Photography, Public Punishment and Philip Roth

Mise En AbymeBear with me, I’ve come over all intellectual.

It started when I attended my first Sunderland Uni Research Seminar yesterday evening. It was a talk by Peter Dempsey entitled Morte D’author: Philip Roth and the writing life. As English is not strictly my department and it was a gloomy metro and bus ride away, I debated taking the Catholic stance on contraception and opting for a late pull out. I’m glad I didn’t.

As it turned out it was one of those talks seemingly unrelated to anything I’m studying, but it opened up fascinating new avenues. Without doing a great disservice to Peter the gist of the talk was on Roth’s use of metalepsis. No? Me neither!

One of the best bits of the talk was that luckily it was not taken as a given that you were au fait with the terminology, so I will try to explain as Peter did what this means.

A quick definition search online brings up the following on metalepsis,

In its narratological sense metalepsis is a paradoxical contamination between the world of the telling and the world of the told.

Well that’s clearer then! In layman’s terms it is the use of different narrative levels, say for ease a story within a story. By way of example if a narrator in a work of fiction suddenly appears in the story or, as is the case with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet, there is a play within a play and more than that, it is critiquing the story it’s within! it’s really a sort of stretching of the boundaries or a breaking of the fourth wall. Peter was positing the view that Roth uses this narrative device to pick away at and question our notions of death. By remoulding the solid and accepted structures so usually experienced by a reader, one of passive reception of a story, Roth takes the reader out of their comfort zone and thus makes them question their own mortality.

One such use of this style that was flagged was a Mise en abyme. Again, totally new to me. It is essentially an image containing a smaller copy of itself, one example can be seen at the beginning of this blog and another is below (both presented by Peter). Anyone who gets Macaulay Culkin into a literary theory talk is worthy of note in my book. The term is derived from French heraldry and the shields that would contain replicated images of themselves. It roughly translates as “placed into abyss.”


Macauley Culkin eternally trapped within Ryan Gosling, who is eternally trapped within Macauley Culkin.
Macauley Culkin eternally trapped within Ryan Gosling, who is eternally trapped within Macauley Culkin.

So, having successfully mangled Mise en abyme’s and metalepsis, changing them from what was a great and succinct talk into a clunky retelling, I will now do a narrative shift of my own, to execution. While I get my thoughts, here’s a classic Woody Allen clip that illustrates the concept better than I ever could.

So, what is the point of all this. How does it relate to execution?

Well this week my girlfriend’s father sent me a link to a fascinating article* by Stassa Edwards about photographing the guillotine in France. France’s public executions are an interesting anomaly as they continued right through to the 1930’s, almost 70 years after Britain had put executions behind the prison walls. Not only that, they used the guillotine which arguably is a more visually arresting apparatus for destruction, although ironically it was used in England for executions of the higher echelons of society. One need only look to the dominance of Isis in the news in recent months, to realise the visual power and terror engendered by a beheading.

The article in question was focused around a surviving photograph of the execution of Pierre Vaillat at lons-le-Saunier in 1897.

The Execution of Pierre Vaillat. Lons-le-Saunier, 1897. Courtesy of and Wikimedia Commons.
The Execution of Pierre Vaillat. Lons-le-Saunier, 1897. Courtesy of and Wikimedia Commons.

In the article it makes it clear that Vaillat was an unremarkable criminal, one of many ‘thousand others’ executed in the nineteenth century, but what sets him apart is his eternal existence in this photograph. Vaillat appears to be stumbling from the central archway in the picture accompanied by a Chaplain, we know where he is stumbling too and we know what the assembled are about to witness, but the spectacle is forever stalled.

Vaillat’s photograph, like all execution photography, resembles a novel with no ending: its narrative is interrupted, the protagonist immobile. But the final chapter is known to us: violence is inevitable.

Photographing the Guillotine by Stassa Edwards – The Appendix October 14th, 2014

It is a subject of great interest to me, the visual culture surrounding the execution. Once it went behind closed doors, what remained for people to see. It is clear that in many instances the crowd were still attending executions with ostensibly nothing to see and i want to find out why. At the execution of William Anderson in Newcastle, 1875, the reporters stated that,

About 5,000 persons assembled outside the gaol, but only about a dozen persons and officials witnessed the execution

Western Times, Friday 24th December, 1875

The sheer power of the visual reportage of execution is illustrated later in the article as it describes how it was a form of photography that brought an end to public execution in France. Facing execution in 1939, Eugene Weidmann was unlike Vaillat. His case was of intense public interest, involving as it did “a handsome murderer” and a “smitten showgirl.”Such was the interest surrounding the case that, unbeknowst to the French authorities, someone was filming the execution from an overlooking apartment.

Film still from Eugen Weidmann’s execution, June 17, 1939.  Courtesy of Wikimedia and
Film still from Eugene Weidmann’s execution, June 17, 1939. Courtesy of Wikimedia and

The resultant film provided stills from the event that were splashed across the leading French titles the next day and the resultant scandal and public horror resulted in the eventual ending of public executions. Foucault, in referencing the execution of Weidmann in 1939, indicated just how profound an effect it had and what the logical extension of increased secrecy surrounding the process of execution meant.

Witnesses who described the scene could even be prosecuted, thereby ensuring that the execution should cease to be a spectacle and remain a strange secret between the law and those it condemns.

Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1991) p.15

In many ways the photograph of Weidmann’s brutal demise turned the camera back on the public themselves. In the same way Roth was playing with narrative levels to question the notion of death, so this photograph called into question an entire countries system of capital punishment.

Now, if anyone needs me, I’m off to read more about death and steel myself for a talk by another author who is as equally at home with playing with the literary form as he is with revolutionary apparatuses of death. Russell Brand – wish me lucky wuck.

*Distraction 1: Parents and In-Laws

Regarding fathers in general, I feel this is a good point to thank my own father and my girlfriends father for their constant interest and suggestions for reading and answering questions. Their suggestions and advice have been invaluable and also the basis of these last two blogs. So, if they’ve bored you to death, you know who to blame.

Distraction 2: Music and dancing

I haven’t put a music track on the blog for a while. As a Morrissey fan Margaret on the Guillotine seems most applicable, but instead I’m going to opt for Joni Mitchell. Having previously expressed my love of dancing at weddings, I have to quote Joni Mitchell here as, stockings aside, she captures my feelings entirely when a great track come on,

Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive
I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive

Joni Mitchell – All I Want

Anyway, I’m not going with All i want, instead it’s This Flight Tonight. I had it on a loop for weeks in my study, a few months back. In fact so consistent was my listening, that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an image somewhere of me listening to it, containing another image of me………….(i’m off!).




2 thoughts on “Photography, Public Punishment and Philip Roth

  1. Pingback: Public Violence, the Pillory and Mobile Phones. | lastdyingwords

  2. Pingback: Crucifixion, Corbyn and the County Durham Christ | lastdyingwords

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