Friday, 13 October 2017

Meyer Levin, Compulsion

A few drop-in reads of Compulsion by Meyer Levin, a paragraph here and there, and eventually I read the whole thing. The frightful fifties Corgi book cover has lost its power and I relish the psychiatry 101 aspect of the trial that forms the second half of the book, I take on the jewishness and the readings of Nietzsche, the transcendence and the isolation.  The story inspired plays and films from Hitchcock to Michael Haneke. Why did two wealthy young men randomly choose and murder a boy of their acquaintance, their social circle? How often do we get around to asking why? When did a defence lawyer's summation last for twelve hours and get played, in the 1957 film version, by Orson Welles?

Known as alienists then, commissioned to investigate the penumbra of these two wealthy young men, the psychiatrists in the trial are fresh from encounters—never mind readings—of Jung and Freud. The narrator's excitement at the procedure of word association tests, feelings about mothers and fathers, childhood behaviours, fantasies, relationships with teddy bears, etc, is compulsive too, fascinated. The perfect crime engenders its own style, its own fantasies, emotional, intellectual and forensic, its own truth and its own derangement.
I wonder whether in all courtroom history the speaking effort of one man was ever awaited as was the speech of Jonathan Wilk for the defence of Steiner and Straus. Perhaps there was in this anticipation the sense that all the probings, all the expert testimony, had still fallen short of an explanation, and that only the ultimate effort of a great man could lift the meaning before us.

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