Desocialising the Reader: The Secret World of the Unchained Id

Crime has been one of the most popular genres in modern literature since the rise of the detective story in the C19. Having said that, it is clear that the focus of such stories (and readers’/viewers’ tastes driving that focus) has substantially shifted from the characters solving crime to the characters causing it. We used to identify with the powers of good (eg Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot et al), but now we seem to identify just as much with the criminals, (eg The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Silence of the Lambs). We even blend the two – giving criminals a moral crusade (Breaking Bad, Dexter) or the good guys a morally equivocal approach to fighting crime (Rake).

What does this say about us as readers? Or the society in which such literature is generated?

It is my thesis is that the success of crime as a genre (particularly where it features complicated individuals who straddle both sides of the law) reflects the secret desire of individuals to break the shackles of civilisation. Crime allows the reader to visit vicariously a world they fear and get on intimate terms with characters from whom they would run screaming in real life.

Crime fiction allows the reader to escape the bonds of socialisation and taste the freedom reserved only for those who refuse to join the social compact.

* * *

Human beings are complex animals with a vast and soaring capacity for enlightenment, beauty and art – yet animals we remain. Our higher order faculties are built upon the same neural hardware used by the dinosaurs and all our other scaly and hairy ancestors who needed aggression and a powerful reproductive instinct to perpetuate themselves in the primordial chaos. Accordingly, the selfish, aggressive and lustful impulses necessary to sustain those ancestors over a hundred million years are still inherent in us.

We may not like to admit it, but we are constantly bombarded with violent, lustful and other antisocial urges which can never completely be turned off because they are too deeply a part of us. The brain you are using right now to understand these principles may be wrapped in a mammalian limbic system and surmounted with a hominid neo-cortex capable of profound abstraction, but the neural chassis – which looks after all your most fundamental systems – is still essentially a dinosaur brain, responding in its own way to any social stimulus.

And yet, your dinosaur brain does not force you to act out those dinosaur urges. Human beings have learned to repress their fundamental drives in order to get along in civil society. If we did not repress the violence, aggression and lust we would still be in what Thomas Hobbes referred to as a state of nature where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. (Leviathan, 1697)

This repression process is called socialisation. Freud referred to the unsocialised newborn as being in an id state – an intellectual blank slate with only its innate drives to help it make sense of the world. Left to itself, the individual would never emerge from the id state, but we are not left to ourselves. We encounter ‘others’ from our earliest days and it is through dealing with others that we become ‘self aware’ (the ego) and learn to find our own acceptable place within the norms of a community (the superego).

The point is, while most of us ignore or deny the innate antisocial urges, they never go away. We might repress the ‘urges’ for 50 years and then suddenly snap for a vast range of reasons – not least because we want to snap. Denying our most fundamental urges does not come naturally so has to be enforced by a precarious framework of laws and conventions which keep our true nature in check – like the chains holding King Kong in a New York theatre.

Socialisation is like a carrot and a stick. The stick is the threat of punishment if we break the law (or being ostracised by a peer group for failing to abide by convention). The carrot, according to Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, is the opportunity to make the social compact – to enjoy remnant freedoms after surrendering the innate personal sovereignty of the id to a higher sovereign entity (the law, or peer group expectation).

Crime occurs because either the stick is too weak a threat or the carrot too insufficient a reward and the id, like King Kong breaking his chains, takes back its innate sovereignty to express its drives untrammelled by the law.

* * *

Literature abounds with stories about the breakdown of civil society where people are no longer constrained by law or convention. Apocalyptic and dystopian books (Lord of the Flies, The Road) revel in the descent into chaos where The Rules are lost or changed and individuals are forced to be desocialised in order to survive. Such milieux are excellent thought laboratories for writers wanting to play with the human condition, but these are not our concern. This essay is focussed on the literature dealing with those who commit antisocial acts despite The Rules being firmly in place.

A civil society is dependent on the majority abiding by the social compact and obeying the law in order to preserve personal security, property and political rights. Obey the law and you will be safe and as successful as you deserve.

Criminals are those who do not deny their most natural urges. They unleash their urges in order to rape, kill or steal from others and such people are feared, shunned and punished if caught – mainly to reinforce the lesson of the social compact, but partly also (I suspect) because society’s retribution is born of jealousy as much as fear. We may have sublimated our natural urges for the greater good, but we still feel those urges and occasionally fantasise about letting them loose.

That, in my opinion, is why the crime genre is so successful. In an increasingly overcrowded and dysfunctional world our socialisation is under threat from a vast range of factors and forces – not least the pressure to be successful (ie, rich and/or famous). Crime is a shortcut to wealth and notoriety so is attractive in the real world to inadequately socialised individuals, and attractive in the fantasy world to individuals curious about what it would be like to have the social shackles removed.

This phenomenon is well understood by novelists and screen writers – who create well-drawn, fascinating ‘bad guy’ characters and invite the reader into their heads (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Hannibal Lecter, nearly all of Quentin Tarantino’s characters, and, of course, most true crime works) to get a feel for that ultimate freedom – that unleashing of the id that criminals get to enjoy (until they’re caught), but is denied to the socialised.

Irvine Welsh is not regarded as a mainstream crime writer but I would suggest that all of his books fall somewhere on the crime spectrum. His most famous novel (Trainspotting) is about a group of Edinburgh junkies who get by thieving, scamming and dealing hard drugs. Their world is a violent and chaotic nightmare, filled with highs and lows beyond the experience of the well-adjusted, bourgeois reader. But all great writers have their own peculiar prism through which they perceive the human condition – for Welsh’s Edinburgh junkies that prism is the impact of heroin addiction on socialisation. People driven to procure heroin at any cost are no longer concerned with any sort of social nicety and Welsh revels in the outrageous behaviour of his characters as they go about the business of surviving.

But not just surviving. The main characters all have their philosophies – in particular Mark Renton, the main narrator (nearly all chapters are 1st person POV but from a range of different characters). It is easy for readers to identify with Renton – his way of seeing the world is simple. His own humanity has been stripped back to focus on the most obvious and urgent needs, but his perception of the behaviour of the bourgeoisie is that they are fundamentally focussed on the same motivations as him (except heroin) but clutter their lives with a range of hypocritical actions, distractions and attitudes in order to obscure the ugly, selfish truth. In other words, socialisation (or ‘choosing life’) is self-deluding hypocrisy. (Much of the book’s humour stems from Renton’s Attenborough-like observations of the bourgeois.) In identifying with Renton, the reader becomes exempt from his scathing judgments and shares in his occasionally soaring philosophy – until he commits the ultimate betrayal. (Or does he?)

A character with whom it is less easy to identify is Gregory David Roberts, the narrator of Shantaram. Shantaram purports to be a true crime memoir about a vicious escaped criminal who finds redemption working as a quasi-doctor in the Mumbai slum. Like Renton, Roberts is partial to philosophical ramblings (especially at the end of chapters), but unlike Renton he isn’t funny, and his meanings and motivations are obscure. On top of all that, his crimes are real, as opposed to Renton’s fictional crimes (which are mostly victimless). I would suggest it is easier for most readers to identify with a fictional criminal than a true-life criminal because the knowledge that a real victim suffered murder, violence or theft hinders the desocialisation process for the reader. I would suggest that it is easier for many readers to identify with the intelligence of fictional criminals like Mark Renton, or even Hannibal Lecter, than it is to identify with any true-life criminal.

Unless, of course, the victims are other criminals. Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s true crime memoirs have been amazingly popular over the last 20 years and I would suggest that the reason for this is that the victims are (nearly always) other criminals or dodgy coppers who deserved some sort of retribution. Chopper becomes a force for good (in his own world) and is charismatic enough to bring his audience with him on his various crusades. This means that the desocialisation process is comparatively easy for Chopper’s readers – he’s a black knight up against those even blacker.

That’s the key. The moral alignment of the reader can be adjusted to that of the main character (within the world of the story) and the people that character is against become the vicarious enemies of the reader. In the hands of a skilled writer, those enemies are just as likely to be the forces of order as the forces of evil.

* * *

Probably the easiest criminal character for a bourgeois reader to desocialise/identify with is the innocent abroad – the ordinary man or woman who finds him/herself in an extraordinary situation and is forced to break the law to survive. A moral justification, consistently applied, (Dexter, Breaking Bad) eases the desocialisation process (while under the spell of the story). A criminal act which can be morally justified is a gateway to other (less justifiable) actions once the reader has made the identification link with the relevant character.

Revenge stories, in particular, are fertile ground for writers wanting readers to identify with characters whose urges have been unleashed. Robert G Barrett was one of Australia’s most popular writers of the last 30 years. His books were mostly pulp fiction and barely worthy of deconstruction, with the exception of Davo’s Little Something – a novel of surprising depth and complexity. That story featured a fellow (Davo) who was the stereotypical ‘good bloke’ until beaten almost to death by a gang of random assailants. The story of Davo’s recovery is painstaking and powered by revenge – but something fundamental has changed and Davo is inspired to go far beyond the revenge that would have satisfied the temporarily desocialised bourgeois reader. Ultimately the book is quite tragic and very disturbing for the reader who might have approved of Davo’s actions – until he went too far.

Another way of easing the reader into the shoes of the main character is to establish a powerful story ambience that engages the sensibilities of the reader. In my own work I tend to invite the reader into what I refer to as ‘the secret world’. We all have a secret world in which The Rules of normal socialised life are transmuted into something more elastic. It is a sensual world in which numbers, symbols and patterns are discerned with a kind of meta-intelligence to make sense of the universe in a deeply private and (for most people) rarely expressed manner.

Sex, in particular, is an important part of this world. I believe that sex (in all its polymorphous manifestations) is deeply imbued into the way we perceive the world and other people, and I naturally use that in my writing. The main characters of Straight Jacket, for example, are two very sensual people who communicate in a manner which is always redolent of sex and its taboos. Morgen adverts to the small things that most people ‘see without seeing’ in polite society – like lost panties in the gutter or graffiti in public toilets. The reader is drawn into his sexually charged secret world and enjoys being in his head (1st person POV) despite his appalling attitude and behaviour.

Sex, of course, is also one of those weird activities that is legal between consenting adults but illegal when forced upon a non-consenter. Further, it can be perceived as an illicit or taboo activity between consenting adults who ought not be doing it according to the prevailing conventions of a given culture; ie adultery (Fatal Attraction, Crimes and Misdemeanours). Thus ‘sin’ can lead to crime whether as the revenge of a wronged partner or the efforts of an adulterer to conceal the sin. Either way, this is a profoundly intimate world where the humanity of the main characters is completely open to the reader to identify or judge.

A superbly portrayed example of this was Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours in which a highly respected member of the Jewish community (Judah) is tempted into an extramarital dalliance and is then confronted with the possibility that the lover will tell the wife. After much soul-searching, his solution is to call upon his brother (far less respected, with gangster affiliations) to resolve the problem (ie, the murder of the lover). In the end, Woody Allen who has been obsessing over the nature of justice in human relations encounters Judah in the bar at a wedding. Judah is surprisingly relaxed after the resolution of his moral dilemma and when Woody Allen (referring to his own problems) asks: ‘You don’t think God sees?’ Judah responds: ‘God is a luxury I can’t afford.’

Of course, once inside the secret world with the characters, the reader (or viewer) is also empowered and liberated, and open to concepts and possibilities that normally they wouldn’t see. This is the key to appreciating the deeper textures of quality crime fiction.

* * *

Finally, if we readers of crime fiction are drawn to the dark side within the pages of the story, how do we feel when the powers of good prevail (as they usually do)? Finishing a good book is like waking from a dream – a return to the real and conscious world where the social compact prevails.

No matter how much empathy we might have had for a character in the secret world, we are unlikely to have much sympathy for their plight when we return to the real world. No-one can sympathise with Mark Renton, or Gregory David Roberts, or Chopper, or Patrick Bateman, or Hannibal Lecter, or Morgen Tanjenz when the final page is turned, and yet it was fun to travel with them through their journey.

For a little while the reader has been empowered and liberated to enjoy vicariously the ultimate freedom of the unchained id. This is a fascinating journey and any guilty pleasure is intellectualised and offset by the literary invention, but in the end there must always be a return to the waking world of jobs, mortgages and well-adjusted relationships.

The world is real but the secret world is unreal.


  1. Very insightful! And it certainly explains, at least in part, the appeal of a character like Bernard Cornwell’s Uthred!

    • Thanks Henry, obviously within a work of fiction you can’t go into such detail. But I do try in my own work to challenge the reader with layers and textures that tend only to be revealed on multiple readings. Hard to do that while also telling a rattling yarn that won’t bore the reader.

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