The bourgeois is defined by his fear of death

From Austin Storm
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We Americans are fascinated by murder. It leads every local newscast; it fills hour after hour of television entertainment and packs them in at the movies. It has been the subject of novels and plays by important writers — a way into understanding our national temperament and state of mind.

Where does this fascination come from? Ours is essentially a middle-class country, and Hegel and Rousseau wrote that the bourgeois is defined by his fear of death, especially violent death. We have grown accustomed to living peaceable and comfortable lives. And as the world remains a dangerous place, we naturally fear losing our peace, our comfort, and our lives.

The nature of the danger — the direction from which unexpected death comes — has changed over time, or at least the work of some of our best writers suggests it has. That change has affected how we think and feel about chance, fate, desire, individual responsibility, and the general condition of our civilization. It would appear our vulnerabilities as a people are laid most bare in the tales we tell about murder, and the evolution of our best-drawn fictional murderers may have much to tell us about the direction in which American life is headed.


More recently, it is the psychopath with no conscience and the psychotic directed by demons that terrify us the most. To die for no reason at the hands of a madman has become the pervasive fear. Like the products of popular culture — such as the long-running television hit Criminal Minds, which features a new twisted killer every week — the works of serious writers testify to the condition of the modern American psyche. The enduring popularity of the murder novel shows that, for all the unprecedented comfort and safety of our lives, the fear that our world can suddenly be broken into by a homegrown monster never leaves us. And the changing nature of that monster shows how our own drives and cultural pathologies have changed over the last 100 years. The monsters of previous generations could give intelligible reasons for killing, warped though their reasoning was, or they might have suffered from a medically legitimate disease or defect. Our contemporary monsters appear to be soulless, virtually inhuman, their internal voids to be filled up with violence. Lincoln famously said any real danger we faced would come from within: "If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher." Is emptiness the danger our late republic is too comfortable to see coming?

- Algis Valiunas's great survey of American murder