Worlding Violence :: Part 1 of 3
The writing that follows is very early draft of the first part of an in-progress three-part essay. The second and third parts of the essay are forthcoming.
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From my dog’s perspective, every year the Fourth of July plunges us suddenly and inexplicably into a terrifying war of god-knows-who against god-knows-what. There’s no logic to it. One minute everything’s fine, and the next it seems like the world is ending.
This year the explosions came on fast, hot, and uncomfortably close as my neighbors on three sides spilled into the streets, eager to set off the fireworks they’d picked up across state lines. The neighbor on the fourth side, always wary, sat on the curb with a hose just in case the incendiary amusements went awry. Seeing that she had matters aboveground covered, my dog and I retreated to the basement. There I set up a nest of blankets, wrapped my shuddering companion in a makeshift thunder vest, and slipped her a treat with some Benadryl secreted away inside. With the dog cozying down beside me, we settled in for the long haul.
Maybe it was the sonic booms of the fireworks exploding above my house. Maybe it was the holiday those fireworks were meant to celebrate, a holiday that itself celebrates the ongoing — though decidedly less spectacular — violence of settler colonial world-making. Maybe it was just the instinctive protectiveness I felt for my dog at that moment. I’m not entirely sure what inspired me to do it. But whatever it was, the next thing I did was open my computer, put on a pair of headphones, and press play one of the most violent films in recent memory: John Wick.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, the John Wick franchise, which to date has three films to its name, concerns the eponymous character, a former assassin played by Keanu Reeves. John recently got himself out of the killing business to spend time with his beloved wife, Helen, who was in the end stages of a terminal illness. Not long after his retirement, Helen died, leaving John with one last gift, and the bearer of her living memory: a Beagle puppy named Daisy.
As if things weren’t shitty enough for John, a chance encounter with some Russian mobsters really start to fuck shit up. The Russians propose to buy his car, a beautiful vintage 1969 Ford Mustang, and after John refuses to sell, they follow him home, clobber him over the head, and steal his car. But before they leave, they also kill poor Daisy. These events swiftly thrust John out of retirement and catalyze a remorseless killing spree, one that continues through the next two films and which will, it was recently confirmed, persist through yet another installment.
Witnessing the sheer ferocity of his revenge trip, what stuck me as a first-time viewer was John’s wrath — a wrath that is apparently justified by the killing of his dog, and by extension the killing of the last living vestige of his wife.
Yet the movies have a strange way of downplaying the symbolic importance of Daisy’s death. The Russians who find themselves subject to John’s anger repeatedly complain, “But it’s just a fucking dog!” — a line, I’m told, that often gets a laugh from theater audiences.
The storytelling itself also diminishes Daisy’s symbolic weight, moving as swiftly as it does from the inciting event of her death and into the fast-paced extravaganza of violence — stylized to the nines, meticulously choreographed, and edited into a seamless flow of killing.
By the film’s own account, then, John’s wrath is either completely out of proportion with the event that originally inflamed it, or else quickly outpaced by the narrative’s own apparent thirst for blood. The point is thus not what sets off his wrath but the wrath itself, distilled into its near-purest form.
In this, John Wick recalls another cultural artifact that I’d also had occasion to revisit earlier in the summer: Classical Antiquity’s first great poem, and a notoriously violent one, too. I’m talking, of course, about the Iliad. Like the John Wick movies, Homer’s poem begins on a wrathful note:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds. (77)
Achilles is an infamously angry dude, and like John Wick, his anger has its roots in a dispute the poem itself considers insufficient cause. The reason Achilles is so furious is that his king, Agamemnon, has abused his power in order to take from Achilles his favorite war prize: a young maiden that he’d claimed while sacking the city of Mynes. Even though Achilles isn’t actually in love with the maiden, he lashes out at Agamemnon for what he understands as a personal betrayal, and a violation of the code of ethics by which all Greek heroes must abide. Seething with rage, he pledges to remove himself from the fray of battle. And because Achilles ranks as the Greeks’ number-one warrior, his abstention from fighting will effectively sentence hundreds of his fellow Greeks to death, a number that only promises to increase after Achilles convinces Zeus to turn the tide of war in the Trojans’ favor.
As in John Wick’s case, Achilles’s rage is not quick to wane. He maintains his grudge against Agamemnon throughout the first nineteen of the poem’s twenty-four books, and he only rejoins the battle in the twentieth book after the Trojan hero Hector kills his best friend. But here his wrath remains alive and well; it has merely shifted from one object, Agamemnon, to another, Hector. Nor does his rage relent once Hector dies at the end of his spear. Still fuming, Achilles threads hooks through Hector’s ankles, ropes them up to the back of a chariot, and drags the Trojan’s corpse round and round in the dust. Not until the very end of the poem, when he comes face to face with Hector’s grieving father, does Achilles’s anger finally subside.
I am certainly not the first to make the connection between John Wick’s anger and the rage of Achilles. Scholar and science fiction writer Adam Roberts made this link already in 2016. For Roberts, what links these characters across time, space, genre, and medium is precisely the unrelenting quality of their wrath.
With regard to the Iliad, Roberts reminds us that Homer uses two words for “anger”: one that pertains to either humans or gods, χόλος (kholos); and one that pertains to gods only, μῆνις (mēnis). When the poet invokes the muse to sing the rage of Achilles, he refers specifically to μῆνις, a divine anger that cannot easily be placated and does not require anything like sufficient cause. Roberts explains that, in Homer’s world, “the difference between χόλος and μῆνις . . . encodes a core truth about the cosmos. People may forgive you, but the universe is not like that. The ocean won't stop trying to drown you. The whole rainy, stony earth doesn't care that you are starving. The night-sky won’t do anything to save you from its lethal cold.”
Achillean rage is therefore quasi-divine, almost cosmic in its force. Which makes sense, given that Achilles is quasi-divine himself, born to a mortal father and an immortal mother. Likewise, according to Roberts, John Wick also boasts a near-divine, Achillean status, not simply because of his expertise as a fighter, but because “he is more than a man. . . . He is invulnerable, implacable and beautiful.”
But to end the comparison in this way, with an affirmation of unrelenting male rage as a source of beauty, strikes me as pretty fucked up (no offense meant to Roberts). Not to mention it leaves unacknowledged much more that’s potentially instructive about a comparison between the Iliad and John Wick.
For starters, both works display an inventiveness that knows no bounds when it comes to the spectacle of brutality. Take John Wick. The pleasure one is meant to take in these movies relates in part to the title character’s suave professionalism and the cold “purity” of his rage, but even more so to the sheer variety of killing put on display. Violence is primarily a visual matter in the John Wick franchise; we’re supposed to marvel at the ingenuity of the choreography—fast-paced, intricate, and punctuated with explosive plumes of red spatter and the counterpoint of falling bodies.
We find a similarly imaginative pageant of death throughout the Iliad.
Pierced clean through the torso by a spear, one warrior falls to the dust, reaching out to his friends. Another warrior, slashed across the stomach, dies screaming in pain as his entrails spill out onto the ground. Yet another, impaled through the bladder, crouches in pain and gasps his last few shuddering breaths. Elsewhere on the battlefield spears skewer skulls, brains splatter in helmets, and eyes burst out of their sockets. Flying stones bludgeon men in the chest and head; they collapse, heaving and spluttering. A head get hacked almost but not quite clean off, dangling by a skin flap as the body to which it nearly no longer belongs flops to the dust. Men bellow open-mouthed in horror at their hacked-off limbs. Others expire with their teeth clamped down on cold, gleaming bronze.
Like the neo-noir world of John Wick, the mythic world of the Iliad is a relentlessly violent one. But whereas in John Wick each kill is sleekly stylized, cool even, every death in Homer’s poem is hideous, frightful, and excruciating.
For the French philosopher Simone Weil, this is precisely what makes the Iliad’s brutality not just exceptional, but instructive. In her understanding, the poem’s depiction of violence repeatedly lays bare just how universal the forces of oppression really are. She writes that the poem’s brutality “springs from the subjection of the human to force. . . . This subjection is the common lot, [and] although each spirit will bear it differently, . . . [no] one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is” (330).
Weil does not fetishize the brutality of the Iliad. Instead, she thinks about the poem’s violence as an expression of a more abstract vector that she calls force. Force has, in her words, a “petrifactive quality” (326) that transforms anyone under its influence into a thing. “Exercised to the limit,” she writes, “it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him” (321).
For Weil, aside from the flesh itself, what suffers most profoundly in the conditions of war is the sense of life’s sanctity. Heroes in the Iliad constantly use force to subject others. But force also subjects those who wield it. The hero who exerts force is himself “possessed by war,” and, “like the slave, [he too] becomes a thing” (328).
The mutual possession of force erodes the hero’s respect for human life. This is because the hero never loses sight of the inevitability of death, making it seem as if the lives of others are already forfeit, as if his own life is already forfeit. Weil writes: “To respect life in somebody else when you have had to castrate yourself of all yearning for it demands a truly heart-breaking exertion of the powers of generosity. . . . Lacking this generosity, the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature” (327–28). Thus, succumbing to fate in advance of its arrival, the heroes of the Iliad release themselves to indiscriminate killing.
Or so Weil believes. But here I think she goes too far, projecting too much onto Homer from the charged moment of her own writing, perched on the eve of the Second World War. When she declares, “only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice” (330), the judgment is her own, not Homer’s. Indeed, Weil’s analysis of the “dominion of force” better describes the effects of the mechanized mode of war the world learned to wage in the twentieth century more than it describes the effects of Bronze-Age combat.
For Homer, much more important than the vectors of force directed against flesh and spirit is the relationship between Θάνατος (thánatos) and τῑμή (tīmḗ) — that is, between death and honor, two concepts that perform an intimate duet on the field of battle.
In the world of the Iliad, a warrior doesn’t win honor simply by showing off sweet moves or racking up an impressive number of kills. He wins honor by coming face to face with the likelihood of a violent end, what the poet calls “courage-shattering death,” and yet still mustering the nerve to fight. The Homeric concept of honor, in its close relation to death, establishes the hero’s paradox—which is to say, the hero must fight not in spite of the fact that death is inevitable, but because of its inevitability. The Trojan hero Sarpedon explains this logic in Book 12:
Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray
and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,
I would never fight on the front lines again
or command you to the field where men win fame.
But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,
thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive
can flee them or escape—so in we go for attack! (336)
Sarpedon makes clear that heroism only has value through its proximity to death. If there were no consequences to battle, and if the consequences weren’t as grim and final as they are in Homer’s world, then heroism would have no cultural value.
According to this logic, the macabre pas de deux that a warrior shares with death in battle provides the means to winning honor; it is not an end in itself.
Put briefly, then, the Iliad is not a poem about fighting, as Simone Weil seems to insist when she describes it as “the poem of force.” Instead, pace Jasper Griffin’s influential account, the Iliad is a poem about death.
Homer uses many strategies to orient us toward such a reading, but for me the most powerful strategy is also the simplest one.
It will strike most modern readers that virtually no death in the Iliad passes by without the poet telling us a few key details: the victim’s name, his parentage, his place of birth, and, often, at least one defining characteristic that makes the loss of his life a matter of concern for his home community and, indeed, for the world at large.
Consider one telling example from Book 4, in which the poet recounts the death of the Trojan Simoisius:
And Telamonian Ajax struck Anthemion’s son,
the hardy stripling Simoisius, still unwed . . .
His mother had borne him along the Simois’ banks
when she trailed her parents down the slopes of Ida
to tend their flocks, and so they called him Simoisius.
But never would he repay his loving parents now
for the gift of rearing—his life cut short so soon,
brought down by the spear of lionhearted Ajax.
At the first charge he slashed his right nipple,
clear through the shoulder went the brazen point
and down in the dust he fell like a lithe black poplar
shot up tall and strong in the spreading marshy flats,
the trunk trimmed but its head a shock of branches.
A chariot-maker fells it with shining iron ax
as timber to bend for handsome chariot wheels
and there it lies, seasoning by the river . . .
So lay Anthemion’s son Simoisius, cut down
by the giant royal Ajax. (161)
Shot through the scene of Simoisius’s death is a profound sense of pathos. The poet interweaves threads of the man’s life story into the account of his death as if to zoom in on what makes this particular moment—this particular instance of killing and dying—a singular one, never to be repeated. Simoisius the man is himself irreplaceable, and the duet of death he shares with Ajax represents an unrepeatable choreography whose details Homer records dutifully.
Though the details always change, Homer repeats this basic trope again and again throughout the poem. The Iliad is thus a story in which killing teaches us something important about death. Not just about death’s miserable necessity, but also its singularity. Each man who dies in the poem does so with full recognition of his humanity intact.
In the John Wick movies, however, killing has the opposite effect. Paradoxically, the more kills the film depicts on screen, the more the film in fact erases death. This is because every depicted kill serves an ulterior purpose: never to mark the honor of the individual killed, always to justify John’s survival against all odds.
The films’ statistics are staggering. Thanks to George Hatzis and his comprehensive infographics, we know that the first three John Wick movies feature a whopping total of 290 onscreen kills—that’s 77 kills in the first film, 128 in the second, and 85 in the third. These kills happen fast, and I think the rate is worth calculating. All 290 kills occur over the course of the three films’ collective 6-hour running time. That means that the average rate across the trilogy clocks in at about 48 kills per hour.
Consider, by contrast, that over the course of the Iliad Homer depicts the deaths of 255 men—that’s 54 Greeks and 201 Trojans.
The units of measurement for narrative time are a bit different in a poem; deaths in the Iliad happen at an average rate of about 10 per book. But to make the terms of comparison easier, consider that when read aloud in its entirety, it takes about 20 hours to get through the Iliad. At that length, the narrative rate of death in the poem would clock in at just under 13 deaths per hour. To recap: that’s 48 per hour for John Wick and 13 for the Iliad.
The pace of violence is obviously much faster in the movies than it is in the poem. But to get a feel for the deeper difference I’m trying to pinpoint, imagine what it would be like to watch all three John Wick films back to back. But instead of the 6-hour running time, the trilogy bloats to about 22 hours in order to slow down the time of the action and accommodate all of those personal details that would be necessary to lend each of John’s kills a sense of singularity.
Such a revision of the films would be unthinkable, not least because they wouldn’t hold a modern audience’s attention, but even more so because it would betray the franchise’s basic ethos, which is to hold death at arm’s length in order to focus all our attention on the pure spectacle of killing.
Despite the fact that the John Wick films show us more kills than Homer does in the Iliad, the films almost completely erase death as an object for contemplation.
In fact, I would go so far as to argue that there is only one genuine death in the entire trilogy thus far: that of the dog Daisy, whose symbolic significance invests her passing with sufficient pathos. Unlike everyone else in John Wick, Daisy isn’t just killed; she dies.
The specter of death briefly enters the frame in only one other scene, this time in the third film. Before John sets out to walk across the Moroccan desert, Halle Berry’s character, Sofia, tells him: “You’re gonna die, John, whether out here in this desert, or somewhere else down the road. But you are gonna die.”
But just as Daisy’s death in the first film quickly falls by the wayside, so are Sofia’s words quickly and easily forgotten as John goes on to survive his near-fatal walk through the desert, then shoots, stabs, and strangles his way through several more fight scenes, all ramping up to the catch-phrase that closes the film and reiterates the theme of John Wick’s implacable rage. The third movie ends in some undisclosed underground location. With John lying face down on the ground before him, Laurence Fishburne’s character, the Bowery King, asks: “You pissed John?” John pushes himself up, turns his lacerated face to the camera, and growls laconically: “Yeah.” And with that word, the film’s ending promises that John’s rage (and, indeed, the franchise) will slaughter on for another hundred kills or more, all without a single death—that is, unless John Wick himself finally dies and brings the violent world of the franchise that bears his name to its end.
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So ends the first part of this three-part, in-progress essay. Subsequent parts will move on to clarify more precisely why any of this matters—that is, why it matters that death permeates the Iliad, whereas John Wick is full of nothing but killing.
Put briefly, the main reason this difference matters to me relates to what Judith Butler refers to as “framing,” and how, in the context of war, framing dictates when life is or is not grievable.
But instead of Butler’s abstract “frames,” I’m trying to think specifically about aesthetic worlds. Beyond the usual parameters of narrative structure, point of view, and so on, there is the matter of how literary texts build worlds.
In the subsequent sections of this essay I’m exploring how particular parameters of aesthetic world-building frame representations of violence and often do violence in and of themselves. For instance, I think John Wick actively does violence by numbing us to brutality; and we are numbed to the killing not simply because there’s so much of it, as the usual argument goes, but because the world of the franchise is constructed in such a way that it systematically anonymizes violence and relegates death to the background in a way that gets us to cheer for John Wick’s incredible feats of survival.
The final section of the essay takes a different tack, exploring the experimental world-building tactics of a few fiction writers and poets. Specifically, I’m interested in the methods they use to represent how the everyday reality of violence can turn the end of the world into an ongoing experience rather than a singular event, particularly for people of color and other marginalized folks. In texts like these, world-building and world-ending are woven together tightly so that one creation and destruction ceaselessly fold back into one another.
But all that will have to wait for another time. Thanks for reading!
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?
Hatzis, George. “John Wick Kill Count.” VISU.
Homer. Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles.
John Wick. Directed by Chad Stahelski, 2014.
John Wick: Chapter 2. Directed by Chad Stahelski, 2017.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Directed by Chad Stahelski, 2019.
Roberts, Adam. “Keanu Achilles: John Wick and Modern Anger.” Morphosis, 2016.
Weil, Simone. “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” Translated by Mary McCarthy. Politics, November 1945, pp. 321–31.