V for Vendetta, despite its pulp adventure plot and its stark propaganda, is not a morally simple book. The baddies, the fascists, are depicted as complex human beings with motives of their own, and sometimes even a kind of decency. V’s nemesis, Eric Finch, for example, is described in the text as “a policeman with an honest soul.” The hero, V, on the other hand, engages in any number of cruel and despicable acts — from systematic and serial murder, to the deliberate manufacturing of food shortages by sabotage, to torturing his young protégé, Evey Hammond, for the sake of producing a kind of conversion experience.
Isaac Butler, in his essay “V for Vile,” enumerates these and other various sins, both political and moral, at some length — writing, at times, not so much about the book as against it. In the comments to that post, others, such as Mike Hunter, counter that the character V may be reprehensible but the book implicitly condemns him and his actions. He notes, for instance, that V describes himself in the first chapter as “the villain” and is elsewhere identified with “the devil.” Such a defense, however, risks converting V for Vendetta from an anarchist book to an anti-anarchist book, one that can comfort timid liberals by equally condemning both political extremes. That reading not only undercuts Alan Moore’s stated intention (which may not be that important), it also ignores the story’s pervasive atmosphere of moral ambiguity, renders the ending arbitrary, and worst of all, prevents us from grappling with the genuine philosophical problems that the book poses.
Chief among these problems is, what may be the largest question in political philosophy since the time of Machiavelli, that of unjustifiable means. A great deal of evil has been done on the theory that some good will result, but looking back over history, it seems hard to defend the idea that the overall results have been good. And yet — what if evil means are the only ones available? More precisely, what if the means that might achieve our ends also contradict them?
In The Rebel, Albert Camus explains the paradox:
“If rebellion exists, it is because falsehood, injustice, and violence are part of the rebel’s condition. He cannot, therefore, absolutely claim not to kill or lie, without renouncing his rebellion and accepting, once and for all, evil and murder. But no more can he agree to kill and lie, since the inverse reasoning which would justify murder and violence would also destroy the reasons for his insurrection.”
One kind of solution, among the many that Camus considers, is that of the Russian terrorists who stand “face to face with their contradictions, which they could resolve only in the double sacrifice of their innocence and their life.” These martyr/assassins
“were incapable of justifying what they nevertheless found necessary, and conceived the idea of offering themselves as a justification. . . . A life is paid for by another life, and from these two sacrifices springs the promise of a value. . . . Therefore they do not value any idea above human life, though they kill for the sake of ideas. To be precise, they live on the plane of their idea. They justify it, finally, by incarnating it to the point of death.”
V is a terrorist of this mold. And so he plans his own murder — at the hands of the police detective Finch — just as meticulously as he planned his campaign of sabotage and assassination. V does, as Camus suggests, incarnate his idea to the point of death, but only so that the idea may survive: “Did you think to kill me? There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.”
The idea of Anarchy does live on as, in a sense, V himself lives on — but in a new form, and in the person of Evey Hammond. Evey takes on the role of V, the mask and cloak, but her mission and her methods are different. She reflects: “I will not lead them, but I’ll help them build. Help them create where I’ll not help them kill.”
Evey’s new direction — her move away from violence — is only a renunciation of V’s methods, not of his vision, or even his plan. It is, in fact, the culmination of the latter. Earlier in the book, V himself acknowledged:
“Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. The destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world. Rubble, once achieved, makes further ruins’ means irrelevant.
Away with our explosives, then! Away with our destroyers! They have no place within our better world. But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgivable. Let’s drink to their health. . . then meet with them no more.”
V’s dilemma, awful as it is, is that the methods that bring the new world into being stand in contradiction to the world they help create. Camus spells it out: “The terrorists no doubt wanted first of all to destroy — to make absolutism totter under the shock of exploding bombs. But by their death, at any rate, they aimed at re-creating a community founded on love and justice. . . .” Unfortunately, people who employ such methods may themselves be unsuited to live in the world they have helped to win. As Evey reflects, echoing V’s own words: “The age of killers is no more. They have no place within our better world.” The answer lies in V’s death. He must die so a new world can be born, a world where he is not needed and would not be welcomed.
V is vindicated, paradoxically, because he is condemned. V, the murderer, accepts his own murder in turn. And Evey — now, pointedly, “Eve” — becomes a new V, creator rather than destroyer. Violence is justified by the renunciation of violence. It is that renunciation that qualifies Evey for the new society, that justifies her efforts to build it. But V’s renunciation of violence is his suicide.
Camus’ solution to this dilemma — or rather, his resignation to it — was altogether more pragmatic, and more forgiving:
“Thus the rebel can never find peace. . . . The value that supports him is never given to him once and for all; he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly. . . . His only virtue will lie in never yielding to the impulse to allow himself to be engulfed in the shadows that surround him and in obstinately dragging the chains of evil, with which he is bound, toward the light of good.”
Camus, lyrically, leaves us with an image of the human condition: a solitary figure, bound in chains, surrounded by darkness, struggling toward freedom. As with his final view of Sisyphus — “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” — the image of the rebel is, perhaps, an optimistic one. For it suggests that we can resist the shadows, that the chains that bind us do not deform us with their weight, that we can recognize the light and do not grow blind in the darkness.
Camus suggests that struggle is possible, even where innocence is not, that we can assert our dignity even when we have not yet won our freedom. It is an ideal of heroism, not one of purity.
Kristian Williams is the author, most recently, of Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy (Microcosm, 2012).