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Text:Alexander Berkman - exerts from Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist

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Alexander Berkman recounts his sexual memories of Emma Goldman and sexual and romantic attachment to a younger man in prison.


These exerts are taken from Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman. They are included here, as they are erotic and sensual in nature and represent the piece of anarchist writing currently in public domain.

Chapter 15: The Urge of Sex

SUNDAY NIGHT: MY new cell on the upper gallery is hot and stuffy; I cannot sleep. Through the bars, I gaze upon the Ohio. The full moon hangs above the river, bathing the waters in mellow light. The strains of a sweet lullaby wander through the woods, and the banks are merry with laughter. A girlish cadence rings like a silvery bell, and voices call in the distance. Life is joyous and near, terribly, tantalizingly near,but all is silent and dead around me.

For days the feminine voice keeps ringing in my ears. It sounded so youthful and buoyant, so fondly alluring. A beautiful girl, no doubt. What joy to feast my eyes on her! I have not beheld a woman for many months: I long to hear the soft accents, feel the tender touch. My mind persistently reverts to the voice on the river, the sweet strains in the woods; and fancy wreathes sad-toned fugues upon the merry carol, paints vision and image, as I pace the floor in agitation. They live, they breathe! I see the slender figure with the swelling bosom, the delicate white throat, the babyish face with large, wistful eyes. Why, it is Luba! My blood tingles violently, passionately, as I live over again the rapturous wonder at the first touch of her maiden breast. How temptingly innocent sounded the immodest invitation on the velvety lips, how exquisite the suddenness of it all! We were in New Haven then. One by one we had gathered, till the little New York commune was complete. The Girl joined me first, for I felt lonely in the strange city, drudging as compositor on a country weekly, the evenings cold and cheerless in the midst of a conservative household. But the Girl brought light and sunshine, and then came the Twin and Manya. Luba remained in New York; but Manya, devoted little soul, yearned for her sister, and presently the three girls worked side by side in the corset factory. All seemed happy in the free atmosphere, and Luba was blooming into beautiful womanhood. There was a vague something about her that now and then roused in me a fond longing, a rapturous desire. Once-it was in New York, a year before I had experienced a sudden impulse toward her. It seized me unheralded, unaccountably. I had called to try a game of chess with her father, when he informed me that Luba had been ill. She was recovering now, and would be pleased to see me. I sat at the bedside, conversing in low tones, when I noticed the pillows slipping from under the girl's head. Bending over, I involuntarily touched her hair, loosely hanging down the side. The soft, dark chestnut thrilled me, and the next instant I stooped and stealthily pressed the silken waves to my lips. The momentary sense of shame was lost in the feeling of reverence for the girl with the beautiful hair, that bewildered and fascinated me, and a deep yearning suddenly possessed me, as she lay in exquisite disarray, full of grace and beauty. And all the while we talked, my eyes feasted on her ravishing form, and I felt envious of her future lover, and hated the desecration. But when I left her bedside, all trace of desire disappeared, and the inspiration of the moment faded like a vision affrighted by the dawn. Only a transient, vague inquietude remained, as of something unattainable.

Then came that unforgettable moment of undreamed bliss. We had just returned from the performance of Tosca, with Sarah Bernhardt in her inimitable role. I had to pass through Luba's room on my way to the attic, in the little house occupied by the commune. She had already retired, but was still awake. I sat down on the edge of the bed, and we talked of the play. She glowed with the inspiration of the great tragedienne; then, somehow, she alluded to the decollete of the actresses.

"I don't mind a fine bust exposed on the stage," I remarked. "But I had a powerful opera glass: their breasts looked fleshy and flabby. It was disgusting."

"Do you think-mine nice?" she asked, suddenly.

For a second I was bewildered. But the question sounded so enchantingly unpremeditated, so innocently eager.

"I never- Let me see them," I said, impulsively.

"No, no!" she cried, in aroused modesty; "I can't, I can't!"

"I won't look, Luba. See, I close my eyes. just a touch."

"Oh I can't, I'm ashamed! Only over the blanket, please, Sasha," she pleaded, as my hand softly stole under the covers. She gripped the sheet tightly, and my arm rested on her side. The touch of the firm, round breast thrilled me with passionate ecstasy. In fear of arousing her maidenly resistance, I strove to hide my exultation, while cautiously and tenderly I released the coverlet.

"They are very beautiful, Luba," I said, controlling the tremor of my voice.

"You-like them, really, Sasha?" The large eyes looked lustrous and happy.

"They are Greek, dear," and snatching the last covering aside, I kissed her between the breasts.

"I'm so glad I came here," she spoke dreamily.

"Were you very lonesome in New York?"

"It was terrible, Sasha."

"You like the change?"

"Oh, you silly boy! Don't you know?"

"What, Luba?"

"I wanted you, dear." Her arms twined softly about me.

I felt appalled. The Girl, my revolutionary plans, flitted through my mind, chilling me with self-reproach. The pale hue of the attained cast its shadow across the spell, and I lay cold and quiet on Luba's breast. The coverlet was slipping down, and, reaching for it, my hand inadvertently touched her knee.

"Sasha, how can you!" she cried in alarm, sitting up with terrified eyes.

"I didn't mean to, Luba. How could you think that of me?" I was deeply mortified.

My hand relaxed on her breast. We lay in silent embarrassment.

"It is getting late, Sasha." She tenderly drew my head to her bosom.

"A little while yet, dear," and again the enchantment of the virgin breasts was upon me, and I showered wild kisses on them, and pressed them passionately, madly, till she cried out in pain.

"You must go now, dear."

"Goodnight, Luba."

"Good night, dearest. You haven't kissed me, Sashenka."

I felt her detaining lips, as I left.

In the wakeful hours of the night, the urge of sex grows more and more insistent. Scenes from the past live in my thoughts; the cell is peopled with familiar faces. Episodes long dead to memory rise animated before me; they emerge from the darkest chambers of my soul, and move with intense reality, like the portraits Of MY sires come to life in the dark, fearful nights of my childhood. Pert Masha smiles at me from her window across the street, and a bevy of girls pass me demurely, with modestly averted gaze, and then call back saucily, in thinly disguised voices. Again I am with my playmates, trailing the schoolgirls on their way to the river, and we chuckle gleefully at their affright and confusion, as they discover the eyes glued to the peep-holes we had cut in the booth. Inwardly I resent Nadya's bathing in her shirt, and in revenge dive beneath the boards, rising to the surface in the midst of the girls, who run to cover in shame and terror. But I grow indignant at Vainka who badgers the girls with "Tsiba, tsiba, ba-aa! " and I soundly thrash Kolya for shouting nasty epithets across the school yard at little Nunya, whom I secretly adore.

But the note of later days returns again and again, and the scenes of youth recede into their dim frames. Clearer and more frequently appear Sonya and Luba, and the little sweetheart of my first months in America. What a goose she was! She would not embrace me, because it's a great sin, unless one is married. But how slyly she managed to arrange kissing games at the Sunday gatherings at her home, and always lose to me! She must be quite a woman now, with a husband, children ... Quickly she flits by, the recollection even of her name lost in the glow of Anarchist emotionalism and the fervent enthusiasm of my Orchard Street days. There flames the light that irradiates the vague longings of my Russian youth, and gives rapt interpretation to obscurely pulsating idealism. It sheds the halo of illuminating justification upon my blindly rebellious spirit, and visualizes my dreams on the sunlit mountains. The sordid misery of my "greenhorn" days assumes a new aspect. Ah, the wretchedness of those first years in America! ... And still Time's woof and warp unroll the tapestry of life in the New World, its joys and heart-throbs. I stand a lone stranger, bewildered by the flurry of Castle Garden, yet strong with hope and courage to carve my fate in freedom. The Tsar is far away, and the fear of his hated Cossacks is past. How inspiring is liberty! The very air breathes enthusiasm and strength, and with confident ardor I embrace the new life. I join the ranks of the world's producers, and glory in the full manhood conferred by the dignity of labor. I resent the derision of my adopted country on the part of my family abroad,-resent it hotly. I feel wronged by the charge of having disgraced my parents' respected name by turning "a low, dirty workingman." I combat their snobbishness vehemently, and rev enge the indignity to labor by challenging comparison between the Old and the New World. Behold the glory of liberty and prosperity, the handiwork of a nation that honors labor! ... The loom of Time keeps weaving. Lone and friendless, I struggle in the new land. Life in the tenements is sordid, the fate of the worker dreary. There is no "dignity of labor." Sweatshop bread is bitter. Oppression guards the golden promise, and servile brutality is the only earnest of success. Then like a clarion note in the desert sounds the call of the Ideal. Strong and rousing rolls the battle-cry of Revolution. Like a flash in the night, it illumines my groping. My life becomes full of new meaning and interest, translated into the struggle of a world's emancipation. Fedya joins me, and together we are absorbed in the music of the new humanity.

It is all far, far-yet every detail is sharply etched upon my memory. Swiftly pass before me the years of complete consecration to the movement, the self-imposed poverty and sacrifices, the feverish tide of agitation in the wake of the Chicago martyrdom, the evenings of spirited debate, the nights of diligent study. And over all loom the Fridays in the little dingy hall in the Ghetto, where the handful of Russian refugees gather; where bold imprecations are thundered against the tyranny and injustice of the existing, and winged words prophesy the near approach of a glorious Dawn. Beshawled women, and men, long-coated and piously bearded, steal into the hall after synagogue prayers, and listen with wondering eyes, vainly striving to grasp the strange Jewish, so perplexedly interspersed with the alien words of the new evangel. How our hearts rejoice, as, with exaggerated deference, we eagerly encourage the diffident questioner, "Do you really mean-may the good Lord forgive me-there is no one in heaven above?". . . Late in the evening the meeting resolves into small groups, heatedly contending over the speaker's utterances, the select circle finally adjourning to "the corner." The obscure little tea room resounds with the joust of learning and wit. Fascinating is the feast of reason, impassioned the flow of soul, as the passage-atarms grows more heated with the advance of the night. The alert-eyed host diplomatically pacifies the belligerent factions, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, s-sh! The police station is just across the street." There is a lull in the combat. The angry opponents frown at each other, and in the interim the Austrian Student in his mellow voice begins an interminable story of personal reminiscence, apropos of nothing and starting nowhere, but intensely absorbing. With sparkling eyes he holds us spellbound, relating the wonderful journey, taking us through the Nevsky in St. Petersburg, thence to the Caucasus, to engage in the blood-feuds of the Tcherkessi; or, enmeshed in a perilous flirtation with an Albanian beauty in a Moslem harem, he descants on the philosophy of Mohammed, imperceptibly shifting the scene to the Nile to hunt the hippopotamus, and suddenly interrupting the amazing adventures by introducing an acquaintance of the evening, "My excellent friend, the coming great Italian virtuoso, from Odessa, gentlemen. He will entertain us with an aria from Trovatore." But the circle is not in a musical mood: some one challenges the Student's familiarity with the Moslem philosophy, and the Twin hints at the gossiped intimacy of the Austrian with Christian missionaries. There are protestations, and loud clamor for an explanation. The Student smilingly assents, and presently he is launched upon the Chinese sea, in the midst of a strange caravan, trading tea at Yachta, and aiding a political to escape to Vladivostok.... The night pales before the waking sun, the Twin yawns, and I am drowsy with-

"Cof-fee! Want coffee? Hey, git up there! Didn't you hear th' bell?"

Chapter 27: Love's Dungeon Flower

[...]

Late in the evening the young prisoners are relieved. But Johnny remains, and his apprehensions reawaken. Repeatedly during the night he rouses me from my drowsy torpor to be reassured that he is not in danger of the gallows, and that he will not be tried for his assault. I allay his fears by dwelling on the Warden's aversion to giving publicity to the sex practices in the prison, and remind the boy of the Captain's official denial of their existence. These things happen almost every week, yet no one has been taken to court from Riverside on such charges. Johnny grows more tranquil, and we converse about his family history, talking in a frank, confidential manner. With a glow of pleasure, I become aware of the note of tenderness in his voice. Presently he surprises me by asking:

"Friend Aleck, what do they call you in Russian?"

He prefers the fond "Sashenka," enunciating the strange word with quaint endearment, then diffidently confesses dislike for his own name, and relates the story he had recently read of a poor castaway Cuban youth; Filipe was his name, and he was just like himself.

"Shall I call you Filipe?" I offer.

"Please do, Aleck, dear; no, Sashenka."

The springs of affection well up within me, as I lie huddled on the stone floor, cold and hungry. With closed eyes, I picture the boy before me, with his delicate face, and sensitive, girlish lips.

"Good night, dear Sashenka," he calls.

"Good night, little Felipe."

In the morning we are served with a slice of bread and water. I am tormented by thirst and hunger, and the small ration fails to assuage my sharp pangs. Simthy still refuses to drink out of the Deputy's hand; his doors remain unopened. With tremulous anxiety Johnny begs the Deputy Warden to tell him how much longer he will remain in the dungeon, but Greaves curtly commands silence, applying a vile epithet to the boy.

"Deputy," I call, boiling over with indignation, "he asked you a respectful question. I'd give him a decent answer."

"You mind your own business, you hear?" he retorts.

But I persist in defending my young friend, and berate the Deputy for his language. He hastens away in a towering passion, menacing me with "what Smithy got."

Johnny is distressed at being the innocent cause of trouble. The threat of the Deputy disquiets him, and he warns me to prepare. My cell is provided with a double entrance, and I am apprehensive of a sudden attack. But the hours pass without the Deputy returning, and our fears are allayed. The boy rejoices on my account, and brims over with appreciation of my intercession.

The incident cements our intimacy; our intimacy, our first diffidence disappears, and we become openly tender and affectionate. The conversation lags: we feel weak and worn. But every little while we hail each other with words of encouragement. Smithy incessantly paces the cell; the gnawing of the river rats reaches our ears; the silence is frequently pierced by the wild yells of the insane man, startling us with dread foreboding. The quiet grows unbearable, and Johnny calls again:

"What are you doing, Sashenka?"

"Oh, nothing. Just thinking, Felipe."

"Am I in your thoughts, dear?"

"Yes, kiddie, you are."

"Sasha, dear, I've been thinking too!'

"What, Felipe?"

"You are the only one I care for. I haven't a friend in the whole place."

"Do you care much for me, Felipe?"

"Will you promise not to laugh at me, Sashenka?"

"I wouldn't laugh at you."

"Cross your hand over your heart. Got it, Sasha?"

"Yes."

"Well, I'll tell you. I was thinking -- how shall I tell you? I was thinking, Sashenka -- if you were here with me -- I would to like to kiss you."

An unaccountable sense of joy glows in my heart, I muse in silence.

"What's the matter, Sashenka? Why don't you say something? Are you angry with me?"

"No, Felipe, you foolish little boy."

"You are laughing at me."

"No, dear; I feel just as you do."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Oh, I am so glad, Sashenka."

In the evening the guards descend to relieve Johnny; he is to be transferred to the basket, they inform him. On the way past my cell, he whispers: "Hope I'll see you soon, Sashenka." A friendly officer knocks on the outer blind door of my cell. "That you thar Berkman? You want to b'have to th' Dep'ty. He's put you down for two more days for sassin' him."

I feel more lonesome at the boy's departure. The silence grows more oppressive, the hours of darkness heavier.

[...]


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