Archantagonists in literature

Overseas Property | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 26 May 2020

From time to time, readers are confronted with villainy so pervasive that retrospectively, we must wonder: is this character the catalyst of the narrative, an ominous operator behind the curtains, pulling the strings? But what if they signify more than specific agents of chaos?

Think of them, instead, as human manifestations of the interrelational nature of conflict, inciting unwitting pawns into engagement. This primordial energy stress-tests complex systems of social interaction, like lightning chaining between telegraph poles.

The literary critic Harold Bloom came close to discerning this nature by drawing parallels between two malevolent nemeses; Blood Meridian's Judge Holden and Othello's Iago. Bloom described them as "methodical dispensers of strife" - each man exuding a contagious enmity, giving animus to their respective narratives.

Iago sows distrust and hatred, aided by the motif of Desdemona's potential loss of innocence: a blood-specked handkerchief. Iago's opaque persona, so alien to the emotive atmosphere of Shakespearean tragedy, exploits Othello's character flaws. Like a cipher moving from one room to the next, he manipulates at will.

His influence even breaks the fourth wall - his soliloquies hint to the theater audience that he is always one step ahead. Even his death appears contrived and comical in its underwhelming execution, leaving open the feeling that he lives on in the devastation wrought.

In Blood Meridian, Judge Holden's deeply disturbing proclivities and otherworldly intellect set him apart from his gang. From the outset, his tendency to cause discord is demonstrated in his ability to turn a crowd violently against a preacher. He quietly goes about his work, spreading discontent amongst his rivals in the Glanton gang and committing atrocities under the moral shroud of bloody, frontier skirmishes. As gangsters gradually die through hardship and gritty combat, Holden becomes increasingly prominent. His voice takes center stage to the extent that he exceeds the narrative and sidelines Kid, the protagonist. Like his object of philosophy, war, The Judge doesn't die, he endures.

Blood Meridian and Othello are essential reading. It's rare to encounter literature that leaves its narrative to the mercy of such demonic characters. Othello can appear in the IGCSE drama section, so a strong understanding of Iago's impact on the play can ready students for tackling exam questions. Blood Meridian is regarded as one of the greatest American novels and a startlingly, semi-historical account of bitter conflict in mid-19th century America. Such a hellish landscape is, of course, where Judge Holden belongs.

The frequency of barbarous conflict in both books overshadows the modern world of today.

However conflict is dispersed; absorbed into ever expanding webs of social complexity.

It is everywhere.

It is in the online rage that spreads like wildfire across social media platforms, the financial and trade wars in geopolitical posturing, in cultural commentary contested up, down and across the political spectrum, even the legal tumult regarding the sanctity of constitutional law and its interpretation.

Where there are channels of human interactions and the institutions - old and new - that preside over them, the war gods will be waiting.

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