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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Revenge

Stephen Fineman's brief overview of revenge is a collection of examples in search of a more nuanced theory.

Revenge: A Short Enquiry into Retribution
Stephen Fineman


Dec 2017


Starting off a book with a dictionary definition may rank high on the list of clichéd strategies, but it's one that would have benefited Stephen Fineman. The dust jacket copy for Fineman's brief monograph Revenge: A Short Enquiry into Retribution promises that the book "lifts the lid on revenge, exposing its intriguing contours across the workplace, intimate relationships, societal justice, wars and politics." Examples from those various parts of society do show up, but it's not but a few pages into this 130-page exploration of revenge that the word itself starts to lose its definitional clarity.

The two lone pages that make up the preface begin this study with this observation: "Where would we be without revenge? 'All the better', many would say. Yet as social animals, our compulsion to avenge a wrongdoing is among the most primal of human urges, and not without reason." Right away, Fineman – an emeritus professor at the University of Bath's School of Management – equates "revenge" with "avenging a wrongdoing", which on the surface seems tautological, given the etymological links between "revenge" and "avenge". But for reasons that become clear throughout the myriad case studies Fineman provides, revenge takes more forms than any one conception could provide.

Some definitional context, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, is helpful here. With a textual history dating back to 1525, the OED's first definiton of "revenge" reads: "The action of hurting, harming, or otherwise obtaining satisfaction from someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at his or her hands; satisfaction obtained by repaying an injury or wrong." This applies to many of Fineman's case studies in Revenge, but doesn't quite square with lines such as these: "Negotiating relationships can involve minor tit-for-tats of the sort that do not merit the moralist's condemnation or the concerns of the law." Nor does the OED's definition fully account for the phenomenon of children's stories in which child protagonists stand up to their bullies, which Fineman identifies as "pro-retaliation" narratives in which "the victim conquers their fear and cuts the bully down to size, or is portrayed as a hero for trying." At the very least, such stories differ from canonical revenge tales like William Shakespeare's Hamlet, which gets its own brief discussion in Revenge.

Fineman quickly delves into the topic of revenge because, at least based on the flow of his book, "revenge" obviously codes as "the pursuit of individuals to correct wrongdoings." But the examples he provides in the book's nine chapters vacillate wildly in how they match with that assumption. When discussing Hamlet, for example, Fineman selects some odd Shakespearean texts to put in conversation with it on matters of revenge. Writing about Shakespeare's female characters, he claims,

They were seldom violent, but deployed 'feminine' weapons, their superior language skills and power to emasculate. They would refuse sexual advances, rumour-monger and goad others into conspiracies. Queen Margaret in Richard III, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Cordelia in King Lear and Tamora in Titus Andronicus were created in this vein. Maria in Twelfth Night combines cunning and comedy to get her revenge.

Fineman casts revenge as a wide net over these characters, but even a cursory examination will reveal these selections to be off-topic. Cordelia and Portia are typically interpreted as saintly characters acting out of virtue, given the former's refusal to give into her father's game of flattery in the first act of King Lear and the latter's passionate pleas for "the quality of mercy" in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice. They are hardly Shakespearean takes on Medea, who killed her own children after discovering that her husband Jason intended to marry another woman. Revenge similarly proves ineffective in characterizing Twelfth Night's Maria, who Fineman describes as desiring to take Malvolio "down a few pegs" for his "self-centered and self-righteous" personality. How "knocking down a few pegs" glosses as "revenge" is unclear. The more literary and real-life examples Fineman aggregates in developing Revenge, the more the word gets away from him.

In the preface, Fineman adopts the commonplace distinction between revenge (illegitimate) and retribution (illegitimate), with the latter being enacted by the state or some other legal authority. "We are taught revenge should be suppressed, diverted or dealt with by 'the authorities'. There are justice systems intended to limit revenge and stop it spiraling out of control," he writes. Yet in chapter four, "Eyes, Teeth, and Justice", where Fineman elaborates on the notion of lex talionis (eye-for-an-eye justice), he states, "Since the eighteenth century criminal justice reformers worked to shift the balance away from punitive retribution towards education, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. Capital punishment rarely makes us any safer and few would-be killers are deterred by it." This description paints older forms of punishment as more revenge-based, with more recent developments in criminal justice representing a turn toward the "restorative". But the links between "retribution" and "revenge" aren't examined by Fineman at a theoretical level; it's up to the reader to guess as to what he means by the contrast of his examples.

A lengthy discussion about the transition between medieval and early modern conceptions of justice in England contains loaded sentences like, "The full wrath of the state was unleashed on traitors," but it remains uncertain if Fineman means "revenge" or "retribution". At the end of chapter four he admits, "State justice and revenge are close bedfellows and, at times, hard to tell apart," an uncontroversial statement that a book project like Revenge ought to be answering. After all, the OED's definition of "retribution", which has a documentary record extending even beyond that of revenge to circa 1384, reads, "Repayment or recompense for a service, good deed, etc.; an instance of this." Certainly, this definition would lead any dictionary editor to perhaps insert a "see also" clause, but not one that conflates "retribution" and "revenge".

Whether he's discussing literary grudges, penal systems, religion, or tribal activity, Fineman utilizes the same strategy: introduce the broad topic, discuss a range of examples that routinely if not inevitably drift from the basic idea of revenge stated in the preface, and then conclude with a series of statements equally as broad as those in the introduction. The boldly titled, ten-page chapter one, "The Roots of Revenge", can serve as synecdoche for Revenge's methodology. Fineman begins by observing what appears to be a pattern of revenge-like behavior in primates, and then concludes with concise, mostly biographical accounts of Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein. He introduces the latter with the tremendous leap between vindictive/violent behavior and the "predilection" of malignant narcissism borne by an abusive relationship between a child and his parents. At this point, the main subject of revenge is unclear: do the Stalins of the world treat their societies as proxy subjects of revenge for the failure of their parents? Does dictatorial control and silence of dissidents amount to "revenge?" In concluding the chapter, all Fineman has to say is:

The history of leadership points to the paradox of malignant narcissism. On the one hand it attracts certain followers, drawn to the leader's prejudices, uncompromising style and charisma – promises of good times ahead. On the other hand, the leader's growing paranoia and vindictiveness eventually ensures his own destruction, along with many around them.

Catch that? The word "revenge" appears not once, with "vindictiveness" presumably serving as its substitute. Taken out of context this paragraph would appear to play a part in a study of dictators, or of those suffering with "malignant narcissism", but probably not a study of revenge. Admittedly, Fineman took on a lofty subject whose main term has been subject to centuries of redefinition. Even in the case of lengthy monographs like Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence, in which Eagleton unfurls the myriad understandings of the word "tragedy" across millennia, a single word can prove an ungraspable thing. But Revenge doesn't try to grasp too hard at its primary subject, the word "revenge" itself, instead preferring the quasi-Darwinian approach of seeing where (what appears to be) revenge "shows up in the wild". As much as we would like it to be the case, numerous examples do not a theory produce, and the same holds true for revenge.


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