Stage Notes

Bad to the Bone: New Ideas of Criminality

By Luke Evans

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Pariah is often read as part of an ongoing conversation between Strindberg and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Strindberg was an avid fan of Nietzsche’s and encouraged all of his contemporaries to read his work. In the late fall of 1888, the two opened a brief but enthusiastic correspondence in which they discussed each other’s work, the literature of their countries (Strindberg was a Swede and Nietzsche a German), but most significantly their individual ideas regarding the nature of criminality, morality, and accountability.

While both sought to abandon common ideals of morality, Nietzsche advocated for the abandoning of moralistic labels like “villain,” “heretic,” and “sinner.” Instead of identifying such people by defects in their character, he believed they should be seen as suffering from some sickness for which they bore no moral responsibility. He believed that such condemnation of the criminal only engendered further hostility and sparked in them the need to inflict their pain on others. He even went as far as to lift up some criminals as people who were too strong for society to allow. Strindberg was less sympathetic. He argued that Nietzsche had “to some degree flattered the criminal types,” and described the criminal as “a low sort of animal, a degenerate, a weakling who does not possess the necessary faculties to enable him to evade the more powerful laws which oppose themselves to his will and power.” Nietzsche would respond in partial agreement: “There is no doubt that the hereditary criminal is decadent, even feeble-minded,” but they never came to an agreement on the proper way of dealing with or punishing criminals.

Thus, Pariah became Strindberg’s examination of the nature of crime and punishment. Two men, each of whom committed very different crimes with very different outcomes, engage in a battle of the minds to determine which is the more accountable for their actions. The word “pariah” is even derived from the paraiyar, an outdated term for a lower-status caste group in the Indian states of Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, emphasizing the theme of hereditary status and the inability of certain individuals to rise above their given station.

During Strindberg’s time, the field of criminology was entering a new era of scientific study. Theorists of criminal psychology began to shift away from moralistic and spiritual views of the criminal toward more scientific and biological views. Previously, the “classical school” of criminology held that crime was an inherent trait of all humankind and could only be handled through punitive law. However, the newer “positivist school” attempted to prove that criminality was actually hereditary, and that such criminals could actually be considered “abnormal” or “afflicted." As such, there were many attempts to isolate physical identifying features of a criminal mind.

Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso was one of these scholars, and his work in positivist criminology was a major source of inspiration for Strindberg in writing Pariah. Namely, Strindberg had read the French translation of Lombroso’s book L'uomo delinquente (“The Criminal Man”), in which Lombroso promotes the idea that a person’s inherent criminality can be discerned by their appearance. Lombroso attempts to isolate numerous physical qualities that are indicative of a criminal nature, such as deformities of the skull, the size of the hands, arrangement of facial features, etc. Mr. X’s physical examination of Mr. Y echoes Lombroso’s theories of criminality as something that can be observed on the body.

Havelock Ellis’s The Criminal
Havelock Ellis’s The Criminal,
a composite image of 20 criminals.

Mr. X’s inability to call up a mental image of Mr. Y (instead only being able to picture someone like him) also echoes a photographic experiment conducted by English scientist and anthropologist Francis Galton in which people of common ethnic groups were photographed and those images superimposed over one another in order to create a composite image of that group through which their common physical traits could be discerned. Galton and others would later use this method to discern the common physical traits of criminals. Strindberg even cited the experiment in his letters to Nietzsche as proof of the inherent lowness of the biological criminal.

In addition to the “born criminal,” Lombroso also identified other types of criminals: the “insane criminal” and the “criminaloid.” The former’s criminality was not a result of birth, but was no less a biological affliction. Lombroso believed insane criminals to be affected by some kind of brain damage or chemical imbalance. These include compulsive criminals like kleptomaniacs, nymphomaniacs, and alcoholics. The “criminaloid” is a lesser criminal whose crimes are seldom violent and who becomes a criminal mainly by contact with other criminals or due to excessive need.

These philosophies did not condemn born criminals, however. Rather, positivist criminology sought to focus incarceration practices on curing what was defective in the individual. This process was referred to as “normalization,” the process through which a born criminal could be purged of criminal tendencies and become a normal, functioning member of society. Strindberg questioned this idea of normalization throughout his career, later coming to believe that the feeling of guilt after committing a crime was a sufficient punishment in itself.