Poetic Justice: Comedy or Tragedy?

Poetic justice rests on the premise that good characters are rewarded and bad characters are punished. Poetic justice is intertwined with karma, and can be summed up by the phrases “He got what was coming to him,” or “She got what she deserved.” Or as a college dean of discipline was fond of saying: “you buttered your bread.  Now lie in it.”  Another of his favorite sayings was: “if you sow your oats at night, you’d better pray for crop failure in the morning.”

Other expressions that evoke poetic justice are “hoist with his own petard,” from Hamlet and my favorite word “comeuppance,” which is a punishment or fate that someone deserves. Then there’s “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” from Leviticus.  But the latter expression conjures up a harshness perhaps incompatible with the gentler expression “poetic justice.”  Many might argue that poetic justice is a literary device and not an accurate depiction of real life.

In the late 1970’s (I’m at the age when I need to identify the century)….  In the late 1970’s my wife and I leased a home in northwest Oklahoma City conveniently located a 10 minute walk from my office.  The property was administered by a person in Illinois to whom I dutifully mailed rental checks.  My colleagues at the office were engaged in tomato wars, that is, a competition to see who could boast the first tomatoes of the season.  I called our landlord to ask permission to put in a 10 X 15 ft. garden in a corner of the large backyard, to which she graciously agreed.  During the two summers we lived in the City we managed to harvest a respectable crop of tomatoes, plus assorted vegetables.

When my employer offered me a position in Denver, I accepted on the condition that the transfer date not be effective on the due date of our second born, which of course it was.  Thankfully the timing was negotiable  (the transfer, not the birth), and one month after Matthew was born we were scrubbing, vacuuming, dusting and otherwise restoring the Oklahoma house to a condition better than it probably deserved.  A month or two after moving into our new Denver home I called my former landlady to inquire about my rental deposit.  She informed me that the grass in the backyard was dead in a patch where I must have installed an above ground pool and for this reason my deposit was forfeit.  When I reminded her of the garden, she denied having given permission to plant it.  I was incensed, but what could I do?

A year or two later a former Oklahoma City neighbor, with whom we kept in touch, called to say that the Health Department had raided my former home and cited the tenants, a pair of Arthur Murry dance instructors, for illegally breeding and raising German Shepherds on the property.  It seems that the neighbors had complained about odors and flies.  Upon eviction, sanitation workers showed up and hauled off several 30 gallon bags of dog doo-doo.  When hearing this, I leapt for joy.  Talk about poetic justice.  This was more than poetic justice.  This was epic!  But the down side was that poetic justice to me was collateral damage to the neighbors who had to suffer the nuisance.  It’s good to consider collateral damage when gloating over grievances redressed, and that there may be a tragic element in poetic justice.

In 7th grade we held elections for class president.  Students were entitled to chose candidates, and I suppose as her or his idea of a joke someone nominated Walter, a skinny red-headed kid whose claim to fame was the ability to launch spitballs at classmates with unerring accuracy when the teacher, Mrs. J., had her back turned.  We all laughed and guffawed when Walter’s name was put forth, our derision immediately and justifiably rebuked by Mrs. J.  I’m ashamed to say that my voice was one of the loudest in mocking Walter, who may have acted the buffoon, but whose radar in detecting mockery was fine-tuned.  At recess he approached me and my friend Kenny and offered to take us both on.  We walked to the far corner of the playground and squared off.  All I can remember is a blur of freckled fists.  I don’t think Kenny and I landed a punch.  Mrs. J, who somehow observed the whole affair, barely hid her smile when Kenny and I sheepishly returned to class, much the worse for wear.  This was more than poetic justice.  This was a tragedy as far as I was concerned, and it’s a tribute to kinder, gentler times that Mrs. J. considered the incident a life lesson rather than an occasion for summoning parents, school administrators, psychologists and grief counselors.  It’s always good to accept that poetic justice can slap us around once in a while.

Poetic justice comes in many varieties.  An incident that comes to mind occurred when I lived in Bogota, Colombia in the early 1970’s.  Back then Colombia was, and probably still is, very much a Roman Catholic country.  By this I mean that, at least on paper, the church had veto power over legislation passed by the government.  I can’t remember whether this was ever exercised.  One power that was exercised was a decision by the Church’s Board of Censors to ban the showing of “The Last Tango in Paris.”

To illustrate the impact of this censorship, I need to emphasize the importance of movie going in Bogota back then.  There was only one TV station, the programming consisting of news, beauty pageants, quiz shows and the occasional soccer game, and of course neither cable nor satellite had arrived.  To see a movie cost about twenty-five cents.  And if you were lucky, the theater owner might have flown in one or more of the actors to sign autographs at the end of the movie.  Charles Bronson made several appearances.  Whereas queue jumping, or “cutting in” was a national pastime, no one dared cut into a line of patrons waiting to buy tickets for a movie.  So, the fact that the Catholic Board of Censors had the audacity to deprive the public of seeing a movie, particularly with Marlon Brando featured, outraged many.

Quick to exploit an opportunity, a local newspaper managed to obtain photos of the more salacious “Tango” scenes and inserted them as a supplement into a daily edition.  As fate would have it the paper hit the streets on the morning of the long anticipated game between the Colombian and Argentinian national soccer teams, hosted by Bogota.  When my friend Gabriel and I arrived at Stadio El Campin four hours before the 8 PM game time, several thousand fans were already seated, most of them with newspapers in hand, and I don’t need to tell you what they were reading, or at least, staring at.  When it started to rain, they carefully and tenderly tucked the papers under coats for further viewing.

The game was a cliff-hanger.  Things came to a head, so to speak, when a Colombian player was fouled and awarded an indirect free kick, meaning that if the ball happened to find the net, it first needed to touch another Colombian player in order for it to be counted as a goal.  After 46 years I remember that Gonzalez was the name of the player appointed to kick the ball.  Short and stocky with massive thighs he was built like a fire hydrant. It was said that the force of his kicks could knock over an elephant.   The ball rocketed from his foot and thirty-five thousand pairs of eyes saw a teammate meet the ball with perfect timing and head it into the net.  You can imagine the pandemonium, which seemed to go on forever.  Eventually the Brazilian referee placed the ball in the center of the field . Just as he was about to signal the restart of play, the Argentinian coach caught his attention.  To a chorus of whistles (the equivalent of boos), the referee walked to the sideline to confer with the Argentinian coach and the linesman, or assistant referee, who apparently was the only person in the stadium unsure that a Colombian player, other than Gonzalez, actually touched the ball before it went into the net.  Bear in mind there was no video replay in those days.  The upshot of the conference was that the referee annulled the goal. Needless to say the ensuing pandemonium far exceeded the first.  The game ended in a zero-zero tie.  At the final whistle, only a few punches were landed on the referee before he was able to scamper into the safety of the stadium tunnel in the company of the troop of Colombian soldiers half-heartedly protecting him.  Meanwhile, something had to be done in the stands to vent righteous indignation.  The stadium could not be burned down because it was concrete.  Of one accord several thousand fans rose and put matches to their Last Tango In Paris newspaper inserts, waving them in a fiercely beautiful impromptu light show.

There were three examples of poetic justice exacted that night: 1. The South American Soccer Federation banned the Brazilian referee for his mishandling of the game; 2. Thanks to an enterprising newspaper publisher, aggrieved Bogota movie aficionados were able to experience parts of a censored film; and 3. Of most importance, Colombian Catholic officials were able to report to the Vatican that several thousand of their flock rose in unison to burn pornographic material!

Poetic justice can take a positive form, depending on how someone has acted, and sometimes  justice just happens, as observed by Marge Simpson: “You know, the courts may not be working any more, but as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done.”

I suspect most of us want to believe that poetic justice affirms the best in our surroundings, as expressed by Martin Luther King in his Testament of Hope: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But it also important that for something to be poetic justice a sense of logic prevail.  People for the most part do not suddenly change and warrant different treatment than what they deserve.  One critic pointed out that in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it is not poetic justice that greedy Ebenezer Scrooge suddenly became good and therefore warranted good treatment.  Vindictive readers like me would observe, however, that it was poetic justice that the Ghost of Christmas Future scared the you-know-what out of the old skinflint.

I like to read books or see movies where good old poetic justice prevails, but the trend nowadays seems to be moving toward showing good characters receiving bad fortune and bad characters being rewarded. The expression “it’s God’s design” is not a satisfactory explanation as far as I’m concerned.  As Unitarian Universalists we tend to look for reasons, instead of accepting that you-know-what happens.  Nevertheless I’ll opt for happy resolutions every time.

As I mentioned before, poetic justice often brings collateral damage with it.  How often do we hear ourselves muttering  “where are the police when we need them?”, usually associated with some idiot driver, other than ourselves, speeding past in unsafe conditions.  Karen and I were driving to Wheatland on I-25 around Christmas a few years ago in what I call seductive winter road conditions, the kind where the slow lane is for the most part OK, but where the passing lane is just icy enough to give second thoughts about using it to pass someone, but you might try it anyway.  Somewhere between Glenrock and Douglas an SUV did just that, prompting the usual observation.  About two minutes later we came upon it lying on its right side on the right shoulder of the highway with a police car beside it, the ingredients of poetic justice.  My initial reaction of “it serves them right” was sheepishly followed by concern for the occupants.  Had the car rolled? Was anyone ejected? Were children involved?  Nothing was in the news the next day, so I guess it couldn’t have been all that bad.

The incident prompted me to realize that maybe there’s a fine line between feeling justified and feeling revenge. None other than Rudy Giuliani observed: “Revenge is not a noble sentiment, but it is a human one.” In his book “Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light” author Ivan Klima wrote that “Justice was revenge wrapping itself in a cloak of high principle.”  So I’m going to be meek when seeking poetic justice, remembering, in the words of Ambrose Bierce: “Meekness is uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worth while.”  And I’ll take solace in Ivana Trump’s observation: “Gorgeous hair is the best revenge.”