Pierre Goldman 1979

Interview with Régis Debray

Source: Libération, September 21, 1979;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2008.

Pierre Goldman had a reserved and wary relationship with the media. He often wrote in “Libération,” but hated to be interviewed. When his second book, “Les ordinaires mésaventures d’Archibald Rapoport” came out he only granted one interview, to the daily paper “Rouge,” before fleeing to the Caribbean so as not to have to refuse the requests of literary journalists.

The interview below is thus an exceptional document. Even more because it was realized in the fall of ‘76, shortly after Pierre Goldman’s release from prison. After his liberation he had only granted an interview to Rouge, by “political fidelity” and specifying that he didn’t share the positions of the Ligue communiste revolutionnaire. Régis Debray, who was preparing at the time the startup of a monthly (“Ca Ira”), had done another interview with Pierre Goldman, under the title of “I return to the shadows.” In this long text, which was not published, since the magazine was never to appear, Pierre Goldman seals about his trial, his detention, his liberation, and his status as writer that he had acquired behind prison walls.

At twenty you envisaged going to prison?

When I joined the Jeunesses Communistes at 15 I always thought that I would one day perhaps be imprisoned. Or killed. For political activities. In fact I consider the revolution a serious thing, even if I’, not always serious in other areas. I didn’t think I’d be imprisoned for criminal activity. That said, I always thought that I would one day be accused of a terrible crime that I hadn’t committed. I thought it or desired it. At this lever thought and desire are one thing... I always fought against constructing a political theory based on my personal experience.

At any time did you try to political justify your delinquency?

My delinquency should be called criminality in the strict meaning of the penal code (I mean by “crime” an infraction that involves the Assize court and not “murder” as common sense dictates) I thought and lived my criminality in a political way insofar as I tried to resolve political problems through banditry. To an extent as there was in my acts of brigandage something that attenuated their criminal character: I carried out my criminal acts in the company of black accomplices, or rather fellow team members.

Does that suffice? Is every illegal act committed by a black man an act of rebellion?

There are two things here. In fact, in do think that an illegal act of violence committed by a colonized person is always charged with political meaning, even when this meaning is hidden from its own author. That is one point. The second point is that at the time I committed these hold ups I was extremely interested in, worried by fascinated by the political problematic of the Black Panther and Black Power movements. I had been led to consider that it was not possible for it to naturally occur that a relationship of authentic brotherhood could be established between a black man and a white. I thought that a white man was always imprisoned in his...whiteness in some way. But I give this word a cultural, political, historical meaning. I had the idea that in the end the only way for that brotherhood to be established was to commit an criminal act in company of a black man. In the Black Panther movement there was a whole debate on the lumpen as an element of political rebellion. Obviously in France it was completely abstract and absurd. Let’s say that I gave myself the painful pleasure of having privileged relations with blacks within the framework of a violent act, that is, armed robbery, and that it seemed to me that in this area I had arrived at something important, even if I was wrong...

You were at Fresnes when Buffet and Bontemps were executed?

Yes, I was there. And I still remember that Tuesday November 28. We knew about it when we woke up. There was a kind of natural silence that reigned over the prison. Even though Buffet and Bontemps were executed at Santé prison. But I had known Buffet at Fresnes. When I got there he was four or five cells away from me.

He knew what was waiting for him?

I don’t think that anyone can say that Buffet knew he’d be executed, and I especially believe that no one can say whether or not Buffet wanted to be executed. He himself didn’t know.

You are against the death penalty?

Absolutely. In matters of crime. On the other hand, I believe that its application is inevitable in certain historical conditions, in political matters, when politics is the continuation of war by other means.

What caused you the most pain in prison?

I can’t speak of what caused me the most pain in prison.

And the least?

Aside from that pain the worst was being sentenced to life imprisonment for an act I hadn’t committed. But it wasn’t a pain I felt right away. I felt it the next day. But at that moment I lived it with the same kind of pleasure we feel at a tragedy.

You participated in it like a spectator?

As a spectator and an actor. I was inserted in the pure theatrical tragedy of the judiciary stage, which is that of feeling a certain aesthetic or metaphysical pleasure in things that are in fact unbearable , and which we look on as theatrical or literary embellishments.

You wrote this book (“Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France”) between two imprisonments. Why not write it before the first trial?

I didn’t write this book before the first trial because one day I said to myself, almost swore, that I would never write. And I wrote this book not at all to become a “great writer.” I wrote this book because there was a precise moment when I said to myself: it’s over. The verdict won’t be reversed, I’ll remain sentenced to life in prison and I would serve between 18 and 20 years. I couldn’t bear to serve these years in prison and I wanted my innocence to be recognized, because for me this was the principal problem, which was more important than my desire for freedom, which was always more important than my desire for freedom. I wanted to hurt those who in my opinion had crookedly condemned me. I said to myself that the only way to hurt them was to take up my natural weapon as an intellectual, because I am also an intellectual even if I’m not only that and that France, the country of the idea (it’s me who’s speaking here) is also a country where writing enjoys an exceptional status. I thought that the only way to do harm and to free myself was to write. So I wrote. I wrote and was written by this book. It burst from me. I don’t want to say that it burst from me like a scream because that is a trivial formulation, but there was even so a boiling up, it flowed from me.

Do you think that the justice system was indulgent, severe, or simply just with you?

Insofar as it acquitted me of what I didn’t do, it was truly just. And this is the only moment when we can say of justice that it was just. For the rest, justice is judicial; it is neither just not unjust. It wasn’t indulgent towards me; that’s not true. I committed three hold-ups. The price in Paris is between eight and twelve years. You just have to consult the statistics.

If you hadn’t written this book do you think you’d have been absolved of the principal charge at Amiens?

No. I think that had I not written this book the verdict wouldn’t have been reversed. And if by chance the verdict would have been reversed I would have been condemned a second time...

How do you explain your release on probation?

There are three things here. In the first place, there is law. Every condemned man who is not a recidivist can benefit from probation half way through the sentence. I wasn’t freed half-way through; that isn’t true. I was sentenced to twelve years of prison but I had ten years to serve since I had a two year reduction in my sentence. So I served six-and-a-half years of ten. Why this reduction in sentence. In the first place for my exams, and this wasn’t a gift. Every year every prisoner has the right to three months grace for good conduct, if he wasn’t too often sent to solitary. I was sent to solitary once because I had a radio and I was sent I don’t know how many times to the hearing room, including the day I appeared before the probation commission because I’d been accused of passing a knife to a prisoner. In all, I didn’t have any more or less problems than any other prisoner! And finally, there was my good conduct during the riots of ‘74.

And know what will happen with you? How are you going to live?

What’s going to happen is that, well, I have a little bit of money from the book, which is also a mercantile object like all books, and I’m preparing another book. I have resigned myself to the idea of being a writer and of living on my work as a writer. Which doesn’t mean that I’ll live on my pen, since I don’t know if my books will or won’t bring in any money. In and of itself the expression is scandalous, but this how things present themselves in my life and in society. For the moment, I envisage withdrawing in a way and resting.

You resign yourself to being nothing but a writer?

No, of course not; I’ll never reconcile myself this. I am not a writer. And even if we suppose that I am a writer, and whatever is said, in truth I’ll never reconcile myself to being just one precise thing. Let’s say I’ll never accept simplicity or unity.

Not being what we are and being what we aren’t, this is a bit Sartrean, isn’t it?

I am not Sartrean, but if everyone was like me “Being and Nothingness” would be a scientific work.

Aside from culture, what is there for you at this moment?

My personal life, but I never talk about it. There’s politics, history, the revolution, there’s beauty, there’s the voluptuousness of certain music.

How old are you?

32. In eight years I’ll be forty. At the same time, we are never old, because we’re always young enough to die.