Psychoanalysis, Jewishness, and the Murder of the Century

April 20 2015

Meyer Levin’s 1956 novel Compulsion, recently reissued, is a fictionalized account of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s infamous murder of a fourteen-year-old boy. Although Levin’s perpetrators are named Steiner and Straus, the story sticks closely to the actual facts of the crime, which was committed in 1924. Adam Kirsch examines the case’s grip on the popular imagination, the novel’s understanding of the killers, and Levin’s treatment of the Jewish identity of both criminals and victim:

The killers, both child prodigies who graduated from the University of Chicago while in their teens, had absorbed their moral detachment from famous books: [Dostoevsky’s] Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov philosophically justifies his murder of an old woman; Lafcadio’s Adventures, the André Gide novel that introduced the world to the idea of the acte gratuit, the motiveless crime; above all, the works of [Friedrich] Nietzsche, which taught Leopold and Loeb that the superior man, the Übermensch, was not bound by conventional morality. These were the books that created the modern mind, with its constant temptation to nihilism, the belief that everything is permitted because everything is meaningless. . . .

In real life, Leopold said that he tried to destroy [the victim’s] genitals so that the police would not realize he was Jewish, which would help to trace his identity. In Levin’s hands, this practical explanation is also mined for psychological meaning. Judd Steiner’s “conflict over being a Jew” is related to Freud’s theory of Jewish self-hatred: “Every Jew had a wish not to be burdened with the problem of being a Jew. Then came the guilt feeling for harboring such a wish.”

Levin is not as interested in the Jewish psychology of the case as much as he is in its sexual psychology, but he does a good job of capturing the milieu of high-bourgeois Jewish Chicago, with its deep fear of bad publicity. “One thing is lucky in this terrible affair . . .” says [one of the characters]. “It’s lucky it was a Jewish boy they picked.” Indeed, had Leopold and Loeb’s victim been Christian, the murder could have become a different kind of archetype entirely, not a modern thrill-killing but an ancient blood libel. In many ways, Compulsion is a period piece, but its ability to communicate the horror of this famous crime gives it a lasting power.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Arts & Culture, Crime, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nihilism, Psychoanalysis

Don’t Let Iran Go Nuclear

Sept. 29 2022

In an interview on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration remains committed to nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as it pursues its brutal crackdown on the protests that have swept the country. Robert Satloff argues not only that it is foolish to pursue the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also that the White House’s current approach is failing on its own terms:

[The] nuclear threat is much worse today than it was when President Biden took office. Oddly, Washington hasn’t really done much about it. On the diplomatic front, the administration has sweetened its offer to entice Iran into a new nuclear deal. While it quite rightly held firm on Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from an official list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” Washington has given ground on many other items.

On the nuclear side of the agreement, the United States has purportedly agreed to allow Iran to keep, in storage, thousands of advanced centrifuges it has made contrary to the terms of the original deal. . . . And on economic matters, the new deal purportedly gives Iran immediate access to a certain amount of blocked assets, before it even exports most of its massive stockpile of enriched uranium for safekeeping in a third country. . . . Even with these added incentives, Iran is still holding out on an agreement. Indeed, according to the most recent reports, Tehran has actually hardened its position.

Regardless of the exact reason why, the menacing reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead—and the United States is doing very little about it. . . . The result has been a stunning passivity in U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear issue.

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Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran nuclear deal, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy