Vol. 2 No. 9 · 15 May 1980

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John Layard’s Life and Work

SIR: John Layard gave me a version of the story of his ‘suicide’ at variance with the one recounted in Karl Miller’s review of Charles Osborne’s W.H. Auden: the Life of a Poet (LRB, 17 April). He told me that Auden had stolen a boy that he (Layard) was in love with; in despair he shot himself in the mouth to end it all. Greatly surprised to find himself nevertheless still alive, he decided to confront the author of his misery with the actuality of the pain he had caused. Stuffing a handkerchief in his bleeding mouth, he dragged himself to Auden’s flat and rang the bell. When the poet answered, Layard said to him: ‘Finish me off, Wystan, there’s a good chap.’ Auden replied, not with an aphorism, according to Layard, but with a callous rejection, ‘Don’t be such a bloody ass, John,’ and shut the door in his face.

Layard, more dead than alive, managed to find a taxi to take him to the hospital, where they patched him up. To his dying day you could see the little hole in his forehead-bone, covered with skin that began to pulse like a tiny drum when his interest was aroused.

Moreover, Layard did not merely ‘live on’ for another forty years. He became a distinguished anthropologist and psychotherapist, pupil and then colleague of Jung, and greatly respected though somewhat feared in analytical psychology circles. His Stone Men of Malecula is an anthropological classic. Many people, young and old, in all walks of life, have cause to be grateful to his analytical acuity, and continue to pay tribute to it, as I do now. His publications are acknowledged as important contributions to psychological theory, and are often quoted as seminal texts. Sir Michael Tippett acknowledged the artistic renewal and stimulation he gained from Layard, in a recent 75th-birthday broadcast. This, I think, would have been in the Forties. Twenty years later, in Falmouth, Layard, in his eighties, was still full of intellectual energy, psychological insight, and the kind of danger that transmutes people, as his pupils of that time, myself included, can testify. Knowing him, for many of us, was a watershed in our lives. I personally think that he has been of more lasting use to the world than ever Auden was, who was probably jealous of Layard’s vigour and commitment.

Peter Redgrove
Falmouth, Cornwall

Seen reading

SIR: The ‘Maltese cross’ in The Spoils of Poynton is described so by Mrs Gereth because she and her husband discovered this treasure during a stay in Malta. It was her pet name for the Spanish piece. When I wrote that The Spoils of Poynton is ‘a Balzacian drama done with the merest hints of props and stage setting’, the suggestion was that Balzac would certainly have supplied them. In other words, James’s work was non- or even anti-Balzacian despite the basic plot elements in common. Your correspondent (Letters, 1 May) is labouring a point already set forth in my text.

Mary McCarthy

Gilmore’s Right to Die

SIR: Christopher Ricks, in his review of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (LRB, 6 March) appears to find Gary Mark Gilmore’s homicides, including both his murders and his own execution, impressive, gratuitous acts of existential self-assertion. Gilmore’s lethal solipsism elicits Mr Ricks’s (and Mr Mailer’s) patent admiration. Our efforts at the time to keep the State of Utah from premeditated, ceremonious killing strike Mr Ricks as ‘officiousness’. However that may be, Mr Ricks quite mistakes the ‘cruel parallels’ between a court ordained execution to which the victim consents (e.g. Gilmore) and medical euthanasia for someone already terminally ill or indeed dead by some clinical criteria (e.g. Karen Ann Quinlan).

In the latter case, the patient (or, in the event of the patient’s incapacity, a family member or next friend) decides not to postpone the inevitable death when either pain or deprivation of sense or feeling leaves nothing to life but its technical persistence. There remain complex questions of morality and of the state’s right to interfere with such private decisions. Suicide (or constructive suicide, or becoming an accessory to a suicide) presents virtually the same issues.

Gilmore, however, illustrates a situation fundamentally dissimilar. ‘Don’t I have the right to die?’ Ricks quotes Gilmore as asking. To begin with, phrased as imprecisely as that, dying is an inevitability, not a right. Did Gilmore have a right to commit suicide and thereby die at a time of his own choosing? Probably so, all other things being equal. But the question of suicide is utterly inapposite to the Gilmore case. What was at issue in the proposed execution of Gilmore was not suicide but rather judicial homicide. Gilmore did not decide to die: the State of Utah decreed that he should be killed. If, as opponents of capital punishment assert, governments ought not to have the legal power and do not have the moral right to kill human beings, then the consent of an individual to an act that the state is not entitled to perform cannot ratify such an act.

However much of a right Gilmore may have had to die (i.e. to commit suicide), he did not have the right to have the state kill him. There is no such right. Certainly the State of Utah would not have heeded any claim of Gilmore’s that he had a right to live. The state takes charge of the right to live or die of persons convicted of a capital crime, the defendant’s rights to that decision have been extinguished, and the question that remains is what right the state has to kill a human being whose life and death are entirely within its control. We declare: None!

In the light of these considerations alone, we reject the imputation of having ‘officiously’ striven to keep Gilmore alive. Our strife, in any event, was with the State of Utah, not with Gilmore (who demanded to be executed); with the State of Florida, not with John Spenkelink (who fought against his execution); with the State of Nevada, not with Jesse Walter Bishop (who merely refused to resist his execution). Resistance to the power of governments to kill people is not ‘officiousness’. The injunction ‘Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour’ (Leviticus XIX:l7) bespeaks the commitment of human-rights and civil-liberties advocates against tyranny and murderous government the world over.

Henry Schwarzschild
Director, Capital Punishment Project, American Civil Liberties Union, New York

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