Winehouse, Breivik and Deadly Ideals © ANDY MARTIN – The New York Times

Posted on 28/07/2011


The news often reads as if written by a hard-line surrealist. Look at the morning’s home page or front page headlines: The world appears to be nothing but a series of nonsequiturs, bizarre conjunctions at every turn, a bundle of isolated phenomena with no apparent meaning or connection. Take two very recent events, each of them entirely singular, extraordinary, and in their different ways tragic. Just a few days ago, I read about them on the same page of a newspaper, immediately adjacent to one another, separated only by a thin black line. I was shocked by the proximity. It was like an oxymoron, or a Zen koan, I couldn’t make any sense of it. Amy Winehouse and Anders Behring Breivik.

Both simultaneously in our conversations, in our thoughts, in our dreams or nightmares. But they seemed to belong to two discrete moral universes. Could they even come from the same planet? Then it struck me that perhaps the self-destruction of the British singer-songwriter and the mass murder perpetrated by a neo-fascist in Norway might turn out to share, not equivalence, but a sort of common denominator: an intense, and ultimately destructive, preoccupation with ideals or archetypes.

Every death is mysterious and suicide always prompts more questions than answers. Amy Winehouse’s death will probably not come to be classed as suicide, but to onlookers, it must have appeared to be a voluntary abdication of life. Her life and death has features in common with those of other musicians —  such as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix (all of whom also died at 27). Perhaps it is not too speculative to detect a death-wish in the short life of Winehouse, fueled by alcohol and other substances. It is not difficult to find portents in her lyrics.

Emile Durkheim, the founding father of sociology, in his great work, “Suicide,” published at the end of the 19th century, drew attention to the phenomenon of “anomie.” Society is held together and sustained, he argued, by a network of norms — largely unstated rules of behavior. Suicides, he argued, tend to suffer from anomie, or normlessness: they float free from the life-belt of rules and regulations, and often sink.

Durkheim characterized “romantic anomie”, in particular as an “infinity of dreams” doomed to be forever in conflict with the reality principle, and potentially fatal. Perhaps, if we think of Amy Winehouse as a classic discontented artist, dissatisfied above all with her own achievement (satisfaction, as the Rolling Stones  rightly suggested, is the death of art), it would be plausible to locate her within this roomy category.

But it strikes me that there is something like the exact opposite anxiety — a pathological preoccupation with norms, which I want to call hypernomia — running through her music and her published interviews. Winehouse was the victim of another kind of “losing game” (other than love). It was part of her appeal that she was always outspoken and spontaneous in her conversation, so that her published statements have the quality of an intimate diary, raw and unrectified. And one of her recurrent concerns, when speaking of herself, is her (in her own eyes) unsatisfactory appearance, her sub-optimal looks, what she does not shy away from describing as her ugliness. “I’m ugly,” she once blurted out to a Guardian interviewer, for example.

Somewhere between her two albums she radically reconstructed her look to acquire the instantly recognizable beehive hairdo (modeled on the Ronettes), the Cleopatra eye-make-up and the tattoos. But her sense of a lack at the level of “beauty” persisted.

When things went wrong in her life (personal relationships, for example), she had a habit of blaming herself. And her devastating — and finally lethal — self-critique tended to home in on her body. Even when she spoke of her redeeming features, she still framed the thought in terms of physical characteristics: people love me, she’d said, for my “big mouth.” Physiology and, above all, physiognomy, loomed large in her vocabulary. Her self-destructiveness may have been triggered by a heightened preoccupation with a norm of beauty which she did not feel she conformed to. Contrary to the romantic myth of the troubadour as one free from society’s constraints, all songs (all speech acts) are highly normative: they lay down the law about how to live and how to look — how to be. Her songs suggest that she sometimes thought of herself as a failure. (See, “You Know I’m No Good,” from her album “Back to Black,” for example.) In this sense she could be said to have sung herself to death. Though “Back to Black” contains lyrical moments of fortitude and strength, it mainly now seems like a long swan song.

In her book “The Beauty Myth” Naomi Wolf ascribes our obsession with certain norms of appearance to the rigors of late capitalism. Although Hollywood and cosmetic surgery and a certain commodification of appearance are surely not irrelevant in the formation of our contemporary self-image, nevertheless it is also plausible to argue that a sensitivity to appearance and physical characteristics has deep evolutionary roots and must be originally associated with the shift away from asexual reproduction towards the bifurcation of the sexes. Perhaps much of our binary logic derives from the imperative to distinguish male from female. An instinctive responsiveness to the way things and people look is built into our genetic make-up. We survive partly by being reasonably good at discriminating. But as with so many of the faculties that keep us alive, discrimination, taken to an extreme, can also kill. It can kill an individual and it can kill people en masse.

Professionals and readers alike are still trying to make sense of the rantings of Anders Behring Breivik. On his own account, he is no Nazi. He is not anti-Semitic. On the contrary he appears to look forward to a coalition between the classic “Nordic” race and Israel in the struggle against Islam. Perhaps at some level he is not even conventionally racist. But he — or the “reasoning” on which he has based his actions — is exclusionary. His public statements hinge on a vision of European “purity” that would be fatally undermined by the transmission of certain alien cultures. It is the  “clash of civilizations” theory turned into a working ideology and a call to arms.

Probably the best analysis of this type of mentality is provided by René Girard, the French philosopher, in his work on scapegoat theory. Breivik identifies himself as a Christian and defender of the faith. Girard brings out how integral to the passion narrative the practice of scapegoating is: people can only be saved, the argument goes, by sacrifice. Exactly who is to be sacrificed remains tantalizingly open. It is in this sense that Breivik’s quoted defense of his actions as “atrocious but necessary” may  be understood.

There is an obvious tension between our self-evident diversity and a highly normative concern with or idealization of appearance. While Amy Winehouse turned her overly normative critical apparatus on herself, Breivik applied his with monstrous consequences on just about anyone other than himself (as has been pointed out, unlike so-called “spree killers,” Breivik never had any notion of seeking his own destruction). One was a self-hater, the other would appear to be more a delusional self-lover. But both seem to have been suffering from hypernomia

Andy Martin is a lecturer at Cambridge University. His new book, “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus,” is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster.