Elliot Rodger has come to be an avatar for the 2010s, the decade when the figure of the “incel”— the “involuntary celibate”—came to prominence. As with all good slang, the word emerged from a joke—an exaggeration of reality—that cuts very close to the actuality of the matter. As Michel Houellebecq observed in Atomised (1998)—the story of an alienated computer programmer—once marriage was fully dissolved in the 1960s the result was, as with the privatisation of industry, an ultra-competitive marketplace—the state had left both marketplaces. What was different was that whereas there had been competition in industry before, unrestricted sexual competition had not existed for centuries—possibly it had never existed. As with the economic market, Pareto rules the sexual marketplace: a few people win big, a substantial minority get next to nothing. Would this destabilise society in some fundamental way in the next generation? Yes—and so the incel came.
The 2000s were the era of the Manson-Nietzsche school shooter; the Columbine kids were putative misanthropes—they claimed to hate and look down on their fellow pupils. The 2010s were different; unlike the little Nietzsches of Columbine, the killers of the 2010s complained that people did not love them enough; the motive was no longer contempt for the herd, it was resentment that the herd did not adore and praise the shooter in his previous harmless incarnation. The mechanism beneath the worldview of the shooters has not changed so much, but what has changed is the advent of ubiquitous Internet and social media; today everyone plays pretend to be loved—or, at least, liked—possibly by thousands of people. It is no surprise that people are confused as to who they are.
Although Rodger has become synonymous with inceldom, his spree shooting had little to nothing to do with sex. The incel is real, but Elliot Rodger as incel was not. Whatever psycho-biological problems Rodger had—some say he was on the autistic spectrum—as a person his presentation in his video diaries is narcissistic. He is an actor who is empty inside. We all play roles, but the narcissist plays a role while empty inside; every mask we wear, every persona, has to be different—friend, parent, employee—but in the full man each different mask should have a common stamp; each mask originates in a distinctive centre. In the narcissist there is only the act; and this was true of Rodger. In his video diaries, Rodger describes the “torture” of his life and his supposed pain at rejection by girls; yet it is never felt—he was not upset about sex in the slightest, nor was his life a “torture” as we would understand it. His inceldom was an unfelt act; and it was an act that large sections of our society were only too glad to buy—because our society is very narcissistic itself.
If Rodger were on the spectrum, as they say, he cannot have been that far on it—if at all. His autobiography My Twisted Life shows a reasonable degree of awareness as to the intentions behind his and other people’s actions; not so very autistic. There was a time when he was idyllically happy and that time was, as with most people, when he played among boulders and trees outside as a young child. When Rodger writes of this time we can still see his authentic self; and he still has a sense of awareness or perception that goes with it—and that is why he was content then. Later, he enjoyed the multiplayer game World of Warcraft; but this joyful engagement evaporated when he became estranged from his friends within the game, friendships largely—though not entirely—built behind the mask of online identity.
Why did Rodger lose himself in the first place? The answer lies, in part, in multiple moves between different countries and his parents’ divorce. He learned to create an intellectual mask to hide from the pain of engagement with a world that, in his experience, offered little security—it had changed too much before he got his feet on the ground and learned to walk; from behind the mask he lost the vitality required to engage and grow in life. He lost contact with the vital centre and began to act from the intellect and not perception; it was then that he began to craft a phoney act that never satisfied him.
Notably, his family worked in Hollywood and he spent time around the Hollywood set, bewitched by the glamour; he was socialised in a world that is almost all mask and no inner centre. It was a world he admired and enjoyed; the world of falseness—he came from a family of image-makers; his father worked as a director, his grandfather as a photographer, and his mother as a research assistant for a film company. There is a strong thread of image all the way through his family, even Rodger’s sentimental twilight-tinted videos, washed in California evening purple, are, as they say online, “aesthetic”; his parents even met on a film set, i.e. they met in a place that was not real—or was, rather, between fiction and reality.
Once he was locked in the act, Rodger was helpless; although everybody has an act, the act is usually connected to the inner witness—perception or awareness—in a healthy person, at least to an extent. If the gap between an act and reality collapses in a severe way and the connection to the inner witness has been lost, the collapse is often resolved by suicide; the person kills the self instead of the mask, because they have forgotten that they are more than an act—they no longer wear a mask; they are the mask, the narrative, if the mask dies so must they. The narrative they create to explain the world has failed and so will they.
Women are more narcissistic than men because they are seducers; they are often almost all act, all a seduction; hence women face “narrative collapse” more often than men. “I’ve been found out!” This is the typical female drama and complaint, perhaps mixed with the threat of suicide “I just can’t bear it, they know what I am now!” Men threaten suicide less often but when they do they complete more often—partly because men are evolved to deploy lethal force, even on themselves—but also because men form a more stable persona; there is less seduction, the mask is more stable. However, if there is a sudden collapse between mask and reality; say a top executive is caught out in some elaborate quasi-legal but reputation-destroying and so career-ending fraud—a game orchestrated by his intellectual mask—the temptation to resolve the collapse by killing the self is overwhelming, the narrative is dead and I am my narrative; now I will die too. Women, on the other hand, are more comfortable with reinvention; even in the form of new lies, new narrative.
A healthy person is comfortable to collapse their masks every so often; the shamanic type will collapse their masks constantly, and so gain power from cross contradiction and reinvention—rebirth—a figure like David Bowie plays this role. The inner centre owns the mask, the mask does not own the inner centre. This is what it means to be true to yourself. The mask is a lie imposed by the intellect—and society—for functional and rational reasons; but too many people believe the lie completely; in fact, they no longer even see a lie: “I’m just doing what it takes to get on. Why don’t you get with the program, loser?” This is what we call soullessness.
Humour, often cringe-inducing humour, can be created by direct observations from the inner witness; just say what you see, the results can be uproariously funny or very moving; often there is a flip between the two and this is the essence of the joker archetype: the man who lives between dark and light, the yin and yang. He lives between dark and light through loyalty to the inner centre: to perception—to the child-like candid and honest witness that is encased in the rational shell of narrative. Of course, these observations—non-moralised—can deeply disturb people and upset society as well; if they laugh or cry too much, they put a hand over the joker’s mouth.
The mask is intellect; it strives for intellectual consistency. The majority of people are “getting their story straight”—analysing whether they are about to be caught out. But reality is not reducible to logic and reason; if reality intrudes and blasts the mask apart, the person without access to the vital centre will feel as if they have been utterly destroyed: “I’m nothing. I don’t have anything.” Then they kill themselves; since, by their own estimation, they are already dead. To work from the inner centre outward means to accept contradiction and enjoy it: the last thing you want to do is be logical and consistent, to get your story straight—as a liar does. You enjoy the contradiction; and this was what Nietzsche admired, the play of masks—a dance that is a source of joy and renewal.
The more honest engagement we make with the world, particularly from emotions and intuitions—as opposed to the pursuit of truth, a rational endeavour that should serve the inner witness—the more we will experience the joy of narrative collapse; it becomes a pleasure, not an activity to be feared—and this is rather like an aspect of science, the refutation of a hypothesis is a form of narrative collapse.
The problem with the narcissist is that people buy their act, because they are actors too. Few people want to look within another person; and most take other people at their word—in this sense we are the autists . “He says he’s sad because he can’t get a girlfriend, but I’ve shown him what to do. I’ve told him how it works; I even offered to take him to a hooker in Vegas, if losing his virginity is that important. And he still isn’t satisfied. What more can I do?” “We developed a strategy to tackle the problem, but he won’t engage.” “He’s just selfish—he’s just lazy.” “Why don’t you shape up, you fuck.”
The narcissist cannot engage with the rational strategies, because they are concealed and deadened by the mask that swaddles them but also offers security; the narcissist feels other people will abandon them, because they have nothing to offer. The act of ambivalence or overly compliant “niceness” is used by the narcissist to keep other people in contact with them; in Rodger’s case this probably stemmed from his parents’ divorce and multiple relocations. He was too young to deal with the change; he wanted it to stop, so he developed a rigid mask or act to negotiate the insecurity. This mask would eventually kill him—and many others.
The narcissist is not selfish; he is estranged from his self, hence his difficulty in articulating his actual problem—I don’t know who I am. Actually, few people know who they are; they also have the act, to a degree, maybe not a pathological degree, but to a degree; the act pleases others to an extent, defers to social expectations. “I’m getting on with it. You should get on with it. Why aren’t you grateful?” The real answer to the question “Who am I?” is: “You’re nobody, nothing.” People often take this as a self-abnegation or attempt at humbleness and try to live it out. However, it really means: you are the perception or awareness upon which the mask is built, a kind of nothingness in the sense that it has no content—it is just awareness.
The narcissist has lost even the shred of perception or awareness most people have; his mask has made him rigid. To admonish him merely causes a retreat into his protective shell; from behind the mask there is no need to engage in a genuine way and so Rodger was safe: safe from family collapse or another change in country—or so he thought. For people who have always had the awareness or had it to a certain degree the narcissist is incomprehensible; they do not understand why he does not “get it”: he understands intellectually, of course, even if he plays dumb—he pretends not to “get it” so as not to place himself in the vulnerable position of an authentic connection. Unable to articulate how he feels he sticks to a confected mask, perhaps religious or ideological—the incel. He is aware that other people have an act, and he wants an act too; but he forms the act in an artificial and contrived way.
So, for example, Rodger made a big deal about his aristocratic British relatives, calling himself “the supreme gentleman”: “I’m an aristocrat, girls should like me.” Of course, the last thing a real aristocrat does is mention they are an aristocrat; the aristocratic attitude emerges from a cat-like self-possession and insouciance that is noble and dignified. Aristocrats are rarely stressed like middle-class people, because they do not require reputation management; the corporate striver lives by his reputation in the office, a fragile fiction—a kind of moralism. The aristocrat’s reputation is his blood; you trust him because of his pedigree, not his annual review—usually quite dishonest. “Time to sell yourself!” In a society of middle-class values we have forgotten the priest and the aristocrat: “The temple is the temple because it is not for sale!” and “No you can’t buy this, you’re born with it.”
At the bottom of Rodger’s preoccupation with his aristocratic roots lay the tension of his own blood; his parents were from different races, as was his stepmother—a woman he disliked. This point is sometimes raised in reference to the “white supremacy” he supposedly experienced in a largely white society. Of course, colour-blind liberals and Critical Race Theorists miss the point. Race is taboo in contemporary Western society: “He’s just one of the guys. I don’t notice at all.” But people do notice; and they do make comments, indifferent or hostile.
When Rodger felt himself to be “special” it was, in part, narcissistic delusion; but he was special in a particular way—he actually was different; people knew he was different, and yet—for reasons of politeness, ideology, or fear of repercussions—that would be the last topic people would bring up in a frank way. Hence Rodger elaborated his ideas about blood and the influence of race on sexual decision-making into his rationalised mask; most people would be too frightened to offer frank correction of his delusions, even if the matter could be brought up—and in a liberal middle-class society it would not, it would be repressed.
Rodger crafted his mask into that of the spree killer, the aggrieved man driven to desperation by lack of sex. When I actually typed those words just now I almost laughed; no man has ever been literally driven to murder by lack of sex, perhaps they have killed out of jealousy and maybe they have felt depressed from lack of sex; but sex is not required to live. No, Rodger was driven forward by his mask, by his intellectualisation and rationalisation; he wanted a genuine connection, but a genuine connection means risk of exposure. This was unacceptable to him and so he finessed the mask of “the incel”; the persecuted and misused boy who simply had to strike out in revenge against a cruel and unjust society. People who see that Rodger owned a BMW at a relatively young age, courtesy of his parents, sneer: “He doesn’t know what suffering is! He’s spoilt! He needs a proper job!” The point is, of course, that Rodger did suffer; but what he suffered was not a lack of sex or material goods: he suffered from the lack of an authentic relation to the world. No money or job could correct this lack.
As a substitute for an authentic connection, Rodger thought that when he had killed a large number of people he would know who he really was and, importantly, they would feel his unexpressed pain and emotion—a pain that was expressed in the intellectualised and, therefore, acceptable form of inceldom; everyone would know who he was now—he had his reasons, peculiar but understandable. He was justified; the mask loves logic and reason, it loves getting its story straight: Rodger had a story. He knew everyone had a phoney act, now he had one too; it was one that would make other people suffer—it was his contribution to the social game, after a fashion. After all, everyone was wearing a mask, the mask of the happy and carefree students—as Rodger saw it—or the mask of Hollywood; he wanted a mask too; and so he crafted one, of a very crude sort, from pure intellectualisation.
Rodger suicided at the end of his spree because, as with most narcissists, he wanted to punish his parents and society in a permanent way: “Look what you made me do. I was in pain all that time; now you are going to be in pain as well—forever.” And, like the narcissist, nobody will understand the why of the pain—he does not even know his own pain. If you are frightened that other people will abandon or forget you, then there are two possibilities: be obsequious to them, so they feel guilty if they leave you; or, hurt them so badly they will never forget you—Rodger eventually opted for the second approach.
A healthy person has an inner centre that can let other people come and go as life takes them; but the narcissist looks for security outside, and, of course, Rodger finally ensured that his parents would be securely attached to him—no swapping partners or moving round the world, since they would always think about him and why he died; 100% security assured, so he thought. There is no security except the inner centre. In his video diaries, there is also an unstated appeal to his father—role model for any boy: “Is this what you want of me? I don’t know what you want. Perhaps it’s this?” The phrase “just be yourself” has noble origins and it is a dictum that has been misunderstood and misused; if you do not have a “self” to start with “just being it” is impossible—and it is this atmosphere that was instantiated in Rodger.
The responses to the Rodger case have, by and large, been narcissistic in their own way. Commentators talk—intellectually, through narrative—about misogyny, gun control, autism, white supremacy, social media, legalised prostitution, “the incel menace”, and so on. These intellectual solutions, derived from various lobby groups and ideologies, are propagated by people who are about as narcissistic as Rodger himself; they, as with Hollywood, have a phoney mask that comes from the mind, not the heart.
They are also “getting their story straight”, they fit Rodger into their storyline to sell to people; and so they take Rodger at his word: “It was all about sex; he said that himself. What is this hippy bullshit about awareness?” They look for blame and responsibility: the parents, white society, masculinity, incels online, and so on. They will never see that there was a presence there, a presence that wanted to relate to others but had formed a phoney carapace of lies to protect itself; most people do not see this, because they are only slightly less cocooned in illusions than Rodger—exposure to this vulnerability makes them feel their vulnerability and they retreat into accusations and narratives.