Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins
J. S. Marcus
"Centaurs""Centaurs," in J.S. Marcus, The Art of Cartography 17-23 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) [reprinted in Jay Wishingrad (ed.), Legal Fictions: Short Stories about Lawyers and the Law 97-100 (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1992)]
Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1897)
[Image used with permission of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology]
In “Centaurs” we have an observer par excellence in Shelia. Shelia is a law student who offers us a glimpse of her view of law school, and of her law school social life. There’s nothing really devious or wretched or evil in this world. What we find is a world, both zany and odd, a world where things are a bit off kilter; it feels like walking into a room in which the art on the walls doesn’t hang straight. This is the world—according to Sheila, the protagonist of the story—where:
— “The smartest man” in her law school class tells her “he wanted to be an actor.” (Later, we learn that Sheila, had “wanted to be an actress” but is now toying “with the idea of becoming a chief executive officer.”)
— Another student, “[a] man from Yale who wants to go into entertainment law” takes Shelia out to dinner, talks about his work in television, and when they get back to his apartment, and get undressed, says, “Do it to me, sweetie.” Back at law school when they see each other, Sheila says “he acts as if we were once partners in some sort of class project.” Sheila goes on to observe that, “People in law school, like people in general, try to be pleasant, and like people in general they often fail.”
— Shelia and her fellow students go to parties and to a tea at the Dean’s house. Some of the parties, Sheila claims, were “mandatory.” There’s something odd here—“a mandatory law-school party”—“a mandatory tea at the Dean’s house”—a class at the Jurisprudence professor’s house that is really just a pretext for a party.
— And then, there’s the editor of the law review. She lives across the street from Sheila, and sometimes “has dinner parties and drinks a lot of Scotch.” More intriguing perhaps, she’s a former nun who “wears hiking boots and smokes mentholated cigarettes. After she left the convent, and before she entered law school, she worked at the men’s cologne counter of a large department store.” Shelia muses that the former nun must be forty-five, and imagines her “a rosary in one hand, a Budweiser in the other; half saint, half goat.”
— The problem with law school, according to Shelia, is that “you can feel boredom go from the benign to the malignant. You can see people run around with a quarter of a tuna-salad sandwich in their briefcase and argue about mink farms.” Shelia has mink farms on her mind because of a case or perhaps it was a a law teacher's hypothetical she picked up from one of her classes: “If some man—say X—runs a mink farm, and another, Y, is exploding dynamite next door, Y does not have to pay X in the event the mink eat their kittens from the shock of the explosion. It’s the law.”
— Sheila says she has “a private life but not a personal one.” Unlike the former nun, now an editor on the law review, Sheila smokes Dunhill cigarettes, “put[s] unwhipped cream on things, and read[s] early Evelyn Waugh novels. In private, I’m English.”
— Sheila’s getting through law school by “inertia” taking her cues for action from her law professors. “I don’t move much. I wait for a professor to intimidate me into the subject at hand: arson, divorce, whatever.”
Surrounded by quirkiness—her own and that of others—nothing is quite as it appears, fellow students are becoming lawyers but dream of becoming something else, Shelia delivers these closing thoughts: “Transformations, sublimations, things becoming other things. Yesterday, I had a Reuben potato—certainly the centaur of modern delicatessen food. Prodding the melted cheese for some trace of Russian dressing, I tried to recall if any of the law-school parties so far had been catered. I am becoming a lawyer.”
What a strange, and at the same time, ordinary world Sheila describes: people becoming lawyers when they most want to be actors, private failures made public because they can be disguised but not hidden, personal lives built around the Malpractice party and the White-Collar Crime party, and the mandatory tea at the Dean’s house. We have stepped, in this story, across the threshold into a world—laconic, sardonic, ironic—as Sheila says, "a world of transformations, sublimations, things becoming other things.” This ordinary world, and as it happens, a mythic world inhabited by the centaur, that race of human/animal, fabled half-man and half-horse, dweller in the mountains of Thessaly.
For a somewhat more sinister reading of the law school world and a student's "identity crisis," consider Patricia Willams' commentary on her days at Harvard:
My abiding recollection of being a student at Harvard Law School is the sense of being invisible. I spent three years wandering in a murk of unreality. I observed large, mostly male bodies assert themselves against one another like football players caught in the gauzy mist of intellectual slow motion. I stood my ground amid them, watching them deflect from me, unconsciously, politely, as if I were a pillar in a crowded corridor. Law school was for me like being on another planet, full of alienated creatures with whom I could make little connection. The school created a dense atmosphere that muted my voice to inaudibility. All I could do to communicate my existence was to posit carefully worded messages into hermetically sealed, vacuum-packed blue books, place them on the waves of that foreign sea, and pray that they would be plucked up by some curious seeker and understood.
Perhaps there were others who felt what I felt. Perhaps we were all aliens, all silenced by the dense atmosphere. Thinking that made me feel, ironically, less isolated. It was not merely that I was black and female, but a circumstance external to myself that I, and the collective, could not help internalizing.
When I became a law professor, I found myself on yet another planet: a planet with a sun as strong as a spotlight and an atmosphere so thin that my slightest murmur would travel for miles, skimming from ear to ear to ear, merrily distorting and refracting as it went. Again I comforted myself that my sense of alienation and now-heightened visibility were not inherent to my blackness and my femaleness, but an uncomfortable atmospheric condition afflicting everyone. But at the gyroscopic heart of me, there was and is a deep realization that I have never left the planet earth. I know that my feelings of exaggerated visibility and invisibility are the product of my not being part of the larger cultural picture. I know too that the larger cultural picture is an illusion, albeit a powerful one, concocted from a perceptual consensus to which I am not a party; and that while these perceptions operate as dictators of truth, they are after all merely perceptions.
Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor 55-56 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991)
Biographical Note - Patricia Williams: Recipient of the Prestigious MacArthur Award
The author of "Centaurs" is not a lawyer. Does it matter, in any significant way, that J.S. Marcus is not a lawyer? When we read a story, do we need to know anything about the author? See Daniel J. Kornstein, Mark Twain’s Evidence: The Never-Ending Riverboat Debate, 72 Tenn. L. Rev. 1, 2-3 (2004):
The premise of intellectual biography is that the life illuminates the work, but this premise is not universally accepted. It is, in fact, rather controversial. One school of literary thought, which lists Flaubert, Proust, and the New Critics among its members, thinks that biography is irrelevant when interpreting the literary work. Instead, the work yields its meaning through close reading. According to this school, only the author's work counts, not the author. The author must make posterity believe that he or she never existed.
A competing school disagrees and finds it difficult to separate the work from the life. After all, a writer writes from his whole life experience, and the world wants to know how poems, stories, paintings, music, and great plays come into being. . . . If the number and length of today's literary biographies are any guide, readers want to link books to their authors by penetrating authors' lives.
The pendulum swings back and forth between critical focus on "work" and "life."
Epilogue1: “Things happen and, in the process, stuff gets noticed. That’s what I like: books in which the writer notices stuff and does so in a tone that, for one reason or another, I take to.” [Geoff Dyer, [untitled commentary], A Symposium on Plot, 26 (4) Three Penny Rev. 16, 18 (2005)]
Epilogue2: "Every now and then one comes across some really powerful character in an out of the way place. I mean a really powerful character who writes, or paints, or walks up and down and thinks, like some overwhelming animal in a corner of the zoo. Personally, I feel terribly in need of encountering some such character." –Wallace Stevens, letter to Henry Church, dated November 20, 1945, in Holly Stevens (ed.), Letters of Wallace Stevens 517-518 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)(1966)] [Wallace Stevens was an insurance company lawyer and executive, and a poet]
Satyrs: With Sheila's image of the nun who is now editor of the law review: "a rosary in one hand, a Budweiser in the other; half saint, half goat," we are reminded of the Greek god, Pan, the satyr.
Mara L. Pratt, Myths of Old Greece (New York: Educational Publishing Company, 1896)
[Image used with permission of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology]
In The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy we learn that satyrs were famous for their drinking, and thus their companionship with Dionysus, and for chasing nymphs. "By extension, a 'satyr' is a lecherous male." We find the "lecherous male" writ large in one of the assigned Lowell B. Komie stories, "The Ice Horse," in Lowell B. Komie, The Fiction of Lowell B. Komie 23-35 (Chicago: Swordfish Chicago, 2005) [25 Legal Stud. F. 29 (2001)] [online text]