Last night, talking about Michael, a friend said: “Sometimes I think there are more sociopaths than normal people in the world.” i use the term loosely, as i don’t think psychological categories are anything more than human inventions, like the idea of “summer”; as there are summer-like days in spring and autumn, and an English summer is usually cold and rainy, so with personality disorders and the like – they are approximations. However, i’ve met a few people i would unreservedly describe as sociopaths. And there are certainly many crazy people in this world. Hence, perhaps, the popularity of shows like Dexter and The Sopranos.

i’ve been watching both recently. The Sopranos is, i suppose, realistic: the central character, Tony Soprano,  is a cross between a mobster and a responsible family man, with a big middle class house and two middle class children; other mobsters are out and out sociopaths. He has panic attacks and goes to a psychiatrist. He is, in his peculiar way, a decent man, living an indecent life.

Dexter is about a serial killer who works as a blood spatter analyst for the police. Unrealistic but it is at least possible. As a child his murderous impulses were controlled by his cop father, who recognises him for what he is, but trains him to kill carefully and only those who have it coming. So he kills, frequently, but preys more or less exclusively on criminals. Given the character’s reverence for his father, and his intelligence, i suppose it’s just about possible. It’s not on the same level as The Sopranos but nonetheless competently-done and enjoyable. i see Dexter as primarly comic; while it is often serious and explores Dexter’s attempt to “fit in”, to mask his true nature from his peers, it is fundamentally humorous; if i tried to watch it as a serious exploration of human nature, it would be unbearable. The Sopranos by contrast is often amusing, sometimes hilarious, but is fundamentally serious, an examination of how human beings can live a shameful, violent existence. The humour is Beckettian, emerging naturally from darkness. Consider:


A Dexter episode features a psychiatrist, whose patients tend to commit suicide. Dexter visits him and we see the psychiatrist’s uncanny insight and so on. Likewise in The Sopranos, Dr Melfi is a generally astute observer, though she is also quite silly.

When i was a teenager, living with my sister and parents, my sister bought “Murder Casebooks”, detailed accounts of serial killers. She had an early interest in such matters. i borrowed these and learnt that serial killers sometimes try to join the police, presumably because they like the idea of becoming authority figures, with a badge and a gun. Of the out & out sociopaths i’ve met to date, three wanted to become counsellors: my sister, my tai chi tutor, and a feckless Michael-esque conman i knew at university. With all three, my initial reaction was: you? you want to be a counsellor?

Another beast i knew, not a sociopath but a typically Michael-esque animal, also planned to be a counsellor, though mercifully he was too lazy and disorganised to take it further.

In our society, the counsellor stands alongside the cop as an authority figure, holding power over the weak. i would imagine a fair few socipaths could be netted if one looked closely at applications for social work, counselling, and the police. i doubt many get to the point of becoming psychiatrists, since this requires first a medical degree, and then a further qualification in Psychiatry. Being utterly ammoral and indifferent to others, sociopaths are also usually incapable of disciplined hard work – my tai chi tutor being the only exception, but it seemed his only viable discipline was tai chi, nothing else really interested him. He was in some ways a classic Guardianista: he hated America, cars, anyone with more money than himself; he was a vegetarian and carefully recycled all his trash; in other ways his sensibility was similar to mine – a loathing for chavs and welfare scroungers. But fundamentally, he was Agent Smith:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.

His fundamental attitude was a loathing for humanity, not just as an abstract idea but in the particular. He loathed everyone, had no friends, and could only relate to others if they respected and admired him, accepted his superior Zen dictates and more or less worshipped him as a god. He went through friends, and students, extremely quickly.

The sociopath stands apart from society. He cannot live alone, for he lacks substance, internal balance. He needs others, to affirm his projected identity. But the sociopath exhausts friends very quickly. They sense his total lack of interest in their own feelings; his total lack of empathy, insight; that for him, they are just tools, mirrors for his own fraudulent image. He is perpetually irritated that they even have inner feelings, their own worlds; he has to stamp this out, to destroy their interiority and reduce them to inert mirrors, witnesses, of his perfection and glory. They should only exist as bit-part actors in the grand drama that is his biopic, in which he is not merely the central character but the only person you remember. As the credits roll, you should forget everyone except the sociopath, you should even forget yourself, and only recall his splendour.

There are degrees, from my sister who is a true sociopath but also reclusive and Shelob- like, happy to sleep in darkness and only venture out for prey; to the conman i knew at university, who was an extrovert. But they all lack any capacity for empathy. i suppose most human beings have a socipathic element, the question is how do they live with it, how do they negotiate with their own narcissism?

It is common that those who avow humanistic, sharing, loving, hippy-like ideals are narcissists; certainly, it was true of the hippy i knew in Kassel. It does not follow that fascists are well-balanced and sane; ideological pronouncements are no use. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.