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The Pale Criminal And The Need For Punishment: A Freudian Perspective

The Letter, Issue 11, Autumn 1997, Pages 43 - 59


Stephen J. Costello

You do not intend to kill, you judges and sacrificers, before the beast has bowed its neck? Behold, the pale criminal has bowed his neck: from his eyes speaks the great contempt. 'My ego is something that should be overcome: my Ego is to me the great contempt of man' ... But the thought is one thing, the deed is another ... An image made this pale man pale. He was equal to his deed when he did it: but he could not endure its image after it was done ... the blow he struck charmed his simple mind ... Thus says the scarlet judge: 'Why did this criminal murder? He wanted to steal'. But I tell you: his soul wanted blood and not booty: he thirsted for the joy of the knife! ... And now again the lead of his guilt lies upon him, and again his simple mind is so numb, so paralysed, so heavy. If only he could shake his head his burden would roll off: but who can shake his head? ... This poor soul interpreted to itself what this body suffered and desired - it interpreted it as lust for murder and greed for the joy of the knife ... Much about your good people moves me to disgust, and it is not their evil I mean. How I wish they possessed a madness through which they could perish, like the pale criminal ... Thus spake Zarathustra.

Nietzsche, Of The Pale Criminal', Zarathustra's Discourses.

In this article, I wish to set out Freud's psychoanalytic interpretations of pale criminality which are scattered throughout the corpus of his works. 'Pale criminality', a term taken from Nietzsche by Freud, is understood to mean criminals suffering from a sense of unconscious guilt. We shall see that for Freud, pale criminality expresses the externalisation of unconscious guilt and the attendant need for punishment. As such, it is intimately inter-connected to the superego and thus to the Oedipus complex.

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