Lit Chic: Psychopaths and politicians

Originally written August 2011 for Fest magazine’s website: http://www.festmag.co.uk

Yet another bumper post – we are spoiling you! (The truth is, the Festival’s winding down and consequently, so are we). Actually, the past two days have involved some of the most engaging events I’ve been to yet.

Yesterday, I went to see Jon Ronson talk about his latest book, The Psychopath Test. Ronson began by explaining that the inspiration for the book came from flicking through the DSM Manual of Mental Disorders at a friend’s house and discovering he had 12 mental disorders of his own (including, in his own words: “generalised anxiety, malingering anxiety, nightmare disorder, parent/child relational problems…”). He then took us on a rather madcap romp through his research methods, which involved gaining a professional certificate in psychopath identification, lunch with Scientologists, a trip to Broadmoor, and a visit to an American CEO with a garden full of stone predatory animals (Ronson: “It’s like Narnia…”)

Not one to hold back – he called AA Gill “a classic psychopath” and John Sweeney a “horrible lying bastard” – Ronson certainly knows how to entertain an audience, but it is his empathy that makes him so eminently likeable. He openly admitted that researching the book made him increasingly neurotic about having psychopathic tendencies himself, and said that he decided very early on that he “would not diagnose people – I wasn’t going to do anyone I hadn’t met.”

The humour in all this is, of course, really an undertone in what is a very serious issue: whether or not 4% of CEOs display psychopathic tendencies, “diagnosis”, such as it is, is being carried out by people who have done the same three day course as Ronson – which, as he openly admits, is just not enough. I was genuinely shocked when he told us about children in America being prescribed anti-psychotic medication at the age of two or three: sadly, but somewhat inevitably, a very young girl recently died from overdosing on such medication.

Light relief this was not, entertaining though it was for the most part, and today’s events were in a similar vein – though no psychopaths. I began the day (at a very civilised 2.30pm) by listening to George Craig and Dan Gunn discuss the letters of Samuel Beckett. This project – currently on its second volume, to be released imminently – is something of a labour of love. Beckett’s handwriting is virtually illegible, and for many of his letters he preferred to write in French (he said in one letter, “Having to write in English is knotting me up – horrible language, which I still know too well…”) which meant that this has been quite the translation project for Craig.

Troublesome though it may be, it is eminently worthwhile – these letters provide a fascinating insight into one of the most enigmatic minds of the 20th century. Particularly endearing – surprisingly so – was Beckett’s indefatigable support of young writers. To the young Robert Pinget he writes “I have no advice to give you, having written nonsense all my life” but goes on to say “Don’t lose heart … Plug yourself into despair and sing it for us.”

This event left me wondering whether our generation will have any great letter writers – as a literary genre of sorts, it is perhaps lost in an age of instant communication – and vowing to write more myself. Consider this a plea for erudite correspondents…

Former Labour minister Chris Mullin packed out the RBS Main Theatre—surprising given that he was not a particularly well-known politician before his diairies began publishing in 2009—for his hour of amusing anecdotes and his trademark acerbic barbs directed at, amongst others, Peter Mandelson .

Finally, I went to see academic Alex Danchev and artist Willie Doherty in conversation with Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket Gallery. This event focused on the relationship between images and events: specifically, in the case of war and international relations. Danchev’s highly intellectual work was brought to life in the context of Doherty’s art, which focusses on the faces of supposed terrorists and criminals. It was interesting to see thoughts intertwine like this: Danchev talked about the philosophy behind the idea of “the face”, and then Doherty showed us a visual manifestation of this philosophy, allowing us to actively engage with what could be fairly inscrutable thoughts.

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