Winter 2001–2002

Of Criminals, Degenerates, and Literary Offenders

Deciphering depravity

Marina van Zuylen

Plates from the second edition of Cesare Lombroso’s L’Uomo delinquente (Criminal Man), 1878.

No one, before my father, had ever recognized in the criminal an abnormal being driven by an irresistible atavistic impulse to commit anti-social acts, but many had observed… the existence of certain individuals… who seemed from their earliest infancy to be prompted by some fatal impulse to do evil to their fellow-men.
—Gina Lombroso-Ferrero[1]

A few years ago, the French Education Nationale assigned for its prestigious Agrégation de philosophie the topic of Evil. Gibert Jeune, the famous academic bookstore in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, stocked up for the occasion, and copies of Ricœur, Kant, Hegel, Arendt, Poe, Dostoevsky,­ Schelling, and Baudelaire were piled up around the store. Abandoned on a side table, perhaps forgotten by an overzealous student, was a battered French copy of Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man, the only “scientific” text amidst these canonized masterpieces on evil. The volume seemed out of place next to the Brothers Karamazov and Eichmann in Jerusalem; leafing through the book, I was assaulted by drawings of flattened skulls, bushy eyebrows, and devices that claimed to assess evil, genius, or plain degeneracy.

Nobody can get through Criminal Man without feeling the urge to check the mirror for telltale signs of criminality. If you have any two of the following marks, you may start to worry: a hooked nose, cheek pouches, enormously developed middle incisors, supernumerary teeth, a diminished number of lines in the palms of your hands, asymmetry of the iris, dark hair, or a forehead covered with down, to name a few.[2] You might be able to get away with having slightly lopsided ears, but if your coccyx could be mistaken for a tail (especially if it is tufted with hair) or if you boast a double row of teeth, then you are on Lombroso’s hit list.

Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) is known to most as the father of modern criminology.[3] Having made his career as an army physician, an alienist, a professor of medical jurisprudence, and a professor of psychiatry, he linked psychology to skull configuration, and held biology, not culture, responsible for criminal acts. Using the methods of Paul Broca, the anthropometrist who devised instruments that could measure almost any part of the human body, he concentrated on the criminal’s morphology, promptly becoming the Champollion of crime.[4] Like Gall (1758–1828), he linked psychology to skull configuration, and like Broussais (1772–1828), he became convinced that all phenomena could be traced to external stimuli. In The Criminal, Havelock Ellis hailed Lombroso as the Columbus “who led the way to a fresh scientific region.”[5]

A reformist whose prose at its best smacks of Rousseau’s Émile, and at its worse of Flaubert’s mock experts in Bouvard et Pécuchet, Lombroso’s two main works—Criminal Man and The Man of Genius—reveal a 19th century that is both transfixed and baffled by the problem of evil. Lombroso is drawn to evolution and determinism rather than metaphysics; he is Darwin’s, not Schopenhauer’s heir. For a man whose work is so much about the manifestation and eradication of evil, the concept itself is astonishingly absent from his writings. It is described as simply as one might depict a large tumor, an ugly growth that could be removed in time, once the proper tools and methods were found. Piling high medical terminology to keep the difficulty of the concept at bay, Lombroso defines the criminal to disarm him[6]: If one considers evil as a mere accident of evolution, then it need not be addressed as the great unknown, the great intellectual scandal that would put reason out of business. Nevertheless, Lombroso’s adamant belief that criminal proclivities could be quantified betrays a corollary anxiety about crime’s omnipresence, its rhizomic proliferation.

He invents the concept of the born criminal and the atavistic murderer in order to prevent them from ever being read as the product of an enlightened civilization. These theories had the great advantage of protecting Lombroso from ever having to consider evil as a philosophical problem, an object of inquiry on its own terms. Evil is caused by a biological blunder, not by a conscious act of will. Lombroso would have sided with the Kant who rejected the notion of malicious will. There is no question that to admit the possibility of commiting evil for its own sake would have aroused too great a philosophical scandal, perhaps even jeopardizing the primacy of scientific thought itself.[7]

Lombroso claimed that his data derived from the examination of over 7,000 criminals, and—though he eventually developed quite serious doubts about his anthropometric procedures—he never seemed to question the surreal conclusions drawn from his methods.[8] These ranged from the belief that a born criminal may be detected via diminished excretion of nitrogen in the urine,[9] to the larger assumption that such biologically based degeneracy precluded efforts at societal reform or institutional rehabilitation:

Even the most intellectual of cultures is unable to alter [criminals’] intractable leanings; they never reach that mental equilibrium that enables average people to adapt their conduct to the conditions of social life […] To work on the betterment of such individuals would be to believe that the penitentiary system could perform real miracles.[10]

Lombroso’s born criminal was a simple-minded monster, the offshoot of a biological disorder. An aberrant Frankenstein figure within the otherwise comprehensible—because cultural—world of villainy, the criminal man was unsalvageable, and therefore should be exterminated.[11] As such, he (and less often, she) contrasted sharply with the trope of the “villain” in the 19th-century literary imagination. This demotion in metaphysical status poses questions central to the anxieties of 19th-century culture. Are human beings primarily motivated by self-interest? Can everything be defined by milieu and heredity or is there finally something enigmatic about mankind, conveyable solely through art? In the ferment of these debates, as the utilitarian social theories of Bentham, Mill, and Fourier gained ground, the concept of pure evil reemerged in literature and philosophy as a strange counter-poison. Baudelaire’s prose poems (Le Mauvais vitrier); the famous rant against utopianism in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground; the hypothesis about the China Man in Crime and Punishment; Poe’s fantastic tales: All gave powerful voice to debates that the 18th century had kept comfortably abstract. In these texts, evil appeared as a primal manifestation of the human will, an antidote against the prosaic, and a formidable instrument of transcendence.[12]

Far less inventive than some of his fellow aliénistes, Lombroso doggedly resisted anything that smacked of the transcendental; he never correlated the desire for a perfect crime with the fashionable Kantian notion of the beautiful for its own sake, and “intellectual” motives were immediately recouped as mere bodily reaction.[13] He recounts, for example, the story of a certain Hugo Schenk who, just before raping a woman, read her selections from La Fontaine’s Fables. But rather than speculating on Schenk’s urge to preach about an author used in classrooms for didactic purposes, he impassively states that Schenk’s “brain weighed 1,261 grams; his cervelet 194 grams; his left hemisphere, 629 grams, etc.”[14] Real criminality, he made clear, was not a topic for melancholic littérateurs who celebrated its mysticism and irrationality.

A growing number of 19th-century readers disagreed, and the addiction to crime novels was becoming insatiable; Foucault has argued that this enthusiasm arose from a cultural appetite for extremes, a hunger for characters who transcended the readers’ own prosaic conditions and routines. These readers demanded:

a literature in which crime is glorified, because it is one of the fine arts, because it can be the work only of exceptional natures, because it reveals the monstrousness of the strong and the powerful, because villainy is yet another mode of privilege: from the adventure story to de Quincey, or from The Castle of Otranto to Baudelaire, there is a whole aesthetic rewriting of crime, which is also the appropriation of criminality in acceptable forms. In appearance, it is the discovery of the beauty and greatness of crime; in fact, it is the affirmation that greatness too has a right to crime and that it even becomes the exclusive privilege of those who are really great. The great murders are not for the pedlars of petty crime.[15]

For Foucault, man’s demonic essence is a natural object of fascination, though (as Aristotle might have said) it is a temptation best enjoyed at an aesthetic remove. Art and literature legitimize criminality and humanize the criminal, but they do so by integrating him into a pre-sterilized framework in which the public can simultaneously witness criminal catharsis and be protected from it. Lombroso feared that such representations of so-called pure evil would not only excite the public, but might influence judges and lawyers, making them less critical as they became accustomed to extreme behavior. The perfect crime, like the gratuitous, anti-mimetic piece of literature, was a radical act, a gesture of civil disobedience that could provoke a giddying and contagious sense of the limitless. Good art, like the good citizen, valorized order and duty, not the thrill.

Lombroso was acutely aware that the romanticized murderer was putting in jeopardy his own distinction between redeemable and irredeemable types of evil. If there was greatness in crime, it was the same diseased greatness with which geniuses were “afflicted.” Lombroso needed to turn evil into something banal, decipherable, and formulaic, contrary to his “decadent” contemporaries who reveled in its ability to relieve us from life’s banality and make us dream.[16] This stubbornly rationalist view stood as the antithesis to Poe’s understanding of perversity as the cogito of individuality:

[P]erverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart... Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue.[17]

These lines, famously translated by Baudelaire and undoubtedly read by Dostoevsky, were championed by writers who felt that they aptly contradicted the Enlightenment’s naïve portrait of evil as a lack of knowledge, an ignorance of the good, rather than a deliberately destructive desire to stick one’s tongue out at duty as such. But the connection between evil acts and subjective freedom was not a 19th-century invention. Theorists of the self from Augustine to Kant had seen evil as perhaps the most effective way of testing our relationship to God or to a freely exercised sense of justice; by succumbing to or resisting its pull, the concept of pure evil forced individuals to take stock of who they were.[18] While Kant’s Lectures on Philosophical Theology had defended adamantly the notion of evil as lack, his later text, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, seriously considered the possibility of radical evil, conceding that evil was not simply the absence of good but an integral part of human nature.[19] “To do wrong for wrong’s sake only” enabled the subject to place himself above the torments of interdependency; and the mere act of having called that action “free,” performed for its own sake, would stimulate enormous confidence in the self’s ability to master and control the universe.[20] Meanwhile, for the great evil-makers of literature, from Milton’s Satan to Melville’s Ahab, this existential performance separated being from non-being. (It was perhaps this association with Christianity and mysticism, blending evil with individual control, that so disturbed the adherent of rationalism and public morality.)

Lombroso countered such dramatic visions by downplaying the premeditation and soulful longings of highly intelligent criminals and extraordinary mad geniuses and returning to the question of their symptoms. In Man of Genius, the study that claimed that genius was but the flip side of madness, he catalogued examples of geniuses struck by epilepsy, monomania, or even climatic changes. His evidence is anecdotal and occasionally hilarious: “Gogol, after suffering from an unhappy love affair, gave himself up for many years to unrestrained onanism, and became eventually a great novelist.”[21] Rousseau and Schopenhauer are portrayed as having been literally contaminated by their creative power. If these writers indeed had gifts, they were byproducts of inherited melancholy, monomania, or hypochondria (terms he uses interchangeably). Whether defining genius or evil, Lombroso reaches identical conclusions, robbing his case studies of their agency and disconnecting them from ethics or aesthetics. One does not possess genius or evil, but is possessed by it. While writing his poems, Lombroso notes, Tasso was out of his mind; Alfieri felt everything go dark around him; Milton, Leibniz, Cujas, and Rossini could work only under special conditions; Baudelaire owed much of his inspiration to hashish; Nerval, Verlaine, Hoffmann, and Poe depended heavily on wine. Mozart does not get much credit either, having made the mistake of confessing that he composed in his dreams. Even Tolstoy and Socrates are said to have written most of their works in semi-unconsciousness. Likewise, born criminals murder no matter what. “To give up stealing,” one of his case studies confessed, “would be like ceasing to exist. Stealing is like a passion that burns like love and when I feel the blood seething in my brain and fingers, I think I should be capable of robbing myself, if that were possible.”[22]

As a scientist, Lombroso felt the need to correlate genius (or evil) with the physiological as an effective way of blocking any possible identification (or emulation) between the actor and beholder, deviant and citizen. But the works of Hoffmann, Baudelaire, Poe, or Barbey d’Aurevilly were already inspiring their contemporaries, and would have a lasting impact on psychoanalysis and Surrealism. Lombroso cursed these decadences as anti-factual, slimy narrative seductions that elided the boundaries between good and evil, sickness and health. Linguistic ambiguity was to blame:

Just so, in literature and science, a tendency to puns and plays upon words,[…] a tendency to speak of one’s self, and substitute epigram for logic […] an exaggerated degree of originality may be considered as morbid phenomenon. […] When I see […] how often young writers undertake to discuss grave social problems in the capricious phraseology of the lunatic asylum, […] I feel grave apprehensions for the future of the rising generation.[23]

These misgivings were developed by Lombroso’s disciple Max Nordau, whose 500-page study Degeneration was a bestseller from 1883 to the eve of the First World War. Both men excoriated the “mystics” and “egomaniacs” that were infiltrating European society. Nordau rejected any notion of selfhood or free will beyond that contained in nature’s own evolutionary morality.[24] Lobotomy, rather than philosophy, would take care of society’s psychopaths, which included its writers. Nordau lambastes decadent artists (Ibsen with particular violence) for lacking the will, powers of observation, and discipline needed to turn their works into instructive projects. Even the determinist Zola is branded a “high-class degenerate… a sexual psychopath” upon whom the sight of “a woman’s linen produce[d] a peculiar excitation.” Whatever smacked of talent was in fact “physical sickness, caused by bad digestion and nervous exhaustion.”[25] Lombroso and Nordau were especially venomous in their attack against Nietzsche, for whom the assassin was one endowed with “the courage of his intellectual pleasure.” But they also abhorred Impressionism and Expressionism, whose associative techniques not only betrayed their practioners’ “decayed brain centers,”[26] but also revealed the desire to undermine proper analytic thinking. Nordau bitterly points out that these artists turn evil into a pseudo-reality, a selfish reflection of their own private debaucheries.

What was being rejected was the very acknowledgement that there might exist a universal principle of evil, because such an assertion would turn the discussion back to the self, to the very narcissism that Lombroso and Nordau thought was draining modern society’s energies. They could not countenance the decadents’ question—Why do we take pleasure in evil?—since the quandary itself betrayed a doomed culture of uncertainty, where social and sexual boundaries were in constant flux and where evil had been elevated to an aesthetic principle that confused high art and low life.

What worried (and tantalized) the two men was that once evil had ensconced itself into literature,it would be increasingly difficult to disentangle fact from fiction, “real” disease from intellectual dissolution. Falling between the cracks of language, outside classification, aesthetic investigations of evil immediately took on a threatening, god-like dimension; what cannot be measured represents a dangerous rapture that would lead us to be repulsed and bored by our lot. In Lombroso’s universe, the Kantian idea of beauty is particularly threatening because it opens the imagination­ to the possibility of form without content. The threat of a cultural elite that placed at its center salons full of doodling, arabesque-prone, tattooed writers for whom “substance was of no importance” made Lombroso and Nordau frantic. By taking refuge in substance and content—in measurement, fact, data, typology; in short, truth—the desperate nosologists sought to set straight these flâneurs who confused art with evil. Sadly for Nordau, the tools that he so feverishly embraced would turn savagely against his world, blurring, more tragically than he could ever have predicted, the distinction between good and evil.[27]

  1. Criminal Man, According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso (Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1972), p. 52. I have found this “version” of L’Uomo Delinquente (edited by Lombroso’s daughter) the most readable.
  2. Other signs include wrinkles, a scanty beard, general hairiness of the body, prehensile foot, flattened nose, excessive size of the orbits, and sugar-loaf form of the skull.
  3. In addition to Criminal Man, Lombroso’s most famous books include The Man of Genius (L’Uomo di Genio, 1863), The Female Offender (La Donna Delinquente, in collaboration with Guglielmo Ferrero, 1903), Prison Palimpsests (a study of criminals’ body graffiti), and L’antisemitismo e le scienze moderne (1894).
  4. To mention a few of these instruments: the tachyanthropometer, the pelvimeter, the craniometer, the esthesiometer, the algometer, the campimeter, the dynamometer. All are mentioned in Criminal Man.
  5. Quoted in Nancy A. Harrowitz’s Antisemitism, Misogyny, and the Logic of Cultural Difference. Cesare Lombroso and Matilde Serao (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), p. 16. Lombroso, aware of Ellis’s admiration for his work, repays him by acknowledging him enthusiastically in several of his works.
  6. In the texts I discuss, Lombroso is usually referring to male subjects, so I use the male pronoun.
  7. See Denis Rosenfield’s analysis of Kant’s escape from evil in his lucid Du Mal. Essai pour introduire en philosophie le concept du mal (Paris: Aubier, 1989), pp. 10–11. “It is as if by refusing to acknowledge evil, it was assigned a merely empirical role, that of an accident of history that one should certainly study for its useful political lessons, but that under no circumstance should be integrated within the categories of thought” (my translation).
  8. Nancy Harrowitz’s Antisemitism focuses on Lombroso’s aggressive colonization of psychiatry and his dangerous targeting of women and Jews as parallel case studies. He correlates the “deviancy” of both groups, announcing with great confidence that his analyses simply stem from “blind observation of facts.” In Nouvelles recherches de psychiatrie, Lombroso even quotes the French criminologist Laurent, who calls his findings “regrettable errors that might stop the progress of a budding science by clouding it with ridicule.” (My translation). Laurent quotes approvingly one of his colleagues who had joked that “if you admit a type for each brand of criminal… then the criminal would have to change his nose when he becomes an assassin.” Laurent, Les Habitués de prison (1890), quoted by Lombroso, Nouvelles recherches, p. 53.
  9. Gina Lombroso-Ferrero, Criminal Man, p. 255.
  10. Nouvelles recherches de psychiatrie, p. 44. My translation.
  11. Capital punishment, according to Lombroso, “should only be applied in extreme cases… When we realize that there exist beings, born criminals, who are organized for evil… and are destined by nature to injure others, our resentment becomes softened; but withstanding our sense of pity, we feel justified in demanding their extermination when they prove to be dangerous and absolutely irredeemable.” Criminal Man, p. 209.
  12. Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew reads: “If you need to be sublime in something, it should be in evil. We spit on the petty thief, but we cannot refuse some kind of respect for the great criminal. His courage surprises us. His atrocity makes us shudder.” My translation.
  13. When Lombroso does mention Kant in Man of Genius, it is to quote the 1881 article “Der Schädel Kants” that reported that Kant “presented an abnormal development of the left parietal bone, and two osteomata on the frontal bone.” p. 8.
  14. Nouvelles recherches de psychiatrie, p. 19.
  15. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 68–69.
  16. Joel Black’s excellent study, The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) provides the perfect quote from Sartre’s Saint Genêt: “By a powerful effort of the will, he escaped from banality, maintaining his spirit in a supra-human sphere, where he was God… where his actions escaped from moral control” (p. 51, my translation). Black’s book is essential to anybody interested in the connection between evil and aesthetics. His discussions of Kant, de Quincey, and the legacy of “disinterested” malice remain among the best ever written on the topic.
  17. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat,” in Tales (New York and London: Wiley & Putnam, 1845), p. 40.
  18. See Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. T. Greene & H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960): “For whatever his previous deportment may have been, whatever natural causes might have been influencing him […] his action is yet free and determined by none of these causes; hence, it can and must always be judged as an original use of his will.” Kant goes on to say that “the beginning of evil has its source in freedom.” Quoted in The Many Faces of Evil, ed. Amélie Rorty (London & New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 184.
  19. Jacob Rogozinski discusses these points at great length in “It Makes Us Wrong: Kant and Radical Evil,” in Radical Evil, ed. Joan Copjec (New York & London: Verso, 1996), pp. 30–46.
  20. More on this topic in François Flahault, La Méchanceté (Paris: Descartes & Cie, 1998), pp. 17–18. “The subject of knowledge exists within understanding and reflection, finding him or herself simultaneously freed from others and from the risk of not existing; (s)he thinks therefore (s)he is. The subject of knowledge therefore escapes from the anxiety of interdependency, and the mastery (s)he relishes through thought gives him or her the illusion of being a natural and stable being-for-itself.” My translation.
  21. Man of Genius, p. 99.
  22. Criminal Man, p. 38.
  23. Man of Genius, pp. 359–360.
  24. See George L. Mosse’s introductory essay to Max Nordau’s Degeneration (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1968). The book was originally published as Entartung in 1892 and did much to inspire the famous exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) during the Third Reich.
  25. Degeneration, “Introduction,” p. xxiii.
  26. Degeneration, “Introduction,” p. xxi.
  27. Reading Degeneration or Criminal Man, one is led to believe that Lombroso and Nordau were staunch antisemites. In fact, both were Jewish, and Nordau was one of the founders of Zionism. On this subject, see the rather controversial discussion by Christopher Hitchens in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (Verso, 2001). Lee Siegel’s review of the book reads: “Hitchens likes to observe… that one of Zionism’s founders, Max Nordau, also wrote a book called Degeneration, which seethed with misogyny, homophobia and crude phrenological notions and which the Nazis used in their assault on “decadence.” Thus Zionism, as Hitchens likes to see it, is the desiccated fruit of self-hatred, the mirror image of the Jew in anti-Semitic eyes.” See the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 4 November 2001.

Marina van Zuylen is associate professor of French and comparative literature at Bard College and the author of Difficulty as an Aesthetic Principle. She is presently completing a book about monomania.

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