Wednesday, April 24, 2024

On Vengeance

 I confess to noticing what seems a large number of Hollywood movies and TV series emphasizing revenge.  I recently watched The Mentalist, a TV Series that lasted 7 seasons, with the Australian Simon Baker playing Patrick Jane in the titular role.  Jane as a child was trained by his con-man father.  He was highly intelligent with Sherlock Homes-type skills, so he and his father led the marks to believe he knew what he knew because he was psychic.   Jane, the successful and happily married "psychic," during a TV interview made derogatory comments about the notorious serial killer, Red John.  Red John retaliated by killing Jane's wife and daughter.  Throughout the rest of the series, Jane is bent upon revenge.  He presents himself as a somewhat timid person, afraid of guns, but he tells his partner, police detective Teresa Lisbon (played by Robin Tunney) that he intends to kill Red John in revenge.  

While it is easy to smile at Jane cleverly getting even with whomever insults him throughout the series, if we can stop being charmed, we can see that he is an extraordinarily vengeful person -- or is he?  He questions others who have killed in revenge, asking them if they are happier after they have killed in their revenge.  The answer seems to be, "not necessarily," but they needed to do it anyway.  One such person believing Jane will eventually find Red John, gives him a 45 which Jane tells no one he has.  

Jane eventually traps the person he thinks is Red John and standing in a crowded place with his hands in his pocket, he shoots the person twice in the chest without blinking.  He is arrested and in a single episode is tried and defends himself by describing the deaths of his wife and child, hunting Red John and killing him.  His speech is very good.  He isn't blood thirsty.  He is no threat to anyone else, and the jury finds him not guilty of all charges.  So not only does Jane take his revenge but the twelve people on the Jury agree that he was justified in doing so.

Since this series was very popular, it couldn't end with the death of Red John, so it turns out that the man Jane killed was merely one of Red John's operatives and Jane has yet to find and kill the real one, which he does in a subsequent episode, but he does it the second time in such a way as to not get caught.  He knew better than to go to trial a second time for killing the same person.

We can all think of other movies and TV series that emphasize revenge.  It is in our natures to seek it.  In the Old Testament, revenge is accepted, and rules are provided for its conduct.  But in the New Testament, Jesus countermands that conduct: if a man slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him also the left (or words to that effect).  But that is hard to do, even if we are Christian or civilized in some other way and believe we ought to do that, we at a minimum find it hard.

We Americans were put to the test by 9/11.  Our president didn't hesitate.  He selected Iraq as the current worst example of the Muslim mindset that demolished our twin towers.  He got his revenge: total killed in that three-year war on Terror, 217,500+, in revenge for the 2,977 killed on 9/11, according to Wikipedia.  We, the United States, got our revenge, and yet if we, like Patrick Jane, tracked down the killer of our wife and child and killed him in "cold blood," we would almost certainly not fair as well as Patrick Jane.  We would instead spend a long time in jail.  

The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and can get its revenge with impunity.  A smaller nation, while getting its revenge on a smaller scale may suffer more as a result.  If there is a tick for tack relationship that has gone on for a long time, it is easy to forget who started it.  For example, the Jews after WWII were in pitiful condition.  The victors in that war felt sorry for them and “on Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, allowing for the formation of the Jewish state of Israel.

“Since 1917, Palestine had been under the control of Britain, which supported the creation of a Jewish state in the holy land. Sympathy for the Jewish cause grew during the genocide of European Jews during the Holocaust. In 1946, the Palestine issue was brought before the newly created United Nations, which drafted a partition plan.”

And so it happened.  If one read Leon Uris’ Exodus describing the Jewish plight as they were recognized as the state of Israel, one, if one were on the victors' side in WWII, would likely think that was a just thing to happen.  The Arabs in the regions, weren't in sympathy with the victors of WWII, and hated the Jews.  They took a different view and attacked the Jews from the very beginning.  I remembered it at the time.  I also read Leon Uris when Exodus was published; and was happy that the Jews managed to survive the Arab attacks.  I wasn't alone, must people I knew or read about supported the new Jewish state and were happy its Arab neighbors hadn't succeeded in their opposition. 

Time went on, and various Arab nations, usually in concert, attacked the Jews year after year.  They never succeeded in killing them all, but no matter.  A Jihad had been declared so they could not fail, eventually.  As I write this, several Muslim nations under the pretext that Israel unreasonably and with too much vigor responded to the mild attack by Hamas.  Also, they seemed arrogant according to the liberal press which abetted them.

Consider an earlier conflict of this sort, a handsome young Trojan, named Paris stole the wife of Menelaus and took her back with him to Troy.  She went willingly and no war would have been started if she lived in San Jacinto and was talked into changing partners by a handsome faro dealer from Las Vegas, but things were different among the Achaeans and a ferocious war ensued.  Paris couldn’t stand up to Menelaus, but he did manage to shoot an arrow into Achilles foot.  The Trojans lost the war.  Menelaus got his wife back, but for the purpose of this discussion it should be noted that no one from Troy stole any more Achaian wives.  If you pretty much kill all your enemies; then any prospective future conflicts have been prevented. In these modern times Israel fired three wimpy rockets at military installations (at least so far).  Israel isn’t bound by the teachings of Jesus, but Israel’s allies, the most effective of them, are and so the Israelites are trying to seem milder than they feel.  They can afford to, thanks to their being attacked countless times by their Arab neighbors.  As a result, they have become more powerful than any of them, perhaps all of them put together.  We may find out just how powerful Israel is in coming days.

In earlier, more sensible days, such matters as these were decided by duels rather than wars with high body-counts.  Consider for example David and Goliath.  

Not so long ago, in 1806, Dickinson insulted Andrew Jackson’s wife. Dickinson was regarded as one of the best duelers in America. Jackson was a fearless soldier. The future president survived Dickinson’s first shot but Jackson's pistol jammed. In a breach of the code duello, Jackson re-cocked his pistol and killed Dickinson. (Per Wikipedia) That should teach Dickson to watch his tongue. 

If you watch The Mentalist, you will see that most of the time Patrick Jane avenges a slight or violates something important without anyone being killed. The most civilized among us are often accomplished in the art of bloodless vengeance.  And what boots it that the victim of such vengeance spends his nights gnashing his teeth?

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Saint Sebastian's Abyss


I just read Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber, published in 2022.   I was misled by reviewers who implied that much was to be learned about art history in Haber’s book.  That is true if much is to be learned about cooking from Jonathan’s Swift’s A Modest Proposal. 

Haber is poking fun at art critics who early on in their careers decide that what they have to say about art (or literature, etc.) is more important than what a painter (or poet) accomplishes. The narrator declares, “Schmidt and I were quenchless and insatiable when it came to the end of the world.” The Science Fiction Youtube critic, Moid Moidelhoff, frequently declares “I love the end of the world.”  Perhaps in his case, since he is an atheist, he means that he loves books about the end of the world.  But Schmidt and the Narrator (also atheists) are equally obscure about their love of the end of the world; although it seems most probable that Haber intends the “abyss” in the title of painting, “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” to refer to the end of the world.  If so, given the nihilistic ending of his novel, Haber believes the end of the world to be a whimper rather than a bang – at least in the narrator’s opinion if not in Schmidt’s.

The narrator writes an opinion Schmidt shares, “Our classmates were only interested in becoming painters, which was preposterous since nothing good had been painted since the death of Cezanne in 1906.”

We do hear in our modern times that what is being done artistically, musically, poetically, etc. is inferior to the great accomplishments of artists and composers of the past.  Harold Bloom declared that Shakespeare, most importantly in his Hamlet, created “what we mean by “human.”  We aren’t willing to let go of Shakespeare or Rembrandt or Bach, Bloom wrote of the anxiety of influence serious poets and writers feel.  

So, what shall we think when Haber’s narrator declares, “Painting, I told Schmidt, admittedly to impress him, was a fool’s errand because painting had died with Cezanne in 1906 and to pursue painting was like pursuing an obsolete skill, becoming a chimney sweep or a town crier?”  This isn’t a judgement critics can legitimately make.  Of course they can and do, but creation is beyond them.  They, if they are any good, have studied their fields and have a good understanding of what the creations of genuine artists look like, and use these understandings to judge the works of new artists.  Only the most negative among them would declare that nothing good has been painted since 1906, written since Shakespeare, or composed since Brahms.

The narrator’s second wife, much to the outrage of Schmidt if not the narrator became a famous art critic.  She wrote a very successful biography of Paul Klee, perhaps achieving more critical adulation than Schmidt inasmuch as he was offended by her.  She in the course of things couldn’t abide the narrator’s overriding preoccupation with Saint Sebastian’s Abyss and left him.

Mark Habor in this novel has written what might be termed a poetic criticism of critics.  One cannot challenge them on facts because their stock and trade are their opinions.  The most successful and deft swing verbal sabers lopping off the heads of presumptive artists who create works that challenge their opinions.  Schmidt believed he had solved the meaning of the mysterious three initials affixed to Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, but dies before he can give the information to the narrator.  The narrator spends three years trying to find out the answer on his own but is unsuccessful.  Blinded Beckenbauer, the painter of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss created at least this one painting that is revered by many, but what has the snobbish Schmidt and the narrator achieved if their critical theories are determined to have no lasting significance.  

Beyond these matters, as reprehensible as Beckenbauer might be, and as out of touch with celebrity as modern artists would find him, he was so devoted to his art that he lost his eyesight in its pursuit.  But the narrator tells us he painted because it was the easiest way he had to make money.   

Saint Sebastian was in fact a great evangelist who was martyred twice for his efforts, the first time with arrows, which didn't kill him.  After he recovered, he went to Diocletian to warn him of his sins and was beaten to death.  Why in Haber's novel did Beckenbauer choose Saint Sebastian as the subject for a painting? Saint Sebastian was considered the Saint that protected the faithful against the plague and Beckenbauer suffered from syphilis which may have been considered a plague in Beckenbauer's day -- in Haber's mind.  It seems ironic that Saint Sebastian, a famous believer during early Christian times, martyred twice for his beliefs should be chosen by those featured by atheists in Haber's novel.   May we assume that Haber is an atheist as well?  If he is not that would be one more irony ladled from this novel.