Every human death feels unnatural. Even the peaceful passing of elderly relatives who’ve lived rich lives and completed the full circuit of experiences we all feel entitled to—work, marriage, children, vacations, holidays—are attended by a grief so massive that it slips our processes of rational cognition. It hits us obliquely, and never chronologically. I’m walking through the produce aisle of the grocery store and unexpectedly, while lifting a bag of apples into my cart, I feel the shocking lightness of my grandfather’s body as I bathed him while he was dying of cancer. Anguish so vast that it reaches you in fragmented details outside of time. A sack of apples becomes a spirit medium. How can the loss of a person be natural?
Every human death feels unnatural, but murder even more so. The first murdered corpse I saw was in Baghdad during my initial deployment as an infantryman in 2007. In the middle of an otherwise uneventful patrol through the heavy stench of narrow streets, a group of smiling children gestured for us to follow them. They laughed and danced their way to a road which opened up into a spacious dead-end street a little wealthier than the rest of the neighborhood. Patriarchs smoked nervously in doorways, aloof but expecting us. The children, still laughing and asking for chocolate, had clustered around a body slumped over on its knees at the edge of the curb. The man had been bound, gagged, tortured, and killed. His skin bloated and shifted colors in the sun. Flies filled the air, buzzing with the same strange energy as the children. In my memory, I can’t recall the man’s face, only his wounds.
It had been a political murder. This was at a time of sectarian violence, when Baghdad neighborhoods were being consolidated by a long-oppressed Shia majority and Sunnis, some former bigwigs under Saddam Hussein, were being run out of the city in often violent fashion. To the Shia, it was retribution for decades of a criminal dictatorship. What did it matter to them that Saddam was gone if the Sunnis still had the best houses, the best jobs, and all the money? The body we found had been mutilated and conspicuously placed as a warning: leave now or this will happen to you. The corpse that had nauseated me and shocked me into a life-altering sense of disgust had been created by someone’s idea of justice. That’s the double scandal of a person murdered in the name of justice, whether it happens in a Baghdad street or in the middle of the road in Minneapolis: the unfathomable wickedness of murder is justified in the grim vocabulary of order and stability. It’s enough to make you question the legitimacy of any manmade definition of justice.
There’s a connection between what I was tasked to do as an infantryman in Iraq and the mission of police officers in American cities. In the near distance of our consciousness are stories of the militarization of police, of weapons and tactics better suited for the battlefield put to grim use in American streets. The flip side of that coin is the attendant police-ification of the military, of the Army being forced into playing various roles which it really isn’t designed to perform: city planning, public health, law enforcement, etc. Both arise, materially, from the willingness to bloat police and Pentagon budgets while gutting services vital to civil society. But there’s also an attendant failure of moral imagination. Police and soldiers both are empowered by the state to commit violence on its behalf. When a problem becomes too much of a problem, they’re authorized, within certain pliable legal parameters, to transform that problem into a corpse. At the heart of the issues of both police violence and our forever wars is a moral framework which seems perpetually to link “justice” with death.
The unburied corpse, such as I saw in Iraq, has a long history as a political gesture. A well-known example from literature is found in Sophocles’s Antigone. The last of the so-called Theban Plays, the tale begins in medias res. With the notoriously ill-fated Oedipus finally dead and gone under the earth’s heavy lid, his sons Eteocles and Polynices vie for control of the city. Polynices loses his claim and so raises a foreign army against Thebes. It’s a gamble. If he wins, he wins. But if he loses, he runs the risk of being branded a traitor to his homeland. In the ensuing attack the brothers kill one another, leaving their uncle, Creon, in charge. And this is where Antigone begins, in the aftermath of the terrible battle, with fresh corpses still stiffening around the outskirts of the city. One of those bloated bodies is Polynices, the brother who has marked himself as a political enemy of the state. As his sister, the eponymous Antigone, laments at the beginning of the play:
Eteocles, they say,
has been given full military honors,
rightly so—Creon has laid him in the earth
and he goes with glory down among the dead.
But the body of Polynices, who died miserably—
why, a city-wide proclamation, rumor has it,
forbids anyone to bury him, even mourn him.
He’s to be left unwept, unburied, a lovely treasure
for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content.
“A lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content.” The line is a conduit, alive with all the shocked energy of one who suffers the scandal of someone they love being transformed into a thing. Antigone can’t abide, and so swears to her more trepidatious sister, Ismene, that she’s going to perform burial rites herself, rectifying what she calls “an outrage sacred to the gods.” To her, the demands of a religious burial outweigh the tribal political claims of the city’s leaders.
As king, Creon, perceives things differently. “My countrymen, the ship of state is safe,” he assures the chorus of Theban citizens. “Our country is our safety,” he proclaims, and anyone who, like Eteocles, loses his life defending the city against the forces threatening to overturn its hard-won stability, deserves to be “crowned with a hero’s honors, the cups we pour to soak the earth and reach the famous dead.”
But as for his blood brother, Polynices,
who returned from exile, home to his father-city
and the gods of his race, consumed with one desire—
to burn them roof to roots—who thirsted to drink
his kinsmen’s blood and sell the rest to slavery:
that man—a proclamation has forbidden the city
to dignify him with a burial, mourn him at all.
No, he must be left unburied, his corpse
carrion for the birds and dogs to tear,
an obscenity for the citizens to behold!
Creon’s obstinate character determines the course of the rest of the play; as he leans into his tribal stubbornness he becomes unwilling to see the corpse, buried and blessed by Antigone, as anything other than an inanimate hunk of post-human flesh—and a warning to future enemies. As he exclaims to his military cadre who seem to be sympathetic to burying Polynices: “You say—why it’s intolerable—say the gods could have the slightest concern for that corpse?” Creon’s moral framework is one which should be familiar to us as conventional politics. Monomaniacally focused on the stability of the state, Creon reduces human beings to instruments that can serve that end. Nearly every state and every political leader in human history has to some extent relied on this moral calculus in a bid to strengthen the “ship of state.” The rare few who have offered different visions of the good—Jesus, or Antigone, for instance—were themselves killed in the name of social stability and political justice.
But the friend/foe calculus, familiar as it may be, fails to maintain the “order” it promises. Stability, always just one more political murder away, proves illusory. When Ivan says in The Brothers Karamazov that the higher harmony is not worth the cost of one tortured child, his declaration is more practical than it might seem at first glance. For not only will another child be tortured, but the higher harmony never comes. Violence in the name of justice cascades from death to death. It happens in Antigone too. First, Creon threatens to hang the sentry if he doesn’t find out who buried Polynices. Upon discovering that it was Antigone, he imprisons her in a cave to starve to death. He ignores the warnings of the seer Tiresias. He blasphemes the gods. Any second thoughts come too late, and by the end of the play not only has Antigone taken her own life, but so have Creon’s son and wife. The corpse, left unburied, has multiplied many times over.
What makes this tragedy? The deaths, of course, but not only the deaths. According to Hegel, the play is a tragedy because it stages “a collision between the two highest moral powers”—one to the gods and family, the other to the state. Both powers are compelling, but, Hegel believed, both are incomplete. Notably, this interpretation requires us to view Creon as concerned with something higher than merely maintaining his authority as king. Indeed Hegel, writing in a time of nascent and fervent German nationalism, was sympathetic to arguments valorizing stability. “Creon,” he wrote, “is not a tyrant, he is really a moral power. He is not in the wrong.”
The practical results of such a reading is a fatalism so vacuous that an audience made up of Nazis and resistance fighters can both give the play a standing ovation, which actually happened at a performance of Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone in occupied Paris in 1944.1 As translator Robert Fagles writes, “The reason the German authorities allowed the production of the play is its treatment of Creon … as a practical man whose assumption of power faces him with a tragic dilemma: his desire to rule firmly but fairly, to restore and maintain order in a chaotic situation, is frustrated by a determined, fanatical, apparently irrational resistance. These are exactly the terms in which the German military authorities would have described their own position in occupied France.” The story prompts the question: How morally coherent is a reading of Antigone which allows Nazis the chance to applaud themselves?
The unburied corpse I saw in Baghdad was bound with rope, knotted tight. This knot came to represent for me the Gordian Knot of a merely political or tribal rendering of justice. The Shia had been tortured en masse. As soon as they had a bit of power themselves, they tortured in turn, as a kind of retributive justice. And just as Creon suffered for his lack of mercy towards his enemies, I couldn’t help but think of the perpetrators of these mutilations as victims also. Antigone makes it explicit: death multiplies around Creon until he finds himself isolated inside of a kind of living death himself. Violence seemed to be a free-floating energy moving through people, dehumanizing victims and attackers alike. According to the French mystic, writer and philosopher Simone Weil, the only way to cut this knot—this tangle of “natural” rights and claims to authority—is with a supernatural blade.
In her Selected Essays, Weil writes, “In all the crucial problems of human existence the only choice is between supernatural good on one hand and evil on the other.” You can’t get any further from Hegel’s two competing “goods” than that. But what does she mean by a “supernatural” good? In the simplest terms, Weil suggests that there is such a thing as Goodness, which can exist within society, at times, but whose nature is ultimately beyond society. Truth and morality aren’t historically contingent, but exist fully-formed, eternally. Of course, our access to this Goodness is necessarily imperfect, subject to the vagaries of time and the illusions of individual and collective egos. This, according to Weil, is why so many spiritual and religious traditions emphasize the need to purge the self. In Waiting for God she writes:
To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and that the true center is outside the world, this is to consent to the rule of mechanical necessity in matter and of free choice at the center of each soul. Such consent is love. The face of this love, which is turned toward thinking persons, is the love of our neighbor.
Love, a living desire for the well-being of another, is impossible without this little self-annihilation that Weil proposes. Furthermore, Weil would argue, both are necessary in order to clearly perceive reality. For her, the supernatural became a higher perch from which one could achieve a more objective vantage point on the moral landscape. Merely secular definitions of justice were doomed, Weil thought, to eventually succumb to the seductive pull of ideology and power. Nazis applauding Creon sincerely believed themselves to be upholding the good. The officer of the state who executes an unarmed man, whether in the electric chair or the street, holds on to the claim, however subtly colored by his awareness of its internal contradictions, that he is fulfilling a moral duty. This is in line with Weil’s conception of “natural justice,” which, as Marie Cabaud Meaney explains in Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature, “reigns between two equal partners who give each other their due. But when that equality subsides, then the stronger uses his power over the weaker. Supernatural justice, on the other hand, respects the weaker person in every way. The compassion cannot be accounted for in natural terms.”
Creon ends Antigone bereft of compassion in every sense, muttering lamentations as he wanders through a maze of loss. This ending evokes my own initial reaction to the ruthless killing of George Floyd. When I saw the images of Floyd dying on that street in Minneapolis—Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, relaxed and almost casual—I was brought back to the Baghdad street where unknowing children laughed and danced around a mangled corpse. The two streets seemed connected to one another, both contributing to a larger pattern of violence, at least superficially, in service of someone’s conception of justice. The streets form a labyrinth of anger and retribution through which many of us wander, wondering if there is some way out.
Weil was a leftist for most of her short adult life. She taught workers, labored in factories and volunteered on the side of the Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. The “supernatural” turn she took towards the end of her life was not an abdication of politics, but an outgrowth of her understanding of the problem of violence, or what she called “force.” In her brilliant essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” written in 1939 and translated by Mary McCarthy for the American journal politics in 1945, Weil describes force as a seductive energy that uses us as its vessel. It begins eloquently:
The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.
It’s a radical notion, to be sure, that force is always a corrupting power which blinds and deforms; that it makes anyone who is touched by it into things: both in the literal sense of a corpse and the analogous dehumanization of the corpse-maker. Weil’s supernatural ethics makes incredible, nearly impossible, demands of us. It asks us to acknowledge that violence is never justified and that revenge is never justice, not even for the socially powerless. It demands that we always experience violence as something incommensurate with truth. Perhaps most impossibly, it asks us to resist the urge ever to treat human beings as instruments for our own ends, however noble they may appear. At the heart of Weil’s supernatural ethics lies what may seem to be a contradiction: as Meaney describes it, “an absolute obligation is attached to a finite object.” But the contradiction forms the heart of her moral philosophy. Anyone who confuses what we owe each other, with what we owe nation, race or tribe, Weil considers to be involved in idolatry.
For Weil, when agents of the state resort to violence, they are always morally wrong. On the other hand, the supernatural conception of justice also demands that we extend compassion to those who have recently been perpetrators of violence. After all, Polynices hadn’t been merely a passive victim. He’d fought and killed and if he’d been successful in battle very well might have pillaged Thebes and sold its citizens into slavery. Nevertheless, Antigone honors him with a burial. Why? Creon, confused himself, asked the same question. “I was born to join in love, not hate—that is my nature,” she responds.
What sort of eyes does it take to see your enemy as more than your enemy? What sort of heart does it take to love them? In a 1947 essay called “Void and Compensation,” Weil wrote, “I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.” The line reflects her conviction that transcendent love begins in forgiveness, including the forgiveness of one’s own previous failures to transcend one’s tribal “role.”
The shock of smelling that distended corpse in Baghdad didn’t make me want to create more corpses, but to absorb the “force” that had created this one and end its circulation. This sense only grew the more bodies I saw: whether they were “ours” or “theirs” became a specious distinction—as specious as the all-too-human conceptions of justice that had motivated someone to make those corpses. When writing about Antigone and the Iliad, Weil lingers on the bodies. Always lurid, always flayed in the hot dust and attended to by carrion, circling above both the things and the thing-makers alike. I read in them echoes of the bodies I saw in Iraq. And of the bodies I’ve seen on the news in the U.S. Always, it seems, killed on a street.
The street is a suggestive setting. It can be a demarcating line separating one side from another: perfect victims on one side and perfect perpetrators on the other. Police on one side, protestors on the other. But it can also be a path to somewhere else, either better or worse. As the signs read: no justice, no peace. Weil’s might add: no love, no justice.