December 8, 2022
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Celebrations of Sociopathy

by Jonathan Wallace

My Sad Father pretended to be an intellectual; he never read books, but only their review in the Sunday Times, which he could then selectively quote to create the inference in his admiring circle that he was well-read. Another pretention on his and my Mad Mother's part was that, sometime in the 1950's, they acquired (I have a vague Flash of memory, from sending in cereal box coupons) complete sets of Dickens and Twain, which took up an entire bookcase in our attic, but which they also never read--books that I browsed intensively and selectively.

In this manner, I became acquainted wth a forgotten Mark Twain essay, which more than fifty-five years later, I still remember vividly, from 1875 or 1882 (the Interwebs give both dates) called "Lionizing Murderers". Twain describes a visit to a fortuneteller, who says: "At the age of nine you stole sugar. At the age of fifteen you stole money. At twenty you stole horses. At twenty-five you committed arson. At thirty, hardened in crime, you became an editor. You are now a public lecturer. Worse things are in store for you. You will be sent to Congress. Next, to the penitentiary. Finally, happiness will come again--all will be well--you will be hanged."

The fortune-teller predicts that Twain will go to New Hampshire and then murder some benefactors. "You will be converted--you will be converted just as soon as every effort to compass pardon, commutation, or reprieve has failed--and then!--Why, then, every morning and every afternoon, the best and purest young ladies of the village will assemble in your cell and sing hymns. This will show that assassination is respectable. Then you will write a touching letter, in which you will forgive all those recent [victims]. This will excite the public admiration. No public can withstand magnanimity. Next, they will take you to the scaffold, with great eclat, at the head of an imposing procession composed of clergymen, officials, citizens generally, and young ladies walking pensively two and two, and bearing bouquets and immortelles. You will mount the scaffold, and while the great concourse stand uncovered in your presence, you will read your sappy little speech which the minister has written for you. And then, in the midst of a grand and impressive silence, they will swing you into per--Paradise, my son. There will not be a dry eye on the ground. You will be a hero!" Twain agrees that "To be hanged in New Hampshire is happiness --it leaves an honored name behind a man, and introduces him at once into the best New Hampshire society in the other world."

I have been reading about a limited run TV drama, The Patient, in which a serial killer abducts and imprisons his therapist-- then purports to continue treatment, as he sincerely wants to stop randomly killing people. In the finale, he murders the therapist-- an action which is a catalyst towards making him a better human. The series ends with the murderer chaining himself up, resolved never to kill again.

I am sensitive to an issue: I am indignantly criticizing a show I refuse to watch. To me, this has always been the hallmark of a kind of inane, ideologically warped right wing campaign. I stand by it and proceed with it because I am using the plot, which is incontestable, rather than purporting to detect nuances I cannot claim without watching. Still, in full parrhesia, I admit this is not a Best Practice.

Bypassing, for now the question of why we are drawn to tell stories about serial killers at all, there are two ways to tell them: one in which killers and victims are equal, both ends and not means, and what happens to the victim is a terrible injustice, to be redressed; and the other, more prevalent type, in which the victims are simply raw material, to be served up, tormented, consumed for the delectation-- or, as in the case of The Patient, even the moral improvement-- of the killer. Virtually my entire life, we have witnessed the Sadistic Set Piece, the body elaborately arranged as an art object, such as in the movie Seven; this has also become a routine feature of television crime shows and procedurals. More often than not, the corpse is an attractive woman, an instance of cruel and sadomasochistic "dead girl" storytelling. Even when the corpse is an ordinary or unpleasant-looking man, the Trope still exists of the human as raw material, used in a production. A huge ambiguity and toxicity results from the fact that the audience is supposed to enjoy the display in a similar way to the killer-- to stand in his shoes. And now we arrive at the thing this essay is being written to convey.

Like Twain's lionization of murderers, our storytelling has, for decades now, begun to glorify the character of the person who is so free of all rules, and so able to say "fuck you" to society, that he can kill innocent people with impunity and without consequences. The Hannibal Lecter novels and movies, horror franchises in which Freddy or Michael Myers graphically do their thing for generations, even the Trope in which the Final Girl of the last movie is the first to die in the next, all serve to glorify murder. But most of these horror movies are studiously stylized and unrealistic--you might call them obviously "id" productions-- while series like The Patient, with a claim to realism, are even more offensive, precisely because they shift the drama to the realm of the ego.

This trend has led to the valorization (wow, a word I never use) of quite unspeakable genres. While zombie movies are quite egalitarian--anyone can get bitten and become undead-- vampire movies also involve a specially chosen elite who have license to murder anyone they want. The scene in the original Interview With the Vampire movie, in which the vampires toy with a beautiful naked victim, who eventually seems to accept and even engage in her own murder, says it all. In the overdone, overdetermined and quite tedious hitman genre, the assassin kills a number of innocent people quite graphically; its his job.

Many of these movies also break down into two categories (nota bene: there are of course two categories of everything). In one, the victims are innocent, but are raw material for the "production". In Killing Eve, we watched Villanelle kill a number of people who decidedly didn't deserve it; these scenes were also not sensualized or staged in a Seven kind of way, so we have a genre, invented by Hitchcock, in which we watch brutal murders which, if they are meant to appeal to us, do so only in a quite gross, exhausting, endless kind of way. in Torn Curtain, Paul Newman and Lila Kedrova kill an obese, unpleasant man, by wrestling him endlessly, sticking his head in the oven, and on and on. On the other hand, in a quickly canceled television series a few years back, Good Behavior, the hit man was often hired by husbands to kll innocent wives, but in each scene there was just a little sophistical, despicable hint that the woman had it coming, if only because she was actively annoying to others.

Since Hollywood first crystallized from the Zeitgeist, the ether of the Id, ha, filmmakers have known that violence was appealing to audiences, but the Hays Code for fifty years or so found a way to contain it: in the last ten minutes, the killer was killed. Jimmy Cagney always went to the electric chair at the end. You could eventually, by the 1960's, show anything you wanted, as in Bonnie and Clyde, as long as the murderers received a hail of bullets in their bodies in the last minutes of the film. Only gradually, from the 1980's on, did it become possible for unrepentant killers to experience happy endings. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers is an attempt directly and with sneering pleasure to represent this Trope.

The celebration of sociopathy has infected almost all the television shows we favor. I thought Breaking Bad was great television particularly because it was so retro, so Hays Code: Walter White, who has in his character arc crossed a line into acts of punched-up sociopathy against innocent people (he poisons (but does not kill) a child to achieve a psychological effect) expiated his sins at the end. On the other hand, The Sopranos, which I detested, invented a new kind of dishonesty: the postmodern ending, in which the screen went black, seemed designed to have it both ways. The audiences which needed a Hays Code ending could infer it, while those who wanted Tony to survive (and go on killing and glorying) could also Believe.

Here is the punchline: I do not believe Donald Trump would be possible without this drift into the lionization of sociopaths. He is too clearly the figure immune from all rules, who can as he himself said, kill someone on Fifth Avenue. Trump's rhetoric and actions have so often excused murder and praised murderers. We seem to be living in the world we imagined on television.