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On Human Monsters.

Literary Snobs

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Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 8:20am Top

Dear Group &...(Cliff Burns?)

In a "half cut/drunk" moment, I thought about the thoughts that a MONSTER, such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot (sadly etc. etc.) might have thought.

I understand that non of them thought they were "Monsters".

But I do wonder what they thought?
And I have read enough "history" to NOT need a recap of their
lives/early influences/etc.

Again, obviously, this must be fiction.

Your ideas/suggestions?

Your morose


Edited to add Cliff, 'cos he does need to talk more often.

Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 9:53am Top

"Edited to add Cliff, 'cos he does need to talk more often."


Those great historical "What ifs..." What if Hitler had had some success as a painter? What if Stalin had joined the priesthood and taken a different path...

Are you looking for narratives told from the monster's point of view, a la Patrick Bateman, AMERICAN PSYCHO? Pseudo-monsters, like the narrator of Vonnegut's MOTHER NIGHT? Books where the monster is the most interesting character: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, DRACULA, most horror novels.

Your thread, you call the tune.

Oct 8, 2010, 10:30am Top

I have one cardinal rule when surfing the intertubes, never, ever touch the keyboard when I'm tipsy or stoned. I have a hard enough time not making an ass out of myself when I'm straight, much less when I'm not. You did not, guido. This is not a criticism, just a comment inspired by your admission.

Oct 8, 2010, 11:56am Top

I'm sure they had a firm belief in what they were doing, and they had plenty of help to accomplish whatever it is they thought necessary. Death, cruelty is all just part of life on this planet, I don't think the package it comes in should be particularly unique. We will never become completely civilized. After all, we are animals. I'm not really keen on monsters. Humans can be obscenely cruel to other humans. I don't think that will ever change. If the price of victory is a few million dead, there are those who would not even hesitate (or whatever goal is on their pedestal). I was watching The Year of The Pig on youtube a few weeks ago. How are any of those war mongering politicians much different than the Pol Pots, etc.? Even today, those elements are in the supposed civilized societies we live in, but they are a little more PR about it. But atrocities exist on a smaller scale too. Sorry, getting Vollmann-like here...

Hitler becoming a tyrant because of failed artistic aspiration is played out. A lot of people draw and paint. If he was a great artist he would have become a great artist. I think people are surprized that his work is the middling academic type instead of some wild-man abstraction that a crazed, blood thirtsy maniac. But I think it makes sense, the bland order, etc. of the Third Reich.

I wonder too though, these Dictators, genocidal maniacs, whatever you want to call them (especially the ones you listed who became leaders of enormous groups) must have many times felt good feelings, that you or I feel, like elation, comfort, excitment, happiness even.

But, there's also a ton of unhealthy brains out there (unhealthy or destabilizing to a civilized society, maybe not in a primitive, emerging society--a darwinian characteristic if you will). Many function day-to-day. The feelings of grandeur, paranoia, delusion, exist in a large amount of the population. It just takes a good agitator to sort of cultivate or organize that energy.

Oct 8, 2010, 12:57pm Top

I think of someone like Robert McNamara, who was mentored by a true psychopath, General Curtis LeMay. That moment documented in Errol Morris' "Fog of War", when LeMay turns to him during a raid on Japan that will kill tens of thousands and remarks, "if we lose, we'll be tried as war criminals" or words to that effect.

Were the men aboard the Enola Gay monsters...or merely following orders?

The killers of Caesar: assassins or defenders of the republic?

Louis Riel: traitor or father of Confederation?

Hamid Karzai: patriot or shill for western oil conglomerates?


Oct 8, 2010, 3:11pm Top

The most chilling exploration of evil people I've read is People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. My recollection is that he ran across them when they brought in family members they said needed psychiatric help. What Peck found was that the patients were, in fact, perfectly normal in their reactions to the evil of those who controlled them. A horrifying look at the normality these people can present to the world around them.

Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 3:48pm Top

Hitler, sociopath though he was, wouldn't have gotten anywhere had he not been able to appeal to the baser nature of his followers, conditioned through generations of anti-semitism and petty resentments. Behind every monster are a thousand little monsters, taking advantage of the anonymity of the group.

Incidentally, I've recently been reading Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Schreber. Schreber was institutionalized in the late 19th century due to a variety of psychiatric delusions and manias. His father, it turns out, was a prominent German "expert" on child-rearing, who developed the Geradehalter, an almost medieval restraining device composed of boards and straps, as well as various other disciplinary methods for children. He was by all accounts an insufferable autocrat, and the father from hell. Still, his methods were fairly popular in Germany during his lifetime, and have been characterized (and discussed in the foreword to this volume) as "household totalitarianism". There are those who draw connections between Hitler's generation and Schreber's child-rearing methods, which demanded absolute obedience. I don't particularly endorse this theory, but it's an interesting one nonetheless.

See also Hannah Arendt on the famous "banality of evil."

Oct 8, 2010, 3:59pm Top

Alice Miller who is a psychotherapist from Germany has written extensively on childrearing causing dysfunctional adulthood. Her theories don't explain those who somehow manage to come out OK regardless, but they are still thought-provoking.

I heard somewhere that about 10% of the population has some form of personality disorder that makes them unable to feel empathy. I think that might be the primary factor in what makes a monster.

Oct 8, 2010, 4:04pm Top

I think you've hit the nail on the head. The capacity for empathy is important. The most chilling people I've ever met are those who seem to be deficient in this regard.

Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 4:33pm Top

It's funny, the longer the thread gets the more true HA's quote becomes. There is something more interesting, or exotic at least, about monsters, or the idea that these people are just monsters. When analyzed rationally there's just a humdrumery to it all. Although, that's a frightening thought in itself.

I know the serial killer stuff is a perennial favorite at book stores and libraries. Maybe they are the modern day equivalent to the monster stories of the past.

Oct 8, 2010, 4:30pm Top

There's just never gonna be anything humdrum about Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, et al, to me.

Oct 8, 2010, 5:10pm Top

I remember watching hours and hours of Dahmer's trial (or, more likely, sanity hearing) on CourtTV back in the day. The sensationalism faded pretty quickly amidst the banality of the legalese, psychiatric testimony (not that it wasn't fascinating to a degree), establishment of timelines, etc.

Dahmer did some horrific things, but by the end of the testimony, that had almost become pedestrian in the retelling...

Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 5:39pm Top

Two recent reads that come to mind: Mysteries of Algiers and The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper.

12: A goal of a good defense attorney.

Oct 8, 2010, 7:08pm Top

Yes, lawyers are boring, even when they are talking about serial killers, child molesters, etc. etc. But the crimes, and the simple fact that people are capable of them, remain chilling.

(btw, I work for the court system, and believe it or not, few of us are jaded.)

Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 9:54pm Top

An interesting aside to this discussion:

I heard an academic on the ABC (I wish I could remember who it was, but it was quite some time ago) who was discussing the potential 'dangers', as he saw them, of constantly referring to Hitler et al. as monsters.

His theory was that if you teach children a view of history where bad things can only be done by monsters (who have little moustaches) how can they recognise next one until it's too late? His example being that Hitler didn't seem like a monster (at least early on) to (most) Germans - and his little moustache certainly wasn't a sign of evil at the time. Accordingly, while he understood it was likely to be unpopular, in his view, students should be taught about the human side of such people - with an emphasis on the fact that they were people.

ETA - I meant the Australian ABC, not the American one (in case that makes a difference to someone)

Oct 8, 2010, 9:26pm Top

There's a very fine line between a homicidal maniac and a Republican.

Oct 8, 2010, 10:41pm Top

The maniac is a better speller?

Oct 11, 2010, 6:41pm Top

The Unabomber definitely was.

Oct 11, 2010, 9:40pm Top

Other human monsters: Richard Nixon, Andrew Jackson -- at least in terms of the Trail of Tears, Brigham Young -- Mountain Meadow Massacre anyone?, Lt Calley, Alan Greenspan, Sean Hannity, and Christopher Hitchens -- in terms of becoming a neocon bedfellow and the head cheerleader advocating the Iraq War, Lynndie England, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Michele Bachmann, and on and on.

Can't forget the Americans for this list. We don't excel at math or the sciences, but we are good at dreaming up justifications for genocide, bigotry, and hate.

Edited: Oct 11, 2010, 10:17pm Top


Oct 12, 2010, 3:45pm Top

Without Conscience is a good book on psychopathy. It is well researched, clearly written, and interesting, if a bit old.

#19 I don't think I like any of those individuals, but I would like to point out that some of the most horrible things are done by perfectly ordinary people, especially when you get them worked up into a nationalistic frenzy. You don't have to be a monster or a psychopath to do monsterous things, particularly when you can do them safely behind a television camera.

Oct 12, 2010, 4:03pm Top

Two more books I have enjoyed on this subject, although they don't treat the monters themselves, but their enablers: Conservatives without Conscience and The True Believer.

Oct 12, 2010, 4:48pm Top

Anthony Storr's HUMAN DESTRUCTIVENESS tackles aspects of this subject.

Nov 30, 2010, 9:50am Top

For those who are morbidly curious and with a strong stomach, Ferdinand Celine's Bagatelles for a Massacre is available for free online -- check this Wikipedia page:


The link on the Bibliography has the book in PDF.

The hateful anti-Semitic screeds remind me of Ezra Pound's radio broadcasts. While his novels were influential and have a dark Rabelaisian energy, "Bagatelles" reads like someone emptied a sewage treatment plant across a wildlife reserve. Vile, vicious, borderline psychotic. For those interested in the psychology of hate.

Dec 8, 2010, 4:19pm Top

ah, Cracked. You make list writing seem fun and the work week seem bearable.

Dec 8, 2010, 5:15pm Top

My review on Years of Upheaval by Kissinger. A volume full of human monsters, domestic and foreign:


Dec 8, 2010, 7:43pm Top

Yoicks, Karl, one look at that picture of Nixon and Agnew posing together and I nearly lost my zest for life. They look like a couple of used car dealers on the make. Shriners who take to drink on weekends and don't like how many immigrants seem to be about these days.

Kissinger and Nixon, what a pair.

May we never see their likes again.

Jan 12, 2011, 12:53pm Top

Speaking of human monsters:


Also, for Palin's mis-use of the term "blood libel," especially insulting given the certain anti-Semitic proclivities of her fandom. Well ... the Right has its own Robert Brasillach now.

Jan 12, 2011, 1:16pm Top

It's particularly shocking that non-Jewish people like Palin think they can use this term when the person shot was, actually, Jewish. Boy, how offensively clueless can you be.

Jan 12, 2011, 1:50pm Top

anna, agreed. It's one thing to caricature your political or ideological opponent, call them Communist, etc. That's all part of the game, riling up the base and such. But using bullseyes and calling for "second amendment measures" is crossing a line. It's one thing to engage in agitprop and stump for your views -- something both sides have engaged in since forever -- but tacitly advocating the murder and assassination of an opponent is not protected speech. I imagine the same minions that occupy Caribou Barbie fan base also have fond memories of Operation Rescue and its anti-choice terrorism ... they probably also think Timothy McVeigh was framed.

On a more positive note, I think this is the eclipse of Palin's political career. She's gone from Mainstream Darling to a distaff Lyndon LaRouche, a Middle America monster for the masses. This isn't meant to be a shallow or callous question but ... Would America have been seduced by her if she was flat-chested? It's not like she ascended to her position as Conservative Demagogue by her intellect. Plus, American loves them a purty candidate. Why do you think Dennis Kucinich never gets decent votes while Yale pretty boy cheerleader Dubya stumbles into Destiny? We'd have less human monsters if we weren's so consistently shallow and chronic idolators of the Cult of Lower Expectations (Lesser of Two Evils Divisions).

Edited: Jan 12, 2011, 5:55pm Top


There's been a lively back and forth in the Letters section of successive issues of the TLS, regarding Vichy, it's intentions and how best to judge it. Celine makes an appearance in the most recent salvo. Considering your interests in the study of history and Celine you may find it interesting.

Jan 18, 2011, 1:59pm Top

Jan 18, 2011, 2:39pm Top

Time to gear up for the return of the Tonton Macoute.

Jan 18, 2011, 4:16pm Top

I recommend the movie Land of the Blind It's a bit heavy-handed in its political satire, but it also is a great illustration of the excesses of rightwing dictatorships and austere severity of leftwing dictatorships.

Feb 6, 2011, 3:38pm Top

Happy 100th Birthday Ronnie Ray-gun!


Mar 31, 2011, 2:54pm Top

Mar 31, 2011, 3:21pm Top

Not to be confused with the "Dick Lit" of Norman Mailer, Ernie Hemingway et all.

May 1, 2011, 11:15pm Top

Edited: May 2, 2011, 1:41am Top

Lynndie England. I don't know her. I grew up in the same area she did and I know people like her. I can't help thinking that never in her wildest dreams did she think she end up in that situation. I'm not excusing what she did, just thinking about the reasons.

May 26, 2011, 12:04pm Top

#40 There are several social psych experiments that go a long way toward helping clarify how that happens (Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram's experiement, in particular). The army officers responsible for that prison could not have created a situation more likely to result in that sort of behavior if they had tried. I would have handed the worst punishments out to the guys in charge. The whole thing makes my blood boil.

May 26, 2011, 10:54pm Top

43: In America, when our military and political leaders commit similar atrocities, we either give them cushy consultancy jobs with private contractors or presidential pardons. Another part of American exceptionalism, the short-bus kind. We are special, like Forrest Gump with a flamethrower.

May 27, 2011, 10:50am Top

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive with the guards in Chinese prisons:


May 27, 2011, 10:56am Top

Yikes, Karl, I'll forward that one to my sons.

"You! Prisoner #239745! You will get me to Level 75 or no supper!"

Don't think my lads play WoW anymore--is it "Mindcraft"? Shit, I can never keep it straight...

Jun 3, 2011, 12:05pm Top

47: The Assads are the Baathist dynasty we, the freedom-lovin' flag-wavin' Bible-thumpin' family values conservative United States, support, as opposed to Iraq and that Baathist family. Then again, to the moral ayatollahs of the Right -- and their meth deals and male hustlers who whisper sweet nothings in their ears -- this would be characterized as "America hating."

Hopefully the Arab Spring will send the Assads and the Sauds into the dustbin of history, preferably the way the Italians sent up Mussolini. The Spirit of 1848 is alive in the Middle East.

Oct 31, 2011, 10:16am Top

A monster manual for the conservative monster:


Feb 21, 2012, 11:28am Top

Feb 24, 2012, 7:27pm Top

Dear Group,

Guess I answered part of my initial OP when I recently read

Into that Darkness by Gitta Sereny
As well as Death Dealer

With an obvious bias, as the granson of a Latvian survivor
of the Gulags, I would be very interested in "interviews" with the Soviet perpetrators, but they seem impossible to find.

Any suggestions appreciated.


Feb 24, 2012, 7:49pm Top

Kolyma Tales is excellent even if it is not what you are asking for.

Feb 24, 2012, 8:10pm Top

I've had this one on my wishlist for awhile:


Looks to be a pretty solid account of the Gulag system.

Feb 24, 2012, 11:52pm Top

51: Can't underestimate the importance of the Gulag Archipelago -- all 3 volumes. FWIW.

Edited: Feb 28, 2012, 4:50am Top

Thanks Cliff,

Just orderd that book from DB.

And yes kswolf, I have only read Vol. I, a long time ago :-(

I guess, speaking to a man who has ploughed through ALL of Marx's works, Vol I-III, and I tips me hat to that , I will ask you if you can recommend an "Engels for Dummies"?


Feb 28, 2012, 10:01am Top

I've added Ms. Applebaum's book to my inter-library loan list. Hope to have it in a couple of weeks. Pretty sobering reading...

Feb 28, 2012, 8:12pm Top

55: Never read any Engels, although he edited Das Kapital, for better or worse. Too bad Solzenitsyn evolved into a monster on his own, as a Western civilization hating, ultra-orthodox, anti-semite as evidenced with his book Two Hundred Years Together


And speaking of human monsters, check out this guy:


Or it could be a hoax. But hey, if it's one thing for sure, bankers and their figures are consistently trustworthy.

Mar 6, 2012, 4:07pm Top

Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir by Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky

Review of it here

From the one review here on LT - "this is the first memoir told from the point of view of a GULAG NKVD employee"

Mar 6, 2012, 5:25pm Top

Thanks beardo,

Ordered immediately.

Mar 7, 2012, 10:12am Top

Mar 27, 2012, 8:27pm Top

Thanks "kswolff" #61,

Your touchstone does NOT though point to "anne Applebaums's"" book,
which has been moved up my TRB prioriry :-)

Mar 27, 2012, 9:27pm Top

62: I've learned never to trust LT touchstones.

Apr 2, 2012, 7:06pm Top

The Faculty of Useless Knowledge by Yury Dombrovsky:


Another perspective on the absurdities and brutalities of the Stalinist Terror.

Apr 29, 2012, 10:18pm Top

It's no secret that abused and neglected children often become abusive and neglegent. However the impressive Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study graphically documents the results. The ACE Study group is setting up its own website, but currently the outcome of its research is available on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For anyone interested in the well being of children in particular and society in general, it's well worth a look.

Apr 29, 2012, 10:32pm Top

Sounds like a fascinating (if spooky) resource. Thanks for sharing it.

Apr 29, 2012, 11:26pm Top

65: I would highly suggest reading the Burke novels of Andrew Vachss

Nov 25, 2012, 11:02pm Top

Some other books on human monsters, Latin American dictator division:

Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos
Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan
Feast of the Goat by Mario Gargas Llosa
Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano

Also, throwing it out there, the film Romancing the Stone, directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. A cheesy pop confection from 1984, but it did point out the evils of US-sponsored South American tinpot dictators.

Edited: Nov 28, 2012, 3:27pm Top

I was going to mention I, the Supreme, but I see the last post cited it.

A few other novels from the point of view of of human monsters:

Stanley Crawford, Some Instructions
William Gass, The Tunnel
John Hawkes, Travesty
Joseph Heller, Something Happened

Dec 12, 2012, 1:17pm Top

Dec 12, 2012, 5:35pm Top

70: Are you serious? Condemning this particular faction as terrorists on the basis of their horrific actions, while recognizing the opposition hardly constitutes siding with Assad. You might argue with the tactics and timing, but hardly the principle. It sometimes seems to me that too many Americans fall into two categories, those for whom their country can do no wrong and those for whom it can do no right.

Dec 12, 2012, 6:10pm Top

I was going to say that there are several groups of rebels in Syria, and some are definitely pretty extremist, and probably there is a group there (or more than one) that are Qaida affiliated, while it is still self evidently true that the Assad regime is a horrible bloody dictatorship as well.

I was listening to a BBC report the other day on groups that have attacked Christians in Aleppo during this recent lawlessness, a place I was almost sent to when I was in the US foreign service (it was going to be my next post when I resigned in 1998). Armenian christians have lived there for hundreds of years and are leaving in droves. This is a huge tragedy for the country.

I certainly hope the Syrian civil war, or however you would like to designate this internal strife they are having, will end soon, because it is hurting the country.

Dec 13, 2012, 10:22am Top

71: It sometimes seems to me that too many Americans fall into two categories, those for whom their country can do no wrong and those for whom it can do no right. That's very true. Then again, throw a third category in and America loses its collective shit. One or the other. It benefits our simple minds and simpler morality. Coke/Pepsi; Republican/Democrat; conservative/liberal; Tea Party/Occupy; ad infinitum. No wonder we can't wrap our brains around things like sex-positive feminism, non-medicinal pot use (because even our drugs need to have utilitarian uses), and transgender rights.

It doesn't help that American journalism is written by nitwits and hacks desperate to sell papers in a dying industry. And like Libya, there are numerous opposition groups and some are al-Qaeda affiliated.

As a historian, I find the "America can do no wrong vs. America can do no right" a hyper-politicized and polarizing categorization. America has done many, many wrongs and has done many things right. (You want messed up? Just look at the UK's libel laws. And for all the sanctimonious buffoonery of our elected representatives, at least we haven't instituted uber-idiotic laws like anti-blasphemy laws. Kali knows that would offend Scientologists and Wiccans.) I'm in the camp with Thomas Bernhard and Louis-Ferdinand Celine in my rather low view of humanity in general. Unlike dictators, futurologists, and activists of all stripes, I'm not an optimist. Dictators want to change humanity for the better, one mass grave at a time.

Dec 14, 2012, 10:56am Top

70> The US just officially recognized the opposition...

Dec 14, 2012, 3:56pm Top

74: Hopefully they don't treat the Syrian opposition like we have treated the Kurds. They better watch their backs, making sure the State Dept. don't stab them while making empty promises. Remember how we allegedly supported the Kurds following the allied victory in Gulf War I?

Mar 12, 2013, 10:58pm Top

And apparently hugging is a big no-no in the Islamic Republic of Iran:


Edited: Mar 13, 2013, 7:05pm Top

I guess the new Pope -- Francis I -- is from Argentina, Peron Country. The Church will do just fine. Then again, the Holy See and the monstrous rightwing dictators of Latin America haven't exactly been antagonistic to each other. Heck, the Vatican is Europe's last surviving absolute monarchy, and a repository of wealth, decadence, and more perversities on a scale only seen in Renaissance Venice and Caligula's Rome.

Who wants to bet we'll see Pinochet, Juan Peron, and Francisco Franco canonized during Francis's reign?

Mar 13, 2013, 6:54pm Top

78: You seem to have transplanted Pinochet across the Andes.

The biggest danger now is that the new Pope mobilizes the Swiss Guards to invade the Falklands.

Mar 13, 2013, 7:06pm Top

79: Thanks for the correction.

I don't think the Pope will mobilize the Swiss Guard for that, unless the Falklands are 9 years old.

Mar 15, 2013, 4:32pm Top

I thought it was this Francis:


"Lighten up Francis."

Mar 15, 2013, 4:36pm Top

Best line I have heard on the pope controversy is this:

Rich Puchalsky 03.14.13 at 4:59 pm (on the academic blog Crooked Timber) says:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Have a death squad drop him out of a plane and you feed the fishes for a lifetime.

Mar 15, 2013, 4:39pm Top

83: Pope Francis I is Bane?


Well, both Bane and the Papal ecclesiarchy have the same moral foundation, except Bane has the common decency to help children, not molest them.

Mar 15, 2013, 4:47pm Top

Huh, I would not go there. I don't think anyone has argued that this particular pope has anything to do with the child molestation issues, either being personally involved or involved in the coverup. If Dolan had been chosen then I would think that point might be closer to being valid.

Mar 15, 2013, 7:02pm Top

85: So the 2000-year old ecclesiastic magisterium and inheritors of Peter's Throne are nothing more than corrupt flacks looking for a PR fix? Sure takes the shine off Catholic tradition a tad. Still, Europe's last absolute monarchy, what could possibly go wrong?

Mar 19, 2013, 2:31pm Top

#87 Fascinating piece about a gruesome profession.

Mar 19, 2013, 4:16pm Top

When I lived in Saudi Arabia I remember an article in the English language newspaper about the executioner who cut off people's heads in the public square every Friday after prayers. He was very proud of the fact that he was efficient and relatively painless compared to other execution methods. He was very pious and thought his job was completely morally OK. It was quite a disturbing article but no more disturbing than the fact that people used to take their kids to the executions after Friday prayers.

Mar 19, 2013, 6:34pm Top

89: Why don't we do that to the people that engineered the whole "credit default swap" thing and those who deregulated capitalism to the point of no return? It would certainly work as a deterrent to their rather unsavory behavior. Fines do nothing.

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