Kraus on Morisi (2020)

Morisi, Ève. Capital Letters: Hugo, Baudelaire, Camus, and the Death Penalty. Northwestern UP, 2020, pp. xiv + 265, ISBN 978-0-8101-4151-3

Ève Morisi has written extensively on the death penalty concerning the work of Albert Camus and Charles Baudelaire. In her new book Capital Letters, she reconsiders these two authors along with Victor Hugo. She wishes to bring to light an “ongoing dialogue” among the three on the topic of corporal punishment, investigating “the reciprocal relationship between poetics and ethics.” (45). The authors in her study have produced various types of “capital literature,” which she defines as featuring not only “capital punishment and its imagery, [but also] matters of life and death that challenge both conscience and representability.” Such literature, Morisi argues, also performs “crucial work in sharpening our critical understanding of justice at the extremes” (11).

The first two chapters focus on Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné, which Morisi examines from an abolitionist perspective. In addition to offering general background on Hugo and abolitionism, she uncovers thought-provoking information, like the fact that texts written by actual condemned prisoners were published in newspapers prior to Hugo’s book (28). She contends that the rhetorical devices of erasure and ellipsis do to the text what the Law seeks to do to the condamné: he is only described by “his joints (wrists, neck, elbows, armpits, knees) and bodily extremities (hands, foot, chin, and ears; chapters XII, XLVIII),” which she sees reflected in Hugo’s paintings as well (46). 

Overall, Morisi’s intervention with respect to Hugo’s stance on abolition focuses on his style: the precocious nouveau roman’s “plea” is in the narrative’s “poetic modalities” (19). Through its disruption and recusal of traditional diegetic values, “Hugo creates a strange, indefectible solidarity between his desperate condemned man and the reader […]” (44). She also unveils how Hugo’s work stops short of Foucault’s conclusions regarding France’s penal evolution where “the soul replaced the body as target of punishment” (45). Although the erasure of the condemned man’s body and focus on his innermost thoughts lines up with Foucault’s argument, “Hugo’s catharsis-free tragedy […] seeks to have the character’s suffering contaminate the reader” (55). This contamination of the reader does not support Foucault’s conclusions which trace “the emergence of a penal “comedy,” with “impalpable entities,” in lieu of “a certain kind of tragedy” centered on “the body and the blood” (54).

In the next two chapters, Morisi turns her focus to Baudelaire, while still keeping Hugo in sight, as Baudelaire’s defense of the death penalty was partially an attack on Hugo and partially a desire to carve out his own original opinions. For Morisi “the valorization of capital punishment first seems to have imposed itself as a means rather than an end for Baudelaire [since it could] elicit a vivid reaction in his reader […]” (75). She highlights debates about the death penalty between the two authors in their published works, such as the one uncovered by Jean-Marc Hovasse in Baudelaire’s “Le gâteau,” in response to a passage from part five of Hugo’s Les Misérables, which itself was a response to Baudelaire’s “Le cygne.” (88). Morisi builds on Hovasse’s argument to propose a connection between “Le gâteau” and Baudelaire’s original project of rewriting Hugo's Claude Gueux; thus, she re-envisions the two authors’ literary discussion in distinctly morbid terms, tying it into the central theme of the death penalty. 

Even as Morisi establishes the va-et-vient between Baudelaire and Hugo, she also reviews Baudelaire’s poetry and sources, especially Joseph de Maistre, to uncover their weaker points. What emerges from Morisi’s reading is that at the heart of Baudelaire’s work lies the idea that the fates of the victime (criminal/victim), the bourreau (executioner), and even the reader, are interchangeable. None among the three can claim a superior moral status with respect to the other two. “L'Héautontimorouménos” and, “less overtly, other poems point to the boucher-bourreau’s vulnerability and the impossibility of absolute alterity vis-à-vis his victim. Reoccurring themes and figures throughout Les Fleurs du mal reinforce this inflected portrayal of the violent subject […]” (116). For Morisi, it is precisely this sense of commonality and equality in Baudelaire’s writings that undermines his proclaimed support of lethal justice. She even goes so far as to suggest that his argument actually puts forth a critique of capital punishment. Still, I believe Baudelaire’s claim should not be discounted since it may be more an acknowledgement of the concept of entropy. 

The last two chapters focus on Albert Camus, examining works such as L’Étranger, Le Premier Homme, and La Peste. Morisi establishes a parallel between Camus and Hugo, since they both see the usefulness of plain language, yet acknowledge that it “doesn’t suffice to counter the concealing metaphors with which society at large, and lethal judicial powers in particular, perpetrate capital punishment” (206). At first, Camus’ writing on the death penalty seemed to follow that of Hugo. “Unlike Hugo, however, the Nobel laureate does not conceive [his ethics] in a progressive Christian perspectiveespecially as, in his view, such a perspective could support the death penalty by positing eternal life and the existence of a divine justice liable to correct the errors of man’s capital justice” (134). Also differing from Hugo’s focus on mind rather than body, in Camus’s work we find a “somewhat unexpected moral compass […]: the human body.” (158) This brings about social unification since “[f]or the protagonists, the death of ailing bodieson whose materiality the text continually insistsmust be prevented at all costs” (159).

Morisi’s book is a captivating read, showing the similarities and differences among the three authors, and revealing a reciprocal relationship in their ethics and poetics. Her argument of erasure, be it of the condamné’s body and identity in Hugo, of moral superiority in Baudelaire, or of literary jargon in Camus offers a new and refreshing way of rediscovering these texts. This book will appeal to scholars researching the death penalty as well as those looking to delve deeper into the works of these important authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Emily Kraus
University of Georgia (Athens)