June 25, 2013

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Richard III, Lady Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus all reveal their remorse and moral turmoil in soliloquy and dream, but Iago offers us nothing, which is why he is always acted so badly. Actors latch on to the facile and deceitful justifications he offers to other characters and even to himself (what Coleridge called his “motive hunting”) to find an emotional justification for their actions onstage, whereas this is a man for whom justification itself is an alien thing, a man living outside society’s norms altogether. And as Aristotle also remarked in a line well-known to Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries:

He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.

This dichotomy between the feral and omnipotent comprises most of the romance of this form of evil. (Note the commonality between serial killers and their supernatural counterparts, the vampires, which are so popular again today.) Men of power and will who are unbound by social convention are attractive not only to pulp-fiction writers but also to powerful thinkers such as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. Authors such as Harris muddy the waters with cheap tricks: Lecter’s cannibalism is driven by his creator’s love of effect and the grotesque and is not necessitated by his intrinsic lack of ethics. Trying to find out exactly what a “pure sociopath” would do has been the great struggle of writing my own novel. If you have no values, you have no goals, and without goals, why act at all? Certainly the act of murder, with the attendant possibility of being caught, is no logical consequence of amorality alone. 

The psychologists agree. The best recent book on the topic, The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton, describes a variety of people who would be diagnosed with the condition.

I first got to know Kevin when we met to discuss a project on the chilling calm and froideur of my matador friends in Spain. By the end of a long pub crawl in Oxford we had come to the conclusion that we both probably fell under the description as well. This was made more eerie by the fact that I was writing my novel while living in exactly the same London apartment he had also rented as a young academic.

The fact that we both have friends indicates that neither of us are psychopaths. We”€™re merely authors with a tendency toward the self-aggrandizing who are subject to willpower’s romantic allure and pure evil’s literary appeal. 

Yet there is always the voice in the back of my head when immersed in such subjects that gives a warning best phrased by Nietzsche: 

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.



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