The Inexplicability of Evil

Reese Okyong Kwon

Last month, I watched Reservoir Dogs for the first time. I'm a little late to the movie, I know, but what I lack in timeliness I think I've offset, at least by now, with enthusiasm. In stray moments at my laptop I've found myself reading reviews from twenty years ago, looking up clips on YouTube, and stalking interviews with its director, Quentin Tarantino. On one such occasion, I came across a video that poses, and claims to answer, the question of who shoots Nice Guy Eddie. As you may remember, the final scene of the movie involves a three-gun shoot-off in which four people get hit. The fourth bullet, the one that kills Nice Guy Eddie, has no clear source.

Upon some Googling, I've learned that, in fact, no one shot Nice Guy Eddie. On the set, his blood capsule exploded prematurely, before a gun could have hit him, and Tarantino decided to keep the scene as is. This would be, he said, the biggest controversy of the film.

Two decades later, he's still right. That one video has hundreds of comments, with more commenters every week, most of whom opine with great certainty as to who shot Eddie. "Mr. Orange was clearly the killer," says Chrism20. "White did it…why is there a debate about this?" says Crazybrowsdj. "It had to have been Mr. Pink," says Norha820. Everybody loves a mystery.

Perhaps no one has been better at intentionally sustaining a mystery than Shakespeare. I often think of the first lines of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays: "What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask." It's true: one would like to know. Why is Iago so monstrous? Why does he cause so much devastation? The only explanation he gives—that he's angry at Othello for having passed him over for a promotion—is implausible not only to Iago's audience but also to himself, since it's one he contradicts throughout the play.

Shakespeare, it seems, muddled the answer on purpose. When he adapted his play from the source material, he purposely took away Iago's original motive for hating Othello, which was that he was in love with Desdemona. "Shakespeare," says literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, "found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold.  The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity."

Much as I love fiction's explanatory abilities, its singular capacity to shine a light into the dark peculiar corners of the human mind, I've started to believe that there may be just as much, and perhaps more, power in the inexplicable. Some of the fictional villains who fascinate me most, the ones who continue to act as black holes in my memory and imagination, have been the ones whom I can't really understand, let alone explain.

Flannery O'Connor's Misfit is one such villain: sinister, baffling, and unforgettable. When O'Connor's serial killer meets a family of five on the road, he proceeds to have each of them killed. The closest he comes to explaining the murders is to say that he likes to be mean: "It's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can," he says, "by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness."

But, like Iago, he soon gainsays himself. Less than a page later, after he's shot the last family member in the chest, when his friend mentions the fun they're having, the Misfit tells him to shut up. "It's no real pleasure in life," he says, and the story ends in this self-contradiction, and five people dead.

In some ways, O'Connor's and Shakespeare's refusal to explain their villains might seem to dehumanize their characters. An Iago sick with love of Desdemona is surely more sympathetic than a motiveless demon of destruction, just as one can imagine a more pitiable, even likable, Misfit with a formative childhood of violence and neglect.

I think, though, that, if they'd done so, it would not only have weakened the power of their fiction, but might even have been less true to life. One of the first questions people ask after any tragic act of evil is why. Why do we betray those who most love and trust us? Why do some people choose to murder others? It's possible that it's not despite but because of the unanswerability of these questions that they continue to be asked. As Gertrude Stein has noted, people still talk about Hamlet not because of what they understand about the play, but because of what they continue, through the centuries, not to understand.

Another example of this dichotomy can be found in a difference between the supervillains Magneto and the Joker. X-Men's Magneto, at least in his big-screen manifestation, is such a comprehensibly evil person/mutant. His motives make almost mathematical sense. He's a Holocaust survivor who lost his mother in a concentration camp; consequently, as the humans in the X-Men universe perpetrate increasingly hateful measures against mutants, he considers it no less than logical to preempt man's genocidal impulses by wiping out humanity instead.

Conversely, there's the Joker, that giggling psychopath. In Batman: The Dark Knight, there's an early scene in which the Joker explains that he received the disfiguring scars on his face from his father, who mutilated, first, the mother, then the son. Aha, one thinks. (Or, at least, I thought.) Here's the man's origin story. A parent irreversibly damaged him and made him a crazy person. Hurt people hurt people, et cetera.

But, later in the movie, when he explains to Batman's girlfriend how he got his scars, he tells a different story. Gamblers had cut up his wife's face, he says, so he sliced open his own cheeks in a gesture of solidarity; as a result, when she saw his face, she left him. In a third scene, as he begins to explain the scars to Batman, it's clear his story will change yet again, and the viewer comes to realize that there is no story, or at least not one we'll ever really learn—which makes him so much creepier.

Magneto is by far the more sympathetic character, one I can imagine as a friend or even, given a twist or two of fate, history, and genetic mutations, as myself. The Joker is unfathomable, and impossible to like, and may be, for at least some fictional purposes, the more powerful character.

Currently, I'm working on a novel in which a charismatic cult leader convinces his followers to bomb abortion clinics. A series of bad decisions are made. Good people die. To a large extent, my cult leader's at fault. For some time, I struggled to understand him and what had made him so destructive. I conceived for him an elaborate personal history featuring North Korean refugees, torture in a Pyongyang gulag, and so on. While I may or may not keep his background in the novel, it's been revelatory for me to realize that I might not need to illuminate some of the darkest depths of his troubled psyche. If he could talk to me, maybe he would borrow the words of a character who is famously, if also inexplicably, good, and just say, "I yam what I yam." Or, as Flaubert once said, "Stupidity consists in the desire to conclude."