In many examples of media, there is an unsettling figure that looms over the stage, novel, or film. The figure is often quiet, marked only by an ominous presence and domineering silence. This figure is the executioner and, of course, is rarely presented as a masochist blood-fiend who relishes in the fundamentally cruel vision of justice that is capital punishment. Rather, there is a persistent movement in media to present the executioner not as an enactor of capital violence, but carrying out a necessary task. The trope of the silent, stoic executioner helps dignify and humanize the perpetration of mass violence against the predominantly poor and vulnerable and desensitize us to state sponsored destruction. This representation is rooted in a historical moment that saw Christendom use its totalitarian power to push people away from seeking pleasure and toward venerating the pursuit of pain. As we explore the impetus of the proliferation of this trope- and the trope itself – we will track how the preservation of power and the celebration of violence is embodied by this seemingly arcane character type.
Epicurus, the Hellenistic Greek philosopher, died in 270 BCE, and although only a few fragments of his texts and three of his personal letters were spared by the agents of time, his philosophical advancements are still a dominant influence on today’s secular philosophy. Epicureanism, however, has been controversial since its early stages, and was threatened most when most culture and politics were controlled by the church. Epicureanism asserted that since everything was made of atoms, and ultimately there was no afterlife, one should spend their earthly time focusing on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Even this rudimentary definition of his work makes it clear: Epicurus would have no place in a world ruled by the early Church.
Since his model was incompatible with early Christianity— or as one friar stated, “Epicurus utterly destroys religion”— his influence posed a threat to the Church’s ideology.[i] Thus, something was to be done about his legacy and the church ventured down two routes to dismantle it. The first was the obvious and tantalizing choice of defaming his name. This started in the fourth century AD and has remained a surprisingly potent case against both Epicurus and his followers. Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this type of attack was Saint Jerome’s defamation of Epicurus’s most influential disciple Lucretius. Saint Jerome posited that Lucretius took a love potion and committed suicide after the potion drove him mad. Even though no biographical documentation of Lucretius exists – and neither do love potions – this particular aspersion has proven to be so pervasive that even twentieth century scholars have claimed that “Jerome was too good a scholar and too honest to record as fact what he would have known… to be false.”[ii]
Despite its endurance, the character attacks were ineffective at leading people away from Epicurus’s teachings during late antiquity. So the church turned course and instead focused on upending his philosophical tenets, especially those surrounding pleasure. The church labelled the pursuit of pleasure as demonic, establishing “pleasure as a codename for vice”. [iii]This, while certainly less fun than accusing people of potion-driven madness, proved more effective for the Church, since the process of convincing followers to discard pleasure as vice proved extremely compatible with the culture of early Christianity. A system with a surfeit of martyrs seamlessly incorporated the value of pain as a means of quasi-martyrdom, a way of leading people closer to God. And this doctrine of self-harm quickly proliferated throughout Christendom, giving increasing rise to stories like a dying Saint Theresa torturing herself with nails or nuns whipping themselves so emphatically that onlookers were left with blood splats on their person[iv]. Which is to say, the plot had worked. Epicureanism had been abandoned writ large, its tradition carried on only in secret, and most of those subjected to the widespread power of the church began to view pleasure as sin and pain as virtue.
It follows rather easily that the veneration of inwardly directed, private pain would find its way into the public sphere. This mass public desire to witness pain found its logical performative end on the execution stage. The execution, embodied by the executioner, helped not only laud violence but demonstrate power, thereby simultaneously condemning the pursuit of pleasure by killing those who opposed the Church and supporting the ruling class. In the Foucaultian sense, executions are events that “arouse feelings of terror by the spectacle of power.”[v] This spectacle in reverence to— and in service of— power needed a figure to carry out the bloody business of killing criminals, since it would be poor practice for the cardinal or bishop to be the one wielding the axe. Thus, there was a need for a proxy figure. The executioner became the figure that represented power without actually having any themself.
Essentially a play actor, the executioner was expected to be an enigmatic figure whose only interaction with society was their violent duty. Executioners were pariahs, bussed in to provide their hegemonically necessary task; or as Stassa Edwards writes, “Apart from required attendance at church services, where they and their families were restricted to a designated pew, executioners only entered the city to perform tasks relating to their office.” When performing their task, they were instructed to be silent, steely and domineering, and their names were kept secret in order to destroy any lingering remnants of personal identity. The aura of the executioner became part of the spectacle, and through this presentation they signaled that not only were they performing a civil task, but they were performing the natural and necessary work of God. This aura became pervasive and is captured by many early representations of executioners.
Looking at an example from the sixteenth century we see a triangulation that proved to be dominant in most representations of executioners. This triangulation juxtaposes the stoicism of the executioner, the madness of the condemned and the awe of the spectators. The piece, titled Exécution de Gosson sur la place d’Arras, is an engraving completed in 1587 that depicts a high profile execution from the eighth century. The condemned is kneeling with a fearful expression which is obfuscated by a dark shading that consumes the face; a visual metaphor suggesting the corruption of countenance. The raised stage is accentuated by the arena-type wave that the onlookers are positioned in. A mix of soldiers and civilians that suggests solidarity between the militaristic and the private, the crowd is a collection of viewers that are transfixed on the violence. And of course, in the privileged center of the piece is the executioner, an enlarged head with a calm and stern face, his defined arms gracefully swinging an axe.
Exécution de Gosson sur la place d’Arras, 1587 (Source: BNF)
This piece embodies an artistic endeavor that was common during this period wherein the usual understandings of space and size are manipulated to accentuate certain figures. The foreground objects are not the biggest but the central figure of the executioner is. By making this center figure the largest, the piece warps standard perceptions of space and creates a bird’s eye view in which the viewer is forced to view the image “as it looks to the heavenly patronage”.[vi] If the viewer is being asked to look at the piece as a heavenly body would, and the executioner is clearly placed in a position of privilege, then this artistic rendering affirms the executioner as a servant of God, acting within the defined natural order. This triangulation of stoicism, madness, and enthrallment, as well as the inversion of spatial principles can be seen throughout the art world. However, the stoic representation of executioners does not only exist in the visual arts, it also has a dominant, centuries-long hold in literature.
Let’s take a look at an example from the early twentieth century in Vladmir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (1935). What can be seen here is the same triangularization that we see in visual art. In the final scene of the novel the madness of the condemned, the stoicism of the executioner, and the awe of the crowd are all juxtaposed as the main character, Cincinatus, tries to grasp his imminent end. The ending is ambiguous and there is room to believe that Cincinatus escaped, but there is also a suggestion that the escape was a fantasy. However, one cannot be concerned with whether the escape was “real” or not because the presence of the executioner— and the extensive power that he represents— is too dominant to escape from, and thus it does not matter if the final scene is a true escape from death or a dream-induced fantasy. Escape does not mean freedom. After his lengthy imprisonment, Cincinatus is fully aware of the full vision of dominant power. Inmuration is less dependent on the act of execution but rather the omnipresent aura of execution, embodied by the stoic executioner who only appears in the final pages. Cincinatus throughout the novel succumbs to his own paranoias that result from the fear of execution. This fear is not catalyzed by the prison warden nor his neighbor in this prison, nor even the conditions of the prison, but rather an ever-consuming fear of what the executioner will bring. Thus, Cincinatus, free or dead, is still succumbing to the natural, inevitable dominance that is carried out by the executioner. What this points to is not that Nabokov was actively writing to protect the ruling class— in fact one could present a compelling reading that he is critiquing it— but the ubiquity of this trope. By 1935, Epicureanism was no longer the subject of harsh criticism by the Church, yet the sentiment of the natural relationship between violence and power was still embodied by the executioner figure. Thus, the strands of anti-Epicurean belief are so pervasive that they still linger, if only in the representation of the power, pointing to an important aspect of the executioner figure: the paradoxical yet transcendental aura of the figure.
While the Church did not suffer from a dearth of martyrs, they did lack a cohesive story that simultaneously prioritized pain and privileged worldly power. The core tenet of the faith is centered around martyrdom, yet the story was incompatible with the cultural shift that the Church was trying to force, the effects of which we see from the Baroque to Nabokov. For the Jesus story to preserve its palpability and violence, the perpetrators of violence must be presented as a symbol of the corruption of man, not stoic handlers of justice. A reworking of the Passion to align the necessity of violence with the necessity of power would far too revisionist to serve its desired function. To preserve power through both the spectacle of executions and the artistic renderings of them, the executioner became transcendental to the execution and even to the power it protects.
Even though the executioner never actually had any power, the nominal role and fictional portrayals became figures of edification. The proclaimed naturality of execution lifted the enactor of violence, rather than the benefactor of it— the ruling class— as a dominant figure. Imagine that the ruling class is placing the executioner as a shield to hide themselves from any potential repercussion. This worked to serve the ruling class, and while it ostensibly further distanced them from the actual performance of pain, they still reaped the benefits of it. This also allowed for an odd, if inadvertent, juxtaposition between pain and power wherein leadership could be seen as a mere event, while State violence has to be seen as natural and disparate from any lunacy or corruption that might hold power at the time. This means that even when those in power are corrupt, their office is sanctified by the executioner, or, in other words: to preserve power, violence must transcend it.
This brings to mind a rather striking scene from the Disney version of Robin Hood (1973). In this scene we see the animated fox portraying Robin Hood sentenced to death for deception. As he condemns Robin Hood, Prince John’s antics are portrayed as juvenile, with his crown sliding off his head and spittle flying out of his mouth. Yet the behavior of the condemnor is somehow removed from the violence that it manifests. When the executioner— who is a rhino, and let’s not go down that rabbithole— is called upon to carry out the task, the scene takes on a significant change. It is more ominous, but more so; it is more procedural: a rhythmic drumming begins, the expressionless rhino moves forcefully but in a controlled manner, and even the framing of the shot changes, as the audience is now forced to look up on the executioner instead of at eye level like with Prince John. In this way, the executioner’s actions are presented not as evil, but as natural. It is as if the film is pushing the viewer to accept capital punishment as disparate from the power-driven motives that promote it. Everything points to the rhythmic nature of executions while preserving the power of the king. Whether Prince John or King Richard is on the throne, the executioner will remain there to preserve power, to maintain structure and order in a regulated, natural way. This trope, therefore, can be tracked from Baroque art to animated twentieth century cartoons, a nearly unparalleled level of consistency that dominates art forms.
While it was effective for squashing Epicureanism for a while, and despite the pervasiveness of the executioner trope, and the centuries long onslaught of the Church on Epicureanism, the system has lived on. Epicureanism has retained a vitality that seems irrepressible. Philosophers, economists, and politicians have all proselytized the virtue of an Epicurean belief system. Even Thomas Jefferson said, as quoted by John Quincy Adams, that, “the Epicurean philosophy came nearest to the truth of any ancient system of philosophy, but that it has been misunderstood and misrepresented.” While Jefferson had plenty of moral failings in his personal philosophy, he understood that there was a movement actively pushing against Epicureanism through a mode of disinformation. The massive cultural shift from prioritizing pleasure over pain is embodied in the false representation of Epicurean pleasure to the false representation of how executioners embody justice. While perhaps it seems like an inconsequential battle (one between Hellenistic philosophers and Christians) this dialectic has a much larger significance.
Self-flagellation, sacrifice, and austerity are all ideals that the capitalist class imposes on its workers. While often any religious overtones have been effaced— although certainly they have their place, especially in rightwing rhetoric— the principle of pain as more virtuous than pleasure is certainly still dominant. People are asked to place their pleasure to the side so that some greater system can survive. Whether the issue is healthcare or housing, those in power are quick to claim pleasure as vice and self-punishment as preferred. Additionally, we are instructed to see violence not as a means of oppression but as a natural component to our system. The execution is just one of the many cultural and political modes in which power is preserved and violence is venerated. Often, events that are presented as basic issues that should be respected by all, regardless of ideology, are centered around violence. Some examples include the death of Osama Bin Laden and the deluge of hagiography surrounding the police. Even if no one in government wields an axe anymore, they still depend on the presumed natural order that privileges violence as a means of communication with the people. The intertwined role of media to preserve power is essential to understanding the relationship between power and media. From CIA-funded Jackson Pollock to superhero movies that are little more than military worship propaganda, the implementation of media as a tool to preserve power is well-documented and well-alive. The executioner is just one of the more historically prevalent examples, but as the figure’s prevalence dwindles in the age of lethal injection and hopeful abolition of capital punishment, rest assured it will be replaced by something else.
[i] Roberts and Donaldson, 490
[ii] Gain, 545
[iii] Greenblatt, 102
[iv] Greenblatt, 108
[v] Foucault, 58
[vi] Arnheim, 168
Adams, John. Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Philadelphia, 1874
Arnheim, Rudolf. New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley, University of Berkeley Press, 1986
Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish (trans Sheridan). London, Penguin, 1979
Gain, D.B. “The Life and Death Of Lucretius.” Latomus, vol. 28, no. 3, 1969, pp. 545-553.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve. New York, W.W Norton and Company, 2011.
Roberts, Alexander, and Donaldson, James. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951.
Jacob Fowler (he/him/his) is an elementary school teacher living in Oakland, CA. He recently graduated from Pitzer College with a BA in World Literature. His work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Selcouth Station, Soft Cartel, and The Sunlight Press, among others. You can find him on Twitter @jacobafowler.