In her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt argued that many of those who had engaged in the atrocities of World War II were ordinary, even mundane sorts of people. Adolf Eichmann, she wrote, coordinated the genocide of European Jews without being a mustache-twirling villain or raging psychopath. Her notion of “the banality of evil” elicited outrage from readers who accused her of trivializing the atrocities of the Second World War.
Forty years later, a related tendency in our culture goes largely undecried—call it “the humanization of evil.” In literature, film, and television, evil characters have become objects of intense fascination.
Morality and art was the subject of a previous column. In it, I praised the great novelist and moralist, George Eliot, who felt, like other Victorians, that art had a moral responsibility to society. The Edwardians revolted against that seemingly priggish idea, and the modernists coolly opposed it—though much modernist literature still clings to a kind of moral code, even as it thumbs its nose at custom and decorum.
It’s not that people haven’t been fascinated by evil since time immemorial, it’s that the nature of their fascination has changed. The beginning of the trend might be traced to the landmark movie Bonnie and Clyde, which gave degenerate characters a glamorous if not a sympathetic presentation. Or perhaps we should look to early gangster movies, like Scarface, where the gangster, though represented as irredeemable, nonetheless drives the action and interest in the film. In these movies, however, the villainous characters are ultimately punished. Moreover, as movies, they don’t go on so long that we invest in them in any significant way.
Postmodernism changed this. One thinks of novels like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery, which have degenerate characters for their protagonists. The advent of television series with villains at their center is even more significant in this respect. TV shows give prolonged life to a character, sometimes over years of episodes. The Sopranos and, more recently, Breaking Bad are dramatic examples. Both series situate a morally degenerate individual at their center and then go about giving this monstrous behavior a human component by exposing us to the individual over time.
The difference between a movie like Scarface and a series like The Sopranos is that in one the trajectory is simple and short-lived. We may be drawn briefly to a charismatic, murderous character, but we don’t have time to learn about his inner workings in an intimate way. But through television, we essentially come to live with him—to share his day-to-day life and thus to share his world.
This postmodern presentation of villainy is not based on antihumanism but on a new kind of humanism that understands where degeneracy comes from. The origins of this sensitivity could be traced to the beginning of modern psychology, which gave rise to more humane methods of treating criminals. But what are the full implications of this new humanism when brought into the domain of representation? I like to watch shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad—they are riveting television—but I also distrust my enjoyment of them. When an atrocity happens, like the Newtown shootings, I wonder about how my fascination for this new kind of humanized villain has helped to create a society in which more villains are produced.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.