Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.
THE WILL TO LIVE
THE DAYS DRAG interminably in the semi-darkness of the cell. The gong regulates my existence with depressing monotony. But the tenor of my thoughts has been changed by the note of the mysterious correspondent. In vain I have been waiting for his appearance,-yet the suggestion of escape has germinated hope. The will to live is beginning to assert itself, growing more imperative as the days go by. I wonder that my mind dwells upon suicide more and more rarely, ever more cursorily. The thought of self-destruction fills me with dismay. Every possibility of escape must first be exhausted, I reassure MY troubled conscience. Surely I have no fear of death-when the proper time arrives. But haste would be highly imprudent; worse, quite unnecessary. indeed, it is my duty as a revolution ist to seize every opportunity for propaganda: escape would af ford me many occasions to serve the Cause. it was thoughtless on my part to condemn that man Jamestown. I even resented his seemingly unforgivable delay in committing suicide, considering the impossible sentence of seventeen years. Indeed, I was unjust: Jamestown is, no doubt, forming his plans. It takes time to mature such an undertaking: one must first familiarize himself with the new surroundings, get one's bearings in the prison. So far I have had but little chance to do so. Evidently, it is the policy of the authorities to keep me in solitary confinement, and in consequent ignorance of the intricate system of hallways, double gates, and winding passages. At liberty to leave this place, it would prove difficult for me to find, unaided, my way out. Oh, if I possessed the magic ring I dreamed of last night! It was a wonderful talisman, secreted-I fancied in the dream-by the goddess of the Social Revolution. I saw her quite distinctly: tall and commanding, the radiance of allconquering love in her eyes. She stood at my bedside, a smile of surpassing gentleness suffusing the queenly countenance, her arm extended above me, half in blessing, half pointing toward the dark wall. Eagerly I looked in the direction of the arched hand-there, in a crevice, something luminous glowed with the brilliancy of fresh dew in the morning sun. It was a heart-shaped ring cleft in the center. Its scintillating rays glorified the dark corner with the aureole of a great hope. Impulsively I reached out, and pressed the parts of the ring into a close-fitting whole, when, lo! the rays burst into a fire that spread and instantly melted the iron and steel, and dissolved the prison walls, disclosing to my enraptured gaze green fields and woods, and men and women playfully at work in the sunshine of freedom. And then ... something dispelled the vision.
Oh, if I had that magic heart now! To escape, to be free! May be my unknown friend will yet keep his word. He is probably perfecting plans, or perhaps it is not safe for him to visit me. if my comrades could aid me, escape would be feasible. But the Girl and Fedya will never consider the possibility. No doubt they refrain from writing because they momentarily expect to hear of my suicide. How distraught the poor Girl must be! Yet she should have written: it is now four days since my removal to the penitentiary. Every day I anxiously await the coming of the Chaplain, who distributes the mail.-There he is! The quick, nervous step has become familiar to my ear. Expectantly I follow his movements; I recognize the vigorous slam of the door and the click of the spring lock. The short steps patter on the bridge connecting the upper rotunda with the cell- house, and pass along the gallery. The solitary footfall amid the silence reminds me of the timid haste of one crossing a graveyard at night. Now the Chaplain pauses: he is comparing the number of the wooden block hanging outside the cell with that on the letter. Some one has remembered a friend in prison. The steps continue and grow faint, as the postman rounds the distant corner. He passes the cell-row on the opposite side, ascends the topmost tier, and finally reaches the ground floor containing my cell. My heart beats faster as the sound approaches: there must surely be a letter for me. He is nearing the cell-he pauses. I can't see him yet, but I know he is comparing numbers. Perhaps the letter is for me. I hope the Chaplain will make no mistake: Range K, Cell 6, Number A 7. Something light flaps on the floor of the next cell, and the quick, short step has passed me by. No mail for me! Another twenty-four hours must elapse before I may receive a letter, and then, too, perhaps the faint shadow will not pause at my door.
The thought of my twenty-two-year sentence is driving me desperate. I would make use of any means, however terrible, to escape from this hell, to regain liberty. Liberty! What would it not offer me after this experience? I should have the greatest opportunity for revolutionary activity. I would choose Russia. The Mostianer have forsaken me. I will keep aloof, but they shall learn what a true revolutionist is capable of accomplishing. If there is a spark of manhood in them, they will blush for their despicable attitude toward my act, their shameful treatment of me. How eager they will then be to prove their confidence by exaggerated devotion, to salve their guilty conscience! I should not have to complain of a lack of financial aid, were I to inform our intimate circles of my plans regarding future activity in Russia. It would be glorious, glorious! S-sh
It's the Chaplain. Perhaps he has mail for me to-day.... May be he is suppressing letters from my friends; or probably it is the Warden's fault: the mailbag is first examined in his office.-Now the Chaplain is descending to the ground floor. He pauses. It must be Cell 2 getting a letter. Now he is coming. The shadow is opposite my door,-gone!
"Chaplain, one moment, please."
"Here, Chaplain. Cell 6 K."
"What is it, my boy?"
"Chaplain, I should like something to read."
"Read? Why, we have a splendid library, m'boy; very fine library. I will send you a catalogue, and you can draw one book every week."
"I missed library day on this range. I'll have to wait another week. But I'd like to have something in the meantime, Chaplain. "
"You are not working, m'boy?"
"You have not refused to work, have you?"
"No, I have not been offered any work yet."
"Ohl well, you will be assigned soon. Be patient, m'boy."
"But can't I have something to read now?"
"Isn't there a Bible in your cell?,,
"A Bible? I don't believe in it, Chaplain."
"My boy, it will do you no harm to read it. It may do you good. Read it, m' boy."
For a moment I hesitate. A desperate idea crosses my mind.
"All right, Chaplain, I'll read the Bible, but I don't care for the modern English version. Perhaps you have one with Greek or Latin annotations?"
"Why, why, m' boy, do you understand Latin or Greek?"
"Yes, I have studied the classics."
The Chaplain seems impressed. He steps close to the door, leaning against it in the attitude of a man prepared for a long conversation. We talk about the classics, the sources of my knowledge, Russian schools, social conditions. An interesting and intelligent man, this prison Chaplain, an extensive traveler whose visit to Russia had impressed him with the great possibilities of that country. Finally he motions to a guard:
"Let A 7 come with me."
With a suspicious glance at me, the officer unlocks the door. "Shall I come along, Chaplain?" he asks.
"No, no. It is all right. Come, m'boy."
Past the tier of vacant cells, we ascend the stairway to the upper rotunda, on the left side of which is the Chaplain's office. Excited and alert, I absorb every detail of the surroundings. I strive to appear indifferent, while furtively following every movement of the Chaplain, as he selects the rotunda key from the large bunch in his hand, and opens the door. Passionate longing for liberty is consuming me. A plan of escape is maturing in my mind. The Chaplain carries all the keys-he lives in the Warden's house, connected with the prison-he is so fragile-I could easily overpower him-there is no one in the rotunda-I'd stifle his cries-take the keys-
"Have a seat, my boy. Sit down. Here are some books. Look them over. I have a duplicate of my personal Bible, with annotations. It is somewhere here."
With feverish eyes I watch him lay the keys on the desk. A quick motion, and they would be mine. That large and heavy one, it must belong to the gate. It is so big,-one blow would kill him. Ah, there is a safe! The Chaplain is taking some books from it. His back is turned to me. A thrust-and I'd lock him in.... Stealthily, imperceptibly, I draw nearer to the desk, my eyes fastened on the keys. Now I bend over them, pretending to be absorbed in a book, the while my hand glides forward, slowly, cautiously. Quickly I lean over; the open book in my hands entirely hides the keys. My hand touches them. Desperately I clutch the large, heavy bunch, my arm slowly rises
"My boy, I cannot find that Bible just now, but I'll give you some other book. Sit down, my boy. I am so sorry about you. I am an officer of the State, but I think you were dealt with unjustly. Your sentence is quite excessive. I can well understand the state of mind that actuated you, a young enthusiast, in these exciting times. It was in connection with Homestead, is it not so, m' boy?"
I fall back into the chair, shaken, unmanned. That deep note of sympathy, the sincerity of the trembling voice-no, no, I cannot touch him....
At last, mail from New York! Letters from the Girl and Fedya. With a feeling of mixed anxiety and resentment, I gaze at the familiar handwriting. Why didn't they write before? The edge of expectancy has been dulled by the long suspense. The Girl and the Twin, my closest, most intimate friends of yesterday,-but the yesterday seems so distant in the past, its very reality submerged in the tide of soul-racking events.
There is a note of disappointment, almost of bitterness, in the Girl's letter. The failure of my act will lessen the moral effect, and diminish its propagandistic value. The situation is aggravated by Most. Owing to his disparaging attitude, the Germans remain indifferent. To a considerable extent, even the Jewish revolutionary element has been influenced by him. The Twin, in veiled and abstruse Russian, hints at the attempted completion of my work, planned, yet impossible of realization.
I smile scornfully at the "completion" that failed even of an attempt. The damningly false viewpoint of the Girl exasperates me, and I angrily resent the disapproving surprise I sense in both letters at my continued existence.
I read the lines repeatedly. Every word drips bitterness into my soul. Have I grown morbid, or do they actually presume to reproach me with my failure to suicide? By what right? Impatiently I smother the accusing whisper of my conscience, "By the right of revolutionary ethics." The will to live leaps into being peremptorily, more compelling and imperative at the implied challenge.
No, I will struggle and fight! Friend or enemy, they shall learn that I am not so easily done for. I will live, to escape, to conquer!