The Weight of Silver: Musings on Guilt and Consequence
I’ve just finished an amazing tale of utmost destitution, of mind, body, and spirit, called Hunger by Norwegian author and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Knut Hamsun. This book, his first novel, is the winner of that prize which he received in 1920. The premise of the book follows a freelance writer through the streets of Oslo as he searches for food of which he has none. He writes here and there, his plans often frustrated by the lack of a pencil or the lack of a candle, a lantern, or a place to write.
Struggling with financial destitution and warring against the reality of his impending eviction for failing to pay his rent, he wanders the streets, in hopes of avoiding his landlady, arguing with bypassers, blind old men, and police officers. He occasionally stalks a woman of the town through the streets for no other reason than he has time to do so.
He then occasions upon a loaf of bread here, scrambles a few kroner there, and is loaned a couple of coins by strangers or former friends who see his suffering and offer to help him to his next meal.
His pride prevents him from taking on another job because he believes himself to be a reputable writer. He may at one point have been just that but these last few weeks or months, he is but the ghost of his former self. At one point, placing a finger in his mouth in desperation and taking a bite.
Failing to make any money from his writing, he wanders from one house, from one street, from one bench to the next, seeking how to muster the courage to write a more bankable story and thus make enough funds to buy himself something to eat.
It’s a bleak story, really.
There is one scene where the main character of the book happens upon a bakery of sorts, seeking, perhaps, benevolence on the part of the shop owner for some food. A donation of food for the proud beggar who refuses to see himself in such a dim light. And once he reaches the counter, the man at the till hands him food, and soon after, he hands him change for his goods.
The wanderer is shocked at the incident. He has no money, no credit, nothing to his name save the few buttons on his shirt, his wiry glasses, and his indomitable pride, trusting himself to his unfinished literary work.
Seizing upon this opportunity at the shop, seeing the clerk’s mistake in thinking he is someone else, someone who had paid for this much food beforehand, days or weeks ago, he wanders out of the shop with glee and excitement.
Mind you, our wanderer, at this point, has wandered the streets for weeks cursing God for dealing him such a low blow in life. With no friends or family in the city to seek help from, he is forced to crawl the earth in search of something so accessible to so many, save himself: food.
So here, for a moment, his luck changes and he walks out of a shop not just with food for days but also with coin that does not belong to him. He vows to return the money, not sure to who, surely not to the shopkeeper who made the mistake of mistaking him for someone else, but to anyone… anyone else who will take it.
He does this, eventually, sending the few coins he has left in his possession to some other unfortunate pauper of the streets.
But his comment, perhaps to himself, was that the coins he carried in his pocket had weighed heavily on him.
A few coins were enough to burden his conscience and activate a need in him to rectify such discomfort.
Our wanderer is no criminal. At least not in the way we understand the term “criminal” in society today. He was a man left to the vices of destitution and hunger. A man who was driven nearly mad by the cold of night, homelessness, the preying eye of police officers in search of lunatics to lock up, and the shame that comes from looking gaunt and poor in a society of exuberant wealth and luxury.
At times, he was given to ideations of violence, of knocking someone over the head with some object. He had visions of following women home to frighten them for no other reason than he could because the woman had looked at him wrong. Or so he thought. Discontent with his situation, he had no choice, in his mind, but to relieve his frustration on others by vilifying them in his head.
But what plagues me from this sequence with the coins is just how much the theft and fraud of it all weighed on him. He was not a religious man. He believed, very much, in the possibility of a deity in the heaven above, but one who had cast him into the lowliest of hells on earth by making his conditions here so deprived of food and money. But his morals were, at some points, quite noble considering his many chances to squander all-things-righteous for the sake of ephemeral pleasure.
And here, in this example, we see his bend toward moral rectitude shine.
He is bothered by the fact that he took someone else’s money at the shop and endeavored, at length, to find some means or some way to make things right.
And it is here that I begin to contemplate this concept of the weight of silver.
Judas Iscariot, the historically despised disciple of Jesus who betrayed him with a kiss, was in a situation not much different from the one found in Knut’s story.
We know very little of Judas or what went through his mind when he betrayed his Lord for a meager thirty pieces of silver. Thirty little coins.
We’re not sure what he had in mind with so few “dollars” to his name. Had he intended on booking a trip to Greece? Had he hoped on sipping coffee in a Turkish bazaar? Was he set on sailing to Morocco to watch camels race? Bet on a race or two?
Word on the internet states that thirty pieces of silver back then would amount to $91 to $400 today.
What can one buy today with that in our time? Furniture? Gardening tools? Crypto-currency? Gasoline?
We are sympathetic toward the moral struggles of a hungry wanderer but what can we say of a man who followed a wonder-working rabbi? The Norwegian wanderer sought only food and lodging. Had he had the luxury and stability of both perhaps he would have been a successful writer instead of a homeless vagabond. He might have even published a book or two along the way. His writings might have become stage productions that would make the rounds in Norway and stretch westward for fame and prestige within the world of the arts. But what of Judas? Was he homeless? Surely Jesus had very few places to lodge at night, we can imagine. But Jesus did, at times, also lodge with friends in their homes. Was it hunger that led Judas to such an extreme? Jesus could have easily multiplied bread or fish or wine for the disciple.
What kept his heart in the dark just long enough for him to commit such an act?
Knut’s character was poor, homeless, hungry, and nearly hopeless. We may, perhaps, under the right circumstances understand, even accept, the minor theft committed by a man in such perilous straits. But what must we do with a man who traveled with a healer, a miracle worker, a man who could multiple coins in the mouth of fish, and food in the hands of the poor, who, given the first opportunity, betrays his master?
There has yet to be a book or a story, a work of fiction that best tackles Judas Iscariot’s motivation to turn a man like Jesus over to killers for the sake of silver; thirty pieces of silver.
In Hunger, our protagonist is eventually so overwhelmed by the guilt of his choices and his condition that, as I mentioned above, he gives the money away to someone else. When questioned by a stranger as to why he did not return the money to the shopkeeper, he then yells at the stranger and runs away. The guilt of his wrong bearing so heavily on him that he refuses to apologize to the shopkeeper otherwise his world might implode on him, leaving behind only a shirt and undergarments.
After acting upon his idea of reconciling himself with the universe within his head, he then continues his search for money and food.
But Judas, upon his conviction and shame, takes it upon himself to return the coins to the high priest and religious clerics who have given him the money, to begin with. From there, he wanders the land, no one knows for how long, and hangs himself from a tree. But few of us consider the fact that the branch Judas hung from snapped, his body falling a great distance and exploding over some rocks, his insides turned out for the world to see.
Traitors explode the same way they implode, you know.
Quite the difference between these two men, both plagued by some inner workings of desire mixed with moral failings and guilt.
All in all, the issue of a guilty conscience is so prevalent in both themes. The action taken by the recipient of that guilt thereafter is what troubles me.
Why are we, or myself for that matter, driven to such extremes under the thumb of guilt? This burden weighs heavily on the mind, as it should, for imagine a world where men felt nothing for the wrongs they commit. Worse yet, those wrongs would no longer be wrong but mere sentiments of indifferent actions happening to one person in one place. Therefore guilt is a necessary aspect of our society. Not just in the courts but in our social spheres.
What we do with this weight, however, is what sets us apart as redeemable characters or as disgraced traitors.
The weight of silver, in all its worth, can lead to death.
Be careful, friend, what you do with that silver, should you have been unfortunate enough to come into its possession in the first place.
Originally published at http://olivettheory.com on May 24, 2022.