Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sorrow-Acre: A Reflection on Justice

"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed." (Act IV, Scene 1, Merchant of Venice)

There are some interesting things going on in this story by Isak Dinesen. Questions are raised about justice and religion. But Denmark isn't England, Israel, or Rome. It has its own traditions and history which relate the value of land (i.e., inherited property), with the obligations of society, considered in the harsh afterglow of the Protestant rebellion. 

Protestants, perhaps from a deep sense of personal guilt and a fear of divine punishment, are culturally intolerant of sin and all forms of human error. They are not prone to radical politics, social upheaval or revolution in the manner of the French or we Americans who live on the other side of the world. Instead, the aristocracy of Denmark adheres to the old ways, a legacy of the Middle Ages, the traditional scheme of the world "as it was meant to be", with its titles and estates and all its myriad social divisions between rich and poor, peasant and aristocrat, sinner and saved. We see that the uncle, in the manner of Moses, adheres to an unwavering principle of justice-- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, which is the Old Testament brand of justice. Mercy and compassion don't play much of a role in the Old Testament, nor do they enter into the uncle's judicial philosophy. He believes that his nephew, Adam, has been influenced (or infected as the uncle might say) with a modern (liberal) tendency toward charity and mercy. But, as any good banker might say, charity will not pay the bills. The uncle has lost a barn and someone must be held accountable. His idea of justice comes straight out of the Book of Genesis.

It is a harsh code, but it is one which many people (not just the Danish) believe is necessary to preserve society. For, without justice, evil goes unpunished and the social bonds which have held for a thousand years will unravel. So, as harsh as it seems, the price the old woman must pay to secure the freedom of her son will be her own death.

But if justice is one side of the coin, then the other side is compassion. The uncle is his own judge and jury. He has the power to forgive the old woman's son and to grant mercy. But, like Yahweh, the old Hebrew God, the old aristocrat stands firm. So the woman takes upon herself the burden of saving her son. The task of cutting the entire field in one day is an impossible task. No one could possibly do it, much less an old woman. What is needed is a miracle, an intervention of divine power into the secular realm. But for the uncle, the ordeal of the peasant woman is tragic theater, a kind of performance art whose execution works on the audience as poetry works upon the soul. It inspires us in the way a performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" might lift our spirits. All the people who watch the old woman struggle with that field of hay are affected. Her personal suffering transforms what would ordinarily be only menial labor into something greater-- a kind of ritual transformation of the Eucharist, like bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ. To the simple people watching this tragedy unfold, the old woman's suffering and death mirrors the sacrifice of Christ.

But are we, as reader's, spiritually transformed  or merely horrified? To me, the mythology of the Norse gods is the real sediment of this story. According to Adam, the old Norse gods were righteous, trustworthy, and benevolent. But the uncle says,
To my mind it even reveals a weakness in the souls of our ancient Danes that they should consent to adore such divinities." "Power," he says, "is the supreme virtue. But the gods of which you speak (the old Norse gods) were never all-powerful."... "They had, at all times, by their side those darker powers which they named the Jotuns, and who worked the suffering, the disasters, the ruin of our world.
So, the uncle prefers the Olympian gods with all their power because they "take over the woe of the universe." For the uncle, the Olympian gods accepted the world as it was without any desire to reform it. But the Norse gods, with all their good intentions, only made things worse. What the uncle seems to be saying is any morality imposed from above will always be futile because it will not be embraced by mankind. (the problem of free will)  The Jotuns, on the other hand, being evil, have no agenda to reform the world. They simple profit from all the mayhem and destruction that is unleashed. But it seems to me that, as it pertains to the fate of mankind, an indifferent god is not much better than an evil god. This is what Job discovered, much to his sorrow.

It might seem that the cruelty (indifference) of the uncle is not much better than the indifference of Mephistopheles. Certainly, for the old woman, her ordeal is not rewarded by the joy of seeing her son live out his life. Yes, her sacrifice saved him from a long prison sentence. But must that be the price of justice? To have the innocent suffer for the sins of others? Hasn't the old aristocratic uncle simply borrowed an argument from Thrasymachus that "justice is the will of the stronger"?

I don't think so. It can be argued that the sacrifice of Anne-Marie is one episode in a long tradition of martyrdom, of people everywhere, including the saints, who perished rather than abandon their faith. There is a spiritual debt here that must be paid, not just to the owner of the estate, but to our (mankind's) ongoing struggle to live with grace. In that light, the owner of the estate ( a "lord") is giving a hard lesson to his protégé, Adam-- that to live honorably requires all the virtue we can summon, including service in a cause that we do not understand, but nevertheless embrace. That is the nature of sacrifice, an action that completes the union of spirit and flesh.

That all sounds good. Yet, the conclusion of Isak Dinesen's story tells us that the field called "Sorrow-Acre," in memory of one woman's sacrifice, retained its name long after the story of the woman and her son was forgotten. Which is a curious thing to say if this story is meant to convey a moral. We might wonder if all human deeds, both good and evil, fade from human memory in time.  Ars longa, vita brevis.


Post a Comment

<< Home