A random note: early in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury constructs an elaborate simile comparing human society to a colony of honeybees, and speaks of “the singing masons building roofs of gold.” Two things struck me as I read that line: it’s one of the most gorgeous lines of verse I have ever read, and nobody but Shakespeare would have written it. The singing masons building roofs of gold.
In his online notebook, my friend Adam Roberts is reflecting on a certain kind of fictional character, the Murderbot kind, the Winter Soldier kind, and reflecting also on a certain intensity of fascination with them. I have to say that I’m not totally sure I understand Adam’s account, but if I do understand it I don’t think I agree with his conclusion. That is, I don’t think people who stan for Murderbot and Bucky Barnes are associating their own sins with those of the characters. I think they’re trying out a little thought experiment to answer a question: Under what conditions might forgiveness of great sin be possible?
And I think this is an important question because, as I never tire of saying, our society “retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.” In my reading, the interest of characters like Murderbot and Bucky is that their stories outline the conditions for forgiveness, which may be stated briefly thus: You may be forgiven for something if you can show that it wasn’t really done by you. When Murderbot killed 57 people, it did so under commands it could not have overriden; ditto with all the killing that Bucky did. You have to be able to redefine yourself not as acting but as acted-upon.
Here’s another fictional character who fits this description: Hamlet. When in Act V he confronts Laertes — Laertes who is hot for vengeance because this man murdered his father and drove his sister to insanity and perhaps suicide — he has a story for him:
Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
That is, Laertes should pardon Hamlet precisely because Hamlet has done nothing that requires pardoning. His will was overriden by his madness. Like Murderbot programmed by nasty human beings, and Bucky Barnes re-programmed by Communists, Hamlet has had his executive center taken over, in his case by madness. Therefore: “poor Hamlet.” Not “Poor Polonius” or “Poor Opehlia” — poor Hamlet. He’s the real victim here.
So, four hundred years avant la lettre, those are the circumstances in which our culture can most easily imagine forgiving people: When they can spin the story, accurately or inaccurately, to cast themselves as victimized. But if they can achieve that, then they can be forgiven anything.
What happens, though, to those of us who performed our wrong while in our right minds?
UPDATE 2021–04–28: My friend Leah Libresco points to this excellent and extremely relevant essay by Eve Tushnet:
If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy — it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving — you’re saying there was never anything to forgive.
And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love. A lot of people get jumpy when conservatives start talking about “personal responsibility” not because they think it’s awesome to be a self-centered overgrown infant, but because they think “personal responsibility” is code for a) conflating all forms of personal failure — mistakes, bad luck, a bad hand dealt at birth, inability to overcome massive societal injustice, misunderstandings, petty idiocy, and grave sin; and then b) punishing personal failure with contempt and cruelty.
Adam Smith had this cute little tagline, which I admit I am taking out of context, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Now first of all, mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is, see above for details. But we might also add, “Cruelty to the guilty creates pressure to declare everybody innocent.”