Delmore Schwartz‘s most famous short story is entitled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. It is about a young man who dreams he is in a movie theater watching a movie which turns out to portray his parent’s courtship. As he watches it, he worries that his parents may not actually end up marrying each other and he volubly urges them not to break up. Otherwise, he might not be born. When he wakes up, he realizes it is the morning of his 21st birthday. His dreams teach him his responsibilities toward life, his own and his parents.
Today’s NY Times features an eerie journey into the dreaming subconscious of 22 year-old mass murderer, Jared Loughner. Instead of leading him to life, the killer’s dreams brought him to the dark side. That’s why I used the title for this post In Dreams Begin Murders:
Mr. Gutierrez said his friend [Loughner] had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” and embraced ideas about the corrosive, destructive effects of nihilism — a belief in nothing. And every day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings.
“Jared felt nothing existed but his subconscious,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The dream world was what was real to Jared, not the day-to-day of our lives.”
And that dream world, his friend said, could be downright strange.
“He would ask me constantly, ‘Do you see that blue tree over there?’ He would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.”
He added that Mr. Loughner “used the word hollow to describe how fake the real world was to him.”
Another NY Times article today notes a mental health expert who speculates that Loughner suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia. Those on the right who are fending off responsibility for the violence he wrought on Tuscon, Arizona and the nation, are fond of noting that the shooter was insane and not making a coherent political statement:
It is also not clear, some doctors said, that today’s partisan climate had any bearing on the assault. “The psychosis picks up on the grand themes of the day, whether those are antigovernment or something else,” Dr. Stone said.
In the logic of delusion, a grievance may be conflated with some larger mission, whether religious, political or artistic. “It’s not political thinking,” Dr. Torrey said. “It’s psychotic thinking.”
There’s a great deal to be said for this. Psychotics who kill may formulate ideas that sound like coherent political statements and it may appear that such thoughts drive their behavior, often such ideas are inchoate and confused. After all, one of Loughner’s friends of seven years ago called him a leftist. Yet his MySpace profile notes among his favorite books are Mein Kampf (and The Communist Manifesto!) and he tried to kill a Democratic Congresswoman with moderate to liberal views. Similary, Naveed Haq, the Pakistani-American who forced his way into the Jewish federation building in Seattle and shot five people, killing one, once had himself baptized in his search for religious meaning.
It seems to me that in some ways the violently mentally ill are, whether consciously or unconsciously, attempting to wreak upon the world some of the same internal anger, violence and chaos that rages within them.
Yet Haq, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, received no mercy from the Jewish community here, which argued that Haq was perfectly competent, knew right from wrong, and should get what he had coming to him. Bright lights like Pam Geller, in commenting on the Haq trial, even called Islam a mental illness. To many Jews, Haq was a murderous anti-Semite who had to get a life sentence. And that he did though it took the prosecution two trials to do it. The prosecutor refused to accept a plea of insanity and confinement to a mental institution, which is what Haq really needed:
“The insanity defense, which may be tried in this case, is often unsuccessful,” Dr. Torrey said, “and one reason is that juries are afraid to send people to state hospitals, where they belong. They’d rather lock them up for longer, in prison.”
On a related subject, I’m rather amused by the claims from the right that violent political rhetoric characterizes both sides of the debate and not just their side alone. On Warren Olney’s To the Point, one interviewee noted the extremism voiced on sites like Daily Kos. There’s one major difference between the tone of the discussion on the right and left. On the left the vituperative, intolerant rhetoric comes from the knuckleheads at the bottom of the heap like those in the DK talkbacks. On the political right, the violence comes right from the top: from the talk show hosts, elected politicians, presidential hopefuls.
As Paul Krugman noted in his column this week, while Keith Olbermann is passionate and angry, he will never adopt the hateful swagger of a Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly. He won’t physically threaten, he won’t use language that is violent. Among elected officials, you won’t find any Democratic candidate who places crosshairs over the districts of Republican rivals as Sarah Palin did. While Democrats can be just as cantankerous in their views as Republicans, they don’t tend to use eliminationist oratory as a good number do on the other side.
Someone needs to clean up their political act and it ain’t Democrats.