Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dexterous Defiance

I recently finished Double Dexter, the sixth and latest in Jeff Lindsay’s well-written and darkly funny series of novels about the charming Dexter Morgan, by day a blood-spatter expert with the Miami PD and by night a serial killer with a code of conduct – not ethics, mind you, but a code taught to him by Harry, his policeman father.

Those who are familiar only with the popular Showtime TV adaptation know a kinder gentler Dexter; Showtime Dexter is an avenger who politely kills his victims before slicing and dicing them. Although he insists he is emotionally limited, he behaves as a warm and caring family man. Like Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey of the Death Wish movies or Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry films, Showtime Dexter might be unacceptable in a civilized society of laws, but his vigilante justice is nevertheless recognizable as a form of justice. The Dexter of the books is something else. He is a cold-blooded monster with a dryly wicked sense of humor; he keeps his victims alive until the last possible moment as he dismembers them, because their pain is his fun. While Harry Morgan had some vigilante motives in devising a code of conduct for his obviously psychopathic young son (the gist: kill only those who deserve it), adult Dexter continues to follow it only because he recognizes it as the best way to avoid capture. So, while for practical reasons he aims to kill only the most villainous of villains, he has no qualms per se about torturing and killing an innocent person; in fact, by acting on faulty information, he does this at one point – oops. Oh well.

The attraction of Dexter, whether on page or on screen, to such a huge audience is usually attributed to our satisfaction at seeing villains who have escaped conventional retribution get their comeuppance. Tad Friend in his New Yorker review of the TV show, for example, remarks, “If you like rough justice, he’s the best cop on the force.” While this is certainly part of it, I think there is more to it. Freud contended that unhappiness is the cost of civilized society (see Civilization and Its Discontents). A precondition for civilization is the countering of our primal desires by individual conscience and by law (force). This repression necessarily causes unhappiness, though on balance it is a price worth paying. Mark Twain anticipated this same idea a few decades earlier in his short story The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut. In this first-person tale, Mark (OK, Sam) accidentally conjures up the physical embodiment of his own conscience, and manages to kill him; he then freely and joyfully embarks on the eponymous carnival of crime.

Consider also the film Hesher which appeared in theaters in 2011. The anarchic Hesher moves uninvited into the garage of the house of a boy, TJ, who unintentionally had disrupted his previous (illegal) living arrangements. While not murderous, Hesher does pretty much whatever comes to mind, including starting fires, setting off explosives, saying unimaginably inappropriate things, and trashing a stranger’s swimming pool. Why? Just for the hell of it, really. This is not someone you want in your garage. Yet there is no denying that there is something primitively appealing and refreshing about his total lack of concern for conventional standards and propriety. His kindnesses are as innocent and unforced as his felonies, and his eulogy at a funeral is something one needs to hear to believe. The film was a success at Sundance and delighted more critics than it offended.

It is healthy to acknowledge one’s own inner anarchist yearning to breath free. It doesn’t hurt to give him or her a hug with a Hesher movie or a Dexter board game (yes, there is one of those). Real sociopaths, however, are not people with whom it is advisable to engage. Even the nonviolent ones are vampires who drain the energy and resources of others while wreaking havoc in their lives. “Moderate” sociopaths often are quite successful – they are overrepresented in politics and the upper echelons of corporate hierarchies – but that doesn’t mean we should aspire to join their ranks. There is a cost to being civilized, true enough, but there is another kind of cost to being savage, and it is higher. All the same, there are days when, if the embodiment of my conscience were to show up at my door, his odds wouldn’t be much better than they were for the one at Sam Clemens’ house. 

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