Discovering #MyKindOfBenedy: Who do you have to kill to find a good villain around here?

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Everyone knows how to motivate a villain. You have him rub his hands together with an evil relish and snarl, “Nyar har har har!”
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I wrote this on April 11, 2012, three days after I had published Man Alive. I had no idea at the time how much more fecund that book was going to make my own intellectual life. I thought I was documenting what I had discovered. Instead, I ended up discovering so much more to document. The posts I have written about art are one example of that, but the underlying changes in my own ideas about art are more significant to me. Nota bene: The improvement in own’s own thinking over time is benedy-in-real-life. But Brother Willie and I have had a hard way to go, since I no longer want to write satire. That joke is on me, even so. Willie is an impossible satiric contradiction, an intentional Butters: He is morally-neutral not by accident of idiocy but by explicit intent. You see Willie discovering #MyKindOfBenedy over the years when he says, “But everybody’s gotta take a side.” I have notions about redeeming satiric forms with benedic endings, but those ideas are still percolating. Meanwhile, behold the Splendor of Willie. –GSS

I worked on the ideas that became Man Alive for more than thirty years, since I was nineteen years old. And the problem I started with was more practical than philosophical: I was a young wannabe novelist, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to motivate a villain.

That might sound silly to you. Everyone knows how to motivate a villain. You have him rub his hands together with an evil relish and snarl, “Nyar har har har!” You’ve seen it in the movies a million times. Does he need some back-story? His parents were rich but neglecting and the butler buggered him in the basement. What could be simpler?

Reality, as it turns out. I was living in New York City at that time, going to school full-time and running the student newspaper, all while working full-time as well. All around me there were people I didn’t like and people who didn’t like me, and some of them were doing things I knew were morally wrong, but none of them were Hollywood-style villains. They were just people, in most cases largely decent people with a few bad habits.

But, but, but… New York is full of criminals – muggers below and rapacious tycoons above. I worked in Wall Street in those days, and I got to meet a few of each. And guess what? They were just people, partly noble, partly ignoble, mostly just ordinary. Anything you might describe as being evil in their behavior emerged from the exigencies imposed by the accretions of bad habits, not from some sort of hypothesized will-to-evil.

I’m not excusing evil. What I was trying to do in those days was to understand it. And I met and studied a lot of people, but I never met anyone who set about to screw up his life, and to this day I have never met anyone whose motivation for injuring himself or other people was any worse, on the Hollywood scale of evil, than spite.

This is all easy for me to understand now, to the point that I have zero interest in the idea of the villain in fiction. True villainy in real life, to the extent that it exists at all, is just ordinary everyday evil scaled up to monstrous proportions. And a lot of what people insist must be villainy is very likely heroism in the eyes of the putative villain.

Want proof? Had the British been more committed to their cause, George Washington would be remembered, if at all, as a minor-league colonial insurgent who was hung for treason.

Once I understood that there really are no villains, just ordinary people who have managed to screw up their own lives, and the lives of the people around them, with their bad habits, I lost all interest in writing about villainy as a source of conflict in fiction. In the novels that I wrote, I concerned myself with heroic characters who became still better people in the arc of the story. And in the Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie stories, I portrayed evil as I saw it then and see it now: Small and comical and pathetic and unnecessary.

And even then, I was much more interested in the good. Willie’s own back-story obliged him to be indifferent about the people he wrote about, but he could never quite make it stick. When he says, “Everybody’s gotta take a side,” he means he has to take the side of the good, even if despite himself.

And it was fun for me, when I was revising Man Alive, to see how many Willie stories were in there, between the lines. I hadn’t thought about those stories at all when I was drafting the text, but I could see them clearly when I had a chance to take some perspective on what I had written.

I have more than seventy-five of those stories on my web servers, and there are others out there that I didn’t retain and have never archived. Some of them are great, in my opinion, some awful, and most are simply satires – humorous tragedies. But all of them are about ideas – the ideas I have been thinking about for my entire adult life.

Here are some of the ways Willie shows up in Man Alive – or – here are some ways of understanding the ideas discussed in Man Alive in fictional form:

Children are everywhere, of course. I see a world full of children. Marla the Adorable was first, with a story about how parents unwittingly terrorize children into mistrusting their own minds. Cinderella’s memories of the zoo takes up the irrepressible persistence of memory and how that is shaped by your attitudes. And my all-time favorite Willie story, Anastasia in the light and shadow, illustrates the birth of Fathertongue in the mind of a four-year-old girlchild.

Anastasia is a good example of how your own values influence what you see as being heroism or villainy. To you, Willie is a sedentary hero in that story: He is helping a sweet young girl grow into her mind, subtly influencing her toward a life of intellectual independence. But to an Islamist imam, Willie is shamelessly and subversively indoctrinating – beguiling, even – a helpless child in a creed of defiance, rebellion, intransigence.

The so-called paradoxes of theoretical physics are taken up in How Cosmo overcame trans-universal envy and Why the quantum leapers didn’t leap, and the vice that is obsessive error-correction is addressed in ‘Wha’s happenin’?’ ‘Nothing. Go back to sleep.’ Satirical and farcical writing has always turned on the comic consequences of errors of knowledge, but I think I may be the only contemporary author who directly mocks epistemological errors in fiction.

Everyone gets what he deserves? Take a look at A dumpster diver’s Christmas. What does the hook-up culture really look like? See The Desperation Waltz – “desperate people milling about in the desperation waltz, silently sizing each other up and silently tearing each other down.” How do you express indomitability in real life? Willie’s answer is in How to slay dragons. All three of those are Backstory stories, as are many of the Willie stories: We always start in the middle, but it is the accumulated errors of inverted value structures that bring the characters to where they are as the action commences.

Willie pokes a gentle kind of fun at my style of egovangelism in Reflecting His Radiance, but, in the end, “Everybody’s gotta take a side.” Willie grows into that theme with another wonderful child in Xavier’s destiny.

There are a lot of demanding ideas in Man Alive, but the one that causes people the most trouble, I think, is the Calculus of Loss. When you behave righteously, doing no intentional harm, you should feel better about yourself, right? That’s what we insist to ourselves. And yet, any harm you do inadvertently, to your self or to other people, even when you are acting with scrupulous care, can diminish your own self-regard. And what about effecting topical justice, like tearing your purse away from a snatcher – shouldn’t that make you feel wonderful? How do we react to the news that it does not? We are what we are, not what we insist we “must” be, and when lives collide, often everyone involved gets hurt. The damage to your future self-adoration will be worse if you acted in knowing evil, but a scar is still a scar however you got it.

All of that is taken up in A canticle for Kathleen Sullivan, the most brutally, unforgivingly painful thing I have ever written. The story turns on habituated virtues and vices, but the villain – who killed a mother and crippled her daughter – is just an ordinary everyday thoughtless dumbass. I challenge you to get to the end without crying for him – and for what you can see of yourself in him.

I’ll end on a lighter note – or at least as light as Brother Willie ever manages to get. How the bank robbed Bonnie and Clyde is mainly just funny. There are all kinds of Backstory games going on, but the main focus is how pathetic, ineffectual and banal evil actually is.

Are you looking for a villain in life? I can’t find any, and I’ve been looking for decades. All I see are ordinary people. Most of us manage to muddle through. A few make war on their own identity and on the identity of the universe, resulting in perverse, self-destructive behavior – with some of them deploying other people as the means to their own self-destruction.

But none of us is beyond redemption – “the conscious choice to do better in the midst of chaotic life” – because each one of us wants to be good. We’ve just never learned how.

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  • Having had the opportunity to hear some of Willie’s tales, it’s not surprising that he ends up manifesting himself in your latest work of art. But what did surprise me was that my reading of “Man Alive” had me thinking of all the best in man, and you’ve just tickled a few keys that have me wondering if you aren’t right in asserting that there really aren’t any villains. Hmmm.

    That “premise” would change much of how the world acts and reacts…if it was adopted.

    I’m going back to re-read some of Willie’s stories, and hopefully no villains will keep me from that appointed task.

    • > you’ve just tickled a few keys that have me wondering if you aren’t right in asserting that there really aren’t any villains.

      There is no boojum under the bed. There are just real people all around you, most decent, some not, a few really not. But almost all of them think they’re doing what they have to do to survive — all while never thinking very much or very seriously about anything that they do. Cogito ergo sum is just dumb, the map insisting that it must be the territory. But modern philosophy has gone us all infinitely better with a dysmagic dysformula that really works:

      “I can think, therefore I won’t!”

      If you’re looking for evil, look there. You can find it in the white pages. Its name is legion.

      But I’m not looking for evil in anyone. I’m looking for goodness of every possible kind in everyone I meet. I won’t say my performance at that is always perfect, but that’s my goal, and the better I do at it, the better I do at it.

      • > “I can think, therefore I won’t!”

        I’m calling first on that. Jim, has anyone had it before? Teri, I say it’s canonical in Google. Is that right?

        • Jim Klein

          “I can think, therefore I won’t!”

          Classic…like everything else here, it’s all yours. Rand came close with, “We’re blind /because/ we have eyes,” and all that. But as she had a tendency to do, she missed the real crux. Nice job.

          • > “I can think, therefore I won’t!”

            That’s it, Jim. That’s the Philosopher’s Stone. You can’t turn lead into gold, but you sure can turn gold into lead. Marxian envy has nothing to do with material wealth. That’s for show. They hate the mind because it is indomitable, and yet they can’t tolerate a universe where they cannot affect to pretend to make believe that they can dominate anyone. Marx is the mass-market solution: Even though there cannot ever be a true Dancing Bear — a non-human animal cannot make informed choices by reasoning about concepts — but there sure can be Bearish Dancers — people who will do anything rather than make an informed, rational choice all on their own. Every five-year-old must do this, but then, sometime soon thereafter, too many of us stop. That is philosophy in action.

  • Jim Klein

    “I’m going back to re-read some of Willie’s stories, and hopefully no villains will keep me from that appointed task.”

    I find that a very profound line, Don, since that’s really what this is all about. I knew that about you–that no villain had ever stopped you from your tasks–right away. It took me about a minute, I think.

    Our world is chock full of villains of various types. They’re in the schools, the town halls, the police departments, and on and on. Washington, D.C. is overflowing with them, and they multiply like locusts. But none of them have a drop of power over anyone, and that’s the “secret” revealed in Greg’s book.

    No doubt some pundit will yap that they nonetheless have power over what we do, and I suppose that’s correct. But it’s also the case that this is not the power that counts, and they have no power at all over who we ARE. What we do is derivative of who we are, not the other way around.

    The villains are going to be in a heap of trouble, when all the decent people wake up to this simplest of facts. As people realize that nobody can stop them from being the decent souls they always were, they simply won’t tolerate a bunch of villains telling them what they must do. Hopefully the villains will have wits enough to give up their folly, before it gets ugly.

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