Potiphar’s wife

There is a line in the text of the Dies Irae about being dragged before the throne of judgement, something like “reus cogor ante thronum”. The Latin word means both the accused, and guilty, with no distinction. We are inclined to think the whole of justice lies in the difference; and even the ducking-stool purported to reveal the truth. In English law, mens rea is one of the elements required to establish guilt (along with the corpus delicti, as it were the smoking gun). It immediately occurs to me to wonder, what about manslaughter as opposed to murder; you’d better not hire me as a lawyer. In most times and places, once the wheels of justice start to grind, they are likely to turn you to mincemeat. There’s no smoke without fire. Mud sticks. Even in these enlightened times, to a considerable extent, it’s still the case. Once you start to dig, something unsavoury will turn up. Perhaps the best mark of a more civilised approach to justice is a presumption in favour of leaving people alone, unless there are pressing grounds to begin turning over stones, looking for worms. If you look at it like this, judicial torture starts to seem more comprehensible. The thumbscrew and the rack are like instruments of exorcism.

So much by way of preamble. We speak of someone ‘living a lie’: perhaps they’re in the closet, or a secret agent. The truth lives just beneath the deceiving surface. Once the question has been raised, the disguise is likely to become leaky, like the false skin of the alien Body Snatchers. The whole trick of leading a double life is to avoid suspicion. But what if they’re falsely accused, and the lie is slander? The more you protest, the more you sound as though you protest too much, impaled on the forensic steel of someone else’s question. And after all, in some accounts, Joseph found Potiphar’s wife comely.

More broadly, I mean to suggest that every situation, every life, exists on the cusp between different lights in which it may be seen. Such ambiguity is the cutting edge of fiction — there has to be an open question, else it’ll be a mere morality tale — as can be seen more crudely in the cinematographic cliché of the murder mystery, where the same events are presented several times, according to competing accounts. In life, the abyss on either side of the path we tread only comes to conscious awareness when something has gone wrong, but we subsist in a balanced tension. It is on the way we take that we will be judged, and that is the foundational humanistic premise of fiction, that it matters, and we can choose. Punishment and reward need not be in the hereafter. We hold our life in our hands, with every breath.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: