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house of cardsMy husband and I have been spending the past several evenings watching the new, American edition of House of Cards. It’s a sinister but engaging series about the machinations of power at the highest levels, featuring an anti-hero protagonist. Francis (Frank) Underwood is a character of Shakepearean dimensions—a latter day version of what you might get if you were to cross Iago with Macbeth (indeed, some of the episodes are decidedly elegant and clever riffs on these).

He’s also a psychopath. The recent definitions of psychopathy do not require violent behaviours or any other such displays. Instead, the current construal of the condition has more to do with a lack of compassion or empathy, combined with a superficial charm or charisma. This juxtaposition means that the psychopathic individual is observant enough to be able to enact appealing behaviours that persuade others to do things for them—but in cases where the charm doesn’t work, such individuals are not burdened by conscience, guilt or regret.

This doesn’t automatically translate to violence, as most psychopaths are smart enough to know that violence isn’t always the easiest path to obtaining the outcome they seek.

In the case of Frank, he is possessed of an overweening ambition, combined with a keen intelligence and a complete lack of compassion—one gets the sense that he sees people with no more or less empathy than he has for the pieces in the chess game that he is occasionally seen playing.

I find him repugnant,* even as I am fascinated by his combination of cold brilliance, a willingness to cross line after line in pursuit of his ends, and an ability to strategize and manipulate as necessary, with what seems like an almost preternatural effectiveness. I know that I could never do such things and am horrified by the lines he crosses—often with utter indifference—but there’s a peculiarly riveting quality to watching the kind of freedom of action that arises out of being unburdened by empathy and concern for others.

I suppose that’s part of why I made the villain in my novel Konstantin’s Gifts a psychopath. The setting, which is an alternate version of late 19th century Russia, means that like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Konstantin has been exposed to and has bought into the prevalent idea of the ubermensch—an overman, sometimes translated as “superman”—who is extraordinary and free of conscience. Unlike Raskolnikov, whose conscience proves to be more of a problem than he anticipated, Konstantin does not succumb to any second thoughts. He is also smart enough to understand what people want and yearn for, but this perception does not transfer down to the emotional level—and so he is unburdened of conscience, guilt and empathy. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t feel emotion. Like Frank, he is fully capable of emoting, but all his emotional responses arise out of his own wants, desires, frustrations and angers. This is part of what makes him so dangerous. From his perspective, the world is literally his oyster, to be boiled and eaten, no matter that the world might have other ideas.

*In truth, I don’t know that there are too many characters in that series whom I actually like, even though I’m very much engaged by the story arcs.

February 17, 2014 Update: The above observations are from season one, though we just started watching season two and they seem to be borne out, at least by S2E2, which is all we’ve seen so far. Frank remains horrifyingly fascinating, because he is a brilliant strategist who is unbound by the ethics and morality that are such cornerstones of most of our identities and that we value and cherish as such. He also presents a fascinating contrast with another potent, fictional anti-hero of our time, Walter White.