Archive for February 12th, 2012

1937: Tom Steinbock and Juan Mirbol in Sartre’s The Wall

Add comment February 12th, 2012 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the Spanish Civil War, two principal characters are shot in Jean-Paul Sartre‘s first short story, “The Wall”.

“Le Mur” in French, a title also suggesting the dead spirits of Roman mythology, “The Wall” was penned in 1937 as Sartre’s personal response* to the Spanish Civil War.


Sartre published “The Wall” at almost the exact same time — summer 1937 — as Picasso finished Guernica. (Guernica was bombed in April 1937.)

“The Wall” is highly non-specific as to time and circumstance; a mention of “winter” — as of writing, the winter of 1937 was the only one yet elapsed in the conflict — and a few disembodied calendar indicators like “the 9th” and “Tuesday”.

Instead, it’s an existential reflection on the inscrutability of death. The narrator, one Pablo Ibbieta, awaits the morning’s firing squad with an International Brigade volunteer named Tom Steinbock and a Spanish innocent named Juan Mirbal.

All three of us watched [a Belgian doctor] because he was alive. He had the motions of a living human being, the cares of a living human being; he shivered in the cellar the way the living are supposed to shiver; he had an obedient, well-fed body. The rest of us hardly felt ours — not in the same way anyhow. I wanted to feel my pants between my legs but I didn’t dare; I watched the Belgian, balancing on his legs, master of his muscles, someone who could think about tomorrow. There we were, three bloodless shadows; we watched him and we sucked his life like vampires. …

In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm — because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. …

[Juan] wept: I could clearly see he was pitying himself; he wasn’t thinking about death. For one second, one single second, I wanted to weep myself, to weep with pity for myself. But the opposite happened: I glanced at the kid, I saw his thin sobbing shoulders and I felt inhuman: I could pity neither the others nor myself. I said to myself, “I want to die cleanly.”

Tom and Juan go to the wall that morning.

Pablo, an anarchist, is subjected to one last interrogation before he’s shot: the fascists are hunting a confederate of his, and they offer Pablo his life in exchange for giving up the whereabouts of this Ramon Gris. “His life had no more value than mine; no life had value,” Pablo muses. “They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference.” Impulsively, almost whimsically, he directs them to a cemetery as a bogus location: “It was a farce. I wanted to see them stand up, buckle their belts and give orders busily.”

Except … unbeknownst to Pablo, Ramon Gris had just moved his hiding place to that very cemetery. For reasons as nonsensical as Ibbieta’s own initial condemnation, his life is swapped for Gris’s at the last moment.

* Specifically, according to Sartre, Self-Formation, and Masculinities, after a student asked for help sneaking into Spain to fight the fascists.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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