Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Divine Perhaps

“The sentence, the dread sentence of death, was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears.” This is all we hear of the justice passed upon the nameless narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” In Poe’s universe, punishment need not accompany a crime—the accused begins guilty, and his entire literary life is occupied with the realization of his sentence. Justice is anonymous, disembodied; there is no trial, only the sentence, announced by a fever-dream of faceless judges. The narrator sees their white lips “fashion the syllables of my name,” and he shudders, “because no sound succeeded.”

Last night, I watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film “The Pendulum, the Pit, and the Hope.” With no narration or dialogue, the Czech director's film takes the short story’s disembodying of justice one step further; we catch only a glimpse of darkened, robed figures leading down dank corridors before we see ourselves, through the gaze of the victim, tied down beneath the pendulum. The entire film is viewed as if through the eyes of the victim, so that we never see his face. In Svankmajer's view, justice’s anonymity makes it omnipotent, while the accused’s anonymity makes him universal. Punishment is not quite senseless, but is certainly source-less. Precisely this absence of origin that prevents us from judging justice in the world of the pit and the pendulum—how can we judge that which comes from nowhere and has no explanation? And it is from this absence that justice derives its authority.

Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to Jewish tradition, justice moves entirely outside the realm of human law during the High Holy Days. The season’s most emblematic prayer intones:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, On Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not,
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven,
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled…

The sentence has been passed without a trial; punishment will be meted out with no warning. Hooded monks and black-robed judges must appeal to the same authority and fear the same unknowable judgment as the common sinner. Justice is disembodied in the most profound sense, as it belongs to no human body.

The Jewish tradition I’m familiar with does not draw a clear line on "decrees of fate," as Poe puts it. Does atonement absolve us from our prescribed punishment, or is atonement merely an effort toward acceptance of that fate? One line from the liturgy offers a possible answer: “For sins against god, the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until you have appeased your fellow.”

In Poe’s world, escaping judgment is possible, not through moral conduct, but with a strange combination of personal ingenuity and well-timed politics: although his narrator escapes the pendulum on his own, he is only saved from his Spanish dungeon by an invading French army. In Svankmajer’s movie, our hero escapes the pit through a hole in the wall, only to fall into the arms of a shadowy monk, his face darkened beneath his hood. Escape here does not mean deliverance: "What! my child! on the eve, perhaps, of salvation.... you would then leave us?" This is the closing epitaph of the film. They are the final lines of "A Torture by Hope," the short story by Count Villiers de l'Isle Adam, a 19th-century French writer who much admired Poe. In it, a Rabbi, on the eve of his execution by fire at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, believes he has found a way to escape the dungeon that holds him. A step away from freedom, he is intercepted by the Grand Inquisitor, who is charitably intent on the rabbi accepting God in his final moments before death. In Villiers' story, the most profound torture is that of "the divine 'Perhaps,'"--the tortured hope of escape from judgment, which is always inescapable.

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