The Wrath of Nietzsche

The next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is “The Wrath of Nietzsche” by Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin. This essay is a little meandering, stopping at notions of revenge and at Nietzsche and the Overman to finally, essentially, seemingly conclude that Khan from “The Wrath of Khan” was destroyed by his desire for revenge. But what’s interesting in this essay is the seeming sympathy for Khan that you find in it:

Since we may sympathize with Khan’s anger and with his desire to destroy the arrogant and self-centered Kirk, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see Khan as the protagonist of the work …

But in order to see Khan as the protagonist of the work, we’d have to see it as a tragedy, as a work where the protagonist was foiled in his projects either by his own failings or by the whims of fate. Given that Khan was destroyed by seeking vengeance far after it became productive to do so, the former might be reasonable … but, then, the only reason that this would be a tragedy is that, at the end, Kirk survives, although wounded and diminished by the loss of Spock. Khan sacrificing himself to destroy Kirk would be heroic; his sacrificing himself and failing would be tragic.

They comment that in order for the sympathetic Khan to work “… we have to be convinced that his feelings of vengeance are not only genuine, but also productive“. I disagree. I think that in order for Khan to be sympathetic, we have to feel that his pursuit of vengeance is either just — at which point he’s the protagonist in a tragedy — or that he has been just pushed too far by circumstances and is acting in a manner that is unjust and irrational, but one that we could see ourselves doing in their place. In short, there but for the grace of God go we. If we see it as the former, then he’s the protagonist — if one who might be too obsessed with vengeance, or who is straddling and even wandering over the line between justice and vengeance. If we see it as the latter, he’s a sympathetic antagonist; he’s wrong, but we can understand why he’s wrong.

Despite what the essay hints, there’s no reason to see Khan’s vengeance as justice. The claims that Kirk should have checked up on someone who tried to kill him and take over his ship and who seemed excited over the prospect of surviving or not based on his own abilities, when it wasn’t even Kirk’s job are completely unjustified. Khan can find no one to blame but the whims of fate, and being unsatisfied with that answer, and being unable to even blame himself, blames Kirk. So Khan cannot be the protagonist seeking a just revenge and ending with a tragic outcome, having sacrificed everything for a justice that, in the end, he was denied. However, given what he went through, and the loss of his wife, we can see this not as someone grasping towards a rational but ultimately wrong conclusion, or someone simply blinded by hate for Kirk, but instead as someone driven mad by the combination of helplessness, disaster, and his own hubris and belief of himself as the superior and even destined man. Destiny favours the bold, and Khan was the boldest of all, and yet destiny crushed him and his dreams, leaving only vengeance to drive him forward. Given this, we can sympathize with Khan because we can’t be sure that in the same circumstances we wouldn’t do the exact same thing, and let our anger and thirst for vengeance become our only motivation so that when alternatives present themselves we cannot see them through the forest of our anger and thirst for vengeance. It is reasonable for Khan to be devastated by what happened, and from there his actions are not reasonable, but are understandable. So we can, indeed, wish better for Khan than what he got, while understanding that, in the end, it could end no other way.

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