Law in Contemporary Society

Robinson's Justice

-- By SamanthaLiTrenta - 15 Feb 2012


Robinson calls his imagined prisoner/lawyer metamorphosis “a form of exacting justice.” Robinson does not elaborate, but his meaning may be able to be determined by re-reading the chapter in light of his ending declaration. After all, the title of the piece is “Robinson’s Metamorphosis,” despite the metamorphosis being explicitly mentioned only at the very end, suggesting Robinson is actually discussing it throughout.

This would make a sensible justification of the interpretive approach, it seems to me, if Robinson were the author. But the narrator is the author, and he has decided how to present Robinson: where to begin and end, what to leave out. Under the circumstance, I don't see how this inference works. The proper justification, it seems to me, is that the narrator has presented us a portrait of Robinson in which this is the deliberately-placed final touch. His poem is a whole, and this is the conclusion of it.

What Comes Down is Vulgar

Robinson says it “fucking amazes” him “how little anyone who isn’t a lawyer really knows about what comes down,” but he implies even those who are lawyers know very little “about what comes down.” When Robinson relates his exchange with the young federal prosecutor who asked him not to be so vulgar, his annoyance does not stem from injury to his pride at being reprimanded, but from the young lawyer’s na´vetÚ. The world is vulgar, Robinson points out, with its “[t]wo million murders a century” and “all those neat little, quote unquote, nonviolent felonies committed by our sisters and brothers over here in the World Financial Center.” Robinson is attempting to plea bargain for his client, whose fingers have been cut off, yet the vulgarity that concerns the young federal prosecutor is Robinson’s language.

Robinson’s companion, too, is out of touch. Robinson is shocked to learn his friend, also a lawyer, has never been inside a prison. Robinson has to explain to his friend what Rikers is like, has to illustrate the vulgarity of the world by asking, “Do you know how many children every day are getting smacked to death? How many skulls are being fucking crushed?” Robinson’s questions may be rhetorical, but it seems a safe bet the companion would not be able to answer them. The friend’s sparse knowledge “about what comes down” is revealed again when he asks “What are murderers like? … No, really. What are they like?”

Out for Blood

Despite lacking knowledge of what life is like for most people, it is lawyers who often control their fates. The Assistant United States Attorney whose house was broken into knows only that his life was interrupted by someone he sees only as a criminal. By Robinson’s analysis, the AUSA’s own career was the only reason he did not kill the boy by shooting him.

The AUSA tries to “kill” him another way, however: through the justice system. Robinson says, “One thing, though, is absolutely clear. Our D.A. wants our young American—well, to put it in the vernacular of the street—dead. He quite simply wants him dead.” The Manhattan ADA assigned to the case, meanwhile, “she is thinking blood.” If the AUSA and the ADA knew what Robinson knew—that the kid was not bad, but dumb, that his father had given up on him—would they still have been out for blood?

Why not? The victim is taking revenge. The prosecutor's job is locking people up and feeling justified for doing so. Her boss's job is helping her to grow professionally by giving her people to lock up she can feel justified throwing away the key on. Why would any one of them conclude that the stupidity or personal sorrows of "the offender" are relevant reasons for altering their own roles?

Exacting Justice

Robinson’s form of justice, then, would be for the lawyers to wake up as prisoners and truly see the world in which they detachedly operate. Robinson highlights the insider/outsider nature of the prisoner/lawyer relationship when he describes Rikers to his companion. He lists the aspects of Rikers one would cite as evidence of prison being too cushy: “I bet you didn’t know it has its own bakery—croissants for breakfast! Its own mental health facility—free psychotherapy! A full-time tailor—buttons sewed on for free!” then juxtaposes these with, “Your classmates stick razor blades up their asses so they’ll have access to a weapon if things get rough.”

Robinson's irony seems to have escaped you here.

It is also worth noting that Robinson does not consider it potentially dangerous to switch the prisoners and lawyers, indicating he does not believe there is much difference—if any—in the “degrees of vermin” that lawyers and prisoners are.

Danger to whom? The lawyers in or the prisoners out? Danger to those who are neither by having the prisoners out and the lawyers in?

Perhaps once again you are being a trifle literal. It seems likely that Robinson's version of the metamorphoses is ironic. As Kafka's was too. And even Ovid's, about which you might want to think a trifle as well. The narrator is a lawyer, but whether he has been to jail, professionally or personally, or whether he grew up poor in Detroit and lost his father to murder, he's a poet.

Robinson’s conceived metamorphosis does involve the prisoners and lawyers switching back, implying the purpose of the switch is not punishment for the lawyers. The purpose, instead, is realization. Robinson says, “Any undertaker will tell you that never get the smell completely out of a tomb.” The analogy of a tomb to a jail is made evident in the piece. The lawyers will never forget the smell of the tomb, meaning they will never forget their experiences in the prisons. The “smell” will stay with the lawyers forever, bringing them where Robinson believes they should be—fully knowledgeable “about what comes down.”

This interpretation is certainly plausible, but one drawback seems to me to be that it makes out, at best, half a case. Maybe this is the point about the lawyers. It does require us to believe that his phrase "exacting justice" means "realization," in your vocabulary, which seems to me a little doubtful. But a more serious objection seems to me to be that it accounts for half the transformation only. If this is "exacting justice" for the lawyers, why is it also exacting justice for the prisoners? Perhaps we should ask about Tiresias, as well as Gregor Samsa, Narcissus, Arachne, Aescalapius and Caesar.


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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:50 - IanSullivan
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