Ah, wretched villiany!

As Matt Cheney at The Mumpsimus points out, the new SFsite is up, which includes what I consider a pretty gentle review of the latest STAR WARS movie. (Is it just me, or are film critics treating this movie with kid gloves? The film I saw was not nearly as good as many critics are making it out to be).

And this piece — if you scroll down to the May 30 entry in Ron Silliman’s blog — on Shakespeare and opacity and resulting commentary was my preferred form of procrastination today. I read Greenblatt’s book — WILL IN THE WORLD: HOW SHAKESPEARE BECAME SHAKESPEARE — and found it fascinating. Greenblatt does his best to fill in the Shakespeare-sized hole in history by filling in the space around it: by understanding his context we can understand the man, more or less. Thing is, the context alone is riveting. I came away from the book wanting to read HAMLET again and watch ELIZABETH again.

So I’ve been thinking about villiany. Iago has always been the villian who chilled me the most (alongside Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector). I remember my high school English teacher explaining the shifting nature of Iago’s ‘motivation’ — how one moment he claims it to be one thing, and another moment he claims it to be something else, as if Iago is merely telling stories to himself about himself, because in the end, he doesn’t know and likely doesn’t care. Because of this he remains something of a cipher right up until his unrepentant end. This made an impression on me when I was in my teens — I was reading a lot of popular fiction that presented both a villian and then a rather tidy explanation of that villian’s pathology (I did it myself in a novel I wrote in my early twenties, describing the killer’s twisted incestuous relationship with his mother), so that we, the reader, could ‘understand’ and, if not exactly sympathize, at least nod our heads and find it all somewhat sensible.

And it impresses me all the more now, after I’ve had my own experiences with people who are destructive and self-destructive in ways that just don’t make sense, even to themselves. There is an element of irrationality to so much of human experience, human character. Yet so much of the task of fiction is to make the implausible seem plausible, and the very act of narrative itself has to do with bringing order out of chaos and randomness, which accounts, I think, for the rich intellectual satisfaction that fiction offers. So how to convey the opaque, the irrational, while still creating fully realized and believable characters? (I can just imagine Shakespeare presenting HAMLET or OTHELLO to a workshop of contemporary aspiring writers who say, But we don’t really understand why Hamlet feigns madness, or why Iago is so driven to bring down Othello. You have to clarify, clarify, clarify!)

Life can be stranger than fiction for the simple reason that life gets away with it: it doesn’t matter how strange it is, because life is shoving it right in your face as a fait accompli. Whether you believe it or not, life doesn’t care.

Fiction, of course, doesn’t work like that. Just like Tinkerbell, it dies when you don’t clap your hands.

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