Ostensibly these are difficult times that are hard to understand. A lot of what is written and said is devoted to trying to make sense of what’s happening to us—where we are going, why there’s violence, who is to blame, what makes the bad guys the bad guys. To make sense of a muddled time, some degree of moral ambiguity or nuance seems important, as an analytic tool and an emotional one: this is how we show we can go toe-to-toe with the times.
But there is an analytical problem with expanding our consciousness beyond where the crisp line between good and evil once limited it. Maybe in a given instance it encourages moral rot or casual decadence, maybe it doesn’t. Surely as a rule it makes us think and feel we have the whole picture of what troubles us, when it reality it obscures an important part of the mystery.
Why, we could ask, for instance, is it actually so rare to find proper heroes and villains? We spend so much time talking about how polluted fantasies might or might not inspire a polluted reality; why don’t we ask what the mysterious parts of real life are doing to our fantasies? Isn’t there something mysterious about our difficult times that causes Batman and Superman to become morally ambiguous enemies? Is that same mystery behind the transformation of “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman from a transgressive object of horror and outrage into a mainstream folk antihero, almost a college mascot for the times?
“Something has happened since 1991 to our response to violence,” Dwight Garner muses in the Times review of the “Psycho” Broadway show, “especially when it is seasoned with a shake of wet or, especially, dry humor. Increasingly inured to the mess, we’ve learned to savor the wit. The catharsis that horror can provide now travels on a second and more intellectualized rail. Whether this fact will save or sink us, morally, we do not yet know.” Garner imagines that Bateman today would wear a designer red hat reading Make America Great Again.
What Is Nihilism If Not This
This vision is tempting, but too tempting, too correct, too easy. Worse than making us too curious about evil, hasn’t our uncertain moral trajectory made us too incurious about greatness? However rich and powerful, Donald Trump is not a great person in the classical sense of someone who fills us with awesome fear. What scares us about Trump is how easily he wields a mass of anonymous scary people.
Today so few distinct individuals are scarily great. Maybe the closest is Vladimir Putin. But even he is more of an old operator with a big arsenal than the kind of guy Nietzsche had in mind when he warned that cultures collapse without specific persons to fear: “Here precisely is what has become a fatality for Europe—together with the fear of man we have also lost our love of him, our reverence for him, our hopes for him, even the will to him. The sight of man now makes us weary—what is nihilism today if it is not that?”
Why is a decades-past imaginary serial killer so popular, although the era of darkly charismatic real-life serial killers appears to have come to an end? Why is Batman an ageless symbol of the hollow banality of American excess, not a model of young, handsome alpha-male terror? Why, in an era replete with terrorist bombings and insurgent armies, have so few recognizable villains arisen? Why is the terrifying weapon of choice today the suicide attack? Why are radical Islam’s multifarious leaders and semi-leaders so replaceable and interchangeable? Why are America’s school shooters such sad, unattractive losers? Who was the last great villain from film, fiction, or television who could plausibly appear in real life — Frank Underwood? Why is politics the last place we can imagine realistic immoral greatness?
The Costs of Annihilating Great Men
Some of these questions are more exaggerated than others. They all dance around the same mystery of our difficult times. Why is there such a shortage of young and attractive great men? Why isn’t this massive break from the past conspicuous? Why is it hiding in plain sight?
One reason is that we have built-in reasons to fear trying to give answers. We recognize that there are still a lot of young men who care for appearances but lack the training and talent for true greatness. Giving them these visions, posing them this problem, likely won’t end well. Rather than heroes or villains we’ll only get jerks: Instead of Napoleons, Julien Sorels.
A deeper reason might be that we don’t want to face the cost of ridding the world of great men. As Nietzsche knew, a world where young and attractive great men exist is one where they become the model, the standard of life and imagination to which the rest of the world bends. In fact they only exist through intention, through some kind of cultural plan, with others sacrificing and serving them as a higher, perhaps the highest, end. But he was wrong to think that without them we’d just peter out into some kind of permanent teddy bear picnic.
We are all very relieved to have put an end to the time of magnetic great men and all its terrible, costly inequalities. We are not so eager to confront the costs of what comes next: Instead of handsome and fearsome young heroes and villains, ugly and despicable violent cowards. Instead of pride and patriotism, resentment and revolution. Instead of one real-life Patrick Bateman, thousands and thousands of hipster millennials quoting Patrick Bateman, referencing Patrick Bateman, dressing up as Patrick Bateman for Halloween.
It seems obvious that we should not want to go back in time to the bad old days. Certainly it seems impossible to do so by choice. But looking at Europe, which lacks the luxury for the future that we Americans still (for now) enjoy, you have to wonder. If you are a 13-year-old boy or girl in that part of the world, what does your heart and your pride tell you about the world you’ve been handed? What sense can you make of the choice between opening yet another cafe and blowing up yet another cafe?
That is a world with as little moral ambiguity as little to capture the imagination. To see that evil is no substitute for greatness, but to be told greatness has become impossible—what does a child do then?