On the Images of Justice
When people begin to talk of justice, I grow silent. Coming from a childhood permeated and embittered by this grand theme, having passed through an adolescence in which it was wholly discarded, — and now nearing my early middle-age, I face a difficult but timely requirement: how do I rediscover for myself the idea of justice?
The Soviet Union as a country hurled an accusation in the face of all mankind. Historical justice was finally to be done and executed in this one part on the globe. The classes that had so unjustly enjoyed the fruits of all human labour were wiped out of existence, and the poor peasants could finally afford oranges, as one of the old revolutionaries — who had spent 25 years in the camps and still was a true believer in the system — used to say. Yet when the historical accusers faced accusers of their own for the crimes they had committed in the name of justice, this leading social theme was totally erased from people’s minds, and emerged instead reformulated as the theme of freedom, completely separated from the sense of ‘true measure’ and ‘punishment equal to one’s deed.’ The ethos of raw individualism that characterized the initial post-Communist era did not admit ‘true measure’, nor did it see itself as committing any crimes: it simply did what it deemed necessary — no questions asked. As soon as you heard someone mention the word ‘justice’, you knew right away that the person ‘belonged politically to the “undemocratic” wing.’ Russia may seem a simple country but it has enormous historical experience when it comes to witnessing the rise and fall of big political issues, and seeing both ends meet in a full circle.
Circle or wheel: can this be the symbol of natural justice, bluntly glossed by W.H. Auden as “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return”? We could say that in this sense the history of the Soviet Union and its post-perestroika deconstruction is, too, an example of just such ‘return’. Those in whose name the evil was done have experienced the return of justice upon them, while those who robbed them have in the process themselves experienced an appropriate justice, whether by killing or by being killed, or else by having to feed with bribes those higher up in their own criminal hierarchy or in the enormous state apparatus. The mechanism is only too familiar. And, does not immigration into Western Europe, being the direct return of colonial politics, bear witness to the inevitability of historical debts and payments? Or the fact that the very same people whom the US used to nurture and train against its enemies have now turned their weapons against their former mentor? If justice is a circle, then it is a full circle of guilt and accusation, of attempting to get one’s share and of constant complaints for not getting it In which case the circle of justice is, at its bottom, the round of injustices we do, and must tolerate in return. For if full and final justice is to be done, and each is to get what he deserves, then in the end we shall all be exterminated. Sometimes one thinks that the atom bomb — as Stanley Kubrick so convincingly showed — is the central and final image of the world’s justice. Our mutual tolerance of the injustices we do to one another is our last resort against the Big Justice we all deserve. Not very appetizing. How on earth do we get from here to scales and a beautiful blindfolded woman with a sword — that emblematic image which has for such a long time haunted our classical imagination, and suddenly seems so… refreshing?
Was it not Plato — the first political thinker — who raised his voice against relevance and a fixed point of view in relation to truth? Yes, it may have taken the Sophists to name man as the measure of all things and to put the relativity of our judgment into focus. But was it not Plato who placed before the newly-discovered man a difficult task — the task of knowing himself? I know that I know nothing, said Socrates. Yet it was this famous method of not-knowing that ultimately laid the foundations for our procedures of evidence, of witnessing and of the presumption of innocence. Furthermore, this method underlies the notion of gradations of guilt, because one cannot punish the ‘whole’ human being for partial guilt. Only very simple societies impose death as the sole punishment for any and every transgression. Justice must be just in its every detail. It is an art of cutting and measuring, proportioning to the minutest stitch, like that of a tailor. (The connection between Western fashion and law — the measurement of decency and indecency — must be left to another day.)
The great machine of justice, its mighty chariot : this is another image one could turn to. We know we are only human; we do not know; we may be wrong; and this is precisely why we have to work so hard at justice. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken!” another less than appetizing historical character, Oliver Cromwell, once said. Such doubt forces us to focus on the idea of the value human life is allotted. Only societies which take human life very seriously, and consider its each individual extermination as extremely dramatic, even tragic (as much theatre, that is to say, as one can possibly bear) — only these societies take justice as their working mechanism. Was it not Plato who berated Athens for one unjust death — that of Socrates — turning it into an age old drama? Christianity, following the Athenian tragedy, brought centre-stage the mysticism of Jerusalem and an unjust court-case as the horrible precedent for centuries. Such justice does not have the shape of a wheel, or an atom bomb, or even a medieval skeleton with a scythe. What it does look like is a perfectly-proportioned human body with scales and a sword, eyes closed by a blindfold, one not serving any warring factions, nor competitive complaints.
It took Phidias’ sculpture , Socrates’ method, Rome’s imposition of laws and roads, Jerusalem’s historical feeling and messianic expectation, Egypt’s ascetics and the whole Christian era (with Aristotle preserved in the Arabic world, then brought back to the Christian) to work out the concept of justice we have today — the concept that deems it extremely problematic to take human life. I do not really think there is any other justice save this — except the atomic bomb, of course.
It took the flourishing of both East and West, North and South to create this concept, and to pose it at the core of the world’s drama — and there is no way we can think it alien to anyone. The more any man or woman is seen as just a human being, the more impartial the law is, and the larger the part of the ‘whole human body’ covered by its protective shield. Coming from a country of Great Literature — a literature which raised to its front rank the question of the ‘little’ man, reduced, shortchanged of his due, witness to the never-ending wheel of injustice, mutual complaint and corrupted victory — I cannot say that Russia does not know about the “scales and the sword and the perfectly proportioned body” representative of the notion of justice we just talked about. Any more than I can say it of any other country. Everyone knows as long as he or she chooses to ‘know thyself', i.e. chooses to doubt and think, to pay attention to what is going on. And we can be certain that the principle functions even when the human being as such is not getting his or her due. For in these cases the ancient mechanisms of bribery and corruption, vendetta and suppression will surely continue their work — promising people somewhat lower compensation for the absent share. Justice is the same as a Human Being: It sticks its sword in the wheel, cuts clean and so prevents the starting of yet another cycle. Remember how, after the signing of the unjust Versailles Treaty, the very people who pushed it through said: “This is not a peace treaty. It is a temporary armistice”. Being far from naïve, they all knew they were begetting a new war. Nor do I think the way the modern Balkan pie has been sliced up will solve anything for long. When decisions are made by siding with someone, the vicious circle begins its course again. I strongly believe that we needed the International Court at the Hague before — not after — the war, and that we should have brought the Balkan drama into the courtroom, not onto the battlefield, so as to bring into play every art of right proportioning we had at our disposal in order to avoid bloodshed.
Faced with two women at odds over a baby belonging to one of them, King Solomon made a just decision. Since it was impossible to prove whose the baby really was, he suggested slicing the baby in two. The real mother objected; the false one agreed. The one who wanted the baby to live even if it meant rejecting it was the true mother. This ancient riddle teaches us that real justice is not about splitting things up (like military loot). On the contrary, it is about knowing how to see where humans are being partial, and insisting they stick to the whole. Justice is a paradoxical art which should be taught alongside poetry, psychology and philosophy. And the real basis of this art is human love, our love for each other, which Dante Alighieri (and Isaac Newton) so strongly believed to be the sole power that ‘moveth Suns and planets’.
If the image of a militant female seems too Victorian, heavy with bad associations — then at this late stage of civilization, perhaps, when it is not the essence of justice but its representations that lack universal character, we can try to choose something less burdened by symbolism. What image would I choose for justice today? The answer is, the same as Dostoyevsky once chose — a child, born naked and in want. For is it not only natural to give it shelter and warmth? It is as innocent of crime as the human condition can allow. Is it not only natural, too, that all injustices will show up for what they are in its presence? It attracts our love and care — no matter whose it is. There is no other creature capable of such suffering from the war of oppositions and egoisms; and a happy child is the measure of things well tended. If Earth itself, this little old orb, be a symbol of our existence, then a child is the symbol of the Law that truly governs it. Was this not the intuition expressed by Stanley Kubrick in the final sequences of A Space Odyssey, and by his colleague Andrei Tarkovsky in his ‘more Russian’ Solaris and Sacrifice?
Afterword to the Paros conference
For some reason writing for people from so many different countries seemed to be pushing me (and not only me) to think of justice in terms of politics, international and domestic. Although I tried to use the word more as a guiding principle in my essay, going more for the well-known poetics of its main symbols (scales, woman, sword) – the real referent of everything I was thinking about was “politics”. The idea that the developed concept of justice is aimed at cutting clean the cause, ending things right there, taking us to no future chain of consequences and effects, escaping the oscillations of blind revenge — that idea was mostly aimed at modern-day political issues. Yet suddenly, through the conversation with other writers from so many different countries, the concept began to “grow,” building into a language of its own. The idea of “ending the circle” came very close to the Buddhist religious world view as expressed in the wonderful and touching account of Ma Thida of her days and labours in the Burmese prison. Deep within the core of the Buddhist meditation she opened up a space of true and just action, the domain of non-violent yet strict response, one that draws a sharp line between doing something without violating the other and mere passivity, a criminal acceptance of crime. Thus my previous concept of justice was amplified by Ma Thida’s concept of freedom, lifted from the domain of the political to the domain of the spiritual. Justice is the practice of a free mind and a free will fighting for an open future (be it the future of one’s historical self or one’s ultimate future in the afterlife). It remains a practice of the spirit even when its actual application is reduced to the span of a four square meter prison cell, and when its subject-matter is brought to a seeming absurdity. Take Thida’s story of “four mangoes” which she insisted be returned to her parents if she herself couldn't have them). While in my essay I did eventually arrive at justice as the highest intellectual practice of humanity, its principal “idea” (as Plato puts it) thus leaving the domain of the political, I didn't think I would meet such concrete and enriching equations in another culture, a culture that has no swords and scales to represent the same concept, and which reminded me that Freedom is the basic link between Justice and us.
Another direction of the development of the idea awaited me in South Africa, in the Tony Eprile’s piece, which linked this idea to Memory. It did escape me at first that to have justice in any way at all you need to have a Memory of what happened, you must tell a Story. I had altogether missed the act of Narration which lies at the foundation of Justice. Oblivion, not wanting to tell or speak, entered here into direct connection with the ways of Injustice, at the same time reviving the old idea of True Speech as the core of a more archaic definition of Poetry itself, of Poetry at the heart of our moral universe and self-creation. What touched me most was the idea that Justice is about trying to open a free space not only ahead of oneself but also behind, in what is to follow one. Stratis’ memory of his heroic father “dying for nothing” because justice was not done, and his testimony to the final arrival of justice in Greece many years later was part of the same discussion for me. Only through admitting the Truth of what one did, or had done to oneself can one enter a new society, enter the future. This more “medicinal”, “poetic” aspect of justice aims not at punishment but at change through Narration, when the work of justice, its final sentence, lies in the symbolic (legal and personal) death of those identities we used to see as our own and in our rebirth after having exposed ourselves to the judgment of others. Thus the new nation is born by immersion into one common Poema that will execute its healing powers over history, undoing, cleansing what has happened in the very act of commemorating it. This semi-utopian experiment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, so close to psychoanalysis as well as to the Christian practice of confession, brought my mind back again to the inner potential of Art, and to the new task of the story-telling in the modern world.
One last thing. There was a moment of surprise, of real eccentricity. During the discussion of the term labasha in Daniel A larcón's deeply interesting essay where the concept was used negatively — we found ourselves to be in favour of that archaic execution of justice without any legal procedures whatsoever, one which chooses its victim randomly, by some chance circumstance. A strange archaic sense, deciphered by those present at the symposium as saying “if something bad has occurred in the community, we are all guilty no matter who really did it, so let's trust the most innocent of us, in the shape of the most unconscious (the intoxicated child) to chose any of us to pay the debt to gods”— this scene suddenly struck a chord. My own essay, ending with an image of a child, suddenly acquired for me a somewhat sinister turn . Daniel A larcón meant it only as a metaphor so as to navigate his argument towards modern-day American politics, but this surprising pause at, and attention to, the archaic metaphor, convinced me that despite the discursive ideologies successfully fueling our own texts, what we here really are close to , and perhaps drawn into, is the darker, more uncertain side of human experience, a side that will never fit into any of the concepts, even our own. Not for nothing was Antigone a recurrent symbol in the conversation . And the question of whether or not a person can rise up to practice justice in the dark hour of his own labasha was, it seems, the most crucial for all of us, for this was the question of the “hero,” one that has haunted the poets since times immemorial.