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Archive for April, 2006

Over My Shoulder #21: Kathie Sarachild, “The Power of History,” in Feminist Revolution (1975)

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from The Power of History by Kathie Sarachild, the leading essay from Feminist Revolution, an insightful, indispensable, and sometimes infuriating anthology published in 1975 by the Redstockings; the essay is, among other things, a kind of memo on where the anthology as a whole is coming from and why the Redstockings thought it was so important to put it together:

The grass-roots appeal of feminism has been reflected in the composition of liberal feminist organizations like NOW as well as in the mass response to the radical ideas and agitation.

Yet the radical, feminist women faced opposition all the way, with constant advice from all sides that everything they were doing would have the opposite effect: that it would raise antagonism and bitterness, tat it was unrealistic and would get nowhere, that it wasn’t speaking to where women were at.

What lay behind the successful plans and strategies of the women’s liberation activists, what kindled the wonderful explosion, was simply their commitment to a radical understanding and approach to feminism, to discovering the common issues facing women and addressing them directly at their deepest level. They were not playing political games, trying to figure out whether women or men were ready for this or that, whether this or that would be understood or be popular.

This was going to be a movement in our own self-interest, as we said. This was going to be a fight for ourselves, for our own immediate lives, as well as for our dreams — a movement growing from our own experience, addressing the problems we ourselves had encountered. But a fundamental part of this effort to better understand our own situation was the radical understanding that the conditions in our own lives we wanted to change were essentially the common situation for women. This understanding of ourselves was going to be essential to the common fight because it was what put a person in touch with the common fight, connected a person directly to the common fight. We wanted to change the world out of our own self-interest, and because we had such a strong sense of this being in our interest, we felt sure we could convey this sense to all who shared the same interests.

With all our talk about self-interest, it was, of course, all along common interest that we were talking about, the common interest of women.

The intensity of our belief that our own personal interest arose out of the common situation was what made usknow that there would be no conflict between standing up for our own impulses and desires and analysis growing out of our own situation, and launching a mass movement. All the politicking, the guessing at the popularity of this or that, the feasibility of this or that with one group or another, would build nothing, really. It would fail to turn women on and maybe even turn them off. We knew this because we acknowledged our own most honest reaction.

The radical, feminist interest in developing and disseminating theory—in raising and spreading consciousness—was scorned, even attacked, by the liberal feminists and non-feminist left alike, who were always calling for action and for whom no amount of action we engaged in was ever even acknowledged. They were always posing it as analysis versus action, and priding themselves in being the activists, or the politicos, or the steady, on-going workers who accomplished tangible, concrete gains in the community, in the nation, for themselves, or what not. They always implied that the radical, theory people (as they would sometimes complain about us) didn’t take any action, didn’t produce any actual changes in the everyday lives of women.

Don’t agonize, organize was a favorite one liner. Of course, when stated as Don’t analyze, organize a lot of the punch goes out of it.

Oddly enough, there was also the totally contradictory charge, usually from the left, that the women’s liberation movement needed some theory, hadn’t produced any theory. Just as the actions of the radical feminists were not seen as actions—they were too petty, too sporadic, or what not—their analysis was not seen as analysis or theory.

What we were trying to do was to advance and develop both theory and action, and to unite them, putting theory into action and action into theory. It was this commitment to unity of the two, of course, which made us radicals, and which made us such a threat to liberals, right and left, who had a hard enough time recognizing and supporting feminism in either the realm of theory or action—and who apparently went blank or haywire when confronted with the combination.

Whatever we were doing just never seemed to fall within the range of the liberal left’s vision. But in the beginning it did fall within the range of the TV cameras and newspapers.

In fact, it was the public actions of the radicals, the consciousness-raising section of the movement, that put the WLM on the map. This was true of virtually every category of action you could name—from confrontation, consciousness-raising actions like the picketing and disruption of the Miss America Contest to developing techniques for mass organizing to producing journals, newspapers and books which were widely disseminated.

But the radical theory and strategy was not only the source of widespread mobilization, was not only what sparked the interest of the masses of women, it was also what produced the most in the way of concrete results, the most changes in women’s lives. This is another lesson of the past decade whose truth comes clear with access to an authentic history of the movement. The greatest achievements of the women’s liberation movement so far, those that have reached the masses of women as a whole—greater freedom in the area of birth control and abortion, greater freedom from oppressive dress codes, and the spread of feminist theory and consciousness—were all the arenas the radicals first addressed and in which they led.

It was in New York State, the area in which radical feminist analysis, action and organizing ideas were strongest and most advanced, that the first concrete breakthrough of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. was achieved—the abortion law reform which for a few years turned New York State into the abortion mill of the nation and upon which the U. S. Supreme Court modeled its guidelines a few years later. It was the radical strategies of 1) opposition to reform and demand for repeal, led by Lucinda Cisler 2) mass consciousness-raising on abortion with women testifying to their criminal acts in public and in court 3) the development of the feminist self-help clinic ideas and their promotion of simpler, new abortion techniques that led to the nationwide reform in five years time.

The area of employment, on the other hand, is one in which the liberal feminist groups have concentrated and so far have led, and in which there has been as yet very little progress—for most women anyway. (See New Ways of Keeping Women Out of Paid Labor in this book.)

Knowing these things provides information, support and strength for a continuing radical approach and further radical action. But virtually none of it is known.

As soon as the movement began and proved successful, a process set in of wresting control from the women who had started out. And as certain approaches in the movement proved to be popular and successful with other women, the process began of confusing who and what had produced those successful approaches, what thinking, what inds of people, and specifically which people. There was an assault on the history of the movement—to take it over, to lasso it for one’s private ends, to slow it down, to stop it.

Many of the simplest and most powerful elements of the movement’s history I listed earlier have disappeared from sight or the connections between them have been severed. Instead, an array of secondary versions, interpretations and revisions have effaced and replaced the original record.

There are now amazingly different stories of these events, with very different beginnings and very different conclusions. One version doesn’t even have women starting the movement but history and changing times starting it instead. If history or changing times isn’t behind the changes then technology is, or the economy.

The rise of the feminist movement reflected a certain historic context, but this context had to be unlocked by analysis in order to be opened up for attack and work.

The knowledge of who started the movement contains important political lessons for women as does the knowledge of what brought women their gains. That women started the movement and gave it its strength and momentum suggests that it was necessary for women to start the movement, that men would not start the movement, that men don’t lead women to their freedom. Women must rely on themselves for that—not because they should but because they have to.

—Kathie Sarachild, The Power of History, from Feminist Revolution: An Abridged Edition with Additional Writings (1975/1979), pp. 18–21.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #20: Damon W. Root (2006), review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race

You know the rules; here’s the quote. I’ve mentioned before some of the reasons that I refuse to call myself a Progressive, and why I loathe the current vogue for the term on the Left. I alluded to some of the historical reasons for it but didn’t actually spell the details out at the time. Fortunately, while I was riding to work on the bus a couple days ago I found out that a book review from this month’s issue of Reason said just what I wanted to say, at least as far as the topic of race is concerned. (There are some analogous points to be made about the experiences of women, workers, immigrants, and psychiatric patients during the same dark, violent era. But the book under review deals specifically with the relationship between the Progressive movement and the triumph of Jim Crow in its most brutal incarnation.) So, thanks to Damon W. Root and his review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race, here’s a good precis of how I learned to start worrying and loathe Progressivism:

The Progressive movement swept America from roughly the early 1890s through the early 1920s, producing a broad popular consensus that government should be the primary agent of social change. To that end, legions of idealistic young crusaders, operating at the local, state, and federal levels, seized and wielded sweeping new powers and enacted a mountain of new legislation, including minimum wage and maximum hour laws, antitrust statutes, restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, appropriations for hundreds of miles of roads and highways, assistance to new immigrants and the poor, women’s suffrage, and electoral reform, among much else.

Today many on the liberal left would like to revive that movement and its aura of social justice. Journalist Bill Moyers, speaking at a conference sponsored by the left-wing Campaign for America’s Future, described Progressivism as one of the country’s great traditions. Progressives, he told the crowd, exalted and extended the original American Revolution. They spelled out new terms of partnership between the people and their rulers. And they kindled a flame that lit some of the most prosperous decades in modern history.

Yet the Progressive Era was also a time of vicious, state-sponsored racism. In fact, from the standpoint of African-American history, the Progressive Era qualifies as arguably the single worst period since Emancipation. The wholesale disfranchisement of Southern black voters occurred during these years, as did the rise and triumph of Jim Crow. Furthermore, as the Westminster College historian David W. Southern notes in his recent book, The Progressive Era and Race: Reform and Reaction, 1900–1917, the very worst of it—disfranchisement, segregation, race baiting, lynching—went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism. Racism was the norm, not the exception, among the very crusaders romanticized by today’s activist left.

At the heart of Southern’s flawed but useful study is a deceptively simple question: How did reformers infused with lofty ideals embrace such abominable bigotry? His answer begins with the race-based pseudoscience that dominated educated opinion at the turn of the 20th century. At college, Southern notes, budding progressives not only read exposés of capitalistic barons and attacks on laissez-faire economics by muckraking journalists, they also read racist tracts that drew on the latest anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, eugenics, and medical science.

Popular titles included Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900) and R.W. Shufeldt’s The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization (1907). One bestseller, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), discussed the concept of race suicide, the theory that inferior races were out-breeding their betters. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of many Progressives captivated by this notion: He opposed voting rights for African-American men, which were guaranteed by the 15th amendment, on the grounds that the black race was still in its adolescence.

Such thinking, which emphasized expert opinion and advocated sweeping governmental power, fit perfectly within the Progressive worldview, which favored a large, active government that engaged in technocratic, paternalistic planning. As for reconciling white supremacy with egalitarian democracy, keep in mind that when a racist Progressive championed the working man, the common man, or the people, he typically prefixed the silent adjective white.

For a good illustration, consider Carter Glass of Virginia. Glass was a Progressive state and U.S. senator and, as chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Currency, one of the major architects of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of his state’s massive effort to disfranchise black voters. Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose, he declared to one journalist. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.

Then there was political scientist John R. Commons, an adviser to the Progressive Wisconsin governor and senator Robert M. LaFollette and a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Immigration Commission. Commons, the author of Races and Immigrants in America (1907), criticized immigration on both protectionist grounds (he believed immigrants depressed wages and weakened labor unions) and racist ones (he wrote that the so-called tropical races were “indolent and fickle”).

Woodrow Wilson, whose Progressive presidential legacy includes the Federal Reserve System, a federal loan program for farmers, and an eight-hour workday for railroad employees, segregated the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. I have recently spent several days in Washington, the black leader Booker T. Washington wrote during Wilson’s first term, and I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter as they are at the present time.

Perhaps the most notorious figure of the era was Benjamin Pitchfork Tillman, a leading Southern Progressive and inveterate white supremacist. As senator from South Carolina from 1895 to 1918, Tillman stumped for Free Silver, the economic panacea of the agrarian populist (and future secretary of state) William Jennings Bryan, whom Tillman repeatedly supported for president. Pitchfork Tillman favored such Progressive staples as antitrust laws, railroad regulations, and public education, but felt the latter was fit only for whites. When you educate a negro, he brayed, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.

Damon W. Root, Reason (May 2006): When Bigots Become Reformers: The Progressive Era’s shameful record on race, pp. 60–61.

As Southern thoroughly documents, Root notes a bit further down, these examples just begin to scratch the surface. Progressivism was infested with the most repugnant strains of racism. That was no accident. And it wasn’t just some minor blight on a basically good movement. It was part and parcel of Progressivism, its pseudodemocratic anti-radicalism, its sustained assault on autonomous, state-free mutual aid assocations and labor unions, its contemptuous pity for the downtrodden, and its embrace of the government-backed Expert as the natural person to solve their problems for them (whether they liked it or not). It’s long past time for Progressivism to be left in the dustbin of history, for we as a society, and the left as a movement, to progress beyond that kind of adolescent power trip to a theory and practice based on respect, mutuality, solidarity, and freedom. Dump the bosses of your back.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #19: Robert Whitaker (2002), Mad in America on metrazol “therapy”

You know the rules; here’s the quote. This week’s reading is from Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America again (see also Over My Shoulder #15, on the early modern English mad doctors). This passage was reading from the ride home from work and the walk home from the bus stop. I wish I had something to say, but it’s really too awful to bear comment. Here’s the quote:

For hospitals, the main drawback with insulin-coma therapy was that it was expensive and time-consuming. By one estimate, patients treated in this maner received 100 times the attention from medical staff as did other patients, and this greatly limited its use. In contrast, metrazol convulsive therapy, which was introduced into U.S. asylums shortly after Sakel’s insulin treatment arrived, could be administered quickly and easily, with one physician able to treat fifty or more patients in a single morning.

Although hailed as innovative in 1935, when Hungarian Ladislas von Meduna first announced its benefits, metrazol therapy was actually a remedy that could be traced back to the 1700s. European texts from that period tell of using camphor, an extract from the laurel bush, to induce seizures in the mad. Meduna was inspired to revisit this therapy by speculation, which wasn’t his alone, that epilepsy and schizophrenia were antagonistic to each other. One disease helped to drive out the other. Epileptics who developed schizophrenia appeared to have fewer seizures, while schizophrenics who suffered seizures saw their psychosis remit. If that was so, Meduna reasoned, perhaps he could deliberately induce epileptic seizures as a remedy for schizophrenia. With faint hope and trembling desire, he later recalled, the inexpressible feeling arose in me that perhaps I could use this antagonism, if not for curative purposes, at least to arrest or modify the course of schizophrenia.

After testing various poisons in animal experiments, Meduna settled on camphor as the seizure-inducing drug of choice. On January 23, 1934, he injected it into a catatonic schizophrenic, and soon Meduna, like Klaesi and Sakel, was telling a captivating story of a life reborn. After a series of camphor-induced seizures, L. Z., a thirty-three year old man who had been hospitalized for four years, suddenly rose from his bed, alive and lucid, and asked the doctors how long he had been sick. It was a story of a miraculous rebirth, with L. Z. soon sent on his way home. Five other patients treated with camphor also quickly recovered, filling Meduna with a sense of great hope: I feel elated and I knew I had discovered a new treatment. I felt happy beyond words.

As he honed his treatment, Meduna switched to metrazol, a synthetic preparation of camphor. His tally of successes rapidly grew: Of his first 110 patients, some who had been ill as long as ten years, metrazol-induced convulsions freed half from their psychosis.

Although metrazol treatment quickly spread throughout European and American asylums, it did so under a cloud of great controversy. As other physicians tried it, they published recovery rates that were wildly different. One would find that it helped 70 percent of schizophrenic patients. The next wouldfind that it didn’t appear to be an effective treatment for schizophrenia at all but was useful for treating manic-depressive psychosis. Others would find it helped almost no one. Rockland State Hospital in New York announced that it didn’t produce a single recovery among 275 psychotic patients, perhaps the poorest reported outcome in all of psychiatric literature to that time. Was it a totally dreadful drug, as some doctors argued? Or was it, as one physician wrote, the elixir of life to a hitherto doomed race?

A physician’s answer to that question depended, in large measure, on subjective values. Metrazol did change a person’s behavior and moods, and in fairly predictable ways. Physicians simply varied greatly in their beliefs about whether that change should be deemed an improvement. Their judgment was also colored by their own emotional response to administering it, as it involved forcing a violent treatment on utterly terrified patients.

Metrazol triggered an explosive seizure. About a minute after the injection, the patient would arch into a convulsion so severe it could fracture bones, tear muscles, and loosen teeth. In 1939, the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that 43 percent of state hospital patients treated with metrazol had suffered spinal fractures. Other complications included fractures of the humerus, femur, pelvic, scapula, and clavicle bones, dislocations of the shoulder and jaw, and broken teeth. Animal studies and autopsies revealed that metrazol-induced seizures caused hemorrhages in various organs, such as the lungs, kidney, and spleen, and in the brain, with the brain trauma leading to the waste of neurons in the cerebral cortex. Even Meduna acknowledged that his treatment, much like insulin-coma therapy, made brutal inroads into the organism.

We act with both methods as with dynamite, endeavoring to blow asunder the pathological sequences and restore the diseased organism to normal functioning … beyond all doubt, from biological and therapeutic points of view, we are undertaking a violent onslaught with either method we choose, because at present nothing less than such a shock to the organism is powerful enough to break the chain of noxious processes that leads to schizophrenia.

As with insulin, metrazol shock therapy needed to be administered multiple times to produce the desired lasting effect. A complete course of treatment might involve twenty, thirty, or forty or more injections of metrazol, which were typically given at a pace of two or three a week. To a certain degree, the trauma so inflicted also produced a change in behavior similar to that seen with insulin. As patients regained consciousness, they would be dazed and disoriented—Meduna described it as a confused twilight state. Vomiting and nausea were common. Many would beg doctors and nurses not to leave, calling for their mothers, wanting to be hugged, kissed and petted. Some would masturbate, some would become amorous toward the medical staff, and some would play with their own feces. All of this was seen as evidence of a desired regression to a childish level, of a loss of control of the higher centres of intelligence. Moreover, in this traumatized state, many showed much greater friendliness, accessibility, and willingness to cooperate, which was seen as evidence of their improvement. The hope was that with repeated treatments, such friendly, cooperative behavior would become more permanent.

The lifting in mood experienced by many patients, possibly resulting from the release of stress-fighting hormones like epinephrine, led some physicians to find metrazol therapy particularly useful for manic-depressive psychosis. However, as patients recovered from the brain trauma, they typically slid back into agitated, psychotic states. Relapse with metrazol was even more problematic than with insulin therapy, leading numerous physicians to conclude that metrazol shock therapy does not seem to produce permanent and lasting recovery.

Metrazol’s other shortcoming was that after a first injection, patients would invariably resist another and have to be forcibly treated. Asylum psychiatrists, writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry and other medical journals, described how patients would cry, plead that they didn’t want to die, and beg them in the name of humanity to stop the injections. Why, some patients would wail, did the hospital want to kill them? Doctor, one woman pitifully asked, is there no cure for this treatment? Even military men who had borne with comparative fortitude and bravery the brunt of enemy action were said to cower in terror at the prospect of a metrazol injection. One patient described it as akin to being roasted alive in a white-hot furnace; another as if the skull bones were about to be rent open and the brain on the point of bursting through them. The one theme common to nearly all patients, Katzenelbogen concluded in 1940, was a feeling of being excessively frightened, tortured, and overwhelmed by fear of impending death.

The patients’ terror was so palpable that it led to speculation whether fear, as in the days of old, was the therapeutic agent. Said one doctor:

No reasonable explanation of the action of hypoglycemic shock or of epileptic fits in the cure of schizophrenia is forthcoming, and I would suggest as a possibility that as with the surprise bath and the swinging bed, the modus operandi may be the bringing of the patient into touch with reality through the strong stimulation of the emotion of fear, and that the intense apprehension felt by the patient after an injection of cardiazol [metrazol] and so feared by the patient, may be akin to the apprehension of a patient threatened with the swinging bed. The exponents of the latter pointed out that fear of repetition was an important element in its success.

Advocates of metrazol were naturally eager to distinguish it from the old barbaric shock practices and even conducted studies to prove that fear was not the healing agent. In their search for a scientific explanation, many put a Freudian spin on the healing psychology at work. One popular notion, discussed by Chicago psychotherapist Roy Grinker at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in 1942, was that it put the mentally ill through a near-death experience that was strangely liberating. The patient, Grinker said, experiences the treatment as a sadistic punishing attack which satisfies his unconscious sense of guilt. Abram Bennett, a psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska, suggested that a mental patient, by undergoing the painful convulsive therapy, has proved himself willing to take punishment. His conscience is then freed, and he can allow himself to start life over again free from the compulsive pangs of conscience.

As can be seen by the physicians’ comments, metrazol created a new emotional tenor within asylum medicine. Physicians may have reasoned that terror, punishment, and physical pain were good for the mentally ill, but the mentally ill, unschooled in Freudian theories, saw it quite less abstractly. They now perceived themselves as confined in hospitals where doctors,rather than trying to comfort them, physically assaulted them in the most awful way. Doctors, in their eyes, became their torturers. Hospitals became places of torment. This was the beginning of a profound rift in the doctor-patient relationship in American psychiatry, one that put the severely mentally ill ever more at odds with society.

Even though studies didn’t provide evidence of any long-term benefit, metrazol quickly became a staple of American medicine, with 70 percent of the nation’s hospitals using it by 1939. From 1936 to 1941, nearly 37,000 mentally ill patients underwent this treatment, which meant that they received multiple injections of the drug. Brain-damaging therapeutics—a term coined in 1941 by a proponent of such treatments—were now being regularly administered to the hospitalized mentally ill, and being done so against their will.

—Robert Whitaker, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (2002), pp. 91–96.

It’s revealed in a footnote (and mentioned later in the book) that the proponent who coined the term brain-damaging therapeutics was none other than Walter Freeman, the pioneer of the icepick lobotomy, in Brain-Damaging Therapeutics, Diseases of the Nervous System 2 (1940): 83.

Over My Shoulder #18: Barbara Deming’s “A World Without Prisons” (1970), from We Cannot Live Without Our Lives

You know the rules; here’s the quote. This is A World Without Prisons, a short piece from 1970 by Barbara Deming, a radical feminist poet and activist, and a advocate of nonviolence. The piece originally appeared in the movement rag Win, but I read it in her anthology We Cannot Live Without Our Lives (1974), which I picked up from the overflowing stacks at Cross Street Books (the best used bookstore in the world, opportunely located three or four blocks from my house). I read this either lounging in bed or over lunch in the kitchen; I forget which.

The topic of prisons has come up here before (cf. the comments on GT 2004-12-15: God damn it. and GT 2005-12-13: Murder in the first, for example). Something I haven’t been able to say very much about are the radical changes that I believe to be necessary if anything that might be called a prison could possibly be justified in a free society — because I reject the use of violence for vengeance and punishment as an aggressive violation of the prisoner’s human rights. Deming, concisely and smartly, says a lot of the things that I would want to say, and also some things that I wouldn’t; I offer this as something interesting in its own right, and also perhaps a beginning for a conversation.

I do, in good conscience, have to note in passing how an otherwise wonderful piece is marred by a relic of the American radical left’s hideous flirtation with Maoism: those bucolic Chinese nonprisons that Deming alludes to, with their group discussion and self-criticism are the Laogai forced labor camps (best known in the United States as reeducation camps). While Deming actually offers the beginnings of an important difference in basic premises between what she suggests, on the one hand, and the indoctrination functions of Laogai camps, on the other, her basically sympathetic mention serves as a bitter reminder of how often and casually humane impulses and clear vision were mingled with apology and denial for the crimes of the 20th century’s monster-States. The hope is that we now can extract the former and save it from the latter.

Anyway, on with the quote:

A World Without Prisons

After the revolution, let us hope, prisons simply would not exist—if by prisons we mean places that could be experienced by the men and women in them at all as every place that goes by that name now is bound to be experienced. All prisons that have existed in our society to date put people away as no human being should ever be put away. I tried to write about this in Prison Notes. They attempt a kind of insane magic—attempt to wish the criminal out of existence, because he is a problem to society. This not only commits an outrage (casts prisoners out of the human race) but is absurd, of course, because the prisoners—unless they are in for life—return to society. And they return, after this experience—unless they are particularly hardy of spirit, which, happily, some men and women are—not rehabilitated but wounded in their selfhood.

Of course it can be said of jails, too, that they try—by punishing the troublesome—to deter others. No doubt, in certain instances this deterrence actually works. But generally speaking it fails conspicuously. There is one more thing that they can be said to attempt—that is, to place people who are doing harm to others where they cannot do that harm. Though more often they put people who are doing harm to themselves—for example, drug addicts and alcoholics (those without money, that is)—where still more harm will come to them. After the revolution, surely the only good reason for institutions that could still be called prisons—because they take people and place them under restraint—is this reason: wanting to keep people from harming others.

But if institutions of restraint might still be necessary, they should no longer be institutions of punishment at the same time. Punishment cannot heal spirits, can only break them.

What would these institutions of restraint be like? A prefatory note: After the revolution, when one person injures another, society would concern itself most immediately to give help to the person who has been injured. Present-day justice is careless of both the criminal and the victim—wears its blindfold when either one stands before it and asks to be seen. (This justice has always been pictured as a woman, so I know that I am supposed to write not it but her, but I find I balk at this.) I recall, just for example, the experience of a young woman who was raped by a group of youths. Before she had been given adequate medical attention or even allowed the rest that she needed, she was forced to go down to the police station for questioning. There she told the police that she doubted she could identify her assailants, and was reluctant to try, as she didn’t believe in punishment. But they would not let her leave. And she had to endure now a prolonged second violation—their bullying questioning. No concern for the one who has been hurt. Only the one obsessive concern—to find someone to punish. Here the victim herself will do.

After the revolution, it might very well remain necessary to place people where they could not do harm to others. But the one under restraint should be cut off from the rest of society as little as possible. There should be no censorship of mail. Family and friends should be allowed to visit at will—in fact, to move in with the prisoners if they wished. And if safety permitted, the prisoner should be allowed to make visits outside. He—or she—should be allowed to live as happy and productive a life as possible. The point would be to seek how to mend his relationship to society. These nonprisons should investigate in depth—with the help of the prisoner—the question: why did he act as he did? See the book about Chinese prisons (by Allyn and Adele Rickett called Prisoners of Liberation) which describes methods of group discussion about prisoners’ antisocial behavior.

But I would add emphatically: one question should always be raised very seriously in such discussions. Does the antisocial act perhaps reveal that society itself needs more changing—is frustrating or oppressing its citizens in some unbearable way? For the act might have been one stemming from selfishness (counter-revolutionary)—and so the prisoner is the one to be helped to see this and to change—or it might have been one stemming very naturally from a response to some felt injustice.

These nonprisons, then, should above all be schools—in the most deep sense. And they should not be places that are considered, as prisons now are, beyond the pale—places from which good citizens (except for occasional gray ladies) keep away. They should be continually entered, as scholars, by those who are the most serious citizens—for here their society can be studied at its weakest point.

—Barbara Deming, A World Without Prisons (1970), from We Cannot Live Without Our Lives (1974), pp. 14–16.

Over My Shoulder #17: Vladimir Nabokov on a book entitled Lolita (1956)

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is a passage, parts of which are famous, from the short essay that Vladimir Nabokov wrote on his novel Lolita the year after it was published. I read this at home, after having spent the past couple weeks reading Lolita on the bus, on my way to and from work.

At first, on the advice of a wary old friend, I was meek enough to stipulate that the book be brought out anonymously. I doubt that I shall ever regret that soon afterwards, realizing how likely a mask was to betray my own cause, I decided to sign Lolita. The four American publishers, W, X, Y, Z, who in turn were offered the typescript and had their readers glance at it, were shocked by Lolita to a degree that even my wary old friend F.P. had not expected.

While it is true that in ancient Europe, and well into the eighteenth century (obvious examples come from France), deliberate lewdness was not inconsistent with flashes of comedy, or vigorous satire, or even the verbe of a fine poet in a wanton mood, it is also true that in modern times the term pornography connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient. Old rigid rules must be followed by the pornographer in order to have his patient feel the same security of satisfaction as, for example, fans of detective stories feel—stories where, if you do not watch out, the real murderer may turn out to be, to the fan’s disgust, artistic originality (who for instance would want a detective story without a single dialogue in it?). Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated (a mentality stemming from the routine of true fairy tales in childhood). Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.

Certain techniques in the beginning of Lolita (Humbert’s Journal, for example) misled some of my first readers into assuming that this was going to be a lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored and let down. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why not all the four firms read the typescript to the end. Whether they found it pornographic or not did not interest me. Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.

Some of the reactions were very amusing: one reader suggested that the firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a twelve-year-old lad and hadh im seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, realistic sentences. (He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy. Etc.) Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists), an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as Old Europe debauching young America, while another flipper saw it as Young America debauching old Europe. Publisher X, whose advisers got so bored with Humbert that they never got beyond page 188 [where Lo suggests the second road trip —R.G.], had the naïveté to write me that Part Two was too long. Publisher Y, on the other hand, regretted that there were no good people in the book. Publisher Z said if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail.

No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous; I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who pose the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master’s chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown. I presume there exist readres who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called powerful and stark by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.

—Vladimir Nabokov (November 12, 1956), On a book entitled Lolita, from Lolita (ISBN 0-425-04680-X), pp. 284–286.