© Ralf Zenker

Leoš Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead is set in a Siberian prison camp that brings together criminals and political prisoners in a place of humiliation and violence where there is no future and no hope – a community of those sharing the same fate of »fatelessness« (Imre Kertész). As a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Nahlah Saimeh deals every day with criminals who have committed violent and sexual offences. By talking to them she investigates how likely they are to reoffend and the level of danger that they currently present to society. She prepares reports, on the basis of which the courts decide whether an offender will be sent to a prison or a psychiatric ward, the length of their sentence or the dates for their preventative detention. Barbara Eckle, the Ruhrtriennale’s Lead Dramaturg, met her to talk about Janáček’s opera and its literary source, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead – and to find out why people commit crimes.

Barbara Eckle: Dr. Saimeh, are Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his prison camp in Siberia around 1855 in any way comparable with the reality of prisons today?

Nahlah Saimeh: What impresses me about Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead is its incredible precision and economy: in every sentence he expresses something about the human mind, the human condition and the depths that people can sink to, and he does this with a linguistic beauty that is quite masterly. The book’s content is what I experience every day. I can sign off on every line and say: Yes, that’s the way it is. And I don’t see any leap in time between then and now, except in terms of décor or technology. Of course, the prison that Dostoyevsky describes is not comparable to modern jails in Northern or Central Europe because prisoners now have a right to individual cells with their own toilet. Small details have been changed that make an important difference to prisoners’ standard of living, but the system in which so many different difficult characters are put together and treat each other in a thoroughly destructive way has not changed – just as the people who end up in prison have not changed. That would be impossible because for centuries human beings with their tragic capacity for destructive behaviour have consistently been born with the same problems in their lives. The people in the prison camp that Dostoyevsky describes are con-men, frauds, murderers. One has killed his commanding officer, one his wife, a third has killed his rival in love. They all have classic motives. These existed in Dostoyevsky’s time, they existed in ancient times, they exist now and they will continue to exist in 150 years. They are the constants of human failure.

As a forensic psychiatrist you have spent over 20 years working with people who have committed serious, in some cases brutal, crimes. Leoš Janáček placed the phrase »In every creature there is a divine spark« as an epigraph at the beginning of his opera From the House of the Dead. Apart from the religious element it contains, can you confirm those sentiments after everything you have seen and experienced?

I wouldn’t want to apply that specific sentence of Janáček’s to the practice of forensic psychiatry and its clients. But on a fundamental and higher level it is correct and would apply to every person I have met so far. I don’t see such a great difference between the people I encounter as offenders and the people who have not committed any offences, myself included. Because the difference between offenders and non-offenders is actually relatively small and is confined to very few areas. As human beings we all require certain basic needs: we all need sleep and we need food and drink. We are all familiar with fatigue and pain. We know fear and we all have a basic need for safety, appreciation, recognition and security. So there are numerous characteristics that we all share. But because our conscious mind operates dualistically, we experience everything dualistically. And what Janàček is talking about in that sentence is an all-encompassing level of reality that we cannot see with a mind that has been shaped by dualism.  

Socrates is supposed to have said: »No one does wrong willingly.« Do circumstances really determine whether someone is »good« or »bad«? Do people not also make their own decisions?   

In our highly individualistic culture, our whole education and socialisation is geared towards an ego, towards the question: Who am I, and what do I want to be? Cultures that locate the ego as part of a greater whole educate people differently, because the individual self serves a large organism: a family, a clan, a tribe. Individuality has an entirely subordinate meaning here, as does the experience of self-esteem. Of course, we are also the result of what has shaped us, our upbringing, our early ties. Nevertheless, at some point I have to ask critically, whether and under what assumptions my actions have any significance and what that means for how I view myself. It is against that background that I make decisions. Of course, there are circumstances under which it is extremely difficult to behave well consistently and to avoid committing any crimes. In wars, for example, people are exposed to exceptional situations and in certain conditions one becomes a very different person. We may have a very refined image of ourselves when we are sitting on our sofa and not in a rubber dinghy that is overfull by 220 % and the one chance of reaching the other side is if some people leave that boat. And I don’t know if we can really say how we would conduct ourselves in a situation like that because we are not remotely familiar with such exigencies. Still, we have to say: people make their own decisions. They bear the responsibility for themselves and their decisions, even if they are incapable of dealing with it. And it is a great privilege to live in a society where one is free to make one’s own decisions. It is part of the dignity of being a grown up to be able to bear responsibility.

It is a great privilege to live in a society where one is free to make one’s own decisions . Dr. Nahlah Saimeh

Between an inner desire to kill someone and putting that deed into practice, there is an enormous natural hurdle of inhibition. What enables someone to cross that hurdle?

Not every human being is capable of killing another. There are people who will not take the path of killing, due to their underlying convictions or metaphysical beliefs. Or their emotional make-up sees no need to do this. They never experience extreme rage, offence or desire for revenge. They might get annoyed, perhaps, or disagree with things, but it never reaches such a destructive extent that they seriously consider eliminating someone. However, there are personalities that are so easily slighted, so vain, so resentful or their self-confidence is so brittle that other people really do have the power to destroy them inside. And then it seems that their only possible way out is by destroying this »aggressor« who has destroyed their self-esteem, so they can then build up their own self-esteem again out of the ruins of that action. Differences in temperament are also a factor. There are people who are extremely short-tempered and irritable, who are unable to control their impulses, especially their impulses of rage.  If one possess a normal degree of control over one’s impulses and one’s emotions, as a rule one will not commit the offense of murder. In theory it might then be more likely that one would kill someone in a planned, rational and cool manner. But in order to do that, one would have to be able to reconcile killing with one’s self-image morally or for it to be part of their self-image. I can feel great if I’m capable of shooting three people in cold blood. But I can feel just as great if I see my own personal worth in not harming anyone - only that is a more mature decision.

Dostoyevsky was only able to write his House of the Dead because he spent four years in a forced labour camp in Siberia for belonging to socialist, intellectual circles. Here he discovered »the people« – in other words, a lot of different types of people who he would never otherwise have encountered. Many of them would later appear in his five great novels. Dostoyevsky also discovered a kind of inner freedom here, a freedom that was not reliant on external, physical circumstances, but a metaphysical freedom, a kind of untouchable spirit in his soul. This was what apparently enabled him to observe these different types of people without judging them and to see them – whether they were good or bad – as being of equal worth. When you are talking to an offender in order to compile a report, do you try to find a connection with this – to quote Janáček again – »divine spark«?

The aim of professional questioning is to describe a person with sufficient clarity and precision for me to be able to draw the appropriate forensic conclusions. There is a great deal of responsibility involved. It is important to me that my description does not take away their dignity.  I think that it is a matter of dignity to describe someone as they are and to take them seriously. I am not judging these people: I am describing them. And I am questioning what level of danger can still be expected from them – a very small question in the greater scheme of things. While I am doing this, it is clear to me that this person is dependent on numerous factors that are beyond their control: gender, intelligence, family background, personality. We do not know what would have become of this person if they had grown up in different circumstances. Of course, later they can choose what they do with their lives and their resources. And they cannot be absolved of responsibility for who they are. But how many infinite possibilities might people have within them under other circumstances! And that is why it is always clear to me that the person sitting in front of me could potentially be me. This man – and the majority of them are men – is one possible form of human existence. And I am also nothing other than one of millions and millions of possible forms of human existence. And ultimately that is not dissimilar to the way that Dostoyevsky looks at his fellow inmates in The House of the Dead.

It is always clear to me that the person sitting in front of me could potentially be me. Dr. Nahlah Saimeh

And there isn’t a single evaluation or judgement there. Even when he says of one inmate: »he is a thoroughly cruel person,« this is not taken as a negative comment. This fascinates me and I wonder how he is able to use these unambiguous words and yet we do not read them as value judgements?

That is exactly what I try to achieve in my reports. And I have to say that I did not manage to do that when I was younger. I was far more hubristic then in the way I wrote reports. They were not inferior in terms of content, but they were different. Many years of experience have taught me to be more respectful. And I have made it a habit of mine to describe people objectively no matter what they do. My morals are irrelevant, I can say that quite clearly. Being able to make observations and draw objective conclusions from them without judging people – that is what matters.

Prison life in Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead is characterised by minor and major acts of violence among the inmates. Janáček gives these seemingly ridiculous scuffles and fights a conspicuous amount of space in his opera, presumably because they are such an inseparable part of the reality that Dostoyevksy describes in his novel. And it is no different today. Why is there so much violence in prisons?

The risk of violence comes about primarily because many prisoners have so-called dissocial personality disorder. These are people with a proclivity to violence, who are thoroughly inconsiderate, extremely tough about getting their own way and often provoked very quickly. They see physical violence as an obvious means of communication and advancing their own interests. Within the population at large, around 3-6 % fit into this category. In a prison, around 70 % of the people have this disorder. That means that the majority of people entering custody do so with a different normative framework. And they bring their social behaviour, which is basically what has put them in prison, into that prison with them. This means there are violent incidents, pecking orders, prison hierarchies. And there are violent offenders who determine who is at the bottom of that pecking order. In German prisons it is usually sex offenders who have abused children who occupy the very, very bottom of the hierarchy. What justification a murderer for example might have for considering himself superior, is not immediately clear to me. But there is always someone who is below you and who you can penalise. So you are able to stabilise your own self-esteem by taking away someone else’s self-esteem. This is a classic principle that we can see everywhere in society. 

Only a few of the prisoners in Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead have a name. Most of them are referred to as Prisoner 1, 2, 3, Tall Prisoner, Short Prisoner, Drunken Prisoner etc. There are also lots of small parts but no big leading roles, with whom the audience sympathises and identifies – which is unusual for an opera. But the reason is obvious: the individual has no value in this prison world. This gruelling depersonalisation is a phenomenon that Dostoyevsky also describes in his novel. We learn the names of three convicts who tell us how they came to commit their crimes in longer monologues – and we immediately begin to view these characters differently. Skuratov explains how he shot the fiancé of his great love Luisa because he truly loved this woman and she him. But then a richer suitor turned up and offered her a more comfortable life – and Luisa took it. What caused this murder? Love – and a disappointment that we can understand was hard to take.  

When we are born, we enter a form of existence in which we experience ourselves as separate from the world as a whole. Dr. Nahlah Saimeh

That is a classic motive, and things like that do happen in real life. In this case the woman’s decision to choose the richer suitor is particularly tragic. It makes it easier for the reader to identify with Skuratov’s feelings. But Skuratov’s account of the deed contains an error. He assumes that Luisa loves him deeply, but Luisa betrays that love. So she does not actually love him. A deep, existential love is incorruptible. For me the key point is – and again this goes far beyond the professional discipline of forensic psychology: when we are born, we enter a form of existence in which we experience ourselves as separate from the world as a whole. We experience our own lives as being separated from something. And the pain of that separation results in a great force which can go in two directions: in a destructive or a constructive direction. So everything that is especially valuable, honourable, selfless, almost superhumanly good (in the manner of Mother Teresa) comes from the unqualified desire to overcome that separation and process that pain. However, that same pain can lead to the decision to do something destructive. Here the energy flows into hatred. But it comes from the same need. That is the tragedy of human existence. And in prison that tragedy is revealed especially clearly.

Modern prison conditions cannot be compared with the forced labour camps in Czarist Russia or Soviet gulags, let alone with Nazi concentration camps, but the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, who survived two concentration camps, believes that literature as an art form is incapable of capturing what people experienced there. He specifically cites Dostoyevsky as his model, who chose a seemingly non-literary form for The House of the Dead, not a novel but a polyphonic assembly of stories of equal value, an unsystematic fabric without a story that does not satisfy classical standards of form or follow a dramatic dynamic – and as a result it gets significantly closer to the situation as it really was. Can you understand this rejection of »artifice« in dealing with such experiences?   

Yes, I can. I spend a great deal of time with human misery, and that is also the reason why I – and I stand by this – have not read any novels for years: because I work so much with real biographies and the fate of individuals and I like doing this. But I don’t want any narrative secondary reshaping. I don’t need any artfully narrated stories. But I agree that Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead falls into a very different category. It is a bottomless vessel, a philosophical work, actually. And at the same time, for me, it is constantly like looking into the mirror of everyday life. It made a deep impression on me.  

Sympathies and antipathies are irrelevant in Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead – quite unlike in a novel, where sympathies and antipathies are formed for the characters and often change in the course of the story. These are the dynamics that writers generally calculate and work with.

Exactly. They guide the reader’s emotions. But here it’s different: the reader is left completely to their own devices because Dostoyevksy remains neutral. For example, in a few short sentences he describes a sadist who tortured small children and fed on their torment and their fear until he then killed them. And he describes that in exactly the same way he would describe a woman cutting roses off a rose bush with a pair of secateurs and putting them in a vase. I think that it is this lack of differentiation that prompted Janáček’s statement »In every creature there is a divine spark.«  Ultimately it is consistent with one single dimension, once the dualism we were talking about has been overcome. But the power of our everyday life comes from that dualism. Which means that our constructive power also contains a destructive power. The two cannot be separated. And a novel or an opera is normally based on this polarity. It will evoke emotions, characters, sympathies and antipathies and set them against each other. But in Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead, as in Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, that capacity for identification disappears.

This is worth noting because it is also the distinctive quality of Janáček’s music: he gives each individual character their own language – melodies of speech that he copied from normal people in real life and transposed directly into his music. In From the House of the Dead, he may give the convicts voices of their own but those individuals vanish amid anonymity and indifference. Their stories are barely noticed by their fellow inmates – they are often interrupted in the process of telling them. This is an obvious feature of the music in the opera: it is highly fragmented, there are hardly any great arcs, there’s no flow, the rhythm is changing all the time, the choral parts are just scraps. It seems as if Janáček is renouncing classic operatic structure in the same way that Dostoyevsky renounces conventional literary form in his The House of the Dead. Because there is no appropriate artistic vessel that will do justice to the truth that needs to be communicated. In our production, the director and stage designer Dmitri Tcherniakov picks up on precisely this idea and takes it even further in his staging. He removes the divisions between different worlds: he doesn’t let the audience look from outside onto some supposedly real prison, he puts it in there, in an Alcatraz-like jail that he is building inside the Jahrhunderthalle, so that everyone will experience this world from the inside.

That is a wonderful idea, it’s painfully logical. And very exciting!

He will turn the audience into fellow inmates – which won’t necessarily be a comfortable experience. They will be in the middle of things and experience the events and the characters up close, but they will also be surrounded by coarseness, everyday violence and micro-conflicts and exposed to an indifference and callousness they don’t usually come across. There is a difference between whether they will be compelled to empathy from the comfort of an opera seat or out of this direct confrontation.

We ourselves are potential alternative versions of the people we are facing and they are potential alternative versions of us. Dr. Nahlah Saimeh

Yes, the entire opera is uncomfortable (laughs). So the director is taking the audience at its word, as if he is saying: »If you take this opera seriously, then you have to be consistent. Face up to its provocation.« We ourselves are potential alternative versions of the people we are facing and they, the criminals, are potential alternative versions of us. Nevertheless, as members of the audience we have privileges: we have the option of being able to leave at any time. And we can reflect on it on a meta-level – the ability to do that alone is a privilege. A violent offender and drug user from a troubled environment cannot do any of that. In jail, more than anything else, he is at his own mercy. In prison you can’t say: »I’m claustrophobic, please leave the door open.« Prison is superb behavioural training for that. You can give that up right away in there. Our entire human lives exist in a tension between uncomfortable experiences and sublime ones. This opera demonstrates that – and perhaps it is where all art comes from.

There is no moment of redemption, no heart-breaking aria that breaks through the misery, good does not triumph over evil, and there is no tragic heroine to cry over. There are no women at all in this male world except for an emaciated prostitute on the fringes of the action. Another moment when women are present – actually men dressed as women, so these are male projections of women – is the pantomime in Act Two. This theatre performance by prisoners for prisoners marks a sharp break in the usual drudgery of the camp, but it has many levels even though it is pure slapstick for entertainment. Theatre is still performed in prisons today. Do you have any experience of this?

Good experiences! I ran the Clinic for Forensic Psychiatry in Lippstadt-Eickelborn for almost 14 years. It is not a prison but it is a high-security clinic that holds offenders who are mentally ill. There was a theatre group – called “The Unshackled” – that performed classic plays. The majority of the actors were people with severe personality disorders or sexual abnormalities. Under the guidance of a professional director, they tackled Goethe, Beckett and Dürrenmatt, frequently including musical numbers and developed something like their own style. My aim at the time was to encourage the local population to visit the clinic: to come into the institution, a place they were actually afraid of, and experience an atmosphere that was relaxed and unafraid – of course, there were security precautions – but the first impression should be a pleasant one. And once a year we would do a whole series of up to nine performances. It gave the patients who took part the feeling that they had achieved something, they were able to do more than they thought they could and receive positive social feedback, with strangers telling them: Wow, you did a good job there, I really enjoyed it! First you actually have to accomplish that. And some of these productions were genuinely successful performances that the audiences enjoyed. For those patients, who had done a lot of destructive things – sex offences, child abuse etc. – who were fundamentally aware that they had done things for which society despised them, this was a chance to do something constructive. It was also a chance to learn a level of discipline and reliability: when it’s time for rehearsal, it’s time for rehearsal. You have to be there and know your lines because the outcome for the whole group depends on each individual. That was a valuable experience for the participants – and for the other patients it was an event, a change from the routine.

In the sort of prison that Dostoyevsky describes, where there is no private life and nowhere to withdraw to, even the most intimate things become public. In The House of the Dead for example, he describes how at night the inmates often scream, talk or cry in their sleep, if they are capable of sleeping. The beginning of Act Three of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is set in the infirmary at night. Here we hear complaints, confessions, suffering and death. Janáček depicts this whole atmosphere as a soundscape of sighing, heaving and heavy breathing. The presence of death in the room grounds the scene and everything takes place against this backdrop. It even smells of death. But when death does arrive, it is simply accepted. How is it in prisons now? Can a foreseeable or looming death produce a conscious change in a prison inmate?

It is a very particular imposition to be confronted inevitably every day with other people’s behaviour. »Hell is other people,« said Jean-Paul Sartre. But as far as death is concerned: it is the greatest teacher that we have in our lives and that is what is remarkable about it. As a rule, inmates who are severely ill are released into care homes or a hospice because their severe illness means they are no longer a danger. But there are also people who die in prison, essentially because the institution has become a real surrogate family for them. But when long-term inmates get older, their perspective often changes because most of them say they don’t want to die in prison. Everyone knows that death will come at some point. But that knowledge only has an effect after their first true confrontation with their own decline.

A subtle glimmer of hope in this sombre opera is provided by the character of Aljeja (Dostoyevsky calls him Alej), a young Tartar who was implicated in a crime by his older brothers and arrives in the camp as an entirely unassuming person. When the educated nobleman Alexander Gorjančikov, who befriends Aljeja as a father figure, teaches him to read and write using the New Testament, this opens up a whole world of perfect ethics for him, which he endorses completely. He is incapable of any kind of malice or hatred and seems to be a sign of hope, keeping faith in human goodness alive. Similiar rays of light appear later on in Dostoyevsky’s novels: Prince Myshkin in The Idiot for example, or Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov. In order to set him apart from the others, Janáček gives Aljeja a very high vocal register, that can also be cast with a female voice. He seems to be elevated above this rough world of men.

When I was reading, I saw him as a Christ-like figure.

There are people who are somehow immune to everything evil. They do not seem at all self-interested and are keenly aware of the needs of others. How would you explain this?

I think that these people are somehow free from feeling a lack of love. They are unaware of lacking it themselves and therefore feel no need to compensate for anything. The question: »Who do I want to be?« is not one that occurs to them, because they do not experience any sort of deficit. At the same time, they are full of love themselves, an all-encompassing love that is not dualistic in nature.

How does someone like that end up in prison?

In The House of the Dead Alej was simply brought along by his older brothers. That does happen: as a result of a complex group dynamic and extreme loyalty someone will be taken advantage of. Or if you think of totalitarian regimes, where people are denounced who have done nothing wrong.

Have you ever encountered any rays of light like Aljeja in your reporting work?

No, I have not. But I have spoken to someone who had a deep spiritual experience in prison. You can’t fake that.  But at present he still cannot be released yet because his severe personality disorder makes him very fragile in encounters with other people and his offences were related to this. You have to separate one from the other quite clearly, otherwise you would be unprofessional and it would be dangerous.

Dr. Nahlah Saimeh is a forensic psychiatrist. From 2000 to 2004 she was Chief Physician in the Forensic Psychology Department in Bremen and from 2004 to 2018 she was Medical Director of the LWL Forensic Psychiatry Centre in Lippstadt. In 2018 she became an independent expert witness. She specialises in the assessment of extreme violent and sexual offenders. She has edited numerous professional volumes and has authored true crime books and essays. In 2018 she founded ITNS Nachlassverwaltung to administer the estate and works of her husband, the artist Ingolf Timpner (1963- 2018). Her edition of the first volume of texts on Ingolf Timpner’s art works will be published in June 2023.