Sunday, January 18, 2009

Front Tier Justice

ghost of Hamlet's father, the--a young prince being invoked by his father's ghost to pursue revenge on his uncle; a metaphor by which a character is reminded of some debt from the past, related to a much loved or much feared friend, relative, or mentor, calling upon the character to become an instrument of revenge; the forces of guilt or retribution conspiring to drive a character to exact payback for events not directly related to him; the long, heavy-handed reach of obligation, conflicting with a character's personal agenda.

The ghost of Hamlet's father wants revenge against Claudius, his brother, for having murdered him and subsequently become the husband of Gertrude, his widow. What better instrument for the ghost than his son? A productive line of inquiry in family and dynastic narratives, placing the squeeze of conscience and duty on the present day protagonist, undercutting his or her own ambitions and recipe for achieving them.

In the traditional ghost story, the ghost has remained in a particular corner of reality, wanting retribution or some related form of justice before moving on to its place in history, reaching across time and cultures for an instrument to represent it in the here and now. Thus haunting is brought into the dramatic sphere as a force that wants something, reminding characters of obligations, debts unpaid, talents undeveloped, justice hanging fire--all of these connective tissue to someone, some ideal, some unfinished business. Thus too the haunted character is placed in the exquisite conflict between his goals and those of another, placing the haunted in a position to discover attitudes, qualities, and techniques which will allow him or her to cope on behalf of another, then become that great dialectic of independence with a long list of influential connections.

Not all ghosts rattle chains or moan at midnight, some are more subtle, attracting their mortal instruments across centuries, cultures, traditions, drawing complete strangers into their orbit. Sometimes the instrument of justice is merely an individual who speaks up to insist that Uncle Fred may have likes his peppermint schnapps but he was as well a wise, empathetic, and kindly man. In another such a fanciful scenario, the ghost and mortal instrument could easily be as diverse as, say the iconic but no-nonsense English poet great, John Milton, and a word-loving hip-hop singer from South Philly, happening on an unpublished manuscript in a centuries-old reading room at a college in England, then bring yet one more last and resonant word, perhaps his most important word of all, from the old poet to the world of literature. Thus too the genie in the bottle, waiting with growing impatience for someone--anyone--to find the bottle in which he has been imprisoned for thousands of years, remove the stopper, which allows the genie to step out for a stretch.

justice--a sense of closure to a conflicted outcome; the payoff of a story; the rendition of a negotiated settlement on some moral, ethical, or artistic conflict.

In a legal sense, justice should be impartial, balanced, perhaps not quite satisfactory to all built at least carrying a sense of attempted fairness. In the sense of reality, which fiction approaches with some degree of ironic vision, justice is more likely to reflect blindness or bias or rank unfairness, even to the point of referring to some outcomes as poetic justice.

One instructive way of determining the attitudes and visions of a particular writer is to consider how that writer's stories payoff as related to a scale of justice. Suggested authors on whom to start: Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, Willa Cather. Another instructive approach is to ask after reading any work of fiction, Was justice done in this story?

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