Monday, January 20, 2014


"What makes Iago evil? some people ask.  I never ask."
That's the first line of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays.

Why doesn't Didion's Maria ask??  Maybe she already knows (her dark side).  Maybe she doesn't care (depression, nihilism, ennui?).

Well, I wanna know!  Don't you?

First, let me introduce you to Iago, the puppet master in Shakespeare's Othello.

Othello includes themes of racism, love, jealousy and betrayal with the following central characters:
  • Othello (a Moorish General)
  • Desdemona (his new wife)
  • Cassio (his lieutenant)
  • Iago (his trusted junior officer)
  • Rodrigo (pines for Desdemona)
  • Emilia (Iago's wife and Desdemona's maidservant)
  • Bianca (Cassio's lover)
Iago hates Othello for promoting a younger man, Cassio, above Iago (ENVY).

Iago tells Roderigo that he plans to use Othello for his own advantage (MANIPULATION).

Iago persuades lovesick Roderigo to tell Desdemona's father about Othello & Desdemona's elopement and get Othello accused of seducing her with witchcraft (RACISM).

Iago persuades Roderigo to get into a fight with Cassio.  Othello blames Cassio for the fight and strips him of his new rank (MANIPULATION).

Now Iago persuades Cassio to persuade Desdemona to appeal to Othello on Cassio's behalf (MANIPULATION).

Then Iago persuades Othello to be suspicious of Desdemona's relationship with Cassio (MANIPULATION).

Iago convinces Othello that a planted handkerchief was received by Cassio from Desdemona (GOSSIP & MANIPULATION).

Enraged and hurt, Othello resolves to kill his wife and asks Iago to kill Cassio. Othello proceeds to make Desdemona's life miserable, hitting her in front of visiting nobles (EGO, INSECURITY, ENVY & JEALOUSY).

Roderigo complains that he has received nothing from Iago in return for his money and efforts to win Desdemona, but Iago convinces him to kill Cassio. They fight, and Cassio mortally wounds Roderigo (MANIPULATION).

During the scuffle, Iago comes from behind Cassio and badly cuts his leg. In the darkness, Iago manages to hide his identity, and when passers-by hear Cassio's cries for help, Iago joins them, pretending to help Cassio (LIES, DECEPTION & MANIPULATION).

When Cassio identifies Roderigo as one of his attackers, Iago quietly stabs Roderigo to stop him from revealing the plot (MURDER, SAVING FACE/IMAGE).

Iago then accuses Bianca of the failed conspiracy to kill Cassio (GOSSIP & LIES).

In the night, Othello confronts Desdemona, and then smothers her to death in their bed (JEALOUSY, SAVING FACE, MURDER).

When Emilia arrives, Othello tries to justify his actions by accusing Desdemona of adultery (JUSTIFICATION FOR VIOLENCE). Emilia calls for help (SUPPORT SYSTEM). The Governor arrives, with Iago, Cassio, and others, and Emilia begins to explain the situation (TRUTH). When Othello mentions the handkerchief as proof, Emilia realizes what Iago has done, and she exposes him, whereupon Iago kills her (SAVING FACE/IMAGE, MURDER & REVENGE).

Othello, belatedly realizing Desdemona's innocence, stabs Iago but not fatally, saying that he would rather have Iago live the rest of his life in pain (BETRAYAL & REVENGE).

Iago refuses to explain his motives, vowing to remain silent from that moment on (THE PLAYER RAN OUT OF GAME, THE JIG IS UP, CLAIMING THE 5TH).

Both Iago and Othello are apprehended for the murders, but Othello commits suicide with a dagger. Othello's successor exhorts Cassio to have Iago justly punished (JUSTICE).

In Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas (pseudonym) writes:
"I don't feel that anything is inherently wrongful.  But more important, I am never compelled to refrain from doing something merely because it is wrong - only because doing so would result in undesirable consequences.  Thus, evil has no special meaning for me.  There is no mystery in it.  It is a word to describe a sense of wrongness that I do not feel."
Notice how Iago persuades (clever-smooth-talking-con-artist) everyone else to do his bidding - not because he feels it is wrong but because he doesn't want the "undesirable consequences" for himself.  However, when he can secretly kill, he does.

There is no mystery in evil for M.E. Thomas (and possibly for Didion's Maria) because "it is a word to describe a sense of wrongness" that they don't feel.

For empaths, there is guilt and pain associated with doing wrong.  For sociopaths, there are no such pesky feelings to get in the way or stop them.  So actions are taken that are perceived as advantageous, albeit risky, because they can.  (Remember: "I did it . . . because I could!" -- Bill Clinton).  I mean, they've got nothing to lose.

Or do they?

M.E. Thomas offers:
"Sometimes in choosing to manipulate or exploit weaknesses in others, you create vulnerabilities in yourself, for example by harming your reputation or feeding an addiction to increasingly outrageous antisocial behavior.  Controlling your impulses also allows sociopaths to overcome our isolation by forming long-term, meaningful relationships.  Sociopaths who truly seek to cultivate power realize that the greatest power they can acquire is power over themselves."
Further, Thomas notes that, "Psychologists look at the list of sociopathic traits (i.e., charm, manipulation, lying, promiscuity, chameleonism, mask wearing, and lack of empathy) and think they understand the 'what,' but they don't understand the 'how.'  I believe the 'how,' the origin of many of our observed behaviors, is that we don't have a rigid sense of self.  I believe that this is the predominant defining characteristic of a sociopath."

No true sense of self, that may be the core issue.

Kevin Cameron, an international expert on violence, calls this being an "empty vessel." Cameron noticed the dramatic lack of connection between young people and healthy mature adults, particularly among many young people making threats of violence and almost all of school shooters. These youth shared a lack of clear identity, place, and purpose. Their parental and other adult relationships were often marked by extremes on a continuum from neglect to over-involvement. Some experiencing both extremes at different times and others experiencing predominately one or the other.

Giving young people (and ourselves) a clear identity, place and purpose may help to save us from ourselves and our darkest impulses.

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