Justice: One or Many? Writing from New Symposium 2007

Paros 2007: Justice: One or Many: I. Forms of Justice: Habila

The Writer in Search of Justice

Helon Habila

An essay on justice should logically begin by asking: What is justice? Books have been written on this subject, philosophical careers launched. Everlasting fame has been achieved in the pursuit of it – an example is king Solomon’s famous judgment over the case of two disputing women. ‘Cut the child in two’. I wish our definition can be that easy: cut the child in two and discover justice. I am going for a simpler, more predictable definition: Webster’s dictionary describes Justice as a noun , its etymology as Middle English, from Anglo-French justise, from Latin justitia, from Justus.

One of the many definitions is given as:

the administration of law; especially : the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity; another one is: the quality of being just, impartial, or fair, the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action, conformity to this principle or ideal.

The problem with the first definitions, ‘the quality of conforming to the rule of law’ is obviously the question, ‘whose law’? And so the most promising definition will be the second one: ‘the quality of being just, impartial, or fair, the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action, conformity to this principle or ideal.’ Here justice is raised to the level of an ideal, ie something we pursue, but which we never really catch hold of. That is how I see the writer’s vocation: a ceaseless search for justice, and since there can be no justice without truth, the writer is also in search of truth. By truth of course I don’t necessarily mean the truth of mere facts, I mean a higher, moral truth, a poetic truth. Speaking on the nature of this poetic truth, an essayist in the London Guardian quotes Jean Cocteau on writing: "I am a lie who always speaks the truth."The essayist goes on to say:

To go beyond mere facts, to record a true history that takes account of the unseen as well as the visible, Cocteau saw that the writer must create something that, on the face of it, is a fabrication. This is what art does; this is what any narrative must take into account if it is to succeed. The artifice is there for all to see, but is not the criterion by which a writer is judged: what matters is whether we accept the truth that Cocteau's "lie" reveals. If we do, authors can gain an authority that allows them to challenge dishonesty at the highest level - and, in doing so, remind us that the pen can be mightier than the sword.

It was the Romantic poet, PB Shelley who described poets as: ‘the institutors of laws’ or ‘universal arbiters’. This is an attempt to show how exalted the call of the artist is. He is a giver of justice, under his pen the mighty is made equal with the commoner. It is no wonder then that the symbol for justice is a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword. Truth is blind. I see a metaphor for the writer’s craft in the Greek play, Oedipus Rex. The writer’s obsessive quest for truth leads him to stop trusting in forms and appearances, to look inward, just as Oedipus is forced to look inwards by losing his sight; only then can he see the truth. As T.S. Eliot says, the true writer should never be blinded by his own personality – in fact he shouldn’t have any personality.

Let us pursue this point further. If we have to attenuate our personality, or our ego, in order to be just, then does it mean that we all are capable of knowing what is just, or what justice is, but it is our intrusive or obstructive egos that stop us from applying it. The British, when they established colonies all over the world believed that they were doing the colonized peoples a favor. They killed and raped and looted, they burned and pillaged, and yet, this people, ordinarily very civilized at home, eager for justice in their own communities, saw nothing wrong with what they were doing in this new communities. In Zimbabwe for instance Cecil Rhodes and his horde of settlers hoodwinked the chiefs into signing agreements which they then promptly announced as giving them the right to take over the lands and cattle of the Shona and Matabele. Clearly their egos failed to see that what they were doing was unjust – and yet they continued to talk of justice within their own communities.

So justice entails not just seeing, but seeing everything equally, beyond personality, beyond ego.

The writer’s concern is not so much for right or wrong, but for righteousness, he answers to a voice inside him, an inspiration, that voice that speaks to all artists when they sit to produce their art.  It is clear that this definition is leading us in one direction, towards the religious, and in this Shelley was ahead of us. He goes on to describe poets as:

legislators or prophets: a poet essentially comprises

and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds

intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according

to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the

future in the present, and his thoughts are the forms of the flower

and the fruit of latest time.

The question is: do we, as writers, writing now, still see ourselves as searchers after truth, or is such a preoccupation considered old fashioned, something ancient poets amused themselves with? In an essay in the Guardian, Robert McCrum sees that trend in current writing. He says of contemporary writing:

the novelist has become a cross between a commercial traveler and an itinerant preacher…: in just over a generation the novel has gone public in the most astounding way. In the process, the genre has sold out and become big business, the preferred medium of self-advancement and self-promotion… and almost unrecognizable to fiction-lovers raised on the literary names of the Forties and Fifties.

In short he is saying the novelist is in danger of losing his soul, his original vision. It is clear that today; the search for profit, for self-actualization has displaced communal concerns. We are seeing the same thing the British did to its colonies being re-enacted on the Iraqis by America. This is the story of empire, the dream of empire builders. The frontiers of empire must always advance outwards, and it does so by plundering other people’s territories.

But let us retrace our steps to establish clearly what exactly those ‘earlier’ writers did that the present generation is losing sight of. I will use the African writer in particular to explain.  When the first African novels in European languages started to emerge in the 40s and 50s and 60s, the critics were quick to notice that they all shared one element, the political. True, they did pay attention to language, they did weave beautiful plots, and described beautiful characters, but over and above that, they spoke the minds of the millions of voiceless masses trampled under the boots of empire. By doing this, they gave voice to the voiceless, they brought into relief millions of invisible Africans, and for the first time readers all over the world saw that contrary to what empire wanted us to believe, this masses are being oppressed and denied justice, and mainly because they are the ‘other’.

The African writer was clearly being what Shelley described as ‘a legislator and a visionary’. He is challenging the unjust laws that exist, and presaging a better, more equal law. But to do this the writer had to put his personality in the background – he didn’t speak for himself, but for the community. To understand the need for justice, one has to first understand injustice, and one understands injustice by suffering injustice, or by being able to empathize with those suffering injustice. It is like gold being purified by fire – that is why the world’s greatest works of literature often emerge from the pen of those that survived extreme hardship. Because of the extreme suffering around them they had turned their gaze inwards, and like Oedipus, they saw truth.

One of the best examples of this lack of empathy I have seen recently is in the report by a body called the Commission for Africa. This is a group of eminent individuals invited by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to look into causes of poverty in Africa and to recommend ways to combat that. And some of the findings of the Commission are that the poor are poor because they were born into poverty, and because they occupied unproductive geographical regions. This is the kind of blind, limited language and reasoning one sees more and more, especially in the media, today. Why are the Palestinians refugees in their own land? Oh, because they are Palestinians. Why is there so much violence in Iraq? Oh, the Iraqis are terrorists. Why is there poverty in Africa? Oh, because Africans were born poor.

The only antidote to this zombism is true art. Only the writer can bridge this gap, unveil the veil of complacency and ignorance and in some instances, of malice. The writer’s pen can demystify the mysterious, and unmask the pretender. The writer questions the easy assumptions and convenient answers power always presents so as to numb the minds of the people. The writer urges us not to be easily satisfied with these answers. If we are easily satisfied, and undemanding, our writers and thinkers become unchallenged. We get the kind of writers we deserve, just like a people often get the kind of rulers they deserve. We must push our legislators to be just if we are to get the kind of justice we deserve, and when they go to war in our name, and plunder and dispossess innocent peoples around the world, we must stand up and loudly say: not in my name.

One novel that raises this issue of injustice regarding the individual versus empire in an original, unremitting way is J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It is the story of empire’s unfeeling, unseeing way of extending its borders. It is the story of how one servant of empire dares to question the means and tools of such expansion. It is a story about ways of seeing the other, and putting oneself in the place of the other just in order to understand. The main character is an unnamed magistrate, administering a remote, sleepy border region of the empire. But one day his easy life is shattered when Colonel Joll, a member of the Third Bureau, the empire’s secret army, arrives from the metropolis to investigate rumors of barbarian invasion. The barbarians are the people displaced by empire in its drive for expansion. The magistrate, who is the first person narrator, is faced with a dilemma as he watches the violence daily grow, unleashed by Colonel Joll. It is interesting how Joll is described in the very first page of the book: ‘two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wants to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind.’ The magistrate’s first reaction is to turn a blind eye to the new developments; he says:

If I resolved to ride out the bad times, keeping my own counsel, I might cease to feel like a man who in the grip of the undertow, gives up the fight, stops swimming, and turns his face towards the open sea and death.

But of course he isn’t able to ‘keep his own counsel.’ There’s something inside him that refuses to keep idle while Colonel Joll is out rampaging.  One day he visits the prisoners incarcerated and tortured daily by Joll.  What he sees changes him forever: ‘I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again.’(p.21).

The magistrate finally breaks rank with empire and becomes a prisoner of empire himself. Colonel Joll throws him into the same dungeon he uses for incarcerating and torturing the barbarians. And only at that moment of final severance from injustice does the magistrate finally feel free, happy: ‘I am aware of the source of my elation: my alliance with the guardians of empire is over, I have set myself in opposition, the bond is broken, I am a free man!’ (p.78)

Perhaps the profoundest passage in this book is where the magistrate, after his incarceration, contemplates the meaning of justice:

Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? Easier to spout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr. Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose lands we have raped? (p.80)

This points us neatly back to the issue of ego and personality. By being just to others we are acknowledging that we are all the same, no one deserves better than another person just because of how he looks or where he comes from. The magistrate is saying here that if the powerful will decide to give justice to the powerless, then the world as we know it now will cease to exist. And that is a scary prospect for many : it is the writer’s job to show us that though it may be scary, it is the only way forward, and at the end, both the strong and the weak will benefit from it, till at the end there will be no strong or weak. There will be only people.


  • Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa.(2005)
  • JM Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).
  • T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
  • Robert McCrum, “Has the Novel Lost its Way?” The Observer, May 28, 2006

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