News

The Path to Public Service at SEAS

News

Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits? That ‘Would Be Fine,’ Breyer Says at Harvard IOP Forum

News

Harvard Right to Life Hosts Anti-Abortion Event With Students For Life President

News

Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study

News

Journalists Discuss Trump’s Effect on the GOP at Harvard IOP Forum

A PROTEST.

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

CAMBRIDGE, April 20.

TO THE EDITORS OF THE MAGENTA.

GENTLEMEN, - I trust you will give room in your columns to a few words in the interest of aesthetics, which would probably be excluded by the prejudices of a less enlightened periodical. My subject arises from the murders which have been committed recently in this neighborhood, and as I have already used the word "aesthetics" in regard to it, it is therefore needless to say that I am a disciple of De Quincey. I lay no claim to originality; my sole ambition is to raise a warning voice in defence of that art which derives its dignity, nay, its very birth from my great master. Surely you will sympathize with me in this protest; you must agree with me that the fine art of murder was never more coarsely, more wantonly, more clumsily practised than now. Other times have been unfortunate, some in the conception, some in the execution, of murderous designs; it would seem to have been reserved for this age to be thoroughly bad both in conception and execution. The causes of this lamentable degeneracy lie deep, and therefore should be all the more objects of solicitude to the artist. Murder, like architecture, like painting, and like poetry, is simply the expression of national feeling, colored by the peculiarities of the individual. Murder among the Greeks was, like the Parthenon and the Iliad, simple, objective, severe in style, regular, and graceful. So the highest forms of murder to be found in Teutonic nations resemble the Gothic architecture and the poetry of Shakspeare in their wilder style, their higher emotion, their deep and solemn mystery. Coming to our own time, is it surprising that our architecture, our painting, our poetry, our murders, all betray a miserable want of purpose, of sincerity, of well-trained effort?

The age is shifting, unsettled, and insincere; can we expect that its art should not be so too? Men of to-day are confused by the magnitude and the number of the questions which Religion, Science, Literature, and Philosophy put to them so sharply and so remorselessly. Is it strange, then, that they are without convictions, and therefore fail in art?

What can be done towards restoring method and completeness to art, towards making our murders more worthy of a civilized and cultivated people? To this question I answer, first, and most important, we can cull from the experience of the past a few simple, but universally necessary principles to guide the murderer in the formation and execution of his design. Such I consider the following to be: The death must be inflicted cleanly; unnecessary cruelty must be avoided; the artist must escape undetected after he has given the last touch to his work.

I think these principles will commend themselves to every artist of sense and feeling; and yet how often are they flagrantly violated! Let us consider them separately. The death must be inflicted cleanly. It is plain that any departure from this rule tends to reduce murder to butchery. It is only a vulgar mind which can delight in blood or in mutilation; we may compare a piece of work treated in a bloody, filthy, or mutilating manner to the ranting of a poor tragedian. There is also another reason for this first principle: if the work is not done cleanly it presents an appearance of bungling or hesitation, and nothing is more fatal than that to the impressiveness of the murder. If the artist does not make it plain that he has treated his subject coolly, deliberately, and carefully, there is reason to doubt his courage, and the murder is not, as it should be, entirely horrible.

Secondly, unnecessary cruelty must be avoided. Surely, in these days of compassion it needs not to plead for this principle; it will at once be approved by all true artists. I thought at first that the rule should read "all cruelty"; but it is clear that the art of murder, like that of medicine (in the matter of vivisection), sometimes demands the infliction of pain; cruelty, in this sense, is not always avoidable. For instance, in that admirable and truly Gothic bit of art related by De Quincey, - the killing of the baker, - no inconsiderable amount of distress was put upon the subject of the murder; and yet would Pity itself deduct one atom of it? It was all necessary to the faithful carrying-out of the artist's conception. So, also, where death is produced by fear (I am informed that this, though a difficult, is not an impossible method for a master-hand); and other instances are easily imagined.

Thirdly, the artist must escape undetected after he has given the last touch to his work. The reason for this principle is like the second of the ten given in support of the first principle. If the artist, leaving his work complete, escapes entirely undetected, then his deed is a mysterious horror, and no man can be sure that the fate of the subject will not be his own. The murderer has done his work cleanly and skilfully (we will say), and is gone. No one knows who he is, what are his motives, what are his resources of courage and experience, or where he will strike next. Aristotle's requirements are fulfilled; the soul is purged by the emotions of terror and pity.

But suppose the murderer to be recognized as such in his flight, or worse yet, suppose him to be caught. Why, then all mystery flies away at once, and the horror created by the murder is diminished. People discover that the, before unknown, death-dealer is not the weird and relentless creature of their imagination, but a certain Mr. Thompson or Johnson, a small, mild-looking man, perchance, who has heretofore borne the best of characters, and who was doubtless actuated by exceptional motives of animosity in this case. They are sure, now, that they shall not be killed by this man, and they flatter themselves that his capture and punishment will be a good lesson to other artists.

I have already said too much and yet I have a practical plan for the improvement of murders to propose, and some remarks to make on the proper place for a murder. Gentlemen of the Magenta, you must grant me another audience at some future time; at present I will only add that I have on hand two finished designs, which I shall be happy to communicate to any worthy person. The first is for the killing of a venerable gentleman, high in position, universally respected and disliked. The other has in view the murder of a flute-player. The first is, I fear (like Dickens's caricature of Leigh Hunt), somewhat disfigured by vindictiveness and personal feeling; the second, I make bold to say, is a very dainty piece of work.

H. C. M.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags