Friday 19 February 2016

Keanu Achilles: John Wick and Modern Anger


Everybody knows what the Iliad is about. It's about the anger of Achilles. It says so right at the beginning: Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληιάδεω Ἀχιλῆος. Rage be your song, goddess: the rage of Pēlēus' son, Achilles. One of the most famous openings in all poetry.

Now, Homer uses two words for 'anger' in his poem: χόλος (kholos, the root of our English word 'choler') and μῆνις (mēnis). Lots of individuals in the Iliad manifest χόλος, gods and mortals both; which, after all, is what you'd expect. This is a poem about war, and war is an angry business. But when Homer uses μῆνις he reserves it for the gods: χόλος might be human or divine, but μῆνις is only divine. This is because the anger of the gods is a different thing to the anger of mortal men and women. You and I may get angry, but our anger usually burns itself out. We can be placated. Our anger is as temporary as our mortal lifespans. The anger of the gods, in Homer, is a different matter: it may be provoked by the smallest slight, but once it is roused it is implacable, relentless, pitiless. The angry god sets out to destroy the object of his or her ire and will not stop; does not care about collateral damage, cannot be dissuaded or defused. On those rare occasions in classical mythology where a god or goddess stops persecuting a mortal, as when Juno finally relents after decades of animosity against Aeneas, it is not because their anger has dampened down, but because they are yielding to a superior divine force. The moral is clear: don't piss-off the gods, because once they are angry with you they will never stop being angry with you. This is the difference between χόλος and μῆνις in Homer's view of the world, and it encodes a core truth about the cosmos. People may forgive you, but the universe is not like that. The ocean won't stop trying to drown you. The whole rainy, stony earth doesn't care that you are starving. The night-sky won't do anything to save you from its lethal cold. Stopping, caring and saving are human attributes, not cosmic ones.

There's only one exception to this Homeric usage of anger-words: the single human being for whom μῆνις is the fitting nomenclature (it's at the top of this post, the first word in the very first line of the poem): Achilles, of course. He is the one mortal who manifests μῆνις, and his rage is as destructive and as implacable as you'd expect that kind of anger to be. No mere human ire, because Achilles is no mere human. He is, after all, semi-divine, the mother who gave him birth a beautiful goddess, and although he is himself doomed to die he treats his fellow human beings the way gods do. The crucial thing about the rage of Achilles is its implacability. It is sublime because it is inhuman. His is anger on a more-than-human scale.

I've been thinking about the topic of anger lately. There seems to be an awful lot of it around at the moment. Future historians of the sudden rise to global prominence of the new social media will surely have a hard job explaining why platforms that brought so much joy to people, and enabled so many new friendships and connections, were also platforms that facilitated such quantities of trolling, vitriol, contumely and despite. Twitter-rage be your song, goddess, and the implacable rage of Blogkillese. Stephen Fry described deleting his twitter account as 'a massive relief, like a boulder rolling off my chest'. He's not the only one to feel that online media are becoming poisoned by a swirling miasma of intermittently focused ire. Recently I wrote the (much expanded) revised second edition of my old Palgrave History of Science Fiction, which includes a new chapter on 21st-century SF.

I debated with myself whether to include an account of the recent Gamergate/Puppies online meltdown ragefest, and decided in the end that it would be more distorting to omit it than include it. So I wrote as neutral an account as I could muster, and in turn tried to frame my discussion in the context of one of the core arguments of the History as a whole, namely that post-Star Wars SF has shifted its cultural logic from being primarily a written literature of ideas to being primarily a visual artform. Meditating upon the implications of this, I discuss Walter Ong's distinction between the 'alphabetic' logic of modern typographical societies, and the more ancient 'old oral' logic after which pre-literate societies were framed.
One aspect of this thesis is asking whether our present-day intensification of the logic of the visual is a development of the typographic world of the 20th-century, or a departure from it. The question is whether our culture is morphing into newer, less ‘alphabetic’ forms. Does the unengaging and affectless post-Pomo flatness of The Hobbit trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2012-14), or the scrambled visual kaleidoscope of the perfectly vacuous Transformers franchise (Michael Bay, 2007-17) move genre in some new direction? Perhaps we are witnessing a return to a mode of more immediate access that in turn informs a sort of faceless orality—to the sort of thing we might associate with (for instance) social media such as Twitter. Online interactions lose the old alphabetic sequential rigour and logic; they function as emotional rather than intellectual megaphones. Poke your head into online interaction—about the new Star Wars movie, about Doctor Who’s representation of women, about Gamergate, about the 2015 Hugos, anything you like—and what comes across most strongly is that people feel intensely and are moved to express those feelings with a vehemence that cannot comprehend that others might feel just as strongly in a different way. ‘The characteristic mental disorder of alphabetic societies,’ according to Ong, ‘is schizophrenia, but of analphabetic societies it is anger and polemicism. Old oral was very angry.’ I really can’t think of a neater encapsulation of the online culture surrounding genre in the twenty-teens than ‘Anger and Polemicism’. Perhaps we are indeed moving towards a combination of oral choler and typographic flatness. Renaissance and Reformation scholars attacked one another with furious rage over things they believed mattered intensely—God in the world, how we are saved, how we must live. People today employ the same furious rage, and many of the same rhetorical tactics, over the issue of the crossguards on the lightsabre glimpsed, for less than a second, in the trailer to the forthcoming Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens (J J Abrams, 2016).
It's possible I overstate the levels of anger in contemporary online discussion. But I don't think so: anger is the height and breadth and depth of Gamergate or the Puppies, for instance. There's really nothing there but anger. And anger was how the other camp (a group that includes myself) greeted Gater/Puppy attempts to harass women and pervert the course of the Hugos. We all got very, very angry. That's modern Fandom for you. 'Why do we get so worked up?' I ask myself, in the new Palgrave book. 'Because, presumably, it matters to us to a degree larger than our capacity for tact and courtesy.' Not a very comforting thought, really.

Producing a taxonomy of online anger would be a vastly larger project than I can here attempt. But we might start by distinguishing between three varieties: regular anger, indignation and hatred. We all get angry, from time to time, but one of the differences between anger and hate is that the former can be appeased in a way the latter can't. Anger is prompted by the desire, more or less reasonable, for redress of a specific wrong; hatred is not particular in this way. There is no way a Jew could ever apologise to an anti-Semite for being a Jew. Nor should they have to, of course; but that's not the point I'm making.  Perhaps I said something thoughtless or slighting about you, or about someone you love; perhaps this made you angry. But I am, genuinely, sorry. I apologise. Your anger starts to diminish.  The key thing here is that the anger-apology dynamic is a two-way road, healthful for both parties, a way of negotiating all those interpersonal frustrations occasioned by civilisation and its discontents. You telling me what I said annoyed and upset you is part of the same process of de-escalation as me apologising to you. William Blake knew this:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
This notional example is personal, of course, because it is the actual slight that is most easily defused. Offence in the abstract is a different, much more tangled matter. If what makes you angry is sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so on, then it's hard to see what is liable to de-escalate the situation. There are good reasons for being angry about the injustice and suffering caused by sexism (for example), but this is not the kind of anger that an apology from a man (me, say) is going to diminish. What would? The systematic, global dismantling of sexism? The problem there is not that it's a bad idea (although, you know, what Spongebob said); the problem is that working towards it leaves many of its most destructive features in place for generations, and does nothing to address its historical enormity, where this latter, like the legacy of slavery in the USA, will endure for centuries to come regardless of whether we clean up the current situation.

So I suppose I am talking about a new cultural moment defined by the logic of indignation, a mode I'm suggesting exists halfway along the line between regular anger and hatred. Now, the nature of indignation is that it is unlikely to be defused by an apology. For example: the recent affaire Fry was sparked by a comment he made at the BAFTAs: Jenny Beaven, a friend of his, happened to win an award, and he presumed upon their mutual intimacy to make a joke at the expense of what she was wearing. Many people who knew neither party were incensed, and focused their anger at him on Twitter. Since there was no specific injured party at the heart of this spat, an apology would have been meaningless; but, then again, neither would an apology have mollified those rendered indignant by his comments, since their indignation was about something much larger than any one individual, about the way women are routinely belittled and denigrated on the grounds of their appearance, the way female achievement is so often undercut and diminished by men. But this gave Fry two options: to weather the storm of fury directed at him, or to walk away. He chose the latter.

Might not a primacy of indignation lead to a stifling social and cultural environment in which placable rage is constantly hothousing itself into implacable rage? You don't want to be Achilles, believe me. That Aristotelian line about how only gods and beasts can live outside the city cuts both ways. Living with what Nietzsche called ressentiment corrodes the spirit, and (if Nietzsche is right) does nothing to address the notional cause of the ressentiment anyway, since that's not the purpose of the ressentiment. Of course I need to tread carefully here, and probably haven't been treading carefully enough: I don't want to give the impression I'm saying to women outraged by all the indignities and terrors of actual everyday sexism 'don't get angry! bottle it up!' I'm not saying that. Indeed, I wouldn't presume to tell anyone, woman or man, black or white, gay or straight, how to handle their own wrath. That's not my business. What I'm interested is the broader cultural context, the valence of anger in the world today. And that brings me to John Wick.


I was late to this 2014 movie, only getting around to watching it a few weeks back. And I enjoyed it, rather more than I thought I would. It's tosh, of course, but immensely stylish and watchable tosh; and I find rather fascinating the way Keanu Reeves, a man with the most rudimentary acting skills, brings such charisma to the screen. I don't say so to knock him: many people can act; very few have genuine movie star charisma, and Keanu has that latter quality in effortless spades, if you see what I mean.

Hmm. 'Effortless spades' is not a good phrase.

What surprised me was how much the film stayed with me, after I'd finished with it. It is, after all, an eminently disposable piece of action entertainment of a kind with which culture is liberally supplied: man is wronged, goes on revenge spree. We are asked to admire the remorseless professionalism with which this man (always a man, I think; and always a man with—to slip into Liam Neeson's growly voice for a moment—a very special set of 'skills') kills everyone. Insofar as these films 'mean', they mean at a kind of rudimentary and raw level. They enable mostly male viewers to live vicariously, and vent their frustrations with life and the world.

In what way is John Wick different to the usual run of this mill? Thinking about it, I'm wondering if it is something to do with the disjunction between provocation and reaction in this work. When nasty people kidnap Liam Neeson's on-screen daughter, it licenses him to enact a series of (we can be honest: horrid, reprehensible and fundamentally racist) revenge fantasies. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the same thing in Commando, all the way back in 1985. When Denzel Washington kills innumerable gangland goons in Man on Fire, again in revenge for the kidnapping (and he thinks murder) of an innocent young girl, I suppose we're being invited to admire the coolly professional way he goes about his task. There's something of that in John Wick too. Professionalism is machinic in this context, which might make us think of a more iconic Schwarzenegger role: The Terminator. On some level, the Terminator is Death himself, a figure whose implacability reflects the inevitability of our own mortality, inflected in intriguing ways for our tech-saturated modern sensibility. But the crucial thing about Schwarzenegger's machine is how affectless it is. It's nothing personal. He's not angry. He's not anything, the apotheosis of extinction and therefore of nothingness. And in their various ways, that holds for all of the roles mentioned in this paragraph.

John Wick, though, is angry. He's angry because they killed his dog. His response is akin to that of the elements when Coleridge's mariner kills that bird: mass-murderous, cosmic, out of all proportion to the original transgression. Alfie Allen's pathetic-despicable gangster son whines on and on about this, about the unfairness of it: it was only a dog! he keeps saying. Just a fuck'n dog!

As pointless as Agamemnon telling Achilles: she's just a fuck'n slave girl! It's not that Achilles was in love with Briseis; that's not what motivates his fury. By Heroic Greek standards it's a trivial provocation, but it's enough. He is angry now, and thousands of Greeks will die (his own people, just as the Russian gangsters Wick kills are his own people). The important thing in this story is not how the μῆνις happens to be triggered, which albatross you happen to harpoon (it was just a fuck'n bird!). That's not the point at all. The story is about how μῆνις works through, in the world. And it works through bloody, and comprehensive, and it trails death in its wake.

This is what separates John Wick from other films of its ilk. Keanu's character is Achillean, not because like Achilles Wick is a superb warrior. That, after all, is also true of the characters played by Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Washington, Neeson et al. Wick is a peerless soldier, of course, after the manner of his particular warmaking; that's part of his story. But he is more than just a soldier, because he is more than a man. He approaches nearer to being a god than those around him, as did Achilles before him. He is invulnerable, implacable and beautiful.

The appeal here is of a dangerous kind, I think. It flatters that sense we have, on whatever level, that because μῆνις is divine, pursuing our own anger with μῆνις-level implacability will in some sense make us godlike. Ours, after all, is not any old anger: no, no, it is righteous, justified and magnificent. Except that it's actually none of those things. Except that it doesn't work that way, I'm afraid. We will only wear ourselves down. We are not gods. You, and I, are not invulnerable as John Wick. And though I can't speak for you, I know that I am not as beautiful as Keanu Reeves.

The coda to all this is the reframing of these questions occasioned by the shift from a pagan to a Christian religious context. The Greek gods, capricious, occasionally loving, more often marked by indifference or animosity, and absolutely unyielding in their anger, reflected the universe as the Greeks experienced it. But Christianity tells a different story. It says: as humans can forgive, so can the universe, ocean, night-sky and the whole rainy, stony earth included. Stopping, caring and saving become cosmic attributes in Christianity because in Christ the cosmos itself became human. Two sparrows are still sold for a farthing as before, but now not a one of them shall fall on the ground without God seeing and caring. The Christian God inverts the Homeric order: He's still capable of χόλος, as when (let's say) He discovers money-changers in the temple and angrily throws them out. But, the crucial but: μῆνις isn't His nature. He can forgive. Which is either a relevant or an irrelevant consideration to you in your life; although it does I think suggest that there's something pagan about John Wick, old school in a very old sense. Maybe that's why one of the core scenes in the movie is precisely him shooting up a Church with, as you can see at the top of this post, a really big gun. Maybe that's why one of the most memorable lines in the film is about how he has returned. It's not just him who's back: it's a whole BC Homeric ethos of implacable anger.


  1. Interesting. I enjoyed John Wick: I had never really thought about why. Perhaps, as the husband of a Vicar, I should now be worried...

  2. What a superb post, Adam. I wonder about one thing, though: your claim that the Christian God isn't characterized by μῆνις. In one sense this is definitely true, because μῆνις is not a New Testament word; but the wrath of God (either ὀργή or θυμός) is certainly a strong theme in Paul's writings, and is often described by commentators as connoting not anything like anger but an utterly implacable intolerance of sin — and in this implacability the wrathful God is not altogether unlike the wrathful John Wick. Thus Barth (whom as you know I have been reading lately): "The forgetting of the true God is already itself the breaking loose of His wrath against those who forget Him (1:18).... Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us."

    Wrath of this kind is profoundly impersonal, which is also, I think, the truly terrifying thing about Achilles, whom Homer consistently describes, after the death of Patroclus, in nonhuman terms: you cannot plead with him any more than you could plead with a stone, he is like the Dog Star that brings disaster to men, etc. Paul's picture of God's wrath seems to me to resemble this; God's wrath never abates, but rather is redirected when Christ stands in my place and bears that wrath that should by rights be mine.

    1. Alan: I take the force of what you say of course. I suppose one of the ways of talking about the different varieties of Christian would be to determine what the mix is in their faith of Wrath-y OT with Forgiveness-y NT; there needs to be some of the former, I suppose, since I am come not to destroy the law, but to fulfil, and all that. The two elements do have rather different emphases, though, don't they? And the NT ought perhaps to be more front and centre? I don't know.

      I daresay it's annoying to have an infidel treat one's faith according to the standards of internal consistency of an elaborately plotted D&D campaign, or something: but where Christ stands to take God's wrath that would otherwise be directed at humanity (which I totally see) that's also God standing to take His own wrath. Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea because only the sea was big enough to endure his wrath without being destroyed: I've always assumed Christ's substitution was something along those lines.

      Of course I see the 'impersonal' aspect of OT divine wrath (although I suppose there's probably more forgiveness in Jahweh's wrath than I'm allowing here: floods but also rainbows, losing his temper with Job and afterwards making it up to him). And I agree absolutely about the impersonal, inhuman quality of Achilles' wrath. The really terrifying moment for me is when he rages at Hector that he (Achilles) is not angry enough, 'I wish my rage were enough to enable me to eat you raw ...' even as he hacks him down.

    2. What you say about Achilles worrying that he's not angry enough — that returns when he accepts Priam's ransom despite going through agonies because he fears that this acceptance might mean that his wrath has not been adequate to the cause, Hector's murder of Patroclus. Thus he prays to Patroclus: Please don't be angry with me...

      About the Biblical narratives, I write not as a believer but as a puzzled reader. The pattern, as best I can understand it, is that in the Hebrew Bible the wrath of God is very personal — e.g., God repents that he has made man and decides to destroy his creation — but somewhat changeable — he does not in the end kill us all. (Thus the Psalms: "Thou hast taken away all thy wrath: thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thine anger.") So the anger of the God depicted in the Hebrew Bible seems to me χόλος-like. By contrast, the wrath of God in Paul's letters seems impersonal but unchangeable — it never goes away, it is a permanent feature of God's response to sin, mandated by His very nature; only its target can change, when the wrath is (as you say) turned on His Son and therefore Himself — and this strikes me as more μῆνις-like.

      Both accounts of God are and are meant to be terrifying, but the impersonal wrath of Paul's God (especially as riffed on by, say, Jonathan Edwards) strikes me as much more terrifying — and in much the way that Achilles is terrifying, though the wrath of Achilles turns out in the end to be placable after all.

      Anyway. The ability to noodle pointlessly about such matters is one I have in effortless spades.

    3. Most genuinely do I regret the 'effortless spades' phrase.

    4. Not to encourage such noodling or anything ('Say No to Noodling!'): but this puzzled reader is still minded to insist upon quite a radical difference between John Bible Part 1 and John Bible Part 2. The OT is about fathers, the NT about a son. This means that what happens to the main agents in the OT, because they are patriarchs, is actually happening to whole peoples. The scope is much wider. Hence things like the globe-spanning interventions of Babel, or the Flood. But bloodline-of-Christ Temple-of-Sion conspiracists seem to me to miss something crucial about the NT: that in this book Christ is very particularly not a patriarch. He's not the start of David's line, but on the contrary the end of it. Which is the point Paul picks up on by universalising his message: it's because Christ is not the patriarch of one tribe that he can be the saviour of all. Something I've said before, and which I can't unpack except with many thousands of words, is relevant here I think: sons aren't angry like fathers are angry. The Father is still there, in the NT of course; but the focus of the story is not centrally about fathers any more. Of course, I appreciate that we are all staring down the barrel of 'the Great Day of His Wrath' in Revelation: but maybe we ought to be putting the emphasis there not on wrath, but on day.

    5. Well noodled, well noodled indeed, sir. You are on to something, though I'm not sure just what. There's something noteworthy about the task of judgment, the role of Judge, being transferred as it were from the Father (Psalms again: "For he comes, he comes to judge the earth") to the Son ("He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead").

      Interesting also, though, that this transfer may have played a role in the rise of Marian piety, especially as developed by people like Alphonse de Liguori — there's an amazingly schlocky song called "Miracle of the Rosary" that says, " Only you can hold back your holy Son's hand / Long enough for the whole world to understand." The Son who judges becomes as frightening and unapproachable as the Father?

      The Day of Judgment is as you say the Dies Irae but isn't it odd that in German it's called Der Jüngste Tag — The Youngest Day? I'm sure that means ... something.

      More important than any of this, though: here's Elvis singing "Miracle of the Rosary":

    6. I should confess that I'm going into all this in order to disguise the shameful fact that I haven't seen John Wick.

    7. You haven't seen John Wick? Persecute the heretic! Burn him!

    8. That's some hard-core vocal vibrato Elvis gives us, on that song.

    9. Vibrato wide enough to throw a cat through, as a singer friend of mine says.

  3. Very sharp, very interesting post - I also enjoyed John Wick out of all proportion to what it seemed to deserve. However, I have a feeling that's down more to technical than to metaphysical factors; it was beautifully shot, beautifully choreographed, and Reeves, as you say, has a magnificent screen presence. In terms of emotional impact, there were a few spikes of genuine power; Reeves facing himself in the bathroom mirror, the empty house; Willem Dafoe at the funeral - "It's just days like this, mixed in with all the others"; Wick shattering the concrete covering his arsenal in the basement; some of the early scenes with Michael Nyqvist as the gangster Daddy. But for the most part it felt more like watching a fireworks display. Interestingly enough, I think the emotional affect flattened in direct proportion to how close we moved to the action and the core of the story. I felt we "knew" Wick better in the first 15 - 20 minutes of the movie than at any subsequent stage - by the end he'd become a Schwarzenegger-style cypher. I suppose you could argue that this represents his ascendance from mere mortal to iconic demigod status, but I thought it was far less impressive than, say, Man On Fire, where the emotional stakes ramped up throughout the movie and made for a far more compelling narrative experience. And I'd say what the latter movie captured that Wick failed to get was the properly classical sense of dread and tragedy that accompanies the exercise of implacable godlike rage - there's never any sense that Wick coming back is in any way a bad thing, it's all just supercool and fine and harmless to decent woodland folk like you and me, whereas there's something genuinely terrifying about the awakening of John Creasy in Man On Fire, a sense that *anyone* could get hurt, that it won't matter because he'll shred anything that stands in his way. And the film is at pains to point out that Creasy is already morally bankrupt from the start, that he's already done horrific unjustifiable things; we never get that sense with Wick. I'd say that puts Creasy much closer to Achilles territory than Wick ever gets.

    That said, I'll probably be there for John Wick 2.

    1. Thanks, Richard! I can't disagree with what you say here. Indeed, I'd go further and say that the actual rounded human being in the first 15-20 mins has no actual connection with the beautiful, balletic and lethally ruthless killing machine of the rest of the movie. The connection is purely notional. And it does deflate some aspects of the whole: you never really believe Old Russian Gangster Guy when he says 'John Wick was not the boogeyman; he was the guy you sent to kill the boogeyman'. Nah. Keanu is many things in this movie, but he's never actually scary, the way (I absolutely agree) Washington is properly scary in Man on Fire.

  4. Corollary to this, of course - your comment about "You don't want to be Achilles, believe me." The same applies to Man On Fire - you wouldn't want to be John Creasy. But once you get past the initial grief of losing a loved one (which, let's face it, we all have to at some point in our life), I think I could quite enjoy being John Wick.

    1. Isn't this actually the core? We do want to be Achilles/John Wick. We want it to be our anger that matters. We want it to be our thinking the rules and receives the glory. Eve's apple would make her like God. We don't want to be like Creasy, because Creasy's path saves the woman at the expense of himself bailing out the Father who didn't have a way out. The world sees something very ugly in Creasy. All the girl sees is her Creasy-bear. Wick lives, but Creasy knows his fate once he starts. Wick adds to his fame, Creasy finds redemption in the eyes of the girl, and the world appears to win. Except that he has freed the girl.

  5. Terrific piece of writing. I like the Aristotle quote about gods and animals outside the city - and maybe there's something here about that different articulation of revenge that is found in Jacobean drama. Revenge there moves the anti-hero outside of the bounds of society (or at least societal norms), enabling him to comment freely on the everyday idiocies and hypocricies of that society, but he never moves outside of the city. The revenge motive kick starts the plot, but it is the satirical impulse that energises the language, and leavens the drama with a pleasing thread of humour. John Wick on the other hand was largely humourless - the consequence of divine wrath perhaps?

  6. Great article Adam,

    Sure you've seen this Guardian article on curbing online aggression, referring to Stephen Pinker's 'Better Angels Of Our Nature'

    1. Thanks, Nick! Interesting article: we can but hope.

  7. Running across this happily reminded me of Simone Weil's beautiful piece "The Poem of Force," even if only an orthogonal way.

  8. Very nice information. I hope john wick chapter 2 is much better than as compered to previous chapter. Everyone is so excited to watch john wick chapter 2.