Sunday, January 29, 2006

Book of Job, Pain, and The Word

Robert Cover's article, "Violence and the Word," noted below twice, continues to knead my mind. He suggests that the pain inflicted by the justice system on its captives is fundamentally isolating: that our law-speaking is not interpretation because that would require, literally, a speaking-between, a construction of interpersonal reality with language. The justice system's victims are mute and deaf in a torrent of violence and pain. Pain destroys the victim's world, and his ability to share our reality. Legal interpretation is defined by its ability to truly destroy its victims (rather than merely metaphorically destroy us, like literature interpretation).

This seems opposed to the Book of Job. This book is, at heart, a lament. A lament is a sharing through words of sorrow and pain. God, the law-sayer, has tested Job for his own purposes. But Job does not retreat into his pain: he interprets it, and shares it with Eliphaz and others. Job's importance is that he keeps talking. His words are false, but he does not give up, even in his devastation. He makes his claim, and in stating the claim he makes it possible for God to interpret his words back to him, to tell him about his assumptions. Job is afraid of two possible consequences of his legal complaint: that God will destroy him, or that God will ignore him. God succeeds in avoiding these two horns: he reinterprets Job's pain for him,and restores Job's integrity on new terms.

How does the Book of Job apply to the victims of the justice system, who are carried away in chains by an avalanche of threatened violence, who know that between them and freedom the whole murderous explosiveness of the state's power is arrayed? How can their voices not be cut off? How can they not be isolated from others by the imposition of penal pain? How can they join in the common meaning of their sentence, so that it is truly an interpretation of the law to the most relevant person? How can the victim, in his pain, be neither destroyed nor ignored, but restored to integrity?

Cover's conclusion is chilling:
Between the idea and the reality of common meaning falls the shadow of the violence of law, itself.
Cover died at the age of 42 after teaching at YLS for ten years.


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