By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings
“To recognize untruth as a condition of life–that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
The most striking thing about the concept of good and evil—other than its ubiquity, the fact that so much of civilization runs off it—is how wrong it is, how flawed and incomplete. Which is probably why our best portrayals of this dichotomy reside in fiction.
Stories, be they metaphysical or Earth-bound, are places where we can forget about reality’s gray of cause and effect, conscience and guilt, focus on the rich (stark, at least) contrast between black and white. They’re where we can trot out our worst dastards, stand them up against this guy or gal in a white whatever and nod our heads at the fact that good invariably wins.
While this head-nodding may be comforting psychologically and even spiritually—may put us in touch with society, or even humanity, in a way that leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy—where’s the honesty in it? Where’s the fairness?
Satan and Sauron, Dracula and Loki, Gordon Gekko, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, The Wicked Queen, Morgana, and Emperor Palpatine…they all fail. Utterly. Despite their best laid plans, in spite of years (or centuries or millennia) of plotting, they always get it wrong, proving that evil just ain’t what good is cracked up to be.
In some of these cases, you might say, well, they’re losing to a superior force (Satan and his eternal struggle to defeat his creator being an obvious example), but that’s not always true. More often than not, evil loses in spite of the fact that it’s been portrayed as more powerful. We’re to take an object lesson from this: cheaters never win, liars never prosper, something like that. But what if evil did win, once in a while at least?
Satan has always seemed like something of an underachiever. I mean, the way he hides out in that sulfuric demesne of his, wherever it is (the Center of the Earth, the Heavens Unseen, the Dumpster Behind Maury’s Steakhouse?), it’s easy to imagine him as some nebbishy underboss who got wrapped up in a colpo di famiglia gone terribly (read, bloodlessly) wrong.
Satan’s trapped in eternal WITSEC (flashy tracksuits and expensive cigars his only recourse), hoping against hope that the Almighty will never find him, knowing eventually He will. Never mind the hiding out, what about the name change? What angel in his right mind gives up a moniker like Lucifer? At least once you’ve gotten used to all the other angels making fun of you in the angel schoolyard, it should be all gravy, right? Then, even after things go south (literally), Satan (or Lucifer or the Devil or whatever he’s calling himself by that point) just continues to devote his existence to a losing battle. None of it makes any sense.
If he won, though, if El Diablo somehow managed to defeat the Most High? I like to think he’d get sick of being humanity’s overlord almost as quickly as he did with being choirmaster of the heavenly host. I like to think he’d light out for points unknown, leaving us once again to our own devices. In other words, we’d wind up almost exactly where we are today.
Score: Evil 1, Good 0
Let’s dish. Tolkien’s hobbits are cute and cuddly but they’re also really bloody annoying. As are his elves. And his dwarves. And his men. Basically, Tolkien is annoying. He’s annoying because there’s too much predictability in his world, because it’s obvious from the jump that Sauron is going down.
If the Eye won, though, what would Middle Earth look like? Well, you can extrapolate Mordor—that blighted, semi-volcanic land—to the rest of Middle Earth. The White City gone black? The fields of Rohan blasted ashen gray? Rivendell turned to Rivenhell? Would any of this be productive? No, it would not. (Never mind the fact that he’d probably outlaw “second breakfasts” and “elevensies”.) Sauron must lose.
Score: Evil 1, Good 1
This could be a tough one to answer. There are so many different cinematic (and even literary) portrayals of Dracula. In some, he’s a B- (or C- or D-) movie villain you wouldn’t trust winning a poetry slam let alone a battle against the forces of “good”. In his canonical, Stokerian form, though, the Count has some serious backstory. I mean, he misses his wife; that’s it more or less. Which explains his fate and the enmity with which he views God and man. Is this cool? No, of course it’s not cool. But it’s understandable. And, so, in my (and Nietzsche’s) belief that love is the greatest power in the world, beyond even made-up evil, made-up gods, and made-up vampiric nobility, I’m giving this one to evil, suggesting Dracula should have won and the world wouldn’t have been so bad if he had. London, on the other hand…
Score: Evil 2, Good 1
I like Loki so much I’ve even joked about worshipping him on occasion. No, I’m not talking about Tom Hiddleston or the dude in the comic books. I’m talking about the “real” Loki, that misunderstood paragon of Norse “evil”. I’m writing a book about him, right now; one in which he’s the protagonist. Well, not “right now” strictly speaking. You know what I mean. More Loki to come. For now, the jury’s out.
Score: Evil 2, Good 1, Loki Looming
Gordon Gekko (from Wall Street)
Gekko is a thoroughly modern villain, one well suited (still) to our time. Beyond sex and power, beyond even money, Gekko wants to win. That’s it. And if he needs to break a few rules to do it…I mean, what the hay? You break a few rules, right?
If you look at Gekko as capitalism’s id, which he is (“Greed is good.” Hello…), you don’t want him anywhere near ultimate victory. Yes, he’s a small-timer as the fate of the world goes, but if we take a little license, and let Gekko run the whole show…There’s the rub. We’d actually wind up with a situation very similar to today (see Satan above). Even though he’s a fictional character, maybe Gekko did win. Sure, he may be capitalism’s id, but what’s just as clear is that Gordon Gekko has a living, breathing id and that id’s name is Donald Trump. While I’m not sure what exactly that makes Trump with respect to capitalism (Super Id? Id2?), whatever id is, id ain’t good…
Score: Evil 3, Good 1, Loki Looming
In spite of his multiple psychoses (or, perhaps, in a way, because of them), Hannibal Lecter is one of the most realistic (human, at least) villains on this list. And though this makes his psychology easier to understand than, say, that of Voldemort, it doesn’t make him an ideal candidate for victory. Again, though, the stakes are low as humanity goes. The costs of Lecter’s victory would be horrible for a few people, but not that many. If TV’s Hannibal proved anything, it’s that no matter how good a show Lecter puts on, we just can’t relate to a mass murderer cum serial cannibal well enough to see him as a hero. He has to lose. End of story.
Score: Evil 3, Good 2, Loki Looming
Voldemort is a unique force of malice. Somewhere between god and man, he’s a villain so ridiculously evil he must come from a story for kids. He’s undead in a sense, a sort of lich (if you know your D&D). Which means we couldn’t possibly let him win, right? Au contraire…
Letting Voldemort win would flout the lunacy that is Harry Potter. While undoubtedly a great fictional conceit—the books, the movies, the toys and games and billions of dollars–Harry et al really get on my nerves. Harry and his little pals are just so stupidly lucky in their battles with Voldemort that it’s hard not to envision scenarios in which the Dark Lord (a common title in the land of baddies, it seems) wins. Every one of those movies has at least one scene that leaves you on the verge of screaming, “For Christ’s sake, Voldemort, will you just goddam kill him!?” But it never quite pans out.
Plus, Voldemort winning and getting rid of Harry Potter really wouldn’t do much to our world, the land of muggles. Exposure is low. Harry Potter is annoying. Give evil a chance. Keep hope alive.
Score: Evil 4, Good 2, Loki Looming
The Wicked Queen
You must think I’m completely horrible. Let Snow White lose? How could I even consider it? Well, I’m not really. But…there’s Charlize Theron. As the Wicked Queen. And this makes me think, it does indeed. But I have to divorce myself from reality in this sense, leave the world of fantasy, return to that of fiction. And, in that world, the Wicked Queen may be a hot cartoon, but she’s no Charlize Theron. Victory, Snow White!
Score: Evil 4, Good 3, Loki Looming
Morgana (Morgan le Fay)
King Arthur’s half-sister. She’s got problems, so many that she tricks King Art into knocking her up therein begetting the child she hopes will be his doom, her son Mordred. But why does Morgana hate Arthur so much? He’s not such a bad guy.
Morgana hates Arthur because his father (Uther) was…ahem…not such a swell guy. He was, in fact, just the sort of medieval European overlord that gave medieval European overlords a bad (albeit true) name. Though myth styles Mordred as a sort of anti-Arthur, an antichrist if you will, Uther is the real world, magic- and religion-unboosted equivalent. So, even though Morgana takes it out on Arthur, she really hates Uther (with good reason). All this said, Morgana and Mordred can’t be allowed to win. They have global ambitions. They’d “cover the world in darkness” as the saying goes.
Score: Evil 4, Good 4, Loki Looming
I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence towards Star Wars. On one hand, I’ve absorbed the profound impact it’s had on American culture. On the other, I have always found Luke Skywalker to be a deeply annoying hero. Sure, I root for him. That’s the problem with good. Most of the time you find yourself cheering for it compulsively, as though there weren’t even a choice in the matter. Good equals life, evil equals death. And but for the darkest moments, almost all living creatures will choose life.
From an intellectual standpoint, the most interesting part of the Star Wars story is Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader’s fall to the Dark Side. (But for the billions of dollars at risk, I think you could actually make a pretty good case that the entire story could have been boiled down to two movies, Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars.) And, spoiler alert, I think I actually like the third prequel better than the rest because it presents some of the psychodrama behind Vader’s fall. Central to this is the role of Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious.
He’s a prototypical skulk-in-the-shadows, plan-for-a-thousand-years bad guy. Ultimately, this is the reason Palpatine can’t be allowed to win. He’s in it for the long haul, looking to unbalance the Force forever. He doesn’t just want to “cover the world in darkness,” he wants to “cover the universe in darkness.” And we can’t let him do that. (Even though the truth is the universe is pretty dark already.)
Score: Good 5, Evil 4, Loki Looming
Here’s the thing about good and evil: The construct is real and unreal simultaneously. The thing I find so compelling about Loki’s character is that he embodies this apparent contradiction, exists as both hero and villain.
For much of the Norse saga, he’s considered one of the Aesir (along with the Vanir, the two groups that together form the Norse pantheon), able to freely come and go from Asgard and even Valhalla. All along, though, he’s plotting the gods’ demise. I think the Norse were onto something with this obvious contradiction.
You could say that this is just a product of competing stories, that Loki as a creature of both good and evil is dramatically necessary and that’s all it’s about. Then again, maybe the Norse poets realized at least subconsciously the limitations of good and evil. Maybe in this respect they were a millennium or so ahead of Nietzsche. Maybe the Vikings realized that good and evil were real, but only as acknowledged placeholders, that good is life, evil is death, and beyond there is nothing, at least nothing we can understand. That there’s no cosmic truth to them.
To see the world without good and evil is chastening because, as Nietzsche put it, you have to extend the effects well beyond your comfort level. You have to look not just at fiction but at history, to countenance figures like Hitler and Stalin, not just who they were, but everything they did. You have to acknowledge that your hero is may just be someone else’s villain, your villain someone else’s hero.