Thursday, October 18, 2012

Random Late Night Thoughts While Trying to Save a Life.

I'm working on a death penalty appeal.
No, I'm not going to write about the case.  You already know the key facts if you read the first sentence.  My client was sentenced to be killed. It is my job to convince the Supreme Court of Ohio that they should, in Sam Spade's words that have nothing to do with this, "do something about it."
Some criminal defense lawyers see themselves as Sisyphus. 
Albert Camus, in his short, brilliant essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," tells the basic story.
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
There is, of course, more.  And Camus fills in the back story.  I'm not going to do that here.  You can follow the link and read it for yourself.  Anyway, the back story, why Sisyphus was so punished, doesn't really matter.  Here's what does.
You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.
Camus imagines that moment when Sisyphus has finished his task, got his rock to the summit, only to watch it plummet back to the ground below. He turns. He trudges.
I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
He must be.  Feel the pain. Feel the ache.  But feel also the necessity.  He will do it.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.
It is clear, I hope, why we who toil in these trenches, who stand beside those who hear the words that will send them away or free them, those who may never see another sunset or hug a loved one, we often see ourselves as Sisyphus.  Our job is to fight.  Our fate is to lose.  And yet, as Camus concludes,
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
I prefer the image of Quixote, the mad knight of La Mancha.  Wrapped in his psychosis he is the romantic figure.  Not dashing and romantic.  Not capable and brilliant.  He is no Lancelot.  He hasn't the purity of a Galahad. 
What he has is his madness.  His insistence that the world be as he wishes it, that it be a place where one such as he believes himself to be might exist, and even flourish.  He will love she he declares his Dulcinea, because that is what a knight does. He will tilt at that windmill, no matter the consequence, because that is what a knight does.
He will, of course, no more tame the world than Sisyphus will tame his rock and mountain.   But he'll go forth to battle the windmills anyway.  Convinced, as always, that this time he will win.
From "Tom o'Bedlam," the great anonymous poem of around 1600.
By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon'd am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world's end.
Methinks it is no journey.

We now return you to your regular programming.


  1. Thanks to the Gods you don't prefer the image of Prometheus.

    But you're right - and what you wrote applies to the whole human rights movement. As long as mankind will not civilize itself there will be a lot to do. And because mankind will not civilize itself there always will be a lot to do. And so the fight for a better world continues.

    Do we have another choice? No.


  2. Thanks for fighting regardless. It is a good thing to do and not a wasted effort. And I think it is noticed - perhaps by the Gods.


    (Hug the romance)

    1. Another time, I'll explore at length Raymond Chandler's description of the private detective of the sort of fiction he and Dashiell Hammett (but especially he) wrote. It didn't exactly belong in this post, but it's kind of a second cousin.
      For now, I'll just quote it.

      "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

      "If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."

  3. This is one of your best posts. I think I was nodding my head through the whole thing, and I don't mean that I was falling asleep!

    It amazes me, sometimes, how often I talk about leaving criminal defense, but find myself incapable of doing so. It's not that I'm trapped by anything, or anyone, other than myself and the un-ending need. I mean, I *could* do bankruptcy law or corporate law, couldn't I? (Heck, the only "award" I ever won in law school was for corporate law.)

    But that damn rock keeps rolling back down. Those windmills keep turning.

    And if someone I manage to get one of the rocks to stay where it belongs or knock am arm off one windmill, as I turn my gaze from it, I notice another rock rolling down one mountain over, or someone has built another windmill that must be jousted into submission.

    Thanks for this reminder not only that we can't quit -- this is just what we do.

  4. Ugh. I should have proofread before posting.

    Obviously, I meant "if somehow," not "if someone," and "an arm," not "am arm."