Idol Chatter

sophocles.jpgThe case of Roman Polanski continues to evolve–not in its legal particulars, which have only become more complicated with Polanski’s hiring of the politically influential D.C. lawyer Reid Weingarten–but in the public perception of Polanski’s arrest, which says a lot about who we are as a society. As with many tabloid-driven stories, the Polanski affair serves as an opportunity to rehash–via our infotainment–society’s oldest questions about the nature of justice, forgiveness and mercy.

Our democratic forbears the Greeks believed wholeheartedly in justice. No amount of extralegal suffering or personal nobility excused the criminal from his sentence. Nor did the Greeks, to judge by the popular works of their classic tragedians, have much taste for mercy: just ask Oedipus, the king who unknowingly killed his father, married his mother and was held accountable for his sins years afterward; if the law didn’t get you in Greek society, the fates would.
Centuries later, on the far edge of Greece’s sphere of influence, Jesus taught a radical (i.e., un-Greek) philosophy of forgiveness, in which individual crimes were to be viewed in a larger ecology of sin. We are all accountable to God, but if we press judgment on each other, we risk being judged ourselves. Christian society’s great playwright Shakespeare pleaded the case of mercy. Those characters who meted out justice irrespective of the human facts often end up outfoxed or punished themselves.
These two strains live on in the Polanski case. The Shakespearean faction calls his pursuers puritanical and obsessive. “He did commit a crime,” admits Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, “but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma.” His detractors, channeling Sophocles, say justice must be served, no matter the quality of his art or what he’s suffered. (Polanski, or his lawyers, some say, are being punished for hubris, having argued in court last year that the prosecutor hadn’t expended enough effort pursuing him.)
Which strain will win out? Mercy or justice? Which means more to us today? The bad news for Polanski is that he seems to lack, crucially, a catharsis. Greek for “a purging,” this essential ingredient of Greek drama has been taken to mean that the spectators in a tragedy must feel cleansed by the scouring grief of the events. But some years ago scholars found that in legal proceedings, catharsis really referred to extenuating circumstances, a situation that rendered the tragic figure innocent.
Unfortunately for Polanski, both Shakespeare and Sophocles provided some form of ill-advised love or blameless ignorance to exonerate their heroes. If Polanski’s supporters can’t convince us that he’s cosmically innocent even if he’s legally culpable, the tide of public sentiment will continue to turn against him.

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