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6027Bjørneboe on the Death Penalty

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  • Tarjei Straume
    Jul 31, 2004
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      Joe Martin:
      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. [1]

      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)

      Posted to Anthroposophy Tomorrow by