Men in Prison
Richard Greeman, Translator
Victor Serge was born in 1890. In his youth he was a militant anarchist. In those days the word "anarchist" was --- in the minds of most --- as fraught as the current "terrorist." Anarchists, however, were not thought to be airplane kidnappers from the Near East, but thugs who lived in your own neighborhood, or, better, in the slums downtown. When they weren't publishing inflammatory pamphlets, denouncing the rich, they would be holding raucous meetings, then they would wander off to shoot presidents or set off bombs near banks or blow up the financial district.
Serge lived in Paris during the early years of the 20th Century and was editor of the magazine Anarchie. In 1912 he was caught by the French secret police because of his ties to the anarchist Bonnot Gang. Three of his companions went to the guillotine, and Serge himself was sent off to Melun Penitentiary to serve five years. Men in Prison came out fifteen years later.
It is a book that is remarkably free of political cant; rather, it is a close examination of the soul of a prison: what it does to the individual, what it does to those who run it and, ultimately, what it does to the society at large.
It is divided up into thirty-six chapters, and during the three days I was going through it, it had the effect of putting me in prison with --- or, more probably, in the cell next to --- Serge. The two of us, locked in our small dark chambers, deprived of light and warmth, subject to random mortifications from the guards with their képis.
Who, as the author proves, were also in prison.
In those days, prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, nor to the guards. The shock of being put in jail was devastating. "Yesterday, in the very center of life, there were your woman, your child, your friends, your comrades. People and objects surging forth in ceaseless motion, like you, with you," he writes.
And all at once: nothing. Silence. Isolation. Inactivity. The dullness of empty time.
After the first few days of imprisonment, according to Serge, there come stages which contemporary readers may find similar to those of Elisbeth Kübler-Ross. Her five stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) are matched by the changes once in jail. First, denial, fighting the very idea of being in prison. Serge calls it exhaltation, which "belongs to the period of struggle. It varies in length and ends, once a man ceases to put up resistance, "as a state of vegetative, slow-motion existence in which sharp sufferings and sharp joys no longer play a part."
I have met convicts like that who were astonishingly placid in their sixth, seventh, or tenth year of confinement.
And anger? He tells us that there are those who are "obsessed by hate,"
bear a grudge against a judge, a cop on the vice squad, a 'fag,' a 'female.' These are the ones who kill when they get out of prison. They never die in prison. It is possible to live on hate and murder.
The final stage? The one that Kübler-Ross called "acceptance." Serge has a word for it. He calls it "death."
Men in Prison is filled with good writing about a bad deal: those who did something against the code of the community and didn't get away with it. Getting nabbed makes them the ultimate losers. Yet prisoners live on, no matter how horrific their fate ... in isolation, at times condemned to silence, under the eyes of the ever-present (often sadistic) guards, complete with the bitter cold of winter in their cells, being cooked by the scorching summers.
Yet these very prisoners are envied by the soldiers. World War One started as Serge was in his third year of incarceration. His prison is but twenty-five miles from the front where the Battle of the Marne was being fought. Some of the soldiers, captured as deserters, were temporarily confined in Melun.
"Stop complaining!" they said. "You can't imagine how well off we are here!" "I'd do five years rather than go back to living that life at the front, with death at the end of it ... and what a death!" These refugees from the front found our slow torture a soft life [Serge reveals]. "No, really, you're a lucky bunch of bastards!" Our whole notion of life was thrown into disorder.
§ § §
Men in Prison explores a system of punishment as it was doled out a century ago. I suspect some of Serge's abominable experiences are not far from present-day France, England or the United States. The food is and always will be bad: indigestion is part of the punishment. Although in Melun --- France being France --- you did get a half-liter of red wine with your meal. And, another exception: current American prisons offer not silence but a notoriously riotous jumble of radio, television, doors banging, cries, yells, commands and shouts.
Outside of these temporal differences, Serge centers in on the singular fact of prisons, then and now. That you are deprived of home, companions, loves, the ability to go about wherever and whenever you want. The loss of these liberties, he tells us, destabilizes one to the point that not a few prisoners go mad, try to commit suicide.
§ § §
Serge does a astute job of cataloging the different personalities one will come across --- both as guards and as prisoners --- and his take on death (self-inflicted) and death (as a penalty) make up some of the most grueling writing in the book. "In the evening, an old drunken guard, who had predicted and hoped for my acquittal, came to chat at the Judas [a trap-door for guards to check on the prisoners].
His lower lip was twitching. He said very rapidly, in a whisper that smelled of absinthe: "C*** just passed. He died like a man. The poison was hidden in the heel of his shoe. He kept his teeth clenched, writhing in death, to keep them from giving him anything or treating him."
The moist, uneasy eye of the old turnkey --- twenty-two years of service --- betrayed incomprehension and pity ...
As for the death penalty, Serge says that "death is the most natural of punishments ... and the death penalty is perhaps the most human of punishments. The Thou shalt not kill of the Decalogue --- in the laconic simplicity of its truncated text --- is a vulgar lie. No one ever really thinks it."
The moral law has always been: Thou shalt not kill thy brother in the tribe, the city, the nation or class, and it has always been completed by another imperative, no less categorical: Thou shall kill the men of the other tribe, the other city, the other nation, the other class!
"It is also the most human because it cuts short all suffering... [Thus] modern civilization has arrived at a rather paradoxical refinement in cruelty: life sentences, which death alone ends, as a rule, after long years of torture."
What we have here is a striking anomaly. After living in prison for five years, his experience forces him to the conclusion that imprisonment is worse than death. On the day of release, just as he is about to walk out the door, he thinks that --- if for some reason --- he was told that he has to return to prison, he knows that he would kill himself then and there.
What he heard months before from his third floor cell was what he recalls as "the allurement" of one of the other prisoners throwing himself over the railing to "the flagstones whirling on the ground below." With this, "the exaltation on which one was living disappears, leaving in its place a great void in which things appear only as they are, nothing more."
§ § §
Bo Lozoff was one of the great students of American prison life. He spent his life teaching in prisons all across the country. His job, as he saw it, was to show prisoners how to escape the vicious cruelty --- explicit and implicit --- and the dead-end violence promulgated by the very system that was supposed to prevent it.
Like Serge, he had an unblinking view of the truth of incarceration: that it stinks; that it excludes all humanity; and that you will, at times, beg to die. But, Lozoff claimed, the very deprivations of prison can be turned into another kind of freedom. For twenty-five years, he preached that meditation and other spiritual practices could take advantage of a prisoner's enforced divorce from the world ... complete with food and shelter, no matter how abysmal. His classic book on this subject, well worth your time, is We're All Doing Time.
Several years before he died, Lozoff had a chance to meet with the Dalai Lama. He asked him what more he could be doing to bring peace to the prison system in America. The Dalai Lama said that Bo might consider spending time with the guards as well as the prisoners, teaching them techniques to bring more humanity into their days filled with what was, after all, an awful job description (being locked up all day; being surrounded by people who may loathe you; surviving on a peon's wages in a thankless job in a barren environment.)
Serge echoes this view of the guards' work. "They spend two thirds of their lives inside these walls," he writes. "The irrevocable condemnation which weighs down the poor oppresses them more heavily then it does most of us."
Inmates serve out their sentences, then they leave these walls. Guards don't leave until they are ready to retire, at sixty, only to finish out their days in dismal, provincial wine stoops. On the back streets of little towns you find those empty cafés, still lighted by oil lamps, whose drab furnishings seem to reek of sordid resentments and stale quarrels.
In Men in Prison, we come to see --- as Lozoff had it --- that "we are all doing time." For Serge, it comes to have an powerful extra dimension. That is, the question of who is going to watch over those who are supposed to be watching over us.
In the back-street dives of Melun "Cauliflower, with his bovine brow, Spike Chin, with his copper complexion, Ironsides, with his strangler's grip, and Latruffe, pale and flabby, jangling his cupboard keys in his pudgy hands as he now jangles those of the cell block, will finish out their days; playing pinochle."
Seeing these old men holding their greasy cards, a chance observer would feel strangely chilled, as if a shadow, ready to snatch him, had suddenly come between him and life; for the old hands of the 'screws' continue to play out the same absurd round on the patch of green felt, under the sign of the queen of spades.
Go on, stop complaining. You'll get out of here. Me, I've spent my whole life in this joint: thirty-four years. Twelve more months to retirement. I wouldn't give two pins for the life I've led, you know. And what am I worth now, tell me?
Men in Prison is strong stuff. It is so powerful that you may find yourself, as I did, briefly incarcerated with the rest of them, trapped by words which at times might well be slashed across not only the page but across our souls. There is here an understated indignity over the fact that humans treat their fellows in such an brutish fashion.
Perhaps the enormous prison population in America --- now well over 2,000,000 men and women --- tells us more than we would ever want to know about what we used to think of as the "land of the free, the home of the brave." Perhaps we have now dug a noxious hole for ourselves, filling it with a bitter brew, a secret loathing for our brothers and sisters --- a poison that plagues the last of our days, the dark of our nights.