Ruthless and reckless

Inverted Commas 16: Recklessness

Ruthlessness creates its own rules. So my mother taught me. People are intimidated by a man who acts with no apparent regard for consequences. Behave as if you cannot be touched and no one will dare to touch you.
Assassin’s Apprentice, chapter 23.

It feels as if the world is dominated by machismo at the moment — some might say this is how it has ever been — but the advent of universal suffrage and democratic conventions was supposed to put on a brake and a limit to it all. That people in too many countries have insanely acted like turkeys voting for Christmas is, I think, the greatest failure of modern democracy, allowing unbridled machismo to disregard those who need the most support.

Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice (like any good literature, including much fantasy of course) presents us with a mirror to view our modern lives, and this quote drew me up short. One of the principal antagonists at an apparent moment of triumph crows about his ruthlessness. ‘Ruth’ of course means pity, and showing no pity or compassion is here held up as an effective means justifying its ends. It is a ‘virtue’ that should be exercised by a successful politician, many think, indeed it’s a stance recommended in Machiavelli’s The Prince.

That’s as may be. A leader is expected to have to make difficult decisions, and it could be argued that to make an omelette one has to break an egg or two. But some politicians have gone a step further. Their intention is to ‘intimidate’, to frighten or browbeat opponents, not to rule consensually. And this is to be accomplished by acting with ‘no apparent regard for consequences’.

This is dangerous, this kind of recklessness. (The meaning of the now archaic word ‘reck’ is care.) Nowadays to be accounted reckless you have to court danger, almost like racing blindfold along a precipice. Males — and particularly young men — are more prone to taking risks, especially when their male peers or unattached females are around, and such risk-taking quite often continues into later years, the more that the investment in that risk-taking seems to yield results.

We know of politicians, don’t we, who have got to a position of power by appearing to have a charmed life, though this ‘charm’ may simply arise from outrageous behaviour, by being ‘a character’, rather than the charm representing true ability or talent. When the lies, the bullying, the denigration and the wrongdoing don’t result in sanctions — because the systemic checks and balances are inadequate or fail on technicalities — the perpetrators feel encouraged to overtop their outrageous acts. Worse, these sociopaths feel neither inclined nor constrained to use reason to justify or excuse their actions:

Minimal albis will work. If I made too much effort to appear guiltless, people might think I cared. They might start then to pay attention themselves.

Robin Hobb knows all this, which is why she puts these words in the mouth of a particularly ruthless and reckless psychopath. “So,” he proclaims as his strategy here, “I simply know nothing.” Neither apologise nor deny, simply obfuscate by answering a question which hasn’t been asked. Or not answer at all. Meanwhile, the rest of the world can go to hell.

But those who think they’re untouchable may sometimes overreach themselves once too many times. And then there may come a reckoning.

17 thoughts on “Ruthless and reckless

  1. …and if the reckoning comes only in literature – for now, as hopefully some in the real world have their just deserts cumming – that’s all the more reason to read on! 😀

    As for ruth, not many people seem to remember this word. There is a quote from Butler’s edition of Iliad concerning Achilles, where he is described as “knowing neither right nor ruth” and the editors of my article keep changing ruth to truth 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I see you’ve been following the shitshow from the other side of the globe, Ola — such a contrast with your own PM reacting to a genuine earthquake — but it’s worrying that this fireworks display is distracting from Cummings dismantling the welfare state and the civil service behind the scenes. Have no doubt, he’s Rasputin, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, Thomas Cromwell and Cesare Borgia rolled into one.

      I like that confusion between Ruth and truth, but it’s entirely unfair in Achilles’ case, wasn’t it, whatever his motivations he was true to his warrior ethos.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh, I actually think he’s more like Black Adder; somehow, as Thomas Cromwell had been acquitted in my eyes, at least partially, by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series; and as for Richelieu, most historians agree he had been vilified by Dumas and was not nearly as bad as the Three Musketeers would have us believe – whereas there are no extenuating circumstances for that horrible excuse for a person that inexplicably remains Johnson’s adviser…

        As for Achilles, I fully agree: he might have not known ruth, but he certainly knew the truth! 😄

        And lastly, Chris, I am indeed happy that our PM seems to be one of the very few actually up to the task of leadership in these trying times! I just wish there were more like her.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. You’re right to point out my slurs on Cromwell and Richelieu’s reputations, Ola — *slaps own wrist* — but I had in mind their popular notoriety of course. 🙂 Though I may possibly have maligned Rasputin too, he was probably just a harmless eccentric whose personal hygiene prejudiced contemporaries against him…

          Liked by 3 people

          1. LOL, I fear I don’t know enough about Rasputin to discuss his hidden virtues, Chris, but I have a strong premonition that for this particular scam to work so well you needed two willing sides 😉 As such, Romanovs are not without guilt themselves. But even though I won’t defend Rasputin, I feel Cummings’s particular brand of bland bureaucratic evil more keenly – maybe because I am forced to observe it up close 😉

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, Chris, what a beautiful, inspirational, line of reasoning. Thank you so much for breaking down the definitions, yes, recklessness and ruthlessness have become words we use too thoughtlessly. I, for one, will be taking more care with them in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cath. The quotes from the Hobb’s fantasy just leapt out at me in the light of current politics and sent a searchlight beam on how such machiavellian figures distort situations so that instability becomes the new normal. Characters like Trump, Johnson, Bolsanaro et al are mainly instinctively reckless, while a power behind the throne like Cummings or Putin are utterly and determinedly ruthless. I’m convinced Cummings has so much on Johnson that, like Trump with Putin, he can manipulate him howsoever he likes,knowing that their antics will distract the public. Blackmail, that’s the key.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That press release certainly left me with the feeling that our world had taken Game of Thrones so seriously that we’d somehow merged with it, or maybe I signed up to a virtual deal on it, and have had a selective memory wipe about it. Which would be fine if I had actually watched more than a few episodes, or better still, read the book (s).

        Strange times like these, blackmail does seem a likely key.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The kindest things to call him are both words to rhyme with Dominic, but I won’t sully this blog with them. There are much ruder epithets but all would slide off him like water off an oily fowl.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    Great post, but it leaves me wondering how the book deals with the fact that the main character is an assassin in training? It seems like that should be addressed somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that is the conundrum which is cocooned within the narrative, Beth! How can a protagonist be portrayed sympathetically when their training is to kill as their political masters dictate? Far be it from me to offer spoilers here but Hobb does resolve matters and questions of morality here in rather elegant ways — more than that I shan’t say!


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