5 March 2010
I watched the film Law Abiding Citizen today and was immediately reminded of The Count of Monte Cristo. Of course, the settings of the two films couldn’t be more diverse, but what they have in common is being elaborately constructed revenge fantasies. As A child I loved the many film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo, and the abiding interest of the story suggests that revenge fantasy is a human universal and a perennial genre. But is it?
Based purely on a survey of my admittedly imperfect memory, I can’t think of a revenge fantasy in the literature of classical antiquity or the Middle Ages. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any, only that I am ignorant of them. But once I started thinking about it, I realized that, apart from any knowledge of examples, the very idea of a revenge fantasy is quite foreign to the Weltanschauung of antiquity or medievalism. Certainly revenge is a central theme of Western literature. Revenge is central to Hamlet and Macbeth, but I would not call these revenge fantasies.
The culture of antiquity and medievalism was resolutely elite culture. The few who were literate wrote for the few who were literate, and the literate were over-represented in elite society and virtually absent in any other division of society. The elites were a military and aristocratic ruling class that identified with the strong and the brave, and would have thought it beneath them to contemplate, much less cultivate, fantasies of revenge. They would certainly plot revenge, and they would carry through their plot to action, but I see a difference between such royal intrigues and the revenge fantasies of the downtrodden, however difficult it is to explicate that difference.
What kind of person cultivates a revenge fantasy? Someone who believes themselves to have been wronged but who has no power to see that justice is served: the powerless cog in a machine of industrialized society, the bewildered resident of a Kafkaesque labyrinth that only becomes more absurd the further we plumb its depths, the humiliated and angry ordinary man-in-the-street who must endure abuse from employers and bureaucrats alike. Of course, the very first lines of the Iliad announce the anger of Achilles as one of the themes of that work, but one clearly gets the picture that this is “hasty and sudden anger” rather than “settled and deliberate anger.” Achilles does not brood; heroes do not nurse a grudge.
Is a revenge fantasy a unique modern genre, particularly suited to express (and to serve as a cathartic purgation) for the common frustrations of life in industrialized civilization? Perhaps so; perhaps not. There is no reason to make a sweeping proclamation on the subject. But if it were, it would not be the only uniquely modern genre. It strikes me that elaborate “scam” films like Nueve reinas or the more recent Duplicity — both of which are subtle and complex in terms of plot, while simplistic in terms of human nature — have no clear parallels in ancient or medieval literature.
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