This is the second in a continuing series on looking at Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Superheroes) through the lens of Psychiatric theories. This diary will pick up where the last one left off, discussing Prometheus and the question of human empathy. Last time, we dealt mainly with the threads concerning the Engineers and the tiny humans in the story. This time, we explore humans and their creations, as typified by Weyland as embodiment of his corporation and David as his "son." The other "Weyland creation," of course, no less a product of the corporate machine as womb and nursemaid, is Vickers. Again, issues of reproduction, family, and inclusiveness come to the fore, but the repeated theme in this triad is one of narcissism. I will explain how I believe clinical narcissism to be the bane of modern humanity, and I suspect I will keep coming back to this in future diaries, as a lot of Speculative Fiction is concerned with it.
A narcissist is not someone who is full of himself. That is more properly referred to as self-centrism or egotism. Although annoying, it does not necessarily connote a fragile personality. A narcissist is more like a Faberge egg. If you hit it hard enough, you discover that for all its frills and stones, it is hollow and weak. Many talented and powerful people have narcissistic vulnerabilities, areas of weakness which can incapacitate them if circumstances are right. But the inveterate narcissist, aware of his/her flaws on some level, centers their very being on maximizing their seeming importance so as to guard against such a defeat. It becomes their life's mission, instead of connections with others or providing a meaningful legacy to others. As such, from an early age, most narcissists treat others as objects and relationships as transactions. What one can get from another is more important than a sense of meaning from the relationship itself or the quality of shared experience or learning another's viewpoint.
It is fairly evident that Weyland is this sort of character. What is his mission? More life. Specifically, more life so as to approach the abilities of the god-like Engineers. He wishes to finally put himself above other people, without any sense of doubt. It is just as vital that this mission be kept as secretive as possible, so as not to reveal his frailty. Even when it is revealed to Shaw, he does not allow himself to be seen as a weary senescent, as we discussed in the last diary. He must be the godhead of Weyland Corporation to the bitter end, not a mortal. Of course, the Engineer lances right through that construction in an instant, literally striking down Weyland with his own works (David).
Winnicott, who specialized in psychiatric theories of development in the prior century, posited that we all constructed a false self to interact with the world. This filtered our true feelings, protecting us and others from the full force of our feelings and inner vulnerabilities. The narcissist often constructed such an elaborate False Self, however, so as to be very different than the person inside. Moreover, this False Self became so convincing/distracting that the narcissist him/herself confused it with their real emotions and motivations. We know very little about the real Weyland. Call this a plot error if you will, but in a 3 hour movie, all we could really know about a narcissistic antagonist is that he/she will do anything to avoid appearing vulnerable. Nothing else about them should be apparent. They will seem to be a focal point for their own machinations, and not much else. Well, mission accomplished, so to speak.
We're not really sure by the end if Weyland can separate himself from his lust for immortality. That's all there is of him; the rest is already long dead. The revenant King who will not surrender the throne is an old trope in mythologies from around the world, and is probably based in the shared understanding that a skilled narcissist will come to rule all around him but only be an empty robe bearing a weighty crown. The trappings of power are carried around by a husk without concern for his subjects or connection to those around him. Weyland sees David as his son, rather than Vickers as his daugher, partially because David is a sign of his power. He made him. He is, like Weyland, the corporation made flesh. Ostensibly, although Weyland is wrong in this assumption, he thinks that David has no ambitions that he did not place there. Narcissism can run in families partially because children are viewed as objects, and without mirroring of more nuanced relationships in early development, the children come to see this as a normal human condition. Generations become vessels for individual recognitions and acquisition of things, rather than ongoing iterations of beliefs and thoughtful actions. Despite Weyland's dismissal of her, and maybe because of it, Vickers has been sucked into such a trap. She even seems to compete with David by trying to appear machine-like to the rest of the crew, getting out of cryo-sleep first and maintaining a nearly emotionless exterior. Father prizes the mechanical child, so the biological one incorporates lifelessness as part of her False Self.
Psychiatry has continued to ponder this personality type. The DSM-IV-TR has a specific set of criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Any five of nine traits are consistent with a diagnosis, which must also cause problems adapting to interpersonal relationships to constitute disorder.
i. expects to be recognized as superior
ii. preoccupied with unlimited success, power, brilliance
iii. believes that he/she can only be understood by other high-status people
iv. requires admiration
v. has unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment
vi. takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own ends
vii. is unwilling to recognize needs and feelings of others
viii. often envious or believes others envy him/her
ix. shows arrogant attitudes
Biologically speaking, low empathy has been correlated with weak activity in areas involved with the emotional aspect of pain during tasks to view others in distress or pained faces. There is also less recruitment of cortical territory involved with self-reflection during such tasks. This does not definitively mean that there is predestination for narcissism or related disorders of empathy, as these patterns of activity might reflect circuitry that has developed over the life of the person. Nonetheless, some genetics might predispose towards more narcissistic vulnerability. There is certainly a growing body of developmental research by "attachment theorists," who focus on bonds between caregiver and child, that strongly hint at an intrusive or invalidating parenting style leading to various empathic difficulties in the child as they mature. Winnicott himself believed that as an infant grew into a toddler, optimal frustration was key towards a healthy sense of independence. Attachment theory now generally puts forth the notion that if a growing infant is not responded to sufficiently, mistrust and vengeful interaction can become ingrained in the child. On the other hand, continued immediate and over-encompassing response to any cry of distress, particularly as the child became mobile and more able, could lead to an inner sense of weakness coupled with the outer sense of entitlement.
The unhappy familial triad of Weyland, Vickers and David are differing examples of narcissistic persona, and also illustrate to some degree inter-generational transmission of the flaw. Vickers, as we have discussed, is trying to be something she is not, a near-perfect homunculus. She hides the lifepod from the crew, not just to prevent mutiny or her father's near-corpse, but to hide her own fears of death. It is disguised as a luxury suite. It is a gated community in space. She knows in her inner core that she is not a paragon of perfection, even as she conceals it with outward protestations at being seen as inhuman. Still, she is driven to mimic much of the coldness of her homunculus sibling, so we know this is her true aim. And this exterior also blends together with a clearly narcissistic one, in which she arrogantly speaks down to the crew, constantly demands she be explicitly recognized in charge, and slavers for her father's death to fuel her rise to power. In fact, she goes on the mission to verify his death and to avoid board meetings where "there was still a question as to who was in charge." Theron does a good job of suddenly coming to life with hateful gall at having to be seen as impotent.
I think the more interesting subplot is David and what it reveals about the turn of the 22nd century replicant models. If we posit that he is of the same type as Ash or Bishop, we can see a gradual simplification of the design in order to make them more safe. Ash does not have human morality, and is swayed by his awe of the Xenomorph as a perfect consumer, but he is not as capable as David. Bishop only appears to be more human because he is even less curious about things, and therefore doesn't wander too far off his humans' instructions. We might imagine that at some point, Weyland-Yutani decided that a curious robot is a dangerous one, and made them more and more limited as they kept precipitating disaster. But David is merely carrying out his larger design, to obtain knowledge, so as to be a prepared guide when they arrive at LV223. If he expanded this quest for knowledge in a narcissistic way, this may very well have been his impetus to experiment with the biofluid, as it clearly had nothing to do with his instructions from Weyland to find an Engineer. And since he sees the humans as just another construction, he has no reason to feel badly toward them for using them as lab rats. He just wants more knowledge, which is what he was designed to do.
This stands in contrast to the biotech replicants of the Tyrell Corporation, also from the Ridley Scott oeuvre. They were dangerous and rebellious because they had the capacity to learn how to interact, and to band together. It reflects the difference between Tyrell and Weyland. Both were aging and weak kings, but witness that Tyrell denies his creation more life because he readily admits he cannot. He puts himself forward as a proud creator, but one who has not wanted to push the limits of his creative gifts beyond reason. He will not submit his creation, Roy, to the possibility of death before his time in a quest for more life. He is proud of Roy too, not just for what he can do on the battlefield, but for figuring out how to return to challenge his maker. Tyrell, still certainly flawed, has fashioned homunculi that can form group dynamics for aims and possibly feel for one another. Despite the Voight-Kampf test anticipating otherwise, the advanced models do begin to develop empathy, and not just after they are incapacitated and need help (as David does at the end of Prometheus). In a parallel, Tyrell is much more accepting of his mortality than Weyland.
David can also be seen as a stand-in for the corporation. He is a creation of the founder, controls some of the employees to such a degree that some found it a plot hole, and will live on after the founder is dead. He is a competitor to Vickers, analogous to how she will never rule over her father's kingdom as completely as he did; there will always be board members arguing with her, despite her delusions. And he uses crew members without thinking. Like Skynet in Cameron's mythology, he is the Unheimlich reflection of our making Corporations into entities with personhood and rights. And what narcissists our corporations have become, as we gave them different penalties for infringing on life, liberty and property than we gave to ourselves. We didn't allow them optimal frustration as they were birthed in the 19th Century. So, we should not be surprised by their continued actions as entities: preoccupied with unlimited market share, expecting unreasonably favorable treatment, taking advantage of humans for their own ends, unwilling to recognize true needs (rather than wants), and through spokespeople constantly accusing us of envy.
David does have capacity for envy, though. He spies on dreams, first to understand but eventually to pry. He perverts Shaw's partnership, because it is alien and provides the members of that couple with rewards he has never been granted. Are we sure he is capable of hurt and want? No. However, he repeats a line from Lawrence of Arabia that might provide a clue: "The trick is not minding that it hurts." He sees this as his advantage, that he is not going to be suspected of emotion if he keeps it hidden. We are probably meant to believe that he has developed some capacity for injury. Just as Tyrell's creations have been granted some of his mindset, so too has Weyland's been granted his weak inner core.
For much of the film, it is possible that David, more than just being a narcissist, is what Otto Kernberg termed a "malignant narcissist." This concept is largely equivalent with the skillful sociopath that haunts the dreams of the popular imagination, a narcissist with some antisocial qualities. The malignant narcissist does not transgress law merely for the thrill of it, and refrains from breaking codes indiscriminately. He seeks to use and destroy in the service of a prestige-building mission. Seen by some around him as cold or wooden, he uses this reputation to seem above injury, and thereby conceal his more vengeful tendencies; this is particularly useful when he must refrain from lashing out before a plan is brought to fruition, and must mimic the restraint that most of us have because of empathic identification with the other. They tend to avoid legal repercussion, and they pose the greatest risk to societies, as they can lead others to act in an unempathic manner. Their malignancy is both in terms of the quality of their character and their capacity to spread their cruel detachment to entire nations. They can read others, but feel nothing akin to what most of us do; imaging studies show them to have even less activation of emotional empathy circuits than most narcissists. Theirs is a poor prognosis, and pity is truly the best defense against them, as well as remaining vigilant to keep them away from the levers of power.
David, fortunately, is still learning. In what some viewers (Andrew Sullivan among them) saw as evidence of Grace, Shaw gives David a chance to redeem himself at the end of the film. It's important that David is crippled at this point in time, not just for the reasons stated in the last diary (i.e., this recapitulates the survival advantage of empathy) but because he isn't much of a threat anymore. This isn't Grace per se, so much as it would have been had he was still in command of his full powers. Even so, David's capacity to reciprocate and warn Shaw of the oncoming Engineer shows some room for growth. There is hope that he can change, and perhaps that his malignancy is not destiny. Instead, he has been under the tutelage of a user (Weyland) for his entire life, and is only now coming to question whether this is the sole way to succeed. Does this mean we should assist and pity those who mean to use us? Within reason, this strategy cannot hurt. Those who can be moved to change might. Those who cannot be moved will be enraged at our lack of fear and our discussion of their weakness, and give themselves away more fully. As a treater, it is all I can do. I certainly do not pretend to be able to help everyone, and sometimes I have to end a treatment when manipulation to non-therapeutic gain is repeatedly presented. That said, if I do not keep trying to identify the hurt in my fellow human beings, even when that injury is a blindness to empathy itself ... then the malignancy in the other has already won. The "black goo" has triumphed.