YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 24, 2012

The cracked and cracking loner as mass murderer

Today is July 24, 2012. The Aurora, Colorado massacre happened early Friday morning, July 20, 2012, and we know almost nothing about the perpetrator’s past; his politics, if any; or how his brain works; but already writers for mass media and on the internet are abuzz with diagnoses suggesting the following: James Eagan Holmes was an inexplicably evil person, perhaps possessed by the devil, as (the Promethean) Lord Byron was supposed to be by his antagonistic contemporaries; Holmes was a “loner” who “cracked” or “snapped”; his crime was ideologically driven as an Occupy Wall Street anarchist (a photo purporting to be Holmes taken from Occupy San Diego has been circulating on the internet); he is a malignant narcissist; he carried the sociopathic “violence” perpetrated by “Hollywood” [a.k.a. the Jews]. In time, I suppose the Holmes story will be assimilated to the mad scientist narrative so popular after the French Revolution.

The loner as a force for disequilibrium. Here is a side of the “classical liberal” F. A. Hayek, generally regarded as a major anti-collectivist economist, that makes me uncomfortable. It is not without relevance to the diagnoses or quick assessments made by pundits in the wake of the “Movie Theater Massacre.” What Hayek does is deny the existence of an individual able to stand outside himself and man-made institutions to make sweeping statements that have truth-values: Hayek’s is a demon whom we have met before in the history of the West. The following quote from F. A. Hayek was originally an endnote in my book on the so-called Melville Revival, for Captain Ahab has been read, especially in tandem with progressive capitalists going over to Keynesian economics starting in 1939, as precisely the type of loner/terrorist who is held to be on a monomaniacal crusade, in Ahab’s case, either to find the truth, or to “quarrel with God” and his surrogate institutions in the State:

[Hunting Captain Ahab endnote:] See F.A. Hayek, Individualism: True and False (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946) for a concise enunciation of the main principles of libertarian conservatism in which science is annexed to hierarchical organic conservatism and the rule of expertise. His recommended lineage for “true individualism” is Locke, Mandeville, Hume, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. Hayek has undermined the search for legitimate authority based on common understanding and checks from below.  Man is innately incapable of grasping totalities; only deluded and false individualists would claim such an achievement. These include rationalist philosophes and utilitarians, along with the “original” German Romantics, similarly looking to coercive, bureaucratic state power to impose order, destroying checks and balances attainable through spontaneous voluntary organization at the local level. The only role for the state is negative: to prevent any one group from arrogating to itself the excessive power that destroys equilibrium. Describing the conditions that enable true individualism, Hayek explained: “[It is absurd to think that] individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society (7)…The willingness to submit to [flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree], not merely so long as one has no definite reason to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse, and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion…coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society when conventions and tradition have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable (23-24).” [end, Hayek quote]

When I did my dissertation research into the construction of the humanities curriculum between the wars in the 20th century, I noted that Marx was less controversial than Freud, who did postulate such a thing as the “observing ego” capable of standing outside itself to describe processes once thought to be mysterious or impenetrable in the world that was in reality held to be the Devil’s lair. Here was Freud’s unpardonable [Jewish?] hubris, for Christian theology insisted upon humanity’s weaknesses, not its strengths. Moreover, the scientific revolution of the 17th century created a rupture in human history that alarmed organic conservatives, along with such as Hayek or Edmund Burke, who looked to loyalty to traditional institutions and hierarchies in order to prevent revolutions (i.e. ruptures) from below. (And what is the Tory David Hume doing there? he loathed Locke, whose Two Treatises on Government later helped to legitimize the American Revolution, yet Hayek does not see the dissonances in his list of philosophic father figures.)

“Traditionalists” don’t like ruptures, and they don’t like loners, yet every major artist I have studied sought solitude, running away from censorious families to find and relay their own pictures of reality. And like Byron, they have been often vilified as violent abusers of their families, drunkards, dope fiends, madmen, you name it.

My heart goes out to these “alienated” figures, for they and their reputations have suffered much at the hands of conformists and other fearful persons unwilling or unable to look inside themselves, or taking the risk of massive retaliation by publishers and readers, to examine dysfunctional institutions and relationships, including the major violence we call wars, or the smaller, more subtle violence that we commit every day in relations with our closest friends and relations.

None of us knows what stirred inside the brain of James Eagan Holmes that caused the atrocity of June 20, 2012, an event that has stirred often well-meaning, educated writers to jump to conclusions. But I have no doubt that an understandably overwrought public will eat up premature ejaculations comparing Holmes to cold-hearted “isolatoes” or mass murderers of the past, who, like Captain Ahab, have failed to beat the devil.

Ptrick Stewart’s Ahab

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4 Comments »

  1. You seem to be saying that it might make sense to draw some tentative parallel between Ahab and Holmes. If so, I’d just like to raise a doubt. I can see a parallel between Ahab and Timothy McVeigh, but not Holmes. The Ahabs (I guess) need to feel that there is a historical mission, and they need to be able to see an Other that can be chased down and harpooned. Holmes inhabits (let me conjecture) a world in which there are no missions any longer, and in which there is no Other to be harpooned. He identified with the Joker, who believes in nothing and who sees civilisation as a charade that people will abandon in an instant. As he says in “The Dark Knight”: “When the chips are down these civilised people will eat each other. I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” For me, Holmes demonstrates how science and nihilism can advance hand in hand. In that cultural vacuum lined with pages torn from comic strips, “Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” (To quote the Joker again.) My hypothesis is that there is no need to assume that Holmes was profoundly mentally ill, but just that the void was already well established and then something occurred to give him that “little push.”

    Comment by Torn Halves — August 3, 2012 @ 8:06 am | Reply

    • I don’t assume anything about Holmes. We don’t have a diagnosis yet. The blog was about the rapidity of the press to affix the Ahab archetype on loners, who are also viewed, incorrectly, as necessarily Ahab-style assassins. Moreover, Captain Ahab has been described, since at least 1939, as an anticipator of Hitler and Stalin. His target was not “the Other” but Leviathan, or The State. His was a quest for truth, truth hidden from ordinary people by the secrecy of kings and established Churches. Some of the pre-war critics saw Ahab as a figure of the romantic artist, a liberator.
      Ahab’s detractors have also seen him as a blasphemer, attempting to conquer Evil. That separates him from the Joker. There are no parallels between Ahab and Holmes.

      Comment by clarespark — August 3, 2012 @ 2:46 pm | Reply


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