Dark Mirror: The Sense of Injustice in Modern European and American Literature

Dark Mirror: The Sense of Injustice in Modern European and American Literature

Dark Mirror: The Sense of Injustice in Modern European and American Literature

Dark Mirror: The Sense of Injustice in Modern European and American Literature

Synopsis

Focusing on European and American trial fiction since about 1880, Dark Mirror argues that although it is generally animated by a sense of injustice, this literature reflects the virtual collapse in Western culture of the idea of a universal, or "natural," ethical law. From the ancient Greeks to the Victorians, that idea, though powerfully contested by the notion that justice was simply "the interest of the stronger," remained vigorously alive in books as in people's minds. It thus constituted an alternative to injustice which modern literature, whether its angle is religious, social, or absurdist, rarely presents. Sterne presents the argument that the tradition of natural law can be adapted to the present condition, a hypothesis that necessitates a view of an international community in which distributive as well as punitive justice is done. Creators of literature, who have so persuasively dramatized the corruptions, cruelties, and absurdities of our time, would then eb called upon to increasingly choose to imagine "just" ways for us to emerge from chaos. Dark Mirror is the first study that combines, comprehensively, the treatment of the historical conflict between idealistic (natural law) and "realistic" or cynical approaches to the idea of justice.

Excerpt

This book was born of my concerned realization that modern European and American literature, which almost always treats criminal trials negatively, rarely points to clear ethical criteria of justice. Believing that imaginative literature reveals, in a complex way, cultural attitudes prevalent at the time of its creation, I revisited Western fiction from Homer to the late Victorians in order to determine to what extent perspectives on trial justice during that long era agree with or differ from those of the modern age. I did not find many trials in ancient literature after the Eumenides, or during the medieval period—until the late Middle Ages, when trial by jury had at last superseded the oath and ordeal as a means of “proving” innocence and guilt. Still relatively rare in literature before the dramas of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, trials do not occur frequently until the nineteenth century, when they begin to be important in many novels and tales. Conclusions that I hesitated to draw solely from trial fictions written during the pre-modern era appeared to be valid, however, when based in addition on the extensive treatment of social justice in pre-modern imaginative and discursive literature. For what emerged from my reading was a sense of a continuing battle—a battle which, significantly, has no counterpart in the imaginative literature of the period since about 1880— between evolving conceptions of ethical natural law and variations on the theme of Thrasymachus’s definition of justice, in the Republic, as “the interest of the stronger.”

Aristotle, articulating the idea of the “law of nature” as “a natural justice … that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other,” finds this ethical law in Antigone’s defense of her burial of Polyneices, in disobedience to Creon’s edict, and in Empedocles’s prohibition of the killing of any living creature.

Aristotle remarks that “everyone to some extent divines” the . . .

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