“If we consider how even now all great political occurrences creep on to the stage silent and shrouded, how they are concealed by insignificant events and seem small in proximity to them, how it is not until long after they have happened that their profound effects are felt and the ground trembles—what significance can we then accord the press as it is now, with its daily expenditure of lungpower on exclaiming, deafening, inciting, shocking—is it anything more than the permanent false alarm that leads ears and senses off in the wrong direction?”– Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (emphasis in original; trans. Hollingdale)

Crucibles and volcanoes

“A Christian who ventured upon forbidden pathways of thought might well ask himself one day: is it really necessary that there should actually be a God, and a deputizing Lamb of God, if belief in the existence of these things suffices to produce the same effects?  Are they not superfluous beings, even supposing they do exist?  For all the benefits, consolations, and moral improvements, as likewise all the darkenings and prostrations, bestowed by the Christian religion upon the human soul proceed from this belief and not from the objects of this belief.  The case here is no different from that other celebrated case: there were, to be sure, no witches, but the terrible effects of the belief in witches were the same as they would have been if there really had been witches.  For all those occasions upon which the Christian expects the direct intervention of a God but does so in vain—because there is no God—his religion is sufficiently inventive in reasons and excuses to pacify him: in this it is certainly an ingenious religion. — Faith has hitherto been unable to move any real mountains, to be sure, even though I know not who asserted it could; but it is able to place mountains where there were none before.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (emphasis in original; trans. Hollingdale)

Putting things in perspective

“Christianity is the religion of antiquity grown old, its presupposition is degenerated ancient cultures; on these it could and can act as a balm.  In ages in which ears and eyes are ‘filled with mud’, so that they are no longer capable of hearing the voice of reason and philosophy, or of seeing wisdom in bodily form, whether it bear the name of Epictetus or Epicurus: in such ages the cross of martyrdom and the ‘trumpet of the last judgement’ may perhaps still move the peoples to live a decent life.  If one thinks of the Rome of Juvenal, that poison-toad with the eyes of Venus, one learns what it means to confront the ‘world’ with a Cross, one comes to respect the quiet Christian community and is grateful that it overran the Graeco-Roman world.  When most people were born as though with the souls of slaves and the sensuality of old men, what a blessing it must have been to encounter beings who were more soul than body and seemed to be an actualisation of the Greek conception of the shades of Hades: modest, elusive, benevolent figures living in expectation of a ‘better life’ and thereby become so undemanding, so silently contemptuous, so proudly patient! — This Christianity as the evening-bell of good antiquity, a bell broken and weary yet still sweet-sounding, is a balm to the ears even for him who now wanders through these centuries only as a historian: what must it have been for the men of these centuries themselves! — On the other hand, for youthful, vigorous barbarians Christianity is poison; to implant the teaching of sinfulness and damnation into the heroic, childish and animal soul of the ancient Germans, for example, is nothing other than to poison it; a quite tremendous chemical fermentation and decomposition, a confusion of feelings and judgements, a rank exuberance of every kind of fantasy must have been the outcome, and thus in the longer run a fundamental enfeeblement of such barbarians. — One must, to be sure, ask what, without this enfeeblement, there would have been left to us of Greek culture! of the entire cultural past of the human race! — for the barbarian races untouched by Christianity were capable of doing away with ancient cultures altogether: as, for example, was demonstrated with fearful clarity by the pagan conquerors of Romanized Britain.  Christianity was obliged against its will to assist in making the ‘world’ of antiquity immortal. — Here too there still remains another counter-question and the possibility of a counter-reckoning: if it had not been enfeebled by the poison referred to, would one or other of these vigorous peoples, the German possibly, have perhaps been capable of gradually finding a higher culture for themselves, one of their own, a new one? — of which, as things are, mankind has not now the remotest conception? — Thus it is the same here as everywhere: one does not know, to speak the language of Christianity, whether God owes more gratitude to the Devil or the Devil more gratitude to God for everything having turned out as it has.”– Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (emphasis in original; trans. Hollingdale)

And the hangover

“To make plans and project designs brings with it many good sensations; and whoever had the strength to be nothing but a forger of plans his whole life long would be a very happy man: but he would occasionally have to take a rest from this activity by carrying out a plan — and then comes the vexation and the sobering up.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (trans. Hollingdale)

The views from everywhere

“The task of painting the picture of life, however often poets and philosophers may pose it, is nonetheless senseless: even under the hands of the greatest of painter-thinkers all that has ever eventuated is pictures and miniatures out of one life, namely their own–and nothing else is even possible.  Something in course of becoming cannot be reflected as a firm and lasting image, as a ‘the’, in something else in course of becoming.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (emphasis in original; trans. Hollingdale)

God’s only excuse is he doesn’t exist

“The twentieth century, with its scores of millions of supernumerary dead, has been called the age of ideology.  And the age of ideology, clearly, was a mere hiatus in the age of religion, which shows little sign of expiry.  Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any single faith or creed, let us start disparaging all of them.  To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever.  Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful.  It is straightforward—and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.” – Martin Amis, The Second Plane

A bit of a sticky wicket

“When the socialists show that the division of property among present-day mankind is the outcome of countless acts of injustice and violence, and in summa repudiate any obligation towards something having so unjust a foundation, they are seeing only one aspect of the matter.  The entire past of the old culture was erected upon force, slavery, deception, error; but we, the heirs and inheritors of all these past things, cannot decree our own abolition and may not wish away a single part of them.  The disposition to injustice inhabits the souls of the non-possessors too, they are no better than the possessors and have no moral prerogative over them, for their own ancestors were at some time or other possessors.  What is needed is not a forcible redistribution but a gradual transformation of mind: the sense of justice must grow greater in everyone, the instinct for violence weaker.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (trans. Hollingdale)

The simple pleasure

“I miss the rain.  I miss standing beneath the sky and looking up at the moon and stars.  I miss the wind.  I miss cats and dogs.  I miss wearing real clothes, having a real toothbrush, using a real pen, drinking iced tea, eating ice cream, and going for walks.

“I’m tempted to say the thing I miss most is fruit.  I haven’t had a piece of fresh fruit in about eight years, and before that I only got it once a year.  The prison used to give everyone two apples and two oranges on Christmas, but then they stopped, said it was a ‘threat to security,’ along with tea bags and dental floss.  So I haven’t had any in nearly a decade now.  They prevent scurvy by giving everyone a cup of watered-down orange juice for breakfast.  It doesn’t have much taste, but enough vitamin C to keep your teeth from falling out.

“In the end, it’s not the fruit I miss the most, though if you rolled all the deprivations into one thing, it would be this: I miss being treated like a human being.” – Damien Echols, Life After Death

A plague upon our houses

“Sometimes it’s even more disturbing to see the cases of mental retardation on Death Row than it is to see the insane.  I say this because there is often something very childlike in the actions of the retarded.  To see a retarded person being led to execution is an abomination.  It’s something that should never happen, yet it does.  Sometimes even innocent retarded people are executed, which is a double travesty.  There was a guy here who had the IQ of a child, and it was common knowledge that he did not commit the crime he was convicted of.  He was here because he was taking the blame for something his brother had done.  He was eventually executed in his brother’s place.  The guy was blatantly and obviously retarded, and he lived on a diet of potato chips, candy bars, and cake.  He acquired the money for these things from a nun who came to see him every so often.  Sometimes his mother would come see him, and since they had nothing to talk about they would both put their heads down on the table and sleep.  It was heartbreaking to witness.  I don’t recall ever seeing him take a shower.  He just sat silently in his cell until the day he was killed.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

In the bottomlands

“For many people in prison their worst fear is going insane, because once you do all hope is lost.  You will be locked up not only within these walls, but also within your own rapidly degenerating mind.  There is no help, and you wouldn’t even be able to work on your own case in order to get your death sentence converted.  You would sit in a cell playing with feces and screaming at phantoms that no one else could see.  This is not the place you want to lose your marbles.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

The living dead

“The prison system makes no effort to help the mentally ill.  There are no therapy sessions, no treatments, no cutting-edge drugs.  The only thing they do is shoot them full of Thorazine if they start to get riled up.  You can spot a man doing the Thorazine shuffle from a mile away.  His every action takes ten times longer than it should, because it takes him a Herculean effort to move.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

An actual matter of life and death

“The mentally handicapped are executed on a regular basis while the politicians all give speeches about being tough on crime.  I’ve never come across a single murderer who possessed the mental faculties required to fully comprehend the horror of what they have done.  They are not emotionally developed enough to feel empathy.  They live lives of nightmare, yet are not even capable of realizing that.  They are the dregs of humanity, both by birth and choice.  Prison and the prison mentality are not what society has been led to believe they are.  These people cannot even take care of themselves, and they suffer from every health problem imaginable.  There are no attractive murderers here.  It’s like the ugliness inside them manages to transform their facial features so that the outside resembles the inside.  There are no conversations here.  There are threats, taunts, and screams, but a conversation is an impossibility.  Concepts such as love, honor, and self-respect are as foreign to this place as French cuisine.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

The truth about the lies

“I live with men who haven’t been in contact with reality for years.  The truth is that insanity is rampant on Death Row, as is retardation.  The law says that the insane and the mentally retarded (the law’s terminology, not mine) cannot be executed, yet it happens on a regular basis.  It’s both sad and frightening.  It’s sad because many of them don’t even comprehend that they’re on Death Row or what awaits them.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

Domain of recidivists

“No routine or spiritual practice in the world will dim the reality of daily life on Death Row.  A normal person does not commit murder.  For almost seventeen years I’ve waited for someone to walk through the door whom I could have a conversation with, but it just doesn’t happen.  The people here are all mentally defective in ways that range from mild retardation to extreme schizophrenia.  Others are stuck in some no-man’s-land between sanity and delusion.  There are no criminal geniuses walking these halls.  Most not only are culturally illiterate, but also can barely manage to express themselves in English.  I have never met a prisoner with a college education, and I can count the high school graduates on one hand.  Nearly all lived in absolute poverty, and most were abused in one way or another.  Not a single one of them is capable of functioning normally in society, and it’s not a skill they’re likely to learn when locked in a cell among others who are as bad or worse.  I’ve yet to see any sign of ‘rehabilitation,’ or any program designed to bring about that aim.  Most of the people you meet in prison have been here repeatedly.  Some have been to prison three or four times before making it to Death Row.  They claim to hate and despise everything about prison, but they always come back.  It’s like they’re collecting frequent flyer miles in hell.  They themselves can’t explain it, falling back on excuses such as ‘It’s hard to stay out once you’re in.’  Why?  How?  It’s hard to refrain from snatching an old woman’s purse?  It’s somehow difficult to prevent yourself from committing rape?  Somehow you accidentally found yourself burglarizing a house or stealing a car?” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

The land that time forgot

“There is no time in prison, unless you create it for yourself.  People on the outside seem to believe time passes slowly in prison, but it doesn’t.  The truth is that time doesn’t pass at all.  It’s an eternal vacuum, and each moment is meaningless because it has no context.  Tomorrow may as well be yesterday.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death

The rule of the corruption

“I was taken into a broom closet filled with cleaning supplies, and was handed a stack of papers while two cops stood staring at me.  My brain was so numb I could comprehend only about one-fifth of what I was reading, but at least now I knew who had made the confession.  The name written at the top was ‘Jessie Misskelley.’  My first thought was, Did he really do it?  Followed quickly by, Why did he say I did it?  Even in my shell-shocked state I could tell something about his ‘confession’ wasn’t right.  For one thing, every line seemed to contradict the one before it.  Any idiot could plainly see he was just agreeing with everything the cops said.  That’s when I knew why the judge didn’t want to read it our loud.  Anyone with even an average IQ could see it was a setup.  The whole thing seemed shady.

“It’s no great wonder to me how the cops could make Jessie say the things they wanted him to say.  If they treated him anything like they did me, then it’s quite amazing that he didn’t have a nervous breakdown.  They used both physical and psychological torture to break me down.  One minute they’d threaten to kill you, and the next they’d behave as if they were your best friends in the world, and that everything they were doing was for your own good.  They shoved me into walls, spit at me, and never let up for a moment.  When one of them got tired, another came in to take his place.  By the time I’d been allowed to go home after previous interrogations I’d had a migraine headache, and I’d been through periods of dry heaving and vomiting.  I survived because when pushed hard enough I acted like an asshole, just like the cops themselves.  My point is that we were just kids.  Teenagers.  And they tortured us.  How could someone like Jessie, with the intellect of a child, be expected to go through that and come out whole?

“It makes me sick and fills me with disgust to think about how the public trusts these people, who are in charge of upholding the law yet torture kids and the mentally handicapped.  People in this country believe the corrupted are the exception.  They’re not.  Anyone who has had in-depth dealings with them knows it’s the rule.  I’ve been asked many times if I’m angry with Jessie for accusing me.  The answer is no, because it’s not Jessie’s fault.  It’s the fault of the weak and lazy ‘civil servants’ who abuse the authority placed in their hands by people who trust them.  I’m angry with police who would rather torture a retarded kid than look for a murderer.  I’m angry with corrupt judges and prosecutors who would ruin the lives of three innocent people in order to protect their jobs and further their own political ambitions.  We were nothing but poor trailer trash to them, and they thought no one would even miss us.  They thought they could take our lives and the matter would end there, all swept under the rug.” — Damien Echols, Life After Death (emphasis in original)

Death before death

“In this part of the world all shrines are built to honor the great spirit of mediocrity.  The celebrations are for mediocre events, and everyone praises a mediocre god.  Heads upon pillows dream mediocre dreams and loins all give birth to mediocre offspring.  At the end of a pointless life awaits a mediocre death.  Love comes wrapped in a bland little package and fulfillment of the biological urge leads to swift decline.  There are no monuments to greatness in this land of stupor.  Down here in the deep, dark South we know and live with the real world.  Candy-Land idealism is quietly suffocated in the relentless humidity.  This is the world where fist meets face.  This is where the calluses on a man’s hand are bigger than his conscience, and dreams get drowned in sweat and tears.  Mutually assured destruction rides the roads on gun racks in the back windows of pickup trucks.  The goodness of human nature gets packed away with childhood toys, and the only third eye I have is the one I use to watch my back.  Everyone puts on their Sunday best and pays tribute to religion’s slaughterhouse and then dines on a cannibal communion.  People put their backs to the stone in the field and push until their entrails rupture, and they drag their meals from the earth with bleeding hands.  Education is foreign to the sunburned beasts of burden, and the painkiller comes in black-labeled Tennessee bottles.  No one here moves quickly, but everyone moves with absolute certainty.” – Damien Echols, Life After Death (emphasis in original)

“The Lock”

Another story of mine that was published three months ago (in addition to “Extinguisher”) was “The Lock.”  It’s posted this morning to the “Previously Published Stories” sidebar.

“The Lock” was published in NOON and was phenomenally edited by Diane Williams, who runs that magazine.  The original version, though it was not long, was about five times longer than the version she published.  She took that original version, stripped most of it away, rearranged what was left, and said, “Why don’t we try it this way?”  I said, “Okay.”  It was as though she ran a body shop, I drove a school bus in for a tune-up, and drove out a week later with a Formula 1 racer.

Cook’s tour of hell

“The guards brought another tour in today.  This happens every month or so.  Sometimes they bring in a group of teenagers they want to scare into submission.  The kids stand around shuffling their feet as the guards tell them that if they continue living the way they are now, then sooner or later they’ll wind up here.  They always say that Death Row is the worst.  They tell the tourists that in this barracks are the people who would murder their children and rape their grandmothers.  In truth, the people who commit the most heinous crimes aren’t on Death Row.  They’re out in the general prison population with much lighter sentences.  Most of the people on Death Row are here for no other reason than that their case got more publicity than others.  The difference between a man receiving a prison sentence and a man receiving a death sentence could be decided by nothing more than a slow news day.” – Damien Echols, Life After Death

Poverty’s burden, pride’s price

“That year was one of the poorest my family ever lived through.  There was much excitement one day about a week before Christmas when three older men in suits showed up at our door carrying boxes and bags of food.  I think they were either Shriners or Masons, but I can’t remember.  I do remember my mother hugging them all and thanking them over and over while my sister and I ran around their legs like hungry cats, anxious to see what treats were in those sacks.  My mother was crying uncontrollably and kept hugging those men.  They didn’t say much, just told her she was welcome and left as quickly as they came.  This was our Christmas dinner.  We received gifts from such groups more than once.  Most often it was the Salvation Army.

“My father was deeply ashamed for having to accept a handout.  That’s something that gets drilled into the heads of white males in the South from the moment they can speak—never accept anything that you haven’t earned for yourself.  Having to accept the handout deeply wounded my father in some way that pushed him close to the edge of an emotional cliff.  I wasn’t old enough to really understand it; I just knew that my dad was acting strange, and that he was chewing his nails so viciously that sometimes it looked like he was going to put his whole hand in his mouth.  Now I know it’s because a man who accepted a handout wasn’t really seen as being much of a man—especially by the man himself.  Any man with two working arms and legs who signed up on welfare wasn’t seen very differently from a thief, a liar, or a rapist.” – Damien Echols, Life After Death

Eat your carrots or you’ll be hit with this stick

“This must be noted, that it is the nature of such things to be spoiled by defect and excess; as we see in the case of health and strength (since for the illustration of things which cannot be seen we must use those that can), for excessive training impairs the strength as well as deficient: meat and drink, in like manner, in too great or too small quantities, impair the health: while in due proportion they cause, increase, and preserve it.

“Thus it is therefore with the habits of perfected Self-Mastery and Courage and the rest of the Virtues: for the man who flies from and fears all things, and never stands up against anything, comes to be a coward; and he who fears nothing, but goes at everything, comes to be rash. In like manner too, he that tastes of every pleasure and abstains from none comes to lose all self-control; while he who avoids all, as do the dull and clownish, comes as it were to lose his faculties of perception: that is to say, the habits of perfected Self-Mastery and Courage are spoiled by the excess and defect, but by the mean state are preserved.

“Furthermore, not only do the origination, growth, and marring of the habits come from and by the same circumstances, but also the acts of working after the habits are formed will be exercised on the same: for so it is also with those other things which are more directly matters of sight, strength for instance: for this comes by taking plenty of food and doing plenty of work, and the man who has attained strength is best able to do these: and so it is with the Virtues, for not only do we by abstaining from pleasures come to be perfected in Self-Mastery, but when we have come to be so we can best abstain from them: similarly too with Courage: for it is by accustoming ourselves to despise objects of fear and stand up against them that we come to be brave; and after we have come to be so we shall be best able to stand up against such objects.

“And for a test of the formation of the habits we must take the pleasure or pain which succeeds the acts; for he is perfected in Self-Mastery who not only abstains from the bodily pleasures but is glad to do so;  whereas he who abstains but is sorry to do it has not Self-Mastery: he again is brave who stands up against danger, either with positive pleasure or at least without any pain; whereas he who does it with pain is not brave.

“For Moral Virtue has for its object-matter pleasures and pains, because by reason of pleasure we do what is bad, and by reason of pain decline doing what is right (for which cause, as Plato observes, men should have been trained straight from their childhood to receive pleasure and pain from proper objects, for this is the right education).” — Aristotle, The Ethics (ed. Smith)

Work your virtuous muscle

“In whatever cases we get things by nature, we get the faculties first and perform the acts of working afterwards; an illustration of which is afforded by the case of our bodily senses, for it was not from having often seen or heard that we got these senses, but just the reverse: we had them and so exercised them, but did not have them because we had exercised them. But the Virtues we get by first performing single acts of working, which, again, is the case of other things, as the arts for instance; for what we have to make when we have learned how, these we learn how to make by making: men come to be builders, for instance, by building; harp-players, by playing on the harp: exactly so, by doing just actions we come to be just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave.

“And to the truth of this testimony is borne by what takes place in communities: because the law-givers make the individual members good men by habituation, and this is the intention certainly of every law-giver, and all who do not effect it well fail of their intent; and herein consists the difference between a good Constitution and a bad.

“Again, every Virtue is either produced or destroyed from and by the very same circumstances: art too in like manner; I mean it is by playing the harp that both the good and the bad harp-players are formed: and similarly builders and all the rest; by building well men will become good builders; by doing it badly bad ones: in fact, if this had not been so, there would have been no need of instructors, but all men would have been at once good or bad in their several arts without them.

“So too then is it with the Virtues: for by acting in the various relations in which we are thrown with our fellow men, we come to be, some just, some unjust: and by acting in dangerous positions and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we come to be, some brave, others cowards.

“Similarly is it also with respect to the occasions of lust and anger: for some men come to be perfected in selfmastery and mild, others destitute of all self-control and passionate; the one class by behaving in one way under them, the other by behaving in another. Or, in one word, the habits are produced from the acts of working like to them: and so what we have to do is to give a certain character to these particular acts, because the habits formed correspond to the differences of these.

“So then, whether we are accustomed this way or that straight from childhood, makes not a small but an important difference, or rather I would say it makes all the difference.” – Aristotle, The Ethics (ed. Smith)

Patients to themselves, too

“For most of our lives we are all doctors to ourselves.  Not when we’re old, and everything feels so numb and dead, and decency and disgust forbid enquiry.  And not when we are young, and the body is an unexamined ecstasy.  Just the time in between.  Mark them, in coffee shops, on buses, wincing, wondering, doctors to themselves, medicine men and faith healers, diagnosticians and anesthetists, silent consultants to themselves.” — Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow

Heh. Heh. Heh heh heh.

“A sense of humour is a serious business; and it isn’t funny, not having one.  Watch the humourless closely: the cocked and furtive way they monitor all conversation, their flashes of panic as irony or exaggeration eludes them, the relief with which they submit to the meaningless babble of unanimous laughter.  The humourless can programme themselves to relish situations of human farce or slapstick – and that’s about it.  They are handicapped in the head, or mentally ‘challenged’, as Americans say (euphemism itself being a denial of humour). The trouble is that the challenge wins, every time, hands down.” – Martin Amis, “No Laughing Matter”

Famous and dead is still dead

“To hope for the recognition of a distant future makes sense if one assumes that mankind will remain essentially unchanged and that all greatness is bound to be felt as great not only in a single age but in all ages.  This, however, is an error; mankind undergoes great transformations in its feeling for and judgement of what is good and beautiful; it is fantasizing to believe of oneself that one is a mile further on in advance and that all mankind is going along our road.  In addition: a scholar who fails to gain recognition may be quite sure that his discovery will also be made by others and that at the best some future historian will acknowledge that he already knew this or that but was not able to obtain general acquiescence in the matter.  Failure to gain recognition will always be interpreted by posterity as lack of vigour. – In short, one should not be too ready to speak up for proud isolation.  There are of course exceptions; but as a rule it is our faults, weaknesses and follies that hinder recognition of our great qualities.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (emphasis in original; trans. Hollingdale)