Grendel has struck again, this time in a country that actually gets mentioned in Beowulf. Before going on, let me first take a moment to acknowledge the heartbreak of the parents, families and friends of those who died in the Norway massacre. Several years ago I lost a child in the water, as many of these parents did, so I have some sense of what they will be feeling over the months and even years to come. They need our prayers and support.
It seems that every six months or so I write a version of the same post: an unbalanced individual, often a consumer of hate blogs, takes out his rage on innocents, and I look to Beowulf to remind myself how we have to remain strong. (The past posts are mentioned at the end of today’s post.) We cannot yield to our inner fear and rage, lashing out with our emotional versions of swords. As the poem makes clear, hacking away in fury makes the world’s Grendels stronger. Like Beowulf, we have to survey the situation with clear eyes and take firm and measured steps. Faced with Beowulf’s resolve, Grendel panics and literally falls apart. Strong resolve is one of our greatest weapons.
Understanding these modern-day Grendels helps in the battle against them, and as this is a literary blog I examine the literature they have read. When Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner’s booklist was published, I posted on the patterns that I saw. Of course, literature does not cause people to kill. I don’t even think that hate blogs cause people to kill. But through the books that killers read we can get a glimpse into some of the thinking that went on.
Apparently Anders Breivik was very well read and he mentions George Orwell, Franz Kafka, and Ayn Rand. He also is a fan of Dexter, a television series about a serial killer who kills serial killers. What I find striking about the inclusion of Orwell, Kafka and Rand on the list is that they all articulate high levels of paranoia.
I suspect that 1984 is the Orwell novel that Breivik had in mind. In some ways, the dystopian novel reads as a paranoid scream. It was written in 1948 (the author reversed the 48 to get 84) when Orwell was living, cold and depressed, in a bombed out flat in post-war London. Big Brother is in some ways modeled on Stalin, and the fact that Orwell once sympathized with communism probably added to his venom. In Orwell’s nightmare vision, there is no way to escape Big Brother. He knows your innermost thoughts and fears, and he can take everything from you, even your soul.
A similar paranoia shows up in the works of Kafka, especially in a novel like The Trial. A Czech Jew, Kafka had the Austro-Hungarian Empire to worry about, along with an increasingly bureaucratic society and depression of his own. Both The Trial and 1984 conclude with an all-powerful state first teasing and then crushing the protagonists.
The appearance of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on Breivik’s list is almost boringly predictable. Anyone who fantasizes that the world is going to pot without him, and then imagines appearing as a savior to pick up the pieces and build a perfect society, likes Atlas Shrugged. It’s the ultimate power trip. But it’s no way to run a society. (My post on Atlas Shrugged can be found here.)
Dexter, meanwhile, appeals to vigilante fantasies. (I have posted on the television series here, with a follow up post here.) It’s okay to kill people—in fact, to carve them up in painful ways—if the people you are killing are monsters. When I watched Dexter (before it became too much and I stopped) I identified with the part of him that is a nerdy misfit who has trouble with negotiating emotions and fitting into normal society. Many of us can identify with this drama. But when Breivik watched Dexter, he must have seen an almost literal version of himself.
I can imagine how a twisted mind like Breivik’s might come to see Norway’s humane welfare state as akin to the oppressive worlds that Orwell, Kafka, and Rand warn us against. Loughner, who had the Orwell novel Animal Farm on his own list, saw the U.S. state in a similar way. (Loughner also listed the dystopian novels Fahrenheit 451 and Huxley’s Brave New World.) All the works play into a fear of large impersonal governments capable of exercising great control, and since the novels were written those governments have only gotten bigger and more technologically sophisticated.
What with population growth, globalization, and meteoric social change, it’s understandable why a lot of people are becoming unsettled. I think this is why the American electorate seems so volatile at the moment, at one moment voting in small government Tea Party Republicans, at the next worried that their legislators will dismantle the social welfare programs that make up the large part of government expenditures. The growing size of government helps explain why extremist talk show hosts and hate-filled bloggers get the traction that they do. And it helps explain why certain unbalanced individuals, affirmed by heated voices on the internet, turn their guns on our children.
The world can’t be run by slogans and simplistic solutions. No matter how we may long for a simple time, things have become increasingly complex. So when people long for a more well-defined world and vent their rage against us, we must stay Beowulf strong. Grasp your resolve with your strong will and be mature and centered. The world needs us to be heroes.
Previous posts on Beowulf and mass killers
Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post has invoked Dostoevsky’s Crime in Punishment as she analyzes the Norway killings. Her point: that Breivik represents an anti-democracy impulse rather than an anti-Islamic or anti-immigrant impulse:
In the past 48 hours, Anders Behring Breivik has been described as a racist, a white supremacist and an anti-Islamic fanatic. News reports of his arrest are now accompanied by analyses of Europe’s failure to absorb its immigrant population, commentary on the rise of far-right political parties, discussions of the threats posed to Muslims living in Europe. Having mistakenly assumed at first that the story of terror in Oslo belonged to the narrative of the war on terrorism, we are now placing it firmly within the equally familiar narrative of white racism and anti-Islamic fanaticism.
Aren’t we missing the point once again? Breivik was not, in fact, a killer of immigrants or Muslims. He was a killer of Norwegians. The obsessions that led him to madness and then to mass murderer were not merely racist. They also sprang from an insane conviction that his own government was illegitimate.
This particular form of obsession is not new. Nor is it confined to blond, white, racist Norwegians. Raskolnikov, the hero of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” brutally murdered a pawnbroker in the name of a vaguely defined “freedom” that was not available in decadent, Czarist St. Petersburg. Since then, revolutionaries and madmen of all kinds, from Russian anarchists to the Irish Republican Army, have justified the murder of innocent people on the grounds that it would hasten the end of an illegitimate government and bring to power some theoretically more authentic regime.