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Angel - The existentialist, anti Hero?

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  • Angel - The existentialist, anti Hero?

    I've been reading through some Essays in (It's a very good site for anyone who loves BTVS) And I happened upon this little titbit:
    "Every Night I Save You: Buffy, Spike, Sex and Redemption." by Rhonda V. Wilcox:
    "[that] since Angel is good because he possesses a soul, he still represents an essentialist definition of good." This is in contrast to the vampire Spike, who, she argues, "owns no human soul, yet repeatedly does good; if he can be seen as capable of change, capable of good, capable of love, then he can represent an existentialist definition of good" (paragraph 15).
    Needless to say, this little statement got me thinking on a lot of things, particularly on the definition of "hero" in the BTVS.
    Spike's existential hero status, is highly misleading. Firstly, because like Angel he too has a soul, thus in S7 and ATS S5 he too, became an "essentialist hero." Second, he had a chip in his head, which ultimately subjects his "free will" to the vicissitudes of his situation, making him, in a way, an essentialist and circumstantial hero ? and not an existentialist one. In fact, the only point where you can even vaguely consider Spike as an existentialist hero was when he was ATS S5, when he said that he was staying because: "It's the right thing to do."
    Spike, soul or no soul, just doesn't have what it takes to be defined as an existentialist hero/villain, simply because he does not have the necessary insight in making conscious acts of Good and Evil. He is incapable of doing good or evil for its own sake, or simply out of conscious self-awareness. He always bases his actions on the needs of the moment, his relationships (Buffy, Dru, Fred, etc?), his circumstances, and/or the "prizes" (the Shanshu, His Soul, Buffy's affection, that Ring in S4). IMO
    Angel/Angelus, on the other hand, are always concerned about the bigger picture ? always basing their actions on higher motivations (twisted ideals, in Angelus' case). Take note, that Angel's capacity for sacrifice is awesome (Connor, Fred, Buffy). What does this say about him?
    To me, Angel's introspection and his ability to see the "bigger picture," is what makes him "Dangerous and Unpredictable." His fluid "grey area" morality, his isolated/sacrificial warrior mentality (reminiscent to that of Buffy's, Jack Bauer and Bruce Wayne personality), his willingness to create hard sacrifices is what typifies him as an existentialist. This self-awareness, coupled with a well-covered personality of ruthless single-mindedness, is what makes him the ultimate existentialist hero in the jossverse.
    In short, Angel is an existentialist hero =
    ? Sacrifice,
    ? Ruthless,
    ? Love,
    ? Vindictive,
    ? Ability to see the bigger picture,
    ? Fight because you want to become, and not because you want to have.

    Now, on to the anti-hero discussion. Anti-heroes are generally defined as heroes who perform good deeds through questionable, Machiavellian tactics, OR for dubious motives. I will not contend that Spike is an Anti-hero. Angel, on the other hand is an interesting case.
    Angel is the epitome of a hero fighting against himself. Spike doesn't seem to have that problem because he doesn't really think about his "former" existence all that much (IMO this does not make him any less of a hero, it does, however, prevent him from being more effective). Darla? well, she willingly wanted to be a vamp ? it was her conscious choice.
    I always encounter this issue about Angel "wallowing in his guilt." I won't argue with this statement, but rather, I want to delve into it a little deeper. Why is he wallowing in his guilt? And, How much of Angelus is still in Angel (there's a lot of unsouled Spike in Souled Spike, and the same is true with human Darla)?
    This how I answered the first question, Angel wallows in his guilt and broods a lot because he still thinks and feels like Angelus. Self-Hatred is an interesting aspect of an Anti- Hero, and Angel certainly has it to a tee. It was only in S5 that he had learned to live with all of this ? to stop hating himself.
    But prior to that, this self hatred was a sort of double edged sword. On the one hand, it drew the line of where Angel ends and where angelus begins. On the other hand, this has made Angel brood and has caused him to be somewhat below optimum level (I ran out of words, okay! Give me a break).
    Why? Because he doesn't want to use the same tactics, the same weapons (metaphorically speaking) or the same leverage that Angelus would use. Let's face it, Angel is dangerous, sure, but Angelus is so much more deadly and manipulative. I mean, let's take BTVS angel and pit him against BTVS angelus. Who would win? My money's on Angelus.
    Which brings us to the next question. How much of Angelus is in Angel? IMO. A lot.
    That is why, Angel hates himself. That is why he broods all the time (You can't really have a healthy personality if you're constantly staring at yourself in the mirror). But at the same time, that is what makes Angel very effective as a "champion." He is capable, and willing, of facing the darkness in it's purest form ? in his soul. It was only when Angel managed to find peace with the darkness within, to "conquer" it that he has managed to realise his full potential; but it had also turned him a little darker. And though that may be true, it curiously, doesn't seem to make him any less of a champion. Thus ? anti hero.
    Spike on the other hand seems to rationalise his unsouled version's deeds ? he doesn't think about it all that much IMO. Does this make him a better champion? The circle of the Black Thorn didn't seem to think so: "Spike's not a threat you are."

  • #2
    Spike, soul or no soul, just doesn't have what it takes to be defined as an existentialist hero/villain, simply because he does not have the necessary insight in making conscious acts of Good and Evil. He is incapable of doing good or evil for its own sake, or simply out of conscious self-awareness. He always bases his actions on the needs of the moment, his relationships (Buffy, Dru, Fred, etc?), his circumstances, and/or the "prizes" (the Shanshu, His Soul, Buffy's affection, that Ring in S4).
    Existentialism by my interpretation is that life has no meaning, that the objects-for-themselves that make up the majority of this world have no free will or choice, and that the only free objects, as objects-in-themselves, are conscious human beings, who are born without any purpose whatsoever, and you thus resort to complete depression, alienation, boredom and ultimately nihilism ? the nausea felt by Antoine Roquentin in ?Nausea'. But nihilism is a very masochistic philosophy to have (look at the way it destroyed Connor), and so existentialism argues that to have meaning in this life, you must create your own meaning (the importance being on having a meaning that's true to you, and finding it yourself). Kierkegaard and Sartre's main point was that "existence precedes essence", and so you simply have to give your life meaning, you must seek it out, create it. Now, for one person, their chosen purpose in life might be contrary to yours, even harmful to you, but it doesn't mean that either one of you is wrong; very much like Nietzsche's ideas of Relative Morality. The worst thing you can do is invest in bad faith; something that's contrary to your essence. That's a very recent idea, and it's only been in the last 50? years or so that the idea of ?being true to yourself' has developed; it's a similar argument.

    The problem I find here is that even with souls, Angel and Spike are both vampires, and this means that to do good is go against their fundamental natures, to commit acts of bad faith ? the exact opposite of what existentialism requires. Now as much as we all love saying that Angel and Spike are different to vampires as they have souls, can feel remorse etc. it is not a natural state for vampires to be in. Vampires are meant to be evil, and so I can't really call them existentialist. However, the whole point that Sartre tried to make was about choice. Here Spike is almost more of an existentialist in my opinion, since he tried to get a soul, in order to change, whereas Angel had it forced upon him. In their actions though, both vamps are quite existentialist, as despite their natures, and how their demon selves seem to have some control, or at least influence, over their souled selves (well, we can argue about this for millennia, but there are definitely moments when souled Angel and Spike do questionable things) they choose to find meaning ? in doing good. I'd agree that without complete control, you couldn't really call them existentialist, or even heroes, since being either one involves choosing to do something, rather than having something forced upon you. Spike did good whilst chipped not out of choice essentially, but because he wanted the thrills of violence he couldn't get from killing humans, and because he wanted to impress Buffy. Yes, as time went on, I can definitely see how you might argue that his situation became subtler, as he fell in love with Buffy (well, debatably ? Angel says vampires can't love, Dru says they can - we have another argument brewing here ? but Spike definitely cared for Buffy in a way beyond lust), he started to care about the Scoobies, or perhaps just Dawn, but he was still without choice, as he was chipped, and therefore couldn't choose whether to kill demons or humans. But then I guess you could argue that having a soul doesn't necessarily determine that someone will do good (we've seen plenty of good demons and bad humans on both shows after all), and Spike did have a purpose, which he chose (thus ticking the boxes for existentialism) in early Season 6, in protecting Dawn. And as I'll explain below, doing good isn't necessarily the best thing to do if following the ?criteria' for existentialism.

    Spike as an existentialist hero was when he was ATS S5, when he said that he was staying because: "It's the right thing to do."
    Doing good is not necessarily an action that's good for the self from an existentialist point of view (imagine someone forced to do good ? I'm thinking Gunn, maybe? He had to kill vampires, or his friends and himself would have died. That would be as bad as someone forced to do evil), but since Angel and Spike WANT to do good, it is acceptable for them to do so. Vampires and demons debatably have no control over their actions (since they are fundamentally evil, despite their ?best' impulses, and as they have no or little conscience or remorse, they can't fully understand the choices they make, and so can't be existentialist, as they can't freely make choices), but in a way, they remain true to themselves, as they kill, they feed. Buffy spends most of the series fighting her calling as a Slayer, and this too in a way stops her from making a free choice, since she doesn't choose or accept her calling. Her resolution for me comes at the end of Season 7, when she realises that although she ?has' to be the Slayer as she has been called, she also chooses to (like Willows' S3 ?I like fighting evil' speech?), she chooses to fight evil, even though there's Faith, and all the new Slayers.

    (But there's an interesting question/tangent. Buffy forces the Potentials to become Slayers, even if they don't want to (or as we saw, some weren't even aware they were Potentials). Becoming a Slayer debatably forces that person to take action to stop the forces of evil. Yes, they could ignore their calling, and let the other Slayers get on with stopping evil, but now they have that power, they also have responsibility (too much Spiderman watching, methinks). The Slayer Spell was for me like violating someone, taking away their free will, in as much the same way as vampires sire people, and infect them with demons. The difference is, vampires, as evil creatures (as I've argued above) are less in control of their actions than a completely free person, like Buffy, is. Does this make vampires better than her? (Very A Clockwork Orange here too, is it better for a free person to do evil than it is for an enslaved, Ludoviced person to good?))

    Arg, that was exhausting! Will debate more later on the hero issues when my fingers stop bleeding, and my brain stops dribbling from my ears! And apologies if that didn't really make sense, it was a bit stream-of-consciousness-y.