Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Dark Side, The Light Side & the Case for Gray

Darth Vader's iconic status has made the character a synonym for evil in popular culture: the quintessential bad guy and the ruthless henchman to the Emperor. I found his character to be most engaging, however, when we understand the process by which he was turned and the temptations to which he finally succumbed. It is at that point that we can empathize with him, all of us being susceptible to unsavory temptations on the road of life. Ultimately, Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save his son and is reunited in the pantheon of Good Guys in Return of the Jedi.

 Incidentally, there is a species of slime-mold beetle of the genus Agathidium named after Darth Vader (A. vaderi), there are also species of this same beetle  designated for the last Republican administration, with George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (A. bushi, A. cheneyi, A. rumsfeldi) being so singled out. According to the entomologists in question this was done in homage, but it is not exactly pristine company they are keeping, and slime-mold, at least from the perspective of democrats, seems an appropriate descriptive attribute.

The good versus evil plot is essentially a simplistic one, and one that only gets intriguing when the good knight's armor is a little tarnished, where he is led astray and tempted, where he is struggling with repercussions of past misdeeds. A dark past. Or even better: negative aspects of his character that he strives to contain - overly prone to the mead perhaps, which directly affects his ability to complete his quest, and fills him with a self-loathing that impedes social engagement with his peers. Already a little more interesting because he is more human. He is encumbered by the frailties to which we are all susceptible, and perpetuates a dynamic struggle for the moral mastery of himself.

Villains are in no less need of humanizing. The theme of good and evil in Shakespeare's MacBeth is brilliantly done - the hero, encapsulating elements of villainy (or the potential for evil) actually becomes the miscreant. A lack of clear polarity insofar as the moral high-ground is concerned is indicated at the very beginning where the witches proclaim that: fair is foul and foul is fair. Good and evil not only exist side by side but are interweaved and intermingled within the person of MacBeth himself.  The fair face may hide the foul heart. As Duncan says of the first Thane of Cawdor: ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.’ This is part of the theme of equivocation, of ambiguity, of false words and false appearances, which runs through Macbeth.

Tolstoy says that all good marriages are alike but each bad marriage is unique; it is precisely the blend of dark, light and intermingling shades of gray that are compelling, evocative and quintessentially human. The hero alone, in all his brilliant perfection (reminds me of Tony Curtis in The Great Race, pristine in white with impossibly gleaming teeth) is quite frankly not only dull and tedious but essentially two-dimensional; as is his black-clad antagonist, depicted as utterly and completely evil without any traces of gray.

Like MacBeth himself, the characters I love the most are those that encapsulate both good and evil, that have overriding tendencies toward one or another but are invariably streaked with black, white, and intermingling gray. When one examines the fictional characters that are successful, like Darth Vader, they invariably have complicated histories that place them not necessarily on the Dark Side so much as darting across the line of the Force, from Dark to Light and Gray in-between.

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