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Revenge reviewed in The Sunday Times

on Thu, 11/23/2017 - 11:50

Stephen Fineman’s brief, questioning book is both a history and, by and large, a justification of revenge. It is, he argues, a primal human urge. We are all avengers at heart, whatever our heads tell us, and there is no record of a revenge-less human society.

By contrast, animals, except for our close cousins among the primates, are free of it, so revenge can be counted as one of the things that makes us human, such as cooking and murder.

Not all the evidence Fineman gathers seems either relevant or interesting. He cites Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao and Saddam Hussein as instances of “malignant narcissism”. Having suffered cruelty as children they avenged themselves by inflicting it as adults. But if you are arguing that revenge is normal then these grotesquely abnormal psychopaths are beside the point.

Fineman also collects details of past and present atrocities, genocides and massacres that were motivated by revenge, together with their astronomic casualty figures. These certainly show that vengeance can overwhelm other human considerations, but as reading matter they are as instantly forgettable as yesterday’s news.

More involving and, curiously, more shocking are the small-scale, everyday vengeances he relates, particularly “honour killings” among first-generation immigrants, with fathers shooting or strangling their daughters for adopting western ways.

A male taking vengeance on a female for behaving like a free agent is a common pattern, especially where cultural values are changing. In Turkey, the general view is that if a woman wears a miniskirt she deserves to get raped, or so a campaigning journalist quoted by Fineman alleges. In India, the police are inclined to blame rape victims rather than the rapist.

However, in developed countries, women are fighting back. Fineman reports several cases of women who have repaid a partner’s infidelity by slicing off his sex organ. In one instance it was retrieved and surgically reattached to its owner, but in another it was ground up in a kitchen waste-disposal unit.

People whose jobs put them at the mercy of the public, such as call-centre workers and waiters, are in special need of ways to gratify or control their vengeful impulses. Call-centre workers are advised to “smile down the phone”, whatever abuse is coming out of it. Smiling is compulsory for flight attendants, too.

Fineman tells the story of one who was asked by a business-class passenger why she was not smiling. She replied that she would if he did, so he smiled. “Right, she said, “freeze, and hold it for 15 hours.”

Restaurant workers find covert ways of getting even with offensive customers. “I spat in his coffee,” a waiter explains with appealing simplicity, “and watched him drink it up.” Spitting in food seems to be traditional in catering. George Orwell noted it happening in 1933 in Down and Out in Paris and London.

See full review here

Revenge: A Short Enquiry into Retribution
Stephen Fineman
ISBN 9781780238401
Hardback, £14.99

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