Tag Archives: torture

crimes, punishments and cruelties

5 Jul

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty: First Stage of Cruelty, 1751

Lately I’ve been thinking about Crime and Punishment.

I’m in Egypt, where it seems that many crimes go unpunished, and many who are not criminals are wrongly punished (take the recent case of Khaled Said, as just one horrific example).  It’s an interesting phenomenon, not knowing who the criminal is or who the punisher, or what the crime and what its punishment.  How convenient and even satisfying it must be to confuse definitions like that.

In Said’s case, some of the Egyptian press (most notoriously the state-owned Al-Gomhurriya, whose description of  Said as the “marijuana martyr” and its support of the state’s autopsy findings caused protests) reported that he was a drug dealer (=criminal) and thus “got what he deserved.”  Protesters in Cairo and Alexandria have called the police the real criminals and the re-instated emergency law a facilitator of such crimes.  Two policemen, Mahmud Salah Amin and Awad Ismail Suleiman, were charged two days ago with “unlawful arrest, torture and excessive use of force” reported the AFP.

But I digress from my main point, which is neither crime nor punishment, but cruelty.

“In a morbid condition of the brain,” Dostoevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment, “dreams often have a singular actuality, vividness, and extraordinary semblance of reality.”  Raskolnikov’s dream is a fearful, brutal one (you can read the complete chapter here; the dream excerpt is at the end of this post).  In it, he is a child witnessing a mare being tortured and beaten, much to the delight and relish of her owner and a vicious crowd.  The dream’s end is a sado-masochistic frenzy:

“Finish her off,” shouted Mikolka and he leapt beside himself, out of the cart. Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across–whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died.

“You butchered her,” someone shouted in the crowd.

“Why wouldn’t she gallop then?”

“My property!” shouted Mikolka, with bloodshot eyes, brandishing the bar in his hands. He stood as though regretting that he had nothing more to beat.

“No mistake about it, you are not a Christian,” many voices were shouting in the crowd.

But the poor boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms round her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips. . . .

The mare’s death is surely symbolic:  her owner justifies killing her because he owns her;  the peasants delight in beating something weaker than themselves yet necessary for their own sustenance, rendering her killing all the more absurd.  The mare’s taunting torture and subsequent murder clearly recalls the agony and humiliation of Christ and Dostoevsky’s scene in fact reminds me of Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross (1515-16):

And of course the dream is part premonition, and/or test, of Raskolnikov’s imminent murder of Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna.  He wakes from the dream and asks himself:

“Good God!…can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open…”

Dostoevsky was very interested in cruelty.  He collected newspaper clippings about abuse of children and animals and in Part I, Book V, Chapter 4 of The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan describes to his brother Alyosha several examples of men’s cruelty against children and animals and concludes the following:

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel…I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”

I’ve been thinking about these Dostoevskian fellows here in Egypt, especially as I walk to work.  The path takes me down a wide, partly dirt road and I often see donkeys and their drivers along the way.  The animals are always thin and beleaguered looking and often the owner whips them hard as he’s driving down the road.  Here’s a small one at rest in the scorching sun:

Later a driver’s whip lashed out over and over again as he drove his donkey down the same street.

Even if the whipping of these small, overheated, over weighted animals was the only disturbing thing I experienced here on an everyday basis, it would be enough.  In a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives on $2 a day, unemployment is more than 9% (it was recently reported that poverty-related suicides are on the rise here) and where, according to UNICEF, approximately five million Egyptian children do not have appropriate housing, water and sanitation standards, of course it’s not.

Along with human suffering, there are also the dust-covered, sickly-thin cats roaming the streets of downtown Cairo scrounging through garbage, lapping up a few drips of water from air conditioners along the way, and the many small dead birds that seem to have crashed into windows and collapsed onto the sidewalks.  Or perhaps they just died and fell from the sky:

I’m not sure this culture is any crueler than others.   But I can’t help but feel  that its quotidian suffering is somehow linked to, or reflective of, a more overreaching and nefarious system that subsists on it.  Writing in Al-Ahram last month, Salama A. Salama described what he deems “a culture of torture” in Egypt:

When people are asked to obey without discussion, when they are deprived their powers of thought and denied their free will, this is when torture thrives.  This is when torture becomes a way of life.

Salama’s idea is extended in this posting by blogger Sandmonkey on Said’s death, which insists that security is really insecure as long as human nature remains tolerant of, if not fascinated by, barbarism and suffering. (Note:  explicit images contained within the post).

Toward the end of his dream, Raskolnikov exclaims,

“Father! Why did they . . . kill . . . the poor horse!” he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest.

“They are drunk. . . . They are brutal . . . it’s not our business!” said his father. He put his arms round his father but he felt choked, choked.

His father wants to make the boy feel safe:  he reassures him than the brutality is solely external, caused by drink and by others (peasants) unlike them.  But Raskolnikov, in dream and in waking, knows better.  He knows that because he is a human being, the brutality is within him.  He knows it’s his business, too.

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In a morbid condition of the brain, dreams often have a singular actuality, vividness, and extraordinary semblance of reality. At times monstrous images are created, but the setting and the whole picture are so truthlike and filled with details so delicate, so unexpectedly, but so artistically consistent, that the dreamer, were he an artist like Pushkin or Turgenev even, could never have invented them in the waking state. Such sick dreams always remain long in the memory and make a powerful impression on the overwrought and deranged nervous system.

Raskolnikov had a fearful dream. He dreamt he was back in his childhood in the little town of his birth. He was a child about seven years old, walking into the country with his father on the evening of a holiday. It was a grey and heavy day, the country was exactly as he remembered it; indeed he recalled it far more vividly in his dream than he had done in memory. The little town stood on a level flat as bare as the hand, not even a willow near it; only in the far distance, a copse lay, a dark blur on the very edge of the horizon. A few paces beyond the last market garden stood a tavern, a big tavern, which had always aroused in him a feeling of aversion, even of fear, when he walked by it with his father. There was always a crowd there, always shouting, laughter and abuse, hideous hoarse singing and often fighting. Drunken and horrible-looking figures were hanging about the tavern. He used to cling close to his father, trembling all over when he met them. Near the tavern the road became a dusty track, the dust of which was always black. It was a winding road, and about a hundred paces further on, it turned to the right to the graveyard. In the middle of the graveyard stood a stone church with a green cupola where he used to go to mass two or three times a year with his father and mother, when a service was held in memory of his grandmother, who had long been dead, and whom he had never seen. On these occasions they used to take on a white dish tied up in a table napkin a special sort of rice pudding with raisins stuck in it in the shape of a cross. He loved that church, the old-fashioned, unadorned ikons and the old priest with the shaking head. Near his grandmother’s grave, which was marked by a stone, was the little grave of his younger brother who had died at six months old. He did not remember him at all, but he had been told about his little brother, and whenever he visited the graveyard he used religiously and reverently to cross himself and to bow down and kiss the little grave. And now he dreamt that he was walking with his father past the tavern on the way to the graveyard; he was holding his father’s hand and looking with dread at the tavern. A peculiar circumstance attracted his attention: there seemed to be some kind of festivity going on, there were crowds of gaily dressed townspeople, peasant women, their husbands, and riff-raff of all sorts, all singing and all more or less drunk. Near the entrance of the tavern stood a cart, but a strange cart. It was one of those big carts usually drawn by heavy cart-horses and laden with casks of wine or other heavy goods. He always liked looking at those great cart- horses, with their long manes, thick legs, and slow even pace, drawing along a perfect mountain with no appearance of effort, as though it were easier going with a load than without it. But now, strange to say, in the shafts of such a cart he saw a thin little sorrel beast, one of those peasants’ nags which he had often seen straining their utmost under a heavy load of wood or hay, especially when the wheels were stuck in the mud or in a rut. And the peasants would beat them so cruelly, sometimes even about the nose and eyes, and he felt so sorry, so sorry for them that he almost cried, and his mother always used to take him away from the window. All of a sudden there was a great uproar of shouting, singing and the balalaïka, and from the tavern a number of big and very drunken peasants came out, wearing red and blue shirts and coats thrown over their shoulders.

“Get in, get in!” shouted one of them, a young thick-necked peasant with a fleshy face red as a carrot. “I’ll take you all, get in!”

But at once there was an outbreak of laughter and exclamations in the crowd.

“Take us all with a beast like that!”

“Why, Mikolka, are you crazy to put a nag like that in such a cart?”

“And this mare is twenty if she is a day, mates!”

“Get in, I’ll take you all,” Mikolka shouted again, leaping first into the cart, seizing the reins and standing straight up in front. “The bay has gone with Matvey,” he shouted from the cart–”and this brute, mates, is just breaking my heart, I feel as if I could kill her. She’s just eating her head off. Get in, I tell you! I’ll make her gallop! She’ll gallop!” and he picked up the whip, preparing himself with relish to flog the little mare.

“Get in! Come along!” The crowd laughed. “D’you hear, she’ll gallop!”

“Gallop indeed! She has not had a gallop in her for the last ten years!”

“She’ll jog along!”

“Don’t you mind her, mates, bring a whip each of you, get ready!”

“All right! Give it to her!”

They all clambered into Mikolka’s cart, laughing and making jokes. Six men got in and there was still room for more. They hauled in a fat, rosy-cheeked woman. She was dressed in red cotton, in a pointed, beaded headdress and thick leather shoes; she was cracking nuts and laughing. The crowd round them was laughing too and indeed, how could they help laughing? That wretched nag was to drag all the cartload of them at a gallop! Two young fellows in the cart were just getting whips ready to help Mikolka. With the cry of “now,” the mare tugged with all her might, but far from galloping, could scarcely move forward; she struggled with her legs, gasping and shrinking from the blows of the three whips which were showered upon her like hail. The laughter in the cart and in the crowd was redoubled, but Mikolka flew into a rage and furiously thrashed the mare, as though he supposed she really could gallop.

“Let me get in, too, mates,” shouted a young man in the crowd whose appetite was aroused.

“Get in, all get in,” cried Mikolka, “she will draw you all. I’ll beat her to death!” And he thrashed and thrashed at the mare, beside himself with fury.

“Father, father,” he cried, “father, what are they doing? Father, they are beating the poor horse!”

“Come along, come along!” said his father. “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun; come away, don’t look!” and he tried to draw him away, but he tore himself away from his hand, and, beside himself with horror, ran to the horse. The poor beast was in a bad way. She was gasping, standing still, then tugging again and almost falling.

“Beat her to death,” cried Mikolka, “it’s come to that. I’ll do for her!”

“What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?” shouted an old man in the crowd.

“Did anyone ever see the like? A wretched nag like that pulling such a cartload,” said another.

“You’ll kill her,” shouted the third.

“Don’t meddle! It’s my property, I’ll do what I choose. Get in, more of you! Get in, all of you! I will have her go at a gallop! . . .”

All at once laughter broke into a roar and covered everything: the mare, roused by the shower of blows, began feebly kicking. Even the old man could not help smiling. To think of a wretched little beast like that trying to kick!

Two lads in the crowd snatched up whips and ran to the mare to beat her about the ribs. One ran each side.

“Hit her in the face, in the eyes, in the eyes,” cried Mikolka.

“Give us a song, mates,” shouted someone in the cart and everyone in the cart joined in a riotous song, jingling a tambourine and whistling. The woman went on cracking nuts and laughing.. . He ran beside the mare, ran in front of her, saw her being whipped across the eyes, right in the eyes! He was crying, he felt choking, his tears were streaming. One of the men gave him a cut with the whip across the face, he did not feel it. Wringing his hands and screaming, he rushed up to the grey-headed old man with the grey beard, who was shaking his head in disapproval. One woman seized him by the hand and would have taken him away, but he tore himself from her and ran back to the mare. She was almost at the last gasp, but began kicking once more.

“I’ll teach you to kick,” Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare.

“He’ll crush her,” was shouted round him. “He’ll kill her!”

“It’s my property,” shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of a heavy thud.

“Thrash her, thrash her! Why have you stopped?” shouted voices in the crowd.

And Mikolka swung the shaft a second time and it fell a second time on the spine of the luckless mare. She sank back on her haunches, but lurched forward and tugged forward with all her force, tugged first on one side and then on the other, trying to move the cart. But the six whips were attacking her in all directions, and the shaft was raised again and fell upon her a third time, then a fourth, with heavy measured blows. Mikolka was in a fury that he could not kill her at one blow.

“She’s a tough one,” was shouted in the crowd.

“She’ll fall in a minute, mates, there will soon be an end of her,” said an admiring spectator in the crowd.

“Fetch an axe to her! Finish her off,” shouted a third.

“I’ll show you! Stand off,” Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. “Look out,” he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stunning blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back, tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.

“Finish her off,” shouted Mikolka and he leapt beside himself, out of the cart. Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across–whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died.

“You butchered her,” someone shouted in the crowd.

“Why wouldn’t she gallop then?”

“My property!” shouted Mikolka, with bloodshot eyes, brandishing the bar in his hands. He stood as though regretting that he had nothing more to beat.

“No mistake about it, you are not a Christian,” many voices were shouting in the crowd.

But the poor boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms round her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips. . . . Then he jumped up and flew in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka. At that instant his father, who had been running after him, snatched him up and carried him out of the crowd.

“Come along, come! Let us go home,” he said to him.

“Father! Why did they . . . kill . . . the poor horse!” he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest.

“They are drunk. . . . They are brutal . . . it’s not our business!” said his father. He put his arms round his father but he felt choked, choked. He tried to draw a breath, to cry out–and woke up.

He waked up, gasping for breath, his hair soaked with perspiration, and stood up in terror.

“Thank God, that was only a dream,” he said, sitting down under a tree and drawing deep breaths. “But what is it? Is it some fever coming on? Such a hideous dream!”

He felt utterly broken: darkness and confusion were in his soul. He rested his elbows on his knees and leaned his head on his hands.

“Good God!” he cried, “can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open. . that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, break the lock, steal and tremble; hide, all spattered in the blood . . . with the axe. . . . Good God, can it be?”

He was shaking like a leaf as he said this.