Thursday, September 17, 2020

When I Survey....

“I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution” wrote E.L Doctorow in his novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, written in the persona of their son. “I will show you that I can do the electrocution.” 

Syliva Plath, also writing about the Rosenburgs, remarks “I am silly about executions”, as if there was a way of being sensible about human beings gurgling in electric chairs. The United States has mostly hidden judicial killings away inside big impersonal institutions; and England stopped killing prisoners more than half a century ago. There are some sadists and tabloid leader-writers out there: but most of us see capital punishment as a weird anachronism. We can’t quite believe it used to happen. 

There is a clip somewhere of the great Jake Thackray introducing his translation of the great George Brassens’ song The Gorilla which is, rather indirectly, a satirical attack on capital punishment. (A judge who has just sentenced a man to death gets raped by a gorilla. It’s a very funny song: you should probably stop reading this essay and listen to it.) He sits there, in his painfully 1970s sweater, on colour TV — very possibly the comic relief on that week’s Esther Rantzan show — and remarks “This week, in Le Sante Prison, Paris, two fellas got their heads chopped off…” 

And I’m like…that was still happening? In the era of colour TV? Not in Saudi Arabia, but twenty miles over the channel in France? Actual decapitation? Polite men in suits and uniforms taking a man to the guillotine and then going and having a coffee and croque monsieur afterwards? It so obscene that we can only talk about it frivolously. They had their heads chopped off. They were strung up. They went to the chair. 

They were very bad men. Terrorists, I think. 

What if—as some people wanted—P.G Wodehouse had been convicted of high treason? What if the main thing which loomed over those funny cocktail party farces was “the man who wrote these stories ended up standing on a trap door with a rope round his neck”. What if Winston Churchill had been allowed to go through with his sordid little fantasy of electrocuting Adolf Hitler in Trafalgar Square? Would we remember anything about Hitler apart from the gruesome newsreels of his death? Or the little Swedish-American union leader who put clever, cheeky, funny words to hymn tunes was shot on a trumped up charge, and his death utterly overshadows his songs. I suppose Socrates is mostly a philosopher and only secondarily a man forced to drink poison. 

There is a pat children’s hymn which I assume no-one sings any more. It goes: 

I sometimes think about the Cross 
and shut my eyes and try to see 
the cruel nails and crown of thorns 
and Jesus crucified for me. 

But it clearly isn’t the kind of thing we can think about. We either think of flesh and blood and piercing wounds and feel sick; or else we resort to gallows humour and treat it as if it was slightly, grotesquely funny. Monty Python at one extreme and Mel Gibson at the other. I think Python is better. The rack and the iron maiden mainly exist in newspaper cartoons or Heavy Metal imagery. 

Mostly, it flips and becomes a Religious Image. Jesus-movies have established their own iconography of the crucifixion. We ought to feel that Robert Powell or Willem Dafoe is being horribly and cruelly brutalised: but in fact, the minute the camera arrives at Golgotha, they cease to be characters and become icons; live action representations of the kind of Crucifix you see outside every Catholic Church and round every priestly neck. 

Some atheists think it is ever so clever to point out that the cross is not, in fact, a religious symbol but is, in fact, an instrument of torture, and how very strange it is to use execution hardware as a symbol of your faith. There would be nothing remotely odd about using the symbol of a noose to represent a political martyr or the victim of a miscarriage of justice. But it is quite true that the crucifix is intended to be a shocking image; like a momento mori, and that it has lost its power due to overfamiliarity. Mel Gibson to some extent did us a favour by reminding us that crucifying someone would have made a terrible mess. The Romans did lots of horrible things to criminals, feeding them to wild animals and tying them in sacks of poisonous snakes. But they treated crucifixion as being almost too disgusting to even mention. 

Jesus was crucified. 

Not some allegorical religious figure. The person we’ve been reading about. The person who gives his followers nick-names and deliberately presents his teaching in such a way that no-one will understand it. The one who always answers a different question to the one you asked. The one who wouldn’t go out and talk to his mum. The one who hugged the kids. The one with the bread and the boat. That Jesus. 

The Greek word for cross is stauros which arguably means a stick or a stake. You could take the word Cross-ified to mean bound to a stake. Mark doesn’t mention nails: he just says that Jesus was Stake-ified. Maybe if we tried to say Impaled rather than Crucified some of the shock and horror and incongruity would find it’s way back into the story. 

Let’s see if Mark can do the Crucifixion.

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1 comment:

Aonghus Fallon said...

I remember reading a Father Brown story - 'The Secret Garden' - and being astonished to discover that people were still being guillotined in twentieth century France.
Ireland didn't have its own hangman. We relied on an Englishman - Albert Pierrepoint - to come over and do it for us. He was particularly impressed by how his Irish clients went to the scaffold without making a fuss.
As you probably know, hanging was a tricky business - too little rope, and the victim slowly strangled, too much and he fell too far, yanking his head off in the process. An Irish quaker (from Carlow, no less) was appalled and experimented on animal carcases until he came up with an equation by which the length of the rope could be calculated according to the victim's weight - ie, the right length being sufficient enough to break the victim's neck, quickly and cleanly, but no more. There was even a table, I think.