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“What If” in Law and Literature … and “Lives Like Loaded Guns”

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Life, which is not Black or White or On or Off, and that may or may not be “as it is written,” gives us much to think about if we are so inclined.

In Law: Anyone who teaches law, thinks about law, or is faced with the law has to think about the “What Ifs” in life.

Here is a simplified example of “What if” dialogues – and anyone who has taken a criminal law class or thought about crime and punishment in the face of actual crimes committed by actual people is familiar with this mental gyration:

1) Sure I killed that person. What if I tell you that I’m not guilty of murder because he broke into my house and tried to attack my children?

2) Sure I killed that person. What if I tell you that I’m not guilty of murder because I was aiming at someone else?

3) Sure I killed that person. What if I tell you that I’m not guilty of murder because it was during the war?

4) Sure I killed that person. What if I tell you that I’m not guilty of murder because I’m 13 years old and my stepfather threatened me if I didn’t fire that gun.

In Literature and History: I saw this beautiful review of the biography by Lyndall Gordon of Emily Dickinson, “Lives Like Loaded Guns,” and immediately thought about all those crime and punishment conversations I have ever had with children, colleagues, students, professors, etc.

Ardor and the Abyss,” by James Longenbach, in the Nation, June 16, 2010

“… A friend of your brother sends you a gift, a painting of Indian Pipes, which is your favorite flower. You write a thank-you note: “I know not how to thank you.” Because your brother’s wife is your closest friend, you have refused to meet the bearer of the gift: you know, as most people do not, that your brother’s friend is in fact his mistress. You know this because their assignations have taken place in your own house, in the dining room, on a black horse-hair sofa in front of the fire. The assignations have been facilitated by your sister, with whom you share the house your grandfather built. Your brother, his wife and their three children live next door in a house your father built for them.

Another gift arrives: a yellow jug painted with red trumpet-vine flowers. You are being wooed by your brother’s mistress, but unlike your sister, whose primary allegiance is to your brother, you remain steadfastly devoted to your brother’s wife and children, from whom your brother has withdrawn his daily affection; there will be “no treason,” you tell the oldest child. To the mistress you write a second note…” (Link to full review.)

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