Saturday, 1 September 2012

A World Without Justice in /The Man Who Knew Too Much/

My introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s work was somewhat belated for a university-going Christian, I think. It was with The Man Who Was Thursday that I began, perhaps a year ago, and having enjoyed that I decided to put The Man Who Knew Too Much on my Kobo for vacation. I rather enjoyed it, but perhaps only because I have been cultivating a taste for the bleak. Chesterton strikes me as something like a very slightly bitter Catholic analogue of C. S. Lewis. (They even share the convention of using two initials rather than a first name.) This discussion of The Man Who Knew Too Much has no real argument, but is rather a reflection on mystery stories and the search for justice, truth, and the greater good. Because it may not be clear from this meditation, I would strongly recommend the book, but I will warn that it is causally sexist (women are only mentioned at all in two chapters) and very racist (in particular anti-Semitic and Islamophobic).

In the Tarot, the Lady Justice is not blindfolded but stares at the viewer. I wonder which iconography is more reasonable?
For those who do not know, The Man Who Knew Too Much is about Horne Fisher, as seen through the eyes of Harold March. March is an idealistic young man who is attracted to Fisher’s intelligence and curiosity; in the dynamics of the novel, he is the Watson. Fisher is a jaded older man, vaguely aristocratic, who travels in the highest circles of British politics solving assorted mysteries with his knowledge of human hypocrisy, folly, and guilt; in the dynamics of the novel, he is the Holmes. While the book is broken into unconnected chapters based on different mysteries, it may also be read as a character study of Fisher, the man who knows too much, or, as he says, knows too much of the wrong kind of thing. Yet he is interested by any topic and anything, and has learned eventually to find the good in some people, but even that with his own brand of pessimism: “Believe me, you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them. [...] God alone knows what the conscience can survive, or how a man who has lost his honour will still try to save his soul” (Chapter 8). When Fisher here uses the word “conscience,” he repeats the word with which March was accusing his mentor. March had been shocked that Fisher could know as much as he did without acting on it. Why not expose the government? Why not explode the government? (In both of the Chesterton books that I have read, there seems to be the perpetual threat of dynamite-throwing anarchists. It’s deliciously quaint.) Why, March asks Fisher, has he been complicit if he has known about all of this guilt and corruption? March intends to reveal all because he has a conscience.

 For this has not been a regular mystery novel. In most mystery novels of this type, the cases follow a certain pattern. First, the context is set: the Watson and the Holmes are invited to a location, or the Holmes begins to recount an episode of his youth. At this time, the principle cast are introduced. Second, the mystery begins: a body is found, or the police discuss the hideout of a suspect, or an artifact goes missing. The social order has been ruptured. Third, the Holmes gathers evidence: he asks questions, he goes on errands that baffle the Watson, he examines or sends the Watson to examine scenes surrounding the crime. Fourth, the Holmes reveals the killer, the act of crime, and how he solved the crime (for Fisher, it usually revolves around some feature of human character or cognition). Fifth, the denouement concludes the story: the guilty party is taken away, the goods are found, order is restored, and some feature of human nature is discovered. The interest and emphasis is always on the Holmes’s explanation (the fourth point). This is what closes the suspense opened by the crime (the second point). The denouement has the effect of a logical conclusion; the necessary narrative clean-up following the emotional completion. Most of this pattern remains the same for The Man Who Knew Too Much, but for the denouement. The criminal is never apprehended. Fisher always knows who did it and why, and he always tells March, but part of his explanation is often also why he cannot reveal to society at large who the killer is. (This is not always so. Usually, though, when someone is sentenced with a crime, there is nonetheless the feeling that justice has not really been done—often because someone involved in the legal process was the guilty party.)

I do not want to spoil much, but I can give some outlines. In one case, the person who committed the crime was a person of such political importance, at such a crucial political moment, that the upheaval his arrest would have created would have been disastrous. In another case, Fisher (for good reason) knew that no one would believe him, and he did not have enough hard evidence to back it up. In another case, as a consequence of the facts becoming public, the legend surrounding a person more important as that legend than as a person would be tarnished, at great political expense. And I will not tell about the final case, other than to say that it works well as narrative. For one reason or another—but often for the common good—justice, as traditionally imagined, cannot be done. A blackmailer has been murdered and many heads of state (most of whom were not involved in the murder) are now free from his influence; is this not a good thing? Should those dirty deeds be aired in the name of justice?

I have previously lauded Watchmen for posing a thought experiment concerning consequentialism. [Here be spoilers] Should Ozymandias be punished for his monstrous crimes? If you are a pure consequentialist, you would say that he should not be punished because that would undo the great good his massacre produced (assuming that you are convinced that Ozymandias’ actions did in fact produce more good than evil, but the text strongly supports that assumption). I think many people would be squeamish about that response, though: surely such a huge scale of murder must be punished, even if the overall result is for the best? And if the lack of justice does not bother you, the lack of truth might. Lots of people feel and/or think that the truth has inherent value, and so, regardless of whether we feel that Ozymandias should be punished, we may still say that his crimes should be made public. The truth should out, even if we are skeptical about whether or not it will. (The point of the thought experiment is not to test whether consequentialism is true or false--squeamishness would not show that--but to test the experimenter's commitment to it. Secondarily, it is supposed to show that any moral system can produce horrible atrocities; pointing to the massacre at Jericho is only as effective a disproof of divine command theory as pointing to Watchmen's Ozymandias is a disproof of consequentialism.)

Despite the monstrousness of Ozymandias’ actions, though, I think that The Man Who Knew Too Much does a better job of producing the emotional squeamishness. This might partly be a response of the work’s greater realism, and it might be a response to the theme’s repetition (rather than a single climactic reveal). But it is also because we can see the effects repeated cover-ups have on a character. Fisher may not be a broken man, but he is unhappy more thoroughly than a mere pessimist. He has seen that, if acts which are harmful in themselves must be done or at least tolerated for the good of a greater number of people, that distinguishing between right and wrong will become increasingly difficult. He has seen that ideals of any kind must be given up; he has seen that people must become complicit in miserable crimes. He is a man who has become dirty, knows that he is dirty, and remembers what it felt to be clean. In the world of Watchmen, as miserable as it is, the characters could usually condemn the badness; acts like Ozymandias’ were exceptions. In the world of The Man Who Knew Too Much, it is harder to condemn the badness because it lies so near, and pointing it out would not be too far from pointing at oneself. The world is not without justice because we know what justice is and we can see that it is absent; the world is without justice because in this world justice makes no sense—it produces a paradox—and therefore cannot be. Beyond this, there lingers throughout the latter half of the novel the fear that this cynicism can be dangerous to a person, can warp the characters of lesser (or younger) men.

For what it is worth, I believe that The Man Who Knew Too Much has hit on something true here, both about the world and about the trouble with the very idea of justice. (I have written about justice before.) I should not sell it as so bleak, though. It contains much humour, including my favourite kind of satire, which simultaneously laughs at characters while being endeared by their faults (cf. Emma, Arcadia, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town). And there is room enough still for courage, though of a different tenor than that of glittering knights. When March meets Fisher, the latter is actually fishing, and another character in the novel is called, in a kind of dark parody, a “fisher of men.” The character given this title is not especially Christ-like, despite the title, but Fisher maybe is: he has seen into the hearts of men and their darkness, and he recognizes “that only God knows how good they have tried to be” (Ch 8). He does not fail to notice crime, or to seek it out, or to assess what kind of character a person has, but he rarely judges and he rarely condemns, because society itself could not take that strain. He also takes risks to his own person in the name of that rotted-out civilization that he interrogates. Unlike Christ, however, he is only a man, and a flawed one at that; the grief and frustration have taken their toll upon him. Realizing (or believing) that justice and truth can be opposed to the greatest good is no easy burden to bear.

Does anyone know where this image originally comes from? I found it used on another blog.
I would be especially interested in feedback, if you feel willing to give it and even if you haven’t read the novel. This topic seems as big as asking, what is it that we are seeking when we pursue legal action for crimes? On what ideals should we build our society (truth, justice, greater good, equality), and what do we do if these ideals conflict? How do you prevent such a realization from negatively impacting your own character formation? How do you deal with what necessary complicity does to you?

EDIT: On 27 September, 2012, I edited some grammatical errors.


yolanda said...

Your post has convinced me to read that novel someday. The questions you raise are so important. In Burundi a lot of my assumptions about the importance of truth and the consequences of truth have been deeply challenged. It seems that in some situations a sort of social cohesion is valued more highly than airing everything that is true, especially at the interpersonal level. There's a saying that goes something along the lines of 'you hide that you hate me, and I hide that I know it' that is often cited in discussions about truth here.
In post-conflict situations the questions you raise are incredibly important and highly debated. After the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, many other countries have followed suit. But is that a universally replicable model? And did it really address everything it should have? There are always questions about impunity and truth telling, justice and reconciliation. For example, should impunity be offered to criminals to facilitate truth telling and reconciliation? Another common debate is whether physical security and economic growth sometimes more important than universal truth and justice.
Rwanda has taken a very different path from Burundi. While I sometimes tire of comparisons pitting Rwanda and Burundi, it is interesting to examine the political and policy approaches to questions like those you raise in this discussion of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much.' Again, I think I will have to read the novel sometime.

Christian H said...

I should warn you then that you'll likely find the book racist and sexist, since it is both.

I appreciate your response very much because I know that these are issues you are working through much more...hmmm...politically than I have to. My concerns are more about how to deal with friends and colleagues.

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