Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 May 2011

(Short Story) The Procurator of Judea by: Anatole France

(Reaction) Suffered Under Pontius Pilate by: Antonio Conejos

Anataloe France's short story is an exploration of the historical figure Pontius Pilate, who is known to Christians as the Roman governor who condemned Jesus to death while letting a convicted murderer go free. France achieves this by two methods. First, through Pilate's own words the reader gets a sense of the man, what he cares about, his prejudices and beliefs. Second, Pilate is juxtaposed beside Laelius Lamia, the only other character in the short story. The differences between the two men further highlights Pilate's character.

Pilate, in his own mind, is a man aggrieved by pettiness and jealousy. As he tells it, Intrigues and calumnies cut short my career in its prime. He is a harsh man but not a cruel one; only inflicting suffering as a means to an end, Then, in order to give a forcible example with as few victims as possible, I handed over to execution the leaders of the rebellion.

The procurator is an honest man of an unbending nature, eager to impose discipline and order, the majestic ideal of the pax romana. To him the heathens that Rome subjugates should be thankful that the Romans should deign to bestow on them civil works and laws. Pilate's zeal for this kind of progress is clearly seen in his enthusiasm for bringing water to Jerusalem, ...by means of an aqueduct. The elevation of the levels, the proportionate capacity of the various parts, the gradient for the brazen reservoirs to which the distribution pipes were to be fixed - I had gone into every detail, and decided everything for myself with the assistance of mechanical experts.

But Pilate cares for buildings and works, not the people for whom these works are intended. There is a certain intolerance to the character, an automatic and instinctive rejection of ideas and cultures which are not Roman. This is especially seen in his comments on the Jews, the Jews filled me with bitterness and disgust... these enemies of the human race.

Especially galling to the procurator is the Jews' predilection for internal strife, They have never realized that it is possible to discuss peacefully and with an even mind those matters concerning the divine which yet are hidden from the profane and wrapped in uncertainty. This is anathema to a man who prides himself on following the dictates of his superiors, even when he feels such orders are wrong or issued out of selfish reasons. Thus, Pilate values hierarchy and structure over autonomy and individual discretion. Empires after all are built on discipline and respect of rank.

Pilate's disdain of the subjugated people he must govern echoes the thoughts of countless colonial powers over the centuries. From India to the Philippines, Congo to Cuba, conquerors have insisted that they had the white man's burden to bring the light of civilization to savages and heathens. The burden to uplift ungovernable people. That Pilate seems himself a tamer of beasts is seen in the crest he chooses to adorn his house, a painting representing Orpheus surrounded by tigers and lions, whom he is charming with the strains from his lyre. Just as Orpheus is eventually torn apart by the atavism surrounding him, so too does Pilate feel that the backwardness of the people he was to rule was the reason for his downfall.

This prejudice of Pilate's is highlighted by his companion's opposite reaction to the Jews. Whereas Pilate views the Jews as Haughty and at the same time base, Lamia remembers them in a much more generous light. For one, Lamia respects the Jewish traditions, rites which their very antiquity renderes venerable. Moreover, he praises them for their quiet courage in fighting for their beliefs, simple-minded men who have died for a cause they believed to be just without revealing their names. And most striking to Larnia was the charms of the Jewish women. This is especially important to him, an admitted sensualist who was thrown out of Rome for having an ill advised affair.

Larnia's thoughts are completely opposite to those of Pilate. Pilate even rebukes him for allowing himself to surrender to wanton ways. Thus, looking at the differences between these two characters, Pilates own beliefs are thrown into starker contrast. To the once procurator of Judea, order, discipline, tradition are all. The empire of Rome, and its values, is above all.

Summing it up, Pilate comes across as a dedicated man, driven to spread the grandeur of Rome. The chief irony of the short story is that, while he is obsessed with grand ideals and lofty aspirations, he fails to notice the most significant person/event to emerge from his province of Judea. Pilate's head is filled with roads and aqueducts, the cares of empire; so much so that he misses Judea's greatest contribution to history. Of Jesus, Pilate says, Jesus - of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.

While Pilate may be a decent man, his fixation on the trappings of civilization cause him to discount the value of the individual, a single man, to change the world.

Review:

Writers are told nowadays to show not tell. This was not the stylistic axiom of earlier writers however and reading through early 20th century works reveals a lot of telling instead of showing. Still, this does not generally make these kind of stories any less entertaining or meaningful. However, some writers who prefer to tell more than show run the risk of sounding pedantic, of having paragraphs of dialogue masquerading as plot. Mann's Magic Mountain is an example of this (unfortunate) style, Anatole France's short story the Procurator of Judea is another.

In this short story nothing much really happens except for paragraphs of Pilate's disquisitions. This results in a lot of leaden dialogue which sounds like clumsy exposition to modern audiences, You remained for more than ten years my guest and my companion, and in converse about Rome and things Roman we both of managed to find consolation.... The end result is that the short story becomes an uphill climb to read.

I do not subscribe to the belief that there is a correct way to write. In some instances, telling instead of showing can be a more meaningful (and a heck of a lot more fun) approach. However, stories in the vein of the Procurator of Judea run the risk of character's words being mistaken for character's actions.

Moving slightly away from the short story, I've always felt some sympathy for the character of Pontius Pilate as depicted in the gospels. Yes, as the ultimate civilian authority he did condemn Jesus to crucifixion and death. Yet he only did so in compliance with the law and after he attempted to sway the crowd to spare Jesus. Pilate was duty bound to observe the law and this dictated that it was the crowd who decided who was to be spared.

In essence Pilate is reviled today because he was a man who followed the dictates of the law. These are qualities which, ordinarily, would be exalted yet in Pilate's case these same actions condemn him to ignominy.

We demand paradox from our leaders, that they follow the law yet at the same time they must be willing to break the law when their conscience dictates it. Perhaps this is Pilate's failure. That he failed to follow the promptings of his conscience and instead washed his hands, Lady Macbeth like, of the whole sordid affair.

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