As a mid to late twentieth century young woman, steeped in the mores and tropes of my time it was always shocking to talk to my late-Victorian grandmother.
Shocking as in having your head held under the water pump when you’re drunk. And in the same way, sobering.
There are a lot of myths running around our culture (usually with pants on their heads screaming coo coo) one of them being for lack of a better term “the highwayman with a heart of gold.” Only sometimes he is a second story man (in Portugal’s notable case) and sometimes he is a pirate or a musketeer or someone of that sort.
I grew up with “romantic” literature in the sense where it has nothing to do with male female love, but with high adventure and wounded protagonists who have suffered and are looking for the redemption they know they’re beyond.
That’s a very powerful mythos, one most people can’t resist.
But talking to grandma was always bracing. She would bring the reality of all that sort of people. Guys who ran around with swords or pistols getting in duels were bad people, not to be trusted.
Pirates were evil pillagers and despoilers. And don’t get started on highwaymen and second story men, no matter how dressed up by legend. Hell-bound evil people.
The way she talked about it was so sensible, so clear, that you immediately knew she was right. No matter how much you wanted to believe, no matter how romantic books made it seem, when Grandma painted pirate bands and loose living, heartless murderers, turning even on their own number and said that no, no amount of suffering could justify taking to that life, it cut through the entire fog of romanticism.
Part of it is that grandma was sane as a brick, or perhaps a cornerstone. You could build entire civilizations on her, and arguably ours was built on minds like hers. Part of it is that she was born in late Victorian times and in Portugal. Not only had the pendulum of morality swung away from the “high romance” that generated really bad things like the French revolution, but Portugal was not that well off nor was the village that rich that she could stray from what was obvious and go in search of crazy notions.
In fact the romantics, though always a strain in human thought — which romanticizes the outcasts, the no-castes and the ones who behave outside of society — only took hold of society at large at the same time the industrial revolution was giving people enough distance from “root, hog or die” to go in search of outre ideas and those that wouldn’t benefit the immediate acquisition of money.
Medieval society tended more to the conformist and the established and anyone who stood outside it particularly in a dangerous way being considered harmful, and his motives not at all examined and certainly no sympathy spared for him. This of course was shifting somewhat by say the 15th century, when people were living a little better.
In fact the non conformist and the quaint are valued in proportion to how well off the society is.
Now, I’m not going to tell you I’d love a society of rigid conformism. As an Odd, I always stuck out and societies of rigid conformism don’t distinguish between “strange” and harmful. All nails will get pounded down, even if one is an ornamental silver nail with a cute little triangular top. Their job is to fasten things, and in a rigid, (and endangered) society everyone must just fulfill his role.
I also wouldn’t like to live that close to the bone, because you know, I like comfort as I think we’ve established.
But perhaps it is that we are the most comfortable society the world has ever spawned, and western society the most wealthy it’s ever been, but I think the myth, the romance of the “evil doer who is really good” has gone a bit far.
Look, I’m as susceptible as anyone else to the exiled nobleman who took to the seas as a pirate fighting the way into a citadel to rescue the body of his brother (he arrives too late to prevent the hanging) and bringing him to burial at sea, and promising to avenge him, as a way to start a book. I read that one when I was eight and see how it stuck with me.
Mind you, at least in England, many pirates were noblemen, but they were at it not from high outraged honor but from greed, and they did things that would make you blanch. As for the ones who were in it to survive… it partook a lot of our homeless culture, with a roster of pathologies from drug abuse to various psychological dysfunctions just as our homeless culture has. Nothing romantic about it, just as there isn’t about vagrants and homeless. And yeah, those get romanticized too. Note someone the other day saying they would like it, just once, just for variety, if a homeless character were a horrible person.
No, I don’t want a return to a rigid society. And I reserve the right to create a character or two who aren’t as bad as people think and who are more sinned against that sinners. But perhaps also one or two that are highly romanticized and EXACTLY as bad as you think.
Because you know what? We are rich, we are successful. Some of the romantic insanity is dissipating, so people are saying less “it was the fault of society” but they still act like it to a great extent. They still try to justify how people go that bad. The entire “self esteem” industry is part of this, and also a piece of nonsense, as few people have as much unearned self esteem as juvenile delinquents, or a sense of the respect “due” to them as gang members.
Sometimes I just feel the entire society could benefit from taking a time machine to go to tea with grandma, and having her pour some common sense over their crazy heads. Sure, there are people who reform. Western civilization embraces the tale of Saul of Tarsus as a pretty dramatic example, but there are others. There were even pirates who escaped the law, set up respectably and lived a decent life. More often their descendants do. Grandma had… interesting tales about the rich families in the village.
But those are the exceptions. Most people who live an evil life be it simply squandering everything, or actually robbing others or extorting from others (money or sex or whatever) are never going to reform. They like what they do, they’re successful at it, why would they stop? Investing them with a patina of romance and undeserved suffering doesn’t help that one bit. Psychopaths are VERY good at putting on the motley and playing the part you expect them to.
Why? Who knows? Why are some people just evil? Whose fault is it?
Mostly theirs. We all have evil impulses and trains of thought. If you encourage them and allow them to grow, they become an habit, till you couldn’t do anything else even if you tried.
And sure, some people might be more susceptible to it than others. And sure, having a bad childhood doesn’t help. But blaming poverty or a bad childhood for later crimes, the way Marxists do, is an insult to every poor, abused child who chooses to grow up decent and a credit to society.
In the end bad people are bad. Not romantic. Not cute. Not sufferers and suffering at the hands of an unusual world.
Just people who chose to fall to the dark.
Keeping that in mind cuts through a lot of romantic fog, and if society at large could do it, we’d spend a lot less money and time wringing our hands and trying to fix what can’t be fixed.
In the end, each of us is entitled to go to hell in the manner of his choosing. He’s not entitled to dragging western civ along.