Ever seen those ‘Admit It’ memes on Facebook? Sure you have. Those memes that tell you to admit that you cried when Mufasa died in Lion King or that you have definitely pushed a door that said ‘Pull’? Well, here’s one: Admit it! You’ve definitely wanted revenge at one point in your life. Be it about that mean kid who broke your crayon at kindergarten or the evil boss who stepped on your big promotion, we’ve all longed for some sweet payback.
What we’ve all experienced as a singular, often overwhelming and completely natural impulse is more than just a feeling. Revenge is all over our movies, TV shows, popular culture, you name it. Histories have been written and re-written over revenge. It is one of the most common motivations for crime. Revenge stories are found in the latest bestseller lists(Gone Girl), in classics, dating back to the times of the Bard himself and beyond. Who can forget Othello or Hamlet? You trip over layers and layers of intrigue in the Count of Monte Cristo. You hang on to every word as the Count sets out to lay the intricate chain of events that strikes down those who ruined his life and any chance of happiness he could have had. Revenge flicks are entertaining to watch. You root for the sword-wielding Bride in Kill Bill until the very end, despite all the eye-plucking and de-scalping on the way. You are on the edge of your seat watching sword fight after sword fight in Gladiator. Whatever said and done, they make for amazing storytelling and belong in every time, every place and every setting one can imagine.
The act of revenge is classically defined as the act committed to right a personal wrong. The best revenge stories are ones where the wronged party spends years planning a carefully constructed downfall of their enemies. So that when retribution arrives, it arrives out of the blue: cold, cruel and complete. The other day I was re-reading the Count of Monte Cristo and I found something I had missed in earlier perusal. During his pursuit of vengeance, the Count had begun to view himself as an instrument of God. He was described as watching acts of terror standing ‘tall as the avenging angel’. He had begun to operate with the belief that his quest for personal vengeance had entwined with the greater purpose of punishing those who do wrong. A similar sentiment is expressed in Kill Bill –
“When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it is proof that not only does God exist but you are doing his will”
Revenge and justice, however, are not synonymous. Revenge is personal, intimate, all-consuming but justice is impartial and detached. Revenge is outside the law. Although some cultures still acknowledge vendettas and blood feuds, but they are few and far between.
It is difficult to talk about revenge without mentioning the proponents of peace and forgiveness. It has been famously said that an eye for an eye will ultimately make the whole world blind. There is no denying the violence and horror associated with pursuing vengeance. We enjoy them as singular stories but they cannot in fact be viewed without looking at the greater picture which is not that pretty.
From a philosophical perspective, revenge is in a big way, about power. The power that is lost when one is wronged and the power that is regained when one is able to inflict a similar loss. Revenge is also about closure. To be able to finish the unfinished business and move on to something less hateful. Maybe it stems from the need and the illusion we all have that we are somehow in control of our lives. My narrow and limited understanding of human beings tells me just this much. I go back to that book I read when I was just a teenager. I relive the thrill in certain passages. Each time I find something new to wonder about.
“For until the day God deigns to reveal the future to man, the sum of all human wisdom can be contained in the words: Wait and Hope.”