“I am better than everybody else” is the disturbing theme underlying Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope. Dostoevsky developed the same idea in Crime and Punishment as did George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman.
Rooted in Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch—”Superman” or “Above Man”—the idea is that a new breed of humanity will emerge who will be superior to the old, joyless Judeo-Christian ethic. Striding confidently into a brave new world, this new super-humanity will rise above the old humanity groveling before their gods. For this new strain of humanity to emerge certain superior individuals will step out of the lumbering lemming herd of hoi polloi. Such individuals will live for higher ideals and will be able to disregard the petty rules and moral codes that govern lesser mortals.
Dostoevsky’s student Raskolnikov therefore chooses to murder the old pawnbroker—a human cockroach if ever there was one—in order to take her wealth and do untold good with it for the rest of his life. He sees himself in the same category as Napoleon, who could trample the laws and lives of millions for a greater goal and greater good. In Shaw’s play, John Tanner is the young revolutionary anarchist who represents the emergent human genius. In Hitchcock’s film, Brandon Shaw (a nod to Bernard Shaw?) and Philip Morgan are young college graduates who strangle a classmate and hide his body to prove that they are, like Raskolnikov, superior creatures who are above the law.
Rope was based on an earlier stage play, which was inspired by the real life case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Leopold and Loeb were brilliant University of Chicago students who kidnapped and murdered thirteen year old Bobby Franks in their own attempt to prove themselves to be Napoleonic supermen. They were caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner in 1936 and Leopold was released on parole in 1958.
In both the fictional versions and the actual story of Leopold and Loeb each of the “supermen,” like Nietzsche himself, were arrogant, introverted and lonely individuals. Raskolnikov spends hours shut up in his miserable garret, rejecting the friendship and love of others. John Tanner is a “confirmed bachelor”. Leopold and Loeb were lovers, and Hitchcock (unable in 1948 to be obvious about homosexuality) portrays Shaw and Morgan as charming “aesthetes.” In other words, the Nietzschean, Napoleonic übermensch is a fancy word for “Narcissist.” Like Narcissus, the “supermen” gaze on the beauty of themselves. Narcissistic navel gazers, they become obsessed with their greatness, their superior intelligence and glorious destiny.
We should make no mistake, the person who believes in the theory of the superman really believes that he is on of the elite. The Nietzschean narcissist, like a masturbatory adolescent, is in love with himself and no other. The old wives said people like this would go insane and poor old Nietzsche did just that.
What is most disturbing is that his prophecies have come true. Modern America is filled with individuals who behave like Raskolnikov, John Tanner, Leopold and Loeb and Hitchcock’s dastardly duo. We are a nation of narcissists. Like Raskolnikov we murder millions through abortion for high sounding, utilitarian, but ultimately selfish reasons. Like John Tanner we march under revolutionary banners proclaiming a brave new world that revolves around our self-centered ideologies. Like Leopold and Loeb we are prepared to sacrifice others on the altar of our own self adulation.
Nietzsche considered his übermensch to be above the law. Like most madmen, he viewed reality in reverse. Instead of the superman being above the law he is below the law. Because he regards himself as superior he is inferior. When a man behaves as a narcissist he does not raise himself above common humanity, but lowers himself to the level of the instinctively self interested beast. He is therefore not more than human, but less than human. The Nietzshean Narcissist cuts himself off from society, from family, friends and from love. The only thing that breaks this cycle of self adoration is self sacrificial love, but self sacrificial love is the factor the one thing the narcissist cannot understand and of which he is incapable.
Nietzsche despised the Christian virtues of humility, service and self sacrifice as weakness. What he failed to understand is that the true exercise of these virtues requires superhuman strength. Rather than lowering man, self sacrificial love is the one thing that raises him from ape to angel.
The true superman is therefore the humble and penitent man. The last shall be first and the first last. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is the character who comes down where he ought to be. In the final pages of Crime and Punishment the cowardly student rises to greatness. Sitting on the riverbank while serving his prison sentence his heart finally opens, and for the first time he turns away from love of self to the love of Sonia—the simple prostitute who has supported him in his terrible trial.
This is the essential lesson of becoming fully human, and it is in the simple humanity and humility of love that Nietzsche recovers his sanity, the narcissist turns away from self love and the little Napoleon becomes a giant.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail from “Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine” by Jacques Louis David, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.