Vengeance is Clean; Vengeance is Cruel
When I think of Django Unchained all I see are rape scenes and scowling dudes. One of the problems, at least for me, is that I don’t actually hunger for a revenge flick about slavery. I understand why Jews might hunger for a some cathartic revenge in terms of the Holocaust. There’s a certainly clarity to industrialized genocide. But slavery is something different, something at once more variable, intimate and elusive.
Right — there’s clarity: “to kill” is in some ways cleaner than “to enslave,” in terms of revenge. And Hitler’s face can act as a symbol of the enemy, or evil incarnate, in a way that Jeff Davis’ (for good reason, I’d be inclined to believe) can’t. But there’s also the question of what “revenge” means in the context of chattel slavery or Nazi genocide: Tarantino didn’t fantasize about transforming Hitler into a musselman and then gassing him. He fantasized about two machine-gun toting “New” (“Steroid”?) Jews emptying their magazines into his dying/dead body. Perhaps it’s over the top — but it’s still simply killing. Revenge in the context of atrocity tends to mean “desire to kill.” This is the form it almost wholly takes after the event. But from within the event — from, in fact, accounts secretly written in and buried nearby Auschwitz — one finds the desire to do this precisely to them. And this is part of the problem that TNC is pointing toward in his final sentence: that, since slavery can’t be reduced to the shorthand of “murder,” it’s harder to ignore the question of the particular cruelties revenge would call for.
More to the point, however, I think is that any desire for “cathartic revenge” among Jews more than African-Americans has to do with proximity: sixty years against a century and a half; one can’t find someone who still bears the literal scars of slavery but one can still find, on their grandparent, neighbor, or friend, blotty numbers tattooed on the left wrist. It’s still more personal in a way that it won’t be after another ninety years.
But catharsis and revenge are dangerous things, and not just for our souls. They stand as alternatives — either fantastic and impossible or misdirected and dangerous — that stand in the way of grappling with the event. Even if one can’t come to terms with or comprehend, there’s still a need to learn how to not come to terms with or find incomprehensible. Catharsis and revenge are replacements, that is, for history and for living.