Sunday, December 9

A Field Trip to Dante’s Inferno

I had an interesting experience the other day that called to my mind the attitudes of certain people portrayed in Resurrection. We went to the landfill for a Geology field trip. We rode to the landfill site from school in a van and the van I was in contained about 9 people. On the way to the landfill, one of the guys in the back was talking about how he had to go to alcohol class for 8 hours because he’d gotten caught consuming alcohol and is a minor. Everyone had an anecdote or story to contribute on this subject, because twentysomethings tend to be familiar with that sort of thing.

When we got to the landfill, we picked up the landfill director and drove to the see the sights of the landfill. On our way around to the new landfill area (which is a large, many tiered hole in the ground very much resembling Dante’s description of the Inferno), we passed a white Ada County truck bringing in trash picked up by the alternative sentencing participants in the Sheriff’s Inmate Labor Detail (SILD). The landfill director, who was in the middle of describing the types of jobs available at the landfill, took this opportunity to say to all of us, “There’s the Inmate Labor truck,” and I asked what kind of work they did—because I thought maybe some people were sentenced to work at the actual landfill rather than just pick up trash on the roadside (like I said, twentysomethings tend to be familiar with the consequences of excess alcohol consumption). “Well, you want to be careful that you don’t have too much fun. The Inmate Labor Program is for those who get punished for their sins and indiscretions and have to do hard labor for the County.”

Everyone kind of stopped talking for a minute. Finally one guy said, “It’s better than sitting in jail,” and the director said, smiling, “They think so, too.” My friend was incredulous at his use of the word “sins”—apparently she didn’t realize that a trip to the landfill would entail a morality lesson! Truly, I have not heard anyone use the word “sin” in a non-church situation, (outside of a novel or movie), in so long that I can’t remember. After he got out, my friend and I spent a long time discussing how judgmental and inappropriate it seemed for the guy to use the word and I commented that he’s probably never read Tolstoy.

I’m guessing that the landfill director has never read Tolstoy because he would probably be in the camp of Nekhlyudov’s brother-in-law and his smug assertion that, “innocent people are never punished—or, at least, with very rare exceptions. But the guilty are punished…every thief knows that stealing is wrong and that he ought not to steal—that stealing is wicked,” (410-11). Now, I’m not arguing that the people sentenced to the SILD are innocent; I know several people who’ve had to do it because they drove drunk when they knew they shouldn’t have. My main objection is the guy’s use of the word “sin,” because it presumes the following: A) that everyone has the same notion of religious morality, and B) that we all feel the same as him in reserving the right to judge and condemn others based on this notion, or C) it’s his place to engage in such pedagogy because he has a carload of students at his facility. I don’t like it when people arbitrarily presume that I share their views, especially when it comes to religion.

In a way it resembles Nekhlyudov’s experience in this section of the novel. Everyone thinks he’s crazy for wanting to help the prisoners and peasants and they don’t want to try to understand either him or the people he’s trying to help. One of them, and I can’t remember who because there were so many of them and they all blend together, (Tolstoy makes a good example of government bureaucracy and red tape and the schmoozing it takes to get things done), is described as someone who doesn’t believe anything religion-wise, but he thinks it’s bad for the peasants to have religious views outside of the state-sponsored religion. Then he helps Nekhlyudov anyway and sets them free. Most of the people Nekhlyudov deals with are the same way; at first they are firmly resolved to refuse his requests because he is going against what they consider normal, then they sign over prisoners’ freedom as soon as he asks. So what happened to their resolve not to break with order and normalcy? Are they more humane than they appear at first, are they just indifferent, or are they spineless?

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