I do not follow and am not interested in the World Cup. If the US wins the World Cup, I will not go to any parade unless, perchance, I feel like attending a parade for the inherent enjoyment of the activity itself. Truth be told, the older I get, the more detached I become from professional sports in general. Once a rabid Red Sox fan, I now follow them only casually – I tune in after the All-Star break, when I see their chances of making the playoffs and am interested in the outcome. I have always been loosely interested in American football, but not so much that the ups and downs of that particular sport affect me in any emotional way. I won’t watch the NHL (snore – seriously, if you like hockey, watch college hockey), and I find basketball interminably dull.
I do not, however, begrudge people their enjoyment of sports (well, so long as that enjoyment doesn’t lead to violence, excessive body-painting, or bouts of alcoholism and depression). If there’s one things sports do well, it is create self-contained narratives of success or failure. You tune in to watch the game, you assign moral (or at least aesthetic) values to each team, and then you watch them play through a rigid structure that produces a victor and a loser or, less often, a draw between equals. Voila – closure!
The quest for narrative closer runs deep in our species. Joseph Campbell explored this with his monomyth, wherein he laid out the basic framework for what we call ‘the Hero’s Journey’. In brief, a protagonist leaves the normal or mundane world after being called to adventure by (X) and crosses into the magical or spiritual world of adventure, wherein they have adventures and, eventually, experience some ordeal (Y) in which wisdom or power is gained. They then return to the regular world a changed person. There’s a lot more floating around in there, but that’s the gist of it all. It lays out the basic format for every story from Gilgamesh to 95% of everything Hollywood has produced since it has been making movies. It is the basic framework under which we understand ‘story’ and what that word means. This is especially true in the speculative genres, where the Hero’s Journey is practically sacrosanct, thanks in large part to the provenance of stories like Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian.
The world, of course, and real life do not adhere to this framework at all. Our world just keeps going. You win one day, you lose the next day, and in a million million years, nothing you do will have mattered at all, anyway. Nothing. In John Gardner’s Grendel (itself a heroic journey, by the way), Grendel comes to the Dragon in search of meaning. The Dragon isn’t having it, though. He says:
“Things come and go,” he said, “That’s the gist of it. In a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone several times, in various forms. Even I will be gone. A certain man will absurdly kill me. A terrible pity – conservationists will howl.” He chuckled. “Meaningless, however. These jugs and pebbles, everything, these will go too. Poof! Boobies, hemorrhoids, boils, slaver…” (Gardner, chapter 5)
The dragons’ view is inherently nihilistic and depressing. There can be no purpose, he claims, because in the end nothing will change. The natural world affords no special exception to the diligent or beautiful or brilliant or wicked – dust to dust, ashes to ashes, etc.. To quote the Warhammer 40,000 universe:
Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed. …
In end, after it is all said and done, the universe will die either a cold death or a hot one, and we (assuming we still exist, which is rather arrogant of us to assume) will go with it.
We needn’t be so morose, however, to acknowledge the importance of closure to our narrative consciousness. We like to know how the story ends. We prefer the story to end on a good note, as it confirms our judgments in the beginning of the story as sound. We will tolerate an ending that is dark and miserable if, by experiencing it, we feel somehow enriched. What we don’t like is the gradual dwindling and diminishment of a tale. We don’t like it if a story ‘stops’ before it is over, since the stopping point is essential to us. It is where we stop and take stock of what we have learned from a conceptually distinct set of experiences. We willingly place arbitrary borders in the stories of our own lives in order to make sense of them, even though life and experience does not respect those borders. We expect the same of our stories – we want to know how it ends, so we can then judge that ending.
And so that brings us back to sports. Yes, somebody will win the World Cup. That isn’t closure, though – next time around, that team will lose. The players on the winning team right now will continue to exist, living their lives with all the swings and swells of fortune to navigate. It won’t be over. Nothing ever really ends, you see. We just want it to and, more importantly, we want it to end at the moment of our choosing.
Defining evil can be difficult, especially for the nuanced and sophisticated mind. Every act, you see, springs from a place of positivity, essentially. Very few people go forth to act in an evil manner; even the selfish believe that, thanks to their selfishness, they are somehow helping the world if only by proving to everyone else that the world needs no help. All villains, on some level, can have their behavior boiled down to that which is understandable, if misled. Barring that, we write them off as ‘insane’ or ‘ill’ – conditions that rob them of their free will.
What, then, is the source of true evil? To me, true evil is comprised in something akin to ‘gleeful apathy’ or, to put it another way, as the refusal to believe or even care about something as being any more important than any other thing. Nihilism, essentially.
When I was teaching John Gardner’s Grendel to my students recently, we were discussing Grendel’s conversation with the Dragon (which, by-the-by, is one of the more mind-blowing sections of prose I’ve ever read). We wound our way (as we often do) to the point where the Dragon is compared to Satan or the Devil. The Dragon, for those of you who don’t know, lays out the most profound example of a bona-fide nihilist I’ve seen in fiction. Grendel, trying to search for a place in the world, wants the Dragon, in his omniscience, to explain to him the nature of Truth as it interacts with Art. The Dragon explains, as patiently as he can, that it doesn’t matter in the least what Grendel thinks about Art or Truth or anything else. For him the entire universe is:
A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak – pure metaphor, you understand – then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding universe…Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!…Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident until…Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse…Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief, hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending, of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time’s stream.
So, then I ask my students this question: What if the Dragon is lying?
It is all very easy for us to assume nothing really matters. In point of fact, nothing really does, right? We are ripples in time’s stream. We are the copulating dust. This belief, though, gets us nowhere. If we do nothing but find gold and sit on it, what are we, really? If we go out and do evil or do good, we are still doing. We are making an imprint on the face of the universe, no matter how inconsequential. Even the most wicked killer does less for the forces of evil than the deepest, most apathetic nihilist. If nothing really matters, nothing really is worth changing. Without change, there is no motion. Without motion, there is death, bleak, empty, and silent.
To me, that’s a heavy part of true, unutterable evil. The kind common to demons, devils, and the deep abyssal reaches of damnation. No matter how misled, even to believe wrongly is to believe – we have that much in common, we may yet have more. To not believe is to forsake all but the Void.