Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

It’s Halloween. A fine time to quote the Weird Sisters:

Round about the cauldron go,
In the poisoned entrails throw.

Act IV of Macbeth begins in a cave where a caldron smolders eerily.  The three witches concoct a mysterious potion by tossing all sorts of disgusting items into their charmed pot, e.g.: Toad, that under cold stone days and nights has thirty-one; fillet of a fenny snake; eye of newt and toe of frog; wool of bat and tongue of dog; sow's blood, that hath eaten her nine farrow; grease that's sweaten from the murderer's gibbet; and so forth.  After each witch makes her little contribution to the foul brew, they recite their famous refrain:

Double, double toil and trouble;
              Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Shakespeare does not clarify exactly what the three witches intend to do with this brew.  But we know instinctively that it is something foul, not fair. 

In the midst of their cooking, Macbeth appears on the scene and demands some answers.  They give him some answers, but they are spectral, aphoristic, cryptic—instilling both a sense of false security and dread.  Before he has a chance to process what has been revealed to him, the witches vanish into the murky, fetid air.

Sigmund Freud famously identified a syndrome that he dubbed “the cauldron argument,” inspired, perhaps, by the Weird Sisters.  A cauldron argument goes something like this:  “I didn’t break the cookie jar.  But if I did, I didn’t eat the cookies.  I don’t like cookies; but even if I did, I wasn’t home when someone else ate the cookies—and that was probably the same person who broke the cookie jar.  But if I did eat any cookies, I didn’t leave those crumbs on the counter.”

Freud observed that cauldron arguments—which involve throwing everything into a cauldron all at once, sort of like the Weird Sisters—tend to telegraph the guilt of the person making them.  Thus moderately lucid people do not find cauldron arguments very persuasive.  That is why they are only employed by four year-olds, unthinking criminals, and lawyers.

Why do lawyers resort to cauldron arguments?  The primary reason is that they want to avoid being accused of malpractice. Since most lawyers learn at some point that they cannot simply trust their clients’ word with respect to what happened that led up to the put when a given client was mired in a legal dispute, lawyers have to try to cover all the bases.  So they plead defensively:  “X-corp did not owe a duty to Y as a matter of law; in any case, X-corp did not breach any duty as a matter of fact; and even if X-corp did breach some non-existent duty, Y has not experienced any damages as a result of that breach—or at least no damages proximately caused by X-corp’s supposed breach; and even if Y did sustain some damages they are not the damages that Y alleges—or at least most of those damages are not recoverable as a matter of law or the evidence of those damages is legally and/or factually insufficient.”

This practice of arguing-in-the-alternative is essential to preserve arguments when one is still discovering what the evidence is and what it seems to suggest about the actual facts.  But by the time one gets to the point of having to convince a jury—or even a judge—what the actual facts are, these cauldron arguments can be a real headache.  They are self-defeating.  The challenge is, as Lady Macbeth says, to “screw your courage to the sticking-place” and decide on one coherent theory, one horse to ride across the finish line.  If we insist on clinging to the smoldering cauldron through to the bitter end, we risk looking like the Weird Sisters doing everything in our power to obscure instead of illuminate the Truth.

Better to “charm the air to give a sound,/ While you perform your antic round[.]”  [Macbeth, IV.1]

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