The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Article: Taming the mind through torturing the body

Article by Dr. Emna Rmili (Tunisia)

Previously published in Arabic in the Tunisian Press.

Published in translation in The Ofi Press issue 33.

Translated by Feyza Boudabbous (Tunisia).


Taming the mind through torturing the body

What  I am writing here may possibly be accounted for as a kind of a « Dialogue among civilizations » ; the common subject in the cultural output today in Tunisia and in other countries too. This article may also be classified as a retrospective look  at  the very near past of the predominent culture of today. The one producing the values of freedom and human rights and which the responsibility of keeping these values,  in what it claims to express, falls on its shoulders. This also may be regarded as a new topic that we are not accustomed to in the Tunisian press. These are  few  among many of the motives and concerns which can probably come across the reader’s mind while scanning this article.

The truth, however, is something different, as I am utterly urged , or this is what it seems to me, by pure subjective motives in writing on this topic. It is that influential impact Michel Faucault has left on me after reading his book ; «Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison ».

I would add nothing if I say that Michel Faucault is the philosopher who descended philosophy  from its  assertive, distant and private statuses, those imbedded deeply into theorizing and abstraction, kneaded it like a dough with man in his subjective and objective conditions, mixed it with his daily reactions and through it he followed  his intimate moments within his spirit, mind and body and  demystified its signs from man’s linguistic system and his different means of expression.  Michel Faucault  is the philosopher of « the archeology  of Knowledge »  and the deconstuctor of the phenomenon of madness or overturning the reason and its restrictions. « Madness and civilization : A History of insanity in the Age of Reason ».

Probably  most importantly of what he wrote in the philosophy of power is his  earlier mentioned book « Discipline and Punish » and more exactly the first chapter entitled « the body of the condemned »  of the first part « Torture » in which he conveyed the portrait of torturing « Damiens » who was sentenced to death for killing his father.

This article is not going to be confined only to the philosphical issues Faucault wanted to arouse but also to the descriptive discourse of the long moments of torture that « Damiens » went through in the « Place de Grève » in the city of Paris and to the throbbing and terrifying scenes loaded with panic and  pain and to the failing power of the reader, no matter how  courageous he/she is,  to bear what he reads. I would now leave the space to the descriptive text upon which I would comment.

the scene begins with presenting the « regicide » while dragged to the yard of death where he was to be « taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt.. » and where the tools of torture  through which the sentence of death is going to be excuted are to be set. « then in the said cart, to the Place de Grève where on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs, and calves with red-hot princers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses »

The story of torture grows through the narrator’s care to depict the tormented man’s pain. « the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated : ‘my God, have pity on me ! Jesus, help me !’ » and the narrator, who is a jounalist in this story, focuses on the tortured body, or the body which withers under torture : « the horses used were not accustomed to drawing ; consequently, instead of four, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints.. »

The narrator gathers all the details to build the infernal painting, saying  that after the horses’ failure to sever the body of « Damiens » : « after  two or three attempts, the excusioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of serving the legs at the joints ; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them , namely, that of the right side first, the other following ; then the same was done to the arms ; the shoulders ; the arm-pits… ».

The text reaches  some  more horrible areas of portraying torture than  what I have mentioned  before  it ends by  the final scene of perishing Damiens ‘body : « when the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him ; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that  I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking »

The text  doesn’t  miss  focusing on the torturer’s pleasure of his deed of tormenting in a sophisticated way : « then the excutioner, his sleeves rolled up… » , a long way : « after a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed .. », a diversified  way « took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion…and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm ; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow ? this excutioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh.. » and of  looking for the best ways to cause the convicted the mightiest  and  utmost pain : « the same excutioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound ». All this  takes place under the care of the church and its supervision : « the spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient. »

I am neither sure of the reader’s reaction towards what he/she has read nor I know to which point will their emotions and reactions take them while recalling -and this is actually where the greatness of writing stands- what happened to this French citizen on 2 March 1757.

What I know , however, is that the article which published what happened in the Gazette d’Amsterdam  newspaprer on 1 April 1757 and rooted  its details over  time, was used by the intellectuals of that stage and its thinkers in order to drive the authority to revise the laws of punishment, torture and regulations in general . They were capable of transferring  the law from one status to another, from one stage to another, and of protecting the body from  being violated and exploiting its delicacy and its supreme  facuty of sensation,  sensitivity and sensibility, and of standing in the face of any power , regardless of its kind and its source, and preventing it from taming , submitting, or humiliating the body for the purpose of domesticating , despising  the mind and let it succumb.


About the translator...

Feyza Boudabbous is a teacher of English language and received her B.A in English language and literature in 2005 from the University of Arts and Humanities of Sousse-Tunisia. In addition to teaching, she is hugely interested in translation. She is a tyranslator of prose and has translated extracts from « Setback 69 » by Kamal Riahi, the Tunisian novelis as well as A house for the bomb, Pine breast, Bayya 19 among others. This is her first publication of her translated work.  


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