‘Two men looked out through prison bars; one saw the mud, the other the stars’
So Langbridge astutely recognised the natural difficulty in any attempt to comprehend prison life– our opinion is ultimately shaped and distorted by the prisoner’s perception of the situation and thus his psychological condition. It is therefore, in an endeavour to grasp the writer’s character and emotional state of mind as he writes from within his walls of confinement, as opposed to a search for factual unbiased detail on incarceration, that we should approach any given prison text. Bearing this in mind, a comparison of prison literature from writers across the globe, in differing forms of prisons and historical time periods, may help us come to understand distinctions between prisoners simply from the way they choose to record their confinement. In doing so, perhaps we may come to learn some wider truth inherent to life in captivity, to the act of writing and even to the human condition.
Medieval to Modern: French Insights on Confinement
‘The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the outlaw, the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order.’ –Michel Foucault, French Philosopher & Social Theorist
Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously discerned that ‘man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ and although perhaps not in the very same sense of social hierarchical and religious oppression that he intended, many believe his words still ring true on a literal, metaphorical and psychological level in our modern world, where we find ourselves unable to escape the trappings of social conduct, urban responsibility, family duty, the corporate sphere and even our own personal addictions & desires. As for prison literature, Rousseau’s words are masterfully epitomised by the lyric poetry of medieval French poet Charles d’Orléans, where love personified becomes a mark of the speaker’s internal prison and the metaphorical ‘chains’ of all men ‘everywhere’ who are emotionally bound by their jailer and keeper love. The poetry itself simultaneously reminds us that allegory for d’Orléans was a therapeutic means of dealing with his further physical internment as a prisoner of the Hundred Years War. Here is a quadruple prisoner ensnared in the chains of a multi-storey prison. On one level trapped by his own psyche, on another in an ageing body, on a third in a confined space and on a fourth and for him possibly most afflicting level of all, in a foreign country.
Going back still further in time to 11th century Persia, we can understand more from Masud Sa’d Salman who was sentenced due to politics in the royal court. One of his poems tells us ‘too much desires I had before, oh alas! Where is my lost desires?’, thus we learn that when man is banished away from society and materialistic culture, he is undiluted to his purest human state. He goes on ‘I had many selected friends, what has become no one remains’; prisoners like him are no longer driven by social structures or an artificial desire to conform & to please others, their existence revolves around their most basal human instincts. It is hunger and heartache, torture and pain, their physical and emotional well being that preoccupies them in prison.
We witness this again as we move over to Russia and Stalin’s soviet labour camps, where Solzhenitsyn proclaims in enlightened exhaustion ‘bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.’ Another Gulag poet [an anonymous captive] is similarly, all too conscious of a prisoner’s carnal needs; he writes of ‘the crushing cold, the snowflakes upon Slavic cheekbones’ and of a ‘torturous sleepless sleep’. Interestingly, he additionally acknowledges the importance of words, ‘words, the medium of my exile’ he confesses- for captives, literature becomes an instinctive & necessary creative outlet to channel pain.
Punjabi Prison Existence
In that same century, Sher Jung was also imprisoned in the Punjab jails during British invasion because he joined the Indian freedom struggle. Unlike his idol Gandhi, he believed that ends justify the means and masterminded a notorious train robbery. He was found guilty of waging a war against the King-Emperor and initially sentenced to death, but eluded the British until he finally surrendered when a reward of 30,000 rupees was put out for his capture dead or alive. He was imprisoned for 8 years until 1938 after which time he got married, only to be incarcerated for a further 5 years as prominent political figures were apprehended as World War II commenced.
In Prison Days Jung uses vivid metaphorical descriptions to depict life in prison as an inevitable personal tragedy; akin to a ‘desert’, it is ‘ravaged and doomed’. He also identifies language and the process of writing as a fundamental human need; we learn that whilst in captivity, the soul’s appetite for composition and for unburdening one’s emotional turmoil through writing becomes just as intense and instinctive as the body’s appetite for food. The effect of hunger is clear in the image of his ‘entrails’, which ‘had turned to self devouring cannibals’ and is as powerful as ‘the urge to write’, which ‘became so unbearable it made me restless like a beehive touched by smoke. …I went on scribbling furiously’.
Victorian England & Urban Entrapment
Shifting time again back to the late Victorian era and George Gissing, who familiar with the patterns of prison existence having himself contracted emphysema after enduring one month’s hard labour in a correctional institution, gives us a brief insight into the prison world from an outsider’s perspective in his novel ‘The Nether World’. The narrator recalls ‘A man distraught with agony. The eyes stared wildly from their sockets, the hair struggled in maniac disorder, the forehead was wrung with torture’, each moment of suffering that he has undergone can be read in the deep folds of his weary skin. The prisoner’s physical disarray and maltreated body is a reflection of the mental disarray inflicted on him by incarceration, illustrating imprisonment as a both harrowing and maddening process. Furthermore, Gissing’s depiction of London defined by ‘the corruptions and miseries of a centre of modern life’ is evocative of the urban prison experience and suggests Victorian London was much like a prison house.
History is a Prison
In conclusion, Rousseau believed that ‘chains’ and imprisonment are something perverse and against nature, yet what we have seen proves almost to the contrary. We notice that in whatever time-frame or wherever we find man, be this medieval France and Persia, 20th century India, Stalin’s Russia, Victorian England, under colonisation or even in our everyday society; the shadow of captivity is never far. Of course, there is much reason in Rousseau’s argument that imprisonment is unnatural, after all each citizen is born with their own body and their own natural right to control it. Yet still we attempt to ensure our own protection through the control and entrapment of others since as Darwin recognised, survival is man’s most natural instinct. It is thus, a somewhat gloomy reality that with human life comes human imprisonment, for those that threaten our own survival must be exiled from society (and even the gene pool). It seems it is only the manner of expression people use to come to terms through writing with this enslavement of their bodies and so in turn of their minds, which seems to differ through the ages. So individualism creeps through prisons windows, stealthily slipping itself beneath the prison pen.
Still, prison literature is not only emotionally soothing for its author, but also serves to encourage its reader to question the validity of morality as a concept. Each society has its own notion of morality and hence, its own notion of a criminal. In one society, the theft of a bread roll may be met with a scream & a timely chop of the hand; in another, money laundering of an entire bakery chain may be met with a knowing smirk & a golden handshake.
‘With no sin I am prisoner’ claims Salman and so we begin to understand that society can be rather a straitjacket since the prisoners do not seem intrinsically nefarious, but rather appear to be merely ordinary people in conflict with the current morality of their society. In truth, we come to identify with and even admire their ability to deal with the often almost inhuman traumas of prison existence. We find a quiet heroism and nobility in these characters, whom society has deemed immoral and criminal.
‘I met some extraordinary people, especially among those of grave crimes. Some inspired respect, all inspired intrigue.’ – Sher Jung’s Diaries
The majestic eagle, whose stoic glare penetrates through the bars of his claustrophobic prison, recalls a delicious former existence of wild liberation & futile killings. As he sits with predatory melancholy in his now eternal cage, we do not deem him good or evil; he is but a bird.The prisoner who hunches behind his disturbing window onto the outer world that he cannot reach, replays with relish a lifetime of atrocities inflicted on his fellow kind. Who are we to condemn him as good or evil? We are but men, he is but human.
*Please note, this week’s photos are not my own*
‘You can take away our names and replace them with numbers or cages and store us in conditions not even fit for your family dog, exterminate us at your whim, but we are still human beings, capable of everything from love and beauty to violence and hate.’ – Thomas B. Whitaker, current Texas death row detainee (#999522).