While armies pursue those responsible for Sept. 11 and Washington tries to identify the villains in the Enron scandal, engrossed audiences are watching Todd Field's In the Bedroom, a movie that speaks eloquently to the spirit of the moment. A thirst for revenge hangs in the air. All except the saintly sometimes experience this desire, though few of us like to acknowledge it. Sensibly, we prefer to see it enacted in drama, which is why revenge dominates Greek tragedy, Mafia television and much more.
After Sept. 11, Lance Morrow declared in Time magazine that "America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness -- and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon called hatred." He was expressing a public mood that hasn't changed much in the last five months.
Still, a society shaped by Christian ideals and Christian hypocrisies finds it hard to name this mood for fear of revealing inappropriate emotions. Even Morrow avoided the words "revenge" and "vengeance." Much of what we say on this subject comes out almost as a joke. Robertson Davies once remarked, "Christianity underrates the satisfactions of revenge," after a critic who had savaged a Davies play was publicly disgraced. Davies wasn't bloodthirsty; he just wanted the man humiliated. When that happened, without any action by Davies, it brightened his day. Popular language enshrines the notion that those deserving punishment will eventually receive it: One generation says that time wounds all heels, another that what goes around comes around.
The most often reprinted poem by Clive James is The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered, in which the speaker reports joyfully that he's seen great mounds of a rival's book on a remainder table: No longer over-praised, it now rests in disgrace beside turkeys like One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment. The poem ends: "And I am glad." Readers who identify with this pleasure tend to feel sheepish. One American writer, Sarah Ban Breathnach, wrote that the James poem is her favourite, "and probably that of every other writer in the world." Even so, she admits to a certain shame: "We're grown adults. We're bigger than this. Aren't we?" Not really, certainly not always.
When we don't joke about revenge fantasies, we treat them clinically. Steven Berglas, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, identified what he called the Entrepreneurial Avenger Syndrome, the furious determination of a powerful man to punish those who cross him. Dr. Berglas theorized in 1998 that the avenger's unconscious motive, usually, is retaliation against a parent who failed to admire or support him. That's textbook Freud, of course, but as Freud somewhere said, it's one thing to know and another to realize. Dr. Berglas's patients have trouble realizing the roots of their feelings.
The desire for revenge is so deeply entrenched in the human spirit that society must cage it with prohibitions and exhortations. The philosopher Francis Bacon called it "a kind of wild justice," which, for civilization's sake, we should weed out of our nature. He claimed that yearning for retribution because of some offence simply keeps the wound open. Undoubtedly. But can we convince even ourselves of that truth?
Hamlet, the greatest product of the Renaissance and the first play about a modern man, followed upon the 16th-century tradition of the bloody revenge-drama. Hamlet holds the stage after four centuries partly because it speaks to a cluster of angry feelings that we otherwise deny. Whatever the court politics and the psychology of the hero, the events at Elsinore happen because of Prince Hamlet's need to avenge his father's death. No doubt he handles it badly: It can hardly be wise to avenge one crime with wholesale carnage. Yet it's impossible, while seeing that play, not to feel a significant part of Hamlet's rage.
A few years ago, Judge Richard Nygaard summarized the Christian view of vengeance in an article for America, the Jesuit magazine: "The desire for revenge is the dark secret in all of us." Wanting vengeance is a spontaneous response to crime, he acknowledged; punishment, however, is the job of the courts. In a sense, revenge is a state monopoly, nationalized long ago when governments replaced the God who said "Vengeance is mine."
An individual who reprivatizes the act of revenge violates social norms. That happens to be the theme of In the Bedroom. People praise this exceptional film because it treats the audience with respect, moves forward at a near-perfect pace, and doesn't try to sell us anything resembling a happy ending.
While that's all true, what makes it significant is the way it recreates a revenge drama in a part of American society that believes above all in restraint and decency. The central characters, a GP and his music-teacher wife, live in a Maine lobster-fishing town. Murder abruptly enters their lives, leaving them with an unfamiliar rage that they can neither approve nor deny. To what extent should such an emotion govern their actions?
In the Bedroom sends audiences home arguing, or brooding. It reminds us that to deny the existence of revenge as a motive is to pretend that we can bring objectivity to the most momentous events of private and public life. The world crisis that revealed itself in September may have taught us to listen sometimes to our most urgent feelings, even those we have been instructed to ignore.