What Would Ethan Do?: Notes on Revenge

From Greek tragedy to Reservation Road, Joel Bleifuss examines the complicated reasons for revenge.

Revenge is a timeless and powerful human impulse. In Reservation Road, Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) desires to avenge his son's death to such an extent that his family is threatened once again. His wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) tells him, "I'm worried about you Ethan. You seem to be lost in this stuff." She pleads, "Please don't abandon us now" and reminds him that they have a daughter to raise. Ethan is not swayed: "I won't go through my life hiding from the fact I never did anything to right that wrong."

Ethan's predicament resonates. According to psychologists, the death of one's child is the greatest trauma a person can experience. Put in Ethan's shoes, each one of us would have to figure out how to cope with both the loss and the innate desire for revenge.

But what exactly is revenge? Why can it consume those who seek it? And is it attainable? These questions get to the root of what it means to be human–in other words, they have no pat answers. Anthropologists have parsed the significance of revenge. Religions have tried to deal with deal with it. Philosophers have debated its nature. Psychologists have argued as to its origins. Politicians have exploited its possibilities.

And, yes, artists have reveled in the dilemmas it presents. It is the fountainhead of much dramatic expression. From the Greek theatron of 500 B.C. to the Globe Theater of 1599 to the exurban megaplex of 2007, people gather to watch, learn or cheer as others get revenge, and (at times) the resulting possibility for tragedy, redemption or both. Take away revenge and Shakespeare's tragedies wouldn't exist, bestseller lists would be decimated, and movie marquees would be blank.

Below are thoughts on revenge as it pertains to several distinct disciplines.

What Must Ethan Do? Revenge and Evolution

"My name is Conan. You killed my father. Prepare to die," says Conan (played by a then little known Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Conan the Barbarian, John Milius'1982 adaptation of Robert E. Howard's 1930's pulp fiction tales.

"My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die," says Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in The Princess Bride, Rob Reiner's 1987 adaption of William Goldman's 1973 novel of the same name.

Was Inigo spoofing Conan, or merely voicing a deeply coded primal response? A response that echoes tragedies from Euripides' Orestes to Shakespeare's Hamlet, as well as Conan and Rob Reiner.

The desire for revenge is a natural, protective response. And, from an evolutionary perspective, an adaptive reaction. (For sociobiologists, revenge may be as simple as just another complicated line of genetic engineering that seeks to preserve the continuation of the family and species).

"Those who could not learn to play well with others were culled from the gene pool. In this way humans domesticated themselves, learning to balance the threat of vengeance with the ability to withhold it."

As humans evolved, the threat of vengeful retribution helped prevent individuals from committing transgressions that threatened both others and community cohesion. Those who could not learn to play well with others were culled from the gene pool. In this way humans domesticated themselves, learning to balance the threat of vengeance with the ability to withhold it.

And revenge–or, rather, its suppression–became a particularly adaptive trait as we advanced from tribalism to more complex forms of social organization that required people to subordinate their instinctual urge for revenge to the greater good of social cohesion. But while civil society supposedly evolves, revenge itself, especially as a response to the death of a child as in Reservation Road, remains a potent, and often profitable, cultural fantasy. Consider just three modern films that turned family vengeance into box office gold.

In 1972, Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left updated Ingmar Bergman's 1960 The Virgin Spring (which garnered an Oscar for best foreign language film that year). Bergman, in turn, was inspired by a 13th century Swedish ballad. The 700-year-old plot line of all three stories: a mother and father get revenge on houseguests who they discover murdered their daughter. And though Craven told an old story, he broke new ground with his graphic depiction of violence and the resulting (very tangible) blood and guts.

In his revenge sequence, the state has failed–the police are inept bumblers–so it is up to the murdered girl's mother and father to find justice. The mother bites the penis off one attacker and then she slashes the throat of another. The father in the meantime dispatches a third with a chainsaw. This was strong stuff in 1972–and Craven even considerably toned down the graphic depictions to get it through the ratings board. Nonetheless, we, the audience cheered.

Seven years later in Mad Max, George Miller's 1979 post-apocalyptic revenge film, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), gets his revenge on the villains who killed his buddy, his wife and his young son. Max does this in such a violent manner that the film was banned in Sweden and New Zealand. Yet it struck a chord with audiences. Mad Max, which cost $400,000 to make and took in more than $100 million, had the record for the best cost to earnings ratio . . . that was until the Blair Witch Project came along.

Most recently, Kill Bill I and II (2003 and 2004) is Quentin Tarantino's smorgasbord adaptation of Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood (1973), the story of a young woman who methodically does in the gang who did in her family. In Kill Bill, The Bride (Uma Thurman) gets revenge on those who massacred her wedding party, left her for dead and, later, while she was in a coma, stole her daughter. The gang is led by Bill (David Carradine), the man who shot her in the head and who is the father of her child.

In April 2004, Tarantino told Entertainment Weekly how the next cycle of revenge and violence would work:"I need at least fifteen years before I do this again. I've already got the whole mythology: Sofie Fatale [the now-armless lawyer] will get all of Bill's money. She'll raise Nikki [the Bride's daughter], who'll take on The Bride. Nikki deserves her revenge every bit as much as The Bride deserved hers. I might even shoot a couple of scenes for it now so I can get the actresses while they're this age."

All three of the above films took revenge for the death of loved ones to visceral heights atop a mountain of carnage—and in all three cases the fantastic acts of revenge, are as Tarantino puts it, "deserved, " and for many in the audiences a natural, even if irrational, response to one's family being attacked.

What Must Ethan Think? Philosophers and revenge

Aristotle, in Rhetoric (350 B.C), writes that the impulse for revenge grows out of anger at an injustice done to oneself or one's friends and loved ones. He notes that the idea of revenge also involves feelings of pleasure. He writes, "[Anger] must always be attended by a certain pleasure–that which arises from the expectation of revenge. . . . It is also attended by a certain pleasure because the thoughts dwell upon the act of vengeance, and the images then called up cause pleasure, like the images called up in dreams." As such, the problem with revenge isn't just that it's messy, or even counterproductive, but rather that it feels so good.

Philosophers of the modern era have realized this as well. Like Aristotle, Immanuel Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals (1785) recognized this feel-good component, calling revenge "the sweetest form of malice." But its delicious temptation to any individual must be refused for a state to adjudicate civil disorder by meting out punishment. Georg Hegel in Philosophy of Mind (1817) echoed this point, decrying the personal desire for revenge as antithetical to justice. Rather than closing down violence through a judicial system, it perpetuated it. "Revenge," he wrote, "is at the same time only a new outrage; and so on without end."

For Frederick Nietzsche, revenge goes beyond being a hindrance to a rational system of state punishment. Revenge was the spirit of a slave morality, the institutionalized force of society to curtail man's freedom. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) he wrote, "The instinct of revenge has gained such a hold on humanity over the centuries that the whole of metaphysics, psychology, history and above all morality bear its imprint. As soon as man began thinking he introduced the bacillus of revenge into things." For him, the need to get even stood in the way of getting ahead.

Perhaps no philosopher laid bared this complicated contradiction in thinking about revenge–the tension between the rational and judicious rejection of revenge as an impediment to social harmony and the recognition of its powerful and seductive pleasures–as did Arthur Schopenhauer. In his essay "Psychological Observations" (1851), Schopenhauer writes, "The ordinary man who has suffered injustice burns with a desire for revenge; and it has often been said that revenge is sweet. This is confirmed by the many sacrifices made merely for the sake of enjoying revenge, without any intention of making good the injury that one has suffered." Indeed revenge becomes its own end by providing an almost drug-like sense of power and control over that which is by nature uncontrollable.

Certainly Ethan knows that no act of revenge can return his son to him, but is his passion for revenge more about passion than revenge? Or does revenge merely highlight his lack of faith in some divine order or ultimate justice?

What does Ethan Believe? Revenge and religion

To curb the downside of revenge, religion stepped in. For centuries Judeo-Christian traditions have moderated and mediated vengeful impulses. The philosophy of "an eye for an eye" as expressed in (Exodus 21:24) is often interpreted as a way that society in the first millennia B.C. sought to impose a system of equal justice and thereby prevent blood feuds from spiraling out of control. Were the Hatfields and McCoys ruled by Talmudic law, their famous blood feud (1873-1891) might never have moved beyond a dispute over a wayward hog.

And had those two families who lived on opposite sides of the Tug Fork creek been good Christians, they might have left revenge to God. As St. Paul puts it in in Romans 12:19: "Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord," (King James Version).

Similarly, in Asian cultures beliefs in karma and reincarnation served to moderate human behavior and eliminate the need for revenge. With karma there is no need of revenge, since what goes around comes around and the wrongdoer will eventually get theirs. Reincarnation, for its part, insures that those who do harm others would be reborn lower down on the evolutionary ladder.

But in our secular times, with God dead, heaven and hell mere metaphors, and Eastern philosophies morphed into a New Age egocentrism, divine retribution has lost its oomph. But as the spate of revenge dramas on television and film testify, revenge is never far from our prayers.

What does Ethan Feel? Revenge and psychology.

In that secular world inhabited by Ethan, Grace and many of us, we turn not to God but to therapists to resolve our conflicts and sense of injustice.

In one scene in Reservation Road, Grace comes upon Ethan sitting on the floor of Josh's room:

Grace: I love you. And I want to get help. I want us to talk to someone.

Ethan: Okay. You wanna talk to somebody, Grace? We can talk to whoever you want. We can talk to the police, lawyer, a therapist. I'll talk to the god damn Pope. Anything you want, okay? Now can I please be alone?

Yet, had Grace and Ethan chosen the therapeutic route, their their treatment would have depended on what kind of therapist they saw.

In the most general sense, anger is the mother of revenge. People who have been hurt or unfairly treated get angry, and one way they try to assuage their anger is by getting revenge on those who they feel caused their anger. At least that's what some therapists think.

In one of the most popular books on cognitive psychology, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David D. Burns writes:

Anger can be the most difficult emotion to modify . . . You won't really want to rid yourself of those feelings because you will be consumed by the desire for revenge. After all, because anger is caused by what you perceive to be unfair, it is a moral emotion, and you will be extremely hesitant to let go of the righteous feeling.

Burns, a doctor at Stanford University School of Medicine, is one of the world's best-known cognitive therapists and as such, differs with Sigmund Freud (and his school of psychoanalysis) in terms of approach. For Burns, it's less important to know the root anger that fuels revenge as it is to know what to do about it.

Generally speaking, Freud perceived that people deal with anger in two ways. Turning it inward on themselves and thereby repressing their emotions or turning it outward by expressing it. The first is thought by psychotherapists to be unhealthy, leading to depression, while the second expressive response is liberating.

Freud considered expressions of anger cathartic. In Studies on Hysteria (1893-1895), Freud and his collaborator Josef Breuer defined such expressions as "the whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes–from tears to acts of revenge–in which, as experience shows us, the affects [emotions] are discharged. If this reaction takes place to a sufficient amount a large part of the affect disappears as a result. . . . An injury that has been repaid, even if only in words, is recollected quite differently from one that has had to be accepted. . . . The injured person's reaction to the trauma only exercises a completely 'cathartic' effect if it is an adequate reaction–as, for instance, revenge."

Burns, the cognitive therapist, maintains there is a third option: "Stop creating your anger. You don't have to choose between holding it in or letting it out because it won't exist."

But try telling that to Ethan whose desire for an "adequate reaction" is thwarted by authority figures, more specifically Connecticut state troopers. In Reservation Road he puts it this way: "They've given up on finding this guy and they want me to resign myself to the fact that he's never gonna be caught. Why should he get away with it??"

Ethan, like others who desire revenge, sees it as a way to transcend his identity as a victim, a way to become the owner of their own destiny. Freud would no doubt think this is healthy. Yet letting it all hang out and giving into the urge to revenge is a prime motivator in the worst political and human impulses.

Perhaps that's why popular culture, spotting an opportunity, creates entertainments that cater to our psychological desire for revenge. For example, according to the maker of the popular "racing" video title Burnout: Revenge, the game is so "not about winning . . . It's about being the fastest, most dangerous racer on the road. Fight dirty or go down in flames–the only rule is complete automotive anarchy." Or as one reviewer put it, Burnout: Revenge is "great for relieving the stresses of the day to day, so if you've had a bad day at work or school, or particularly on the ride home, Burnout games will definitely give you some satisfaction."

As can film and television productions, like the hit Fox series 24. When interviewing creator Joel Surnow on her radio show, host Laura Ingraham, told him that 24 helped her undergo chemotherapy for breast cancer. "It was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better," she said. To which Surnow replied, "We love to torture terrorists–it's good for you!"

Joel Bleifuss is a writer who lives in Chicago. He is the editor and publisher of In These Times, a national independent monthly magazine based in Chicago, for which he has worked and written since 1986. He is the author with Steven Freeman of Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen: Exit Polls, Election Fraud and the Official Count (Seven Stories, 2006).