The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (No. 18)

My favorite play not written by Shakespeare is one called The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. (If nothing else, “Brecht” is really fun to say. You should try it some time.) All humor aside, though, I’ve had occasion to think about this play a lot lately.

The story of the Chalk Circle comes from a Chinese fable, as I understand it. The birth mother (who has abandoned the child), and the current mother are both claiming custody. The judge orders that a circle be drawn on the ground in chalk and the baby placed inside. Then each mother must try to pull him out. They both pick up the baby and begin to pull, until the current mother realizes that if she keeps pulling, the baby will be torn apart, and so, tearfully, she gives up. The birth mother cries in victory–until, that is, the judge rules that she can’t have the baby, that it should go to the other woman, who obviously shows more concern and love for the child’s well-being.

Now, as attentive readers will doubtless have deduced, either from the story itself or from my diction (which was, and I apologize, making a rapid descent into jargon), I’ve been thinking about the Chalk Circle a lot lately because of the latest rounds of judicial battles over custody, which have been so highly publicized that I won’t bore you (or myself) by going into the details.

I’m not going to advocate the use of chalk circles in the US; I’m far too afraid that parents and courts might actually rip children apart literally. I think enough of them already do so figuratively. Nor do I have any kind of answer about where any kid ought to grow up. I don’t think I, or anyone else, am informed enough to make that decision, because, as terrible as this may sound, I think that in the end it’s one of those things that’s so important it doesn’t matter.

Some of you will know that phrase as one which my father used when people were dithering about where to go to college, but I find it useful–and strangely comforting–in a number of other situations. It’s so important it doesn’t matter.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the judge who orders the drawing of the Circle is not a real judge at all. He is Azdak, a drunk guy who takes bribes and got to be judge by one of those weird twists of fate that occur during periods of civil unrest. And yet Azdak, because of his drunkenness, or iconoclasm, or unpredictability, or something, and despite his lewd remarks and unsavory character, dispenses the closest thing the poor people have ever seen to justice. What is one to make of that?

Awhile ago the minister at my church told a story which I’ll take the liberty of repeating (thanks, Jason) about a youth group which he once led. He was asking them what they thought about the people Jesus had selected as apostles. After a period of silence, one kid said, “Well, I guess it shows that Jesus was a pretty poor judge of character.”

That sounds kind of blasphemous, but it’s really true. The Apostles are mostly not people I’d probably vote for, just as Azdak is not someone I’d ever appoint as a judge (and Falstaff is probably not someone you’d really want your kid to be friends with, etc., etc.). But these things are so much easier to accept in literature than in life. One votes for good people who then do bad things, and then some bad people do good things, and it all ends up so confusing that, if you’re like me, you begin to wonder what the point is anyway.

There are about eighty-seven (give or take a few) trite things that I could say here, but I think, once again, that it’s so important that it doesn’t matter. I do believe that it’s worth your while to try to do some kind of good (even if it doesn’t work, and even if it ends up with negative results you didn’t envision, kinda like managed care), because otherwise, what are you doing here? So, since I tend to think other people say things better than I do, and since I always find it cheering, and sometimes even inspiring, I’ll leave you with the last lines of Brecht’s play:

And after that evening Azdak vanished and was never seen again.
The people of Grusinia did not forget him but long remembered
The period of his judging as a brief golden age,
Almost an age of justice.

But you, you who have listened to the Story of the Chalk Circle,
Take note what men of old concluded:
That what there is shall go to those who are good for it,
Children to the motherly, that they prosper,
Carts to good drivers, that they be driven well,
The valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit.

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