Sunday, August 8, 2010

Evil As Chaos. Evil As Order.

I propose this. Generally speaking, fictional antagonists represent one of two opposite, but equally menacing, forms of evil: chaos and order.

What the heck do I mean, you ask? Well I'll tell you.

Evil As Chaos: The Joker

Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just... do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. ...

...Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!

--The Joker, The Dark Knight

I find The Joker fascinating, because he has no clear motivation. I mean: he's a maniac. I guess he doesn't have to make sense. But he seems to me to be a representation of the most troubling kind of evil, and one that we would like to think doesn't exist in the real world. We are always trying to find reasons for the evil people do, even if those reasons are flimsy at best. When people do horrifying things, we have to investigate and probe until we find a reason for it. We blame mental instability and bad parenting and social problems. Sometimes we even blame Marilyn Manson. Makes perfect sense, right?

I find that tendency frustrating. Don't get me wrong: I fully acknowledge that a pair of terrible parents, or the lack of a pair of even terrible parents, and/or abnormal brain chemistry, and/or cruel adolescents, are real and important factors in the commission of evil acts. But they are not complete explanations, as much as we would like them to be. Because there are thousands upon thousands of good (or even neutral) people out there with mental conditions and/or horrifyingly bad parents and/or terrible high school environments. The existence of contributing factors is not an explanation.

Characters like The Joker say, to me: maybe there is no explanation. Not an observable and satisfying one, anyway. And maybe trying to explain evil away is not a good thing. Neat and tidy explanations don't heal us. They may actually prevent us from acknowledging the depth to which we have been wronged-- they may actually make it harder for us to recover.

The Joker says: I don't do bad things because I want money. I don't do bad things for my own personal gain. I do bad things because I want to do bad things. I set things on fire just to watch them burn.

I love villains like this because I can feel my brain fighting and struggling for explanations even now, as I hypothesize that there are none. We want so badly for evil to make sense. And characters who do evil for no good reason press against that desire in our minds, ask us to reconsider our faith in rationality, force us to think deeply about how evil works. And I love when fiction makes us work that hard.

Evil As Order: The Machines

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.

--Agent Smith, The Matrix

(How creepy is that speech?!)

If you haven't seen The Matrix, allow me to summarize. Man discovers that the world he thinks is real is actually a computer-simulated environment. Reality is actually a place where machines use human beings as batteries. He wakes up from the computer-simulated environment. Chaos ensues. (A gross oversimplification, yes. But it's the gist.)

Any evil machine character is going to be an example of evil as order because...let's face it, they're machines. They operate based on a set of well-defined rules. They are incapable of breaking those rules because they don't have what we would call a sense of free will. Therefore any evil they commit must be perfectly logical.

The thought process of the machines in The Matrix goes a little like this, I would imagine:

A. We need an energy source to continue functioning.
B. Solar power is out. The humans messed up the sky.
C. Hey, humans produce energy, much like the sun.
D. Therefore we will use humans as our energy source.
E. Humans are pesky. How can we stop them from being pesky?
F. They aren't pesky if they aren't conscious.
G. True. But unfortunately, it's not easy to keep them not-conscious. As I said: pesky.
H. Let's trick them into believing they're conscious, while actually keeping them unconscious and imprisoned.

Makes perfect sense. But what happens when the antagonist is not a machine?

Villains get really freaking creepy, that's what. The thing about machines is that we don't expect them to have a conscience or a code of ethics. They operate for their own benefit, and that's all. But when humans can completely disregard all moral and ethical concerns, and exhibit a complete lack of sympathy and empathy, that's scary.

For me, it's scary because I don't think it's at all outside the realm of the possible. If chaotic evil challenges our belief in the power of rational thought, orderly evil confirms it-- and asks us why we think rational thought is such a good thing. I think humans can rationalize pretty much anything, depending on how firm their moral foundation is.

If evil-as-chaos strikes us as subhuman, evil-as-order is somehow inhuman. It is systematic and supremely rational and devoid of compassion.

It bothers me when evil doesn't make sense. But it disturbs me when it does. I think that's why I tend to stick with evil as order in my writing-- it's more compelling to me. I'd say that all but one of the antagonists in Divergent are calculating rather than maniacal.

This strikes me as a little funny, considering how organized my desk is.

This begs the question: what's your favorite flavor...of evil? (In fiction, of course.)


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