A Phil-for-an-ill Blog

September 2, 2008

The Devil’s Advocate (1997) (Vanity and the Psychopath)


A brief note on the tying together the concepts of vanity, the ego, Narcissus, role play and the social aberration of the psychopath based on an inspirational watch of The Devil’s Advocate.

"The speculation was widespread that the young lawyer's unblemished string of victories would come to an end in this courtroom."

In this film the main character, Kevin (Keanu Reeves) is a defense attorney who relentlessly adheres to the strategy of winning. As his defense cases progress he does not shy away from stepping over ethical roadblocks that are thrown on his way. Under any circumstances, losing simply is not an option to Kevin. The underlying motive seems to be that his ego will not allow loss (of face) or defeat (of any kind). In general, to a lot of people, the ego seems to be reluctant to allow you to forgive yourself in the case you are responsible for loss or failure. When it comes to personal suffering, it’s temptingly easier to blame others rather than taking a close look at yourself first. And yet the ability to forgive oneself is crucial to function as a real or authentic human being, because if you cannot forgive yourself you will not be able to forgive others and, as such, this is the basis for the preventable development of spite and bitterness towards the fellow human being.

As it appears to me the obsession of winning, cost what it may, appears to be a creative recipe for the psychopath: someone who has no qualms about, and conscience problems over, hurting other people (or worse) as long as the goal is attained, e.g. getting higher up the food chain or pecking. Kevin is a person who worships an image (courtesy of his ego) he himself adopted rather than seeking to nurture and developing the pure authentic self. Unlike the ego, which seeks to bond its host to serve catering to abstract and often untenable self-images, the self has unique individualistic aspirations.

The situation reminds me of the story of Narcissus, who was so mesmerized by his own mirror image, that his warped mind drove to kill himself upon discovery the image was but an illusory deception. It was his own ego that deluded and deceived him to the point of fatality. In similar vein, as portrayed in the movie, narcissism would cause Kevin’s demise, if he indeed were to pursue chasing the image of a ruthless and unscrupulous winner.

"Welcome to Babylon..."

Consequently, the movie struck me as an alarming wake-up call to humanity. The message being: We stand to become psychopathic monsters in our obsessive reverence of images of vanity. In other words, by being both prevalent and detrimental, it is vanity that is killing and tormenting humanity. “Narcissism is our nation’s number one killer and there is no known cure…”

"Vanity is definitely my favorite sin...Self-love the all natural opiate...."

“Vanity is definitely my favourite sin”, admits the Devil (Al Pacino) in the closing scene of the Devil’s Advocate, after he successfully placed a new strangle-hold on Kevin who just previously backed away from a possible psychopathic future upon taking on the role of a relentless and unscrupulous attorney. The wry and sad message to humanity seemingly being that vanity and happiness are indeed mutually exclusive concepts.

Much like Narcissus, Kevin also kills himself once he realizes that "he's been had" by the Devil in that he has been wasting his life chasing a vain phantom image of himself.

Is it a coincidence that the most wealthy and the most powerful people around are also likely to be the most vain and biggest snobs around? Even these people are caught into the type of spiritually immature, myopic and psychopathic role-play that unfortunately seems to be the default way of being to a lot of people throughout all strata of society. An authentic human being, who truly lives a life of truth and honesty and as such is untroubled by an artificial and possible psychopathic role-play, must be quite a rare phenomenon in this perverted and corrupted world we live in.

"...we got all this money and it's supposed to be fun, but it's not. It's like one big test."

It is as if those who accumulate the most wealth and power are being tormented by the heavy burden of maintaining the inflated protective ego that comes with it. The more one has the more one has to exert oneself trying to hold on to it. Fear of losing kicks in not seldom to the point of paranoia. Fear also easily leads to (“defensive”) aggression and disproportionate fear (paranoia) may trigger adoption of irresponsible and ethically challenging protective measures, especially if the paranoiac is also a wealthy megalomaniac. As such, the paranoiac and the psychopath may not be too far apart on the spectrum of psychopathology. It seems that poor people aren’t the only kind of people who suffer after all. Perhaps this forms a basis of envy in which the rich and powerful seek to persecute and crush those who are satisfied with less and live a life of simplicity and humility.

I wonder what the causative factor would be for the trait of psychopathy to emerge and even flourish if it ultimately is detrimental to the habitat. Maybe the answer can be found in the animalistic, as opposed to humanistic, type of world we live in, because in a world where the winner takes all and the losers are but weepers, it is the very design of society that should be held, at least in part, accountable for churning out psychopaths on a regular and perennial basis. It is the type of dog-eat-dog system, making one feel less worthy if one is not either already at the top or working zealously towards it, which provides the psychopath both with ample breeding ground and rationale for existing.

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