Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 22: Oedipus, the Minotaur, guilt

“We were talking about guilt,” said Torquil.

44 Scotland Street

“Yes,” said Domenica. “Inter alia. We also touched on aunts and Soviet agents.”

Torquil smiled. “But you’re the one who brought up guilt.”

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“I think you did. Or did I? Anyway, the topic did come up. I think it was in the context of drinking coffee and how getting coffee beans to market used so much precious water. That sort of guilt.”

“That’s right. I find that interesting.”

Domenica agreed that it was. “Guilt is definitely one of the great subjects. It’s pervasive, ubiquitous, and profoundly unsettling.”

“I’m doing a course in classical mythology as part of my degree,” said Torquil. “Guilt figures prominently.”

“I’m sure it does,” said Domenica. “Oedipus springs to mind. He certainly felt guilty once he discovered that Jocasta was his mother. It made him put his eyes out in expiation.”

“I felt sorry for him, but then, who wouldn’t? I also felt sorry for the Minotaur. Did you? The pain of being a genetic freak.”

“I haven’t given much thought to the Minotaur,” said Domenica. “I suppose I never really related to him. But I definitely felt sorry for Oedipus.” She paused. “I can think of very few societies where incest fails to give rise to a particular horror. Did you know that in Scots law, until not all that long ago, the offence of incest was simply defined by reference to Leviticus, chapter 18?”

Torquil raised an eyebrow. He was not sure about Leviticus.

“Yes,” said Domenica. “It was convenient, I suppose, and it expressed a repugnance that would have been widely shared.”

Torquil thought of something. “Could you base an entire system of criminal law on the Ten Commandments?”

“No,” said Domenica. “Coveting one’s neighbour’s ox is hardly criminal. Nor are most forms of lying. Nor adultery, come to think of it.” She paused. “Criminal law requires clear definition – the lines we’re not meant to cross should never be vague ones. Mind you, we have some pretty odd corners in Scots criminal law. There’s an offence known as lewd and libidinous conduct. A vivid description.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Torquil.

“I’m an anthropologist,” Domenica replied. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, as you – or Terence – might say.”

“Ah, Terence,” mused Torquil. “You know he was a slave? He was freed and went on to write six comedies.”

“His sense of humour obviously survived.”

Torquil returned to guilt. “We go in a lot for guilt, don’t we? I mean, by comparison.”

“By comparison with whom?”

Torquil looked out of the window. “Oh, just about anybody, I think. Mediterranean cultures don’t seem to me to be very concerned with it. The Italians rarely mention Mussolini. It’s almost bad form to do so, I believe.”

Domenica agreed. “It’s not exactly a guilt-ridden culture,” she said. “You have to go further north for that. It’s to do with the Protestant conscience, of course.” She paused. “Look at Germany. Look at how they have been burdened with guilt for what happened. By and large, they then faced up to it. They berated themselves. Others perhaps less so … The Poles have suffered so much and there are those who might consider apologizing to them. Not that I’m thinking of anybody in particular.”

“Whereas we …”

“We don’t have a conspicuous record of apology. We haven’t been keen to see ourselves as wrongdoers,” said Domenica. “We’ve brushed a lot under the carpet, even if we have occasionally felt the odd twinge of guilt. Not enough, some people say.”

“Didn’t Tony Blair apologize to Ireland – for failing to help during the famine?”

Domenica smiled. “I remember him with a certain nostalgia – along with all the others. Yes, he apologized, as did Mr Clinton – for various wrongs previous American governments had committed. All governments, it seems, have acted shabbily on occasions. As have we all.”

Torquil looked momentarily uncomfortable, and Domenica wondered what this young man could have done. But he was not about to confess, moving instead to a general observation on apology. “Of course, there’s a lot for which nobody has apologized, isn’t there?” he said. “Child labour? Land grabs? Opium wars? Slavery? Highland Clearances? It’s a long list, once one starts it.”

“We’ve begun to be more aware of just how awful all that was,” said Domenica. “We preferred to put it out of our mind in the past, but now … Well, we’re looking in the mirror a bit more.”

“And?”

“Everything we have is tarnished,” Domenica continued. “Once you start to follow the money, so to speak, that becomes clearer and clearer. And yet …”

“And yet what? Are you saying we should forget about it?”

Domenica shook her head. “No, I wouldn’t say that. All that I’d say, I suppose, is that there must be a limit to the extent to which one shoulders a burden of guilt. You can make out a cogent case for saying that any financial advantage a society like ours enjoys is ill-gotten and that if we were being morally scrupulous, we would rid ourselves of all our assets – absolutely everything. But what would that do? It would lead to immense suffering – in the here and now, amongst ordinary people who may not share the sense of guilt of those with a more developed historical awareness.”

“So you’re saying that excessive guilt is impractical?”

“Yes, I suppose it is, because you don’t really help anybody living today – any actual people – if you destroy yourself through guilt. That’s pathological guilt – it would be crippling – and crippling oneself hardly makes sense if you want to change the way the world is.”

She watched his expression as she spoke. Sometimes it was hard to argue with somebody of his age. Everything was so clear-cut to the student mind; the truth was passionately proclaimed, rather than half-believed in, which was how more experienced people thought of things. The more experienced had generally discovered that there were no longer any privileged, exclusive truths – there were just the various shades of possibility.

But Torquil appeared to understand. “Do you know Luc Ferry’s book?” he asked.

Domenica did not.

“He deals with the world-view of Greek mythology,” Torquil said. “And the whole point about their myths was that they set out to illustrate how humans fitted into a world that was governed by elemental forces – certain givens that just were.”

“I see.” He understands, thought Domenica: this young man understands.

Torquil continued with his observation. “The Greeks wanted to show how a balanced, good life could be led by somebody who accepted his limitations and the arbitrary nature of the world in which he lived. That was at the heart of the good life – acceptance. They thought that you shouldn’t go around feeling miserable because of what had already happened, about what happened in the past.”

He’s very good-looking, thought Domenica, even when talking about ancient Greek cosmology. But then she remembered that she reminded him of his late aunt, and within herself she sighed – a sigh that was like the movement of the most imperceptible of breezes on a still day, when the air lay heavy over Scotland and nothing moved.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.