Radix Journal

Radix Journal

A radical journal

Author: J.N. Dietz

Myth, Mental Illness, and Political Extremism

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”.  An unfortunate consequence of the medicalization and naturalizing of the mind (and the body)…

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”. 

An unfortunate consequence of the medicalization and naturalizing of the mind (and the body) has been to view cognitive dysfunctions and personality disorders almost exclusively in terms of biological causes.  In those situations where thinkers dare to look beyond the biological, the tendency to consider environmental and even political causes will emerge.  So too, will these theorists turn towards explanations that emphasize various technological and cultural innovations (the omnipresence of visual and auditory stimuli), narcissistic industries (the arts, including fashion, music, and cinema), and the demands that changing work environments have on psychomotility), share in contributing to the phenomenon of human psycho-social dysfunction.  To the credit of such thinkers, new disciplines have emerged in the last century to address these problems.  However, this too has proven insufficient.  This is not to say that theories of physical trauma, congenital disturbances of neurobiological processes, rapidly changing technological and environmental demands, and considerations relating to the individual’s political circumstance are not significant, but should we consider the explosion of mental health problems in industrialized and modernized societies – in particular over the last quarter century – as well as our failure to treat persistent psychiatric conditions, then we must admit that something is awry in our analysis.  Thomas Szasz wrote of the myth of mental illness in 1974, but in this work I would like to discuss myth and mental illness.

Medicalization of the Mind

The how of human behavior throughout most of our history has been relegated to the domain of religion, in particular through the use of myth and parable to convey truths about our nature, and as such, to provide archetypes or models which we can then internalize and embody in our actions.  Throughout our history these archetypes have provided the form for consciousness (we could also call that ‘personality’), and the use of myth and parable has served as a kind of moral and ethical education.  During that time, we regarded these societal tools with great care and as such they were not easily dismissed by past regimes; when new mythical systems were adopted, almost always for the purpose of political consolidation and expansion, the most successful societies either retained significant features of the existing system, and if pressed, wiped out any trace of their existence (including the people who held on to them).  What we see in our current situation is a covering, an overlaying, of the existing mythic and parabolic foundation upon which America was founded.  An analogue to this may be found in Christopher Caldwell’s recent book The Age of Entitlement, where he pointed out that America is presently divided between the founding constitutional document and its mid-twentieth century legal replacement (brought about by the civil rights movement); we are not only contending with dueling legal understandings, but dual and incompatible understandings of our own mythical, historical, and parabolic origins.

Stepping aside from the technical and historical implications of that statement and moving directly to its psychological consequences, we can say that perhaps to a greater extent than people are a product of their race, ethnicity, or geographical origin, they are the result of their mythological and parabolic inheritance.  If a people can be ripped from their inherited narratives, which are best understood as a true collective fiction or ideology, or merely have their narratives re-written in a way that is disempowering, then they necessarily become psychologically vulnerable to the slings and arrows of malevolent narratives and cognitive colonization.  New narratives emerge which provide a different set of ethical and moral codes, which, as we can plainly see, do not foster the development of agency, maturity, and eusocial intimacy.  Rather, they engender quite the opposite.

Moreover, such people become alienated from their own identities, the result of which is a kind of false consciousness and the development of an othered self-concept.  Natural instincts honed over generations of natural and sexual selection thus become problematized.  Conformity to a set of mythical and evolutionary behaviors, themselves finely tuned and highly adaptive are now indicators of repression, trauma, or worse, fascist tendencies.  Seen in this light, mental illness can be understood as the result of a conflict between a dysgenic mythos and the natural psychological tendencies which seek realization within an orderly mental framework.  While it is not ideal to describe the resulting psychological deficits using the language of mental illness (a concept so bound up in pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific complications as to be unwieldy in helping us to achieve greater clarity), understood in its conventional sense it does give us a point of discursive origin – the dysfunction of human thought and action.  Operating from the insights afforded to us by narrative theory – stated simply, the idea that storytelling is an essential component of human cognition – we would be better served to work with a parabolic and mythological conception of psychological dis-ease.

In short, the subversion of religious, national, and ethnic mythos grants a tremendous capacity for political and social control.  Much of contemporary discourse is itself a fight over the rights to our foundational myths, so that they may be used to combat the social and political ills of our time – namely racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, inequality, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and homophobia (to name a few).  One such example of this contest for cultural supremacy may be found in the work of Donna Zuckerberg who wrote the book Not All Dead White Men, partly with the intention of de-fanging classic texts (such as those of the Stoics) who, in her view, served as a legitimating force that aided far-right misogyny.  In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Zuckerberg was quoted as saying,

The ancient world was deeply misogynistic – it was a time when there was no word for rape, feminism did not exist and women’s actions were determined by male relatives.”

Other choice quotes from the same interview bemoaned the fact that white supremacists and racists:

“…long appropriated the history, literature and myth of the ancient world to their advantage. Borrowing the symbols of these cultures, as the Nazi party did in the 1940s, can be a powerful declaration that you are the inheritor of western culture and civilisation”; that these texts were being “distorted and stripped of context”;

And that furthermore,

“Classics are wrought with histories and narratives of oppression and exclusion.” 

While universities make progressive attempts to broaden the canon so students aren’t simply reading one dead white man after another,

“the manosphere rebel against this. They see themselves as the guardians of western civilisation and the defenders of its cultural legacy.”

One last statement, simply to punctuate the point,

“By quoting Marcus Aurelius – as Steve Bannon is known to often do – Red Pillers perpetuate the idea that they, white men, are the intellectual authority under threat from women and people of colour.”

We can find countless examples of this phenomenon, though I won’t go into quite as exhaustive an investigation here (but a few more will further illuminate the point I have already made).  In her 1976 work, The Laugh of the Medusa, Feminist theorist Helene Cixous reinterpreted the Perseus myth as an expression of male fragility and terror.  In her own words:

“Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have [a penis].  But isn’t this fear convenient for them?  Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning?  You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her.  And she’s not deadly.  She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.  Men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex.  That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death; it’s the jitters that gives them a hard-on! for themselves! They need to be afraid of us.  Look at the trembling Perseus moving backward toward us, clad in apotropes.  What lovely backs!  Not another minute to lose.  Let’s get out of here.”

A pioneering moment in what would later develop into the discipline of Queer Theology, Hugh William Montefiore wrote in 1967 of Jesus Christ’s obvious homosexuality.  In the paper titled Jesus, the Revelation of God, Montefiore wrote,

Men usually remain unmarried for three reasons: either because they cannot afford to marry or there are no girls to marry (neither of these factors need have deterred Jesus); or because it is inexpedient for them to marry in the light of their vocation (we have already ruled this out during the “hidden years” of Jesus’ life); or because they are homosexual in nature, in as much as women hold no special attraction for them. The homosexual explanation is one which we must not ignore.”

Bishop Hugh William Montefiore, author of “Jesus, the Revelation of God”.

Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was killed during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians has since enjoyed a second life as a symbol for the pain of closeted homosexuals.  Richard A. Kaye wrote that

“Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of a tortured closet case.”

The 1619 Project, begun by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (and which recently was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary), is another such example of narrative-based political action heavily dependent on myth as a means for influencing thought and action.  The project argued, among other things, that the American Revolution was fought to preserve the institution of slavery on the freshly settled continent.  While I do not intend to rebut the arguments and reinterpretations presented in this paragraph, they do serve to underscore my position – myths make the people.  Ayn Rand was alleged to have remarked positively at the release of the 1977 television series, Roots, arguing that it was an important work which provided African-Americans with a sense of myth and history, having lost this connection as a result of the slave trade.  Clearly we can see what we may call mythic competition, as the story of the African slaves has been transported from a peripheral, though integral, part of American history to the front-and-center position it currently enjoys.

To quote Derrida from his lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (who in turn was quoting Levi-Strauss),

“The myth and the musical work thus appear as orchestra conductors whose listeners are the silent performers. If it be asked where the real focus of the work is to be found, it must be replied that its determination is impossible. Music and mythology bring man face to face with virtual objects whose shadow alone is actual…. Myths have no authors”.

And because myths have no authors, they can be seen as part of the commons – belonging to the public domain – and therefore subject to an unending sequence of reappropriations.  An unwillingness to secure a ‘rightful’ interpretation, or at least designating an interpretative or priestly class of sufficient loyalty, thus opens the populace up to powerful and unrelenting psychological manipulation.  Not all political power comes from the barrel of a gun; often we find the pen to be just as mighty as the pistol.

The appropriation of myth has powerful implications for the development of a secure identity. Mythical reevaluations are to large degree the unavoidable consequence of both cultural evolution and involution; the more a people migrate from their formative circumstances, the greater is the need for their myths and parables to be recontextualized so they may make sense of new challenges and circumstances.  There may be a political dimension to this process or it may reflect simple pragmatic necessities, sometimes both at once.  In our present situation it is difficult to deny the political motivations behind the repurposing of Western and American mythology.  Whether owing to the desire to suppress political opposition, or as the logical result of a democratization of the arts, whereby marginalized peoples seek to break the yoke of oppressive, supremacist, and phallogocentric narratives (itself a revolutionarily political act), we see in all instances a will to power seeking its own exertion and preservation.

Persecution and Suffering as foundational myth.

Persecution and suffering, being so central to the founding mythology of many Americans (be they English, African, Irish, Jewish, or otherwise) thus provides a wellspring of resentment, angst, and terror with which to be drawn from and marshaled for reasons of political efficiency.  By no means are these the only themes to be found in our myths, nonetheless they have proven the most enduring and politically expedient for the achievement of control and subjugation.  Consider the following realities of victimhood: The Jewish-American fears an inevitable persecution at the hands of his Gentile neighbor.  The African-American fears he will never free himself from the slavery of his Caucasian oppressor.  The European-American increasingly suffers under the weight of his own mythical tyranny, for increasingly his narrative is one of original sin, situating him as the sole agent of evil in the modern world.  Woman, too, anguishes at her inability to escape man’s cloying grasp.  And as the revolution of human rights continues its march into the adolescence our new century, homosexuals and transsexuals find themselves similarly – and in their view, most significantly – suffering victimhood for the mere crime of existing.  Resentment, that rich and eminently minable psychological resource, may be the prevailing feeling of our time; so long as this remains the case we will find ourselves helpless to improve our current circumstance and realize the ambitions of the last century.

Fellow Radix stalwart Dr. Edward Dutton would tell us that political extremism and its concomitant psychological maladaptations find their origins through the evolution of the spiteful mutant.  And this may be true to a very large degree.  But a mere bad roll of the genetic dice alone could not account for the unprecedented level of cultural and political turmoil that the United States is presently confronted with.  Amassing large swaths of human capital (be they spiteful mutants or otherwise) will aid the pursuit of political power, but as Gustave Le Bon showed us, they are not in and of themselves sufficient to achieve any purpose.  They must be guided, massaged, spellbound before they may become useful political golems.  Mental illness and political extremism go hand-in-hand; while evolutionary pressures integrally set the stage for psychological and political development, we must understand as well the role that myth – be it through religious, poetic, literary, cinematic, or musical transmission – plays in giving shape to the mind of man.

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