This is Vol. 4 of the Occult Reading List, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week. Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.
This is a special edition of the Reading List that deals with building a picture of a psychopathic mind. This is not the clinical definition of a psychopath, as defined by the DSM–this is the popular idea of a psychopath. I’m working on a new story that deals with a Mephistophelean character who’s a liar and master manipulator, and I wanted to delve into some material that could flesh out his mindset and worldview. I also asked my friend, Joel Clapp, to help compose a sketch of Yute based off the infamous photo of Charles Manson:
No one should romanticize real-life serial killers or cult leaders, but there’s something fascinating and deeply disturbing about delving into the mind of a psychopathic character. Trying to capture the essence of that sort of person ended up leading down interesting paths, especially ideas about the self, including Zen, Jungian archetypes, and German philosophy.
Reading the highlights of this book was like finding the Cliff’s Notes for American Psycho. Written in 1998 after observing the behavior of Hollywood’s power elite, the book is a apparently a big hit among celebrities, prison inmates, and corporate Machiavellian types, the kind that read The Art of War in order to get an edge in the boardroom. Some of the laws include things like “Court Attention at all Cost”, “Keep Others in Suspended Terror”, “Think as you like but Behave like others”, and the best one of all, “Assume Formlessness”.
Despite supposedly being a guide to the laws of power, the central tenets of the book revolve around the idea that appearances, not substance, are what really matter. You are who you appear to be, and your reputation is the most important thing you have. It really is a new Machiavellian handbook, and the worldview it espouses closely resembles nightmarish, uber-wealthyworld that Patrick Bateman inhabits in American Psycho.
Patrick Bateman is going to be an ongoing touchpoint for the reading in this week’s list, and the video above gives a great interpretation of his fictional character. As for the character of Yute, The 48 Laws of Power offers the bedrock for a master manipulator’s view of the world and his relationship to the world: everything is illusions, and the world is a zero-sum game that must be played every waking hour.
Everyone knows there’s a certain way to frame a conversation so that you’ll always win in the end. For police interrogators, the key is following certain techniques, like the Reid Technique, which consists of seven (sometimes nine) steps. All of it’s based on psychology and the mental stress of a guilty conscious (and imprisonment). At the same time, reading through the book made me realize just how much police offers can deceive you, trick you, and abuse your rights in order to get a confession–one passage essentially says “don’t remind a suspect of their Miranda rights against self-incrimination” and encourages the officer to keep the suspect away from a lawyer. It’s all about pressuring someone and manipulating their emotions to break down their will, which is disturbing.
At the same time, the methods and techniques in the book offer a good primer on how to structure dialogue and character dynamics in a story, especially when someone is being subtly (or overtly) pressed to reveal something they don’t want to. For the story I’m writing, it offered a body of knowledge to draw upon when trying to show that a character was an accomplished liar.
I read the first chapter of this book, titled “Schizoid character structure:
Encapsulated in ice”. I’ve never had any love for psychoanalysis in practice, but as storytelling inspiration, it’s a great resource. I actually came across the idea of the “schizoid” in Emmanuel Carrere’s biography of Philip K Dick:
“The source of all evil, he thought, was withdrawal in the self, into one’s shell—a symptom, in psychiatric terms, of schizophrenia…A schizoid thinks more he feels. His comprehension of the world and of himself is purely intellectual and abstract, his awareness an atomistic aggregation of a number of disparate elements that never cohere into an emotion or even truly into a real thought…”
This idea is expanded in the text of Matrix and Meaning:
“The schizoid patient experiences a terrifying emptiness, a nameless dread, an inner landscape unpopulated by human figures. She frequently turns to endless dreams and fantasies, which may be rich, symbolic, and mesmerizing. She may find solace in a well-developed intellect and develop an internal crystal palace in which she lives alone, safe but frozen. However, she may also find dangerous depths, unpredictability, and deadly horrors.”
It’s a fascinating idea, and good insight into what a twisted mind might look like. One of the most uncanny and frightening things about psychopaths or serial killers is that they appear to be normal people, but their minds often seem completely alien to “normal” people. It evokes the title of one of the most famous books on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey M. Cleckley.
This was an honest-to-god MA Philosophy thesis from the Universiteit van Amsterdam that I found online, published in 2009. It’s on Hegelian phenomenology, the most complicated, confusing, and absolutely unintuitive brand of German philosophy possible. I studied some of it college, and it turned out to be not as bad as I remembered, though it was still a labyrinth to read.
The central idea of the essay (and intersubjectivity) is that “the self only becomes fully self‐aware by seeing oneself through the eyes of another in mutual recognition…” Subject-object relationships are the big thing for Hegel, where the self is the “subject” and everything else is an “object.” The problem arises when the self tries to examine itself–who is the little voice in your head talking about your thoughts? Well, that must also be you. When you examine yourself, you make part of yourself into an observer and part of yourself into an object of observation, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to “get outside yourself” and see everything.
This is supposedly solved by viewing yourself from the perspective of another person–but, as the essay says, you can never understand anyone or anything except in your own terms:
“…Hegel’s interpretation, consciousness is never in direct relation to an object, but in relation to an object only in a self‐relation.”
If “man is the measure of all things,” then each person is their own measure of the world, and of themselves. When we see other people, we aren’t really seeing them, we’re seeing aspects of ourselves. Strangely enough, a great articulation of this idea comes from American Psycho again, in his monologue on Whitney Houston.
Hegel doesn’t seem to be too troubled by this infinite loop of the self seeing the world as reflections of itself, but it raises some terrifying questions, especially when it comes to the ego-driven world of the psychopath. The whole subject-object relationship Hegel puts forward reminds me of the 48 Laws of Power, and how much emphasis it puts on the self being totally dependent on other people–not just socially, but existentially.
Alone Down There by Modest Mouse
This is the song I’ve been listening to while writing this new draft with Yute. The lyrics fit the story scarily well, especially this one:
The Devil’s apprentice he gave me some credit
He fed me a line and I’ll probably regret it
It speaks to the Mephistophelean nature of the character: the lyrics “fed me a line” can refer to both a line of credit, which is a great tool for putting someone in debt, and the line of a fishing hook, which catches someone in a trap. The lyrics “I don’t want you to be alone down there” makes me think the song is talking about Hell, and that the singer is trying to make sure he fills Hell with plenty of victims so they won’t be alone.
On top of that, the song’s lyrics are sung in a sort of seductive lilt, while the chorus is shouted, which makes it sound more abrasive, desperate. It sums up the story and the character well.
Alan Watts: The Void Pt 1
Zen is a constant inspiration for my writing and my worldbuilding. A lot of my stories start from ideas about self, illusions, reality, eternity, and the human relationship with the universe, even if those ideas aren’t explicitly brought up in the course of the plot. When thinking about the character of Yute, I realized that The 48 Laws of Power and Zen Buddhism both share a central tenet: formlessness, or the Void. The Zen idea of the self is mu, or emptiness, as explained in the video. There is no innate self, according to Zen, and the experience of realizing mu is the feeling of annihilation. Upon the annihilation of the self, one experiences enlightenment, which is the realization that one is not an identity–one is the universe.
So formlessness can be the birthplace of a manipulative, psychopathic mind that consumes and tricks people to further itself, like The 48 Laws of Power, or it can birth a mind that sees no division between itself and the rest of the universe, where any injuries it inflicts on others are really injuries to itself. This ties into intersubjectivity, and the idea that your sense of self is inseparable from those around you.
Patrick Bateman and the DAO of the Psycopath:
I think psychopathic characters, like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman, are fascinating because their internal world is so foreign and alien to other people that they end up functioning like broken mirrors on humanity. You get a sense of vertigo when you read them, like you’re looking through a window into another world. That’s the heart of the uncanny attraction, I think. But what makes them frightening, in an existential sense, is that it may be a thin line between ego-driven, manipulative madness (like Charles Manson) and transcendental enlightenment (like Zen Buddhism).
The difference, I think, is one’s perception of oneself and one’s relationship to the world, which is where phenomenology comes in. Hegel seems to say that we can only truly understand ourselves through the eyes of others, but can anyone really see into the essence of someone else? Can we even see into our own essence? As Patrick Bateman claims in the chilling ending monologue of American Psycho, the “inside” of people, the substance or essence, may be of no consequence–an absurdity.
According to the Hegelian view, the self is only beholden to the beliefs and bounds it submits itself to, and it decides what it should submit itself to. With nothing guiding the self but itself, self-defintion becomes an ouroboros–your definitions of the world and yourself may be completely incomprehensible and unintelligible to anyone else, and what you perceive as your “self” may be a bunch of incoherent babbling with nothing at its center and no meaning, even to you. Self-examination may be a futile exercise, since there’s nothing to know or understand that you didn’t already know on some level. This is what Bateman may be expressing when he says “I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
So what is at the heart of a person? What makes their identity? Bateman says early in the movie:
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.”
This would be a profound and positive realization for a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, but for anyone else, it’s absolutely alien. Of course Patrick has a self–who’s talking, if not Patrick Bateman? It’s a similar question to the one the Emperor of China asked Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism: “Who is speaking before me?” Bodhidharma’s answer was “I don’t know.”
If you’re a Zen Buddhist, having no self is the gateway to enlightenment. And there is a name for a person that comes back from the self-annihilation of Nirvana and tries to enlighten others: a Bodhisattva. It’s the highest good you can achieve in the Mahayana view of Buddhism, and it all starts with mu, the Void. But this sense of no-self, of emptiness in the soul, can lead to the opposite: someone who desires to inflict suffering and anguish on anyone and everyone, with no reason beyond the fact that there are no reasons not to:
“My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.”
I think when anyone writes a “psychopath” character, they’re only making their best guess. But even if those characters are only simulacra of the minds they’re supposedly based on, they can still cause us to ask difficult questions about what it means to be a human. It’s unsettling that, of all questions, that one has never been settled.