The Thanatos Syndrome

I guess I’ll finally be allowed to say it.

There are people in America who are in love with death. And most of them are that way because they know nothing about suffering. In a terrible postmodern paradox, we’ve become a nation of crybaby nut jobs. We’ve become diapered worshippers of Thanatos, the god of death.

This includes gun nuts, video gamers, abortionists, and Quentin Tarantino.

The first time I fully realized this was more than a decade ago. I was working for a liberal group in Washington, D.C. (it was before I got mugged by reality), and we had a meeting with a head social worker who was upset that, due to some temporary glitch in the system, black girls in Washington, D.C., were having trouble getting abortions. I will never forget the face of the social worker, a woman who dressed in Ann Taylor and lived in the nice liberal part of town, as she clutched the table and screamed into the air: “Dammit, these girls need to get these abortions!”

This was not a person who thought that abortion is sad but necessary. This was a person who was in love with death. And here I will say what I have been thinking, what I have known for more than 10 years but which every editor I have ever submitted the idea to has rejected.

Some people who support abortion simply like killing. It has nothing to do with complicated pregnancies or rights to privacy. They like the idea that they have power over life and death. Many of them are people full of resentment and jealousy and hatred. They revel in the blood on their hands.

Almost as bad are the gun nuts and “doomsday preppers.” It was no surprise when it emerged that Nancy Lanza, the mother of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza, was a member of the doomsday preppers, groups that are arming themselves and stockpiling food in preparation for an apocalypse or a government takeover. A lot of these people are also in love with death. They aren’t like underground resisters in World War II or dissidents in modern China, sadly and somewhat reluctantly taking up a cause that may involve violence because they truly believe in freedom. If you read their posts, it’s clear they are people who embrace the idea of bloodshed as its own reward. I just wish they would have the courage to admit it, without dressing up their fantasies and paranoia in the language of righteous resistance.

So what causes this attraction to death — what Walker Percy called, in his great novel of the same name, the “Thanatos Syndrome”? I often note the work of the late social critic Christopher Lasch in my own work, and I do so because more and more it seems as if what Lasch wrote about is coming to pass. In his books “The Culture of Narcissism” and its underappreciated follow-up, “The Minimal Self,” Lasch argued that changes in parenting, technology, and capitalism had given rise to narcissistic personality disorder, and that the narcissist had become a prominent cultural type in the modern age. The absence of a father and proper parental discipline had left children unable to cope with the “oversized fantasies” of omnipotence and destruction that need to be tamed in a young psyche. Technology changed work and made people feel increasingly helpless even as it made their lives more convenient. Television and movies, and now videos games, flood impressionable and unstable young psyches with images of nonstop mayhem. To a healthy mind, these games and images can be fun and even cathartic. But to the clinical narcissist who has not had strong parental discipline and love to socialize the consciousness, they are toxic. These people suffer not from arrogance but from weakness. In a review of Lasch’s work in Commentary magazine, Larry Nachman summed it up: “These are self-absorbed people, but the self that absorbs them is painfully weak and fragile. They are harried by unrealistic expectations and driven to search for substitutes for those satisfactions which reality can never provide. Our society, Lasch believes, tends to produce this disorder and, more importantly, affects all of us with its traits.”