RARA-AVIS: Re: Mental illness?

From: Richard Helms ( Racerick75@aol.com)
Date: 04 Jun 2008

--- In rara-avis-l@yahoogroups.com, Patrick King <abrasax93@...> wrote:
> > Bringing this conversation back to topic, would you
> agree that the villains in THE MALTESE FALCON all have
> different types of psychotic personality diorders?

Psychotic? That's debatable. Reid Meloy, the current darling of the psychopathy crowd, says that psychopathy (diagnosed as Antisocial Personality Disorder) is actually a psychotic condition.

Robert Hare, a Canadian researcher, produced a two-factor theory of psychopathy back in the 1980s. According to Hare, psychopaths are noted for 1)a glib, remorseless manipulation of others for personal gain (Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Guttman?), and 2)leading a chaotic, disorderly lifestyle (Joel Cairo, or perhaps even Spade himself, given that he was sleeping with Archer's wife and was otherwise somewhat dissolute?).

According to Meloy, it is the second part of Hare's two-factor theory that supports his contention that psychopaths are also psychotic. Meloy, however, is a psychodynamicist, a branch of psychology that still looks for intrapsychic explanations for aberrent behavior. Meloy describes the development of psychopathy as the building of a 'wall' between feeling and not feeling. The psychopath compartmentalizes his feelings because they disgust him, and by cutting himself off from 'human' feelings he loses contact with 'reality' (the mark of psychosis). In a marvelous quote that I hope to have one of my characters paraphrase someday, Meloy cites the words of multiple-murderer Dennis Nilson, who said, "I was killing myself only but it was always the bystander who died."

If you want to explain a problem, however, it's always a good idea to follow the principle of parsimony, and in Meloy's case it's a bit of a stretch to go from normally functioning infant to rabid psychopath. Since we do know from polygraph and MRI studies that these individuals have physical deficits in their limbic systems (which, by the way, are not the result of developmental trauma. In the absence of physical trauma to the brain they were almost all born that way), and that those deficits are directly related to arousal, it is much more parsimonious to accept that psychopathy is not a psychological disorder as much as a physiological one.

If that is the case, then Brigid was certainly not psychotic. She couldn't help manipulating people, because her poor little amygdala simply didn't trigger guilt feelings, and manipulations got her what she wanted. She had learned, therefore, to manipulate, but the source of her psychopathy was physiological (just a supposition, based on what we know about psychopaths now).

As for Guttman, I agree with an earlier post that he was very much like the dog who chases a car - what in hell did he expect to do with the Falcon when he finally acquired it? Perhaps he wanted it to extract the jewels and fence them individually. Perhaps, as in the case of the occasional art thief who boosts a famous painting just to keep it in a secret room of his house, he wanted it for purely personal reasons. Guttman obviously had the resources to pursue the bird without the necessity of working to keep body and soul together. It is possible that pursuit of the Falcon gave his life meaning. In that sense, he was certainly not psychotic, and probably not even psychopathic, since psychopaths steal for personal short-term gain, not personal fulfillment.

Wilmer? Again, not particularly psychotic, but possibly psychopathic. I tend to believe, however, that Wilmer was much more likely your basic street tough who had found a benefactor in Guttman (for whatever considerations Guttman may have required, sexually), and didn't want to let a good thing go. Not necessarily psychopathic, since there was a quid pro quo implied, which would make it a relationship with mutual benefits - something at which psychopaths don't usually excel. And, considering how Wilmer dealt with rejection by Guttman in the book, I would tend to think that - despite his violent tendencies - he did harbor some feelings of affection for the Fat Man. Again, not the mark of a true psychopath.

I think that you could probably take just THE MALTESE FALCON and THE WIZARD OF OZ, and write a damned fine doctoral dissertation examining the various psychological problems of the characters. In that sense, it's possible that truly great fiction is based more on characters' weaknesses than on their strengths.

Just my $.02 worth on a boring Wednesday morning. R

Richard Helms http://www.richardhelms.net

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