Law of Power # 10: the principle of contagion
Robert Greene thus expresses his Tenth Law of Power: Flee the contagion of bad luck and misfortune. One can die of the misfortune of others. This principle could be interpreted as an encouragement to the most absolute selfishness. But as usual when it comes to the Laws of Power, the reality is much more subtle: it is, in fact, an injunction to become aware of the complexity of human relationships.
Misfortune as a contagious disease
There are toxic beings. Toxic for themselves, toxic to others. They are not necessarily toxic for everyone: some can accommodate their presence and attendance, while others will be near death just to have just spoken or trusted them. It is important to understand that toxic does not necessarily mean malicious: most toxins are not. Or at least not consciously. If Black Triad individuals are undoubtedly toxic, they are not alone, far from it. To one degree or another, we can all be harmful to other people. And it is to those who are in danger of realizing this danger and taking their distance.
Our morality often commits us to try to help who we perceive as being in misfortune. It’s often a good idea. And sometimes a big mistake.
The contagious aspect of misfortune can be identified in several ways. Some people are naturally good at getting into trouble, then blaming it or burdening others. An example cited by Greene is that of Lola Montez.
Born Marie Gilbert in 1821, Lola was a dancer, courtesan, and famous prostitute in the nineteenth century. Irish by birth (but with a Spanish father), her family immigrated to India when she was only two years old. His father dies there quickly of cholera, and his mother, who remarries and does not particularly want to embarrass the girl, sends her back to Europe, where she is raised in the family of her father-in-law. Not-loving Mother, absent father: the risks of forming a personality at least unbalanced are already there.
Her mother returns to Europe when Marie is a teenager and then appears publicly with a young lover, Lieutenant Thomas James. At 16, Marie seduces her mother’s lover, runs away with him and gets him to marry her. The couple settles down and lives together. But Lola is bored. Quickly, she multiplies the adventures and the lovers. After five years, the couple separates. But in the meantime, Marie understood the extent of her power of seduction. Her angelic face, her mysterious and frivolous side … all combine to make her irresistible.
She moved to London. Without money, she must find a job and had the idea of creating a show: Lola Montez, Spanish dancer. Of course, she never set foot in Spain, but it does not matter to her: what matters is that Spain is then in fashion, and considered a mysterious country and sensual; and Marie inherited from her father, of Iberian origin, a Mediterranean physique. She incorporates in her show a tarantella (which is an Italian dance, but hey, an approximation of more or less) very sexy, which is a sensation. His first shows are a considerable success in London. But she is quickly recognized and identified as the wife of Lieutenant James. Caught up by her past (and by a family-in-law who is not happy to see her show herself in public), she leaves Britain, officially for a tour of Europe, and settles in Paris.
We do not know if she starts prostituting herself in London or Paris. But, as Mata-Hari will later do, her show quickly becomes an instrument of promotion for her, more than a real source of income: from now on, she sees the largesse of a few wealthy lovers, who fight over the charms of the beautiful Lola. And of her charms, she uses and abuses. “What Lola wants, Lola gets” becomes her fetish expression.
Her lovers introduced her into the intellectual and artistic circles of the time: she frequented Franz Liszt, and especially the young Alexandre Dumas fils (to whom she inspired the character of “La Dame aux Camélias”/“the Lady with Camellias”). She meets Sand, as well as Victor Hugo (who is perhaps his lover a time … or not … it is not certain). From 21 to 25 years old, she lives the great Parisian life, between cabarets and literary salons, and ruins more than one lover.
In 1846, during a tour in Bavaria, she met King Ludwig I of Bavaria. It is love at first sight: the ruler falls madly in love with Lola and demands that she become his appointed mistress. Ludwig is then sixty years old. He has an already long reign behind him, during which he did a lot for the cultural influence of Bavaria, but also his technical progress (he was a great promoter of the railway). He is married for a long time to a German princess (Thèrese of Saxe-Hildburghausen), of whom he had many children, including Maximilian, the inherits prince, and Otho, become king of Greece. Monarch enlightened, reasonable and much loved, a true heir of the Lumieres, Ludwig will, however, fall all cooked in the beak of Lola.
Of course, she agrees to stop prostituting herself to become the mistress of the king: it was a bargain that a courtesan like her cannot refuse. But she hides almost nothing from the relationship and quickly makes the sovereign her puppet. She requires that he make her a Bavarian subject, asks her a title of nobility with a pension for life. The opposition roars in the little kingdom: it is rumored that the king is now under the control of a stranger, that he no longer has his head. For her twenty-sixth birthday (she has known Louis for less than a year), Lola is made Countess of Landsfeld and gets the huge income she wanted. A short time later, a leak makes public documents attesting to the rent. This is not the first time that Louis appears with a mistress: already in 1831, his relationship with an Italian countess had been known to the public. But things are now different: Lola is a commoner, foreign, capricious, spendthrift, who seems determined to put the kingdom in the cup set to satisfy his desires. The opposition is rising and political instability is gaining Bavaria. The king has lost his credibility, he is forced, less than a year after the gift made to Lola, to abdicate in favor of his son Maximilian.
Now separated from power, Louis hopes to live his love with Lola peacefully. It’s bad to know her. Maximilian cancels the rent. And suddenly, Lola leaves immediately: being the companion of an aging ex-sovereign, living certainly in luxury but in the shadows, is not a destiny that suits him.
She settles for a few years in Switzerland, where she seduces bankers and financiers and lives again on a cruise. But her past catches up with her: La Dame aux Camélias has just appeared, and although the character of Marguerite Gauthier is, in the end, a victim of bourgeois selfishness, she nevertheless attracts misfortune on her lovers. Lola is not named in Dumas Jr.’s novel, but everyone knows that it is her that it is talking about, even though the author claims that it was Marie Duplessis who inspired the character. And then it is rumored that his affair with Louis I of Bavaria cost his throne to this one, which is not totally wrong. Lola must leave again.
In 1851, at the age of 30, she arrived in the United States. She first appeared on Broadway, in a show called A Carnival Day in Seville, and another, Diane and her nymphs, where she appeared in transparent dress, surrounded by twenty young dancers whose accouterments do not leave a lot to guess from their bodies. After this first success on the East Coast, she embarked for the West Coast, decided to make a fortune in the middle of the Gold Rush. In San Francisco, his arrival goes unnoticed and his show, more adapted to European audiences or New York, has little success in the Wild West. It does, however, attract the attention of a certain Patrick Purdy Hull who, a short time before in town, founded a newspaper. He helps her promote her shows and organizes a press campaign announcing loudly the opening of a theater, owned by her (and financed by him). She plays her tarantella again and gets new successes. Her shows earn her a huge amount of money (she earns over $ 16,000 a week), a colossal amount: at the time, the price of buying a house for a middle-class family was around $ 1,000; in current equivalent, it looks like she earns more than three million dollars per week) … and she slams everything in a glitzy lifestyle. She marries Patrick Hull but the couple separates two years later: Patrick would like the money to be used for investments, to support his newspaper, to buy properties; Lola does not care, and continues, on occasion, to seduce some lovers. They break, so. And once again, Lola changes move out.
She travels to Australia, which is also experiencing a gold rush. She founded a new theater, performed again on stage, attracted new lovers. But as early as 1855, his antics shocked the local notables, who stopped attending his cabaret. For Lola, it’s the beginning of the end. It continues to occur but in less prestigious venues. Her tours led her to perform especially in front of mine workers: she was a courtesan of the big world, here she is, at 35, a dancer and prostitute saloon.
This does not prevent him from coming back to the front of the stage, but now, to attract attention, he must do more, much more than before. She must shock, create the buzz: so she will be physically assaulted by journalists who make bad criticism, for example. Her bad reputation continues: in 1860, she leaves Australia.
One sincerely repenting seemingly often conceals the impossibility of persevering in one’s vice.
Back to New York, one of the few cities where she has no enemy. But before she can put on a new show, she suffers a stroke. She escapes but remains partially paralyzed, which ends his career as a dancer and prostitute. She is alone, penniless, without friends. For a time, she caresses the idea of a religious career and would like to become the very image of the repentant sinner. She died before she could get there, with poor pneumonia in January 1861, just before her fortieth birthday.
In many ways, Lola Montez’s life is that of a real Eternal Young Girl: she has lived life to the fullest, without ever worrying about the consequences of her actions. She lived on a cruise without ever thinking about the future. She regarded others as pawns, like the toys of her whims. And she died alone, abandoned by all. In the meantime, she has drawn sorrow and misery on just about everyone who has approached her, all without ever questioning her way of life or her quirks. She is a perfect example of a contagious individual.
Spot a contagious individual
Contagious individuals are not necessarily so for everyone: so such a judgment can only be personal. There are, however, a number of signs that may indicate that a person is likely to be toxic to as many people as possible:
Repeated bad luck
You probably know people on whom the black clouds accumulate systematically. People that bad luck seems to continue. It’s not always their fault. But very often, it still reflects a series of unfortunate choices. This does not mean that the person is nasty. But that means it tends to make bad decisions. And so there is a good chance she will continue to do it.
Toxic individuals of this type often tickle the “fantasy of the savior” of their victim: White Knights or well-intentioned individuals are often their first victims. Lola Montez regularly complained of the bad luck that followed her, believing that she had never done anything to deserve her fate. On the other hand, she pursued with a fierce hatred anyone who made her (real or in her imagination) the slightest harm: so she asked for understanding for her own mistakes but she was merciless to those of others.
Nowadays, this kind of personalities often indulge in the status of victim and seek forcefully to be complaining or to give the impression that they are oppressed. They often expect others to have an external solution to their domestic problems. They generally believe that since the real does not suit them, it is up to the real to change and not to them.
The moments of breaking (love, friendship, relational, professional …) are particularly interesting to observe. Contagious people are often those who are unable to end a relationship without blackening, humiliating, condemning or slandering others. While in some cases, such as break-ups, anger, and frustration are in order, most people are angry, rage, and especially rage that goes beyond reason, is often a sign of a personality to avoid.
This is one of the most salient and obvious features of this type of personality: if, when the person speaks to you of his past, all those with whom he broke relationships were invariably bastards, rubbish, bad guys … there is a good chance for the problem, in fact, comes from her. Healthy people, in general, know how to manage breaks in a reasonable and dispassionate way, or at least, later, when the dust has settled down, know how to talk about it without systematically blaming the others.
Contagious people often tend to change their life, course of action or passion. They often make a virtue of necessity, like Lola Montez, who tries a late devout life only because her physical condition no longer allows her to lead a life of debauchery. These toxic personalities often throw themselves into a new adventure, a new life, a new friendship, a new passion … in fact, they are in a perpetual flight forward. By laziness, caprice or immaturity, they do not accept taking the time or the idea of experiencing ups and downs. They expect great things immediately, and when they do not get them, they feel frustrated. They then reject them on others the fault of what they consider to be a failure.
Taste of purity
This type of person is often, in part, aware of this Tenth Law, but interprets it in a biased way: so she fears dishonor by association, which she confuses with reputation. Toxic individuals often consider themselves (or want to be considered) pure from the pure, or in any case. They will, therefore, be particularly sensitive to the uprightness displayed, to the detriment of real moral uprightness. Only the appearance and surface of things matter to them, they have a panic fear of tarnishing their reputation. Lola avoids the slightest scandal, avoids the slightest problem. Everything that seems complicated in his eyes causes him to move out. She undoubtedly believes, by changing places and associates, to redo a moral virginity. But as for her, as a good Eternal Young Girl, morality is only an aesthetic consideration, an appearance, she is invariably overtaken by her old demons.
This is the method of many sects, but also of many contagious individuals, whether or not they are aware of it. For a time, you undergo a real bombardment of love and consideration: they flatter you, support you, bring you to love them and to like the aspect that you think to have in their eyes. Then, overnight, comes the time of accusation and manipulation. This is one of the favorite methods of “gold diggers”.
Contagious individuals often blame the other. Lola commonly blamed her lovers for not loving her enough, not caring enough for her, being stingy in their gifts. She put them in an accused position, hoping that they would go out of their way to recover their esteem. She made sure that her victims always have something to prove in her eyes: a fault to repair, a failure to catch up. The slightest anecdote, the slightest event, became for her an opportunity to put her lover on the hot seat. And whoever arises as a judge immediately puts the other in his power, if he accepts this position.
It is often difficult to identify manipulation when one is a victim. But it is easier to observe one’s own actions, or those of a victim of a contagious one: when one realizes that the victim comes to acts that, at other times, would be contrary to his habits or to his practices, and after having been in contact with a specific person, it is a safe bet that the said person is contagious.
The effects of contagion
The psychotherapist Milton Erickson recommended, before jumping into the water to save someone who drowns, to make sure that one knows how to swim. He was not wrong. One can die of the misfortune of others. And if the Tenth Law of Power can not under any circumstances encourage us to apathy or cynicism (Greene clearly praises generous and benevolent individuals), it must also lead to this fact, bitter but clear: We do not have, individually, the power to save everyone. And we have to choose who we give our help to, and to whom we reject it. Some people can be helped. Others will only take us into the depths with them. We can identify them with the influence they have on us and with the actions that the desire to help them or the desire to please them push us to commit.
Toxic individuals are not all ill-intentioned. But they cause you to waste considerable time and energy for and with them, and often also material resources. They scramble the cards, sow chaos and confusion, accuse, manipulate, displace problems. But the contagion also works in the other direction. Some individuals, on the contrary, radiate positivity. They are rare, however. And when you discover one, it is better to first make sure that you are not, yourself, toxic.
Robert Greene recommends, if you find yourself in a dark period, to try to get closer to positive and generous people. He adds that only truly generous people reach some human greatness, and encourages them to support and protect them. Whatever our natural inclination, looking for the company of people who do us good and whose presence fills or compensates for some of our own traits is often a good idea.
On the other hand, to be surrounded by beings who comfort us in our certainties, support us in our gaps, feed our fears or our fantasies, and brood with a benevolent glance our irrationalities is generally a bad idea. At the moment, we always find it more comfortable. It’s human. But over the long term, they exert a harmful influence on us, just as, in return, we help keep their heads under water. What worse enemy, in times of trouble, than this close friend, also in a galley, with whom we share our fear of acting, our resentment, our bitterness, our fears? A seemingly sincere friend can sometimes be our worst shot. And who never disturbs us in any way and never questions our certainties is only rarely our true friend.
There is no better way to lock yourself in a tight and self-conscious state of mind than to surround yourself with people who confirm you in everything we do.
We can not help or save everyone. Especially since some individuals contribute very largely to their own misfortune.
There are also beings that we would like to help, but who, in the end, take pleasure in the situation they are complaining about and expect us to leave them … to better re-enter. Or who say they want to leave but in practice do nothing for that, being content with intentions and good words, waiting for their Godot or their coach. For these, very often, there is nothing we can do. Especially since they are often able to devour us.
More generally, the principle of contagion illustrates the complexity of human relationships: that which is positive for one will be dangerous for the other. Who supports us in appearance is not necessarily a good influence. Who, on the contrary, disturbs us, is not necessarily our enemy. This is the whole tragedy and complexity of human existence: all relationships are basically just a form of misunderstanding. And we can rarely be the therapist of others, especially if this other is close to us.