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Posts Tagged ‘prison’

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:

This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.

The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. Read More »

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.

stlukeshomeforlunatics

Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. Read More »

Suffering Is One Very Long Moment

December 25, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas, ca. 1893.

How Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence changed him.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.

The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”

By 1889, Wilde’s judgments about prison had become less snobbish, if no less flippant. Reviewing a volume of poetry by Wilfred Blunt “composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol,” he agreed with the book’s author that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” And yet the idea that prison was basically common, a strengthening exercise for the lower classes, still attracted him as a dark, wicked opportunity to conflate the awful with the trivial. As late as 1894, he could have the mischievous, debt-ridden Algernon insist midway through The Importance of Being Earnest that “I am really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” When Algernon hears from a threatening solicitor that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” he answers indignantly: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Read More >> 

Extreme Remedies

December 7, 2015 | by

George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, forty years later.

George Jackson

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on the French revolutionary Madame Roland, here.

On August 21, 1971, George Jackson pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin, the notoriously racist maximum-security prison to which he’d recently been relocated. When the news broke that he’d freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom, it provoked a strange mixture of shock, anger, revulsion, and grief. Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor at Bantam, would later confess to a reporter how relieved he was that he hadn’t followed through on his offer to help the younger man escape. Bob Dylan wrote a protest song in Jackson’s praise. (“He wouldn’t take shit from no one / He wouldn’t bow down or kneel / Authorities they hated him / Because he was just too real.”) Jackson’s attorney, Stephen Bingham, under suspicion of having smuggled in the escape weapon, fled the country for thirteen years. Huey Newton gave Jackson a long, effusive eulogy (“he lived the life that we must praise”). A group of Black Panthers imprisoned in Folsom advised his parents to “take pride in the fact that you have a large strong family of budding warriors.”

Since the 1970 publication of Soledad Brother, his ferocious, disquieting collection of letters from prison, Jackson had been an international celebrity. In his introduction to the book’s first printing, Jean Genet insisted that the collection “must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Abdellatif Laâbi read the letters admiringly during his own imprisonment; they let “one follow,” he told his wife in 1975, “the transformation of a man who challenges a new kind of slavery, strips its mechanisms down, and keeps his dignity intact throughout the worst kind of ordeal.” The day before Jackson’s death in 1971, Derrida wrote Genet a long letter worrying that the introduction hadn’t done justice to the dire situation Jackson’s writing was meant to expose. “With the best intentions in the world,” he cautioned, “with the most sincere moral indignation in the face of what, in effect, remains unbearable and inadmissible, one could then lock up again that which one says one wants to liberate.” Read More »

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »

Hatched in Prison, and Other News

November 5, 2015 | by

From Gil Batle’s “Jargon” series: carved eggs alluding to the hidden messages that inmates and their friends and families used to avoid censorship by prison staff monitoring their correspondence.

  • The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
  • When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
  • When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
  • For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
  • Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”

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