Saturday, January 06, 2007

Reality checks in

The Wikipedia entry on ‘psychopathy’ quotes Robert D. Hare, author of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, describing psychopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”

This could as well be the Wikipedia entry for ‘writers’. Psychopaths tend to lack empathy, while writers suffer from a surfeit of it, but it’s precisely the ability to empathise with lack of empathy that would make a writer such an excellent psychopath. Come to think of it, this could also be the Wikipedia entry for ‘politicians’, or ‘random neighbours’.

It’s quite likely that many more people than is obvious, live on the knife-edge between ‘nice old grandfatherly sort’ and ‘Hamilton Albert Fish’. If you aren’t familiar with the name, think Hannibal Lecter, without the charm. To appreciate the finer points of the man’s temperament and life one must google him, though I would urge you not to do that around mealtimes.

The world is filled with psychopaths in all kinds of positions, which is why it is such a violent place. Yet, most people demand that the violence be kept from public view, except in its fictional form. I disagree. Fiction is a wonderful insulator (enhancer of comfort and reducer of shock) that doesn’t allow horror to fully penetrate to the soul because, no matter how much it draws on reality, some part of you knows it’s fake. Fiction allows you to experience extreme behaviour and emotion without being scarred or broken by it. I would argue that there are things we need to be scarred by, things that we don’t even register any more, and that we might do something about if it were more in our faces.

I’ve never been rattled to the foundations by a really gruesome or cruel or tragic or depraved book or movie. I remember Exquisite Corpse, a 1996 novel by Poppy Z. Brite, as a brilliant tale about two gay necrophiliac serial killers who eat their victims. Even though Brite drew heavily on the life of real-life psychopath Jeffrey Dahmer, I was intrigued more than horrified.

Of course, truth being ever stranger than fiction, and apparently equally imitative, in 2001 there was the case of “the Cannibal of Rotenburg”, a gay German man named Armin Meiwes, who killed and ate a willing victim, computer engineer Bernd-Juergen Brandes, after they discovered each other and their shared tastes, if you will, on the internet. Among the stories I read about it, the one throwaway line that really gave me pause was that the police officers involved in studying the evidence, including the videotaped ritual murder, were undergoing psychiatric counselling. For them it wasn’t a matter of reading a newspaper report; it was real.

Reality has a way of being much harder to take, and in important ways this is more constructive. I’m not intrigued by Moninder Pandher’s little sexual assault-and-murder operation in Noida, I’m sickened by it. I’m not intrigued by the live beheadings and shootings and bombings I’ve watched on the internet, I’m sickened by them. I can keep my popcorn down through any number of spilt intestines at a movie, but my own stomach turns when a real person gets a real paper cut.

If we were forced to watch real people get hurt, and die, or get killed, or sell their kidneys for a meal, the views and opinions we hold—on capital punishment, on gun control, on who to vote for—would be a good deal more substantive. And who knows, more of us might be moved to step forward and help.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Um, if you bombard folks with gore, they get desensitized over time. Your "appropriate" reaction to the seriousness of real horror will vanish.

Witness the Indian upper class' ability to compartmentalize and separate their own existence from that of those who surround them. If their minds didn't adapt, they'd either commit suicide or give everything away in charity, the first entropy rationalizing step toward the homogeneity of the universe as it was once was.

Civilization as we know it, with all its warts and gems, depends on the existence of the ugly. Are you sure you want to ban it and start us all on our return to the primordial soup?