Friday, May 31, 2013

Wagner's Anti-Semitism, Part 3: Issues of the mind

This post will focus on the sorts of psychobiological factors that created Wagner’s narrative construction of the Jews as enemies of his cultural and revolutionary program. I am not going to discuss his program or his anti-Semitism in general in this one; this post is foundational for that. Instead, I am just going to focus on brain science in general, and his paranoia and how that fueled his anti-Semitism, in specific. To some readers, you might consider this discussion far afield, but I think in evaluating any person’s character, particularly one who was thought to have mental problems as was the case with Wagner, you need some understanding of brain science. Plus, I believe it is always good to pull back to a bigger and wider picture so that biographical understanding isn’t unnecessarily constricted.

Those who are up on neuroscience know that there is a wide amount of compelling evidence that free will as normally understood doesn’t exist. The neuroscientist Sam Harris, a proponent of this theory, says, “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” Sam makes his case in this talk here

In the talk, Sam details the moral issue by way of analogy. Dan Haggard summarizes it in this review: “When we get attacked by an alligator we tend not to get angry at the alligator, but instead we just try to run away. We don’t resent the animal because it’s just an alligator. However, if we are punched by a fellow human being we tend to resent that human. This difference in feeling Harris attributes to the notion of free will that guides us. We think
that the animal can’t help do what it does, but we do think the person attacking us can. So, according to Harris, we resent things that we believe to have free will.”

Another neuroscientist David Engleman, doesn’t completely rule out free will, but in this podcast says:
The more we understand about human behavior, the more we understand how people's brains came to be the way they are from a very complicated intertwining of genetic and environment. It turns out if free will exists, it's really a bit player in what is going on in the brain. And the reason is your genes which you don’t choose, and your environment, including your in-utero environment and all your childhood experiences, we don’t choose that. These are the things that come together and make your brain the way it is and define a lot of your trajectory in life. And if you have free will, it can only modulate a lot of momentum and a particular direction.
If you prefer reading, this article by the same author in The Atlantic covers the same ground.

Why this is relevant is that if we accept the proposition that there is no free will, it changes our views of morality and culpability.

To give a taste of the issue—I’m lazily stealing from Mark Linsenmayer’s summary of a Eagleman’s views here—“Eagleman’s point here is that the criminal justice system assumes a model of free will that is unsustainable given what we know about neurology, and he gives examples like a normal guy with no apparent deviant impulses suddenly starts exhibiting child molester behavior. He’s subsequently diagnosed with a giant brain tumor, which is then removed, and his behavior (and self-reported desires) return to normal… but then they return, and what do you know? The tumor’s back.”

But, as Sam Harris argues, “A brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. If we fully understood the neurophysiology of any murderer’s brain, it would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it” and, therefore, “the whole conception of placing blame on him would erode.”1

The moral conclusion Harris—a well-know atheist—gives is that the “irony is if you want to be like Jesus and love your enemies, or at least not hate them, one way into that is to view human behavior through the lens of a wider scientific picture of causation.”2 

There are, obviously, people who are well versed in the science on which the view rests, and disagree with this. David Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, rebuts Sam here. But even he believes that the understanding of an absolute free will in which we are morally culpable for our unfettered “free” choices is incoherent. Dennett argues that we have “practical free will” if not “theoretical free will” and are morally culpable if we are “wired right”—that is free of retardation, brain damage, or mental illness—but our choices are indeed greatly limited by genetics, the environment and brain processes nonetheless.

So even a free will supporter like Dennett believes that diminished capacity greatly reduces or negates free will and such people are, therefore, not culpable for what they do. The question becomes for this blog, if you think free will exists as Dennett argues: did Wagner have diminished capacity—that is, was he mentally ill? Many people have argued just that—both in his time, and to this day. If this is true, can he really be responsible for the bad in his character and actions? Or, for that matter, the good in his works?

I am actually going to take up the subject of his unique brain in more detail at a later point, but I wanted to bring up one of his symptoms now: paranoia.  You can consider this post as the first in my exploration of his mental illnesses or, at least, his mental uniqueness, as well as part of my on-going anti-Semitic posts.

I have a theory, not proven as far as I know in the psychological literature, but certainly true in my life-experience: people with high IQs seem to be more susceptible to paranoia than average folks. What IQ particularly tests is pattern recognition. Therefore, my theory is that those who are able to see deeper, more intricate patterns sometimes go amiss, and create rational and often compelling theories that are, in fact, illusion or delusion. This guy has a similar theory, and has taken the time (unlike me who just googled about a bit...) to find scientific literature to support this theory that paranoia has its roots in a hyperactive pattern matching process, a reinforcement mechanism that rewards high-emotion conclusions, and a hyperactive state of arousal.  Wagner fits into this theory like a glove.

Now, paranoia in schizophrenics is well-established in the literature, as summarized here: “The especially paranoid version of schizophrenia combines hyperactive pattern recognition, specifically for patterns of conspiracy, with other thought disorders, like bizarre ideation (literally bizarre ideas) and ideas of reference (thinking that everything is personal – people and events are referring specifically to them).”  Paranoia, though, sometimes accompanies a wide variety of mental illnesses including depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have a good friend with schizophrenia—who has a high IQ and two advanced degrees—and what I found is that she is always very rational and very good at narrative construction. Because of this, she managed to convince virtually all of her doctors and friends—including me—of the truth of a particular delusional narrative in spite of the fact that we knew about her disease. Only through a process of fact-checking and communication between everyone were we able to unravel that her narrative was based on paranoid “facts,” and to free ourselves from our participation in her delusion.

Last week's New York Times Magazine had a article called “A Theory of Conspiracy Theories.” The gist: “Perfectly sane minds possess an incredible capacity for developing narratives, and even some of the wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in rational thinking, which makes them that much more pernicious.”

Before continuing, I do feel it is important to point out that conspiracies do happen. All the time. The tendency to dismiss all conspiracies as paranoia is as irrational as accepting all theories as true. I believe that dismissing all conspiracy theories—as many do out of hand—is wrong and dangerous. If someone raises a serious question as to an event, it deserves a serious answer. I appreciate the work of Skeptic magazine, for example, to do just that (and they adequately debunked the 9/11 truthers theory to me).

Back to the article; it goes on to say that, “more recent scholarship by academics like Mark FensterPeter Knight and Robert Goldberg suggests that conspiracy theories do not come from a particular personality type, I.Q. stratum or dispossessed fringe; they erupt wherever unfathomable news collides with unshakable beliefs.” But none of those cited are scientists, and I couldn’t find any support one way or another in their works for relating IQ to conspiracy theories. I don’t think the work has been done.

In any case, even if conspiracy theories come from anyone on the IQ range, my argument is that more compelling theories will come from people with high IQs because of their more highly developed skills in pattern-recognition and the ability to logically detail the pattern that they perceive.

Whether it is real or delusional can be incredibly hard to figure out.

To wit, my friend David Lifton is a very smart guy, who wrote the NY Times bestseller Best Evidence about the John Kennedy assassination. I do believe in this modern conspiracy theory and I think that David has the best narrative about what happened. He is an indefatigable researcher who has come up with a huge body of persuasive evidence. But, I will add, David is exactly the kind of high intellect, pattern-recognition guy who tends towards paranoia. Therefore, I also recognize that his narrative—consistent, fact-based, logical and compelling as it is—may be utterly wrong. Just like my schizophrenic friend did, he may have pulled me into his world of relentless, but ultimately, delusional logic.




David Lifton no doubt pointing out the location of the head shot that killed Kennedy

This guy wrote a review in Amazon, which hits the nail on the head:

They say truth is stranger than fiction. People often ask whether David Lifton is in touch with reality. Or is he intricately locked in a nightmare from which he never awoke? For my part, this is a genuine soul search. Lifton didn't gravitate in blind fury towards conspiracy. He didn't suspect vast numbers of people of deliberately hiding the truth. Whatever you think of his thesis, "Best Evidence" is saturated in analysis and held together by relentless logic. Suppose, if you will, that Oswald was the sole killer of JFK. In that case Lifton is totally wrong and his book is grotesque fiction. But it remains logical. His logic is just based on a false premise (to use his own language). For me the question is: are any of his crucial premises false? Lifton's conclusion is fantastic. But consider the alternative. For Lifton to be wrong, all the Parkland Hospital doctors and nurses, who originally attended Kennedy, collectively misperceived or falsely described what they saw. Or if they didn't, then all the Bethesda autopsy witnesses did. Lifton doesn't pull this testimony out of thin air. It's on the record. Lifton accounts for all of it in a way few other authors have done. Most critics on the subject rely on discrediting witnesses, usually on a large scale. The same problem applies to defenders of the Warren Report. The point about David Lifton is that he doesn't discredit. He explains. His explanation is outrageous, bizarre and even absurd. Logic can be like that at times.

David actually has much in common with Wagner, so I think he will return later in the blog. Let me just say this:  I do believe—because he has proven it to me—his “outrageous, bizarre and even absurd” narrative of the JFK assassination. If you are a fan of Carrie in Homeland, I suggest David’s work to you. He has the same intensity, focus and drive, though isn’t quite as manic as Carrie was here:


The green pen scene above looked nuts, but we learn that there was rational reason for it, and she had developed her elaborate but true narrative via color-coding. Got to love it.


So glad she got her green pen

A few other example of smart but paranoid successes:



Above is Nobel prize winning John Nash, subject of the film A Beautiful Mind.  He saw both real and delusional patterns. 




Then there is chess genius, Bobby Fisher, one of the great pattern-recognizers of all time. He later descended into a state of paranoia, particularly against the Jews. (He was Jewish).  A psychological assessment is here.



Howard Hughes was another very successful and paranoid guy.   Here is an article on his mental illness.

I could make a lot longer list, of course. Clearly in some humans, paranoia and high intelligence do go together. Each of these well-known folks were paranoid, but all had different types of mental problems.  Nash had classic paranoid schizophrenia, Hughes was OCD, Fisher seemed to just have Paranoid Personality Disorder, Carrie is bipolar (yes, she is fictional, but paranoia can accompany that disease).  The links between high intelligence and mental illness are not fully delineated, though there is a lot of research on the topic.  For instance, see here and here. But most who study the area have concluded that they can be related.  More later when I get to the direct topic of Wagner's mental state.

Now to Wagner and his paranoia. He was the type of guy who constantly created elaborate narratives, sometimes dramatic and fictional, but often in prose and, to his mind, grounded in history. His dramatic narratives are often an ingenious reworking of his source material to construct a compelling original narrative; he had a talent for this. His prose, though, could be really out there, with flights of fancy in which, for instance, he would write as if the mythical gods were interacting directly with historical characters. An example given by the the Wagner scholar, John Deathridge: “The essay the Wibelungen...describes, among other things, a supposed relationship between a historical figure, Friedrich Barbarossa, and a mythical one, Siegfried.”3

As for Wagner’s paranoia, Bryan Magee writes,
We have much evidence from people who knew him well that he was always inclined to think that something must be going on behind his back, that other people were up to something; and his friends took pains not to aggravate this. For instance, during the period when Nietzsche was close to Wagner he wrote a friend about some step he had decided not to take: “We both know that Wagner’s nature tends to make him suspicious, but I did not think that it would be a good thing to stir up his suspiciousness.4 
All his biographers trace Wagner’s eruption of anti-Semitism to his time in France when he groveled and near-starved in an unsuccessful attempt to launch his operatic career. In Paris, he sought assistance from the the most successful opera composer of his time, Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was Jewish. To Meyerbeer’s credit, he did help Wagner in a number of small ways. The story of Wagner’s relationship with Meyerbeer has been told well elsewhere, so I am going to cut to the chase: he became paranoid about Meyerbeer and concluded that he was scheming against him and, thus, Wagner wanted to both publicly cut himself off from any association with him and get revenge for this, alleged, backbiting. Wagner's Judaism in Music was written with this as his primary motivation, according to most historians. For instance, Katz concludes: “Thus his attack on Judaism appeared as the actual goal of the article and the unnamed Meyerbeer only as an example. In reality, it was the reverse”5 

Though the the piece was published anonymously (in 1850), Wagner didn’t otherwise hide his authorship and he was sure that Meyerbeer and other prominent Jews in the music world knew he was the writer. Wagner then became convinced that any bad press he ever received was the result of Jewish machinations against him because of that article. There is no evidence of this at all. When he republished the essay under his own name in 1869, his reason for republication was to expose this alleged conspiracy. Well, the result was that a segment of the Jewish population did, finally, rise up to criticize him in an organized fashion. After two decades, he finally had got the conspiracy he long imagined!


There is no doubt Wagner truly thought that there was a conspiracy, led by Jewish publishers, writers and composers, against him. Nobody doubts he had this strong belief. But there is no evidence it was true. I would argue that these thoughts, strongly held but seemingly delusional, were beyond his conscious control. It was this paranoia that was the launching-pad of his anti-Semitism expression.

Do I conclude, given what I have said about limitation on free will and his incapacitation by way of paranoid delusions, that Wagner should be fully exonerated from responsibility for any of his behaviors? No, as I have quite a few puzzle pieces to add. But I do think what I have laid out in this post, like the reality of the illiberal society I explored in this post, should be taken into considerations in solving the conundrum of Wagner.  



End Notes

1 This comes 18 minutes in the talk.  The implications for legal culpability are addressed here.  
2 This quote comes at 53 minutes in.
3 Deathridge, Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, page 12, emphasis in original letter
4 Magee, The Tristan Chord, page 344.
5 Katz, The Darker Side of Genius, page 51.  This book gives a full account of Meyerbeer and Wagner's relationship.  Also, The Tristan Chord does as well in the Anti-Semitism chapter.

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