Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins
Lowell B. Komie Stories
Publication Note: Lowell B. Komie's stories have appeared in various journals, and collected in Lowell B. Komie, The Judge's Chambers (Chicago: American Bar Association, 1983)(Chicago: Academic Chicago Publishers, 1987), The Lawyer's Chambers and Other Stories (Swordfish/Chicago, 1994), and The Night Swimmer: A Man in London and Other Stories (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 1999), along with his non-law related stories. Komie's law-related stories were republished in the Legal Studies Forum (with an introduction by James R. Elkins)(vol. 25, 2001) and then collected in Lowell B. Komie, The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 2005)(with an introduction and reader's guide to the stories by Elkins).
Assigned Law Student Stories:
"Spring," in Lowell B. Komie, The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie 13-21 (Swordfish/Chicago, 2005) [on-line text] ["Spring" was previously published in Lowell B. Komie, The Judge's Chambers and Other Stories 91-100 (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1987). It was originally published in 20 (9) Student Lawyer 32 (May 1992)]
"The Interview," in The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie 1-11 (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 2005) ["The Interview" was originally published in 15 (2) Student Lawyer 22 (1986)" and was first collected in Lowell B. Komie, The Lawyer's Chamber's and Other Stories 17-30 (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 1994) [on-line text]
"The Ice Horse," in Lowell B. Komie, The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie 23-35 (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 2005) ["The Ice Horse" was originally published in 16 (6) Student Lawyer 18 (1988), and first collected in The Lawyer's Chamber's and Other Stories 43-57 (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 1994) [on-line text]
Reading the Komie stories, I am reminded of the lawyer/poet Wallace Stevens's observation that: "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. Perhaps, 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)] Stevens noted in a letter to another correspondent that "my interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. It is not a question of grim reality but of plain reality. The object is of course to purge oneself of anything false." [Wallace Stevens, letter to Bernard Heringman, dated May 3, 1949, in Letters of Wallace Stevens, 635-637, at 636]
And since I've turned to Stevens, I find interesting as well, his comment that he looked for a book (and here, we might substitute story), "as a talisman to take the place of a rabbit's foot: something that guards one in the midst of everything profane." [Wallace Stevens, letter to Barbara Church, dated June 13, 1950, in Letters of Wallace Stevens, 681-683, at 682]. I think Stevens is onto something here.
In what sense are Komie's stories a response to the "profane" world we confront as lawyers?
Law School and Legal Education: Our readings in Lawyers and Literature begin with short stories that deal, in some fashion, with law school and legal education. (One can, I think, read Kafka's parable, "Before the Law," in a rather simplistic/crude way as being for and about the student of law, for those, like you, "who seek admittance to the Law.") Looking back, now, on your law school experience (even before it becomes a matter of memory and codifed ancedotes), what can you say about it? How is it to be described? How will you account for these years? What configuration of incidents and encounters, successes and failures, fears and dreams will you draw upon in the years ahead to tell the story of how you came to and survived law school?
The Story, "Spring: "Spring" | questions | scenes:
The protagonist in the story, "Spring," a student at the University of Michigan Law School, has stopped attending class and is in danger of failing his courses. He has, it seems, started a novel and is thinking about dropping out of law school to work on the novel. What kind of tension or conflict do you find suggested or implied in the opening paragraphs of the story?
Does the story give us any sense about what might be going on with this young man? After he leaves Michigan for Northwestern, he tells us he was "busy trying to find myself." One problem, besides the unfinished novel, is his "uncertainty as to the choice of a profession." He goes on to talk about trying to "exorcise the demons that had plagued me at Michigan." [Lowell B. Komie, The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie 13-21, at 15 (Swordfish/Chicago, 2005)]
The story of those law school days is being told, not as they happen, but by someone looking back. The man, looking back at those law school days, says: "It was so long ago and the scars of memory have annealed over the wound." [Id. at 14] What, if you were to survey your law school experience now, would you speculate as to what might, in the years that will make law school the wisp of memory, be the wounds you will find scarred over by time?
"Every morning at 8:30 we would begin our day by trudging across the Quadrangle from our domintory, Abbott Hall, to the law school. Northwestern's law school was another gothic building with gargoyles built like a cathedral . . . smaller than any of Michigan's" [p. 15]
Abbott Hall, Northwestern University
A Gothic, at the University of Michigan School of Law, Ann Arbor, Michigan
How are we to read "Spring" in light of J.S. Marcus's "Centaurs"?
The Story, "The Interview": "The Interview," in The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie 1-11 (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 2005).
In what sense is Susan Eliofson, in Lowell B. Komie's "The Interview" another version of Kafka's "man from the country" seeking "admittance to the Law"?
The image of the "nun" shows up again in "The Interview," after an odd, first appearance in J.S. Marcus's "Centaurs." ["Centaurs," in J.S. Marcus, The Art of Cartography 17-23 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)]["Centaurs" also appears in Jay Wishingrad (ed.), Legal Fictions: Short Stories about Lawyers and the Law 97-100 (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1992)]["Centaurs"]What is the "nun" doing in this story?
How would you describe Susan Eliofson's life? Her situation?
If "the interview" is a rite de passage, what kind of rite is it? What do you know, from personal experience, about this rite of passage?
If the "centaur" is half one thing and half another, it may be a symbol for what the anthropologist, Victor Turner, referred to as liminality, a phase he associated with rites of passage. We might try to see Komie's stories as studies in liminality.
Consider this rather interesting statement: "Victor Turner's project of symbolic anthropology continues to thrive as an entry point into American literary studies and the cultural criticism it engenders. From liminality to social drama, Turner's concepts have affected and are reshaping many critical practices that inform our approaches to American Literature." ["Literary Call for Papers," Rob Friedman, Department of English, New York Institute of Technology (1999)]
The following notes fromn Murray Stein, In MidLife (Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, 1983) might provide insight into this idea of liminality:
Hermes, the god of boundaries and of traffic over them, of pathways that wander over land and sea, of cultural spaces such as markets and bazaars where ambiguous exhcanges take place, represents a type of consciousness tht exists essentially within transitional time and space. Hermes is the god of transitions, and transitions always move through liminality. [p. 7]
. . . .
The English "liminality" comes from the Latin limen, meaning 'doorway' or 'threshold.' Entering a room or leaving it, one crosses a limen, and whitle there, in this borderline space, one is in liminality . . . . [p. 8]
. . . .
In the state I am calling psychological liminality, a person's sense of identity is hung in suspension. You are no longer fixed to particular mental images and contents of yourself or others. The "I" is caught up in a field it cannot control, whose patterns it does not recognise as "me." While the sense of "I-ness" and some of its continuities remain during liminality, the prevailing feeling is one of alienation, marginality and drift. Critical questions arise as to who and what the "I" is, what it is capable of, where it comes from, where it is going. When the "I" is homeless, as it in liminality, these Gnostic questions ring with considerable urgency, and they quite naturally open into religious areas of thought and feeling that are otherwise closed. [pp. 8-9]
. . . .
In liminality, too, there is an unusual degree of vulnerability to sudden emotional 'drafts' originating wither within or without, to sudden moods and to highly charged images and thoughts, to sudden gains and losses of confidence. Inner ground shifts, and because the base is not firm a person can be easily influenced, pushed, and blown about. A sudden happening will make a more than normally deep impression, like an imprinting. More malleable in liminality than otherwise, a person may carry the effect of such imprintings through the rest of a lifetime. [p. 9]
. . . .
Liminality is created whenever the ego is unable any longer to identify fully with a former self-image, which it had formed by selective attachments to specific internal imagos and embodied in certain roles accepted and performed. It had been embedded in a context created and supported by an archetypal pattern of self-organization, and now, since this matrix has dissolved or borken down, there is a sense of an amputated past and a vague future. Yet while this ego hangs there in suspension, still it remembers the ghost fo a former self, whose home had been furnined with the presence of persons and objects now absent and had been placed ina psychological landscape now bare and uninhabitable without them. There is memory, too, perhaps, of status, of secured supremacny admidst a host of valiant defenders of the real. But now all is different . . . . [p. 11]
. . . .
Liminality, Hermes' home, occurs: when the ego is separated from a fixed sense of who it is and has been, of where it comes from and its history, of where it is going and its future; when the ego floats through ambiguous spaces in a sense of unbounded time, through a territory of unclear boundaries and uncertain edges; when it is disidentified from the inner images that have formely sustained it and given it a sense of purpose. Then, the unconscious is disturbed in its archetypal lawywers, and the Self is constellated to send messages: big dreams, vived and powerful intuitions, fantasies, and synchronistic and symbolic events. The function of these messages is to lead the ego forward, and this guidance hels it to do what it has to do, whether this is to enter liminality further or, later, to emerge out of it. (Hermes . . . leads the soul both into and out of that most radical of symbols of liminality in Greek myth, the underworld.) [p. 22]
. . . .
[Murray Stein goes on to note that in the view of liminality he has been presenting, e.g., in the above quotes], "liminality is viewed as time-bound and clearly limited in duration. But a full discussion of liminality must also see it synchronically, as a permanent dimension or depth of the psyche, a 'layer' that threads through all time and occupies a space in every period of life. At a certain psychological level of things, we are always in liminality, floating and unfixed to identifications, betwixt and between." [p. 47]
The question -- "why do you want to be a lawyer?" -- is asked by both the lawyers at Reavis & Ferris who interview her? Is the question a symbol of some kind? What can you say about such a question? About its use by the lawyers at Reavis & Ferris?
Staking Out a Meaning for the Lives We Live: In thinking about Lowell Komie's stories, consider the following passage from James Boyd White, From Expectation to Experience: Essays on Law & Legal Education 176-177 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999):
[W]hen we ask our students how they imagine their futures, or when we talk to our graduates about what they do, we often hear a . . . note of discouragement or disappointment. One question is why. Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in the commercialization of law practice, by which I mean a professional life in which attention is focused not on the meaning of what the lawyer is actually doing, as a lawyer, so much as upon the market for his services. This in turn reflects a larger reconception of the nature of human life, especially our shared life, as an essentially economic activity . . . . We do oursleves a disservice when we allow the economic feature of our experience, and language to dominate others; in particular we erode our capacity to meet the need that public life and the professions partly exist to satisfy, the need to claim adequate meaning for our shared existence.
Finding a Language to Talk About What We Read: As a reader I'm always looking for ways to think and talk about (more basically, to simply describe) what I read. I was pleased to find, while reading Komie's stories, the following statement about the stories of Deborah Eisenberg collected in Twilight of the Superheroes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006):
If it's our foolish instinct to long for a world where we're kept safe, where someone might swoop in to protect us, it's the role of a writer as shrewd as Eisenberg to reveal how perilous that desire can be. She suffuses her work with enough disappointment and loss to overwhelm readers looking for sunnier stories. but for those who like to leap past the defenses and see a character's fragile, fearful side--for those who enjoy their fiction grimly existential, however slippery it might be to pin down--Eisenberg is as brave a guide as there is.
It's sobering, after reading her stories, to return to a life where secrets can be kept and feelings hidden. In some futuristic world, perhaps people will be fitted with devices that can penetrate their defenses, diving and broadcasting their deepest thoughts and fears. Until then, Eisenberg has given us these remarkable stories, machines of perfect revelation deftly constructed by a contemporary master. [Ben Marcus, Enigma Machines (reviewing Eisenberg's The Twilight of the Superheroes), NY Times Book Review, p. 10 (February 12, 2006)]
Marcus comes rather close, in my reading of Komie's stories, to be talking about Komie as well as he is Deborah Eisenberg.
A Meditation on Home: A speculative observation: You can read the fiction assigned in "Lawyers and Literature" as if it were a meditation on home--having one, or not, getting away from home, returning home, finding a place for yourself in the world that might feel like home, carrying a sense of home around with you, the person you are at home vs. the person you are at the office.
This idea of "home" is certainly a feature of Lowell Komie's fiction, although we rarely see his lawyer characters at home in the most literal sense. We might, with Komie, see his lawyers as struggling to find some sense of home away from home in the work they do.
We get this "sense of home" problem explored in the philosophical/existential sense in Walker Percy's fiction, and particularly, in his novel, The Second Coming. |
Lawyers and Their Affinity for Painting and Art: The lawyer/narrator's of Lowell Komie's stories are sometimes involved with paintings (or an art museum)(as well as drama and literature). What, one might wonder, are we to make of the art we find in Komie's stories? See: Essay on Art in the Komie Stories.
A Short Story Inspired by Komie's Stories: Ruthann Robson, The Satisfactions of Kimberly Bascomb: An Intervention into the World of Lowell Komie's Fictional Women Lawyers, 31 Legal Stud. F. 835 (2007) [on-line text]
Commentary on the Lowell B. Komie Stories: | Illuminating the Dark: The Stories of Lowell B. Komie and the Pursuit of Meaningful Work | Feathered and Unfeathered Hope: The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie | Corruption and Resignation in the Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie | Gender, Insider-Outsiders, and Justice in the Stories of Lowell B. Komie | Reading Lowell Komie |
Reading Komie, see Meditations on the Odd Lives We Live
After Hours Interview: Lowell B. Komie
Conversation with Norbert Blei
After Hours: A Journal of Chicago Writing
and Art (Summer, 2003)(Issue #7)(republished in
the Legal Studies Forum)
Lowell B. Komie of Chicago--Writer and Lawyer
Introduction to Komie's stories
Komie is also the author of several novels including:
The Last Jewish Shortstop in America (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 1998)
1998 Small Press Award for Fiction
Coversations with the Dancing Ballerina (Chicago: Swordfish/ Chicago, 2001)
A footnote or two to read (with Komie's stories):
[an essay on writers, by former West Virginia native, Jayne Anne Phillips]
A concluding note: "[W]hen we ask our students how they imagine their futures, or when we talk to our graduates about what they do, we often hear a . . . note of discouragement or disappointment. One question is why. Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in the commercialization of law practice, by which I mean a professional life in which attention is focused not on the meaning of what the lawyer is actually doing, as a lawyer, so much as upon the market for his services. This in turn reflects a larger reconception of the nature of human life, especially our shared life, as an essentially economic activity . . . . We do oursleves a disservice when we allow the economic feature of our experience, and language to dominate others; in particular we erode our capacity to meet the need that public life and the professions partly exist to satisfy, the need to claim adequate meaning for our shared existence." James Boyd White, From Expectation to Experience: Essays on Law & Legal Education 176-77 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999)
a video footnote: Lowell Komie Talking About a Trip to The Netherlands [YouTube video; 3:23 mins.]
[Komie Talking About Paris & Amerstdam] [3:42 min.]