Dr. Guillotin and Dr. Faustus

Marc Estrin has published eight novels. His ninth, titled The Good Dr. Guillotin, is being released this September. It is the story of five men whose lives intersect on one day in 1792 in France at an execution in Paris. Like most of Estrin’s work, the novel is about much more than its title indicates–the nature of revolution, science and the state, poverty and freedom. I have known Marc for more than a decade and worked with him on various endeavors. After reading his latest, I began an email exchange with him. Like most moments of repartee with Estrin, the results are entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and not exactly predictable. Check it out.

Ron Jacobs: Hi Marc, let me start with what seems to me to be an obvious question. Your newest book, Good Doctor Guillotin, is, among other things, a meditation on capital punishment. I’m guessing that your work opposing this form of punishment is part of what compelled you to write the novel. Yet, the story is about the invention of the guillotine. Can you talk about how these two sentiments (if that’s what they are) coincide and contradict each other?

Marc Estrin: It’s true that I think of this as “my death-penalty book”. As you know, Vermont has been under pressure from the feds to change its no-death-penalty stance to one conforming more to administration positions concerning capital punishment, and federal prosecutors continue to push for death as an option for federal capital crimes (crimes crossing state boundaries) tried in Vermont, trying to habituate Vermont juries to handing out death sentences, and the public to pressure the legislature to change Vermont statutes prohibiting them. I have written a reflection on a recent local capital trial which may be seen here.

Although the public seems to be less enthusiastic about the death penalty in the last two years, it is with us nevertheless (sometimes shockingly so as in the (upcoming) execution of the likely innocent Troy Davis), and the issue still needs work before we belatedly join the vast majority of nations in abolition.

How, then, to do that work? As with Skulk, my attempted end-run around the general censorship of 9/11 truth, The Good Doctor Guillotin is a reaching out beyond-the-choir of abolitionist regulars to a more general fiction reader who may not ever think about the issue. I had to think about the best way to involve such a person.

My hint was a strong reaction by several readers to the Sacco-Vanzetti chapter in Insect Dreams – that plus my own revulsion at a government planning and accomplishing the death of one of its citizens. It seems that detailed recounting of the prelude and countdown to an execution has strong, affective fascination, usually accompanied by a kind of identifying fear and horror often absent when we read reports of executions elsewhere. The end of A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the supreme example.

That book certainly contributed to my choice of the French Revolution as a setting for an execution, but more than that was the stark theme of good intentions making things worse, humane science evolving into terror. Modern “improvements” in execution techniques — hanging to electric chair to gas to lethal injection – are motivated by far more technical and less revealing considerations, and so Guillotin’s situation was a very rich choice. He was in fact a good man turned into a monster by his ameliorations. So are many of us. But he knew it, too – which is what makes him so interesting a figure.

The downside of this choice is that the book may be mis-read as simply a historical novel about the French Revolution, ho-hum, that was a long time ago. I tried to block off that reception with the inclusion of contemporary essays in my own non-historical voice.

RJ: Similarly, this book also seems to be about the nature of revolution. One might frame the question this way: how do such good intentions — Liberte, equalite, fraternite — end up so horribly? Is it because the forces that are overthrown and have lost their privilege usually attack rather bloodily in an attempt to regain what they have lost or is it merely revenge on the part of the victors that were oppressed by the vanquished? Or is it something else?

ME: Having chosen the French Revolution as a setting, I spent six months reading everything I could about it, from many different authors. Because the story was to end with the first execution, and thus before the Terror, I might have limited my research to those years of preparation. But the beyond-the-novel question of how the hell the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen ended up with mass slaughter seemed so compelling, so contemporary, so relevant to our own murderous march through the world preaching “democracy”, that I spent much time trying to understand that shift.

I’m no historian or real scholar, but it did seem to me that much hinged on the moment when the Revolution went from fighting its external enemies – the royal armies of states threatened by the demise of royalty – to, having successfully defeated them, worrying about the less visible threat of internal ones – those citizens who may be secretly plotting to overthrow, or undermine, or even think about criticism of the Revolution or a return to parts of the past. Who can know what anyone is thinking? Therefore anyone may be a suspect. And any suspect will of course declare innocence. It therefore became life-preserving to speak in a certain way, to use certain words, to wear certain clothing – like wearing an American flag pin – in order to pass. Alertness for counter revolutionaries was high, and among those in power, especially Robespierre, turned into what most would agree as frank paranoia.

“The enemy within” – a most dangerous conception to be floating free in a society. We’ve seen many examples of its destructiveness. I’ve recently written a piece about two of them as a warning concerning the current mental attitude of many Israelis concerning Palestinians. You can see that here. One telltale symptom of this pathology is when a movement starts to “eat its own children.” The struggle between Robespierre and Danton was so rich in this regard, that at least two great artists have seized upon it: Büchner, in his play, Danton’s Death, and Andrej Wajda in his film, Danton. Both treatments, though poetic fiction, have enriched understanding of revolutionary struggle.

Another way good intentions go astray is via an instinct for hyper-protection when an individual, a movement, a revolution, or a nation feels itself particularly vulnerable. Though the event was created, and the fear cynically manipulated, the reaction to 9/11 is a good example. I treated that issue in my novel, Golem Song. The Golem — a central Jewish myth — was a huge clay figure built and given life by a 16th century magician/rabbi to protect the Jewish community in Prague from a likely pogrom. Unlike Frankenstein’s creature, the Golem was built not to understand better the mystery of life, but entirely for protective, potentially punitive purposes. But like the creature, the Golem got out of hand, destroying that not meant to be destroyed. “Golemism,” I call it. I see Golemism as the global marker of our times, hyperprotection leading to hyperdestruction.

RJ: My favorite character in the novel is the hapless Nicholas Pelletier — a man for whom everything he tries ends up badly. Although he is the man for whom the revolution was supposedly fought, he becomes the blade’s first victim. Is this end meant to be just a continuation of his bad luck or is there something deeper involved?

ME: Yes, he was the man for whom the revolution was supposedly fought, but 1) was he? And 2) what else was he?

Remember that except for the year of the Terror, the French Revolution was a bourgeoise one, led primarily by lawyers and rich merchants with the striking assistance of the progressive nobility. They were fighting not for Pelletier, but to wrest power away from the nobility and the clergy. In theory, the revolution declared “the rights of man”, but it was for bourgeois man those rights were proclaimed. Some idealists (Robespierre among them!) kept the Pelletiers in mind as they made their lengthy, highly educated speeches. Some, of course, like Marat, were all about the poor, but Marat and the Père Duchêne were rabble-rousers, and the philosophers of the Enlightenment were not about rousing rabble, but rousing consciousness. Liberty, as here and now, had its limits, equality was hardly reachable, except in theory, and fraternity had its mentally gated communities. The Masonic lodges came closest to a mixing of social levels, but one can scarcely imagine a Pelletier at a Masonic lodge.

No, Pelletier slipped into being a mauvais pauvre — part of pre-industrial class of society that was beneath consideration, beyond repair, and only to be controlled by an ever-expanding police apparatus. He began as a peasant, like most of his countrymen. But consecutive years of drought and freeze destroyed much of France’s agricultural economy, and there was no government help available because the national treasury had been looted to pay for foreign wars (most notably our own revolution, a proxy war against the real enemy, England.) Where have we heard this before? Just as Obama’s rescue packages robs the poor to enrich the rich, so did the realities of the Revolution leave the Pelletiers behind.

I like the little scene where an enlightened doctor offers him the opportunity to transform from a despised criminal to a hero of science by making his detached head wink on signal. I made up this incident up, but it does reflect a grand controversy about whether there was consciousness after decapitation, and whether, therefore the humane rationale for decapitation was warranted. Note the attention to this kind of detail, while the larger question (again raised by Robespierre and only a few others in the National Assembly) of capital punishment went by the boards. Like many things today, national health care, for instance, or stopping the wars, it was considered “not politically feasible.”

RJ: While reading the novel I found myself thinking about the nature of religious faith versus the nature of scientific thought–arguably one of the battles being fought at an intellectual level during the period the novel takes place. This conflict has a revived significance in today’s world what with the rise of religious fundamentalism from Afghanistan to Topeka, Kansas. Yet, underneath the apparent rationality of science there also seems to be an element of irrational belief required for one to take the next step and accept science’s logic. Your first book Insect Dreams touched on this in its portrayal of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project. Care to comment?

ME: One of the most striking things I discovered while filling in my knowledge of the French Revolution was the central role of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in creating a counter-revolutionary backlash, especially in the western rural areas of Brittany and the Vendée. Those impassioned movements affected my choice of origin for Pelletier and his wife, and infused much of the internal conflict of the curé Pierre Grenier, the only completely invented character. His role in the novel is to illustrate precisely the anguished interactions of faith, doubt, science, revolutionary fervor, and the human heart.

Having been trained as a scientist myself, I both admire its finesse, and loathe its dismissal of the larger, if cloudier, dimensions of the lived world. The chapter, “Death by a Thousand Cuts” in Insect Dreams was my indictment of that limited world view, certainly faith-based, that science is the definitive guide to reality, and arbiter of right action. The scientists of the Manhattan Project, faced with the collapse of their raison d’être, refused to stop before testing their bomb on human beings.

This conflict, this pattern, supplies one of the continuing themes of many of my novels — the Faustian bargain: desire for knowledge and “progress” without considering the cost and consequences. Guillotin’s story is an archetype of this, our ongoing, hubristic, human tragedy.

RJ: Ah yes… the Faustian bargain. I think we’ve all made a few–at least at a personal level–to get a job or maintain a relationship. However, the ones I’m more interested in are those that we make in the political/economic realm as a people. Last November’s election appears to me as a Faustian bargain of this type. Hell, every election is a Faustian bargain of a sort. Anyhow, back to the more general one we make as residents of the United States — we know what our government, its military and the corporate/financial monoliths do to maintain our standard of living… and we support it, if only tacitly. Keeping Nicholas Pelletier in mind, one could argue that it is only the criminals and others — those that Bob Dylan called “the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked”–that do not make this bargain. But then, they probably make their own with Mephistopheles in another form. I guess my question is–can any human in our modern society avoid the Faustian deal?

: Faustian bargain:

Let’s make some distinctions because not every bargain is a Faustian bargain. The key dynamic in the Faustian bargain is a quest – for knowledge, or power, or the establishment of some ideal – with every attainment receiving some unexpected blowback, usually a just punishment.

I don’t think the US elections represent a Faustian bargain: we certainly don’t learn anything from them, nor do we get any power, nor do we further any ideal. Rather the opposite in each case. So I’m not even sure what “bargain” we, or Pelletier, or any of the forsaked have entered into, much less Faustian ones.

The dynamic there (here) seems to be pure submission to power and exploitation – which is largely the case with voters (excepting the power elite) in the US.

Given that understanding, I would put your question rather differently:

1. Can any human in our modern society get any kind of bargain at all – something symbiotically quid pro quo?

2. Can any human in our modern society find a Faustian bargain on the racks?

The first is a complex question, given the resources spent to create false consciousness. “If you protect me from terrorists, I will give up my civil liberties, and engage in torture.” I suppose that’s a bargain of sorts. Etc.

The second is also complex, though I suspect less so because the group under discussion is smaller. Who are the humans in modern society who are in a position to gain knowledge, power, or their ideals? The elite, who are usually less than knowledgeable about consequences, or worse, impervious to them. “I don’t really give a shit how many Indian farmers die, as long as my net worth goes up.” Well-funded scientists
often discover things, most often of use in keeping the power imbalance intact.

The Mephistophelian dimension to the Faustian Bargain indicates that what is at issue is supernatural power brought to bear on humans who can’t handle it. Given the secularization of modern society, I suppose we have to translate that into the dynamic between the “spiritual” innerworld, and the political/economic realm. Here, I think, bargains can be made, though given the economic/social cost of say, discovering that one should drop out of society, they may often lead to Faustian hell.

RJ: What about the bargains one makes when working for an employer like General Dynamics? Or the bargain one makes by reaping the benefits of that corporation being in the tax base? Or the bargain one makes to have a nice car and pretty skin? The quests involved may be pecuniary and venal, but they are quests.

ME: I think those are “bargains” similar to “I’ll trade my civil liberties (and morality) for your protection.” Bargains in quotes, but not Faustian ones.

RJ: Until next time. Onward.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Annie Ladysmith said on September 19th, 2009 at 11:42pm #

    Mr. Ron, Sir,
    I’d rather someone riped my nails out with pliers than read your pithy, intellectual crap E-MAILS with a writer of fiction, whoever he is. The guillotinE will be back soon, the hordes will rage, who needs fiction?

  2. joseph said on September 20th, 2009 at 7:11am #

    No one is forcing you to read it. Your desire to remain ignorant is your choice.

  3. Annie Ladysmith said on September 20th, 2009 at 4:06pm #

    JOSEPH THE WISE! looks like folks felt the same as me, no-one read it! You can’t get my kind of knowledge out of a book, if you have, then you’re a moron.

  4. Andy said on October 1st, 2009 at 7:48am #

    How far would you go to get your ‘kind of knowledge’? or is what you ‘re actually after more like – your kind on rage? Go ahead – get angry again! say something mean.