Psychoanalysis, Jewishness, and the Murder of the Century

April 20, 2015 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

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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