Motive-Filled Malignity, by Francis Levy

You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. 

— “King Lear,” Act IV, scene vii

What made Othello listen to Iago rather than his beloved Desdemona? What made Lear believe in his venal daughters, Goneril and Regan? Why didn’t he see through their unctuous protestations of fealty? What made Gloucester believe in the self-seeking Edmund over his loyal and honest Edgar? 

Dark energy is the force that is expanding the universe, and of course we know the “dark side” of the Force from the “Stars Wars” saga. Does negativity produce a certain charisma that’s lacking in exchanges between those who have each other’s best interests at heart? Characters like Iago are proto-demagogues because they possess the charisma that comes from unequivocal affects. 

It’s nice to think that reason will always triumph, but when you look back over your own history it’s often apparent that visceral emotion generally prevails in instances where character judgments have to be made, with ratiocination simply providing the supporting evidence after a choice has already been decided.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and there are few people who don’t wish they had chosen Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” But when you’re in the heat of the moment and faced with imminent desire or danger, you tend to rely on intuition. Coleridge, for instance, described Iago’s behavior as “motiveless malignity,” yet there was something magnetic about it that became the agent of Othello’s tragic fall.

This is a hurting season in which fear leads to blame. Angry words are exchanged in response to the surprising decisions that loved ones have made. Is this really the person I once knew? While tolerance might have prevailed in earlier exchanges, the stakes have risen, and a recent holiday passed in which the members of some families didn’t gather simply because they couldn’t bear the sight of one another. 

One of the most feared of the world’s rogue states is North Korea, where a dynasty begun by Kim Il-sung, carried on by his son Kim Jong-il and his grandson, the current leader, Kim Jong-un, flies in the face of its putative Communist ideology. How can a country where no freedom exists term itself the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea? Maybe the answer lies in Disney. America is the enemy, but the fantasy world of Disney characters is a favorite of the current leader, whose title is chairman of the Workers’ Party. 

Nothing makes sense anymore. In America a populist putsch results in the election of a billionaire who has now installed his own dynasty. The White House is filled with family members. The prospect of nepotism and off-the-charts ethical conflict looms in a way it never has before. 

Political figures are by nature larger than life, but when one arrives in office having, for good or bad, defied polls and pundits after waging what seems to have been an uphill fight, he or she achieves an almost mythic status. The highest office in the land is now occupied by what Hegel would have described as a figure of world-historical importance. Value judgments are irrelevant when a tsunami of support vaults a personage onto the stage of history, leaving those who had no idea of what was coming like aging heavyweights staggering to stay on their feet after taking a trouncing from the underdog.

Perhaps the only way to really understand what’s happening in this country and elsewhere, like England, where Brexit won, and France, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front is gaining an ever greater foothold, is to look at events with the perspective offered by tragedy. You might be frustrated by Lear, Othello, or for that matter Hamlet, but you don’t get angry at them for how they voted. They indeed have caused pain and even death to others, but they eventually suffer too. They’re the victims of themselves.

It’s Friday night. It’s been a long week filled with comeuppances and humiliations at the office. How many times have you had to bite your tongue? Life seems to be one big embarrassment. You stop off at the local bar after work to have a few drinks and, instead of leaving when you know you’ve had enough, decide you need just one more for the road. Perhaps it’s that final drink that results in the fender bender that earns you the D.W.I. 

After it’s all over, you could kick yourself. If you had gone straight home and didn’t feel you deserved any reward for your miserable life, none of this would have happened. On the other hand, there are those who would argue that it was all a learning experience in which you had a chance to modify your behavior before something even worse occurred.

Will the current inebriation turn out to be a learning experience?


Francis Levy, a Wainscott resident, is the author of the comic novels “Erotomania: A Romance” and “Seven Days in Rio” and of the blog The Screaming Pope.