Saturday, November 03, 2018

'As Though a Huge Animal Had Retched'

Seventy-four years ago today George Orwell in his “As I Please” column for the Tribune suggested publication of an anthology devoted to descriptions of executions: “There must be hundreds of them scattered through literature, and—for a reason I think I can guess—they must be far better written on average than battle pieces.” He’s correct. We would like to think that a writer witnessing the intentional, state-sanctioned killing of a human being, guilty or otherwise, would strive to write as precisely and coolly as his gifts permitted, and keep himself largely out of the picture. He suggests a number of obvious entries, from Plato to Thackeray, Dickens, Zola and Kipling. It’s “Danny Deever,” by the way, not “Danny Beever,” which sounds like the name of a minor character in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Perhaps Orwell was unfamiliar with Ivan Turgenev’s rare venture into journalism, “The Execution of Troppmann,” written and published in 1870. Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was a French killer born in 1848 and convicted of butchering eight people, including a woman and her five children. Turgenev was invited to the Paris spectacle by Flaubert’s friend Maxime Du Camp, an adamant opponent of capital punishment. Troppmann was guillotined on Jan. 19, 1870. At the critical moment Turgenev turned his head. He wisely described the sound not the sight of the beheading, which illustrates how a moral decision can be turned into an artistic one:

“. . . a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile . . . Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud . . . just as though a huge animal had retched. I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. . . . None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder.”

In a letter to his friend Pavel Annenkov, Turgenev wrote: “I shall not forget that dreadful night when I supped full of horrors and acquired a permanent aversion for capital punishment in general and the way it is carried out in France in particular.” Turgenev’s “pompous and fastidious article” enraged Dostoevsky, who already detested the author of Fathers and Sons.
[“The Execution of Troppmann” is collected in Ivan Turgenev: Literary Reminiscences and Autobiographical Fragments (trans. David Magarshack; ed. Edmund Wilson, 1958).]

No comments: