I begin this post back in June of this year. Since that day it has pressed its nose against the glass like an annoying puppy. Perhaps it is time to finally let it come inside, though if it pisses on the floor I’m taking it to the pound in the morning.
As the title of this post might suggest, I want to talk about Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. In particular I vaguely recall reading an article back in June, and it once again struck me the way that many people regard V as an unambiguous hero. This seems to happen most frequently with those who are only familiar with the watchable, though much inferior film version of Moore’s story, but I’ve seen it in those who have read the comics as well.
It is true that Norsefire is an evil organization. Norsefire has engaged in a pogrom designed to remove “deviants” from society. It engages in propaganda campaigns, and closely monitors the words and deeds of the English public. It is unsurprising that the actions of Norsefire closely resemble those of the Nazi party, as Moore was one of many who were disturbed by the creeping overtones of fascism that were becoming increasingly common in Thatcherite England. (Though it should be said that Norsefire is not presented without humanizing features. Unfortunately, a deeper discussion of that element is beyond the scope of this current post.)
At first blush it seems unsurprising that we here in the West might respond to V as an unambiguous hero. He is, after all, going after fascists. Despite the misbehaviors of our own governments, we’ve been taught that this is a cause we can unambiguously rally behind, right? I’m quite fond of kicking fascism in the teeth myself, as is Mr. Moore. Despite his feelings on fascism, Moore does not present V in an unambiguously heroic role.
Throughout the course of Moore’s narrative, V makes it clear that he is a kind of arch-existentialist. He is concerned that mankind through off their shackles, all their shackles, and if we aren’t willing to do it ourselves then he will give us no choice but to confront the horrors of existential freedom. This in and of itself is a rather glaring question, and one Moore would return to in later work; is it ever ethical to force another person to confront their own freedom? Telling people about existential freedom and what it means, even guiding them toward a recognition of that freedom is one thing. What V is doing is wrapping the people’s chains in philosophical C4 and blowing them into the stratosphere whether they want it or not.
As someone who works with existentialist ideas, who as both philosopher and human thinks that confronting the terror of Nietzsche’s abyss and the horror of Sartre’s existential freedom is a good thing… I’m conflicted about this. The goal of these confrontations is supposed to motivate us towards is that of authenticity; yet if we force another into this confrontation, if we take the choice to move toward authenticity away from someone, can the result still be said to be “authentic” as such. I must confess that my general inclination is to say no.
That said, V’s philosophical ambiguity has its physical analogue. We can take the classic route and argue that those who work for Norsefire, even if they are not secret police or members of the party’s ruling echelons, have sealed their own fates. They knew what they were getting into. Their actions, however innocent they might consider them to be, support a fascist regime. As such, their deaths are necessary, and even just. Even here I don’t think Moore is unambiguous, but again for the sake of space this particular element will have to be tabled for another time, because even if we were to accept this simplistic view, V’s predations are not limited to those actively in the employ of Norsefire.
In particular, part of V’s plans to bring down Norsefire’s corrupt regime is to instigate food riots. It is certainly true that Norsefire is harmed by this action. Norsefire’s control of the populace is weakened, and various soldiers and police are either actively injured in the riots, or forced to focus their attentions on rioting areas. It is quite clear that the general populace of V’s England suffer their own losses because of V’s actions. People die. People suffer injury or lack of food. V is… unconcerned with this. For V, if you are unwilling to accept the enlightenment he brings, you are part of the problem, and if your life is lost in pursuit of his goal then your life is lost in pursuit of his goal.
Again, this is something I find troubling. It raises that classic question; do the ends justify the means? V reduces human lives to the status of objects, of tools to be used against Norsefire. This is not an unambiguously heroic action.
I also believe that Moore deliberately invokes V’s ambiguous status. V tells his protege that he (the V that is) is the destroyer; he tears down the evil that is now; while she (the V that will be) is the creator; she will guide (but not lead) us from the rubble toward a brighter future. I think it is clear that Moore is telling us that just as Watchmen‘s Adrian Veidt is a villain, but not one whose actions can be regarded as the classic, simplistic mustache-twirling villain, V is not a knight in shining armor. He engages in acts that are morally questionable at best, morally objectionable at worse. I also suspect that if we limit ourselves to reading V as unambiguously heroic Mr. Moore might tell us, in his inimitable way, that we are missing the damn point.