Recently I got a chance to read the newest book by one of my favorite authors, Chuck Klosterman. He’s generally writes creative non-fiction with a heavy emphasis on culture studies. His newest work, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Read and Imagined), explores how some villains and bad guys are depicted fictionally, but spends more time on how we treat/think about/craft real people publicly deemed to be “evil” (see: O.J. Simpson, Newt Gingrich, N.W.A.).
As the name might suggest, Klosterman also explores his own relation to villains. The preface closes with a conversation between Klosterman and his editor in which his editor suggests that Klosterman is writing the book because he’s concerned that he himself is a villainous person. Klosterman sort of addresses his editors suggestion at the end of the novel.
The Arts One texts I read while working my way through I Wear the Black Hat led to a kind of blending of ideas. Klosterman’s thesis is that a true villain is someone who knows the most but cares the least.
For the purpose of this post, I’m going to apply Klosterman’s ideas to the villains we’ve encountered so far in the Arts One readings.
The villain in Genesis is kind of hard to pin down. The snake is probably the more obvious villain, however the entire story casts quite a bit of light on Klosterman’s theory The snake certainly knows quite a bit; he knows that the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden will grant Adam and Eve great power, but also that it will come at a price. He definitely cares the least in the story, showing little remorse in convincing Eve to eat the fruit. Inevitably, Adam and Eve gain the power of knowledge, and therefor the ability to be a villain – in some ways, Klosterman’s view falls within a very Christian notion of ethics.
Kreon, most likely the villain of Antigone’s speaks an awful lot to the structure of power and our own fear of radical change. He also fits very snugly into Klosterman’s criteria. He’s aware that Antigone is his niece, he’s aware that his son Haimond loves Antigone, and he’s aware of the laws restricting and supporting Antigone’s burial, but he cares the least, up until Tiresias’ prophecy at least. At the same time, Kreon’s position as upholder of state laws forces us to re-asses our allegiances to and faith in government.
The Devil, as presented in Dr. Faustus and The Master and the Margarita, is a far more complex character to work with, and I’ll touch on him just briefly. There are some definite inconsistencies between the character in the two plays, however I think that both are intrinsically linked to knowledge, and knowing. On the side of caring, the Devil in Dr. Faustus is more than a tool of Faustus’ moral transgressions than anything else. The Devil in The Master and The Margarita is incredibly interesting to me because he doesn’t seem to really do anything particularly bad: he predicts a death, but its ambiguous as to whether he causes it, he fools a lot of people, however its mostly their own greed that clouds their vision to the trickery, and it seems as though he’s actually punishing them for that. It’s difficult to call such a character a villain, and I think he’s outside of Klosterman’s criteria, because he’s a tool for a critique of Stalinism.
More important than the criteria for a villain, I Wear the Black Hat gathers significance in the literary realm in the way that Klosterman describe his own psychological interactions with villainy. Throughout the book, he argues that the way we think about villains says a lot more about us than we care to admit.
This brought me to explore the idea of a sort of “methodology of the villain” – by reading a text through the presentation and interactions of the villain, we can gather a very significant amount of meaning. This is a methodology I hope to employ (maybe half-seriously? I’m not sure how seriously I take this idea yet to be honest) in future readings for Arts One.