I have been following Cholly Breedlove’s tormented journey from the day he was born (thrown in a garbage heap by his mother, abandoned for a dice game by his father). And now, about three-fourths of the way through Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I spot him “staggering home, reeling drunk” on a Saturday afternoon. He sees his daughter, Pecola, washing dishes in the kitchen. And he brutally attacks, rapes her.
There’s no excuse for Cholly’s behavior, no justification for what he has done, I begin to think. Yet Morrison has given me the long and tortured history of this man, the complex intricacies of his story. If he appears to be a monster, he is, nevertheless, human. He is not a stereotype, but a man. Through her poetic narrative, Morrison makes clear that Cholly Breedlove is a complicated mixture of hatred and tenderness, of lust and love, guilt and pity. Reading Morrison’s words with care, I realize the possibility that, if I walked in Cholly’s shoes, his rage could be mine. I cannot forgive him, but suddenly I feel compassion for Cholly.
Sometimes judges reading this book tell me that Cholly’s story compels them to see from a new perspective offenders appearing before their bench. Each offender has a richly complex story, the judges say. It makes judgment difficult, raises questions about the perplexing relationship between mercy and justice, compassion and judgment.
The law needs literature just as literature needs the law. The thoughtful judge pronounces a sentence based on the law. The careful reader formulates a question based on a narrative story. “Without contraries is no progression,” my favorite poet William Blake liked to say.
But is the connection between the law and literature always friendly? Is the relationship always peaceful, or can it, at times, provoke its own violence? Derrida, the French philosopher, thinking about the Mosaic Law, answers that question this way: “Poetic autonomy … presupposes broken Tablets.” Derrida is not far removed here from the legal scholar Robert Cover’s own violent assertion: “Judges deal pain and death…In this way they are different from poets, from critics, from artists.”
Cover’s assumption, perhaps correct, is that judgment separates and excludes. The law closes off conversation. To quote Cover again: “A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life.” In this context, the enactment of law connects to the violence of the state, Cover would argue. In more ways than one, the law is founded on its own transgression.
Whether we agree with Cover, or not, literature does something different than the law. Story begets story, creates community, expands possibilities, and arouses desire for conversation. It does not give us rules of behavior or impose judgments that lead us to any particular instrumental end. Listen to Cholly, it says. His story might be yours too.
And that’s the problem, of course. Literature invites a recognition of the complexity of human life and opens us to our own vulnerability. Literature invites us to question, to doubt. By necessity, the judge must reduce that overflowing complexity and questioning to a manageable limit, simplifying the narrative flow, fixing it in some kind of hierarchical order. The judge must judge with authority.
So with over 2.2 million human beings locked in U. S. prisons (not including the guards and others also exposed to this brutal institutional violence), I end with this tilted question: Should judges use the power of the law to sentence people to read good literature or to sit caged in a prison cell?
*title of this post courtesy of William Blake
Robert Waxler is a Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the co-founder of Changing Lives Through Literature.