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Book Note: Poetic Justice and Legal Fictions, by Jonathan Kertzer

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Writing on September 28, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following excerpt first appeared as part of the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies series.

This book is a compilation of literary essays that at first blush seem to have no through line save for an attention to law in the abstract.  Nevertheless, each chapter is connected by the theme of justice and the relation of language to both law and literature.

Á la Flaubert, the book treats justice as the supreme literary value, and it distinguishes between the justice of literature and the literariness of justice.  Language has its own jurisdiction and can be used judiciously, and the author seems to believe that signifiers can represent the phenomenal world in ways that have a practical bearing in law.  By the same token, language itself is regulated by laws even as it enacts laws.  The author discusses literary justice as a poetic expression of the material world.

The phrase “poetic justice” refers to the possibility that poetry might offer something better than truth in order to bring about justice; the truly poetic is just.  Genre and jurisdiction resemble one another in their conceptual claims to authority or law.

Beginning with judicial discourse in comedies, more specifically with the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the book moves through Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Disgrace, Huckleberry Finn, The African Queen, Billy Budd, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Anil’s Ghost, and other works.  The book therefore does not limit itself to discussion of a particular historical period, a fixed geography, or a specific genre.  Rather, it weaves together a wide range of novelists, theorists, and historical figures, many of whom are unlikely to be categorized together were it not for their interests (some longstanding, some fleeting) in law.

What allows the book to read as a unified whole is its analysis at the intersections of justice, law, and literary forms.

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