The Prisoner’s Confession Was a Verboballistic Invention
By PAUL DELANY
I, PIERRE RIVIERE, HAVING SLAUGHTERED MY MOTHER, MY SISTER, AND MY BROTHER…
A case of Parricide in the 19th Century.Edited by Michel Foucault. Translated by Frank Jellinek.
On June 3, 1835, a 20-year-old Normandy peasant named Pierre Riviere went to his mother’s house and murdered her with a pruning hook; he then killed his sister and a little brother with the same weapon. Leaving the house, he told a neighbor, “I have just delivered my father from all his tribulations. I know that they will put me to death, but no matter.”
Riviere took refuge in the forest, where he lived for months on plants and roots. He then allowed himself to be arrested. This book presents three viewpoints on the question: what is to be done with a person who commits a brutal and apparently perverse crime? We are given the dossier of the contemporary legal proceedings in Riviere’s case; then his remarkable autobiography, composed in prison; finally a collection of modern essays on Riviere by members of a seminar at the College de France directed by the eminent psychiatrist and historian Michel Foucault, author of “Madness and Civilization.”
To the Prosecutor, Riviere’s aberration stemmed from his refusal to accept the discipline that an organic society necessarily imposes on its members: “Solitary, wild, and cruel, that is Pierre Riviere as seen from the moral point of view; he is, so to speak, a being apart, a savage not subject to the ordinary laws of sympathy and sociability.” The prosecution’s psychiatrist confirmed that Riviere was not mad, merely possessed of a “bilious and melancholic” temperament and “over-excited” by a long conflict with his parents. At first this view prevailed, and Riviere was condemned to death; but the King commuted the penalty to life imprisonment, perhaps in response to an unusual intervention by a group of the lea
ding Paris psychiatrists. These pronounced the criminal mentally deficient, and added that he “ought to have been placed in confinement” long before the crime, since he was “too ill to have been left at large.”
While the law was taking its course, Riviere wrote his own version of the story. Though his education had been rudimentary, he was able to express himself with a force and clarity that amazed his judges and far surpassed anything said of him by those outside his mental world. His father had married to escape military service, in 1813; the couple were never compatible and lived apart, his mother with relatives and the father three miles away with Pierre. According to his son, the elder Riviere was of “mild and peaceable disposition,” but perpetually oppressed by a wife who was expert in the art of ingeniously tormenting. Whatever the justice of this view, it is certain that the French legal system required that even unhappy couples like the Rivieres should remain inextricably yoked together; so that their feud–ver cabbages, a sack of wheat, pieces of furniture-was bound to continue until one of them was dead.
Caught between implacable parents-once they even fought for physical possession of him, when he was 3-Riviere developed a classic schizoid personality. In one role he was the typical village idiot: he terrorized younger children, was furtive and obstinate, constructed machines for the torture of frogs and birds. To an outside view, his life was sordid and despicable; but he has a secret compensation. Out of the occasional books that came to hand he constructed a grandiose intellectual system to vindicate his father’s prerogative and justify a bloody revenge on his mother.
From his reading of Scripture, he told his interrogators, “he had conceived the greatest horror of incest and bestiality… he feared there was an invisible fluid which, despite himself, might bring him into contact with women or female animals when he was in their presence.” Since the Revolution, he believed, women had taken command of society; whereas to his mind the best rule was that of the ancient Romans, who gave the father the power of life and death over his family. If times had changed, so much the worse: “I knew the rules of man and the rules of ordered society, but I deemed myself wiser than they.”
Riviere’s final cue for passion was an incident at the village church, when his father’s singing moved the congregation to tears: “I said in my heart: if strangers who had nothing to do with it weep, what should I not do, I who am his son.” He determined to kill his mother, then go directly to the judges and defend his act; but when the victims indeed lay dead before him he felt the “courage and idea of glory” that had inspired him pass away. Hiding in the woods, he came to his senses and wept for what he had done. “I therefore await the penalty I deserve,” he concludes, “and the day which shall put an end to all my resentments.”
The criminal, then, wished to die; the state prescribed for him life imprisonment; the doctors, invoking the new judicial doctrine of “extenuating circumstances,” wanted to claim him as a case for treatment. But before he could be disposed of, he had to be described; each side had its own terminology, creating “a battle among discourses.” Yet how could any form of words be commensurate with the bitter, 20-year combat between Riviere’s parents, and the bloody deeds that resolved it? The traditionalists, indeed, scarcely troubled themselves with this problem: their rebuttal to behavior like Riviere’s was simply the guillotine.
At the other extreme is the feverish rhetoric of Foucault’s seminar participants Jean-Pierre Peter and Jeanne Favret, who argue what might be termed a Sadean Maoist approach to the crime. They exalt Riviere as an articulate rebel against the misery and oppression of peasant life, while at the same time endorsing his demand to the state that it “kill him fairly and not let him rot.” The villain of the piece for them is a hypocritical bourgeois humanism whose “clumsy psychiatry” and “paternalist reasonings” cheat Riviere of the death he desires.
The other essays, fortunately, are more sensitive to the general dilemmas posed by such a case. Foucault himself speculates on the influence of the sensational popular literature of crime: a literature showing, he believes, that the very idea of crime-as a transgression against natural law-had been rendered ambiguous by France’s political history in the 40 years since Robespierre and Saint-Just. Riviere’s autobiography, he points out, both justifies and forms part of his crime: it is a “verboballistic invention” offered in contradiction to the laws of ordered society.
Certainly, whether or not he was “mad,” Riviere had defied all the received moral categories of his time. But he had also acted at a moment when the categories themselves had been called into question, so that there was no social consensus on how the damage he had inflicted should be repaired. When the balance was finally struck he was neither executed nor given psychiatric “treatment”; rather, he was consigned to the silence and restraint of an ordinary prison. There, five years later, he again became “mad,” saying he wanted his head cut off, “which would not hurt him at all because he was dead.” Placed in solitary confinement, he was found hanged: at last he had achieved his wish, to be his own judge and executioner.
Paul Delany teaches English at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.
edited book, I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother… A case of parricide in the 19th century, includes the court documents and newspaper reports from the 1835 trial of Pierre Rivière, Pierre Rivière’s memoir written while in prison, and the “analytic notes” written by Foucault and his colleagues. Whereas the court focused on the question of whether Pierre Rivière was of sane mind or not, Foucault and his colleagues sought to avoid the closure that such categorical thinking invites the reader into. This paper introduces the story of Pierre Rivière, and opens up some of the questions to be addressed in this special issue. The papers examine the memoir, the accompanying documents, and Foucault’s and his colleagues’ take on them, and reopen discussion of the Pierre Rivière case and its contemporary twenty-first century relevance, using a combination of both philosophical ethnography and arts-based enquiry. These contemporary papers are based upon a series of interdisciplinary workshops and seminars that took place at the University of Bristol during 2010. In this introductory paper we ask what was the emotional geography of this young man who engaged in such an unthinkable act? And how did that geography intersect with the emotional geography of his village in France in 1835, and what does it still have to tell us about our own contemporary society?