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German Word of the Week: Stichwort

Letter Published in London Review of Books

In the July 17th London Review of Books, Judith Butler reviewed Jacques Derrida's On the Death Penalty, Vol. 1. She noted Derrida's reliance on a key passage in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents:

A brief passage in [Freud's] book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

I hadn't read Freud's book in quite a while, and had forgotten that he had discussed the death penalty in it. In any case, I was quite sure Freud's interpretation of this quotation was seriously wrong, since I had encountered the phrase several times in research for my death penalty book. I did a bit of research, and located the quotation. The London Review of Books just published my letter correcting Butler, Derrida, and most importantly Freud, who started the whole journey into erroneousness. Here it is, along with another letter which might be of interest to German readers: 

The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson



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I thought about something like your proposed translation. In one sense, it's clearly the best, because it accurately conveys the sense of the passage in question. (An example of how a non-literal translation can do more justice to the original than a technically faithful one). But, if I translated it that way, it would make Freud and Butler look even worse, because it would be odd to get the English 'begin' or 'commence their work' from something that sait 'go first' in the original. Or at least that was my thinking.

I should note that I wrote Butler had 'perpetuated' Freud's mistake, but the LRB changed it to 'repeated' (the only edit). I still like mine better, but perhaps the LRB thought the use of the stronger Latinate word implied that she had perhaps intentionally done so...

Academics and their pettifogging word games!!

rob owen

In the translation, I'd have gone with "...let the murderers go first," rather than "let the murderers begin," but maybe that's too informal for the source material. In any event, bravo, Andrew!

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