Oblique Meditations on Murder by Matthew Fleury

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982

Still from storytelling scene in Pasolini’s Salo from De Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom.

1.1. Abstract: of murder. Every human act has a purpose. There is no senseless murder, only a senseless description of it. Start there. Otherwise, no sense pursuing the matter. It’s not for reason alone. There’s the dark, metaphysical side too.

1.2. Fate? Bad luck? Voodoo? Who knows. No point getting bogged down in sophistry; nor in the tangles of design. I won’t argue method. Murder can’t be entirely cloaked from the plainer senses, or from the clutches of taste either, any more than any other mystery of the species yields its secret, except to confound us. Murder passes to death, and death deals to the mind and the body. And always—it’s hateful to contemplate—always on its terms.

1.3. Murder is plentiful. You can never utterly deplete its store: of lessons; of terror; of plain, trite victims; of sure attention on the bedtime news. Image. Blank. Image …

1.4. The world in general … are very bloody-minded; and all they want in a murder is a copious effusion of blood; gaudy display in this point is enough for them. But the enlightened connoisseur is more refined in his taste; and from our art … when thoroughly mastered, the result is, to humanize the heart …1

2.1. If every act except murder—trying to isolate its exclusive feature—how explain the exception, whatever the feature? How quarantine murder from the broad class of acts committed by one of the species upon another. Because it is never good?

2.2. Is the connotation of murder constant through history? We may safely answer yes if we presume that, though each age strikes its imprint on the form, the form, at least, is unchanging. A problem for Rousseau. We answer no if the presumption is inverted and we take as our first precept the subordination of the form to its perception. Order bows to its depiction. A problem for Heisenberg. The old game goes on begging the question. Ethos, after all, is style.

2.3. What it means. Its present connotations haven’t always been, though the denotation is, more or less, constant. Opprobrium. Murder denotes the act which provokes the most extreme opprobrium. Horror brands murder with an odious stigma. There is never a good murder. It is never just. To kill may now and then be just, but never murder. That’s one from the unwritten credo of civilization.

2.4. O.E.D. definition 1: THE MOST HEINOUS KIND OF CRIMINAL HOMICIDE. -icide from the Latin root, Cedere, to die. An intransitive verb, incapable of moving us as murder does. CRY BLUE MURDER.

3.1. Murder triggers the emotive regions of the brain. The disgust is latent, but dependably there, next to the obsessive fascination with the maker’s soul. What supervenes in the murderer? That’s what we want to know. What is a psychopath’s provenance? That scorn for fellow members of the species, is it congenital or conditioned? Human passion, exclusive to the species, betrays the genetic sentience that raises it. The parable of Cain. That’s one way out. Rage fulfills a paradoxical purpose, plundering life by conserving the laws of nature.

3.2. Evolution has no motive.

3.3. Don’t try to understand murder by using reason.2

3.4. Futile to speculate on the mind of murder unless you believe there is, in some, a congenital inclination to it. (What do they have in common, Doc?) Otherwise, you’re up against the anarchy of circumstance. There is no invariable model, no control, nothing so accessible as the wax figure of Jack the Ripper. Jack’s portrait, you will remember, wasn’t fashioned from life. They never caught him.

3.5. The ordinary murderer either succumbs (I CONFESS!) or tries to dispose of the evidence. The psychopath does neither. Quite the contrary. He leaves his emblem. HELTER SKELTER. ACID IS GROOVY, KILL THE PIGS. I DON’T LIKE MONDAYS. A vat of purple Kool-Aid.

3.6. Concordance:

a. His own face enthralled him. Each angle of it introduced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring its changes.3

He was a changeling. He seemed to change every time I saw him. 4

3.7. The fabulous soul of the murderer. Frightened to look. Just the same, everyone wants a peak. Stunning, when he stares back. The dream stalking you. You wake up, too late, he’s already through the window. Sit up, spellbound, transfixed by dread, in A PROFOUND REVERIE UPON THE TREMENDOUS POWER WHICH IS LAID OPEN IN A MOMENT TO ANY MAN WHO CAN RECONCILE HIMSELF TO THE ABJURATION OF ALL CONSCIENTIOUS RESTRAINTS, IF, AT THE SAME TIME, THOROUGHLY WITHOUT FEAR.” 5

3.8. So I just drove around the corner and parked and told April to stay in the truck, I’d be back in a moment. And I went over to the gas station and told Jensen to give me the money, and he did, and I told him, well, come on in the bathroom and get down on the floor, and it was pretty quick. I didn’t let him know it was coming or anything … and, and, I left there and I drove to, uh, I don’t know just where that Sinclair station was, but I drove back to the main drag … and I bought some potato chips and different things to take to a movie and half a case of beer … and I asked if she wanted to go to a drive-in and I took her to see Cuckoo’s Nest and it kind of freaked her out.6

4. Mystery: A true story. My great-great-grandfather lived in a house that sat up in the bank from the creek which separated the farm, of which the house was the centerpiece, from the little village on the far side. One day Grandpa asked his son to run to the post office for him. He was expecting a package. At the post office, his son had to wait a spell for the mail to arrive, and some time had passed before he returned to the farm. Grandpa was no where in sight, and Grandma (his second wife) hadn’t seen him around the house. His son set off looking for him. He found him sprawled on the floor of the barn. His throat was slit. A big knife lay beside him. He was stone dead. Uproar. It was immediately reckoned—and here’s what I can’t figure—that it was suicide; though he was well along in years and hadn’t shown a sign of despondency. Another of his sons—my great grandfather—lived nearby; he was summoned directly. Arriving at the barn, he took one look and hollered “No one must touch that knife!” so earnestly you’d think the survival of your soul depended on it. (What did he know?) They froze. He reached down to pick the knife out of the puddle of blood. Then he hurried down to the creek, where, after shouting a curse, he hurled the knife far out into the water. And there, for all I know, it remains to this day. The house still stands.

5.1. Guilt is the source of the desire for forgiveness, which the murderer knows cannot be purchased; and must therefore be earned. Sometimes there is conscience, sometimes remorse. But the remorse is strictly personal, deriving from a private sense of justice, alienated from the accepted forms of contrition. Why do only some possess this insular faculty? There may be a glut of reasons, or there may be none. Let’s face it.

5.2. Concordance:

a. I’m not saying I don’t feel bad about it, but I ain’t gonna tell you how bad I feel about it, and I ain’t gonna ask you to forgive me, and I ain’t gonna ask the priest, either. It’s something I’m willing to give my life for, and I’m willing to meet whatever consequences or whatever is coming to me for it.

b. I told him I wasn’t conscious of any sin; all I knew was that I’d been guilty of a criminal offense. Well, I was paying the penalty for that offense, and no one had the right to expect anything more from me.8

5.3. It’s a question of charity, the basic human value, hallowed as sacred mystery to the congregations. A deep and terrible transgression to renounce it (like Rasknolnikov did), no matter how exonerating the provocation, no matter how extenuating the motive, no matter how compelling the passion. Murder is supremely damning, way down on Lucifer’s ring finger, deep in the clutches of evil.

5.4. The state recognizes the intrinsic presence of degree. It is, when all is said and done, a physical act. It can be measured in the centrifuge of comparable acts. There’s no ideal, no ultimate, no absolute standard. The act is material. It has a discrete value, determined by the repugnance, titillation, and terror with which it is greeted. Society administers its spectrometer. Is it enema or irradiation? Or both.

6.1. John Doe. Tag on the toe. DOA. on a slab. City Morgue. Hard boiled, merciless, crass, stupid, romantic. Gangland style. “Book him, Dano, Murder One!”9

6.2. It draws attention. It is always personal. Hence the shock of the Zapruder film. Its impact—a stunning blow from the image gun—draws its power from the American Icon Circuit. TV enhances that charge which arcs from person to polis.

6.3. And the sequel, the clumsy dispatch of Lee Harvey by that schlemiel Jack Ruby, with everybody watching the show live from Dallas—not so distant from the masses of Tiberius’s reign, screeching for death at the circus.

6.4. The Romans turned down their thumbs, and at this sign the vanquished were slain. Their execution didn’t constitute murder to the Romans, notwithstanding the fact that they did recognize a crime of murder. It was then as now: a matter of who, by whom, and why. Murder is always unacceptable, but only by the terms society cares to prescribe.

6.5. Ladies put poison-bottles on their dressing tables openly, and use them as little scruple upon others, as modern dames use eau de cologne. So powerful is the influence of fashion, it can even cause murder to be regarded as a venial peccadillo.10

7.1. The act is transitive, i.e., characterized by having or containing a direct object. So relating items that if the first is related to the second and the second to the third then the first is so related to the third (equality is a relation).11 Murder is a transitive act: KILLER MURDER VICTIM, the last factor the direct object; and alike, the relation of killer and victim to the murder. It is always personal.

7.2. Everyone knows the sexual connection. Keeps it up with erotic overtones. To the imaginations of some—Genet and Burroughs, for example—sex and murder are counter-part models of control. Hard-ons dreaming the will to master, and its antithesis, the will to submit.

7.3. To murder and create.12

7.4. The anti-act to procreation. They’re both climacteric events, posed like antipodes on a sphere. When one moves, so must the other. The imagination spins like a gyroscope. When it tumbles, the bearings get skewed.

7.5. To the litany of fuck and kill we ought to add eat (and its corollary, shit). These are the sacramental verbs of murder. All of them forms of consumption suppressed, distorted, or regulated by the tribe. Whose most profound taboo is applied, paradoxically, to the most intimate form of consumption—cannibalism. Is it any wonder that cannibalism’s sexual totems, fellatio, and cunnilingus, are buried so shallow? And when blow jobs are shown, live, on TV, can public executions be far behind?

7.6. A boy as pretty as that can make me shoot three times.13

8.1. Perhaps the murders of these men were meant to occur.14

8.2. For those to whom every act is preordained and every event a prefiguration, every murder is, to some degree, a suicide.

8.3. Murder fulfills metaphor, as, for example, in that line, To murder and create, in which murder possesses, besides its allusive value, a symbolic value as well—irrevocable action or ultimate alienation, as the case may be.

8.4. Concordance:

a. I felt that the gun was becoming an organ of my body whose black orifice was, for the time being, my own mouth, which at last was having its say. My finger on the trigger. The highest moment of freedom was attained … I fired. I fired three shots.15

b. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jugged my palm, and so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began … I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day … but I fired four shots more.16

8.5. To what end? For what? Why is murder so logical and apt a signpost? Somewhere along the line it invariably points both ways—to murderer and victim. It binds them to a shared fate. Each holds one end of a destiny stick. Whose will commands the break?

8.6. Since the Indian … does not regard any death as accidental and they are unacquainted with their own self-destructive trends referring to them contemptuously as “our naked cousins,” or perhaps feeling that these trends above all are subject to the manipulation of alien and hostile wills, any death is murder.17

9.1. Mondo Murder. There are always the cranks, and innovations for morbid palates. And how often does wealth not vindicate its pursuit and live up to its reputation by beating the rap? Serial murders? All perils, especially malignant, are recurrent. A murderer, who is such by passion and by a wolfish craving for bloodshed as a mode of unnatural luxury, cannot relapse into inertia.18

9.2. There is always a modern murder: Aldo Moro; Sharon Tate; the Clutters of Kansas; Dr. T. of Scarsdale: Gacy’s wasted boys; while lookers-on stood by; how many at Jonestown? NYPD statistics. John Lennon. To list is to date.

9.3. Detectives said that the children let their father’s body lie in their home for ten days while they, spent his money. The police said that Mr. White’s children wanted their father killed ‘Because he wouldn’t let us do anything we wanted to do, like smoke pot.’ The police said that Mr. White, an employee of the Ford Motor Company, had been divorced for ten years and that the children lived with him. The police charged the White children—hired the Watkins youth to commit the slaying for $60. The police said that the youth’s first shot from a .38-caliber pistol missed and went through a window. Mr. White was then fatally shot in the head as he tried to flee. His children were in the house at the time, the police said. Detectives also said the children took from Mr. White’s pockets his wallet, a $230 paycheck and credit cards, plus $60 to $80 in cash. The next day they went on a spending spree. With the money and the credit cards, they acquired a television set and various games, the police said. 19

10. You give it room. You step gingerly around it, the corpse on the floor or the lumpy plastic shroud on the street. It’s sanctuary quiet, who knows why? It’s the way to behave in its presence, as before any mystery. Size it up. Proceed with caution. It’s dark, after all; and to see what’s in front of you it’s best you don’t look straight ahead. To see the shadows for what they are—to see the dread and mystery—to see murder, vision must be oblique.

11. Notes: 1. Thomas De Quincy, Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts (1854); 2. Gary Gilmore, Playboy Interview (1979); 3. Truman Capote (of Perry), In Cold Blood (1965); 4. Vincent Bugliosi (quoting Squeaky Fromme on Charles Manson), Helter Skelter (1974); 5. De Quincy (of Coleridge); 6., 7. Gary Gilmore; 8. Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942); 9. Jack Lord, Hawaii Five-O (1970’s, passim); 10. Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852); 11. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1972); 12. T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; 13. Jean Genet, Funeral Rites (1953, in English); 14. Gary Gilmore; 15. Jean Genet; 16. Albert Camus; 17. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959); 18. De Quincy; 19. UPI, dateline: Cleveland, Feb. 21, The New York Times (2/22/79).

12. Acknowledgement to Susan Sontag (Partisan Review, 1964).

13. Trademark: M. F. Werke, New York, 1980.

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Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

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Read the issue
002 Fall 1982