Mark S. Weiner

Archive for the ‘Aesthetics, narrative, form’ Category

Water, Paper, Law

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Books and libraries, Conversations, Video on July 6, 2014 at 9:58 pm

In my latest video, an eighteenth-century Italian legal treatise about water inspires some thoughts about law, rare books, and the passage of time. The video is part of a series I’m developing about rare law books. You can view the video here:

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I’ve also posted the video on my new channel on Vimeo, to which I’ll be posting all my videos in the future.

Blackstone Goes Hollywood

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Books and libraries, Conversations, Law and film, Video on May 27, 2014 at 6:25 pm

I’ve made a new video—about Blackstone’s Commentaries. It’s also about storytelling form in legal history. My sister-in-law once named a fish Blackstone, which I thought was a very nice sign of respect to the great eighteenth-century explicator of the common law, but the fish plays no part in this video. But Humphrey Bogart does. And so does Orson Welles. You can watch the video here:

A Literary Ramble through New York

In Aesthetics, Aesthetics, narrative, form, Law and film, Law and literature, Video on March 31, 2014 at 12:03 pm

In Part II of “Walking with Horatio Alger,” I follow the path taken by Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick on the first day of the novel. I’m accompanied by friend, former student, and lawyer Matt Milford, and we reflect on the story and its meaning while try to recapture its original sense of place. We also eat a delicious Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich.

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For Part I of my Horatio Alger video series, see here.

September 13, 2014: This post has been moved to March 31, 2014 for organizational purposes.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t …

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Conversations, Individualism, Law and music, Rule of the Clan on March 7, 2014 at 5:56 pm

“What can the jazz process tell us about life?” That’s the overriding theme of Trading Fours on Blog Talk Radio, hosted by Drs. Jackie Modeste and Wesley J. Watkins, IV.

I had a lively conversation about The Rule of the Clan on the show today, and in keeping with the spirit of Trading Fours—and trading fours—our discussion ranged widely. You can hear the full one-hour show through this media player (or by clicking on the link in the first paragraph):

In the course of our conversation, the three of us had a lively exchange about jazz and democracy I thought worth sharing. Among other things, it seemed like an American version of the discussion I had with Prof. Stefan Kirste about the relation between law and musical aesthetics:

Here’s an excerpt from the conversation, which in the audio file begins at about 33:00:

Me: What liberal government has to sell has to be better than what’s on offer from other social theories.

Jackie: Right.

Me: And if liberal government is working, if it’s corrupt along any lines, certainly those of nepotism, if it’s ineffective, then liberal government deserves to lose. But I don’t think it should. And that’s why I think it’s important to defend central government, to defend modern liberal ideals of robust government capable of vindicating the public interest and thereby liberating individual energy.

Jackie: OK, yes. Yes! So what I’m thinking about is when we—

Me: Jackie, sorry to interrupt you. Something that Wes said … maybe we could play with this a little bit. I’m trying to draw connections to the jazz concerns that you have here on the show. Maybe government is like a band leader. And so if you’re thinking about Duke Ellington, right, and the kind of music that he was able to enable, if you don’t have a good band leader, then someone is going to steal that show and the swing is going to be undermined. I’m not sure if … is that the case in jazz?

Jackie: Wes, do you want to talk about that? Read the rest of this entry »

The Only Post about Medieval Law that Ends with a Video from Beck

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Books and libraries, Europe, Spain, Uncategorized on August 23, 2013 at 7:17 pm

From the Vidal MayorOne of the most powerful aspects of the Vidal Mayor—the subject of my previous three posts—is how it portrays people engaged in everyday legal activities and disputes. The illuminated manuscript shows the law in action, and it depicts law as a human creation.

In this respect, the images in the Getty’s manuscript remind me a bit of the judicial bobbleheads I discussed in my first video.

But there’s something even deeper going on, because the figures are also meant to embody principles of jurisprudence. They are meant both to represent and to set in motion a way of thinking about law.

In a fine academic article about the subject, one scholar describes the significance of the images this way:

The functioning of [their] representative mode can be grasped when perceived in the context of the larger meaning attributed to the category of the imago in the Middle Ages: not only as a symbolic material product—miniatures or metaphors—but equally as a mental image, an imaginary mental operation, in this case the juridical enunciation of a case. Through this structure, the Vidal Mayor’s images adopt the formula of juridical casuistry. Not only do they reproduce the casuistic methodology by giving yet another juridical example for each fuero, but also the image itself reproduces the casuistic procedure undertaken by the judge as he is shown stating a particular case in his court. Through reproducing the methods of jurisprudence, the images of this manuscript on customary law, make up, in this manner, the core of juridical complexities. Their visual movement originates in the court, moves through the particular case stated, and then takes us back to the court where the fuero is being applied—thus to the text.

Like this scholar, I’m struck most powerfully by how the images of the Vidal Mayor depict legal ideas through human gestures—especially hands.

And so, without saying more, I’ll include some of those hands here—and let the images do the talking … partly because the hands are so evocative of legal and social relationships, but also just because they’re beautiful. For medieval atmosphere, I recommend playing this soundtrack in the background (it’s from roughly the same time and place).

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From the Vidal Mayor

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Sharp’s Numbers

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Books and libraries, Conversations, Race, Video on June 28, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Book cornerYesterday afternoon, I opened an important old book and was carried back over ten years of memory.

When I say old, I mean the book was printed in 1772. The book is important because it was critical to the development of the modern anti-slavery movement.

I’m in the midst of preparing a series of videos that will tell the story of the legal systems of the world through the story of their books and manuscripts. Right now, I’m working on a video about Blackstone’s Commentaries, the great eighteenth-century survey of the English common law. So I went to visit Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at Yale Law School, which has the best collection of Blackstone anywhere.

As Mike and I were talking about Blackstone, he also showed me some treasures from his recent headline-making acquisition from the library of British barrister Anthony Taussig. One of them caught me off guard.

Book open on table

Title Page

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Why International Law is Like Webster’s Third Dictionary (at least, for E. B. White)

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Environment, International law, Law and literature, United Nations on June 18, 2013 at 5:46 pm

United Nations Security Council Chamber

E. B. White disliked the name “the United Nations”—he thought it dishonest and phony. The structure of the institution, from its weak emergency force to the veto power of the Security Council, seemed to him to sell out the ideal of global unity. It offered a thin bill of fare whose underlying ingredient was the principle of national sovereignty.

“Some people, perhaps most people, think words are not really important,” he wrote in Points of My Compass, “but I am a word man and I attach the very highest importance to words. … The newspapers, with their sloppy proofreading, sometimes call the world organization the United Notions, sometimes the Untied Nations. Neither of these typos would make a serviceable title, but curiously enough, both are pat.”

Because White was at bottom “a word man,” I’d like to conclude this thread by suggesting how his legal vision is implicated in The Elements of Style—a book that many readers of this blog will know more intimately than all his other works. White’s views about English prose, it turns out, also register his views about world federalism.

In Stuart Little, the book’s hero draws a distinction between two proposed laws: “Don’t eat mushrooms, they might be toadstools” and “Nix on swiping anything.” The first, says the young mouse, acting as Chairman of the World, is merely “advice.” The second is a “good law.” Why? Foremost among its qualities, it is enforceable. In its propositional clarity, it can be backed up with punishment and power—which Stuart demonstrates by encouraging Harry Jamieson to steal Katharine Stableford’s scented pillow.

Wild FlagWhite believed that the standards for international conduct developed by the United Nations were nothing more than a litany of recommendations not to eat mushrooms—and that they probably could never be anything more than that. The institution’s rules, after all, were developed through mere diplomacy. “To speak as though we had law,” he protested in The Wild Flag, “when what we’ve got is treaties and pacts, to use the world ‘law’ for non-law, is to lessen our chances of ever getting law among peoples.”

To vindicate the equality of mankind, to protect “the ‘I’ in man which Hitler has set out to destroy,” to protect all the world’s peoples—including, in Stuart Little, rats—treaties and pacts were not enough. “Government is the thing,” White argued. “Law is the thing. Not brotherhood, not international co-operation ….” What was needed were objective, inflexible, normative rules of conduct whose meaning everyone could apprehend. Read the rest of this entry »

Charlotte the Spider, Supreme Court Justice

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Animals, Corporations, Environment, Law and literature, Rule of law, Supreme Court, United Nations on June 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Very soon, my wife and I will be spending a few days in Maine. We’re going there for a wedding, and rather than spend money on a hotel, we’re going to camp. We’re looking forward to putting on our formal wear beneath the pine trees. And I’m looking forward to visiting the state again after a long absence. The last time I was in Maine, I was in college:

Isn’t that some lobster? I believe we cooked that lobster right where we stood, on the beach, in a tin bucket.

Our impending trip makes me feel especially close to E. B. White, whose views about world government I’ve been considering in a recent thread. They also put me in mind of Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t think that the two ever met—at least, there are no letters between them in the E. B. White Collection at Cornell or the Justice Douglas papers at the Library of Congress. But they share a great deal in common.

Most obviously, they share a love of Maine. White spent much of his life there, at his farm in North Brooklin, and some of his greatest essays, such as “Once More to the Lake,” evoke the beauties of its distinctive, unspoiled landscape. I especially like the collection The Points of My Compass, which also contains some of White’s writings on international law. As for Justice Douglas, as I noted in an October post, he was a nature writer of real skill—and one of his greatest sources of inspiration was Mount Katahdin. That’s the highest peak in Maine and, for hikers traveling north, the end of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (which Justice Douglas also completed).

“Katahdin has been like a haunting melody since the day in the late twenties when I first saw it against a buttermilk sky,” he wrote in My Wilderness. “For some years I explored the dark woods and marshy lakes at its feet, and climbed its rough points. Then came a long period of absence. But the pull of Katahdin, like that of an old love, was always strong. The memories of it were especially bright every May, when the ice went out and the squaretails started jumping—every June, when the salmon-fly hatch was on. Fiddlehead ferns—partridgeberries—alpine azalea with tiny cerise flowers … all of these—and more—were Katahdin.”

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From Charlotte’s Web to Star Trek: Animals and Midcentury Legal Internationalism

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Animals, Environment, International law, Law and film, Law and literature, United Nations on June 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

340px-EB_croppedWhy is it significant that Stuart Little is a mouse—I mean, why is it significant from the perspective of American legal history? What does Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court have to do with Wilbur, the “radiant” and “humble” pig of Charlotte’s Web? What links a barnyard in North Brooklin, Maine and the Federation Council in the television series “Star Trek”? These are some of the questions I’d like to think about in this fifth post in a continuing thread about E. B. White and international law—or, to put it another way, about the popular liberal legal imagination at midcentury.

To my mind, the opening line of Charlotte’s Web is a model of how to begin a story: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’” Where Papa is going, to the distress of young Fern, is to kill the runt of a new litter of pigs. The line is potent mixture of action, threat, and conflicted loyalty, and it came to White only after many revisions. One of his earliest drafts begins this way: “A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching in the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door—but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about. I am very glad to say that Mr. Zuckerman’s barn had a pig in it, and therefore I feel free to talk about it as much as I want to.” Compare the two sentences and you have a lesson in great editing.

What the first sentence also does is instantly establish empathy with animals. In this case, the reader’s heart goes out to the pig which—whom—Fern soon calls Wilbur. Much of White’s writing gives animals an unassuming, gentle subjectivity. The first chapter of Charlotte’s Web ends with Fern naming Wilbur; the final chapter concludes with Wilbur naming Charlotte’s children (Joy, Aranea, and Nellie). One  aspect of White’s literary brilliance was to be able to create this subjectivity without being at all patronizing. Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton (the rat), the geese, all become our moral equals without fuss. Stuart is an ordinary member of the Little family—part of the pleasure of the tale derives from how everyone takes for granted that he’s a mouse.

White grew up taking care of farm animals at his family’s home in Mount Vernon, New York. He spent time amidst them each summer when his family retreated to Maine. And he surrounded himself with them—sheep, chickens, pigs, geese—when he and his wife, Katharine, purchased a house and barn near North Brooklin (the barn was the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web). Not surprisingly, then, animals populated his prose, for both children and adults. Here’s a characteristic passage of his writing, from the introduction to One Man’s Meat:

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“One Law”: An Anthem for World Federalism

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, International law, Law and film, Law and literature, Law and music, United Nations on June 10, 2013 at 9:05 pm

In my previous post, I discussed how E. B. White’s Stuart Little put the ideas of world federalist Emery Reves into literary form. Next time, I’ll talk more generally about how White’s view of international law is implicated in his depiction of nature and his approach to English prose style. Today, I’d like to take a brief detour.

You may not know the name Marvin Hamlisch, but you more than likely have heard his music, especially if you enjoy Hollywood or Broadway. He wrote some of the greatest scores for both, from “The Sting” to “A Chorus Line.” As one might have expected of someone who enrolled in The Julliard School at the age of seven, he was one of an exceedingly small group of musicians to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony—such paragons of popular song are known as EGOTs—and he was one of only two musicians to have won all those awards and a Pulitzer. Here is the theme he wrote for the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me”—followed by a recent performance of the song by Radiohead, for readers who may not want to be reminded of the 1970s.

And Hamlisch didn’t just write hits. If you want to get a sense of how important his background music was to the power of American film, try imagining this sequence from Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” about the hapless bank robber Virgil Starkwell, without Hamlisch’s score:

Hamlisch passed away just ten months ago, at the age of 68. Read the rest of this entry »