Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Chalk Circle

Stomer, The Judgement of Solomon

We were speaking of examples of bad parenting in the Bible a few days ago. There is one important passage we have not yet mentioned.

It is a well-known story of the wisdom of Solomon. The king judges a case involving two mothers:

16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, “Pardon me, my lord. This woman and I live in the same house, and I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 “During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”
22 The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”
But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king.
23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’”
24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”
26 The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”
But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”
27 Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”
28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice (1 Kings 3: 16-28).

Solomon’s solution was not reliable if the objective was to find the biological mother. It did not settle that question.

Instead, it was to define “true motherhood.”

The true mother is the one who cares for the child, for the child’s real interests as a separate individual soul. This is not necessarily the biological mother. But the biology is irrelevant.

The story also gives us a vivid and useful character sketch of a bad parent. The false parent is driven by envy or jealousy, as Burton hinted in Anatomy of Melancholy. She (or he) will steal or violate any other moral obligation if she thinks she can and it is in her interest. She or he is kept in check only by fear of punishment; and in such a case, the cloak of privacy over parenthood and the family gives the perfect opportunity to indulge such avaricious tendencies. To such a parent, the child is a possession, and without her ownership has no further value. She will kill it before she will allow it independence. She, figuratively if not literally, “smothers” the child to death.

This passage in the Bible is the first known record of this story; but almost the same story is known in other cultures. It obviously says something of universal importance. Hugo Gressmann has located 22 similar stories in world folklore and literature.

One is a Jataka tale, Jataka #546. Jataka tales are the stories of the historical Buddha’s previous lives, a core document of Buddhism.

A rakshasi (a malevolent spiritual being), grabs a mother’s child while she is bathing. The mother gives chase. They run past the Buddha’s ashram.

“As they wrangled they passed by the door of the hall, and the sage (the Buddha), hearing the noise, sent for them and asked what was the matter. When he heard the story, ... he asked them whether they would abide by his decision. On their promising to do so, he drew a line and laid the child in the middle of the line and bade the goblin seize the child by the hands and the mother by the feet. Then he said to them, ‘Lay hold of it and pull; the child is hers who can pull it over.’ They both pulled, and the child, being pained while it was pulled, uttered a loud cry. Then the mother, with a heart which seemed ready to burst, let the child go and stood weeping. The sage asked the multitude, ‘Is it the heart of the mother which is tender towards the child or the heart of her who is not the mother?’They answered, ‘The mother’s heart.’ ‘Is she the mother who kept hold of the child or she who let it go?’ They replied, ‘She who let it go.’ ‘Do you know who she is who stole the child?’ ‘We do not know, O sage.’ ‘She is a goblin,—she seized it in order to eat it.’”
A rakshasa, South India

On its face, the story does not seem to make complete sense, because the Buddha has spiritual second sight. He is able to perceive that one of the alleged mothers is a rakshasi. Rakshasis are shape-shifters; they can look just like a human being. But they are really ravenous creatures who live on human flesh. They resemble the vampires of European folklore.

So the Buddha already knew, without the demonstration, who the true mother was in a biological sense. A rakshasi is not human and cannot bear a human baby.

The point must be to demonstrate to his disciples—then and now—what true motherhood means. It is not the biological tie, but the emotional tie, that matters; for this is what the demonstration shows. And there are false mothers, who will claim to care, but will not. They want a child only to devour it, physically or spiritually.

The classic Chinese play “The Chalk Circle,” wrtten by Li Quian Fu in the Yuan Dynasty, 13th century, ends with the same story. A judge draws a chalk circle, places the child in the middle, and proposes that the true mother is the first who can drag the child over the chalk line. This, supposedly, demonstrates the depth of her attachment to the child. When one of the two women cannot bear to hurt the child and refuses to pull, she is found to be the true mother. 

Climactic scene of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle

This story was retold by Berthold Brecht in 1945 as “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” It includes the same climactic scene. However, Brecht lets the audience know that the woman who refuses to harm the child, and therefore is awarded custody, is not the biological mother. The biological mother had abandoned him. She wanted him back now only because he was tied to an inheritance.

Brecht thous makes this moral clearer. Not every biological mother is a mother in the true sense.

Think of this in reference to St. Paul’s injunction that reverence is due to one’s parent “in the Lord.”

The true mother is often the fairy godmother.

No comments: