In the once-classic novel by Tolstoyevski, a brash young ethnobotanist violates the civil rights of an elderly woman, a prawnbroker, depriving her of several prized possessions including her life. The rest of the novel, as best I recall, consists of a "cat und maus" game in which the scientist matches wits with local authorities while wrestling intravenously with the twin issues of guilt and premature youth. The book, of course, is called "Crime and Punishment"—a stunning coincidence considering the fact that this article, save for its hastily tacked-on subtitle, also bears the same name.
Tolstoyevski went on to write other minor works, including War and Peace and the latter-day sequels: Love and Death, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. One pattern is striking to this observer, though curiously overlooked by the leading scholars and cryptics of the day. These works invariably consist of two broad, thematic nouns (i.e., "crime" and "punishment") connected by the dimunitive pronoun "and." Given his philosophical leanings, this same author would obviously have no interest in writing about a cheap, tennis-playing hussy (i.e., "Anna Karenikova" [sp?]) or your average, garden-variety nitwits (i.e., "The Idiot" and its post-Homeric prequel, "The Idiot and the Oddity").
But back to the subject at hand: crime and punishment or, perhaps more fittingly, punishment and crime. "Let the punishment fit the crime," it is often said. The alternate phrasing, "Let he who has not sinned castigate the first stone," places the same idea in a geological context, with the more contemporary usage being: "If the shoe fits, you must acquit." The overused expression, "a pound of flesh for a pound of portabello," also comes to mind for reasons that presently escape me, but will, no doubt, become evident before long.
The main tenant to be evicted here is that no one "gets away with murder," despite the familiarity of the notion (op. cit., "____ got away with murder.") In this vane, the great jurist Wapner (or was it Judy?) made innumerable references to the "long harm of the law." I am not referring here to the Colombo phenomena—("excuse me, uh, just one more, uh, question, mister, uh, ma’am, uh, sir, please...")—in which the culprit is inevitably tripped up before the final commercial, by the wily though unassuming sleuth in rumpled clothing. For crime is its own punishment—a point Tolstoyevski knew all too well and of which he labored hard to convince his readers.
Modern science, since the days of Ptolemy extending to the current "quantum mileu," offers a lesson that smacks of relativism, if not existentialism (perhaps the least understood of the dreaded "isms.") Though the algorhythms may, at times, seem unscrutable, the conclusions are anything but convex. There’s no escaping fate, the evidence tells us—empirically, emphatically—time and again. "Les jeux sont fait." "Don’t lie in your bed, for one day you just may have to make it." Joe Louis, or his pugilistic doppelganger Dempsey, probably said it best: "You can run, but you can tide."
I, myself, am no stranger to Justice and the so-called "justice system" having on one occasion tried repeatedly, over the course of many years, to track down a "Justice of the Peace" for a particular transaction, only to run into, quite by accident, a "rotary republic," who would have completed the transaction free of charge had he survived the crash. The experience taught me a malleable lesson: You can’t find justice, nor should you bother trying, for it will find you when the time has come. And if punishment is called for, it shall be "meated out," to any perpetrator, even a vegetarian. Which, again, might be a fitting main course in view of the preceding infraction.
—Centerville, U.S.A. of America, 2000
This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2000 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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