Michel Foucault and the Horrors of Humanity

By: Eric Frankel

In the opening chapter of Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the famed French philosopher/historian/theorist lays forth the events that occurred on 2 March 1757 as Robert-François Damiens was publicly executed for the attempted assassination of King Louis XV. The execution became increasingly notorious in France and Damiens’ legacy remained through the Revolution and was often cited as an example of how evil (in the eyes of a royalist) one must be to try and murder a king.

I began reading Discipline and Punish this summer after wanting to delve into Foucault and hearing that this was his easiest work with which to start. The first chapter is, as they say, a “doozy.” Foucault lays bare the agonizing details of Damiens’ execution from multiple eyewitnesses (one being the famed Casanova of Venice). I had no idea of the horror I was about to read, but I will now outline a truncated version of the execution:

  • On a scaffold in front of the Church of Paris, Damiens had the flesh “torn from his    breasts, arms, thighs, and calves with red-hot pincers.”
  • His right hand was burned with sulfur.
  • “Molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together” was             “liberally” poured over the places where his flesh was torn away.
  • He was drawn and quartered. However, as his limbs did not give way easily, the executioner resorted to quartering Damiens with an axe.
  • Damiens’ allegedly still-alive torso was then burned at the stake.

There you go, some nice light reading for your evening! That tale goes on for about four long, dense pages. Afterward, before getting into the meat of Foucault’s analysis of the event, I found myself outside on a bright summer day and at that point considered finding some lighter reading material.

Foucault chose to examine this moment first because he believed that the idea of torture had so rarely been at the forefront of social conversation, when it absolutely should be. Like many of my peers, I had always viewed torture in a way that allowed me to not really have to think about it too hard. I am aware of the torture devices used in the medieval age, but it is all too easy to block the actual pain and suffering one would have felt at the hands of such instruments. The story of Damiens was the first time where I felt truly sick with unease from reading a text, as the excruciating details of the account go on to describe Damiens’ horrific reactions, and the slow, four-hour process used to execute him.


I think this, beyond anything else we study in the class, is the most prominent reason why Gina is against presenting tales of “real life” horror. We study things like Slenderman and Poltergeist because they have the safety of fiction surrounding them. Knowing that Damiens was a man who actually existed and experienced man’s inhumanity toward fellow man makes this kind of horror the most terrifying above everything we have read this semester. It also brings up an interesting point that has always fascinated me: why is it so much easier to scoff at famed horror writers who describe extreme torture yet so difficult to read the exact same thing from a factual account? The answer is seemingly simple: we sympathize with a fellow human. So why don’t we sympathize with the “fellow human” of a fictional tale? Because there’s no real danger? And if that is the case, what is it about our psychology that prefers to sweep human horrors (Josef Mengele, Vlad the Impaler, guards at Abu Ghraib) to the back of our minds, while gleefully analyzing fictitious horrors? If you want my opinion, I think the most important thing we can do is face the more horrific events head-on, the one’s that really happened, so that we can analyze our history and potentially make a change. Then again, this is an English class… and nobody really asked my opinion.

P.S. If you’re interested in reading the full account, here is a link to a PDF copy of Discipline and Punish.


One thought on “Michel Foucault and the Horrors of Humanity

  1. I applaud you for daring to take on a different subject, with historical context, while also finding a way to reflect on the course. I could not be more in agreement with you about the real significance in horror as an examination and exploration of real life events. By studying these, we can take what we learn as a means of dealing with atrocities and horrors happening around us today and beware of their effects. I think there is danger in actually studying present stories and issues, however, the past and history is a reverie for amazing and terrible events which merit our focus. I think the class could definteliy benefit from one or two of these types of texts.

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