By Father Frank
Breivik as Herostratus
Anders Breivik, the Viking mass-slayer, is he like Herostratus? A Greek citizen of the famed city of Ephesus. In 356 BC, on the same night Alexander the Great was born, Herostratus set fire to the temple of the goddess Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. By that infamous act, he became famous in history as the archetypal anti-hero.
Mind you, Herostratus was no atheist, no god-hater. Only a mediocre boy haunted by the thought of his own obscurity. Not unlike many dull youths of today, Herostratus craved fame, celebrity. A talentless nonentity, awareness of his nullity must have gnawed at him. ‘What shall I do to be remembered? I have no head for philosophy. Or science. Or politics. Or architecture. Or anything else. I am no creator. After my death, no one will remember me…How unbearable…Unless…Oh, yes, I got it! Infamy. That’s it! Destruction. That is my way. Give me a torch and I my name will live on forever. Generations yet unborn will know Herostratus.’ And indeed they do.
Breivik, however, invokes not classical precedent but ideology. Last year I downloaded his exceedingly lengthy, prolix manifesto. Perusing chunks of it was an exercise in boredom-resistance. A gift for logorrhoea this moon-faced Norwegian certainly has but little else. Originality is absent. The stuff about multiculturalism is old hat. His fear and loathing of Islam is shared by many Europeans, despite hypocritical assertions to the contrary. So, this pedestrian pamphlet is no Mein Kampf. If the author hopes that his name will spread throughout the world thanks to this political farrago, he is doubly deluded.
What is peculiar to Breivik is the method he has chosen to externalise his ideology. The massacre of the innocent. That too is not new. As old as history. As soon as man was expelled from the Garden of Eden Cain slew his brother Abel. The primeval victim of hatred. In a way, Breivik’s banality is overwhelming. In another sense, he is part of a long, unending line of murderers of their brothers. Such is man.
Nonetheless, Herostratus’ act smacks of the metaphysical. It inspired Jean Paul Sartre to write a short story named after the Greek youth. The protagonist is an alienated, lonely nobody. Eventually, he goes out into the street and shoots people at random. Sartre thus makes Herostratus fit into the mould of his philosophy, the absurd. To kill people for no reason is absurd, it seems. Maybe. Years ago a young American just arrived in London was strolling up Regent Street when a man, a complete stranger, stabbed him to death. ‘I did not know him. I just felt like it’ the killer said. Was the assassin a student of existentialism? Or an admirer of Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism? ‘The most surrealist action would be to gun down people you don’t know’, he stated. Very French. Also, very unpleasant. I do not figure Breton would have enjoyed being shot for surrealist reasons. Left-wing intellectuals are often cold, unfeeling bastards, that is the truth.
Physiognomy may be less ‘scientific’ than psychiatry but Breivik’s bland, almost childish visage suggests an infantile, under-developed personality. Indeed, he candidly admits that his ‘operation’ was a big boost to his ego and describes himself as ‘an attention-seeking whore’. How Herostratean. And very much like many average pre-pubescent boys. Of course, many mature men are undeclared solipsists – essentially pre-Copernican in mentality. They feel themselves the centre of everything. They believe the cosmos revolves around them. Discovery that it is not the case may result in frustration or rage. The Herostratus complex.
The deluded Viking appeals to Christianity – he belongs to that decadent branch of the faith, the pseudo-Christian Lutheran National Church – but his behaviour belies that. It is not just that killing the innocent is intrinsically wrong, a violation of the Divine Commandment ‘Thou shalt do no murder’. The central act of Christian worship is the Eucharist. Holy Communion. ‘We are one body. We are members of one another’, the faithful aver during the celebration of the sacred mysteries. In other words, solipsism and egocentricity are out. Whatever the often humdrum reality, the Christian is called to inhabit a communitarian, selfless body, the Church. The Herostratus mindset, the megalomania and the unbridled individualism that goes with that cannot be squared with sacramental life, with the blessings of Communion.
Further, the Eucharist is the commemoration of the slaying of an innocent victim, the God-Man who gave his life for many. Thus the shedding of innocent blood is a sacrilege, an offence against the Christ who was slain. Traditionally, a man who had killed another human being, even in war or self-defence, could not be ordained. Bloodshed was so serious that it was a bar to representing Christ at the altar. Did whoever prepared Breivik for Confirmation impress upon him what Christ’s example entails?
The worshippers of Artemis, the goddess of Ephesus, would have considered her temple of infinite worth. Its destruction outraged the Ephesians so much that they decreed Herostratus’ name should be erased from all records, so he should be denied the fame he hankered after. Yet, the name leaked out. Similarly, the Norwegian judges are half-heartedly trying to deny Breivik the oxygen of publicity. They need not worry. This third-rate Herostratus will soon join a sad gallery of tedious fellow murderers. Nothing really memorable about him.
‘In the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes’, pop-celebrity Andy Warhol announced. A harbinger of the squalid heroes of programmes like Big Brother. Herostratean mentality again – to exist is to be on TV. To be known, never mind how despicably – that is the imperative.
To be known, but by whom? The modern celebrity cult is really a cult of atheism. Of disbelief in God. He who knows all His creatures. In A Man For All Seasons, Richard Rich, an ambitious young man, laments his obscurity and demands St Thomas More should give him an important job. ‘Be a teacher, Richard’, the Saint advises. ‘But if I am a teacher, who will know it?’ scoffs Richard. St Thomas answers: ‘Your pupils will know it. You will know it. And God will know it.’
Breivik, God knows you. Now, shudder!
Revd Frank Julian Gelli
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Rev Julian Geli are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Muslim Debate Initiative.