Two interesting theories about Elliot Rodger’s heinous last act are making the rounds on the starboard side of the Blogophere this week. First up, at Reason, Brendan O’Neill asks, “Could Therapy Culture Help Explain Elliot Rodger’s Rampage?”
Watch Rodger’s video. The most alarming thing is how cool and well-spoken he is. This is a man used to talking about himself, following years of practice in therapy sessions. Clearly having decided to have a love affair with himself, Rodger terrifyingly declares: “I am the closest thing there is to a living god… Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent, divine!”
This isn’t a religious thing. There’s no evidence that Rodger thought he was a messiah, as other nutjobs have. Rather, it’s a therapeutic thing. Therapy culture has created a new army of little gods made fearsomely angry by any perceived insult against their self-esteem. It has generated groups of people who, like something out of the Old Testament, think nothing of squishing things that offend them or hurt their sense of self-worth. It has made a whole new anti-social generation whose desire to protect themselves from emotional harm overrides the older human instinct to engage with other people and be tolerant of their differences. When Rodger says “I am a living god,” he is speaking, not from any kind of wacky religious script, but from the mainstream bible of therapy. The cult of therapy convinces individuals they are gods and that their self-esteem is a gospel that must not be blasphemed against. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks once said of a therapeutic self-help guide to life, death, and life after death, “In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It’s all about you.” The self has elbowed aside God; the self is God, as Rodger seems to have realised.
“Perhaps we should see Rodger as a kind of therapeutic terrorist, using murder to gain recognition; his rampage can be seen as a very violent therapy session, a real primal scream in defense of his sacred self-esteem,” O’Neill writes.
While therapy has become all the rage in recent decades, so has the term “performance artist.” Next up, at NRO, Kevin D. Williamson looks at “The Murder Show: Mass killings are an act of theater”:
Elliot Rodger’s family was in relatively difficult financial circumstances, though relatively must be emphasized. His father was the assistant director of The Hunger Games, and the young man was apparently proud of his BMW coupe, but his family’s financial position was modest by Hollywood standards. Through his family, Rodger enjoyed some enviable social connections, but could not achieve the connection he desired, a romantic one. His was an individualism suffered as a burden. In another century, his life might have been given some structure by the church or by his extended family, or simply by the fundamental struggle to feed and shelter himself, which was the organizing principle of the great majority of human lives for millennia. Modernity sets us free, but it does not offer any answer to the question, “Free to do what?”
Art, particularly theater, has for a long time helped to answer that question. What we see on stage, however far removed from our own experience, is an intensified version of our own lives. The Mass is, if nothing else, an act of theater, but it is also the case, as Mikhail Bakunin wrote, that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.” It is not mere coincidence that so many mass murderers, from the Columbine killers to McVeigh, imagine themselves to be instigators of revolution, or that their serial-killer cousins so often think of themselves as artists. Their delusions are pathetic, but they are not at all alien to common human experience. That they so often end in suicide is not coincidence, either. Their rampages are at once a quest for significance and a final escape from significance and its burdens. Whatever particular motive such killers cite is secondary at best. The killing itself is the point — it is not a means to some other end.
You could make an argument — and I’m sure plenty of others have already — that history’s worst killers serve as a macabre funhouse mirror on society’s worst excesses at any given time. Lee Harvey Oswald was a warning that the Cold War could become so hot at any moment that even the president wasn’t safe –and it arrived during a period when the American left had convinced themselves that McCarthy and the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters were far more dangerous threats than the USSR and the gulag. Charles Manson and his cult of followers were a nightmarish negative image version of the allegedly benign hippie ethos. Timothy McVeigh and Jared Lee Loughner were two men who took their lunatic beliefs in conspiracy theories to horrific ends. And now Rodger’s murderous acts turn the cultish aspects of “The Me Decade” mentality upside down.
But it’s often fruitless to try to find meaning in an insane individual act. The headline on Stacy McCain’s take on Rodger — “Creepy Little Weirdo’s Murder Rant Becomes Cultural ‘Rashomon’” — is a perennial that could have been written numerous times over the past half century.
Or perhaps, to borrow from an earlier post from Stacy, “Chris Rock was right: ‘Whatever happened to ‘crazy’? . . . What? You can’t be crazy no more? Did we eliminate ‘crazy’ from the dictionary?'” (Language NSFW, not surprisingly.)
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And to bring this post full circle with its headline, as the good Dr. Theodore Dalrymple noted a few years ago at City Journal –– it’s Anthony Burgess’ world, we’re just living in it — and, far too frequently, dying in it as well.
Update: “Don’t Let Mass Killers Hold the Culture Hostage,” Jonah Goldberg writes. Does a mass killer really hold the culture hostage — or is he merely used, as in the case of the left and McVeigh and Loughner for the overculture to score cheap points against its ideological enemies on the right?