Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(3) (1993) 16-19
Never mind your husband, madam! Now, you have touched me, have you not? And you see me? And you are absolutely sure about me, are you not? Well now, madam, I beg of you; do not tell your husband, nor my sister, nor my niece, nor Signora Cini here, what you think of me; because, if you would all tell you that you are completely wrong. But, you see, you are really right; because I am really what you take me to be; though, my dear madam, that does not prevent me from also being really what your husband, my sister, my niece, and Signora Cini take me to be--because they also were absolutely right! (P.70)
For those who recoil at Laudisi's suggestion, prepare to be mocked. Indeed, prepare to join forces with those pursuers of Truth derided by Laudisi throughout the story.[End page 16]
Pirandello's allegory is based in a small Italian town during "our own times," and chronicles the community's reaction to the seemingly bizarre and inexplicable relations between a low level government functionary named Ponza and the two women in his life--his mother-in-law, Signora Frola, and his wife, Signora Ponza. The central question around which the narrative turns is why does Ponza prevent and even prohibit his mother-in- law from seeing his wife? As the story unfolds, the community is led by the "facts" to believe that either Ponza or Signora Frola is mad. Yet who is mad and who is sane? This question propels the community in search of the Truth. Their belief, certainly reasonable by conventional standards, is that by asking the proper questions and eliciting the necessary information, an unassailable answer to this conundrum can be obtained. Their dogmatic belief in the existence of absolute Truth, undaunted by Laudisi's persistent incredulity, provides him with endless comic relief as every new "fact" uncovered by the curious community is congruent with the conclusion that both are crazy. This inability to locate the Truth drives the frenzied citizenry toward a well scripted public confrontation which, in the end, only serves to heighten Laudisi's sense of ebullient glee.
The play, aside from its entertaining qualities, raises important and fundamental questions with which the serious social observer must tangle--the most salient being the interplay between absolutism and relativism. Absolutists assert that there is an unqualified Truth which offers meaningful moral guidance. On the other hand, relativists, fueled by the studies of anthropologists among others, contend, like Laudisi, that the Truth is ticklish and is dependent upon one's social milieu or perspective. The legitimacy of each position has waxed and waned over the years; however, to the contemporary observer, relativism seems to have gained the upper hand.
Consider the penetration of the "politically correct" movement into American social institutions such as that monolithic structure known as academia. Increasingly, we are led to believe that no collectivity is inherently better or worse than any other; they are only different. Hence, groups[End page 17] formally denigrated by the larger society now clamor for the same moral recognition that their detractors have previously enjoyed. Putting the legitimacy of these claims for equality aside, a certain irony arises in this tidal wave of relativism in that it washes away free expression as people are forced to toe absolutist standards. That is to say, individuals must adhere to strict and often extreme guidelines pertaining to nomenclature as well as research agendas (e.g., the handicapped become "differentially abled"; genetic lines of inquiry into the problem of crime become taboo) at the peril of public and, indeed, moral censure. In short, political correctness tramples what it professes to accomplish--the opening of society to all. This leads to several important questions: Does relativism offer a meaningful alternative to absolutism? Do absolutism and relativism actually anchor the distinct ends of a linear continuum or does relativism become indistinguishable from absolutism when pushed to its logical extreme?
Another critical issue raised by the play is the role of observation in the social sciences. Pirandello suggests that all observation is flawed in the scientific sense since it is necessarily subjective. In Pirandello's world, reasonable actors can observe the same social scene yet arrive at entirely different, even contradictory, conclusions. This is anathema to the serious social scientist who typically aims to distinguish between "mere appearance" and "objective reality." This raises several questions that are relevant to courses in philosophy, theory construction, and research methodology, among others. How epistemologically reliable and valid are we when observational methods of inquiry are used as opposed to introspective ones? If observational methods are inherently suspect, then where may the curious student of society turn for valid comprehension? Is objectivity attainable in the social sciences or is it an idealized constraint empowered by the force of tradition? If the empirical basis of science is threatened, what does this portend for its logical or rational foundation?[End page 18]
One of the dominant ideas of our age is that scientific inquiry is not only objective but also offers a mechanism by which truth may be discerned. Pirandello questions this idea by suggesting that Truth (with a capital T--absolute truth) is illusionary and that, actually, truth is infinite, depending upon the vagaries of the individual. In other words, truth does exist for Pirandello; however, it resides within the individual and may not transcend that individual. What are the implications of this anarchist conception of truth for a conservative enterprise such as social science? If we are not gathering Truth, what are we assembling through scientific endeavors?
Though often neglected as a pedagogical tool or even as a reflection of popular culture (we are told, in fact, that Pirandello meant his play to comment on Italian culture's fascination with superficiality), plays such as Pirandello's provide a unique and even pleasurable avenue for prompting scholarly dialogue about social conditions. "It Is So! (If You Think So)" offers a multitude of possibilities for exploring complex philosophical issues such as those delineated above. Moreover, the play may be gainfully employed in a discussion of labeling theory in a criminology course. Accordingly, this sardonic narrative on the pursuit of Truth--or truth--receives four gavels.
Gregory J. Howard, Sean Anderson,
and Martin Gottschalk
State University of New York at Albany
School of Criminal Justice[End page 19]