6027Bjørneboe on the Death Penalty
- Jul 31, 2004http://home.att.net/~emurer/about/jm-krut.htm
Bjørneboe on the Death Penalty
The executioner's speech in Powderhouse
From Joe Martin, Keeper of the Protocols: The works of Jens Bjørneboe in
the cross-currents of Western literature (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), p
69-72. 1996 by Peter Lang Publishing.
[Jens Bjørneboe's novel Powderhouse is set in La Poudri&1egrave;re,] a
unique mental hospital in the south of France... According to [chief
physician] Lefévre's policy, everyone at La Poudrière has the right to give
lectures on the topic of their choice. In the course of the narrative,
three such lectures are given.....
The second lecture (134-77) is given by the professional executioner
Lacroix, still wearing high bandages about his throat after his recent
suicide attempt. His topic will be execution and executioners"from the
point of view of the executioner," one who has "the same right to respect,
kindness and compassion as all other human creatures have" (134).
What follows, in the text, is a forty-two-page detailed description of the
executioner's trade and art, from the high Middle Ages to our day.
Generally speaking, the techniques described range from the oldest
traditional forms, the chopping block and tortures associated with the
Inquisition, hanging, the guillotine, the firing squad, and finally the
American electric chair. The focus of the lecture, more than anything else,
is on the changing nature of killing by the state, and its effect on those
"men in possession of special qualities" who carry it out.
Once again, Bjørneboe observes some of the same trends as his contemporary
Foucault in Surveiller et punir. They both note that the notion of the
sanctity of the body led to the transformation of public torture, to a
demonstration of atonement "without suffering," carried out coldly with
supposedly scientific and painless methods, in secluded spaces which shroud
the event in an air of mystery for the modern public. Whereas Foucault
seems to acknowledge a certain increasing humanenesscoupled,
paradoxically, with growing authoritarianismin disciplining and punishing,
Bjørneboe's standpoint is that this is only a myth which the new methods of
carrying out and staging executions are designed to promote. 
From the point of view or the executioner/lecturer, the executioner has
always been an artist observed by a public of hypocrites. "To take the life
of another human being without pain and brutality, is he not an artist?"
But my colleagues are unfortunately far from artists of this dimension.
Sentimentality and weakness are incompatible with the executioner's work,
as with that of a great violinist. Or the performance of a great pianist.
Not to mention the profession of authors and poets: here everything is
coolness, awareness and precision. (137)
A change in public taste at the end of the 1700s made the work of an
executioner dangerous, and "a pianist who loses his nerve and self-control
will hardly be trampled to death by a mob, such as happened many a time in
the era of public executions" (137). It was the public nature of the
spectacle which caused the loss of nerve, the half successful first
attempts by executioners in the procedures, the frequent disasters.
The great "houses" or dynasties of European executionersthe Langs, the
Deiblers, the Flurats, the Deussersare here given the chance to have their
story told. Society had forced the burden upon them. There seemed to be no
escape from the hereditary nature of the work, nor from the ostracism of
the community which required that it be done. In their saga, the society
they serve is in fact their nemesis. The henchmen become victims, dionysian
performers in a great repeating ritual, the sacred mission of which
prescribes that they must carry the responsibility of society's need to
kill on their shoulders. They are figures at the same time sacred and
accursed. A curious aspect of Bjoslash;rneboe's thinking here is that it is
the executioners who become simultaneously holy and accursed figures, the
sacred outcastslike the pharmakos or scapegoatthat in antiquity were
usually the victims of the ax themselves. (2)
It is in 1793 during the Great Revolutionwhen the doors to the Age of
Reason and to increased humanitarianism should have been thrown open by the
philosophies of humanism that the guillotine is introduced as a serious
innovation: "The quick, painless, and one hundred percent effective
execution" (145). Other methods were introduced with the same ideas in
mind, and in this way Europe entered the age of the mass execution. These
passages exemplify the way Bjørneboe is constantly on the lookout for ways
in which social innovations can demarcate new "ages" in history. Thus, the
chapters of this volume, such as this one devoted to Lacroix's lecture, use
the calendar of the French Revolution: it is dated 24. prairial, year 176.
The lecturer now puts forth bountiful evidence to counter the claims of the
exponents of these technological innovations. Scientific investigations and
long experience invalidate the claims of the period. The evidence: life is
observed in amputated heads by reputable scientific authorities; the
frequent need to repeat the prolonged shock or "burning" in the American
electric chair, and the truth about why autopsies are held immediately
after the procedure; the remarkable record of fallibility with firing
squads. All of this is explored with a cool directness....
Rolling off a list of names of executioners who ended on the scaffold
themselves, the lecturer turns to the modern myth of the social function of
executions (148). Remarking that "no one knew better than these men what
kind of horror is involved in an execution," he addresses the theory of the
general preventative effect of capital punishment. For who should fear the
scaffold more than men who have carried out thousands of executions? "What
deterring effect has it had? None." He continues: "The amputated bodies of
the executed executioners are the best historical and psychological
evidence against the punishment's general-preventative effect" (148).
On the other side of the coin are the accounts of executioners who have
passed sentenceand carried it outagainst themselves, in Germany, England
and America. Finishing his long compilation of accounts the lecture asks a
question on behalf of the executioners: "Who has turned us into suicides,
ladies and gentlemen?" (175).
Lacroix's long lecture is a segment which could well be the most potent
literary case to be made against capital punishment in any language, and
this might be said to apply as well to Powderhouse as a whole.
Foucault writes of the late 1700s and early 1800s:
Beneath the humanization of the penalties, what one finds are all those
rules that authorize, or rather demand, "leniency," as a calculated economy
of the power to punish. But they also provoke a shift in the point of
application of this power: it is no longer the body, with the ritual play
of excessive pains, spectacular brandings in the ritual of the public
execution; it is the mind or rather a play of representations and signs
circulating discreetly but necessarily and evidently in the minds of all.
It is no longer the body, but the soul, said Mably. And we see very clearly
what he meant by the term: the correlative of a technique of power. Old
"anatomies" of punishment are abandoned. (Discipline and Punish, 101) Back
2. Once again, Bjørneboe touches on some crucial points that will be
elucidated later by René Girard in La Violence et le Sacreacute;.
Interestingly, Girard's description of the pharmakos as a scapegoat figure
matches Bjørneboe's description of the role of the executioner point by point:
On the one hand he is a woebegone figure, an object of scorn who is also
weighed down by guilt: a butt for all sorts of gibes, insults, and of
course, outbursts of violence. On the other hand, we find him surrounded by
a quasi-religious aura of veneration; he as become a sort of cult object. (96)
He adds, in a passage that echoes Bjørneboe's idea of the executioner from
the age of the enlightenment on:
The word pharmakon in classical Greek means both poison and the antidote
for poison, both sickness and curein short, any substance capable of
perpetrating a very good or very bad action.... The pharmakon is thus a
magic drug or a volatile elixir, whose administration had best be left by
ordinary men in the hands of those who enjoy special knowledge and
exceptional powerspriests, magicians, shamans, doctors and so on. (95)
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