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Insanity and Beauty – an Analysis of Pierre Riviere’s

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Andrew Yim

on 23 April 2014

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Transcript of Insanity and Beauty – an Analysis of Pierre Riviere’s

Significance of the memoir
Relationship among Pierre’s family members
Pierre's Family Tree
 What is insanity?
Was Pierre actually insane?

Douglas’ Fan Club (DFC)

Insanity and Beauty – an Analysis of
Pierre Riviere’s Memoir

Pierre’s personal characteristics
Motives for the murder...?
Logical Reasoning?
Personal Characteristics
Different understandings and interpretations of “insanity”
Degrees of insanity of the person
Significance (1):
Illustrations of inter-relationships between different fields

Morality v.s. Law
Morality v.s. Religion
Psychiatry v.s. Law
Significance (2):
Beauty of the Memoir


Not beautiful in the
conventional sense
Formal beauty
Foucault wrote “it was simply the beauty of Riviere’s memoir” that attracted him in the first place.
Foucault saw the memoir as an object of aesthetic qualities, or perhaps, a work of art.

Discussion Question (2):
In what sense do you think that the memoir is beautiful?
Thank you!
To free his father and himself from his mother's tyranny, Pierre Riviere decided to kill her

June 3, 1835: He slaughtered his mother, sister & brother

In jail, he wrote a memoir to justify the whole gruesome tale.
The Memoir
length: 40 pages
When: in jail before examination
What: Childhood, relationship,reasons for murder, process of murder, the time after murder
Why: witness of the facts, thoughts and intention, expression
Two parts:

The relationship between the memoir and murder
(1) Relationship between his
mother and father

(2) Motives for the murder
Cruel and merciless

Obstinate and stubborn



Moral and ethic sentiment

Intelligent and knowledgeable
(a) Mother
Malicious and arbitrary;
Bullying his father
(b) Victoire (Sister)
Leagued with his mother to bully his father
(c) Jule (brother)
Father’s favorite;
Jule must be killed so that Pierre's father would "rejoice in [ Pierre's ] death" (106)

1. Heroic VS shameful act
2. Moral sentiment?
3. Was the murder really motivated by religion?
Heroic VS Shameful

Pierre saw himself as a
tragic hero

“I would be dying to deliver a man who loves and cherishes me.” (105)

He cited examples of heroic figures, e.g. Chatillon, Eleazar, etc., to justify the murder (105)

“I knew the rules of man and the rules of ordered society, but I deemed myself wiser than they, I regarded them as ignoble and shameful” (105)

“I wished to defy the laws, it seemed to me that it would be a glory to me, that I should immortalize myself by dying for my father.” (105)


However, Pierre
felt guilty and ashamed
after murdering his own mother, sister and brother

As he went into the woods he regained his full senses, and called himself a monster (113)

He intended to commit suicide by hanging himself on a tree because “the vision of my crime was not to be borne” (114)

“Ah heaven, why have you granted me existence, why do you preserve me any longer.” (113)

He resolved to adopt a defence and pretended to be a religious fanatic because “I was afraid to tell the exact truth” (115) → not proud of the murder at all
Moral sentiment?
At first, Pierre was convinced that the murder was necessary to set his father free from despair

“I too will sacrifice myself for my father, everything seemed to invite me to this deed.” (106)

“If stranger who have nothing to do with it weep, what should I not do, I who am his son.” (106)

He thought that his father was being in the power of mad dogs or barbarins against whom he must take up arms (105)
He even killed his younger brother so that his father would not excuse Pierre for the murder, thus his father’s life could be regretless

“I… killed the other (Jule) because I feared that if I only killed the other two, my father though greatly horrified by it might yet regret me when he knew I was dying for him.” (106)

“...he will hold me in such abhorrence that he will rejoice in my death, and so he wil live happier being free from regrets.” (106)
However, Pierre suffered from a deep struggle when he was in the woods. He doubted if his mother and sister were so malicious that they deserved death
“Poor mother, poor sister, guilty maybe in some sort, but never did they have ideas so unworth as mine…”(113)

Pierre considered himself even worse than his wicked mother and sister, therefore developed the idea of killing himself

Was the murder really motivated by religion?
Evidence of religious motive
When Pierre was 7 or 8, he was very devout and he even aspired to be a priest (101)

He went to Sainte-Honorine all alone on Saint Claire’s day to the ceremony (104)

He felt that God had destined him for the murder and that he would be executing God’s justice (105)

He wanted to immortalize himself through the murder will go to heaven and lead an eternal life

He felt that he was doing justice for God by the murder but then he was afraid to face God’s judgment.

He pretended to be a religious fanatic and told lies concerning his religion only to avoid persecution
his religious devotion was dubious

He said he would be a coward if he did not execute his plan to kill his mother

He compared himself with Jesus and concluded that he could only deliver his father by dying for him (106)

He had read the Montpellier Catechism before the murder (107)

He did not kill himself at last because he was afraid of God’s judgment (114)

He recited prayers in the woods after the murder to distract his mind from misfortune (116)

Evidence of irreligious motive
Pierre admitted being irreligious after reading books about astronomy and other things (102)

He crucified frogs and birds for his own entertainment malevolence is forbidden in the Bible (104)

His act of murdering his own family was strictly forbidden by his religion as himself acknowledged (105)

personal motive > religious motive?
Slaughtered his mother, sister and brother
Illogicality VS Insanity

Even if Pierre was illogical in his reasoning, does this necessarily mean that he was insane?

Even ordinary people make mistakes every day in logical reasoning, it does not mean that all of us are insane… Or, are we all insane in some way?
What IS insanity?
(i) Literal meaning (ii) Legal definition (iii) Medical definition (iv) Social definition
Literal meaning

According to Oxford Dictionary

1. The state of being seriously mentally ill; madness;

2. Extreme foolishness or irrationality

Legal definition
Insanity as a legal defence

Criminal Code, s.27: Insanity –

“ (1) A person is
not criminally responsible
for an act or omission if at the time of doing the act or making the omission the person is in such a state of mental disease or natural mental infirmity as to
deprive the person of capacity to understand what the person is doing
or of capacity
to control the person’s action
or of capacity
to know that the person ought not to do the act
or make the omission.”

Despite subsequent development, main stress still on: not capable of
understanding right or wrong
/ not capable of
controlling one’s actions

a traditional “right and wrong” test of legal insanity in criminal prosecutions
Comes from the trial of a notorious English assassin M’Naughten in early 1800s
a defendant is legally insane if he/she cannot distinguish between right and wrong in regard to the crime with which he/she is charged.
If the judge or the jury finds that the accused could not tell the difference, then there could not be
Criticism of insanity as a legal defence
As summarised by Smith (1982):

Theoretically, whether the rule is necessary
- Originally operated to mitigate the rigors of the imposition of
capital punishment
for all serious offenses

now stands as a questionable exception to ordinary consequences of criminal conduct.

Practical grounds,
illustrated below:
Medical definition
Insanity as the umbrella term of several
biological diseases

Former superstition – insanity was attributed to the agency of devil: demon possession

Brigham (1994) - “a chronic disease of the brain, producing either
derangement of the intellectual faculties
, or
prolonged change of the feelings, affections, and habits
of individual”

As suggested by “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM IV) (1995), some examples of mental illnesses (the term “insanity” was avoided):

Diagnoses: Lists of symptoms of different mental diseases + test/ observation by medical expert

Seems to be more
, c.f. Social definition

Schizophrenia, Bipolar, Neurocognitive Disorders, Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Personality Disorders, Paraphilic Disorders, Gender Dysphoria …
Social definition
Insanity as a form of
stigmatization & discrimination

What is abnormal depends on what is normal

Violation / departure from social norms

Stigmatization - As long as a person does not conform to social conventions, he is labeled as “insane” (insulting)

A matter of personal perception, related to “difference”

Lichtman (2004): “Public mind”

Anti-social behaviours = insane?

Not the sum of individual minds, but their source and presupposition
Not a universal model, but specific to each social order
Criticism of social definition
What counts as mental illness/ insanity?
As suggested by Szasz (1987), types of person commonly regarded as “mentally ill/ insane” include:
No perfect definition of insanity!
Discussion Question (1):

Was Pierre insane, and in what sense was he insane? Do you think that he was legally, medically, or socially insane?
Was Pierre a normal person, a partially insane person, or a totally insane person?
(i) Arguments for “Pierre was a normal person”:
He was a normal person with occasional insane thoughts.

He intended to think logically, but unfortunately fell into logical fallacies.

(ii) Arguments for “Pierre was a partially insane person”:
“insane side”:

he killed his mother, sister and brother ruthlessly
“normal side”:

he later felt ashamed, he knew how to flee, and how to fake an “insanity” defence.
(iii) Arguments for “Pierre was a totally insane person”:
A complete lack of sympathy or mercy?

Choosing to murder seems too radical and disproportionate

vs Criminal responsibility (All-or-Nothing)
Insanity is a
complete defence
, recognize no middle ground between the legally responsible and irresponsible
(1) Subjectivity in assessing the degree
(2) Weihofen & Winfred (1946):
Insanity (Degree)
Insanity is a
matter of degree
, but insanity not severe to require acquittal
serve to reduce the
degree of the crime
Morality vs Law
Morality vs Religion
Psychiatry vs Law
What Pierre did was obviously
wrong, but was it also

By providing Pierre’s story and motives for murder, the Memoir enables us to judge Pierre from a moral perspective

A legal issue is inevitably intertwined with morality

Unlike rigid law, different morality theories may suggest different understanding of Pierre’s murder

Expose question:
if there are discrepancies between law and morality?

Different schools of thought on morality
Consequentialism/ Utilitarianism
Morality based on
Morality based on
inter-personal fairness
a. Utilitarianism
Bentham(1776): “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”.

A cost-benefit analysis of an action’s consequence

Pierre’s mother turned his family into a living hell, would killing her bring greater happiness to his family?

His mother’s cruelties to his father and grandmother

His sister sided with mother

His family would no longer suffer after killing, so, increase happiness?

BUT the justification seems weak

Ruined his father's reputation, humiliated him publicly, turns him into the "butt of the people's mockery" (80)

Ceaseless quarrels and financial conflicts

Used all kinds of methods to prevent father from leasing the land to a tenant

Grandmother saw her remaining child (father) suffered
Greater unhappiness was produced:
After killing, Pierre also regretted and was ashamed

Doubtful whether his father would enjoy a greater happiness by Pierre's murder of his wife and children

Could't justify why killing his brother Jule, who was his father's beloved son, would satisfy the utilitarian morality

Pierre also knew his brother's death would greatly sadden his father

Pierre's own justification in the Memoir (106):

“I knew he loved that child who was very intelligent, I thought to myself he will hold me in such abhorrence that he will rejoice in my death, and so he will live happier being free from regrets” .
His justification was contradictory:

Disregarded the possibility of greater suffering as he lost two sons at the same time (together with losing his wife and daughter)

In a broad sense, a murder undermines happiness of a society
his murder would lead to his death by legal sanction, which would sadden his father;

believed killing another son would overcome such sadness

Under utilitarian principle:

Pierre's murder created greater unhappiness of the greatest number, which was wrong to do so
b. Morality based on nature
• What we ought to do is based on what we are
• Ancient Greek philosophers suggested natural law derives from human nature


what is good for a human depends on the kind of thing a human is by nature

“For a rational ethic must be founded on human nature and the good of human nature"
"True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting"
Chinese Confucian morality about human nature:
filial love as
Human nature of having family bonding and affection

The motive for murder somehow reflects human nature: save his father from tribulations

"I love my father very much, his tribulations affected me sorely."(104)

"I regarded my father as being in the power of mad dogs or barbarians against whom I must take up arms"(105)
Seeing his father suffered, wanted to eliminate the source of distress
Natural emotions - sympathy for his father, hatred for his mother
Against nature - murdering three people with close family ties

It is "natural" that we love our family members
Parricide obviously violates such a nature
"Reasons" of murder provided by Pierre was insufficient to override such a nature
If family love and affection is considered to be “natural”, then killing one’s mother is obviously against nature
c. Morality based on inter-personal fairness
Even though his mother/sister/brother might be guilty, but is such “guilt” bad enough to deserve murder to rectify it?
Does Pierre thinks that it is fair?
Was the murder actually fair?
He believes they are guilty: "
sister, guilty maybe in some sort" (113)

Tribulation by his mother murder

Later he felt regretful and ashamed, thought himself was guilty too

Conflicting subjective mind: Justified his murder and thought it was glorious to kill, but then thought he was a "monster"

(i) What was the mother guilty of/ wrongful acts?

o Public humiliation and slander

o Exploited his father's financial resources

o Quarrels with family members

 Starving her children to death (and starve her)

 Adultery with another woman

 He was a wastrel and a lewd person

 Made father pay her debt

 Or urged father to do work for her

 Refused to live together with his father - a guilt?

 Always had quarrels and scolded father

 Quarrel with her mother and even struck her

 Ordered sister Victoire never to obey grandmother

 Paternal grandmother was forbidden to enter her house

(ii) Does that justify murder?
o Ruined the family - monetary and psychologically

o Posed any threat to life?

o Choosing to murder was too radical and disproportionate

o The stance is more shaky in respect of the siblings

Sister's "guilt" was directed by her mother
Brother was "innocent", did nothing to cause distress
Foucault, Michel.
The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge.
(London: Penguin Publishing, 1998).

Berman, Douglas. “Aesthetic Investigations and Foucauldian Practices”
Concentric: Studies in English LIterature and Linguistics
28.1 (January 2002): 63-80.

Bentham, Jeremy.
A Fragment on Government: Being an Examination of What Is Delivered, on the Subject of Government in General, in the Introduction to Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries. with a Pref., in Which Is Given a Critique on the Work at Large.
(London: T. Payne., 1776)

Marcus Tullius Cicero,
De re publica, De legibus
, edited by Clinton Walker Keyes (Harvard University Press, 1943).

Copleston, Frederick.
History of Philosophy
. (Paulist Press, 1947).

All, W. H. O. “Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.” (1995).

American Jounal Psychiatry
, 1844-1994 151.6 (1994): 97.

Lichtman, Richard. “Social insanity.”
Capitalism Nature Socialism
15.3 (2004): 87-94.

Smith, William French. “Limiting the insanity defense: A rational approach to irrational crimes.” Mo. L. Rev. 47 (1982): 605.

Szasz, Thomas Stephen. Insanity: The idea and its consequences. Syracuse University Press, 1987.

Weihofen, Henry, and Winfred Overholser. “Mental disorder affecting the degree of
a crime.”
Yale LJ
56 (1946): 959.
Similarity and differences
Relationship between them
Both places some kind of guidance/ restraint on one’s behaviour


(i) Sources of restraint

(ii) Punishment for transgressing

social norm, the concept of socialization
The Bible
exclusion, isolation, persecution (perhaps reflected by the law of the particular community and statutory punishment)
the final judgment
Pierre thought of committing suicide but rejected the idea because of fear for God’s judgment
In his memoir, Pierre presented his conflicting view on religion
Justified his act with religion
Somehow KNEW that murder was forbidden by Christianity
Read catechism before his kill

Referred to the example that Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross to save mankind, drawing parallel between himself and Jesus (106)

Sometimes thought that “God had destined me for this and that I would be executing his justice.” (105)
“I regarded my father as being in the power of mad dogs or barbarians against whom I must take up arms, religion forbade such things, but I disregarded its rules…” (105)
Pierre was a religious man
Went to church, even thought of becoming a priest
In his hiding in the wood he recited prayers to find peace
When he was deciding whether to commit the act he drawn examples from the Bible

Moral values were shaped by Christianity
(sees what God/Bible approves as right)

Sought at first to rely on the madman defence, that God sent him and ordered him to do what he had done, as he was ashamed and could not face the monstrosity of his own act
In his heart he thought that if God has REALLY ordered him to kill his victims, it would be justified

Interpretation affected by own morals
His own morals (that his father’s peace of mind is more important than lives of his victims, that a son should avenge for his father’s misery, etc.) also shaped the way he interpreted the Bible
Does religion shape moral values, or the other way round?

Had Pierre maintained the “God’s order” argument, he could have raised the

insanity defence
Underlying rationales for insanity defence
Potential issues
People should only be punished by law if they are capable of regulating their behavior according to law

Insane people lack the ability to understand or control their behavior

lie outside of the law, not appropriate subjects

Legal flexibility should be allowed to accommodate difference among members of society

Reflected in the imposition of guilt/ harshness of punishment

Sympathy to people suffering from mental illnesses?

Equality before the law
How can insane people, being a member of the society, be treated more leniently than others before law?
Fair to hold insane person responsible for acts they have committed but do not understand?

Is the exception more beneficial to society?
Consider: the family of a victim murdered by an insane person would be left without the chance of vindication

Legal flexibility may be desirable, but so is legal certainty!
Consider: the legal concept of “insanity” has changed over time, and it certainly will with increasing medical understanding and changing social views of mental illness
loose formulation may cause greater injustice to victims

The gruesome murder cannot be said to be “a work of art”.
The narrative structure of the memoir is messy.
The language is plain and bland.
Why would Foucault find it “beautiful”?

( aesthetic quality )

The murder resembled a grand religious ceremony.

Pierre insisted on wearing his Sunday clothes.

To a certain extent, he reminded us of a priest who was about to destroy the evil power.

The solemnity and calmness expressed by Pierre added an artistic quality to the murder.

The memoir signifies a human being’s ceaseless effort in challening the power structure of our world.

Foucault (1998): “power is everywhere and from everywhere”; “there is a metapower that pervades the society”.
Power in Pierre’s world:

His mother: constantly dominating his life.
Conventional morality: telling Pierre what not to do.
Law: regulates people’s behaviours with the power to punish.
The murder of his mother, and his seemingly rational and logical reasoning challenge our existing concept of morality and law.

His complete disregard of social and legal rules signifies his courage and boldness in challenging our power structure.

This “boldness” is “beautiful”.

In the West, great works of art are always those that are bold enough to challenge the traditions, e.g. Jackson Pollock and Picasso.

Pierre’s insistence on the need to immortalise oneself makes his memoir “beautiful”.

He compared himself with tragic heroes
and Jesus Christ!

He believed that by murdering his mother and thereby freeing his father, he would be able to go beyond the physical world and become “immortal”.

A utopian concept: an ideal world that is beyond the reach of our existing power structure.

In “Aesthetic Investigations and Foucauldian Practices” by Professor Douglas Berman (2002):

The memoir “questions the dominant structure of thought, and reveals an immeasurable excess of truth”.

The memoir challenges the “foundational premises” of our existing society, and therefore possesses an aesthetic quality.
The memoir captures the various specturms of humanity
Selflessness and nobility: a person willing to sacrifice everything just to save his father.
Brutality and ruthlessness: a complete lack of sympathy or mercy.

The memoir shows the dichotomy in human nature

Darkness v.s. Goodness
Hatred v.s. Love
Selfishness v.s.Selflessness

The memoir is “beautiful” because it demonstrates the complexity of humanity.

Come on!
Group A
(pre-selected by D)

D was
Group B
(pre-selected by P)
(i) Psychiatrists
Difficult to distinguish between
to control one’s conduct and
to control
(deliberate hide of capacity to control)
(ii) Defendants
Invitation to Ds to sift the pool of available psychiatrists for the purpose of avoiding punishment
(iii) Judge & Jury
pre-selected contradicting
expert witnesses

confuse the judges and juries who are not medical experts
Victoire Brion
Pierre-Margrin Riviere
Hostile Relationship
Affectionate relationship

Division of the 2 Houses
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