A Human Being within the Space of Tragedy. Prison (on
the present-day life of mythological
The tendency to mythologize crisis situations (a war,
a natural calamity, a serious illness or death of relatives and
friends) is a universal phenomenon. Having found himself/herself
in a new social environment, a modern person adjusts
himself/herself to it in conformity with traditional schemes of
experience resorts to mythologizing the process of his/her
socialization. The adjustment normally takes time. For a more or
less long period a new situation is seen as a crisis, as an
in-between position or a temporary death. The prison world is
described by inmates as a disorderly, alien, socially
unassimilated world without meaning, as a non-differentiated
chaos. The specific character of eschatological vision results in
the fact that binary oppositions – pledge of the world stability
– are nullified. On the one hand, the indefiniteness of the world
with its oppositions nullified is a mythological construct in
itself (possesses mythological semantics). On the other hand, it
gives rise to further mythologizing. M. Heidegger wrote, 'The
uncertainty of something that inspires terror is not just a lack
of certainty, but an absolute impossibility of ascertaining'.
Eschatological crisis indefiniteness of the prison world is the
principle indefiniteness, determined by the mythological logic of
the description. The study of semiotics of present-day jail
culture has found that this culture contains codes and semiotic
texts which are interesting and important not only for the
research into the lower strata of culture, but also for better
understanding of the specific ways of the perception of the
picture of the world and assimilation by someone on the brink of
death, or thus mythologizing his/her new social position.
Universal archetypes of mythological consciousness, universal
concepts of the sacred, universal eschatological picture of the
world can be recognized in the notions of
At the investigation stage jail is perceived as a
disintegrated chaotic world. For signs of the new world to
acquire meaning it is necessary to perform a certain ritual,
which is the key to the culture. In the transition rites
(socialization, initiation) the person to be initiated must
himself/herself become the 'foundation-block' sacrifice, from
which the construction of the new world begins. According to jail
mythology, the fundamental ritual in the creation of the new
meaningful world is the trial and the offering, defining the new
space, is the prisoner at the bar. Entering the new space
involves fear. The newcomer is out of his/her bearings; the space
becomes eternally alienated from the cognizing Ego. The person
does not believe in the possibility of comprehending the meaning
of the jail text or in the very existence of the meaning - one of
the distinctive words used by inmates while characterizing the
initial phase is the word 'meaningless'.
In the prison world one of the central cultural
oppositions – life-death – is nullified. Many authors of
jail memoirs compare life in prison to death. F.M. Dostoyevsky
calls a prison the House of the Dead; Italian socialist Turati
calls it the Cemetery of the Quick. An alive person feels dead in
prison; the cell is the place of demise where people are
demolished, burned. In prison slang a jail is called a
crematorium and a cell is a graveyard or a cross.
Comparison of a jail to a grave, a terror-inspiring house
of the dead, the nether regions, the realm of motionless sleep is
not just a means of artistic expression, but an actual experience
of inmates. Many people who have gone through prison
and labor camps wrote about it in their memoirs. P.F.
Yakubovitch, for example, describing a night in prison, wrote
that an inmate sees his fellow prisoners as the dead, but not as
living beings, 'It is dead silence both in the cell and in the
corridors of the jail… not a sound, just like a grave… Where am
I? Some corpses are lying around me, on my right and on my left
and beneath me. Am I the only living creature among the dead?
They are alive and dead at the same time…'
Prisoners are inhabitants of a different world, which is
transcendental and sensual at the same time, in some ways similar
to our human world and in some ways alien, opposite to it,
neither living, nor dead. Here characters act in compliance with
topsy-turvy laws (daytime – sleep, night – vigilance). Night is
marked by a waking condition, rendering meaning to life – real
work and real life in a jail begin at night (GRC). The daytime is
marked by sleepiness: I wanted to sleep. An inmate recollects her
prison life, 'I dreamt about freedom, I lived in those dreams.
When I woke up, I saw only gray walls and grief, that's why I
tried to sleep as much as possible.' (FC). An inmate poet writes,
'Every day here passes as is if in fog/You are either asleep or
waiting for it day by day.' (GRC). In this inverted world life
turns into sleep, sleep into life. An inmate writes, 'You live in
such a way that sleep seems to be life, and life appears to be a
dream. Years pass by as if in a dream, and when you look around,
you see only darkness.'(JC).
Communicative difficulties which a newcomer comes
across when trying to communicate with prison space cause him to
seek shelter from the text in a strange language, to hide
himself/herself in a more familiar place, which sleep provides:
under the conditions when reality is seen as pseudo life (neither
life, nor death, nor sleep) sleep as a psychosomatic process
becomes sleep in a dream, having utter semiotic, sacramental
significance. Jail dreams are contrasted with beyond-jail dreams
as prophetic dreams with usual ones. An inmate
reminisces, 'For three and a half years, while the investigation
lasted, I had dreams every night. I remember those unusual dreams
very well; they told me what was going to happen to me in future.
Some of them have come true, some haven't. But they were really
very unusual. They can't be compared to those I have or used to
have out of prison.' (FC).
In the prison world dreams rank with poetry,
philosophy and mysticism – they are synonyms. A female
inmate writes, 'There (in jail – E.E.) they believe dreams,
especially dreams involving saints. Many people see Madonna in
their dreams. In prison one feels much closer to the nether
world. I, for example, realize that for three and a half years I
lived in a sleep. Then I began to write poems, to read. It is
said that recidivists who are serving a long time in high
security colonies are great philosophers.'(FC). According to an
enduring prison notion, jail gives birth to poets. It reveals an
obvious link with the mythopoetical concept of the poet as
someone who has been to the world of the dead and back. A poet is
like an intermediary between that kingdom and this one. In this
sense a poet is like a shaman, bearing the stamp of the other
The fact that jail is perceived as a world with indefinite
meaning (just like a dream) makes it a sacramental space. Here
are some quotations from the collected archives.
'Everyone is subject to mysticism in
'Prisoners are very superstitious. I think in prison people
are far more superstitious than out of it.'(FC).
In prison culture all things connected with life outside jail
are generally treated as common and everyday, while things
connected with prison life are perceived as
Another opposition nullified in the prison world is the
opposition human-inhuman. Characteristically, inmates are
distinguished by anomalous appearance and behavior. Describing
their first day in the cell, inmates use the words 'hell' and
'hellish'. Jails, just like hell, are overcrowded. The
liquidation of the emptiness due to which the mankind still
exists, is characteristic for them both. The overcrowded
condition of hell is the sign of the impending end. So the state
of being overcrowded is perceived as the proof of transition of
the human world into the inhuman, of the upper world into the
lower. The overcrowded condition of jail has the same symbolic
meaning. Here are some examples of the texts, characterizing
convicts' first impressions of the cell:
Four shkonkas (bunks) can be occupied by twelve inmates;
twelve shkonkas house from thirty to forty; and obstchak can
accommodate as many as a hundred prisoners. An inmate remembers,
'When I entered a cell for the first time I could not move
because everywhere were people, sitting and standing. I literally
could not move. The door shut behind me and I was left there
standing. That was all. My first impression was: it is hell. Real
hell. It was summer. Around me I saw stripped bodies, evil faces.
The people were stripped because it was very hot. And there was
hardly any room for standing, let alone sitting. Those who had
been there for a long time occupied bunks, but there was very
little room left for the rest. People were yelling, cursing and
swearing at each other.'(FC).
Another inmate writes, 'People were everywhere, even on the
floor from under the shkonkas. Half of them were bald-headed.
They all were wearing sheets because it was very hot. Having all
the clothes on would have been unbearable.'(FC).
Jail space is perceived as narrow, congested, and at the same
time as enormous (pre-cosmos immeasurable space). It is
simultaneously visible and invisible; its light is inseparable
from its darkness. This is how inmates describe a jail, 'It is
empty, monotonous. Like under water where it is always murky.
Light bulbs create a horrible impression because thick cigarette
smoke makes them brown and their light eerie.'(FC).
'It is dark here, it is so dark. There is nothing to wait for,
nothing to live for.' (FC).
'I can see the sun but it is still dark. My sun is behind the
The courtyard where inmates take walks is one of the worst
parts of prison space. In their descriptions prisoners stress its
confined character, its complete separation from the outer world;
they see it as a square concrete sack with four walls. Absence of
entrance and exit, which are necessary for a house to retain its
status, and which are a fundamental feature of any space intended
for living, has a semiotic meaning. Confined space without
windows or doors symbolizes death. Here motion is pseudo-motion
(stamping back and forth or round and round) and communication is
pseudo-communication. A female inmate recollects the hardest
moments of her life, 'I remember the cramped space, the four
walls, the bars overhead, the sky behind the bars, us stamping
back and forth. Passing by the others, I noticed how much
estranged everyone looked. While in the cell, we relate to each
other to a certain degree, but in the yard everyone withdraws.
Being unable to see anything is a scary feeling. In the cell we
can peer through the window and see something in the distance. In
the yard there is nothing but the walls. And the sky above. That
was horrible - absolute isolation from the outer world.'
In the courtyard prisoners feel forced to try and interpret
the prison world and correlate themselves with the confined and
alien reality within the four walls.
A contemporary convict writes about the prison:
'Day after day burns in an unbearable anguish,
And our thoughts get darker and darker.
We keep walking round and round in the concrete sack,
And our souls are turning callous and black.'
'In the dead house an ideal organization of the power to
punish creates the body to be disciplined.' (M. Fuco). In the
motionless impersonal world, symbolized by stone walls around a
person, an inmate (in company with his/her fellow prisoners) is
compelled to move in a circle or back and forth. This motion is
just an imitation of life, but not real life, and it is perceived
like imitation. It has neither purpose, nor sense. In terms of
ontology, it symbolizes meaningless motion in the universe, which
causes feelings of fear, despair and hopelessness. Meaning of
this space situation is disclosed in a number of works of art.
Figures of prisoners in the courtyard render futility of people's
efforts and loneliness of the human being in the dead universe.
At that, pessimistic outlook can reach great philosophical
heights. There are Prisoners by Van Gogh, whose portrayal is
close in its vision to the existentialist philosophy (the picture
was painted under the influence of Dostoyevsky's The House of the
Dead). The painting by M. Dobuzhinsky Devil has the same meaning.
P. Ivanov-Razumnik, serving time in a Soviet jail, saw the
courtyard through the prism of this painting, 'These twenty or
thirty people, circling around the fat watch-tower, reminded me
of Dobuzhinsky's Devil: In the middle of a huge, cathedral-size,
prison cell there sits a giant spider with fiery eyes, wearing a
mask. Tiny people are walking in a circle between its furry legs.
We have the tower with the armed guards in place of the spider.
The mask is not necessary: Under all regimes it covers
essentially identical features of the state. It is clear what the
artist meant: the cell is the world, the prisoners are the
humankind, the spider's mask is the devil. But walking around the
courtyard, one tends to narrow the meaning of the picture.
" I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring …"
The inmates, walking in the yard, are in the tragic and dying
world as physical incarnation of the invisible world of sinners'
souls, dead for God, without hope to be saved, as a symbolic
reminder of universal absurdity involving both material and
spiritual phenomena. For thinkers and artists the courtyard (the
square bounded by four walls) is the point of utmost freedom,
sacramental center of the godless world (for Christian thinkers
the role of the sacramental center is performed by the space
within monastery walls). It is freedom associated with suffering,
but not with joy, the freedom to accept the world as it is,
without sense, without God, without hell or paradise. At the same
time sense of freedom involves perception of human loneliness,
which comes when an inmate is not alone, but in company with
his/her fellow prisoners. S. Kierkegaard said, 'Genuine muteness
is not in silence, but in conversation of close and distant
people, alienated from one another in the face of Nothing
(jail).' It is the kind of estrangement mentioned by the inmate
describing the condition of prisoners in the courtyard. Being
held captive by prison walls, an inmate comes to realize his/her
loneliness and experiences uplifting awe or depressing fear in
the presence of the mute Nothing. He/she either accepts his/her
ontological slavery or discovers his/her tragic
Van Gogh's prisoner could repeat Orestes's words addressed to
Jupiter: 'You are a God, but I am free; we are equally lonely and
tormented by the same depressing fear.'
Nullification of the opposition motion-immobility spreads to
the category of time as well. In immobile prison world time loses
sense and stops. According to inmates' statements, time spent in
prison is the time lost because of the apathetic attitude of the
tired mind to everything.
'Years of dead existence are crossed out of life.'
'The time has stopped free running/By throwing our fates onto
the scales' (GRC)
'The bustle of everyday life has gone/ There is no motion and
no life.' (FC).
'I sink into madness/To the sound of frozen time.'
'Here every day submits to depression/The cold world has
frozen in its aloofness.'(GRC).
Under these conditions keeping a calendar becomes senseless
and even impossible. Everything that happens in prison bears a
stamp of eternity, but eternity without light, without rescue. A
young inmate writes, 'Years pass here as if in a dream/ You look
back and see only darkness.'(JC). A female prisoner thinks the
same. She writes, 'It's time to count down / The groan escapes /
To test the strength of the soul / To upset the heart/The cry
escapes / Thoughts in the brain / The executioner has already
raised his sword / (FC).
We come across the same perception of time in G. Byron's
It might be months, or years, or days
I kept no count, I took no note...
For years: I cannot count them o'er,
I lost their long and heavy score...
Dark and absurd eternity becomes that very emptiness of
non-life about which J. Brodsky says that it is more probable and
more terrifying than hell.
How to impart meaning to the senseless world? How to
foresee one's fate? To answer these questions modern people
resort to chiromancy, fortune telling and the like, just the way
our ancestors did at the time of crisis. Inmates say that during
the period prior to the trial they feel being enveloped by
special, mystical world and they ask unknown gods about future
and they are constantly resort to fortune telling. They recognize
that everybody is subject to mysticism in jail. Convicts
in colonies say,
'Everyone had a go at fortune telling. To this end, we used
bread, coffee grounds, domino pieces, and what not; we did it
mostly on Wednesdays and Fridays.'
In the prison world people use fortune telling to communicate
with the court (pointing to the number, the measure,
corresponding to a certain individual) or the inmate's fate
(pointing to its own value). The measure of punishment is
perceived as the fate, which exists there and in the present
time, before the court pronounces a sentence, but it exists in a
different (mythological) dimension.
The key prophecy symbols are the same as in the
traditional culture, but there are some distinctive symbols as
well. For example, the preliminary accusatory resolution acquires
a mythoritual function, which at first sight is just a juridical
document. An inmate gets the resolution at the
culmination point of the crisis situation – on the eve of the
trial. The reception of the resolution inspires fear like
expecting any verdict would, be it a verdict of the jury or a
verdict of the fate. Not only the text of the resolution, but the
paper itself on which it is written arouses fear. The legal
document is seen as sacramental, as the embodiment of both
justice and fate, which allows it to function as the principal
ritual object-symbol – it gets included into the fortune-telling
It would seem that the text in the penitentiary system has no
religious meaning, yet it is perceived by prisoners as mystical
because it determines their future in one way or another. Despite
the fact that inmates blame lawyers for their imprisonment and
maintain that they serve time, being innocent, at the
subconscious level they perceive the text of the resolution as
sacramental or given by God. Both the content of the document,
determining the time to be served, that is an inmate's fate, and
the paper on which the resolution is written – a sacred sheet of
paper, a materialized embodiment of the future - are perceived as
having equal sacramental significance.
Here is a record of our conversation with an elderly inmate of
Lipetsk general regime colony about a specific way of fortune
telling, involving the text of the resolution.
Question: You say many inmates engage in fortune telling,
Answer: Yes, that's right. It's a very popular pastime. You
may consider it a tradition. First, before the decision of the
court he or she is just a person under the investigation. After
the sentence of the court defining the article and the term, the
person becomes a convict. But before that the person gets the
preliminary accusatory resolution. When an inmate receives the
preliminary accusatory resolution, he/she finds out according to
which article of criminal law he/she is likely be convicted. Then
it is customary to do the following. You take a mug, a usual
half-liter mug, and draw a circle around it. The circle is
divided into equal sectors, their number corresponding to the
number of parts of the given article. You pour water into the
mug, stir it with a spoon, light a matchstick and put it in the
water. The matchstick rotates slower and slower and finally
stops: it points to a part of the article, in other words to the
sentence time. In 98 per cent of cases it comes
Question: Is it done on the eve of the trial, at
Answer: Yes, on the eve of the trial, a couple of days prior
to the trial. And almost always it comes true. It is a
time-tested method. And the most popular, too.
Functionally, the accusatory resolution is in some social
situations a legal document and in others a sacramental object.
It serves as a book of fate, a book of the dead, mysterious
writings, in which priests see the future of the living and
after-death fate of the dead.
It is remarkable that although any fortune-telling book, for
example Centuries by Nostradamus, deals with concrete, personal
fortunes, a fortune-teller has to decode your name and other
data. A preliminary accusatory resolution speaks about you, calls
you by your name, which renders it more trustworthiness and,
consequently, a higher status than name-avoiding prophecy books
enjoy. It would appear that the document is concrete enough.
Nevertheless, it is a mysterious, encoded text, and for its
decoding a ritual is necessary. The degree of trustworthiness of
a preliminary accusatory resolution is not clear for an inmate.
In spite of its content being rather concrete, it is somewhat
ambiguous, which allows it to function as a fortune-telling book.
It is their poly-semantic character that creates a necessity for
the principal fortune-telling symbols to be interpreted by
priests or fortune-tellers.
On the other hand, every inmate before trial hopes to be
acquitted – absolutely unreasonably and contrary to the
preliminary accusatory resolution (the proof of it we see in the
rituals performed on the eve of the trial). The sacramental
document tells the future, but it can be corrected. The
fortune-telling rituals before the trial reflect the view of
one's misfortunes as a cast lot. Measure of punishment is not
linked with the degree of seriousness of the committed crime:
impersonal power is responsible for passing sentences and thus
determining inmates' future.
The central ritual of the prison world is the trial. The trial
approaches slowly but inevitably. Describing their condition
before the trial, prisoners use words 'fear', 'listening'. There
is a prison saying: An inmate lives by his ears, especially
before the trial. Life in prison is divided into two periods -
before and after the trial. The period before the trial is
characterized by destruction of space and time, by chaos and
emptiness, time doesn't exist in this mystical space.
Paradoxically, an inmate sees the trial –an offering where he/she
is sacrificed - not only as a culmination, but also as a
denouement of prison tragedy. The perception of the trial as both
the highest point of the crisis situation and the reconciliation
of all contradictions is traditional.
Here is an answer given by an inmate in response to a
questionnaire compiled in 1914:
'It was unbearably hard at first, during the period of
uncertainty, but having learnt that I would have to serve 11
months – that's rather long – spiritually I felt much better. I
started a calendar and planned my time.'
A present-day inmate writes, 'When a sentence has been passed,
even if the time is longer than he expected, a person
The ritual meaning of the trial is reduced to the
creation of a new world: at the moment when the sentence is being
pronounced the prison cosmos acquires meaning. The person
receives a new starting-point and a new calendar. After the
trial, instead of listening to the world of uncertainty and
trying to predict future, the inmate begins to count days of his
time in prison. The disintegrated world gains a new meaning as a
result of the performed ritual. The house of the dead remains the
house of the dead, but after the trial it begins
turning into a home. If we try to render this life
experience in the language of literature studies, we can say that
the inmate can be seen as the protagonist of a tragedy, whose
demise is catastrophically inevitable for the inner structure of
the tragedy. The hero has been sacrificed. The tragedy is over.
The curtain falls. But cathartic purifying essence, enlightening
the world, has already been included into the finale – the death
of the tragic hero.
JC – juvenile colony
FC – female penal colony
GRC – general regime colony
I would like to express my deep gratitude to the John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for its support, without which
this research work would have been impossible.
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