Enjoying Charlie Sheen's meltdown? Winning! Engaging in guilty ruminations about how wrong it is to be enjoying Charlie Sheen's meltdown? Duh - Losing!
The New York Times has a useful rundown of such ruminations, beginning with Craig Ferguson's giving a speech about how he's going to refuse to talk about Charlie Sheen because doing so reminds him of the 18th-century practice of paying to see inmates at England's infamous mental hospital, Bedlam. Another conscientious soul asks, "Are we enablers? Should we be egging him on? Is this actually news? And most worrying of all: why do we care?"
I seem to have a little more "a-" to my morals. Is that the tiger blood?
I suppose it's because I have little patience for people who claim to be dumbfounded or offended by the public's fascination with celebrity and madness, and who seem to maintain the conceit that their consumption of news is primarily about its utility: whether to some interest in social justice, moral responsibility, or even to advancing their own ends. Being informed is gravely important, we are told.
In fact, the drug news is to news junkies what the drug Charlie Sheen is to Charlie Sheen. And news of Charlie Sheen in an acute bout of mania is ... well, something best inhaled directly into the nucleus accumbens. Please stop pretending, moralists, that your news-freebasing is some sort of highbrow activity whose purity is threatened by contamination from tabloid headlines. When you do line after line of news, fellow junkies, it's because you, like me, like stories.
Prominent among the reasons we like stories is something called projective identification, a concept introduced by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein to describe the way which we (more safely) relate to parts of ourselves by first projecting them onto others. For those to whom this psychoanalytic reduction seems coarse, I do not mean, for example, that my empathy for some oppressed or wronged class or person (that I happen to like to read about in the news) is merely about my identification with a projected self as mistreated child. But that identification -- as cliched as it may sound -- is a critical factor. Empathy does have a way of decomposing into mere projective identification -- its more primitive precursor -- under the pressure of "splitting": say, if I were to decide that an oppressed class were the representatives of everything good and their oppressors of everything evil. (This is why Rousseau rightly pointed to the ability to empathize as a root of evil just as much as of good). And no matter how I try to resist it, that decomposition happens all the time: with my daily news gathering, I help myself to ample servings of righteous indignation over one bit of douche-baggery or another. Again, this doesn't delegitimate my scorn for, say, birtherism. But it does mean I'm compromised when my contempt is untempered by the thought that its objects also have good qualities -- not to mention their humanity.
How is this relevant to Charlie Sheen's mania? Because projective identification -- something inevitably at work in our interest in the news -- is a form of manic defense. Our use of this defense does not mean we're overwhelmed by it in the manner of someone who's clincally and acutely manic. But even the best of us use it to avoid feelings of loss and associated guilt. Projective identification is one means of manic avoidance; also typical are simple denial (of one's true thoughts and feelings), acting out (as a substitute for feeling and thinking) and feeling omnipotent. Which is to say: the news allows us to deny our own vulernabilities and suffering by watching them enacted as the vulnerabilities and suffering of others -- vulnerabilities over which we can exercise omnipotent fantasies, including fantasies of avenging and righting injustices and wrongs.
The form of Charlie Sheen's suffering is a challenge to news junky-ism as usual because it confronts the manic defense behind the fascination with obviously manic subject matter. Those who feel guilty about this fascination can pretend that this guilt has something to do with ethical issues surrounding gawking at the mentally ill, as if there's some hard and fast line that will allow them to continue to make fun of Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise while leaving Charlie Sheen alone. But that guilt is more likely caused by the fact that in this case the usual manic schadenfreude involved in watching a celebrity self-destruct has been tainted by the inescapable similarity between his state of mind and their own. (Remember, guilt is what's being defended against, and what we expect to appear when the defense fails). If I'm right, faux-guilt over Sheenenfreude (apologies) is just another especially sophisticated way of avoiding actual guilt (concerning real, personal losses). On the other hand, if you've continued -- as I have -- to guiltlessly enjoy the spectacle, you may have noticed that your fascination seems to have been augmented by your induction with some of Sheen's manic energy (tiger blood, baby). Which is to say: people are especially fascinated by Sheen because mania is especially fascinating (or rather, fascination-amplifying). It's a subject matter that resonates with the basic mechanism of being-fascinated.
If all of this seems far-fetched, consider the following. I've been trying to figure out where Sheen developed the habit of using the word "winning" in the way he does. Perhaps it's Hollywood lingo. Perhaps it's 18-year-old valley girl lingo (duh!) -- something to which we should expect Sheen to be especially, er, privy. But I'm reminded of the fact that Obama introduced us to the slogan "winning the future" at his State of the Union address. I imagine that to most Americans, Obama's use of "winning" sounds less ridiculous than Sheen's. But should it? And where Charlie Sheen's talk of having tiger's blood sounds absurdly grandiose, American politicians' endless talk about the greatness of the United States somehow does not. Why we tolerate outright mania at the level of the group while recognizing it as pathological in individuals is another story; but certainly the news is an important vehicle for turning our would-be personal delusions into patriotic ones.
(For a related idea, see novelist (Up in the Air) Walter Kirn's analysis, which suggests that part of Sheen's fascination is that he is the "Secret Superhero of the Id.")
-- Wes Alwan