The Delinquent in Art and in Literature
FROM the very beginning art has dealt with crime and criminals, and for ages it was art alone, poetic or pictorial, that made known the physical and mental features of the delinquent. It often succeeded by a wonderful intuition, and it often failed for lack of scientific knowledge. But recently science has taken the criminal in hand for investigation, and it is the purpose of this essay to determine how accurately poets and painters have anticipated or followed, in their descriptions of some of the most famous types of criminals, the knowledge gained by the scientific study of them.
The older, or classical criminologists occupied themselves with crime, and not with criminals ; treating them, with the rare exception of confirmed drunkards and deaf mutes, as average men. They worked to find the article of the penal code best suited to the case that they were considering. They made studies, not of the man, but of the violation of law of which he had been found guilty. Experimental science, on the other hand, has closely studied the diverse figures of criminals themselves, until nearly all criminologists now classify them into the five sections in which I was the first to arrange them.
The congenital criminal, the organic and psychic monster whose existence criminal anthropology has demonstrated, was long ago dimly recognized by popular intuition, even while he remained unobserved, or while his existence was denied by the teachers of religious dogmas. It is natural that this type should not often be met in artistic creations until our own time. Indeed, not even Shakespeare, nor Dostoievsky in his personal observations of Siberian criminals, nor Eugène Sue in his studies of the dregs of the Parisian mob, was able to delineate him. But no sooner had criminal anthropology discovered him and identified him than he became at once a subject of contemporary art, thanks especially to Zola. In these unmoral men, the congenital criminals, who lack all guiding social instincts, there is usually a great development of self-seeking impulses and of mental astuteness, leading to successful careers in a society based on free competition, which is but a species of disguised and indirect anthropophagi a, and which constitutes for the honest man a hindrance rather than a help in the race of life. It is precisely their apparently normal intelligence and sentiments, masking their profound and secret moral insensibility, which make this type so difficult for any but the scientifically trained student to recognize. The mad criminal, on the other hand, was always easy to discern, and it was natural that he should appear in art; but art has generally dealt only with real madmen, rarely with those who because of some degeneration or some congenital malformation are unhinged, though they have lucid intervals ; for in cases of this kind it is not easy to detect the external evidences. Infrequent, too, in art, except in those novels and plays whose chief aim is the representation of the criminal world, is the figure of the habitual criminal, inasmuch as he is an anti-social type, made by society and our prison systems. He rarely commits any great offense, but carries on a miserable existence of petty delinquency, and belongs to the large class of the socially submerged.
The artistic material in crime which has been most frequently used consists of the other two criminal types, the occasional criminal and the passionate criminal. The occasional criminal, who is almost a normal man, lends himself particularly well to artistic representation. We meet him as the adulterer, more or less professional; the swindler, more or less circumspect; the gambler, more or less of a cheat; the defamer, more or less venomous. These characters are the stock in trade of many novels and plays constructed after certain formulae, but, except in the hands of writers of genius, they do not offer sufficient psychological relief and contrast to warrant a profound and minute artistic analysis. Indeed, the occasional criminal belongs to the numerous mediocrities of the antisocial world, and is of an undecided quality, fluctuating between vice and virtue according to his surroundings.
But since passions and sentiments are the true materials of art, the criminal by passion has always attracted the attention of artists. They like to deal with crimes committed by men, often of wholesome life, who, stung into violence by some great injustice or some deep wrong to their affections., rush into crime in a tempestuous psychological fever ; and mankind delights to follow the artist’s interpretation. An intimate knowledge abides in the reader that he might be similarly tempted under the same circumstances, and artists, with their finestrung sensibilities and highly developed nerves, feel an elective affinity with the man who has killed another for love or jealousy, or some other passion.
After this rapid survey of the most characteristic of the various types of delinquents, as revealed by the positive data of the new criminal science, let us compare them with some of the most noted imaginary figures that art has delineated with the intuition of genius. We shall find that art, just because it has remained close to life, even when the excesses of an ascetic or philosophic idealism diverted human interests from the earth to subjective contemplation of a world beyond, has portrayed in its greatest creations the most marked characteristics of the criminal type. Indeed, to his surprise, the criminal anthropologist perceives that the artist has often anticipated his most definite observations. Thus the anthropologist finds that in Bernini’s Moor on the fountain of the Piazza Navona in Rome, and in the four Moors on the noble monument erected in Leghorn to the memory of the Grand Duke Ferdinand I., the special physical traits of the Negro race are artistically recorded. Dr. Charcot found that the physical characteristics and the peculiar contortions of the hysterical and the epileptic have been reproduced in art. A remarkable example is the boy possessed of a devil, in the foreground of Raphael’s Transfiguration.
Criminal types, of course, are infrequently represented in painting and sculpture. Of one hundred notable pictures, not more than one or two have for their principal theme or secondary episode the image of a criminal, and the proportion is even smaller in statues. But of one hundred popular plays no fewer than ninety elucidate some crime; and the proportion is even greater in novels. The artist is not encouraged to fix with his brush or chisel a repellent figure or deed. Then, too. the painter and the sculptor can catch only the passing act of one or more persons, and the representation of a crime is in great measure forbidden by the necessity of restricting the expression to a single moment. The emotions are best aroused and kept in tension by descriptions of the various psychological moments which the soul of the delinquent traverses. Such psychological descriptions are possible only in descriptive art, either analytic as in the novel, or synthetic as in the drama. Yet painters and sculptors have discovered some of the characteristic traits. A careful study of the busts of the Cæsars reveals as a family peculiarity the abnormal distance of the eyes from the root of the nose, and notably in the criminal Cæsars, above all in Nero and Caligula, the most common features of the criminal type. In Caligula the upper lip is raised on one side, like the lip of a wild beast about to bite. This feature has been noted by Darwin as frequently met with in murderers.
Painting yields a richer harvest than sculpture. The pictorial representations of Cain and Abel, of Judith and Holofernes, of the Murder of the Innocents, of the Crucifixion of Christ, of the Christian Martyrs, of the Last Judgment, as well as pictures from Christian hagiology, portray murderers, executioners, traitors, and villains with the well-known traits of the criminal type, — large and angular heads, asymmetric faces, small and ravenous eyes, large square jaws, low and receding foreheads, projecting or pointed ears, abundance of stubbly hair, and thin beards. In addition to painters of pictures in which the criminal element is merely incidental, there are painters who have chosen their principal subjects from the criminal world. Goya the Spaniard, who flourished in the eighteenth century, became the court painter, so to call him, of brigands and highwaymen. In France, Prud’hon, beside a picture entitled Allegory of Justice, which represents a delinquent brought to court, painted Murder pursued by Revenge and Justice, in the conception of which he fell into the common error that remorse pursues every type of criminal. Remorse is unknown to the congenital and habitual criminal, and makes itself but feebly felt in a few cases of irresponsible and impulsive madness and of occasional crime. It is vehement only in criminals by passion. It is these who are often impelled to commit suicide immediately after the criminal paroxysm has passed. Of other French painters of criminal subjects, the most conspicuous is Géricault, whose picture The Head of a Guillotined is justly famous. The painter has put on his canvas all the abnormalities that belong to the sanguinary criminal type. In the famous Kiss of Judas, by Ary Scheffer, Judas is represented with all the characteristics of the swindler and the liar ; and in the same way, Delacroix’s Hamlet displays, not the traits of a common criminal type, but a wandering, restless, lunatic physiognomy. Artists of all times and lands have portrayed empirically various criminal types by characteristics which science has recently found to be exact. The criminal type discovered by Lombroso, and accurately studied by the Italian criminal anthropological school, is perfectly drawn in the artistic works of many centuries.
Let us now pass from the physiognomic depiction of criminals in art to their psychological delineation in the drama and in literature. I shall disregard that great army of minor delinquents who are the material used in the manufacture of so many second-rate novels and plays, but who have been presented occasionally as a true type which has become legendary, such as the Don Juan of Byron, the Wantrin of Balzac, or the Don Marzio of Goldoni. I shall omit political criminals also, for similar reasons. But it is worth remembering that the history of human progress shows how many times the mad genius or even the criminal, because less enslaved than other men by the conventionalism of mental and social habits, and because less careful of his personal profit, has given the decisive impetus to the realization of reforms which were already matured in the collective conscience, and only awaited a final impulse.
In the Divine Comedy, the principal theme of which may be said to be crimes and punishments, we do not find types of true delinquents, except perhaps such figures as Vanni Fucci in the canto of the thieves, and Francesca da Rimini among the adulterers. Indeed, Dante’s poem deals almost wholly with political criminals. The evolution of criminality since the Middle Ages shows conspicuously the ever growing prevalence of crimes of fraud over crimes of violence, and Dante concerned himself with the crime rather than with the criminal. For the criminologists of the positive or anthropological school, who are more occupied with the criminal than with the crime, a much richer mine of psychological observation is found in tragedies and dramas which present some decided type of criminal man.
Crimes of blood have been the staple material of the drama, and the Greek destiny which drove a man into crime was only the modern heredity. We pass over the ancient drama, which need not detain us, and come to the drama of modern times. Here we encounter the frequent delineation of the three characteristic figures, — instinctive criminals, criminals by madness, homicides by passion, the latter completing their due psychological outlines by superadding remorse and suicide.
The most marvelous description of these three types is found in Shakespeare. Macbeth is the instinctive or born criminal; Hamlet, the mad criminal; Othello, the criminal by passion. Shakespeare’s artistic work is such a mine that not only students of art, but economists and even criminologists may extract from it facts and documents of vital historical interest. Criminal psychology finds in his three legendary types of homicides three human documents in which the accuracy of observation is no less wonderful than the excellence of the art. Macbeth is the type of the born criminal, a sad and monstrous offshoot from the pathological trunk of nervous and criminal epilepsy. And in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth is the true epileptic from his birth, — an epileptic of the least apparent type, that is called psychic or masked epilepsy, because it exists without the terrible muscular convulsions which we think of when epilepsy is named, and because it is limited to a temporary insensibility, often unnoticed, which is the psychic equivalent of muscular convulsions.
And hath been from his youth : pray you, keep seat ;
The fit is momentary ; upon a thought seat;
He will again be well: if much you note him.
You shall offend him and extend his passion,”
says Lady Macbeth to her guests, surprised at the strange attitude of their royal host. The tragedy reveals still another psychological intuition of Shakespeare, which, lying somewhat aside from the habitual rules of common psychology, is rarely noted by superficial observers. Only the intuitive art of a great genius or the patient observation of a scientific investigator would reach the truth, that in the soul of the born criminal, however much, apparently, he may resemble the normal man because he shows no marked external signs of madness, there exist psychologic attributes and habits different from those of other men. Scarcely has Macbeth killed Duncan when he bursts on the scene, brandishing his bloody weapon, and telling his wife all he felt before and after the deed. Tommaso Salvini, one of the greatest interpreters of Macbeth, called this powerful scene unnatural, because it seems contrary to the care every man takes to cover up his crime. Certainly, according to the psychology of normal men, his first act would be to hide all evidences of his guilt ; but those who have studied criminals know that the imprudent revelation of their own dark deeds, especially where murder is concerned, is one of the surest data of criminal psychology. So common, indeed, is this trait that it is through it, rather than through the miraculous sagacity of the police, so vividly described in the police novels, that murder is almost always revealed. Criminals will speak of their crime as an honest workman speaks of his labor. Yet another great genius, Ariosto, noted this trait, of which criminal annals furnish innumerable examples, in his famous lines : —
Che se medesmo, senz’ altrui richesta,
This “ unnatural ” Shakespearean scene, then, is quite natural.
I may remark incidentally that I know of no more fallacious criterion than that of verisimilitude, which is almost always contrary to truth, whether met with in the halls of justice, where many errors are committed in its name, or in the daily and constantly erroneous judgments of ordinary life. A similar example of erroneous application of the criterion of verisimilitude, transporting into criminal psychology the data of common psychology, I find in the Phèdre of Racine, where the poet employs as Hippolytus’s excuse the same argument which the criminologist Prospero Farinaccio put forward some years ago as the basis for his celebrated defense of Beatrice Cenci: —
Quelques crimes toujours précèdent les grandes crimes ;
Quiconque a pu franchir les bornes légitimes
Peut violer enfin les droits, les plus sacrés ;
Ainsi que la vertu, le crime a ses degrés ;
Et jamais on n’a vu la timide innocence
Passer subitement it à l’extrême licence.
Un jour sent ne fait pas d’un mortal vertueux
Un perfide assassin, un lâche incestueux.”
This method of arguing, which we do not find in the Phedra of Euripides, we meet in the Cosmopolis of Paul Bourget; while it may hold good for criminals by acquired habit, it is not true, though it sounds plausible, of congenital criminals, who rush at once into the worst of crimes.
To return to Macbeth, I should like to note another psychological intuition of Shakespeare’s, which is that women commit fewer crimes than men; but when they commit them they are more cruel and more obstinately recidivist than men. Lady Macbeth, for example, is more inhumanly ferocious than her husband.
It is easier to deal with the other two Shakespearean murderers in accordance with criminal psychology, though even to them the criteria of common psychology have too often been applied. Thus while Hamlet is a perfect type of the criminal madman as interpreted by the data of criminal psychology, there have been critics who maintained that he became mad after feigning insanity. Hamlet is really most masterfully delineated as a criminal lunatic with lucid and even reasonable intervals, — a type ignored by those untrained observers who look on all lunatics as necessarily raging and incoherent, but which the great English psychologist comprehended by intuition. The diagnosis of the psycho-pathological symptoms in Hamlet could not be more characteristic than Shakespeare’s description of him, beginning with the hallucination, when he sees the ghost, which is a decisive feature of mental alienation. The very simulation of madness, which laymen interpret as a caprice or a trick, marvelously agrees with scientific observation, because it is now known that simulated madness is a frequent symptom of lunacy, in spite of the “ dictum of common sense ” that “ he who feigns is not mad.” The madness of Hamlet belongs precisely to that form of lucid madness which permits the sufferer from time to time to realize his own insanity. In his letter to Ophelia Hamlet speaks of his sick state, and after the murder of Polonius he exclaims that “ not Hamlet, but his madness,” has killed his friend. Hamlet’s madness is of the kind shown by those whom the French school of criminologists calls “ superior degenerates,” in distinction from idiots and imbeciles, who are called “ inferior degenerates.” Another symptom of Hamlet’s condition is a partial paralysis of the will. To this pathological lack of will are attributable all his hesitations in executing the vendetta of his father, together with an instinctive repugnance to murder, which, as I have shown elsewhere, survives in lunatics of moral integrity even after their intelligence has been shipwrecked. Shakespeare’s observation manifests itself in showing how Hamlet, an intellectual youth, a university student, still retained, even with a clouded brain, the power to reason rightly ; as, for example, in his moralizing over Yorick’s skull, or in his reflection that if he killed the king while at prayer, he would send him to heaven, and so miss revenge. But, however lucid and reasonable at times, Hamlet is none the less mad because his deed is inspired by a noble motive, and his madness makes itself plainly manifest in his gratuitous murder of old Polonius.
So true to life is Othello that he has become the typical embodiment of homicide by passion ; for though he is less abnormal than Macbeth or Hamlet, he is still a true homicidal criminal. This view is confirmed by his suicide ; Shakespeare, with his profound intuition, does not permit either Macbeth or Hamlet to die by his own hand. The immediate reaction toward suicide, after a homicidal attack, is a specific symptom of the criminal by passion, whose moral sense, momentarily obscured by the hurricane of his passion, regains the upper hand, and pushes him to self-destruction in his spasm of instantaneous remorse. It is just this subtle distinction, made plain by criminal anthropology, that Shakespeare perceived.
To come down to more recent times, a successful instantaneous photograph of the criminal world is found in Cavalleria Rusticana, where we are hurried from crime to crime in a whirlwind of rapidly succeeding events. Or turn to fiction. Some years ago, a class of novels dealing with penal law proceedings — Gaboriau’s were chief among them — were much in vogue. In these penal studies the criminal takes a secondary place, and is nearly always a sort of lay figure used to represent a mysterious crime. The real hero is the police, personified in some specially astute agent who unravels the mystery. Tabaret, the best of these agents, is made, in L’Affaire Leronge, to praise his own craft of man-chasing, which he declares to be much superior to animalhunting. He deplores that great crimes are on the decrease, and that they have given place to vulgar petty delinquencies, — a very true observation, as is also his remark that criminals nowadays sign their deeds, so to speak, and leave their visiting-cards behind them, so that discovery is easy. Analogous to these novels are the plays which revolve around the discovery of some crime, usually homicide, with the introduction of the usual more or less definite judicial errors. Ferréol, by Victorien Sardou, is an excellent example of this type. But these penal law plays, most popular in folk theatres, have less interest for us. whose purpose it is to seek in the intuitions of art the confirmation of the positive statements of criminal anthropological science. It is therefore enough to have named them as an interesting variety and offshoot of the artistic representation of delinquent man.
A tragically acute and suggestive moment. in the study of criminal man is his execution. Yet, curiously enough, art has scarcely ever attempted the representation of this most highly dramatic phase of criminal life. The exceptions are the pathetic scenes of Mary Stuart and Beatrice Cenci, and more recently, the Dame de Challant, by Giacosa, and the Tosca, by Sardou. Here, however, we are in the domain of common, not of criminal psychology, since we are dealing only with criminals by passion and political criminals. The wide sweep of emotions felt by a criminal who passes at once from the vigor of life to death, in the flower of his years, tempted the genius of Victor Hugo. In Les Misérables the hero is a criminal, but Jean Valjcan is only a fancy criminal, whom no criminologist of the new school would have condemned to prison. And because he is a pseudo-criminal Jean Valjeau does those pitiful and heroic deeds which his creator assigns to him. Victor Hugo wrote also about the last days of a criminal condemned to death ; but though eloquent and artistic, the description deals only with the superficial aspects of the life of a condemned man, and in its psychology is not correct. Penal annals have already given us a number of documents bearing on criminal psychology, showing the apathetic attitude of the criminal and his congenital physical and moral Insensibility, — an attitude which writers like Victor Hugo mistake for courage.
At the middle of the present century, imaginative literature found itself compelled to choose between two supreme necessities : it had either to reconstruct itself or to perish. Balzac led the way with the luminous Comédie Humaine. Then followed Flaubert with his Madame Bovary. Both writers sought in social environment the reasons for individual character. At almost the same time, the true basis of positive science was laid by the biology of Darwin and the philosophy of Spencer. It was impossible that contemporary fiction should not be affected by such mighty and far-reaching influences. The novelists soon forsook the well-trodden conventional roads, and hastened to study the human soul under the new search-light of science. Hence arose the naturalistic and the psychological romance, some writers preferring to study the determining causes of the environment, while others were drawn rather to the analysis of the soul of the individual. All, however, were guided by the influence of the new anthropological data which they thus helped to popularize. But art is not science. Science is above all things impersonal and objective, while a work of art, as Zola says, is a corner of nature seen through a temperament. In this difference lies the chance for the artist. Le Crime et le Châtiment, by Dostoievsky, and La Bête Humaine, by Zola, are for psycho-pathology and criminal anthropology a propaganda a thousand times more suggestive than the laborious observations of science, and they are at the same time excellent artistic works ; for while they paint truth boldly, they do not distort its proportions. To miss the proper proportion is the sin of inferior artists, and they miss it in the very effort to make their figures more veracious, as they think.
Zola, although in recent years he has not steered clear of a tendency to yield to commercial influences, is one of the greatest contemporary writers. His works are of undeniable importance as studies of delinquency, notwithstanding the fact that the caprices of decadent art point to a reaction against the artistic value of the naturalistic romance. With The Rougen-Maquart Zola opened new horizons to art. He was the first to introduce the figure of the congenital criminal, substituting it for the worked-out figure of the mad criminal or the criminal by passion. Since his success the novelists of all lands have sought among anthropological data for a vital basis on which to build up the products of their fancy. It is curious to note how even a modern champion of the spiritual psychological romance, like Paul Bourget, has in some of his novels drawn on the sources of normal and criminal anthropology. Thus in the preface of Cosmopolis Bourget frankly admits that, " notwithstanding the identity of the social environment in which his idle group of cosmopolitans are found, they always bear in their feelings and in their actions the seal of the race to which they belong; ” and since race is for a people what temperament is for an individual, it is easy to see that the thesis of Cosmopolis coincides with the fundamental conclusion of criminal sociology, — that crime is a phenomenon determined not alone by the conditions of social environment, but also by biological conditions. In Le Disciple and in André Cornélis, Bourget furnishes us with the psychological description of two quasi-delinquents. But he never goes outside of common psychology. Criminal psychology requires not only the internal inspection of one’s own conscience, but the external and anatomic observation of the criminal soul, both in social life and in the prison and the madhouse. By reason of his observations Dostoievsky is among artists the Dante of criminal psychology, as well when he writes of the living sepulchre in which he passed so many years, as when he creates the Shakespearean figure of Raskolinkopp in Le Crime et le Châtiment.
It is now about twelve years that southern Europe has been powerfully swayed by northern art in the drama and in the novel. Ibsen, Tolstoi, and Dostoievsky are the trio who artistically represent delinquent man, and have set the fashion. Of Ibsen’s works, Ghosts is the drama which above all others most intensely follows the lines of human pathology as revealed by modern science, although the crime it involves is only faintly indicated, and we are left uncertain at the end whether the mother gives to her son the liberating poison craved by this victim of paternal vice. Another confirmation of “ the right to die ” is found in Coppée’s Bon Crime, showing how this view is making headway among higher thinkers. Ibsen’s work is inspired by a rare knowledge of scientific facts, reproduced with a more or less philosophic precision. Thus Hedda Gabler hews out as from a rude block the figure of a neurotic woman, hysterical and criminal. In The Wild Duck we encounter the triumphant criminal and swindler, a contemporary figure of haute finance now too often met with. In The Pillars of Society Ibsen depicts the socalled great men of politics, at once criminals and neurotics, who display in a different environment — the environment of parliamentary life — the same tendencies that influence the brigands of the roads. In Ghosts, wherein the author attempts to demonstrate the organic basis of crime or madness, the picture of Oswald lacks somewhat the precision of a hospital diagnosis, but the making of diagnoses is not the function of art. It suffices that it should ask of science the fundamental facts of life, and then be free to change the colors in order the better to impose its real artistic creations on the collective conscience. This effect is attained by Ghosts, as it is also attained by Zola’s L’Assommoir, which has fixed the disasters resulting from alcoholism, just as Ghosts has made us comprehend the hereditary transmission of paternal degeneration, even though the inexorable uniformity of this law is a little exaggerated.
Tolstoi, who has been as absurdly praised as he has been absurdly condemned, furnishes us with two types of homicides. In The Kreutzer Sonata we encounter the familiar jealous husband, who vindicates his violated right of property in his wife by murdering her, in accordance with the morality of those savage tribes who punish adultery with death, just as they punish theft. But the character of the criminal is not well studied. He is rather a lay figure, of which the author makes use to expound his curious thesis. Much abler and truer are the criminal figures in 'The Powers of Darkness, that graphic and vivid description of Russian peasant life. In the title he has chosen, Tolstoi, once again in agreement with science, means to signify how from the dark regions of the unconscious there springs up in the human soul the poison of those criminal thoughts, sentiments, and acts which unfortunately play so large a part in life.
I have thus rapidly passed in review a sanguinary and repulsive crowd, upon whom art has wrought, giving too much glorification to criminals. It is time it should turn its light on the great mass of suffering men and women,—ill-fed, rude, and perverted, it may be, yet simple, laborious, and unconsciously altruistic, — who, despite their misery and hunger, remain honest, and obey the human sentiment that revolts against the idea of doing violence to a fellow creature.