If the past is any warrant for the future, the story of Jared Loughner will soon be transmuted into television crime drama, in a “ripped from the headlines” episode of one of those now numerous shows that deal largely with psychos and the detectives who try to catch them.
That so much of our entertainment should dwell so fixedly on the psycho is puzzling. If bloodshed has long been a preoccupation of art, from slaughter in the House of Atreus to slaughter in Glamis Castle, the shedders of blood have typically been portrayed as having comprehensible, if evil, reasons for killing — revenge, jealousy, ambition, the whole spectrum of motive passion. The psycho, by contrast, has none of these tragic motives for hurting a particular person. His anger or lust either is random in its trajectory, and icily dispassionate, or is dictated by the necessities of an idiosyncratic personal mythology that makes sense only to him. The psycho is in this respect a new phenomenon, or at any rate new to art, Poe being the first to take it up in stories like “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “There have been murderers throughout history,” I wrote in NR last summer,
but the phenomenon of the lone psychopath intent on cruelty as well as bloodshed seems not to have been remarked until the 1860s, with the murders committed by Dumollard in Montluel and Lyons, by Joseph Philippe in Paris, by Frederick Baker in England, and by Gruyo in Spain. These were followed by the crimes of Vincenzo Verzeni in the Bergamasco region of Lombardy in the 1870s, the Austin Axe Murders in Texas in 1884 and 1885, the Whitechapel Murders attributed to Jack the Ripper in 1888, and the Vacher Murders in France, which began in 1894.
This novel character, the psycho, soon became a staple of popular art. Stevenson published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, two years before the Whitechapel Murders, and Conan Doyle brought out the first of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries in 1887. The genre remains today essentially what those authors made it; the psycho has simply become ever more grotesquely and even ludicrously depraved, and ever less warm-blooded in his motives. Thus the progression from Faulkner’s Popeye (the sexually crippled villain in Sanctuary) and Hitchcock’s Norman Bates (the Hollywood Oedipus), who have the residual detritus of passionate motive, to Hannibal Lecter, the philosophic cannibal of Thomas Harris’s novels.
Possibly our fascination with the psycho tells us only that we adore the macabre, have a soft spot for the skull that lies “beneath the roots of flowers.” (Loughner had a cranial shrine in the backyard, with a bag of potting soil nearby.) But our interest seems to me to go deeper. “Constantly interrupted by commercials hawking pharmaceutical remedies for such garden-variety decrepitudes as depression and insomnia,” I wrote in NR, today’s psycho art fingers “the deeper apprehension that these run-of-the-mill morbidities may degenerate into pathological ones — that under the pressure of modern life the apparently innocuous neighbor or colleague or spouse will ‘snap.’ Such, at any rate, is the storyline commonly retailed when yet another mass killing takes place.”
Jared Loughner differs, it is true, from the psycho who appears normal until, under the weight of accumulated tribulations, he breaks, and reveals an unsuspected strain of psychosis. Loughner differs, too, from the more sinister character who deliberately conceals his lunacy under a camouflage of normalcy, a laborious pretense of sanity. Loughner was openly, flamboyantly weird. And yet before Saturday he seems not to have been, on the surface, palpably insane. His interest in dreams, though eccentric, was not inherently mad, and even if, as some have maintained, he showed symptoms of schizophrenia, schizophrenics, if the National Institute of Mental Health is to be believed, “are not usually violent . . . The risk of violence among people with schizophrenia is small.” Every psycho is a law unto himself; but in the coolly methodical way in which Loughner prepared what he is alleged to have called “my assassination,” he displayed the psychotic quality that perhaps fascinates us most, a malignancy that is not only motiveless but passionless.
The fascination is revealing precisely because the phenomenon itself is so exceedingly rare. We dwell on the psycho not, I think, because we feel ourselves directly threatened by him, but because he seems to us only the most lurid manifestation of a more extensive breakdown. His large morbidities and his absolute isolation are, it is true, far removed from the minor morbidities and comparative loneliness of modern life — from the little psychoses of the unimpassioned depressive, the solitary neurotic, the Eleanor Rigby–style loser. But they are close enough to them to make us uncomfortable, and to make the psycho himself the master-figure of modern popular culture. He is not like the rest of us, but he has, in his solipsism and disconnectedness, realized a destiny that Tocqueville believed could one day overtake the rest of us, should we forfeit the grace that draws a man out of his wilderness. “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors,” Tocqueville wrote, “but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
“When you’re alone like he was alone . . .” Overlooking the significance that Eliot or Tocqueville or Dostoevsky might have found in a character like Jared Loughner, we glibly attribute his acts to “extremist rhetoric” or a “culture of violence.” But the problem of the psycho and the puzzle of our compulsive interest in him speak to strains and uneasinesses in modern life that lie much deeper than rhetoric, whether political or artistic. They speak to a dissatisfaction of which modernity, with all its blessings, has been the accomplice, a vacancy that the psycho seems to us to embody, a type and symbol of our waste lands.
— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life.