A courtroom trial is, in semiotic terms, the creation of a literary text. And a text of great import: a human being stands before his or her peers and faces up to society’s moral judgement. The entire procedure is carried out as an exchange of words, which are recorded for posterity. It’s a fascinating process, and some notable texts are being written right now.
Let’s start with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, pounding his fist and complaining that the whole trial process is a theatrical fraud. Well, he’s probably right, but then Saddam has his own penchant for theatricality. With Saddam in the hot seat and the cameras rolling, there’s more bad acting flying around the Baghdad courtroom than in a Tom Hanks/Robin Williams buddy film directed by Oliver Stone. We yearn for the days of the Nuremberg trials.
In complete contrast to this spectacle, there’s the quiet crisis of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who faces trial this Friday in his own country. He published a simple, clear message about the ordeal in the current New Yorker. The trial, which has been widely publicized throughout the western world, will take place on Friday. If Pamuk’s name was Ka, a bomb would go off somewhere and the author would escape to Hamburg early Saturday morning. In fact, this whole thing reads so much like an Orhan Pamuk novel that it has everybody’s head spinning. Talk about meta-fiction. We trust that Pamuk will leave this trial a free man, and perhaps he will be struck with a poem as he walks home afterwards.
Regardless of what you think of the death penalty, you might have felt sad at the thought of Stanley “Tookie” Williams facing execution even though his crime was committed decades ago and he had clearly turned his life towards good deeds since then. Williams was executed last night by the state of California. It is jarring to look at the pages for Stanley Williams and realize that, all else aside, the person who just died by lethal injection was one of us, a writer to the core.
All these high-stakes legal battles have me thinking about trials in literature. Inherit The Wind comes to mind (a revival is much needed), and Twelve Angry Men and The Man in the Glass Booth and The Caine Mutiny (this last one is now remembered as a classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and a boat, but Herman Wouk’s Melvillesque fable was a hit Broadway play before it was a movie, and the play consisted entirely of the courtroom drama).
Kafka wrote a bit about trials, as did Gilbert and Sullivan and Shakespeare. Dostoevsky tended to end his gritty crime stories just before the trials began, as if the judgement of other men was of no consequence. The two greatest trial stories are among the oldest: Jesus facing Herod and Pontius Pilate in the Holy Bible, and Socrates fighting for his life in an Athenian court in Plato’s great Apology (if you haven’t read it, Socrates loses the case, but lands several great punches).
These must be the times that try men’s souls. If I missed any notable courtroom literary classics (by which I do not mean to include My Cousin Vinny), please let me know.