Friday, September 23, 2011


The government murder of Troy Davis this week -- under odd evidential circumstances -- has once again thrust capital punishment up for public discussion.

As my contribution to death penalty abolition, I recently wrote The Good Doctor Guillotin, a novel about the first use of the guillotine during the French Revolution --  an occasion sufficiently removed from current politics as to allow the issues to be seen more clearly.

Tobias Schmidt was the machine's builder, a piano maker. And Charles-Henri Sanson was the executioner of Paris.

The novel itself is intricately woven, but here's a stand-alone short chapter describing the testing of the machine before use. It may provide some food for reflection:

29. The Machine

It was fourteen feet high, its beams and posts painted blood-red—a nice touch, that. It would be called “End of the Soup,” “Old Growler,” “Sky Mother,” “the Last Mouthful.” It would be called by the feminine form of someone’s name, someone who had repudiated it. As if it were his daughter. Assemblymen called it “the Timbers of Justice.”

The victim, once attached to the plank, his head in the fatal window, would become a part of it, a cog in the machine of egalitarian justice. His blood would be shed not by the unsteady hand of his fellow man but by this lifeless, insensible, infallible instrument, a doctor’s idea become oak and iron.

The materials gathered, over the course of a week Tobias Schmidt and two hired workers constructed the frame. Two four-sided posts were grooved and chiseled as guides for the falling blade. When the seventy-pound holder and fifteen-pound blade came back from the blacksmith, they were fitted loosely between the posts and the posts joined by an upper crossbar with a hole for the rope. A lower crossbar was angle-braced to its stand for stability. Rope guides were placed.

On the back side of the device, the executioner’s side, another crossbar was attached to hold the lunette—two wooden pieces, each with a half-circular hole to contain the client’s, the patient’s, the package’s neck. The diameter was that of Pelletier’s. A smaller one for women could be substituted as needed. When fitted together, the pieces formed a lovely “little moon” whose upper half could be lifted on a hinge to permit a head to enter.

That was it. Simple. A weighted blade and its frame. Though it required two strong men to carry it, it could be loaded onto a heavy cart and transported wherever it was needed, along with its separate bench, long and strong enough to hold a giant—or an ox—and fitted with thick leather straps.

Before dawn on Tuesday, April 15, 1792, a sound of clattering wheels was heard on southern streets two miles from the center of Paris. It was a four-wheeled wagon, drawn by two horses, carrying a long object covered with heavy black cloth and tightly bound with chains. Four guardsmen with bare swords on horseback rode silently in front of the wagon, and four behind. Bringing up the rear was a smaller wagon with several sheep. If going to market, they were being taken in the wrong direction. They advanced slowly, gray and black in the pale early morning.

The procession was heading for the suburb of Bicêtre, just outside the city gate, home to the great hospital for venereal disease, its hospice for the needy poor, and its maison de correction, locked wards for hardened criminals, some awaiting execution.

When seen from a distance, Louis XIII’s building looks quite imposing. Set on the brow of a hill, from afar it retained something of its former splendor and the look of a royal residence. But now, three Louises later, the palace had in fact become a hovel. Its dilapidated eaves were shameful and its walls diseased. Not a window was glazed but only fitted with crisscrossed iron bars through which, here and there, pressed the harrowed face of a patient or a prisoner.

Already waiting in a small inner courtyard were Charles-Henri Sanson, with two assistants, Tobias Schmidt, and the doctors Antoine Louis and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the latter most reluctantly.

Early-morning eyes gawked from behind bars as the first sheep’s head was placed in the lunette, its neck the size of Pelletier’s. The upper half moon was locked in place. One of the assistants let loose the rope from its tie-off so Sanson could better observe.

Disaster: The heavy blade jerked stickily into motion, jolted downward between the grooves, and sliced into the animal without killing it. All mental ears were stopped against its terrifying cry. Sanson was dismayed. He had the blade wound back up and released again. It bit into the neck again but did not sever it. The victim howled. Once again the blade was raised and dropped, but the third stroke only caused a stream of blood to spurt from the sheep’s neck, without the head falling. Five times the blade rose and fell; five times it cut into the sheep, which cried five times for mercy. It remained standing on the platform, an appalling, terrifying sight. Sanson straddled it and hacked away with a butcher knife at what remained of its neck. Twenty pounds of lead shot were added to the blade-carrier, and three more sheep were neatly dispatched thereby. The march of science.

After nightfall Schmidt took the machine back to his workshop in the Cour du Commerce, Rue St.-André-des-Arts, just opposite the printing shop in number 8 where Marat’s paper was printed. He lined the grooves with brass for a smoother drop and bolted more weight to the blade assembly.

Two days later, on April 17, assisted by his son and his two brothers, Sanson repeated his experiments on the improved machine, this time with three human cadavers from a military morgue, three well-built men who had died in short illnesses that had not caused them to grow thin. Among the spectators were the two doctors concerned, along with Michel Cullerier, the chief surgeon of Bicêtre; Philippe Pinel, the resident alienist; several physician members of the National Assembly; and delegates from the Council of Hospitals of Paris. Strapped to the bench, the three corpses, good soldiers all, were successfully beheaded without protesting, to the applause of most of the onlookers.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Heathglyph, our glyph
A fomite is a medium capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another. So, for instance, doctors are not supposed to wear ties as they lean over one patient and then another. Stethoscopes are fomites. Door handles.

It had always struck me that books were fomites, passing the germs of an author's mind to the reading community. And didn't Tolstoy say that
the activity of art is based on the capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of others"? He did.

In the last years, I'd been to several readings at which I'd thought, "Wow, that stuff is really good. It should be published." But of course it wouldn't be published. Why? Because it wasn't good in a bottom-line way. It wasn't good in an it's-by-a-well-known-writer-with-a-pushy-agent way. It wasn't good in a sexy beach-book way. It wasn't good in a "I was raped by my priest and survived cancer" way. It was simply good --terrific -- in a literary way.

After thinking enough times "that should be published," it struck me that my wife, Donna, and I should publish it. She and I had published for six years a monthly neighborhood newspaper, The Old North End RAG, and missed doing that. We had over the years been intrigued with the new print and production technologies evolving with home computers and networks, but while I was involved at the level of "Oh man, like wow!", she, the techy, was actually reading the specs and the on-line commentaries, and had a sense of how we might actually proceed. Plus a quilter's stick-to-itive-ness and commitment to detail.

Our old RAG cohort, Ron Jacobs, gave us one of his novel manuscripts to experiment with; we did the editing, design and production work on it, and uploaded it to a print-on-demand service to see what might come back. We feared the worst: some god-awful, do-it-yourself piece of crap we'd be embarrassed to have on our shelves.

But when we opened the envelope, there was -- a book, a book that looked like a real book, a beautiful book with a striking cover, one that someone might actually want to buy. We were actually shocked.

Let me explain "print-on-demand". In the old model, a publisher does a print run -- a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand books printed up -- depending on expectations and promotion budget. These books would then be stored in a warehouse, distributed to bookstores, sold to make up the money spent -- or not. The returns had to be dealt with, and were often just pulped if the book did not do as well as expected. Very expensive, and very wasteful of trees, gas, warehouse space, and therefore quite limiting as to what was published, i.e. only those books that stood a good chance of surviving the gauntlet: best-sellers, genre books of the moment. But not the kind of literary material I heard at the readings.

Print-on-demand, on the other hand, prints a book only after it is ordered and sold. No wasted trees, no warehouse rents, no truck gas. Someone orders a book, or ten, or a hundred, the file goes into the computer, and the printer prints, binds, and ships the copies. This has got to be the wave of the future on a shrinking planet, we thought.
And then there are e-books. You take a manuscript, format it correctly, upload it, and there it is, ready to be downloaded. No paper at all, everything cheap and instant.

These were the technologies with which we wanted to experiment. We thought, too, that we'd like to try another kind of "business" model, one where authors got everything and publishers just enough to survive to publish again. The old way: A paperback edition of one of my novels, for instance, sell a for $15. I get 75¢. (Bookstore pays publisher $7.50, author gets 10% of that sale.) Fomite, using volunteer labor, can give its authors 80% of net income, and take only 20% to cover costs of ISBN numbers, galleys, shipping, website rental, software, etc. If people want, they may actually make some money from their books.

It turns out we can make beautiful books and ebooks very cheaply. The problem remains: how to bring attention to them with essentially zero advertising budget. In union there is strength. A little strength. Each of Fomite's books are advertised in every other Fomite book. Every author brings his or her network to others, and can share review and reading sites. We try to keep Fomite authors in touch with one another for collective efforts, pooling resources for advertising or event participation, and utilizing each other's web skills as we enhance our own.

Donna, a quilter and photographer, is having a great time designing books and covers, and solving tech problems. She can separate Fomite work from her day job. For me, it's more difficult. My job is writing novels. And it's hard to write novels when you spend your days looking at other people's work on the screen. It's hard to say no. It's even harder to edit the work of other writers, especially good ones.

But I think we're doing a good thing, contributing to the writing community, and in some small way to the evolution of American culture. We intended to publish novels, short stories, and poetry which might not otherwise appear in the current publishing environment. Non-fiction, we thought, sells well enough without us, but I was open to something sufficiently strange, and now we've found it with a book called The Derivation of Cowboys and Indians. So I guess we now publish odd-enough non-fiction. And then we thought we'd see how graphics came out, so we are doing a volume of Bread & Puppet Kasper Komix and Tragix. That's way more than we had planned. We wanted to debut Fomite with six local authors. Now we have eighteen -- one from Bulgaria. We'll reopen for submissions at once we catch up with ourselves.

Monday, September 5, 2011


In a continuing email exchange about the future strategy of any kind of 9/11 truth movement, Charles Simpson alerts us to diverging uses of the idea of "myth" in an important on-line talk by David Ray Griffin.

Simpson notices that on the one hand, Griffin characterizes the official story as being intentionally raised -- by government and media -- to "mythic status", "mythic in the sense of an organizing narrative that defines collective identity, purpose and legitimacy." Such myth, both Simpson and Griffin observe, is not to be measured or refuted by empirical data, and is thus secure against any suggested investigation.

He criticizes Griffin for shifting ground from the "organizing narrative" definition of myth to a more trivial and colloquial one in which myth becomes simply "an empirically false account of events," and then proceeding in his lecture to disprove the official assertions with empirical data.

Consequently Simpson -- unlike Griffin -- concludes that the 9/11 truth movement should avoid its own version of scholasticism, "a too-narrow preoccupation with our own set of 9/11 facts", "a focus on forensic details" that "draws us in a cult-like direction away from others" -- since such details, such fact-checking, does not make sense or speak to a rhetorical/psychological public world beyond empirical analysis.

It seems to me that neither Simpson nor Griffin -- at least here -- have seized on the most important function of myth: not to hide, not to falsify, but to reveal. Any deep study of folk tales and parables show them to illuminate patterns so deeply built into experience as to be otherwise invisible.

Alberich wants to steal the gold from the bottom of the Rhine, and so do Cheney and Rubin and Obama and Geitner and Summers and...all of them, and the institutions behind them. But Wagner's Ring shows us much more than that people, politicians, and banks are greedy. In the 15-hour telling of the myth we come to perceive a web of interactions, the forswearing of love, the need to self-destruct, the relation of generations and lovers, bosses and slaves, the many questions raised by heroism... and much else. That is the difference between mere narrative and myth.

Seeing into myth involves audience awareness. Little children believe in the myth of Santa Claus, and then as bigger children, decide that the myth isn't true. But what do wiser adults make of myths, fairy- and folktales, biblical and other parables? They understand that these ancient story collections are not only not trivial, but are essential to a deeper understanding of the human and natural world. The dimensions of myth have to probed by those who understand it. That, it seems to me, is the function of the 9/11 truth movement -- not to move out beyond the "single-issue politics" of 9/11, but to responsibly explore the myth of it.

What does the 9/11 story collection, and the reactions to it, tell us about society and government, about science and Faustian striving, about individual and social psychology, about greed, love, fear, and heroism? The 9/11 mythos easily becomes a simultaneous focusing and broadening lens to see into these opacities.

But first we must understand these dimensions ourselves, master the empirical data and the rhetorical approaches, see ourselves as teachers of this story in its broadest and deepest context at levels appropriate to any given audience. Sometimes one can use empirical evidence to open well-guarded doors. Sometimes one has to start by discussing things at more personal or philosophical levels.

Right now the characters in our opera are predominantly the Alberichs of press and power, and a large population of in-the-darkness Niebelungen slaves, toiling underground and in the killing fields to fashion wealth for their dictators. By and large, Americans seem to believe much of what they're told about 9/11. Some largish percentage have been polled as not quite believing it -- but not enough to do anything other than become more cynical.

Our role is to move the Niebelungen above ground at least, cognizant of the possibilities and deeper meanings of this never-ending, no-limits story -- precisely by exploring the myth as myth, and bringing the underworlds into focus.