Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dostoevsky on Capital Punishment from "The Idiot"

“Yes. I saw it [an execution] in France, at Lyons. Dr. Schneider took me with him.”
“Do they hang them?”
“No, in France they always cut off their heads.”
“Do they scream?”
“How could they? It’s done in an instant. They make the man lie down and then a great knife is brought down by a heavy, powerful machine, called the guillotine. . . . The head falls off before one has time to wink. The preparations are horrible. When they read the sentence, get the man ready, bind him, lead him to the scaffold – that’s what’s awful! Crowds assemble, even women, though they don’t like women to look on. . . .”
“It’s not a thing for them!”
“Of course not, of course not! Such a horrible thing! . . . The criminal was an intelligent, middle-aged man, strong and courageous, called Legros. But I assure you, though you may not believe me, when he mounted the scaffold he was weeping and was as white as paper. Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it awful? Who cries for fear? I’d no idea that a grown man, not a child, a man who never cried, a man of forty-five, could cry for fear! What must be passing in the soul at such a moment; to what anguish it must be brought! It’s an outrage on the soul, that’s what it is! It is written ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ so because he has killed, are we to kill him? No, that’s impossible. It’s a month since I saw that, but I seem to see it before my eyes still. I’ve dreamt of it half a dozen times.”
Myshkin was quite moved as he spoke, a faint color came into his pale face, though his voice was still gentle. The footman followed him with sympathetic interest, so that he seemed sorry for him to stop. He, too, was perhaps a man of imagination and strainings after thought.
“It’s a good thing at least that there is not much pain,” he observed, “when the head falls off.”
“Do you know,” Myshkin answered warmly, “you’ve just made that observation and every one says the same, and the guillotine was invented with that object. But the idea occured to me at the time that perhaps it made it worse. That will seem to you an absurd and wild idea, but if one has some imagination, one may suppose even that. Think! if there were torture, for instance, there would be suffering and wounds, bodily agony, and so all that would distract the mind from spiritual suffering, so that one would only be tortured by wounds till one died. But the chief and worst pain may not be in the bodily suffering but in one’s knowing for certain that in an hour, and then in ten minutes, and then in half a minute, and then now, at the very moment, the soul will leave the body and that one will cease to be a man and that that’s bound to happen; the worst part of it is that it’s CERTAIN. When you lay your head down under the knife and hear the knife slide over your head, that quarter of a second is the most terrible of all. You know this is not only my fancy, many people have said the same. I believe that so thoroughly that I’ll tell you what I think. To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away FOR CERTAIN. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible. You may lead a soldier out and set him facing the cannon in battle and fire at him and he’ll still hope; but read a sentence of certain death over the same soldier, and he will go out of his mind or burst into tears. Who can tell whether human nature is able to bear this without madness? Why this hideous, useless, unnecessary outrage? Perhaps there is some man who has been sentenced to death, been exposed to this torture and has been told ‘you can go, you are pardoned.’ Perhaps such a man could tell us. It was of this torture and of this agony that Christ spoke, too. No, you can’t treat a man like that!”

1 comment:

  1. Do you think in the USA electric chairs are (were?) used not to reduce the pain of the condemned but because it was less disgusting to watch and then to dispose of? More entertaining? It does seem more hurtful than guillotine...

    And on a light touch: