by Perry Meisel
Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons: The Unconscious Meanings of Crime and Punishment. By Martha Grace Duncan. 272 pp. New York: New York University Press. $29.95.
Why did so many New Yorkers make a hero out of the subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz? Why did some inmates of Siberian prison camps find a boon in their confinement? Why does Charles Dickens's Pip turn away from his old friend and benefactor, the convict Magwitch, in Great Expectations, or Shakespeare's Prince Hal turn away from old Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2?
These are not the same questions but they raise similar issues, and provide Martha Grace Duncan a fresh way of organizing and addressing them in her book on the unconscious meanings of crime and punishment. Ms. Duncan, a professor of law at Emory University, wishes to ''undermine'' customary legal and criminological assumptions about her subject, particularly the assumption that the law simply protects us from crime, and she does so with the aid of a psychoanalytic approach. Crime and punishment, criminality and noncriminality are really ''dyads,'' Ms. Duncan argues, an ''unforeseen partnership'' that cops and robbers, criminals and prosecutors, lawbreaker and citizen unconsciously – and uncannily – share. A complex web of repression, resistance and reaction-formation, she maintains, keeps the partnership hidden from us, and her book is an attempt to set us straight about our buried love-hate relation to prisons, crime and the metaphors of filth and slime with which we typically – and in vituperative accents – describe criminals and criminal behavior.
While Ms. Duncan's topic is legal and her perspective psychoanalytic, literature is her chief focus and principal source. Although one wishes that she had spent more time analyzing the rhetoric of American case law than she does, she insists on her literary ground, which dominates her discussion well into the analysis of metaphor in the third and concluding section of Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons. The literary focus, however, conveys her points with only mixed results as she moves through prison memoirs in the first part of her book before focusing more exclusively on literature in the second.
The love of some prisoners for their imprisonment, Ms. Duncan argues, represents our yearning for the infantile, particularly the maternal (one of Ms. Duncan's prison memoirists describes herself as ''curled up in a little ball . . . immersed in dreaming fantasies''), while our repressed admiration for outlaws represents our desire for the kind of ''somatic'' freedom of movement that we also associate with childhood, notably our desire to flee from authority, especially the authority of the father. (This psychological distinction between mother and father is, however, only implicit; sometimes Ms. Duncan makes it; sometimes she does not.) With Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn among her witnesses, Ms. Duncan's conclusions about prison are often persuasive enough; they even have an authority, she reminds us, in Freud's essay ''Dostoyevsky and Parricide.'' They are nonetheless also dull by their very nature, and Ms. Duncan impedes the dramatic progress of her book by beginning it with a meditation on the unlikely glamour of the cloister.
Literature, by contrast, provides Ms. Duncan a rich field in which to explore our ''reluctant,'' ''rationalized,'' sometimes outright ''admiration'' for the ''noble bandit.'' The romantic outlaw has a long and familiar history, and one shrouded by misapprehension. Like Bernhard Goetz, even the legendary Robin Hood is a hero, alas, not because he helps the cause of justice but because he, too, is really breaking the law under the guise of a higher moral imperative. Indeed, from Moll Flanders to Long John Silver, such criminals represent a freedom of the body in the face of parental constraint, and prefigure their latter-day American counterparts like Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. Shakespeare's Falstaff, of course, is Ms. Duncan's inevitable centerpiece here, since he is the childhood exuberance that his onetime companion, the youthful Prince Hal, must repress once he becomes King Henry V.
When Ms. Duncan turns to the examination of metaphor in the last portion of her book, she finds ample evidence in literature and history alike to show that we use images of ''filth,'' ''slime'' and ''scum'' to describe the criminal because these words express what it is we unconsciously prize about him. To call the criminal ''filth'' and to separate him from us, Ms. Duncan argues, is not only to affirm our own adulthood but also to maintain at the level of linguistic usage the criminal's particular allure, which is infantile. Slime is fecal, a childhood gift, a token of fun and freedom as well as an instance of soil and an occasion for the parent's intervention. This is why Dickens's Magwitch, for example, hides on the fetid moor, and why Victor Hugo's obsessive Inspector Javert chases Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables. Here Shakespeare's Macbeth is Ms. Duncan's literary centerpiece, and Macbeth's preoccupation with washing is part of the way the play's ''predominant image,'' as she puts it, ''changes from darkness to slime.''
The real drama of Ms. Duncan's discussion of metaphor, however, comes with the vivid historical pictograph that gives her book a stirring climax and its most persuasive and summary piece of argumentation. In 1786, the British Government created a penal colony at Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia, an experiment so curious that no one has ever been able to make much sense of it. Why deal with the ''urgent problem'' of criminals with the ''slow'' and ''expensive'' alternative of transporting them to the other side of the globe? Ms. Duncan readily solves the mystery by showing us how Botany Bay's incoherence as both a policy and a practice can be made sense of once we see it as an ''archetypal story, re-enacting with real people and real places an epic drama of self-purification through banishment of the filthy.'' Its bizarre sociological purpose obscured the deeper, psychological function it performed instead. Noncriminals, says Ms. Duncan, needed ''to use this Australian prison as a symbol of hell.'' England was ridding itself of its criminals as if they were ''a sort of excrementitious mass,'' as Jeremy Bentham (who objected to the policy) described it in 1812. Ms. Duncan's attentiveness to language seals her point here more than anywhere else in her book. Col. Godfrey Mundy, an official visitor to Australia in the mid-19th century, titled his three-volume account of his trip there ''Our Antipodes'' for a simple unconscious reason: ''our antipodes'' is a metaphor that identifies Australia's location in relation to England and that of one's anus in relation to the rest of one's body.
But while Ms. Duncan's psychoanalytic perspective is her book's chief strength, it is also its chief weakness. Her failure to distinguish clearly between mother and father in childhood is the sign of a more fundamental flaw in the structure of her approach. What Ms. Duncan means by childhood itself is generally left vague, leaving us to wonder how a psychoanalytic perspective could describe it as blissful. Perhaps Ms. Duncan's insufficient discriminations are symptomatic. Is her notion of psychoanalysis as a system designed to ''transform'' the ''black and white'' distinctions required of legal discourse ''into gray'' the expression of another wish – an intellectual version of infantile yearning in relation to the adult stipulations of the law? Like literature, psychoanalysis has its ironies, and the practitioner, like the buyer, need beware.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1997