No Comment, Quotation — February 26, 2008, 6:03 am

Nietzsche’s Pale Criminal

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Hört, ihr Richter! Einen anderen Wahnsinn giebt es noch: und der ist vor der That. Ach, ihr krocht mir nicht tief genug in diese Seele! So spricht der rothe Richter: “was mordete doch dieser Verbrecher? Er wollte rauben.” Aber ich sage euch: seine Seele wollte Blut, nicht Raub: er dürstete nach dem Glück des Messers!

Seine arme Vernunft aber begriff diesen Wahnsinn nicht und überredete ihn. “Was liegt an Blut! sprach sie; willst du nicht zum mindesten einen Raub dabei machen? Eine Rache nehmen?” Und er horchte auf seine arme Vernunft: wie Blei lag ihre Rede auf ihm, — da raubte er, als er mordete. Er wollte sich nicht seines Wahnsinns schämen.

Und nun wieder liegt das Blei seiner Schuld auf ihm, und wieder ist seine arme Vernunft so steif, so gelähmt, so schwer. Wenn er nur den Kopf schütteln könnte, so würde seine Last herabrollen: aber wer schüttelt diesen Kopf?

Was ist dieser Mensch? Ein Haufen von Krankheiten, welche durch den
Geist in die Welt hinausgreifen: da wollen sie ihre Beute machen. Was ist dieser Mensch? Ein Knäuel wilder Schlangen, welche selten bei einander Ruhe haben, — da gehn sie für sich fort und suchen Beute in der Welt.

Seht diesen armen Leib! Was er litt und begehrte, das deutete sich diese arme Seele, — sie deutete es als mörderische Lust und Gier nach dem Glück des Messers.


Listen, judges! There is another lunacy, the one which precedes the deed. You have not dug deep enough into this soul! So spoke the red judge: “Why did this criminal commit murder? He meant to rob.” But I tell you, that his soul wanted blood, not the prize of theft: he thirsted for the happiness of the knife!

But his poor reason understood not this madness, and it persuaded him. “What use is blood to you!” it said; “would you not at least take some plunder in the process? Or take revenge?” And he followed his weak reason: its words pressed upon him like lead—and so he robbed when he murdered. He did not wish to be ashamed of his madness.

And now once more the lead of his guilt weighs upon him, and once more is his weak reason so brittle, so paralyzed, and so heavy. If he could shake his head, then his burden would roll off; but who could shake this head?

What is this man? A mass of diseases that reach out into the world through the spirit; there they seek their quarry. What is this man? A coil of wild serpents that are seldom at peace among themselves–so each goes forth separately and seeks its quarry in the world.

Look at that poor body! What it suffered and craved, the poor soul interpreted for itself–it interpreted it as murderous desire, and a craving for the happiness of the knife.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, “Die Reden Zarathustras,” ch. 6 (1883) in: Werke in drei Bänden, vol. 2, pp. 304-05 (K. Schlechta ed. 1973)(S.H. transl.)


Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is an enigmatic book, easily misunderstood, and hard to grasp with any measure of certainty. And this passage, the chapter about the “pale criminal,” is one of the most enigmatic. At first blush this and several other segments of Zarathustra seem to be a glorification of the mind of a violent criminal, of the person who “rises above” social morals, and particularly the Wilhelmine Christian morality which Nietzsche so thoroughly despised—of an individual who is self-actuated and prepared to do “whatever it takes” to achieve his end. It smells a bit of Benvenuto Cellini, of the famous passage in his Autobiography where he describes his homicidal assault on persons who plagued him in a lawsuit, or perhaps of Vautrin, the mysterious, unapologetic and rather hypnotic criminal mastermind of Balzac’s Le père Goriot. But on closer inspection, can that understanding be correct? Isn’t Nietzsche’s meaning something different? Isn’t his perspective that of a plunge into the collective consciousness of humankind, or indeed, into the subconscious? We who judge too quickly do not “penetrate deeply enough” into the man, Nietzsche suggests. Nietzsche writes before the real dawn of modern psychoanalysis, but it seems plain enough that he’s a bloodhound working his way down the path that Freud and Jung, among many others, would very shortly be taking.

That would suggest that this passage is an attempt to parse the mentality of a common criminal—not a criminal genius like a Vautrin—but the petty creature. He commits a murder in the course of some minor crime not because he designs to murder, but because it seems expedient for the moment. Then the reality of what he has done seeps in, and he is horrified. In this sense, I think, Nietzsche uses the word “pale,” as if the blood is running from his head, as the shock of his crime sets in. He has not killed because of an animal impulse that regales in the kill—the primal Blutlust to which Nietzsche alludes, which rests in his subconscious but does not drive his conduct. The sublimating force of society still has an incomplete grasp on him.

And note the mass of images of antiquity that Nietzsche packs into this work. In this passage, we see the coil of snakes. What does this mean? Perhaps the snakes stand for the neuroses or psychoses, the mental ailments that complicate the pale criminal’s mind. The encoiled snakes are the image of the Medusa, associated by the ancients with madness. They hiss and bite one another, robbing him of a clear will and resolve, impeding his clear-headed action. Note he talks of their inclination to go separately out into the world and to seek their own spoils. This points to a psychotic affliction, the possibility perhaps of a multiple-personality disorder.

Finally what is this craving for the “happiness of the knife”? Certainly it is not the repressed desire to kill of which Nietzsche spoke a few lines earlier. This is a reference to the desire for finality, for suicide as an end to a tormented existence. It is an image that covers the self-destructive impulse common in this type.

So the “pale criminal” is a study of evil latent in humankind—not the most dramatic or threatening kind of evil, but rather the sort of evil which infests the small-minded or petty thug, the creature who acts without deeper moral bearings. The “pale criminal” may well commit a deceit, a fraud, a confidence trick, without even thinking of his conduct as a crime, and may experience remorse in the wake of his actions. He is a diseased and crippled specimen. And yet he is very common, and not so frequently observed for what he is. Nietzsche does not glorify in this passage; he catalogues, and having written, passes on.

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