One of the strangest things to observe in recent weeks has been the hold on what used to be called the popular imagination of Robert Durst’s final monologue in Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series, “The Jinx.” As nearly everyone knows by now, Durst, while on a “hot mic” in a bathroom, either did or did not, exactly, confess to the three or so murders of which he has long been suspected (and has denied and, in one case, been acquitted of having committed). His words, two parts Shakespeare to one part Samuel Beckett, seem likely to be burned onto our period’s memory: “There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Durst’s overheard speech has inspired an entire vein of interpretation. Some are exculpatory, or try to be: perhaps he was imagining others saying these things about him, rather than saying them about himself. But, more often, his guilt has been assumed, and its mechanism explored.“In art, illumination comes in many guises: the soaring strings, the poetic monologue, the soul bared suddenly in a glance,” one interpreter wrote in the Los Angeles Times, adding that Durst “creates a deeply disturbing prose poem to the human drama, culminating in what sounds eerily like the call and response of good and evil.”
The risk in this kind of thing, of course, lies in aestheticizing what were, after all, sordid murders, of inexpressible pain to the victims’ families. (Rebecca Meadhas already argued that the spectacle, and its extraction, compromises both the viewers and the filmmakers.) But there is a difference between treating evildoing as entertainment and struggling to understand why some moments of reflection—if not confession—do indeed mesmerize us, even if as only the blackest kind of humor. For, by doing so, they presumably point to some truth that we would rather not face; in this case, the limitless human resource, even in extremis, for self-justification and the normalization of the abnormal. It is the banalities that Durst so casually throws into his confession—the burping alongside the bleeding, so to speak—that astonish us.
Many people have pointed out the eerie resemblance of Durst’s words to a Shakespearean soliloquy. Actually, only one kind of soliloquy—the villain’s kind—takes this form. Durst’s words are not at all Hamlet-like, as some have said. They recall, instead, the soliloquies of Iago, in “Othello,” and of Edmund, in “King Lear”—the moments when an evil man speaks out loud of his own capacity for evil, and then assures us that there’s nothing really shocking there. It’s just the burping.
That’s the thing that distinguishes Shakespeare’s confessions from their more commonplace counterparts in conventional crime fiction and drama: while the television bad guy usually sweats as he confesses to the terrible thing, the keynote in Shakespeare’s villains’ self-directed speeches isn’t ambivalence or tormented self-recognition but complacency. It is the “of course” that electrifies our conscience. Iago does not say, “Heaven forgive me for wronging this innocent couple,” nor that he is heavy with envy and jealousy—a motive that seems to have appeared in Shakespeare’s source but that Shakespeare amputated from his play. Instead, he says:
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
In other words, God knows why I’m doing this (in every sense), but then, I am not what I am. “Nobody tells the whole truth,” is the way that Durst put it. And I shall enmesh them all, because I sort of can. It is a struggle not for self-explanation but for self-justification: I’m sorry this is happening but, really, they drove me to it. Or, I might as well. Not to have done it, well, that would have been ridiculous. Anyone who has ever witnessed, or been the victim of, an Iago type knows that, though remorse and self-recognition escapes him, the self-justification never ends. Even Edmund in “Lear,” a jealous brother like Durst, about to destroy two families and a kingdom, embraces his nature and shrugs at that “curiosity of nations,” the law. What the villain always knows, ultimately, is not why but why not.
We call the extreme versions of this character type psychopaths, and we should—there is a kind of human who takes this lack of conscience to unimaginable ends of violence and cruelty. But it is also part of what most of us do on a less toxic scale. The heart may have its reasons of which reason knows nothing, but heartlessness has rationalizations that the rational mind knows all too well. In truth, we don’t really believe in moral costs, since God knows they don’t seem to get charged with any kind of regularity. The moment when Durst is acquitted of murder, after having confessed to dismembering his non-victim, is a tribute to the skill of paid lawyers over tired public servants—pure one-per-centerism.
But we do believe in moral consciousness. The scholars tell us that this concept, as we frame it, is an invention—which is not to say a mere artifact—of Shakespeare’s own time, when the old sense of a soul, with an angel and a devil totting up the score on either shoulder, began giving way to the sense, more modern, of the self-made self—the self that does its own accounting, or tries to. The soliloquy is the sound of that self keeping score. In Shakespeare, the expository soliloquy of earlier English plays suddenly becomes the self-reflective soliloquy, and the comic monologue steps forward to tell us the why of things, among all the puns. The self who emerged in the middle, between the comic monologue and the soliloquy, is our own.
Perhaps the Durst oddity stirs us so much because we still operate on the assumption that, despite the evidence to the contrary, all of us ultimately know the score about ourselves. You can’t trust what people say to each other, but you can trust what people say to themselves. Yet the accompanying simple truth is one that Shakespeare knew well: no one looks in the mirror in the morning and thinks, I’m a bad guy. Rather, we say: They shouldn’t have let me. I felt terriblefor her when I killed her. What else could I do? If only it hadn’t come to this.
The most evil of all modern soliloquies, Himmler’s 1943 speech at Posen, in which he congratulates himself and his S.S. minions on the Holocaust, is, unforgettably, not at all filled with hatred. It’s tinged with self-congratulation on what Himmler calls the killers “tact”—we wish we didn’t have to do it, but we did, and look how well we came out of it! Not everyone would have been as delicate as we have been. We all, in less extreme circumstances, find escape hatches from moral locked rooms with amazing ease. (Listen to the grim sense of regretful necessity that, in truth, we still use when speaking about the bombings of Hiroshima or Hamburg.) Evil rarely laughs evilly in delight at its misdoings; it smiles the tight, shared smile of resignation, and then blinks its eyes.
We all know what end is built into our actions; we all are amazingly efficient at not dealing with it. And so, in Robert Durst’s speech, the real power lies in the simple words appended to the end: “Of course.” The evil little monologue has its hold on us because it reminds us that, in life, everyone has a hot mic on—the ancients called it the soul, we still call it a conscience. (In contemporary life, soul or conscience most often gets forced out by technology, as with the undeleted tweet or e-mail.) Over the noise of our own animal functions, we basically know the score. Of course.