THINK: Poetic Justice

In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman describes the poet as a kind of judge:

“He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing…He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.”

In her book Poetic Justice, Martha Nussbaum interprets Whitman, saying, “The poet does not merely present abstract formal considerations, he presents equitable judgments, judgments that fit the historical and human complexities of the particular case…When the sun falls around a thing it illuminates every curve, every nook; nothing remains hidden, nothing unperceived. So, too, does the poet’s judgment fall, perceiving all that is there and disclosing it to our view…In particular, the sun illuminates the situation of the helpless, which is usually shrouded in darkness…All of this is a description of judgment. It is also a description of the literary imagination.”

In August, we talked about the importance of story. Nussbaum claims here that story is not just important for knowing people or for entertainment or for culture. Story is important for justice. There are, of course, political constraints, which Nussbaum acknowledges and accepts. But, many times we accept uncritically a scene that is shrouded in darkness. Story, poetry, history, art, all have the capacity create illuminated spaces in which justice can be done.

Is it not true that when we do not want to have to acknowledge the complexity of someone’s situation (say, a rape victim, or an undocumented person, or a person living in homelessness)–we do not want to know their story? Stories illuminate humanity. To deal with humans instead of ideas or precepts makes decisions harder, breaks apart shoddy ethical systems and organizational policies, and creates a tension that is neither comfortable nor desirable.  And who says art isn’t difficult?

Nussbaum concludes her book this way: “As Whitman indicates, ‘poetic justice’ needs a great deal of nonliterary equipment: technical legal knowledge, a knowledge of history and precedent, a careful attention to proper legal impartiality. The judge must be a good judge in these respects. But, in order to be fully rational, judges must also be capable of fancy and sympathy. They must educate not only their technical capacities but also their capacity for humanity. In the absence of that capacity, their impartiality will be obtuse and their justice blind…the ‘sun-rise’ of democratic judgment will be to that extent veiled…the ‘interminable generations of prisoners and slaves’ will dwell in pain around us and have less hope of freedom.”

In what ways do you orchestrate complexity out of your life in order to have easy answers about people? Where do you allow the veil of darkness to remain, shrouding the situations of those whose lives are too difficult to see? How do you view justice? Who deserves it? Why?

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