Monday, June 26, 2006

The Infectiousness of the Morally Unrepressed

[Once again, “I” intended for this post to go in one direction, but “it” careened off course into another direction. It’s pretty much unedited free association, but it is free, for what it’s worth. It is possible that the post will strike me as trivial later in the day, when I am fully awake.... If you feel the same way, just attribute it to my charismatic lack of repression, or aesthetic “brake failure.”]

Woke up this morning, jinx all around my bed.

That’s the question, isn’t it? Is the jinx only inside our head or can it really be around our bed, in the air, the environment?

If you take the time to pay attention to subtle shifts in your own consciousness, you will notice that you are not just conscious of this or that. Rather, consciousness is a state that has “many mansions,” so to speak. Often, what we call stability of character is merely being stuck in one of these mansions.

One of the attractions of drugs--including legal ones such as alcohol and antidepressants--is that they serve the purpose of bumping us out of one mansion and into another. If you think of consciousness as a field in phase space, a particular state of consciousness is like an “attractor,” or indentation in the field. Some personalities are quite rigid, and seemingly live their entire lives in one attractor state from which they cannot escape--like a ball at the bottom of a deep valley. The subjective experience of being in the presence of one of these people is that of boredom. In other words, because of what is called counter-transference, you can feel what it’s like to be them.

There are people who have the opposite problem. In psychology, they generally fall under the heading of having “borderline personality structure,” which means that they are prone to rapid changes from one attractor to another. These people are not boring, but they are wearying. They can even be exciting, especially to the complementary type who is stuck in a rigid attractor. Often they seek each other out--one for stability, the other for excitement--usually with disastrous results.

Borderline personalities can be immensely appealing, because they give us a vicarious sense of danger and unpredictability. They can exude a kind of palpable charisma, an infectiousness that results from a pathological absence of repression. You never know what they might say or do.

In fact, this is the basis of the appeal of many musicians and movie stars. It is no coincidence that a fair number of these people are quite dysfunctional and would not be capable of dealing with the demands and responsibilities of day-to-day life. Think of a Marlon Brando, whose clearly borderline personality made him literally radiate a kind af animal intensity. I can think of any number of artists, celebrities, and stars who exude this kind of charsima, but whose personal lives are an absolute wreck. The two are not unrelated.

I just recently read the new biography of the Beatles, by Bob Spitz, and John Lennon clearly falls into this category. When you read about just how dysfunctional he was, you realize that he quite literally could not have functioned in society. When he wasn’t making music, he was dysfunctional in every way, with no inner stability at all. And yet, there is no question that he was the leader of the Beatles, at least until he began taking LSD on a daily basis for weeks on end in ‘66-’67. In the early days, the other members looked up to him as a sort of god because of what one person called his pure fuck all attitude. Without that defiant attitude, the Beatles would have gone nowhere.

When I was younger, I have to admit that I enjoyed being around people like that. I’m thinking of one friend in particular who was every bit as crazy as John Lennon. Something always happened in his presence because he would make it happen. Not only was he crazy, but his infectiousness made everyone around him crazy as well. He was like a reverse guru: he radiated a palpable vibration that could awaken something similar in the receptive follower. He crackled with impulsive, beer-fueled insanity. It even felt like a kind of salvation to be around him, because it was an escape from the mundane and routine--the tyranny of the normal. (Sometimes I wonder if Van der Leun wasn't one of these charismatic wholly men, only alive to tell the tale from the other side of it... )

Great leaders often have a bit of this insanity as well. For example, Winston Churchill was extraordinarily reckless and impulsive as a young man. Yes, you could call it courage, but it was clearly something else as well. One of the reasons he wasn’t trusted or listened to in the 1930’s is that everyone knew full well about his impetuousness and recklessness. And yet, it was exactly this “madness” that was required to rally civilization against an equally charismatic madman whose absence of repression was apparently intensely intoxicating. Don’t get me wrong--I am not equating Churchill and Hitler. It’s just that we required a sort of characterological “mirror image” of Hitler in order to defeat him.

Clearly, this is one of the problems we seem to be facing in our present war. Evidently, Osama bin Laden is an immensely charismatic fellow to great numbers of his fellow Muslims. Why is this? Probably--in its own perverse way--for the same reason the other Beatles were attracted to John Lennon and I was attracted to my friend. One of the reasons John Lennon was so attractive--and in a way, served a very functional purpose--was because of the deadness and oppressiveness of British culture at the time. Your life was completely planned out ahead of time, with virtually no chance to escape your destiny or express your individuality. Therefore, it took someone as ungovernable and irrepressible as John Lennon to break through that thick barrier.

I wonder if many Muslims don’t get the same vicarious thrill out of bin Laden’s exploits? Please, don’t get me wrong--I’m not trying to sympathize per se, just putting myself in their sandals and under their turbans. I wonder if I looked around and saw nothing but futility and hopelessness and repression, whether I would be in awe of an Islamic nihilist with an absolutely fuck all attitude? After all, there’s no middle ground in most of the Muslim world--there aren’t small degrees of rebellion built into the system, as there now are in the West. In the West, perpetual adolescent rebellion is now commodity and end-state lifestyle for millions of so-called adults. John Lennon’s very real and very desperate fuck all can now be purchased off the shelf.

But how does one express the primordial fuck all in the Muslim world? For many, it must feel like an “all or none” proposition. Why not blow up the whole system and take everyone with you? What difference does it make? Rock on!

So in the Palestinian terrortories, they treat suicide bombers as pop icons. When they chant “I hope I die before I get old,” they really mean it.


Hoarhey said...

We had a couple guys like that in my high school class, very "dangerous and charismatic". They attacted many girls, were always trashed on saturday nights and could walk in and ace a calculus test after having attended zero classes during the semester.
People with that much fire early tend to burn out quickly. It seems attractive at first until the consequences begin to catch up and by then it's usually too late to find a way out.
Both are long since deceased.

Tamara said...

When I was a child, I enjoyed a great deal of elasticity in my experience of consciousness (as do many children). As I grew older, I pretty much lost it, until I became pregnant with my first child. The hormonal changes seemed to trigger a reawakening, and I now enjoy my visits to different 'mansions.'

Interestingly (and I imagine the two are related) I find that the charismatic, borderline types you so aptly describe have lost a great deal of their hold over me. When I was younger and stuck in a consciousness rut, I would easily fall under the sway of charismatic yet unstable people. I don't find them less compelling or interesting now, it's simply that they don't have an effect on me.

Your observations about OBL are thought provoking. Given the extreme repression that exists in Taliban-style Muslim societies, it would seem that the only 'way out' is through death.

Jake said...

A tangential pondering: There are some very outsized personalities in the world.

There is the dangerous-and-self-destructive-but-fun type that Bob talks about here, and then the type I wish he would talk about: those eternally outgoing and happy people who can talk to you for five minutes and make you feel as though you have known them for five years. I have only met two such people in my life (and almost fell in love with one of them); what I want to know is, where the hell do they GET that? Is it something that they are born with, like the defiant John Lennons of the world? Or is it something you can learn?

Envy is such a foul concept, but it describes my attitude toward such people accurately - not only why are they so eternally serene, but why am I nothing like them?

Sal said...

Used to tell my girls:
"It's okay to be attracted to bad boys for, like, a week, in the eighth grade. After that, it's just stupid."

I have always thought that the idea of "I'm such an artiste, the rules of civilized behavior do not apply to me" was just so much BS. Always wondered just how much was the expected posing for the genre/medium.

An interesting take that perhaps they're actually just not equipped to make a go of regular life.