lincolnOf the different creation myths, and the emergence of something like original sin, I think one of the more powerful narratives comes from the Norse tradition. Aside: I’ve never cared for the Edenic narrative and the fruit from the tree of knowledge, at least the way it was told to me as a child. It seems to promulgate the notion that disobedience, the expression of curiosity and the act of straying into the forbidden were the triggers for Original Sin. To me, the quest for knowledge is a desirable thing–a manifestation of intellectual curiosity. Civil disobedience, if in protest of an unjust edict is an appropriate form of expression, and the eating of the fruit of the tree is heroic, even if it does mean that as a result, one perforce leaves a state of clueless innocence and moves into a wearier, knowing state of mind that reveals the world with all its beauties and its flaws.

But the idea of some kind of original sin, or fall from grace, in the context of the Norse narratives, intrigues me. I love the idea of Odin giving up one eye for the ability to see by other means–a different conception of the sacrifice that is required for knowledge, wisdom, the ability to be able to see past the everyday. But the other thread of the myth–which Wagner drew from and adapted in his Ring of the Nibelungen–presents this tradition’s version of a fall from grace, namely the idea that Valhalla was built on the basis of a promise that Odin (Wotan, in the Wagnerian cycle) never intended to keep. He promised to give one of the young goddesses under his charge to the giants as payment for their work in building the hall that was meant to house and embody the glory of the gods. But it soon turns out that he never intended to pay up.

When the giants come, demanding their compensation, Wotan summons Loki/Loge, the trickster (whom I think of as the lawyer figure, in this particular tale, at least) to find the loophole in the contract. Except there isn’t one.

The story that ensues depicts the fall from grace, and a choice between two different kinds of dishonour, which Odin brought upon himself: he must decide whether to hand over a young woman who was in his care and for whom he was responsible, and send her to a life of servitude and submission to two giants, who are depicted as brutish and amorous–or whether he is to break his word and refuse to pay for the work that the giants completed for him. The story, per Wagner, is then further complicated by the cursed ring of the title–another symbol for corruption and greed. Wotan’s actions ultimately taint his legacy and undermine the pure ideals that were meant to underpin Valhalla itself.

In studying slavery in the U.S. in my human rights courses back in law school, it has often struck me that this piece of American history could be seen as a Norse-style version of original sin (this may be an obvious connection to Americans, who presumably grew up with a far more encompassing and immersive knowledge of this history and national narrative).

One of the most famous lines from a key, constating document of the nation, as it declares itself into being: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”.

So heroic of itself–the document expresses that same intellectual curiosity and determination I so admire in the Edenic mythological tradition, as it defies the creator (here, the parent government) in the face of unjust edicts, and is a glorious assertion of autonomy. Yet, it rings hollow once the camera lens pulls back from a closeup of the text, to show the man who penned those words as someone who owned slaves. I don’t know much about Jefferson, but he presumably either a) did not hold this truth to be self-evident in practice, or b) did not consider enslaved males to be men. Obviously, this was a different time, since women were also excluded from that rhetoric. But to have the document, which gave rise to a democratic republic founded on principles of equality, exist in such stark contrast to the reality of the slave-holding society in which it was created, and which continued in that way for the better part of a century thereafter–this to me fits aptly into the idea of “origin”-al sin, in a way that expressing intellectual curiosity and defying an authoritarian, arbitrary and unfair patriarch is not. And, as with original sins of legend and myth, this too has left a lasting legacy on the generations that followed, as a society, they are still struggling to deal with the legacy of slavery, its abolition and the repercussions of its abolition (which isn’t to say that there aren’t other tragic legacies of oppression, and narratives of original sin to be found in other countries, Canada included).

Now we come to Speilberg’s film, Lincoln. I’m not sure whether Americans would have a more detailed knowledge of who all the people were whom we saw for a frame or two (or so it felt like) in the film, apparently because they served the function of being swayed into voting for the 13th Amendment. For my husband and I (we had listened to the audiobook of A Team of Rivals a few years back during a road trip through Civil War sites and to Springfield to see Lincoln’s home and offices, etc. and this was the extent of our “detailed” knowledge of this piece of American history), it was a little bit bemusing. The pletora of characters who were briefly canvassed in the film might actually have made more compelling viewing if more context had been provided. A mini-series might have worked better in telling that piece of the story.

And then, there are of course the general issues. There’s revisionism of the narrative: the contemporary sentiments that we attributed to the abolitionists seem rather dubious, and from the little I know of the reality, we would have found many of the actual views of many of even the more radical of abolitionists patronizing, unpleasant, deeply problematic and only moderately less repugnant than the views of those who were pro-slavery. But you need heroes for this story, and in context, the abolitionists were heroic in espousing the agenda that they did. There’s also the fact that in talking about the glorious abolition of slavery in the U.S., with all its associated rhetoric, the reality is that the U.S. was one of the only countries in the world (and, I believe, the only democracy?) that still had slavery or anything like it–so to many other nations of the world, it would seem long overdue rather than a stunning and radical move. Even England, the nation from which the U.S. had declared its independence, had outlawed slavery decades earlier and had taken the position that slaves who, while in England, ran away from their American owners, would not be returned as “possessions” but would instead be free.

But setting aside those and other such considerations, and acknowledging that Daniel Day-Lewis embodied an amazing portrait of the man himself, the interesting thing in Lincoln was the emphasis on compromise (particularly apt, I suppose, in the context of the current administration, whose emergent legacy appears to be that of uncomfortable compromise).

Lincoln, if the film is accurate in its depiction of the underlying legalities he faced, was like Odin in that he had been confronted with a moral dilemma and the choice between two different kinds of dishonours (though unlike Odin, he wasn’t party to the choices that brought the dilemma to him–he was just stuck with their consequences): either allow slavery to persist or play fast and loose with the limits on federal powers as delineated in the Constitution, thereby undermining, weakening or compromising the integrity of the Constitution itself. The two key articulations of this dilemma are Lincoln’s soliloquy to his cabinet, talking about the urgency he felt in passing the 13th Amendment because he had concerns that his Emancipation Proclamation was not actually something he had the legal right to make, and the moment when one of the abolitionists makes a comment to the effect that this was the most honourable outcome to have been achieved by dishonourable means.

Lincoln’s rumination to his cabinet was interesting. From what I could follow of the legalities as described, it seems to me that he didn’t have the right to make the emancipation declaration in the first place–except, possibly, maybe, as a war power. He wasn’t sure whether he really had war powers, and without them, the proclamation was clearly not within the powers of his office. Which is why, in that soliloqy, he kept reiterating that he thought it was legal… but it might not be.

And so, our Odin: on the one hand, a lawyer, a man who tries to behave with honour, and the holder of an office in which he has been entrusted to uphold the law, be subject to the Constitution, and work within the limits it places on his office. Was there an actual loophole, or did he simply perform some sleight of hand and hope that amid the turmoil and confusion of war, no-one would notice or call him on it? It’s clear from that scene, that he strongly suspects the latter, even if he has told himself otherwise. Going forward, to cover for his legally dubious proclamation, he is hoping to pass the 13th Amendment, which will make it legal, but in order to do so, at least in the constructed reality of the film, his administration must resort to other problematic means–bribery and patronage appointments–even if by our contemporary standards these days, such measures are par for the course such contexts.

As for the other side of the equation, whereas Odin faced the obligation to hand over someone in his charge to a life of servitude, oppression and subjugation, Lincoln faced the continuation of such oppression, subjugation and abuse for a significant proportion of the population.

Ultimately, he chose to follow his conscience, rather than adhering to the limits placed upon him by the Constitution. And though the cause is one that few would disagree with today, when faced with these kinds of situations, I always find myself reframing the scenario so that the person playing fast and loose with the checks and balances were on the other side of the floor from where I would sit, were I in office.

The thought experiment goes like this: what if, instead of slavery, it were same sex marriage (or some other issue which I support and believe in). And what if, the person who were circumventing the limits of his office were doing so in order to follow his conscience, which told him that allowing same sex couples to marry is fundamentally wrong? For him, and for others who were aligned with his perspective, he would be doing the right thing, following his conscience and taking advantage of a situation in order to advance the greater good (as he saw it). I would be furious. I would no doubt be railing to friends and family (and whoever would listen) that this is why we have checks and balances, this is why the powers of the office are circumscribed etc. and the act of circumventing such checks and limitations is unacceptable.

In the case of Lincoln, posterity (along with much of the rest of the world) agreed with the substance of his position. But it still troubles me. Outside of the extreme scenarios (slavery being an obvious one), who decides what is sufficiently “right” to justify circumventing the limits placed on the powers of an office?

We’re seeing a lot of fast and loose playing by our elected officials here in Canada these days, and for the most part, I fundamentally disagree with what they are doing (but I expect there are many who voted for the current administration who are delighted to finally have a party in power who is getting things done, and not bothering with the technicalities–even as I feel those technicalities are essential and place reasonable limitations that should not be ignored).

Given that, the question is a vexing one, at least to me. It’s all very well if you agree with the ethics or morality of the measure being pushed through by dubious means, but the checks and balances built into the democratic process are for the protection of those who do not agree, to prevent elected officials from overstepping.

Which leaves me ambivalent. Slavery had to be abolished. It was an abomination. But if the movie is accurate, with respect to the legalities around the manner in which it was abolished, then it becomes yet another point of uneasiness, an uncomfortable truth behind the heroic mythos, which further complicates and problematizes the ensuing legacy that resulted.