Dr. Steve

The psychopathic world of David Mamet’s plays

Hilton Als writes this in a recent New Yorker magazine:

Among the many terrible realities to which David Mamet exposes us in his exceptional, calculated work, one theme stands out: suckers will never get a break in this wretched world. In the sixty-year-old playwright’s fictional universe, the humane are too soft and dim-witted to survive; their tormentors chew them up with dry relish. Mamet treats the stage as a kind of bloody forum; the gladiators one finds there are skinny con artists, callow film producers, real-estate agents in cheap suits, and ghastly lovers who spar, using the author’s hyper-stylized language as both spear and shield. Even to refer to some of Mamet’s characters as “lovers” feels wrong—like calling a thief a victim. Mamet’s protagonists do not love; they size each other up and assess what they can extract from each other—and the answer is usually money. If they show any physical tenderness at all, it’s brief; they kiss, then withdraw, constantly reminding themselves of the primary rule of survival: Get or be gotten.

A ‘female’-type psychopathy?

We know only too well that by far the majority of psychopaths are men. Or at least we think we know that. Could it be that the criteria used to identify psychopaths are biased towards men? After all Hare began his work in male prison.

Think about it. While behaving and being the way the PCL-R without doubt earns one the label psychopath, this is simply a list of symptoms. It says nothing about the underlying dynamics. If psychopathy is life centered on the principle of power (as opposed to love) and if it is therefore characterised by what Liane Leedom nicely calls ‘warped empathy‘, then wouldn’t you expect there to be more or less the same number of woman as men psychopaths? And wouldn’t you expect them to come across differently?

Psychopaths in Hollywood

[Hello all. I haven’t contributed to for about six months now. That’s not to say that I haven’t been keeping up with things here – I have. It’s just that I found that I’d got to a dead-end in my thinking on the problem of the psychopath and his prey. After some reflection I believe that I’ve better handle on the issues and am ready to start participating again. It may be that a book comes out of all this – who know? Thanks to Donna for her patience and encouragement.]

Steve Becker raised the issue of psychopaths in movies a few months ago – I’d like to raise it again. I’ve been watching the second series of the TV show ‘Dexter‘. For those who don’t know it, Dexter is a serial killer who operates according to a code taught to him by his father. Dad, a cop, realised that Dexter was different (socially inept, blood lust, etc.) and so instilled in him the principle that he was not to hurt people in general, but to work at getting along with them. Dexter is permitted to kill only those who deserve it, e.g. killers who’s escaped justice.

The psychopath as anti-saint

Consider this extract from a piece by Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion:

In his essay, The Empire of the Ugly, the great Belgian Sinologist and literary essayist Simon Leys recounts the story of how, writing one day in a café, a small incident gave him an insight into the real nature of philistinism.

A radio was playing in the background, a mixture of banal and miscellaneous chatter and equally banal popular music. No one in the café paid any attention to this stream of tepid drivel until suddenly, unexpectedly and inexplicably, the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet were played.

Evil – a simple definition

I love my wikipedia. I learn a lot I didn’t know and I refine my thinking by finding fault too. (The problem is knowing what is worth learning and what needs unlearning!)

Consider the wikipedia definition of evil:

Evil is generally defined as any activity which takes advantage of another person for one’s own benefit….(In contrast, good is helping others, even sometimes self-sacrificially; see saint, sainthood.)

There’s something dodgy about the form of this definition and also something very familiar about its implications. For one thing, it fits with the the lable ‘anti-social’ which refers to behaviour which has ill effects, but good intentions – “well, in his culture that behaviour is normal”. Whatever happened to ill intent, though? (For another thing, what’s the counterpart to sainthood?)

There is no drabber place to be

Why is it that in the popular media super-psychopaths like serial killers are portrayed has having such rich inner lives? (Consider the highly cultured Hannibal Lecter.) That’s not right at all.

Anthony Lane, film reviewer for the New Yorker, makes the point well:

There was a time when, as a God-fearing member of the community, you could commit a single murder, drop a couple of clues, and wait to be unmasked. Now it’s all serial slayers, stacking up bodies like air miles. Filmgoers are supposed to find this multiplicity enticing, and we are constantly being invited to enter into the “mind” of the serial killer, but in truth there is no drabber place to be, and the idea that there might be an artfulness, even a style, to the act of homicide is one of the more pernicious fantasies that movies like to hawk.

Josef Fritzl – psychopath

By now everyone knows about the astounding case of incest, etc. in Austria. The abominable story can be read here. No doubt some are going to excuse Josef Fritzl by suggesting that he must be a mad man. Others (for instance here) will find fault with society.

These rationalisations are because for regular people the immensity of the crimes are blinding. But there are enough clues already that what Fritzl is is a psychopath and as such is responsible for his actions.

Take one small detail – the alleged role of drugs in the case.

The opposite of love is … what?

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is just one person who has said the following: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”. In other words, the opposite of love is not hate, as might have been expected. We’ve all heard this contention and been struck by it. Yes, we’ve thought, it is terrible to be ignored. (Pretty awful being hated too, of course.)

But I’m grateful to Dawn Eden for mentioning another powerful proposition.

Eden, promoting her book ‘The Thrill of the Chaste‘, is currently visiting Canadian high schools.

The paradox of psychopathy, non-psychopathy, and evil

The blogger, Sir William, has a post ”˜What is evil? which employs what is a very common way of talking about psychopathy and evil.

Psychopaths do exist but they are not fully human: they are animals who lack one of the qualities which defines our species.

This is a very comforting explanation for those who have been on the receiving end of psychopathy. It seems to answer the question how could someone do something like that? Answer, because they’re not really a ”˜someone’. They’re actually and animal, not a human being.

How does this line of thinking account for evil committed by non-psychopaths?

“The conscience is a vital organ”

Isn’t it strange how the mind works? I read with approval Dr Leedom’s latest post. In it she manages to be at once hard-nosed, realistic, and still keep positve. There are very real differences in the brains of those with psychopathic traits, she writes, but the brain is plastic and therein lies just a sliver of hope.

For some reason the opening lines of Martin Amis‘ novel House of Meetings came back to me. It is set in the Soviet Union:

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