An abandoned child manifests evil instincts in his early childhood. He robs the poor peasants who adopted him. Though reprimanded, he persists. He escapes from the reformatory into which he had to be put, steals and plunders more than ever and, in addition, prostitutes himself. He lives in squalor, committing petty thefts and begging. He sleeps with everybody and betrays everyone. Nothing can discourage his zeal. This is the moment he chooses for devoting himself deliberately to evil. He decides that he will do the worst in every circumstance and, as he has come to realize that the greatest crime was not the doing of evil but the manifesting of evil, he writes, in prison, abominable books which stand up for crime and which fall within the provisions of the law. Precisely for that reason he will cease to be abject and squalid and will get out of prison. His books are printed and read. A stage director who has been decorated by the Legion of Honor mounts one of his plays which incites to murder. The President of the Republic nullifies the sentence he was supposed to serve for his latest offenses, precisely because he boasted in his books of having committed them. And when he is introduced to one of his former victims, she says to him: 'Delighted to meet you, sir. Please continue'."
-- Jean-Paul Sartre, Distillation of the Life of Genet
Murder and Intellectuals (2000, 48" X 36", acrylic on canvas) Gary Dobry
Jack Henry Abbott heard, from his prison cell, that Norman Mailer was writing a book, Executioner's Song, about executed murderer Gary Gilmore. Murder was something that Jack Henry Abbott told Mailer he knew about! Abbott even described to Mailer, in great detail, how it felt to stab someone to death and to watch him die. If Mailer was going to write this book on Gilmore, murder and the American judicial system, then he, Abbott assured Mailer, was his man! The compilation of Abbott's letters to Mailer became, entirely due to Mailer's valiant effort, the 1981 bestseller, In the Belly of the Beast, and Abbott, a self-proclaimed murderer, became the darling of the New York City literati.
At the age of thirty-seven, Abbott was paroled from the Marion Federal Prison in Illinois. Mailer got Abbott out of prison on a work-release program. His release coincided with the release of In the Belly of the Beast, which was being heralded, at the time, as a major literary achievement. Jean Paul Sartre said that an "intellectual" is someone who "meddles outside their own area of expertise." Abbott, except for a short-lived escape from prison in 1971, had been incarcerated in one institution or another since the time he was thirteen years old. Abbott's "area of expertise" was exactly what he told Mailer it was, "murder," "crime," and the "American Judicial System".Mailer, the classic intellectual, was, in dealing with Abbott, "meddling " in an area "outside his area of expertise"!
In 1952 Sartre wrote:
He decides that he will do the worst in every circumstance and, as he has come to realize that the greatest crime was not the doing of evil but the manifesting of evil, he writes, in prison, abominable books which stand up for crime and which fall within the provisions of the law. Precisely for that reason he will cease to be abject and squalid and will get out of prison.
Sartre was writing about Jean Genet, The Distillation of the Life of Genet. Sartre was Genet's Mailer! Sartre was a Parisian intello and literati!
What I find most striking is the fact that Genet got out of prison because of Sartre, just like Abbott got out of prison because of Mailer.
Genet defined his homosexuality as his "Hell." Genet said, after reading Sartre's Saint Genet, he felt a "kind of disgust." He said he "saw himself naked and denuded" by someone other than "himself." Sartre saw Genet's homosexuality as a latent function of his life in prison. Genet adored and fantasized about murderers. He freely admits to committing crimes for the sole reason of getting back into prison so he could, once again, be close to the murderers he desired. French law stated that if you committed over 20-something crimes, you were a lifer!
Now, in In the Belly of the Beast, Abbott talks about all the philosophers he had read in prison, Nietzche, Kant, Marx, etc. Could it be that when reading Sartre, Abbott read that the "greatest crime" was not "doing evil" but the "manifesting of evil"? Could Abbott have read about writing "from prison, abominable books which stand up for crime" but "fall within the provisions of the law"? Could Abbott have read about "getting out of prison"?
What Abbott needed was an "intellectual"! Abbott needed someone to "meddle" outside their own "area of expertise," like Sartre did with Genet to get Abbott out of prison. It was Abbott who started writing to Mailer, and it was Mailer, Mailer the intellectual, that was conned by Abbott. There's a reason they're called "cons" you know. But, there is also a reason guys like Mailer are called "intellectuals" too! The guy off the street would've been too hip to fall for Abbott's game, but not an intellectual! Abbott, in my opinion, knew exactly who he was writing and for what reason: to get out of prison!
Abbott was released from Marion in 1981. Mailer got him out of prison on a work-release program.
Mailer: "This guy isn't a murderer, he's an artist!"
Even though Abbott described in chilling detail how it felt to kill a man, Mailer the intellectual, got Abbott freed from prison. Just six weeks later Abbott stabbed to death Binibon Café night-manager Richard Adan, a twenty-two year old kid, on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Last I heard of the persecuted Abbott, he had converted to Judaism.
Gary Dobry is a painter and a writer. He is represented by the Judy A. Saslow Gallery in Chicago and his novel, Kingdom Come, published by Hats Off Press, is available anywhere books are sold. Dobry studied painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, studied at the Universite' de Paris and recieved his Diplome de Francaise from the Sorbonne in Paris. Dobry was named by Pioneer Press as one of the "Important Artists of the New Millineum" and has been featured on PBS's ArtBeat, CLTV, The Chicago Tribune and The Daily Herald. His current showi at the Judy A. Saslow Gallery runs through December 28th, 2000. You can see Dobry's work on his webpage : http://www.onthecanvas.com.