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Thoughts and Analysis

Illustration: Joel Bentley

Thomas Cairns, “The Comfort of Villains”, Reflection
Illustration: Joel Bentley

Villains make for good company, despite what you may have heard. Not that you would want to browse the Blockbuster shelves on a Friday evening with one, or spend a sunny afternoon sprawled on a blanket in the park with an evil mastermind. Villains, those malevolent individuals intent on spreading chaos, tend to dislike comfy weekend evenings-in snuggled up on the couch, or summer sunshine playing across their shoulders on green lawns of freshly cut grass. Villains are good company, not as friends or conversation partners, but as part of the furniture of our universe, as materials in the fabric of our lives and imaginations.

When I was young I couldn’t escape villains, they were in every dark shadow after the lights went out, ready to strike at any vulnerable moment. I remember a recurring nightmare of a malicious ninja who would crouch beside my bed, waiting for the moment when my dreamed self had fallen asleep and was trapped beneath my bed covers. These characters came unbidden, the products of my general state of unease when faced with the unknown of a shadow or dark corner, characters manufactured by my imagination when I could only see emptiness.

Villains were easy to identify when I was a child. They filled my imagination as I found them across the pages of my childhood literature. I grew up hearing fairy tales full of dark, quiet woods and witches with bubbling cauldrons, I read stories of the Hardy boys hunting down this or that nefarious crime lord, Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings with their epic clashes between good and evil, Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, David slaying Goliath. All the various characters wove their way into the fabric of my imagination, villains and heroes both as brilliant crimson threads of warning, borders for the range of possibilities.

There is a sense of comfort provided by really good villains. They provide the illusion that there are individuals who are able to assert their will in such a categorical and totalizing way so as to warp life to their twisted conception of it. They suggest that beneath the chaos and disorder that seizes the world in violence and disaster lies the most carefully prepared plans and schemes. The idea of a villain is a proposal that the source of evil is based in the agency of an individual, to suggest that evil can be traced to a distorted and disturbed will that seeks to exercise its power over others. The comfort in this, in the characters of Narnian witches and Hardy boy crime lords, is not that they reduce the complexity of the problem of evil, of violence, of chaos, but in their limiting it to these characters, characters that can be engaged with, struggled with, defeated.

A reality that lacks villains does not lack evil. There are no scheming masterminds in Kafka, for example, no bad guys setting plans for world domination into action, confounding the protagonists. If there are any villains they are blissfully unaware of their treachery. Evil in Kafka’s imagination is widespread, systematic, bureaucratic; it is frustrating in its ordinariness, in its prevalence and ignorance of itself. In his fiction the goal of the protagonists is not the defeat of a villain, which is more than they can possibly hope for, but the discovery and identification of their tormentors. Kafka describes the desperate need for the human being confronted with evil to find some opponent to grasp and hold on to, to wrestle with while screaming the frustrated questions of the searcher.

 
 

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