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The Body in the Library

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I’d barely hit the button to publish yesterday’s post when it suddenly hit me–a Romantic sensibility might be behind attraction to various kinds of revolutionary violence, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary to an attraction to violence per se.   Or at least, one needn’t be a Romantic to find something vaguely exhilarating at being in close proximity to somebdy who has done murder.   Bookishness alone seems to be enough of an impetus to that.

Let me try to unwind this a little, since it’s probably confusing.  First,  I’d probably note that Romantics come in right wing as well as left wing versions.  National Socialism was a Romantic movement, as was Mussolini’s brand of Fascism, and most fascisms now, as were virtually all forms of Communism, no matter how hard they tried to portray themselves as “scientific.”  I think you have to have a Romantic sensibility to hunger ater that kind of violence, or to hunger after a vicarious experience of it.

But if you leave the realm of politics and look into the relationships between writers and individual murderers, it’s evident in no time that political orientations matters not at all to the disease. 

And it is a disease, I think.  Robert and Sarahartburn would probably call it original sin.  Signmund Freud would have called it the death wish.   There’s no reason why all of these things couldn’t be true at the same time.  Logic wouldn’t argue against it.

The death wish, however, seems to me to indicate something more like the odd attraction that suicide has for so many people, and the need so many others have to concentrate their fight for “rights” on those rights that kill things–abortion, “assisted suicide,” active euthanasia.  I’ve read a number of arguments by people who claim that it is a contradiction for someone to be both opposed to legal abortion and in favor of the death penalty, but see just as much contradiction in people who oppose the death penalty while at the same time championing the “choice” of getting the doctor to kill people because they’ve become too old and sick.  And if the people in the second camp honestly believe doctors, given the option, will only kill those people who ask for it, they’re too naive to be allowed to vote.

That said, the phenomenon that is the writer entralled by the murderer is an old one, and it occurs across the political and moral spectrum.   Norman Mailer had Jack Henry Abbot, but William F. Buckley, Jr. had a murderer of his own, and close to the same time, with much the same story.  I’ve spent a long time over the last twenty-four hours trying to find the Buckley case on Google, but I’ve come up blank.  I remember it, though, when it happened, and for an odd reason.

The most famous case of a writer attracted to a murderer was that of Truman Capote and the Dick and Perry not ready for prime time burglars who murdered the Clutter family in Kansas.  It wasn’t much of a crime.  It lacked both intelligence and originality.   It wasn’t even particulary brutal compared to the kind of things we now hear about on a regular basis.

On the other hand, Capote didn’t fool himself for a minute.  Dick and Perry were guilty.   He knew they were guilty.  He was fascinated by them and only cared to write about them and to write well.  There are people who say they ruined him, and other people who say the book, In Cold Blood, ruined him.  I’ve always thought Capote ruined himself, but that’s another issue.

In the cases of Buckley and Mailer, however, we have writers not only fascinated by murderers but utterly open to being conned, at least on the conscious level.  Mailer somehow decided that his murderer, Jack Henry Abbott, couldn’t really be a violent man because he wrote well.  He spent a considerable amount of his time, energy and prestige in the effort to get Abbott–an habitual criminal with a brutal streak who had spent almost all his life in prison and already killed one person–out on parole and into the literary life Mailer thought he was suited for.

In a way this was Mailer’s second murderer. His first, Gary Gilmore, was the subject of his book The Executioner’s Song, and it was during the writing of that book that Mailer ran across Abbott.  Abbott’s story was simple.  The murder he’d committed was a case of self defense, and everything else he’d done–and there was a lot of it–was just bad breaks and force of circumstances.

I’m depraved onna count of I’m deprived.

You’d think Mailer would know better.  What is it about writers that we always seem to think that anybody who writes well cannot be deeply and innately criminal?  Mailer helped Abbott get his first book published,  In  The Belly of the Beat, and it’s a very decent book that led to two more.  The first of those two was another memoir, about his return to prison.  The second was a book about what prisone do to prisoners.

But first, Abbott had to do something to get himself sent back to jail, and he didn’t just fail to report to his parole officer.   Instead, less than six weeks after his release to a halfway house set up by  Mailer himself, Abbot got a young writer named Richard Adan in an alley and stabbed him to death.

I wish I could find the particulars on the case Buckley involved himself in, because it was in some ways even more classic.  I do remember that the man was on death row when he wrote Buckley claiming to have been unjustly convicted and asking for help in getting off death row.  There must have been something in the way the man expressed himself, because Buckley took a personal interest, researched the crime, and then began to lobby to insure that the man was not executed. 

I read one of Buckley’s own accounts of this incident, and what I remember is that he asked Truman Capote  if  Capote thought the man was guilty.  Well, Capote said, they usually are.

And this lead to the outrage that I remember so well, to Buckley saying that this exchange proved that Capote was utterly morally bankrupt.  I remember it because, at the time I read it, I thought Capote had a point.  They are usually guilty.   And this one was, too, as it came out in the long run.

It’s like I said yesterday–I wonder what it is that has made so many bookish people, right wing and left wing, liberal and conservative, male and female, so fascinated by violence and so intoxicated by being in the proximity of people who commit it.  Some writers write about violence, of course, and then you can say that the interest is largely professional.  A lot of writers who don’t write about violence take up with criminal types on one level or another, or become attached to famous cases, or decide to do a little side trip into true crime writing when something in the local news hits a nerve.

Maybe I’m just coming back to The  Sorrows of Young Werther, here, and the issue is really the tendency to see artists as “criminals” in relation to “bourgeois” society–the artist is the odd man odd, his sensibility is too fine and his honesty too pure to survive in the vulgar world of business and ambition, he lives forever as a revolutionary of consciousness, if nothing else.  Both  Dostoyevski and Camus write about murderers as artists, after all, and they don’t seem to have been on the same side of anything  politically. 

Maybe politics is a symptom and not an essential here, with writers, with writing, with anything. 

And maybe the proof positive that I’m never going to be a great writer can be found in the fact that, on the few occasions I’ve been presented with people who I know have committed serious violence, all I’ve been interested in has been getting the hell out of the room.

Written by janeh

January 4th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Body in the Library'

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  1. I remember the Buckley case, but if you can’t find it, I won’t waste a good afternoon trying. I DO remember that WFB owned up afterward–pointed out the resemblance of the murder or attempted murder which got his man put back behind bars to the crime he’d previously been convicted of, and admited he (Buckley) had been mistaken in thinking the man wrongly convicted.

    Not much comfort to the new victim to be sure, but in either the Mailer case or yet another similar one, the Great Writer was still protesting about what a shame it was to put so good a writer as the felon back behind bars and desparaging the value to society of the new victim.

    I can understand the fascination of some writers with thugs. The writer is perhaps describing things or prescribing what ought to be done, and here the thug is actually out doing things. Other writers seem fascinated by soldiers or heads of state, but for the sort of writer inclined to sneer at the society which supports him, the thug’s violation of the rules of that society must be an added attraction.

    What is more worrisome is that Mailer comment that no one who wrote that well could really be a murderer, and the follow-ons which implied that even if he were, different rules should apply. This is a special case of the general principle which has been with the West since Kant and in the English-speaking world since the regretable Arnold–the confusion of aesthetic standards with moral ones. It begins with a belief that people who write or paint well, read the right books or listen to the right music are somehow morally superior, which is silly enough, but it keeps degenerating into a conviction that such people are morally superior, and body count be hanged–which is perverse.

    Welcome to the world of a la carte morality.

    And you’re never going to be a Great Writer if you can be understood without a professional interpreter provided by the English Department. There are rules about such things.


    4 Jan 09 at 2:49 pm

  2. Some writers might indeed be seduced by the belief that they can find literary gold in the most unlikely (and violent) outsiders.

    On the other hand, maybe the phenomena is simply part of human nature As far back as you go, people seem to have been fascinated by blood and death. They liked watching people being executed, wrote and sang broadside ballads about murderers and executions, bought leaflets with the deceased’s ‘confession’ and valued things associated with executions, from a bit of the hangman’s rope to the dead man’s hand. Sometimes, of course, they made heros of them, like the Caribbean pirates, supposedly with their democratic lifestyles and freedom from the abuse suffered on legal ships, and the Robin Hoods, and the highwaymen.

    There were always good, logical reasons, too, aside from the interest in the brilliant artist, the diamond in the rough. Such exhibitions were to scare off the other criminals, or demonstrate proper repentance (ballads and confessions often ended with a repentant criminal warning others not to stray from the straight and narrow), or vengeance even. But the constant thread of fascination with extreme violence, especially the most transgressive kind (committed by a woman or child, or against a child) seems to be behind all the excuses. It could certainly be an aspect of original sin – that pleasure in seeing another human die, and in hearing all the details about how exactly the victims died.


    4 Jan 09 at 4:25 pm

  3. When I was in high school, I used to think that adults had exciting, romantic lives. I’ve been an adult for 50 years and now I know that there is a lot of boredom and routine – one gets up, goes to work, comes home, has dinner, watches TV, goes to bed, gets up and repeat and repeat ad nauseum.

    Perhaps the fascination with violence and crime is a vicarious thrill in something that breaks the routine.


    4 Jan 09 at 4:53 pm

  4. I think JD has a valid point. For the most part, my life (and, I suspect, the lives of most people) are filled with the familiar and the routine. We have choices to escape that — kids play X-boxes trying to get to “the next level”; some drivers endanger lives by playing Parnelli Jones on local streets and highways; some drink or do drugs; and some of us read (or watch TV). God forbid I should read a book about a Midwest school teacher! I opt for that which lies safely outside of my world, and so do most people. Women read romance novels to escape . . . OK, let’s not go there. Some enjoy sci-fi, others like westerns, etc. Within the genre, one finds a style of writing that’s pleasing and so follows an author.

    Why violence? Yah, maybe original sin has something to do with it . . . or maybe it’s just a fascination with the lives of people who are so totally unlike the reader.

    I strongly believe that some of the rich and famous do the outrageous things they do because they can’t read. The students who give me the most trouble are those who have a low reading level.


    5 Jan 09 at 7:13 am

  5. cperkins

    5 Jan 09 at 3:46 pm

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