It is better…to treat man as sensitive
than to treat him as sensible.
-- Charles de Montesquieu* --
Devin Kelley, who gunned down 25 people in a Texas church, joins a long and rapidly growing list of perpetrators of massacres in America.
Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people in Las Vegas. Omar Mateen killed 49 in Orlando. Seung-Hui Cho: 39 at Virginia Tech. Adam Lanza: 28, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn. George Hennard, 24. Luby´s Restaurant, Killeen, Texas. James Huberty, 21, McDonald´s, San Ysidro, California. Charles Whitman, 18, University of Texas. Patrick Sherrill, 15, Edmond, Oklahoma. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, 16, San Bernardino, Calif.Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, 15, Columbine High School. James Holmes, 12, Century movie theater, Aurora, Colorado. Dylann Roof: 9, Charleston.
Mega-number deaths are not the only thing those and other mass killers have in common.
Another is mystery.
Everywhere you look you will find an attempt to discover why they did it. That attempt is -- like the murderers´ motive itself -- as unflagging as it is trivial and redundant.
Insanity is the most common answer. Then comes rage followed by alienation. Texas murderer Devin Kelley, however, illustrates how a fundamental component is missing in all the usual explanations:
Everybody, sane and insane, gets mad at their mother-in law. However, they do not gun down 25 church-goers.
Our question: why did the killers go the mass murder route?
Please watch this short BBC video, and please watch the videos that immediately follow it. The Texas killer was insane, enraged, alienated: all that by now is standard fare. However, the analyst Ron Hosco made a key departure: these people seem to be involved in a "competition to set the bar higher.” We will return to his observation.
* * *
Some people are so smart they are stupid.
Anybody who has worked around politicians and intellectuals has seen that curious contradiction countless times:
The quintessential example was offered by the consummate French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre´s plays were as consistently marvelous as his politics were excruciatingly naive. He thought the French Communist Party was always right … brother … my god ... Only a middle class rebel discussed in our previous posts is capable of such a colossal sacrificium intellectus.
In 1974, Sartre had an interview with the imprisoned Andreas Baader, co-leader of the Baader-Meinholf Gang. The extreme left group committed 34 murders, bank robberies, kidnappings, and shoot-outs with police.
Baader was an archetypal lumpenproletariat, viz., petty criminal. A convicted arsonist and car thief, a high school dropout, he was one of the few Gang members who had not attended a university.
Der Spiegel summarized the Sartre-Baader encounter. To say the interview failed is an understatement. If Sartre went in search of a man au natural, an authentic revolutionary, a noble savage unspoiled by bourgeois society and its degenerate mores, what he found was something else. His summary judgment of Baader:
“What an asshole!”**
The transcript of the interview reveals that Sartre attempted rationally, logically to convince Baader to stop killing people. We will show shortly why that approach is doomed to failure.
If you cannot find something, it means you are not looking where it is, but rather where it is not. In looking for why they do it, unless the search is redirected the inevitable upshot will be what we already see and hear whenever an American massacre like those in Texas and Las Vegas occurs: a cleansing ritual which ends in either a banal write-off – “he was crazy” – or the opposite extreme: a total mystification.
Why the mystification?
To be sure, mental health, rage and alienation are involved, but those answers are not really satisfying-- as shown by the fact that people keep on asking, wondering. All of us intuit something else – something decisive – is involved but can´t put our finger on it. The politicians and mainstream media perceive our dissatisfaction, our need for more, and fill it by feeding us over and over the same mystification: ultimately a mass murderer´s motive will probably never be known. Our prior post of October 12 "The Las Vegas Shooter´s Motive" noted that although that commonplace, prefabricated mystery is neither true nor real, it sells newspapers.
What, then, is that something else mentioned above, which everybody is looking for?
* * *
I seen fellas like you before.
You ain’t askin’ nothin’; you’re
jus’ singin’ a kinda song,
-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath*** --
The reason why intellectuals like Sartre, academicians and psychoanalysts fail time after time to identify the motive of massacre perpetrators is that, being smart, reasonable people, they look for a smart, reasonable motive.
We take a different approach.
The focus on the idée fixe presented in our post on the Las Vegas shooter is in need of nuance. The motive of massacre perpetrators is part idea and part – indeed, mostly -- music.****
Our post of December 6, 2016, "On Racism: George Wallace Versus Donald Trump" analyzed racism in terms of its musical element. Individuals who are not “bad” people frequently make anti-Black remarks. Unlike Hillary, we do not write them off as a “basket of deplorables.”
What, then, drives them?
Steinbeck nailed the underlying dynamic: racism is often, when all is said and done, jus´ a kind-a song people sing.
A musical component is involved, too, in American mass murderers´ perceptions and actions. We will name that tune driving their idée fixe in a moment.
The power of music has been recognized for over 2,000 years. Plato wrote that “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”*****
To ask how an idée fixe is so enduring and resistant to reason is ultimately to ask how, in neurological terms, music is so powerful – in fact, overwhelming.
In both structure and function, an idée fixe is comparable to the root note, the tonal center or key in music. “Tonal center,” because all other notes in that key have a momentum to return to the root note. Even when in the course of a musical piece the key is deliberately changed -- known as a modulation -- we know that the change is temporary and that the original key will reassert itself. Modulations aside, once the key is established, all accepted and acceptable changes henceforth will be within that key, and those outside it will be heard as dissonant, off key. Wrong notes, mistakes.
Will be heard as ... Reason and logic a la Sartre have nothing whatsoever to do with that factor which is auditory, viz., a sensation. Reason and logic are literally beside the point.
What a musical key is does not exist independently of human perceptions. Those perceptions are conditioned socially but are neurological in origin. Again, music is not a rational process; in fact, music, the ultimate trump, trumps reason, even superstition. And it is the music of the idée fixe that accounts for why reason and logic cannot disrupt it, much less destroy it; why and how thoughtful objections to it are instantly discarded, overruled; why and how undeniable facts and valid conclusions contrary to the idée fixe are perceived as dissonant, off key. Wrong notes, mistakes.
Music convinces by traveling along neurological circuitry formed for a purpose completely distinct from enjoyment: survival.
Daniel Levitin, a neurology scientist:
"In cats and rats, animals whose auditory systems are well known and bear a marked resemblance to our own, there are projections directly from the inner ear to the cerebellum ... that coordinate the movements involved in orienting the animal to an auditory stimulus in space. There are even location-sensitive neurons in the cerebellum, an efficient way of rapidly orienting the head or body to a source. These areas in turn send projections out to the areas in the frontal lobe that my studies ... found to be active in processing both language and music — regions in the inferior frontal and orbitofrontal cortex. What was going on here? Why would the connections from the ear bypass the auditory cortex, the central receiving area for hearing, and send masses of fibers to the cerebellum, a center of motor control (and perhaps, we were learning, of emotion)?"
In other words, music, an auditory phenomenon, directly enters the brain, bypassing neurological centers of rational perception, reflexion, evaluation. To repeat: that bypass is necessary; the underlying purpose of the direct ear-cerebellum circuitry is survival. If a lion roars nearby, there is no time for analysis; involuntary reflexes must take over.
But why are auditory phenomena so especially powerful?
"Our perceptual system is exquisitely tuned to detect changes in the environment, because change can be a signal that danger is imminent. We see this in each of the five senses. Our visual system, while endowed with a capacity to see millions of colors and to see in the dark when illumination is as dim as one photon in a million, is most sensitive to sudden change. An entire region of the visual cortex, area MT, specializes in detecting motion; neurons there fire when an object in our visual field moves ... But sounds typically trigger the greatest startle reactions [sic]. A sudden noise causes us to jump out of our seats, to turn out heads, to duck, or to cover our ears. The auditory startle is the fastest and arguably the most important of our startle responses. This makes sense: In the world we live in, surrounded by a blanket of atmosphere, the sudden movement of an object—particularly a large one—causes an air disturbance. This movement of air molecules is perceived by us as sound."******
Mass murderers will never be understood, much less effectively identified prior to their massacres, until the underlying musical component -- the song in their heads -- is acknowledged and understood.
If that acknowledgment and understanding are not forthcoming it is because they cannot but call into question the music governing America, i.e., its premises.
To conclude: the power of music is neurologically-based. That explains why you can object all you want to the power of music in general, to a song in particular; you will get nowhere.
We end by returning to a point made above. There is a competition among mass murderers to set the bar higher.
We come to the song they are singing -- the song that ignites, propels and crystallizes their competition.
Our discovery is to be taken figuratively, not literally. I don´t know if the Texas or Las Vegas killers actually heard the specific recording we have in mind. I do know it doesn´t matter. It is the archetypal song within the song that counts.
No, the song is not what intellectuals and the media would like you to think -- a Wagnerian opera. For that matter, forget Bartok, Brahms and Beethoven.
Fats Domino recorded it. He struck a deep cord in American society. I say that because in his day only one singer sold more records: Elvis.
Fats´ song is on YouTube. No it is not "Blueberry Hill" or "I´m walkin´." To see it with subtitles, click here.
Trivial, banal, repetitive: all those observations of the song are valid. And that is exactly my point. Call it what you will, it still remains the same.
The song sticks to the ribs.
I challenge you to try to forget it.
* (« Il vaut bien mieux […] traiter l’homme comme sensible, au lieu de le traiter comme raisonnable. ») Charles de Montesquieu, Lettres persanes, Pocket, Paris, 1998, p. 76. (Lettre XXXIII). [My translation]
** D. Cohn-Bendit, « Son diagnostic fut des plus crus : ce qu’il est con ce Baader », in « L’empreinte Sartre », Libération, March 15, 2005, p. 13.
***John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Books, New York, 1976, p. 163.
****Is music part of the idée fixe or is the music separate from and-reinforces the idée? That is an important question in need of further investigation in order to develop techniques for the early detection of potential mass shooters. May it suffice for now to note:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
-- William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children” –
*****Plato, Plato´s Republic, translated by B. Jowett, Random House, New York, undated, p. 135. (Book IV, subject 424)
******Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain On Music, pp. 180-1.