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Sunday, May 02, 2004


It’s funny, the things that lodge in your consciousness. A scene from Compulsion, the 1959 film about Leopold and Loeb, in which they sit together in a University of Chicago philosophy classroom and become excited as their professor reviews the superman theories of Nietzsche, has always stayed with me.

I couldn’t have known, when I saw that film at the age of thirteen or so, that I’d become someone who talks about Nietzsche to undergraduates, as I did last semester during a discussion of Thomas Mann.

I think the scene in this film must have stayed with me because it was an early encounter with the frightening contagion of ideas - the ways in which certain claims about humanity can become toxically glamorous in psychotic, or pre-psychotic, minds -- can somehow provide a frame of reference, an order, a public respectability, for sick thoughts.

It’s not just the contagion, though - it’s the surprisingly easy susceptibility of some ideas to assimilation into already established destructive or self-destructive compulsions that‘s frightening. Klebold and Harris lit on a grandiose nihilism very much like Leopold and Loeb’s.

I’m reminded of all of this because the number of student deaths at my university last semester was sufficiently high to make headlines. An article titled GWU Grapples with Fifth Student Death in Four Months:The Recent Suicides of a Number of GWU Students has Left the Faculty and Student Body Scarred appears in the April 30 Washington Post.

The subhead is misleading and sensationalistic. Of the five deaths at GW only two are clear suicides. One student died in a car crash, and the other two students seem to have died in circumstances of such drunken late night confusion as to make any clear determination impossible -- although the degree of self-disregard they displayed invites the thought that they may have wanted to die. In any case, the two clear suicides were very young undergraduates.

None of the four GWU students whose deaths in the last four months were active or perhaps passive suicides were students of mine. But whenever I lecture on The Heart of Darkness or To Room Nineteen or The Waves or The Myth of Sisyphus or any of the many works of fiction and philosophy which implicitly declare what Camus explictly does in the famous first line of Sisyphus (“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”), I find myself scanning the room for too intense an interest.

This is part of what Clarence Darrow said in his successful effort to keep Leopold and Loeb from being executed:

"I will guarantee that you can go down to the University of Chicago today---into its big library---and find over a thousand volumes on Nietzsche, and I am sure I speak moderately. If this boy is to blame for this, where did he get it? Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? And there is no question in this case that is true. Then who is to blame? The university would be more to blame than he is. The scholars of the world would be more to blame than he is. The publishers of the world---Nietzsche's books are published by one of the biggest publishers in the world---are more to blame than he. Your Honor, it is hardly fair to hang a nineteen-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."

UPDATE Monday: And this is what Ed Lahey, one of the wittiest newspapermen in history, wrote after Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had come on to him sexually:

"Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition."