When the Game of Thrones finale was aired last May, fans were disappointed. Many were even outraged, wanting a remake. Not surprising. Fandom is a silly condition and thrives on individual subjectivities. But that’s another subject.
I watched the show, in fits and starts, sometimes with more ardour, but, mostly, with detached amusement, Peter Dinklage’s performance being my favourite. As a viewer, as opposed to being a fan, I quite liked the finale, especially the dialogue between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. King’s Landing is in ruins after Daenerys has used the ancient world’s airpower to roast the city and most of its inhabitants, despite earlier agreeing to Tyrion’s proposal that she give the chance to the city’s folk and defenders to surrender. She then orders her Unsullied soldiers to put to sword the Lannister troops who had surrendered. When Jon finally approaches her, she is in front of the Iron Throne. He has walked through the destroyed and singed streets of King’s Landing and he has met Tyrion, imprisoned and awaiting execution. Tyrion has turned his phrase, “Love is the death of duty,” to “Sometimes, duty is the death of love.”
The final exchange with Daenerys has to be seen and heard in conjunction with Jon’s exchange with Tyrion in the latter’s cell.
Jon: “I saw them executing Lannister prisoners in the street. They said they were acting on your orders.”
Daenerys: “It was necessary.”
Jon: “Necessary? Have you been down there; have you seen children, little children burnt?”
Daenerys: “I tried to make peace with Cersei. She used their innocence as a weapon against me. she thought it would cripple me.”
Jon: “You can forgive all of them; make them see they made a mistake. Make them understand.”
Daenerys: “You can’t hide behind small mercies. The world we need won’t be built by men loyal to the world we have.”
Jon: “The world we need is a world of mercy; it has to be.”
Daenerys: “And it will be. It’s not easy to see something that’s never been before. A good world.”
Jon: “How do you know; how do you know it will be good?”
Daenerys: “Because I know what is good. And so do you.”
Jon: “I don’t.”
Daenerys: “You have always known.”
Jon: “What about everyone else. All the people who think they know what’s good?”
Daenerys: “They don’t get to choose.”
There. You have the history of the world in a nutshell. There are evil men. We know them when we see them or that’s what we think. But then we have the good men and women, those who know what’s good even as the world they seek to build is something that’s never been before.
Evil men’s actions are evil. They are flat characters, we tell ourselves. That being so, we don’t need to talk about them. They are labelled. But what about good (wo)men? They are rounded characters. They will kill and burn and maim to rid the world of evil, to create a world that will be good because they know what’s good. It’s not their actions but the intentions; the piety that informs those intentions. Piety of intentions “transfiguring all that dread,” to quote Yeats with a minor variation.
We have seen this script play out ad nauseam, at every level, in domestic policies as much as in the conduct of foreign policy. The hell of good intentions, as Stephen Walt titled his 2018 book on US foreign policy and its neoliberal strand.
“You need me on that wall,” Col Jessep says to Lt Kaffee and then goes on to tell the lieutenant that “You can’t handle the truth.”
The problem with good (wo)men as much as with evil (wo)men is the same: they don’t understand the paradox; or, if they do, they choose to ignore it, preferring action to knowledge. But, pray, what is a paradox? It is the knowledge and understanding that we are condemned to live in the company of opposites, that both good and evil inhere in each other, that they are inseparable, that life emanates from death just as it ends in death, that this is a cycle we cannot escape, that every solution brings its own set of problems, that life outside of Eden is a state of self-consciousness and the serpent in Eden is now the paradox here.
Do an exercise: replace Daenerys’ name with that of ‘reformers,’ which come in different shades and hues. X thinks (s)he knows what the ‘national interest’ is. X can be a person or it can be an organisation or, in many cases, an ideological party or, worse, supposedly a pious vanguard that chooses to interpret the scriptures exclusively, rejecting all other exegeses because they know what’s good and what’s right. That’s the common denominator here. It’s the inevitability that runs through all good intentions fired by the desire for action.
Isaiah Berlin wrote Four Essays on Liberty. The 19th century harboured a belief in progress and rational solutions to the problems affecting human beings and society. This was in line with the Age of Reason, even though scholars tend to give the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as a cut-off point for Enlightenment. But 20th century wars and destruction forced people to rethink. There was the irrational in man, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. The best way was to remove the problem. Dealing with societies and their reengineering requires large-scale action, the totalitarian reforms Orwell or Huxley talked about. Much before 9/11, Berlin talked about the desire of the people to accept ‘security’ at the price of individual liberties.
Daenerys’ good world denotes many things then. She can be a reformer, an institution, a party, a system, a theology. Her good world is a world where people acquiesce to what she considers as good. They don’t get to choose. They have to accept. If they do, there will be no singeing. If they don’t…well…then the good must be affirmed by the death of a few to save the souls of millions of others.
But one has to grant her one thing, something one cannot say about many other good men. She doesn’t declare herself to be someone who, like Cincinnatus, will perform the duty for Rome and then go back to farming. She intended to rule the good world and would have, until Jon Snow plunged the dagger into her heart and brought that story to an end.
That’s where the paradox strikes again: Jon had to perform an act of violence to bring violence to an end. There’s just no escaping the paradox. It is our confinement, our albatross.
In this benighted republic too we have had ‘reformers’. What they achieved is before us. We now have another experiment and another set of those who believe in disappearing (no pun!) the problems. The people are quiet. They are unlikely to change anything, anyway. But the cycle is all-powerful and its inevitability has a ruthless certainty. It strikes back. When it does, the wheel comes full circle.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. For his own safety he continues to believe in good men and their reformist agenda. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider