Of Transgression and Forgiveness

21 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 1999

See all articles by Leonard V. Kaplan

Leonard V. Kaplan

University of Wisconsin Law School


Philosophers, theologians, and lawyers concern themselves with the ethics of conflict resolution and the pragmatics of forgiveness. So do writers of literature. Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, a play set in the context of post-Pinochet Chile about the reaction of a woman to a chance encounter with the man whom she believes tortured her during the period of the army's rule, explores the ethics of revenge by dramatizing the struggle between the woman and her husband, a member of the national reconciliation board. It raises the question what is the proper response to one who has intentionally harmed you before plunging us into the psyche of the torturer, a doctor whose participation in the torture sessions transforms him from healer to sadistic torturer and rapist who acts because he finds himself in a situation in which he is free to cast aside all the restraints that civilization has constructed to keep us from that terrible freedom. The play forces us to confront not merely the question of what a "proper" response to having been tortured might be but also to consider how being tortured changes one. The central figure's husband repeatedly is forced to acknowledge the gap between his wife and himself-he escaped torture and remains a "liberal" desiring to achieve a peaceful reconciliation between the tortured and the torturers; she is filled with rage and desires vengeance (23-6, 33-42). To what extent is the individual psychological response shaped both by cultural expectations and by individual experiences? What kinds of psychologies are constituted by particular cultures and economic configurations? The larger movement that contains questions about the possibilities for individual and communal forgiveness is the quest for justice, in the course of which we will also touch on questions of transgression, punishment and responsibility.

This essay starts with an analysis of Lone Star. The movie combines several cinematic genres: it is a western, a police procedural, and partakes of some of the conventions of film noir. In the second section of the essay, I examine an essay by Emmanuel Levinas on the Talmudic responsibility to forgive. Levinas, who died recently, was a Lithuanian Jewish philosopher engaged in the centuries long attempt to join the rigor of Athens with the ethical concerns of Jerusalem. Here I will interrogate Levinas' struggle to forgive Heidegger his Nazi politics as he feels Talmudically bound to do so. The last part of the essay returns to fiction and looks at The Reader, a German attempt to consider German responsibility for the Holocaust.

Suggested Citation

Kaplan, Leonard V., Of Transgression and Forgiveness. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=185817 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.185817

Leonard V. Kaplan (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
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(608) 262-2245 (Phone)

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