Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Melvin Rees -- The Sex Beast

Existential Excuse

During the 1950s, existentialism was popular among people in the counterculturemusicians, artists, poets, and the hangers-on who followed them like groupies. While it was primarily a 19th century philosophy attributed to the Danish thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, several key European philosophers had updated the notions for application to troubled, post-war anxieties that plagued nations. The most notable of these were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who often discussed the ideas in cafés in Pariss Latin Quarter, making the image of the educated, cigarette-smoking, coffee-drinking artiste into a popular model for others. They took their cue primarily from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, so well start with him.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
He proposed ideas toward the end of the 19th century that had ramifications for more than a century on how certain psychopathic criminals perceived and excused themselves. In 1886, Nietzsche published Beyond Good and Evil, in which he spelled out how morality is illusory and then postulated that crime might be regarded as an invigorating condition to make the human species stronger. Exploitation within society is normal, because life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker. In other words, life is a will to power, his title for a more forceful book in which he described the human ideal as an intense Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, including violence.

But the key notion is his proposal about moral behavior. Morality, Nietzsche said, was a system of judgments that coincided with the conditions of the moralists life. There was a master morality and a slave morality. People who could assimilate the will to power would survive, be honest about the aggressive instinct, become leaders, and determine what is good and what is evil. The greatest enjoyment, Nietzsche said, was to live dangerously, that is, to live on ones own terms. In the century to come, those who learned these ideas and desired to live dangerously would adopt Nietzsche as a patron saint --- or sinner.  

Having declared that God is dead in the modern soul and that Christian values shield us from our true selves, Nietzsche proclaimed that a moral genius, or übermensch, would overturn those values and create new ones based on the will to power. Without such a person to renew our society, he claimed, were doomed to go through phases of soul-deadening nihilism until we lose spiritual momentum.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre became famous for popularizing existentialism in a brief essay and for publishing the massive and obtuse, Being and Nothingness. He insisted that people were entirely free to choose how they lived, and that their choices defined them: You are what you do. With such freedom came the burden of responsibility, and individuals were essentially on their own. Everyone used everyone else and true bonding was not really possible.  

One of Sartres associates was French-Algerian Albert Camus, who published The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. The Stranger portrayed the antihero, Meursault, a man unreflective and utterly detached, showing what its like to be a stranger to oneself, ones friends, and ones own world: Hes indifferent to his mothers death, his girlfriends attempt to love him, and even his random murder of a man because the sun was in his eyes. Only when sentenced to death does he come to terms with his freedom. It is a depressing tale, but Camus seemed to have succinctly and disturbingly expressed the war-ravaged outlook of a generation of people who felt lost, detached, and out of place. His book was an international sensation, and he followed it with his essay about the Greek myth of Sisyphus--a man whom the gods condemn endlessly to push a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. Because of our absurd metaphysical situation, Camus stated, we share the same fate as Sisyphus and our best response to lifes absurdity is defiance. Otherwise, well be crushed.

All three philosophers had a significant impact on the alienated subcultures of the 1950s, and their ideas about choice and morality were filtered into poetry, film, art, and music. Even murder.