? The oldest text that talks about vengeance is written by the 6th century philosopher Anaximander, who uses a metaphor of the seasons to explain 'justice'. He describes 'encroachment' of winter upon summer as 'pleonexia' (the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others), also known as 'greed'. For justice (diké) to be restored, retribution (tisis) must take place. The elements that encroached must 'pay justice and retribution'. Summer is the due retribution for the imbalance of winter.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book 'Sex and Social Justice', explains why, in the case of human justice, retribution is necessary to achieve balance:
'A human life is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another's act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counter invasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment. It differs from the original act only in the sequence of time and in the fact that it is response rather than original act - a fact frequently obscured if there is a long sequence of acts and counteracts.'**
In the analogy of the seasons, it might be important to realize that it is the same snow and rain that the summer evaporated that, in turn, will seek retribution when winter comes. In other words, the retribution that someone seeks in taking revenge will eventually return upon themselves in the endless cycle of the vendettas.
Everyone has a sense of 'justice' because our disposition is to seek 'balance'. We have two sides to our bodies, we have day and night, life and death, youth and old age, summer and winter, etc. Without vengeance there is always going to be a desire to recreate balance, like an itch that you want to scratch until it's gone.
Unfortunately, balance is only attainable when there is imbalance. Without imbalance there wouldn't be any life, any movement, any change, nothing ever would happen.
The opposite of vengeance is forgiveness. The problem with forgiveness is that it is easier to forgive when the person that caused you harm feels sorry. Why would I forgive someone who is not sorry? They don't need my forgiveness. So, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Yes, justice and vengeance, though sweet in the moment, are cruel and hard in the long run.
Maybe that's why revenge movies are so popular and so abundant. In fact, movies without a vengeance motive are more the exception than the rule. I could start an endless list right here: Moby Dick, Payback, The Count of Monte Cristo, Unforgiven, Irreversible, Hang em High, Memento, Man on Fire, Munich… But there must be countless other movies that could vicariously satisy my need for revenge. Any suggestions?
** From:Judging and Understanding: Essays on Free Will… Edited by Pedro Alexis Tabensky
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
by Madeleine Kando