Not a few of us in New York have been witness to killings—and killings, mind you, of the innocent; many of us live with the expectation of seeing such things. But one thing few of us expect to see, and that is someone found guilty of murder, of murder most brutal, murder most foul, being taken to the gas chamber or to the chair. No, that we are not supposed to see, not in newspaper photos and not on live television. The sight might be just too uncivilizing. And thus it is that the exclamation, “But for the grace of God”—elicited from Goethe by a public execution—is almost never heard from any of us, or completed by his “there go I,” which linked a criminal’s fate with his.
However, the poet’s remark may again take on life for us as the result, indeed, of a killing here last summer, in mid-July.
The victim was a young actor, Richard Adan, said to be promising; the accused murderer, also said to be promising, that is, as an author, was recently arrested in Louisiana and brought to New York for trial. He is one Jack Henry Abbott, granted a conditional release from a maximum-security prison in Utah on June 5, 1981, mainly through the intervention of Norman Mailer. The latter had been urging Abbott’s parole, and was supported in this effort by the New York Review of Books’ co-editor, Robert Silvers; by Erroll McDonald, an editor at Random House; and also by the literary agent, Scott Meredith. Abbott’s release was obtained on the ground that he is an important literary talent. As evidence, there was his book, In the Belly of the Beast1 (the title is said to be Mailer’s), which was about to come off the press.
The confusion of literary, legal, and moral values in the whole affair is dramatized by the following sequence of events: the killing for which Abbott has been arrested was followed only a few hours later by the appearance in the New York Times Book Review of a most favorable review of his book. The reviewer, Terrence Des Pres, hailed In the Belly of the Beast as “. . . awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous. . . .” “Its impact,” he went on, “is indelible.” As to the crime, it was summarized in M.A. Farber’s account in the New York Times for August 17, 1981. Farber wrote:
At 5 a.m., on July 18, Mr. Abbott was eating in the all-night Binibon Restaurant at Second Avenue and East Fifth Street . . . when a 22-year-old part-time waiter refused him permission to use the toilet, saying it was restricted to employees. Mr. Abbott apparently asked him to step outside. Within a minute the waiter, who had recently married and had a promising career as an actor, was dead of a single knife wound to the heart, and Mr. Abbott had fled.
After the killing, few of those who helped launch Abbott’s minuscule literary career were willing to talk to the press. Silvers was out of town, McDonald was unresponsive. Some of us found their behavior in this regard quite like the gestures of self-concealment before the camera employed by persons likely to end up in jail. But after a number of attacks in the press, Robert Silvers did concede, to a New York Times writer on cultural affairs, that he was in a state of despair over the killing. To be sure, the one principally targeted was Norman Mailer, and he, who never before shrank from publicity, has been trying to fend it off. He was observed trundling his wife, Norris Church, and his children back and forth between his summer home in Provincetown and his place in Brooklyn Heights, surrounded by hired guards to protect him and his from anyone who might try to interrogate them, and also perhaps from Abbott himself or anyone who might feel impelled to avenge Richard Adan’s death. Yes, indeed, one can imagine quite a few of Mailer’s contemporaries observing the writer’s exits from Brooklyn and Provincetown, each noting his preoccupation with security, each saying the same thing, though in his own accents, but with eyes fixed on “Norman.” For the values that made Mailer do as he did, and believe what he doubtless believes, are also active in the minds of many another now in the writer’s trade. “But for the grace of God. . . .” Which of us, observing Mailer, would not have completed that phrase with the admission, at once a confession and a boast, “. . . there go I”?
I can think of one writer, still in a way our contemporary, who would not have admitted to any joint culpability with Mailer: the late Ernest Hemingway. He happens to be the very writer Mailer chose to emulate. Can one answer fairly for a man not now among the living? Still, let me say this: Hemingway could never have identified himself with Mailer in this affair. A much less generous man than Mailer, Hemingway would probably never have lent a hand in getting Jack Henry Abbott out of jail. I do not think Hemingway would have been impressed by Abbott’s writings, as Norman Mailer was, and I do not think Hemingway would have chosen, from all those who wanted to make a hero of him, the kind of left-wing literary friends Mailer picked as the admirers he admires. And this must be said, too: Hemingway did not set the kind of value on literary ability (of which Abbott has, in my opinion, a minimal amount) that Mailer and his publishing friends evidently do.
I have looked through Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, and I for one find it without interest, and Abbott a writer of few literary gifts. His book is, in fact, a fraud on the public, except, perhaps, insofar as it provides information (some of it certainly false) about Abbott himself and the time he spent in prison.
I say the book is a fraud. It is probably wrong even to call it a book, since it consists merely of passages from letters written by Abbott to Mailer, and these passages are made up of nothing but opinions, some of them violent, and certain descriptions of events, unauthenticated, many of them false. There is no continuing narrative here, and no lyricism of either language or event. Possibly such a collection of opinions (forcefully expressed, in some instances), facts, true or false, and also what I would call “personal remarks,” could have had a certain interest if Abbott had already written some other work which had caught our attention. In the Belly of the Beast would then have represented some possibly illuminating data about an already known author. But it is only for the data contained in Abbott’s book and, of course, the crime which followed its publication, that the author is known at all.
It will be recalled that Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus defines sentimentality in Ulysses as the desire to enjoy without having incurred the immense debtorship of a thing done. Such sentimentality is not to be attached to Jack Henry Abbott; it belongs entirely to those who brought him from prison on the grounds of his literary gifts. No doubt his supporters wanted him to be sentimental too, which he probably is not, and to enjoy literary acclaim as they hoped to enjoy having won this for him, without his having had to incur any sort of debtor-ship. For In the Belly of the Beast is in no sense “a thing done.”
Much of what we read these days is poorly written; so some may say that Abbott’s book is not so uninteresting. But to say merely that is hardly to say that Abbott is a literary talent. And let us now ask this question: what makes a piece of writing interesting? I believe that Leibniz said it forever: continuity of perception. Now Abbott’s book is made up of scraps; this can hardly be held against him, seeing that the work was put together of passages culled from letters he wrote to Norman Mailer at different times. But can we credit Abbott with any great perceptiveness? The author of In the Belly of the Beast sees little for the first time that has not already been seen by many another. When, for instance, he tells us that a prisoner who happens to be big is often encouraged to run the other prisoners’ lives, this is hardly information we owe to him alone. And when he writes that big prisoners, used in this way by the wardens, are “usually fools who have been led (like sheep to the slaughter) to believe that because they can overpower with their hands the average hand everyone will obey them,” he is conveying in typically stale phrases nothing that was freshly seen.
To be sure, Abbott is an intelligent man. Educated, he might have made some kind of ideologist, or even a social scientist—he does have a certain gift for generalization. Also he has read widely, and it is quite extraordinary how much. (I must note here that he does not give our prison system credit for allowing him to read so extensively.) He has looked into the works of contemporary writers like Solzhenitsyn, Mailer, John Cheever, and also into some of the writings of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Marx, Sartre, Camus. Surprisingly enough, he does not once mention the name of Jean Genet. How is it, one wonders, that having read Camus and Sartre, and very probably Sartre on Genet, he does not once refer to the French genius and celebrant of crime? If he has not in fact read Genet, it is indeed very strange, for he seems to have read everything else that has been widely read during the last two decades. Surely he must have read something about Genet, a writer whom, in any case, Norman Mailer himself, and the other literary men with him in this affair, have certainly read.
Now the life and career of Genet, who was saved from a sentence of life imprisonment by the intervention of the Parisian writers and intellectuals, notably Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, compare most interestingly with the life (so far) of Jack Henry Abbott and his literary career (to this date). Genet has told us of all his felonies and affirmed them, also criminal behavior generally. He has expressed erotic feelings and, what is more, even love, both for criminals and for members of the police. He has described how he betrayed to the police someone who trusted him, and also the thrill he had in doing this, calling “beautiful” the generally despised act of betraying a trust. As he does not hate the police, who excite him sexually, even as he claims crime does (he says he is “hot” for both), so he does not hate the prisons of France (in his time much more severe than ours). I must add that he does not hate the convicts’ garb, the stripes of which he compares to the petals of a flower.
Norman Mailer has written in his introduction to Abbott’s book that a maximum-security prison is our modern image of hell. Genet, who regretted the elimination of Devil’s Island from the French prison system, regards maximum-security jails as a kind of heaven. In such enclosures, one can perhaps pick an imaginary rose from the imaginary wreath garlanding some male criminal whose heroic murders have earned him a date with the executioner. Genet regards even an execution as erotic. Now Abbott, no matter what he writes of, seems to be without any kind of erotic interest. Even the sexual acts he describes are without any benefit of loving intent. He seems to me to be as unsexed as the murderous Lady Macbeth says she desires to be in her great declamation. It is true that Abbott does not strike one as having a criminal mind, except for his rather constant lying; but his lies seem most like those told by junkies, who are spontaneous, not purposeful, in their transformations of the truth.
One thing Abbott has lied about is the time he spent in solitary confinement: it was less than he has claimed. But I do sense a kind of psychological truth in his account here—if not fidelity to fact. Abbott, with his total lack of erotic interest in anyone, his felt separateness from everyone, is permanently in a kind of solitary confinement, decreed by what is deepest in his own character. Should he then have been released from prison in Utah last June? On this matter the prison authorities were correct in their reluctance, and the intellectuals who urged his release quite wrong.
I am reminded, thinking of Abbott, of a story told me about Jean Genet. In Paris, in 1950, Michel Leiris, a writer associated with the Surrealists and committed to many of their general ideas, was describing a soirée to which he had been invited by Jean-Paul Sartre, to meet Genet and to discuss with him and other writers how to win a pardon for Genet from the President of the Republic. Most of the writers assembled there had by this time read Genet’s play, The Maids, and what is probably his finest novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. When Genet appeared they all told him they were convinced of his genius and that the evening would be occupied for the most part with the discussion of how to keep him out of jail. Genet had already had some twenty-eight convictions, and even one more conviction, according to the laws of France, could have meant a sentence of life imprisonment for him. It was to circumvent French law in this regard, so that Genet could be free for yet another felony, without having to go to prison for life, that the elite of literary Paris had come to the soirée.
Now everything went smoothly until, as Leiris told me, he tried to clear his conscience on one minor matter still troubling him. “Monsieur,” he said to Genet, “I promise you I am not going to say one word against any of the felonies you say you have been so thrilled to commit. . . . No, not one word. . . . So, please, do not be offended if I raise just one point of protest. It was elementary when we were at school that one did not inform on another boy. It was a point of honor with us when we were young, and a point I still hold to. So I cannot congratulate you on your praise for the act of informing on a pal, and to the police. I do not think such acts deserving of praise. I am indeed embarrassed to say this, but I do not think one who betrays a pal can be called morally beautiful.” There was a long silence, and everyone waited for Genet’s reply. Finally he got to his feet and said he had to leave. Then he shook hands with everyone there, excepting only Leiris. Standing over him, but not extending his hand, Genet said, in a periodic sentence which Leiris claimed to have remembered exactly, so struck was he by its affected and flowery rhetoric: “I realize you found it possible to question what is not to be questioned, my moral character; you must realize now that I in my turn find it quite impossible to give you my hand in friendship.”
In this scene, so much becomes clear: the unwillingness of our writers and intellectuals to find crime or criminals objectionable, and the embarrassment of one of our contemporaries in protesting against calling beautiful such an act as the act of betrayal. Would not most of the writers assembled at that soirée in Paris have been more than willing to lend a hand in getting Jack Henry Abbott out of prison?
But what could make our own writers want to get him out of prison? Do we really want prisoners to escape punishment? Many of us argued for lifting the death penalty. Why? What value supported our bias against it? Even a radical like Walter Benjamin has noted that an attack on the death penalty may be rightly regarded as an attack on the justice system itself. He wrote: “. . . in the exercise of violence over life and death, more than in any other legal act, the law reaffirms itself.”
It is the finality of the death penalty that disturbs a modern sensibility, its implacability. We cannot go back on the act of execution. We cannot restore the dead to life. And we tend to be too skeptical to believe in any judgment the result of which is irreversible. We have become accustomed to believing—our general style of life engenders and sustains such belief—that all implacable values are false. No doubt this view is basic to the failure of modern writers to think or to write in genuinely tragic terms. Goethe expressed what is the view of most of us with the greatest candor when he connected his own inner resistance to the values of tragedy with his tendency to mediate all issues, and to soften conflicts rather than push them to extremes. I suggest that the same views which make us unable to judge tragically make us also unable to judge. We seem to want the convict to enjoy a better life, inside or outside our prisons. We do not want to be implacable.
But are implacable values necessarily false? Are they indeed? If not, then perhaps we have been superficial in understanding our own beliefs. Let us try to test this matter and try to believe, for just one moment, the very contrary proposition (assuming what we believe are, in fact, propositions). Perhaps implacable values can be true and, in some instances, must be held even by us.
Suppose we look at the understanding of these matters in the dramatic handling of them by Victor Hugo. In his novel, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a convict just released from service on a prison galley to which he has been confined for some nineteen years (he was originally sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread), is unable to obtain food or lodging in the town of Digne because of his yellow carte d’identité which marks him as a former convict and dangerous. Hungry and in need of rest, he is given supper and shelter for the night by the Bishop of Digne, and Valjean repays the generosity of the Bishop that very night by stealing his silver candlesticks. Valjean is caught by the police, brought back to the Bishop, who in a gesture of Christian mercy denies the candlesticks were stolen, insists he gave them freely to Valjean, and asks the police to set the former convict free. When Valjean tries to thank him, the Bishop responds in a surprising style, one of a most demanding sternness. He says to Valjean, “I have purchased your soul for God.” And Valjean knows that from then on he has no choice but to help others, even at his own expense, that he is not free at all, but bound by his deepest feelings, because of the Bishop’s merciful action, to behave Christianly to others. Here is the beginning of Jean Valjean’s rehabilitation, which can also be described as his entering into yet another imprisonment to which he gives his full consent. Moreover, the values he now accepts are as implacable in their hold on him as the law in its hold on the police inspector Javert, who, having sought Valjean and finally found him out, commits suicide rather than arrest him. The implacable Javert is finally no more implacable than the rule of good action imposed on Jean Valjean by the Bishop of Digne.
Let us imagine a Bishop of Digne with ideals similar to those of the literary world today. Would he have tried to bind Jean Valjean to any act of goodness? He would have thought that rehabilitation means finding occasions to do good of one’s own free will. Perhaps then he would have tried to discover whether Jean Valjean had any literary ability, perhaps secret even from him. After all, he had a story to tell about life on a prison galley. Maybe he could dictate, if someone were found to take his story down, something about his tragic encounter with the law. There was already a public in France for exposure of the conditions under which convicts toiled. Perhaps Jean Valjean, having learned to write, could write his memoirs of evenings under light provided by candles in the great silver candlesticks he had originally stolen from the Bishop. Perhaps he could win the French public in this way to support better penal institutions.
Let us question our imaginary Bishop of Digne: “Tell us this, Your Eminence. How was Jean Valjean able to write his memoirs, how was he able to rehabilitate himself morally?” The answer: “By his own efforts. He was helped, to be sure, by the grace of God.” But without the demand, the implacable demand, made on Valjean by Hugo’s Bishop of Digne, one cannot be sure what Jean Valjean’s future might have been. Rehabilitation may well be impossible—that is what the text of Les Miserables suggests to me—without an implacable demand for goodness.
Certainly this was not the view of Norman Mailer or that of the editor of the New York Review of Books or of the editors of Random House. Clearly, they gave no thought whatever to binding Jack Henry Abbott to good deeds. What a repressive and reprehensible thing that would have been to do! But have not these gentlemen looked with any care into the texts they most certainly read and which we all assume they have understood? Are they not supposed to be authoritative in their views of literature? In any case, the dinner party they gave Jack Henry Abbott just two weeks before Richard Adan’s murder was one in celebration of an author’s success and not at all an occasion to point up moral failure. The novelist Jerzy Kosinski, one of the few writers favored with an invitation to the affair, has told the press something of his own misgivings, which none of the others shared. He wondered: “How could we disregard the twenty-five years of his [Abbott’s] prison, his past which was still his present, and talk about his forthcoming best-sellership, his weekend career as a writer?”
Let us look into another 19th-century work, The Prince of Homburg, by a writer some consider the greatest dramatist in the German language, Heinrich von Kleist. When, in Kleist’s play, the Prince of Homburg is informed by the Elector of Brandenburg that for his disobedience to a battle order (for this disobedience he had been imprisoned) the Prince may himself choose to be executed or set free, he, the Prince, goes over to the implacable and chooses to be executed. Only then does the Elector choose to forgive him and set him free.
That the play’s ending has been found so pleasurable by audiences (it has been called the best in all dramatic literature) indicates the range and depth of Kleist’s thinking. The ending satisfies our felt need for implacable values, and also our desire to dispense with them. All the same—I insist on this point, for here I think there is scarcely room for disagreement—the rehabilitation of the Prince of Homburg, not from crime, of course, but from dishonor, begins with his acceptance of an implacable judgment against his life. I want to suggest, as opposed to what some moderns think, that rehabilitation, in many an instance, may depend on the very sternest kind of judgment.
Why so much misunderstanding, then, of what can after all be understood? And why at just this particular moment of history? One may find an answer to this question in any number of texts. I myself found an answer in a text of Heidegger with the curious title, Who Is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?
According to Heidegger, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the one who predicts the coming of the Superman, and the Superman is described by Zarathustra as the one who will show men how to dispense with the spirit of vengeance. This spirit of vengeance, Nietzsche tells us through Zarathustra, and to our astonishment, has determined what is best in human reflection until now. So how is it that we can now think of dispensing with something which has proved so valuable? As Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s text, we can think of this today because of the fact that we have subjugated the earth in its entirety. We no longer need our old sternness toward nature, and toward others, and the earth itself (hear ye, ecologists!) and all men need protection today from the very spirit which in the past served us humans so well. Hugo described this spirit in his implacable Inspector of Police Javert, of whom he says, “there was in him all the harm that is contained in the good.”
With the coming of the Superman the spirit of vengeance will no longer be necessary or even useful. But the Superman is not yet here, and though the whole of the earth is now subject to our techniques, we are not yet living in a society free from the need for vengeance—in, if you will, a classless society. Change the metaphor for apocalypse from the coming of the Superman to the setting up of a universal classless state at the end of history: whatever the metaphor be, that which it represents is still very far off. On the other hand, our envisagement of a goal (which will certainly not be reached step by step) tends to make us believe that what has so far proved indispensable can be dispensed with at last, at least in part. We feel so close to our goal that we tend to think of the policeless state we do not now have as indicating at least that many fewer police are necessary at the moment—even as crime mounts.
But let us remember that it is the spirit of vengeance which has ruled our laws and decreed punishment for crime. It is not so much the will to deter crime as the will to avenge it that is expressed in what are called correctional institutions. Hegel, whose views on punishment are seldom cited nowadays (but have been forcefully restated by Nicolai Hartmann), held that the function of punishment is not to prevent other crimes, or to restore the one guilty of crime to virtue, but to restore the state, injured by a criminal act, to health. Every crime which goes unpunished weakens the state; the punishment of a criminal for his crime makes the state stronger. When the criminal, in taking a human life, treats the state as nothing, the state becomes indeed nothing until it retaliates, and treats the criminal as nothing, by taking his life. In this way his crime is annulled.
Because we foresee the end of our own society—however far off that end lies in time—we tend to be indulgent of crime and criminals. Saint Paul noted that the coming of Christ, who returned grace for sinning, led many to sin in order that grace might abound. And this particular motivation for sin was repeated in the Jewish messianic movements of the 17th and 18th centuries among the followers of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. The readiness of the good and morally excellent to do what was morally improper and even downright evil became in these movements, as Gershom Scholem has described them, a kind of proof that the end was at hand. By committing crimes, men believed they were doing nothing less than prophesying—and prophesying nothing less than the end of crime.
The hubris induced by nearness to the end—of philosophy, of the subject and the object, of history, of capitalism, of the state: however one chooses to represent the final condition—the sense of this final state and the arrogance induced by our nearness to it, is surely a motivating factor in the kinds of behavior I have dealt with. We all feel some nearness to the end—at least to a certain extent. We cannot prevent ourselves from being influenced, at least in part, by the knowledge we have that the present state of things is not a lasting one, and will come to a close, and we often confuse future closure with present expectancy. We probably can only defend ourselves against the consequences of our own view of the future by regularly noting that what we envisage as to come is not at all continuous with what lies around us now. But even the most hard-headed of us, looking into the distance of future time, cannot but be affected by what he has already positioned there.
So it may be that very few nowadays can altogether dissociate themselves from the kind of vision which impelled Norman Mailer and his friends to back a criminal. They judged obsolete the implacability of our prison system. But the released prisoner, Jack Henry Abbott, was the one who proved to be implacable. Surely there is a lesson for all of us in this.
1 Random House, 166 pp., $11.95.