"See? Maybe it would help if I were a sociopath. No, no; I mean it. How else can I paint one."
The following is AN EXCERPT FROM JOSEPH'S EASEL, The Rise of an American Picasso, my first novel. In the excerpt, the artist, Javi Gran-Cognac and his agent/shrink Godhra Amunzillipur discuss
Note: Javi Atilla Gran-Cognac is the artist hero of Joseph's Easel, and Godhra Amunzillipur is his agent, business manager and full-time psychotherapist. Andra is the artist's landlord and notorious for using a long-handled shovel like an avenging Samurai sword to right local wrongs.
They were having sunset dinner on the deck at Wolfies Grill on Morse Lake south of Cicero. The brown water of the lake had turned blood-red at the edges. The gulls, so far from the sea, did aerial stunts for table scraps. The sun, setting behind tall, dark clouds shaped roughly like penguins in a funhouse mirror, seemed to be a perfect backdrop for one of Godhra’s and Javi’s more bizarre sessions.
As usual, the artist had dodged the working part of his therapy by introducing random remarks as bait. Back and forth it went. “Yeah, I have an emotional problem with Clap Kruegerrand’s greed—it seems to come with the same bean counting principles as my business manager’s Capitalism.” Javi let a gleam of playful accusation shine through a moment's stare in his friend's direction. Godhra was patient; he allowed the conversation to deal with his business tactics, but soon veered the talk toward Kruegerrand, a subject which while delving into tactical analysis of their enemy also gave insight into his artist friend's complex mental state. And the artist went along. Javi told himself that a little more light shed on evil might load more firepower into his brush. What other good could therapy do for an artist?
Javi realized he had been thinking partly from a book he had read. Oddly, it was about sociopathic behavior. Martha Stout, the author, was playing with his thoughts. Okay, fine; he was certain that artists sometimes help form writer’s thoughts. Quid pro quo. Anyway, he was thinking that the forces arrayed against the artist are generally regional, furtive, shadowy dynamisms that resist precise identification. Thus, they seem immune to analysis or remedy, unless the artist is patient, willing to take his or her chances waiting for a miracle to come riding out of the sunrise sometime in the next millennia or two. As a working artist willingly there in the pit with the lions of this cat eat dog world, it is not as if you are starring in a story written for comic book minds and set up for superhero solutions. In real life, as it is with Javi, the artist’s immediate antagonist is often a very powerful sociopath.
“Clap Kruegerrand is my personal sociopath,” Javi chuckled. “Okay, but what does that tell me? Hell, I myself have been called a sociopath before.” Javi paused. He realized that he did not have his head totally in the conversation. Aside from Martha Stout’s book, a part of his awareness had been making mental sketches of the western lakeside—that blood-red waterline—more or less automatically. He decided that his friend deserved his complete attention, especially when talking about his enemy. He would ease back into focus, though; no need to shock the system. Godhra, meanwhile, seemingly reading Javi’s mind, waited for the artist’s kicker. “Sociopath: I’ve maybe done more research on that subject than some shrinks I know,” Javi said with a smile, and looked his shrink in the eye.
“Un-huh, are you saying it is taking one to be knowing one?”
“If it does, then my ignorance on the subject is proof that some people are dead wrong about me. From what I’ve read, meaningful descriptions of a sociopath are as rare as real-life examples of rehabilitated ones. One thing I know: being a sociopath didn’t keep ours from marrying my girlfriend.”
“Sociopathic behavior is being tortuous conversation, Javi? Why be talking about it? Maybe you are wanting to talk about—”
“Well, you brought it up, counselor. Maybe I see a relationship between sociopathic behavior and capitalist behavior. Maybe understanding the one helps understand the other. Maybe I want justification for rehabilitating Kruegerrand. Permanently. Before Andra does it first.” He watched a gull dive into the water near a cabin cruiser. “Maybe I am working on a painting in which understanding the sociopath is critical to getting the punchline right. Maybe I am writing a book.” Javi observed Godhra’s reaction. He thought he saw his shrink flinch, but gambled the conversation would not jump tracks again. Godhra would not want to defend his little authoring empire, at least not the time he had been devoting to it.
And Godhra seemed willing to dwell as long as Javi on the question of what a sociopath is. Godhra sipped a Margarita and watched a boater back his trailer down the cement boat ramp. “It is being easier for writers, Javi. They are being content describing the sociopath’s cruel actions. Such descriptions are telling readers all they want to know about the villain’s capacity for evil. No matter how weak or cheap it is being, description of behavior is getting the writer and the reader to the end of the book. It is being more difficult for an artist, maybe.”
“All they want to know!" Javi was incensed. "What if I want them to know more than they want to know? What if my painting will fail unless I can depict the one thing that makes a sociopath, and the capitalist, for that matter, such a danger to society—the absence of conscience. I can do grisly; I can do morbid; I can do bloody, but graphic detail is not enough. I want viewers to understand more than just my dislike for the villain in my painting.” Javi now realized his stumble down this linguistic rabbit hole was more a quest for artistic device than an escape from feelings. He was not mending, and he was not dodging the mending; he was painting. He hoped Godhra understood.
“You are being the artist, Great One.”
“And you’re the shrink, oh mighty Swami. Think about this: Centuries of artists have burst ventricles and cut off ears in the hunt for a visual way to depict in a painting the presence of soul. Millions of artists focused on that one thing for a thousand years. And then this guy—your client—is nutty enough to worry about a way to depict the absence of soul. That’s what we’re talking about here, the absence of soul. But it isn’t a new thing. Over a lifetime you and I will see news clips on television and read thousands of efforts to describe the inner workings of the really bad guys. Long lists of words have been invented to help us out, at least those of us greedy enough to write for money.” Javi held up a hand to halt Godhra’s objection. “I have a problem with words, as you know, and I let the hunt for the right word be a conversation stopper. You say it is something related to stuttering, but I can rattle off a whole lineup of bad guy descriptors without missing a beat. Mobster, murderer, crook, shyster, shark, brute, scoundrel, uh, maniac, and several more. They all make a gung-ho attempt to nail the sociopath. An entire roster of scientists—guys like you, Godhra—have devoted lifetimes to understanding and explaining the screwed up piece of shit in society that we call the sociopath. What I want to do is get to the core of what it must be like, in Clap Kruegerrand’s case, for instance, to walk the fields of his big-ass farm, ride a tractor past rows and rows of corn, ...what’s he do at the school? chair the School Board meetings? What’s it like for that fat-ass to drive a pickup truck to his Christological Church for a baptism or a marriage, enjoy a family history in a beat down community and show up at the Ak-wy-yeth Cafe every day WITHOUT A GODDAMNED CONSCIENCE? Without a conscience, Godhra. Somehow, that condition has got to show in the bad guys of my paintings. See? Maybe it would help if I were a sociopath. No, no; I mean it. How else can I paint one. No artist has ever captured the reality of Hitler or Stalin, or myriads of other soulless characters. We don’t know how.” Javi saw that the creepy cloud cover had allowed light to squeeze between near and far penguins. No blue sky visible, but the clouds had gathered some of their evening hues, the blood-red shoreline turning to silver mauve and quivering like a hypnotist’s pendant. “Hey, maybe hypnotism—”
Godhra laughed while shaking his head. “No, Great One.” He turned his chair an inch or so toward the sunset and winced at the screech. He set his drink on a coaster. “We are often reading of persons who fly into a rage and in a moment’s frenzy are maiming or killing another person. We are maybe knowing some—”
“Yes, it isn’t hard to imagine one of us, Andra, or even me, maybe you, acting out in that way, presuming that therapists act out.” Godhra sneered comically and laughed. Javi said, “Uh-huh,” and crossed his legs. They both laughed. The artist continued, “But I am pretty sure that after his conniption is over, the murderer would feel sick. Feel something—”
“Remorse, be feeling a sickness in the stomach—”
“Whatever, at least—”
“You are knowing, Great One, because you can empathize with rage—”
“Well, I can put myself in sorrow’s shoes. And yeah, I am fairly certain that we would feel those things, Godhra, even Andra, swinging that shovel like a scimitar. Lucky me: I have those feelings... and so the damned sociopath escapes my understanding.” Godhra and Javi sat quietly for half-a-minute. A dock hand shouted in the distance, something about “bow first, asshole”, and then Javi continued.
“To listen to a newscaster tell us about the Lindhurst High School shooting—that a mass murderer has obliterated the life of a dozen innocent people—and never really get it—the sociopath part, never really get the part that matters...well, it gets to me. Or how about BCCI, that Pakistani-British bank I did the Sandstorm painting about? Their twenty-billion-dollar fraud wrecked the banks of three nations. Then there is Carl Icahn and his hostile takeover of TWA and U.S. Steel; he systematically sold their assets, shut them down, and killed the livelihoods of thousands of families? And then we read that he had no feelings about the havoc he caused. I’ve read that the guy was pleased with himself, puts such crap in his resume. No, Godhra, that stuff is beyond my ability to empathize or imagine.”