Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Personality Typing I: Electrons with West's Disease

Did I mention I'm addicted to Deadwood? Okay, maybe addicted is a strong word, but I'm really enjoying it, and as it happens, I'm in kind of a weird place, temporally speaking. I've absorbed the whole first season because I rented the DVDs. Now I'm ready to jump into the second season, but it's already underway, four or five (or is it six?) episides worth. What to do? Rather than lose the impact of seeing them all in order, I settled on the the methadone option - the "Special Features" DVD that came with the last two episodes of Season 1. DND (hereafter invoking a new acronym meaning, does not disappoint).

The guy who writes Deadwood is named David Milch. He's one of those "established" TV writers, the guys who have the jobs that are the heart's desire of countless inevitably unsuccessful writers. He's there for a good reason, irrespective of the lock-out to new talent that typifies much of the industry. Milch started as a writer on Hill Street Blues (won an Emmy) and gained momentum up to co-creating NYPD Blue (won a couple of Emmys), which he rode all the way through the 90's. Now, he's doing Deadwood... unorthodox, like.

It turns out that the folks at HBO (geniuses, if you ask me) have given this guy a wide berth - a lot of what he writes is improvised on the set after he watches some aspect of an actor's performance. The whole crew, according to the interviews on the "Special Features" disk, are like addicts waiting for new pages. (I can relate, but I'm okay.) Anyhow, the last segment on the disk is an interview between Milch and one of the stars of the first season, Kieth Carradine, who plays Wild Bill Hickok. I was impressed and intrigued by this gregarious but admitted self-hater before seeing this interview (he was on Jon Favreaux's Dinner for Five not too long ago). Nevertheless, I was caught off guard by how insightful and esoterically erudite Milch was when, toward the end of the interview, Carradine asked him about a particular scene from Season 1 - a guy who was praising (and irritating) Wild Bill, after being asked to go away, changed his tune abruptly, and wished him dead. I'll quote him so you can follow his train of thought as it comes around the bend.

"Nathaniel West wrote, I thought, beautifully about that syndrome, and W.H. Auden, the poet, wrote an essay about West's analysis of that syndrome, which he called, 'West's Disease.' It's about people who, for whatever reason, are unable to turn wishes into passions in their life, and lacking that capacity, sit passively in mute outrage, anticipating disasters. They go to fires. Any sort of natural disaster attracts them. And in the absence of a natural disaster, they sometimes try and create disasters. And they hate the people whose lives, whether successful or not, are pursued with passion. And first they idolize them, then they want to destroy them. They want to appropriate the vitality of those people..."

Whoa. I talk to lots of people and I'd be mesmerized to be in a conversation of this sort. Maybe it just hits home with me because I'm so obsessed with understanding and generalizing about human behavior (which more than a couple of people have told me is futile). Nevertheless, to me, this was fantastic. It rang so true that I just had to investigate this West fellow. Here's a good bio link. It seems that his most famous work was the novel, Day of the Locust (1939, never heard of it), and it also seems that his most distinguishing characteristic was his tendency to exagerrate to absurdity. This review that followed the release of a compilation of his works in 1997 makes the point.

"In West's cosmology, exaggeration rules: a moment of self-doubt becomes profound self-loathing; fleeting hostility becomes a blow to the head; and the merest gesture of compassion becomes an act of martyrdom. Prose is not always easy to read at this volume -- West's crazy normality has, in the 57 years since his death, often perplexed both the tourists and the folks back home -- but this edition, which demonstrates the range of West's craziness as well as his normality, is convincing evidence that his work is worth looking at again."

I like this idea of exagerration to absurdity. Clearly, "West's Disease" isn't pervasive in society, in literal terms, but it's recognizable. Better said - you can't miss it! We all know people like this, people who hate those who achieve or succeed or just plain live life with a smile on their face. Most of these electrons (as I call them - negatively charged and all) do so under the radar, though I find that they're easy to spot, for the most part. Very few will actually translate their contempt into actions - recall that their problem to begin with is that they can't do this - but some will.

Some folks will go out of their way to screw someone whose very existence, and only that, irks them to no end. These people, even the impotent ones, are cancer. They must be avoided at all costs, and I'll go so far as to say that they should be shunned the moment their nefarious predilections reveal themselves sufficiently. To me, knowing that this personality type exists has significant value. It's just part of knowing what we're up against in our march through life, and knowing what to do about it is often the difference between realizing our dreams and going in circles. Electrons with West's Syndrome. I fucking love it. Cross another nuisance off the Christmas Card list.

(DISCLAIMER: Never, in the course of identifying personality types, do I intend to suggest that any given personality type cannot be substantially altered via sustained diligence, and maybe some drugs. Therefore, no person who bears resemblance to this should assume that they are a loser and are in danger of being shunned. That is, of course, unless they don't get their shit together, like soon.)

I suppose the reason I like Deadwood so much (besides the profanity, of course) is the fact that the characters have so much depth and so much complexity. What's even more interesting is that to be able to write characters like that, you have to have in your mind an understanding of humanity that is the exact opposite of complex. David Milch, being the kind of guy who quotes Socrates as he thinks outloud about the plight of his characters, obviously has a strong grasp of this ostensible paradox. He's good because he gets mankind, which he owes in some small part to Nathaniel West. Because West could generalize, and then make it so absurd as to paint it plainly in our minds (and maybe even put a face on it), we can watch a Western that isn't full of cartoon characters. Now that is cool.


Blogger David said...

Deadwood is the only television program I watch regularly. I enjoy it as much for the language as for the characters' depth. Not only the profanity of their language, but simply for the way they speak. Even those lowest in the social strata speak with an erudition that takes some active listening to comprehend.

My favorite line this season, spoken by Tom Nuttall in the No. 10 Saloon: "Those who doubt me suck cock by choice!"

5/09/2005 10:46:00 AM

Blogger Perry Willis said...

The personality type you discuss in this post immediately brought to mind Mark David Chapman and John Lennon.

5/09/2005 11:26:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

Nathaniel West, eh?
Sounds like an author I'd like. Character driven fiction.
That's the best kind.

5/09/2005 11:24:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are roughly 100 million people in this catagory. They're called Wahabi Muslims.

5/11/2005 08:44:00 PM

Blogger Psybertron said...

Obviously a US thang - not seen Deadwood.

Ah, so that's where David Carradine and Ian McShane (?!?) ended up. Looks like my kinda telly.

Summarising to see if I've got your point.

The personality type you (and Nathaniel West) are on about are those who exaggerate interest in the negatives (chase ambulances etc), becuase they have no "passion" in their lives.

That right ?

5/12/2005 05:50:00 AM

Blogger Psybertron said...

Alice, (with apologies to Chris for misuse of his blog)

If you want to correspond about my blog beyond Chris's comment pages I'll need you to ping me an e-mail address.

When I said "search" for C S Lewis on my blog, I meant use the "Search Psybertron" function, not scan it by eye.

It returns this (very long) string


5/12/2005 06:33:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

It's not David Carradine; it's his brother Kieth. And yes, it's great television. You can get the DVDs of the first season. You'll be the most popular guy in Nevada if you turn folks onto it. :-)

As for your assessment, I'd go a bit further. It's not just that people focus on the negative because they have no passion in their lives. This kind of personality is essentially a self-hater. The world acts as a mirror for them, a mirror that reminds them how worthless they are. Their response is to despise the reminders, and in extreme cases, to do whatever they can to eliminate them. I'd say there is considerable overlap between the mind of the fanatic (a la Eric Hoffer's description) and the mind of one with West's disease. Coincidence? I think not.

Wahabi Muslims? Whoa. My first response was to cringe when I read this. But after further thought, I think there may be some truth in it. However, there's a real difference between the West's disease phenomenon and the prevalence of Muslim hatred of all things western. I'd say there are a handful of people in powerful positions who actually suffer from West's disease. But, the more prevalent personality type is the standard power-hungry human who siezes opportunistically on whatever will perpetuate the possession of power.

So, while the Wahabi Muslim leaders may preach something that implies West's disease, it is more likely that they are preaching whatever they think will keep the focus off the horrendous atrocities they are committing on a daily basis. That means that the West's disease that is fomented in the masses is contrived and manufactured, which, I bet, Nathaniel West would be less concerned with.

5/12/2005 12:39:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're correct that it's contrived and fomented. Hatred of the West, [no pun intended], Christianity and Judiasm is carefully taught from preschool on.
However, anyone who has seen the picture of the 2 year old male child wearing a suicide bomber belt and holding a real AK47 must realize that a great many of the parents have bought into this 'disease' too.
If someone gives you the measles diliberately does that make it any less a desease - which by the way was deadly to the American Indians and especially to the Hawaiians.

5/12/2005 02:41:00 PM


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