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There is no why

January 25, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Every day, we make little discoveries; on Friday, while idly sitting, I made one of my own. By closing each eye in turn while focusing on a distant sign, I discovered that the vision in my right eye is about perfect, while my left eye remains noticeably blurry.

And this fact leads me to disagree somewhat with Rebecca Rosenblum on the subject of villainy.

Last spring, as I was on my evening walk, a kid in a black SUV asked me for directions. A quiet town, a quiet neighborhood, clean-cut kid in an expensive truck: an alarm bell rang, but I ignored it. The kid in the passenger seat pretended to show me a road map. His confederate in the back slid down his window, and something hit me in the side of the head, like a warm snowball on a day with no snow. When I turned to look, another something hit me directly in the left eye.

The last thing my left eye ever saw clearly was an enormous red glob of what later turned out to be ketchup, propelled at high speed, I know not how. And as ridiculous as it is to be attacked with ketchup, the outcome was three trips to the doctor, a hundred bucks on antibiotics and steroids, and what now appears to be permanent damage to my dominant eye.

So let’s talk about people doing “jerky things,” whether they perceive themselves as jerks, and whether the world would seem a sunnier, more reasonable place, if only we understood their motives. Let’s talk about whether, when a character does something nasty for no apparent reason, this is “manufactured plot,” an offence against verisimilitude, a failure to accurately portray human behaviour.

The first thing the human mind does is to look for connections — this is why we have religions, why we believe in superstitions, why we tend to assume that random events somehow relate to us. It’s why we want to know why people do things in fiction. But this is not how the world really works. Things just happen, and more often than not, people just do stuff, without logic, without rational motive, without any reason at all.

The kids involved — at least three of them — surely didn’t think of themselves as assholes, but they certainly set out that night to fuck with someone. They didn’t “have their reasons.” They had no logical motives. They had nothing to gain. This was a planned, deliberate act, and the sole motive was kicks. They did this for fun.

To suppose that we’re all good people and that our occasional nastiness springs from understandable, even sympathetic motives is a form of sentimentality. The truth is that people are jerks because people are jerks. We are neither inherently good or inherently bad: we’re inherently human, and being a jerk is part of that.

Fiction that admits this is true to human nature; fiction that seeks to motivate it, to explain that we’re all good people who never do things without good reasons, distorts human nature. Savagery is in all of us.

Human nature is more violent and cruel than we’re happy to admit. Ask Rwanda, or Bosnia, or El Salvador, or Sierra Leone. You may find reasons for conflict, but I doubt you’ll find a rational explanation for, say, decapitating a toddler in front of his mother, with a machete.

There is no why. The reasons we do the things we do often lie beyond our ken, and good fiction leaves them there. The fiction writer’s job is to describe the thing, not to explain it. People are jerks.

Categories: writing
  1. January 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Hi AJ,

    I’m really sorry to hear about your eye–that sounds like a terrible experience! I hope that the vision damage doesn’t bother you too much.

    This is an interesting post, but I am really shocked that you wrote it to disagree with mine.

    “To suppose that we’re all good people and that our occasional nastiness springs from understandable, even sympathetic motives is a form of sentimentality.”

    I don’t think that, and I don’t think my post said that–I haven’t seen everything but I’ve seen enough to know that some people are jerks and some people are evil, and I would it find it very hard or impossible to understand their motivations.

    I just think by and large, most people, evil or not, *have* motivations. They find their own internal logic to be sufficiently convincing to do what they set out to do. Their internal logic might be morally deficient or factually deficient, it could be a lie they tell themselves and only half-believe, but I don’t think their minds are blank, no matter how heinous the action.

    That was what I meant by the post–was the meaning terribly obscure?

    All best,

  2. January 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Maybe I’m responding to your post and the comments to your post, in toto. I guess I came away with the wrong impression.

    Me, I’m not convinced any of us has motives for much of what we do, at least, not motives we can access. We just do stuff. Sometimes there’s a reason and sometimes, any reason we cite is a rationalization we invent after the fact. That holds for actions good and bad. So it doesn’t bug me to see a character just up and be a jerk.

    I’m not a fan of the villain in fiction for different reasons: I think we’re all the villain, that we’re all capable of being jerks and that from time to time we all are. (Except me, of course. I’m talkin’ about the rest of ya.) The idea of real evil doesn’t come into play unless you’re dealing with a sociopath, and sociopaths don’t interest me.

    My eye wasn’t bugging me until I noticed it was still blurry. Now it’s really annoying me.

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