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John William Corrington on Intuition and Intellect

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 17, 2018 at 6:45 am

In my edition of John William Corrington’s essays, I assembled Corrington’s unpublished notes and sections of his unpublished lectures from the early 1970s that he maintained in one document.  Because of the subject matter, I titled this section “Intuition-Intellect.”

This material demonstrates the shift in Corrington’s interests in poetry as a craft to more philosophical concerns that were influenced by poetry, or mythopoetics. His discussion of myth and his references to Eric Voegelin in these notes suggests that he had just begun to read Voegelin and to explore Gnosticism and myth criticism.

Corrington questions here the relationship between science and philosophy and hypothesizes about how the truths generated by science become mythologized to satisfy certain human desires. He proposes that science itself has a “mythic” character and claims that “the aftermath of every significant act of science is its mythologization.” Corrington speculates whether myth is inevitable because it fulfills something basic or instinctive in human nature.

Science amasses data for their predictive value, but asking what these data mean is the beginning of myth, which, properly understood, is another form of understanding and articulating truths about the world. However, myth can also, Corrington claims, have destructive implications at odds with truth. He warns about mismanaging myth, giving such examples as Nazism, Marxism, and free enterprise: ideological constructs that rely on abstract myth narratives to stamp out opposition.

Corrington critiques the scientism that has developed since the Enlightenment because he considers its emphasis on empiricism and rationalism to mask its role in formulating mythic patterns or archetypes for governing the phenomenal world, including the human social order. These patterns or archetypes, despite their mythic nature, are taken as authoritative and valid because they are conflated with or understood as scientific truth; in this manner they are assumed to be separate and apart from myth when in fact they constitute myth.  They are dangerous because they are presumed to be scientific truth subject to certain and definite application when in fact they represent mythopoetic urges to satisfy innate and instinctual human impulses.

Corrington transitions from this discussion of myth and science into a discussion of twentieth-century poetry and its “overintellectualization,” as evidenced by the implementation of supposedly scientific approaches to the study of poetry. Corrington considers the New Criticism to represent such a scientific approach to poetry.

The turn to reason and science, Corrington suggests, has destroyed the aesthetics of poetry just as it has destroyed human civilizations in the sociopolitical context. In both contexts there has been, he believes, a failure to realize the distinction between science and the mythologization of science, a failure that has led certain groups to mistake what is unreasonable and irrational for absolute reason and rationality, to believe, that is, that what is merely a pattern or archetype—a human construct—is something given and definite even apart from human knowledge of it. Those who fail to understand the distinction between science and the mythologization of science embrace a potentially destructive psychic system that mistakes science for its opposite. This essay shows that, as Corrington begins to transition away from the writing of poetry, he is also trying to integrate his interest in poetry with his growing interest in philosophy.

The exact date of this Corrington material is unknown; however, certain references suggest that Corrington wrote these notes in or around 1971. For example, he mentions a “new” album by the Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, which came out in 1971. It is possible that part of this material comes from a lecture that Corrington gave to the South-Central Modern Language Association in 1968. That lecture was titled “Cassirer’s Curse, Keats’s Urn, and the Poem Before the Poem.” Some of the material may have come from the National Science Foundation Lecture that Corrington titled “Science and the Humanities” and delivered at Louisiana State University in 1966. Corrington began the essay with four discursive notes under the heading “Statements and Questions.” Because the ideas in these notes are more fully developed in the text proper, I have moved them to the end of the essay.

“Intuition-Intellect” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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Who Was John William Corrington?

In America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Poetry, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on October 10, 2018 at 6:45 am

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Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 28, 1932, John William Corrington—or Bill, as his friends and family called him—claimed on his academic CV that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee.  Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school in Louisiana but was expelled for “having the wrong attitude.” The Jesuit influence would remain with him as he explored in his scholarly pursuits certain forms of Catholic mysticism as well as the teachings of the ancient Gnostics.

Bill loved the South and Southern literature and during his career authored or edited, or in some cases co-edited, twenty books of varying genres.  He earned a B.A. from Centenary College and M.A. in Renaissance literature from Rice University, where he met his wife, Joyce, whom he married on February 6, 1960. In September of that year, he and Joyce moved to Baton Rouge, where he became an instructor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University (LSU). At that time, LSU’s English department was known above all for The Southern Review (TSR), the brainchild of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, but also for such literary luminaries as Robert Heilman, who would become Bill’s friend.

In the early 1960s, Bill pushed for TSR to feature fiction and poetry and not just literary criticism. He butted heads with then-editors Donald E. Stanford and Lewis P. Simpson. A year after joining the LSU faculty, he published his first book of poetry, Where We Are. With only 18 poems and 225 first edition printings, the book hardly established his reputation as a Southern man of letters. But it gave his name instant recognition and inspired his confidence to complete his first novel, And Wait for the Night (1964).

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Bill and Joyce spent the 1963-64 academic year in Sussex, England, where Bill took his D.Phil. from the University of Sussex in 1965, writing his dissertation on James Joyce. In the summer of 1966, at a conference at Northwestern State College, Mel Bradford, a Southern conservative English professor, pulled Bill aside and told him that And Wait for the Night (1964) shared some of the themes and approaches of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished.  Bill agreed, happily.

Of Bill and Miller Williams, Bill’s colleague at LSU, Jo LeCoeur, poet and literature professor, once stated, “Both men had run into a Northern bias against what was perceived as the culturally backward South.  While at LSU they fought back against this snub, editing two anthologies of Southern writing and lecturing on ‘The Dominance of Southern Writers.’  Controversial as a refutation of the anti-intellectual Southern stereotype, their joint lecture was so popular [that] the two took it on the road to area colleges.”

In 1966, Bill and Joyce moved to New Orleans, where the English Department at Loyola University, housed in a grand Victorian mansion on St. Charles Avenue, offered him a chairmanship. Joyce earned her M.S. in chemistry from LSU that same year. By this time, Bill had written four additional books of poetry, the last of which, Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965), benefited from Charles Bukowski’s friendship and influence. Bill’s poetry earned a few favorable reviews but not as much attention as his novels—And Wait for the Night (1964), The Upper Hand (1967), and The Bombardier (1970). Writing in The Massachusetts Review, Beat poet and critic Josephine Miles approvingly noted two of Bill’s poems from Lines, “Lucifer Means Light” and “Algerien Reveur,” alongside poetry by James Dickey. Dickey himself admired Bill’s writing, saying, “A more forthright, bold, adventurous writer than John William Corrington would be very hard to find.”

Joyce earned her PhD in chemistry from Tulane in 1968.  Her thesis, which she wrote under the direction of L. C. Cusachs, was titled, “Effects of Neighboring Atoms in Molecular Orbital Theory.” She began teaching chemistry at Xavier University; her knowledge of the hard sciences brought about engaging conservations, between her and Bill, about the New Physics. “Even though Bill only passed high school algebra,” Joyce would later say, “his grounding in Platonic idealism made him more capable of understanding the implications of quantum theory than many with more adequate educations.”

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Bill became increasingly disenchanted with what he perceived to be radical campus politics, so he entered law school at Tulane University, graduating in 1975 and, with Joyce, coauthoring the screenplay for Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) while he was still a law student. By the time he graduated from law school, he had penned three novels, a short story collection, two editions (anthologies), and four books of poetry. But his writings earned him little money despite their sales figures.

Bill joined the law firm of Plotkin & Bradley, a small personal injury practice in New Orleans, and continued to publish in such journals as The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review, and in such conservative periodicals as The Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age.  His stories took on a legal bent, peopled as they were with judges and attorneys. But neither law nor legal fiction brought him the fame or fortune he desired.

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So he turned to screenplays—and, at last, earned the profits he sought. Viewers of the recent film I am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith, might be surprised to learn that Bill and Joyce wrote the screenplay for the earlier version, Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston.  And viewers of the recent Battle for the Planet of the Apes films, the latest of which is currently in theaters, might be surprised to learn that Bill co-wrote the film’s original screenplay. All told, Bill and Joyce wrote five screenplays and one television movie together. Bill collaborated with Joyce on various television soap operas as well, among them Search for TomorrowAnother WorldTexasCapitolOne Life to LiveSuperior Court, and General Hospital.  These ventures gained the favor of Hollywood stars, and Bill and Joyce eventually moved to Malibu.

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By the mid-70s, Bill, who preferred deep learning and philosophy to the popular writing that was earning him a comfortable living, had become fascinated by Eric Voegelin. A German historian, philosopher, and émigré who had fled the Third Reich, Voegelin taught in LSU’s history department and lectured for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he was a Salvatori Fellow. Voegelin’s philosophy inspired Bill and gave Bill a research focus and writing subject for the hours when he was not writing for film or television. In fact, Voegelin made such a lasting impression that, at the time of Bill’s death, Bill was working on an edition of Voegelin’s The Nature of the Law and Related Legal Writings. (After Bill’s death, two men—Robert Anthony Pascal and James Lee Babin—finished what Bill had begun. The completed edition appeared in 1991.)

Bill constantly molded and remolded his image, embracing Southern signifiers while altering their various expressions.  His early photos suggest a pensive, put-together gentleman wearing ties and sport coats and smoking pipes.  Later photos depict a rugged man clad in western wear. Still later photos conjure up the likes of Roy Orbison, what with Bill’s greased hair, cigarettes, and dark sunglasses.

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Whatever his looks, Bill was a stark, provocative, and profoundly sensitive writer. His impressive oeuvre has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves. There are no doubt many aspects of Bill’s life and literature left to be discovered.  As Bill’s friend William Mills put it, “I believe there is a critique of modernity throughout [Bill’s] writing that will continue to deserve serious attentiveness and response.”

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, Bill suffered a heart attack and died. He was 56. His last words were, “it’s all right.” An introduction to his life’s work is both timely and necessary; this proposed manuscript will fill a gap in scholarship in addition to surveying the works of a man who was so important to the literary scene of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, this manuscript will make a scholarly contribution even as it serves as a basic introduction to Corrington’s writing and career.

This manuscript, moreover, will have the added benefit of being the first book-length exposition of Corrington’s oeuvre and will place his fiction and poetry into historical context. The manuscript will consist of approximately 58,000 to 60,000 words, including bibliography and front matter. It will include both primary and secondary bibliographies. More detailed information about the specific plan of the book may be found below. Here, in conclusion, is a list of Corrington’s most notable works:

 

Where We Are (Poetry), The Charioteer Press, Washington,

  1. C., 1962. Hardback and paperback.

 

The Anatomy of Love and Other Poems (Poetry), Roman Books,

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 1964.  Hardback and paperback.

 

Mr. Clean and Other Poems (Poetry), Amber House Press, San

Francisco, California, 1964.

 

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And Wait for the Night (Novel),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1964;

Anthony Blond, Ltd., London, 1964;

Pocket Books, Inc., New York, N. Y., 1965;

Panther Books, Ltd., London, 1967.

 

Lines to the South and Other Poems (Poetry), Louisiana State

University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1965.

 

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Southern Writing in the Sixties: Fiction (Anthology), ed.

with Miller Williams, Louisiana State University Press,

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1966. Hardback and paperback.

 

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Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry (Anthology), ed.

with Miller Williams, Louisiana State University Press,

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1967. Hardback and paperback.

 

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The Upper Hand (Novel),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1967;

Anthony Blond, Ltd., London, 1968;

Berkeley Books, New York, N. Y., 1968;

Panther Books, London, 1969.

 

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The Lonesome Traveler and Other Stories (Short Fiction),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1968.

 

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The Bombardier (Novel),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1970;

Lancer Books, New York, N. Y., 1972.

 

The Actes and Monuments (Short Fiction), University of

Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1978. Hardback and paperback.

 

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The Southern Reporter Stories (Short Fiction),

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge,

Louisiana, 1981.

 

 

Shad Sentell (Novel),

Congdon & Weed, Inc., New York, N. Y., 1984;

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(Shad) Macmillan, London, 1984;

(Shad) Grafton Books, London, 1986.

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So Small a Carnival, (Novel, with Joyce H. Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1986;

Ballantine Books, New York, 1987;

(Karneval med doden) Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck

A/S, Kobenhavn, Denmark, 1988;

Hayakawa Publishing, Inc, Japan, 1988;

(New Orleans Carneval) Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munchen,

Germany, 1988;

(Carnaval de Sangue) Editora Best Seller, Sao Paulo,

Brazil, 1988;

Mysterious Press, London, UK, 1989;

(Carnaval de Sangue) Editora Nova Cultural Ltda., Sao

Paulo, Brazil, 1990.

 

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A Project Named Desire, (Novel, with Joyce H. Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1987;

(Das Desire-Projekt) Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munchen,

Germany, 1987;

 

Ballantine Books, New York, 1988;

(Dannys sidste sang) Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck,

Kobenhavn, Denmark, 1988;

Hayakawa Publishing, Inc., Japan, 1988;

(Una Canzone Per Morire) Arnoldo Mondadori Editore

S.p.A., Milano, Italy;

(Um Projecto Chamado Desejo) Editora Nova Cultural

Ltda., Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1990;

(Um Projecto Chamado Desejo) Circulo do Livro, Sao

Paulo, Brazil, 1990;

(Um Projecto Chamado Desejo) Editora Best Seller, Sao

Paulo, Brazil, 1990.

 

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A Civil Death, (Novel, with Joyce H. Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1987;

(Begrabnis Erster Klasse) Wilhelm Heyne Verlag,

Munchen, Germany, 1988;

Ballantine Books, New York, 1989;

Hayakawa Publishing, Inc., Japan, 1989;

(Finche Odio Ci Separi) Arnoldo Mondadori Editore

S.p.A., Milano, Italy, 1989.

 

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All My Trials, (2 Short Novels, “Decoration Day” and “The

Risi’s Wife”), University of Arkansas Press,

Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1987. Hardback and paperback.

 

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The White Zone, (Novel with Joyce Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1990.

 

 

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The Collected Stories of John William Corrington, ed. by

Joyce Corrington, University of Missouri Press,

Columbia, Missouri, 1990.

 

The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 27, The Nature

    of the Law, and Related Legal Writings, ed. with Robert

Anthony Pascal, James Lee Babin, Louisiana State

University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1991.

John William Corrington’s Credo for Poets

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on October 3, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington’s essay “A Poet’s Credo” appeared in the journal Midwest in 1961. In it, Corrington writes that over the course of the twentieth century, poetry gradually became less “intellectual,” a view he purports to share with Norman Mailer. Corrington decries as “love drivel” much of the poetry from the sixteenth to the twentieth century but considers the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century to have been a renaissance for poetry that is now in decline, with the notable exception of the poetry of Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Corrington writes against the mass proliferation of quarterly journals that, he says, has resulted in the publication of more and more bad poetry. Corrington expresses appreciation for poets like Auden, Eliot, and Pound, but wishes there were more room in anthologies for writers like Bukowski, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, who, he says, represent “the new vision, the new lightning that is shaking on the west coast and in New Orleans, in New York and along the tidewater.”

Corrington is not against modernist poets like W. H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound; rather, he is against those who continue to imitate or copy these figures. What Corrington prizes in poetry is originality, which he considers to be lacking in the industry of literary periodicals in no small part because the editors of such periodicals publish only poems that copy the poetry of an earlier age rather than staking out new territory.

Corrington calls this essay a “credo,” perhaps because of the incantatory rhythms of the essay in addition to the statement of his belief that lasting poetry is, paradoxically, that which seems new.

This essay is remarkable for revealing Corrington’s early affiliation with Beat writers. Early in his career Corrington was known as a poet and interested mostly in poetry. Later in life he began to retreat from poetry as he grew more interested in philosophy, specifically in the thinking of Eric Voegelin and Gnosticism.

“A Poet’s Credo” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington on the Uses of History and the Meaning of Fiction

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Writing on September 26, 2018 at 6:45 am

In 1966, John William Corrington delivered a lecture titled “The Uses of History and the Meaning of Fiction” as part of a discussion series created by the National Defense Education Act.

Corrington used the occasion to attack what he dubbed “realism” and to decry the use of verisimilitude in fiction. Corrington focuses on “dialogue” and suggests that, although his fiction is praised above all for its dialogue, the dialect spoken by his characters does not actually exist. He developed what he calls “synthetic speech,” a mix of Southern or Appalachian dialect coupled with African-American dialect.

Corrington surveys several “canonical” writers in his lecture for the way in which they employed dialogue and speech in their work, i.e., whether they were after the sounds that are actually spoken or some form of manufactured speech that served the rhetorical function of fiction.

Corrington believed that writers ought to strike a balance between actual and imaginary speech.

Although primarily a commentary on craft, this lecture reveals elements of Corrington’s traditionalism. His use of such phrases as “the best literature in the Western world” indicates his abiding conservatism and his belief in a literary canon characterized by fixed and unchanging aesthetic standards.

“The Uses of History and the Meaning of Fiction” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington on the Mystery of Writing

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Creativity, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on September 19, 2018 at 6:45 am

In 1985, John William Corrington delivered a lecture (“The Mystery of Writing”) at the Northwest Louisiana Writer’s Conference in Shreveport, Louisiana, his hometown. The lecture is part memoir, part commentary on writing as a craft.

Corrington explained in his lecture that he wanted to be a musician before he wanted to be a writer. He discusses his education at Centenary College and the state of popular literature at the time. He explains that he left academia because he felt disenfranchised politically in the academy, thus causing him to enter law school.

The lecture demonstrates that Corrington saw himself as a Southern author who bemoaned the state of current popular writing. He notes how his popular writing for film and television earned him money though his literary writing—novels and poetry—was not profitable.

Although he wrote for film and television, Corrington disdained those media forms and felt they did not challenge viewers intellectually, at least not in the way that literature challenged readers.

Corrington’s conservatism is evident in his emphasis on a discernible literary tradition and his disgust for the technologies that made possible his own career. His advice for his audience is that they write about what they know, just as he writes about the South; therefore, he advises his audience not to become professional writers, but to find other employment as a source for writing. His discussion of good writing as an ongoing investigation of perennial themes calls to mind the controversial notion of the literary canon as developed by Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom, John Ellis, and E. D. Hirsch.

“The Mystery of Writing” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Review of Paul Finkelman’s “Supreme Injustice”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Dred Scott, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Laws of Slavery, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Writing on August 8, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Paul Finkelman is an anomaly: a historian with no law degree who’s held chairs or fellowships at numerous law schools, testified as an expert witness in high-profile cases, and filed amicus briefs with several courts. Federal appellate judges, including justices on the United States Supreme Court, have cited his work. Liberal arts professors anxious about the state and fate of their discipline might look to him to demonstrate the practical relevance of the humanities to everyday society.

Finkelman specializes in American legal history, slavery and the law, constitutional law, and race and the law. His new book, Supreme Injustice, tells the story of three United States Supreme Court Justices — John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Roger B. Taney — and their “slavery jurisprudence.” Each of these men, Finkelman argues, differed in background and methodology but shared the belief that antislavery agitation undermined the legal and political structures instituted by the Constitution. Had they aligned their operative principles with the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, liberty rather than racism and oppression might have defined antebellum America.

Finkelman insists that the legacy of Marshall, Story, and Taney had enormous implications for the state of the nation, strengthening the institutions of slavery and embedding in the law a systemic hostility to fundamental freedom and basic justice. These are strong allegations, attributed to only three individuals. Yet the evidence adds up.

Start with Marshall, a perennially celebrated figure who, unlike many of his generation, in particular his occasional nemesis Thomas Jefferson, has escaped scrutiny on matters of race and slavery. Finkelman submits that scholarship on Marshall is “universally admiring” — an overstatement perhaps, but one that underscores the prevalence of the mythology Finkelman hopes to dispel.

Finkelman emphasizes Marshall’s “personal ties to slavery” and “considerable commitment to owning other human beings.” He combs through numerous records and presents ample data to establish that Marshall, a life member of the American Colonization Society, “actively participated in slavery on a very personal level.” Finkelman then turns to Marshall’s votes and opinions in cases, several of which challenged state laws and rulings that freed slaves. In fact, Marshall would go so far as to overturn the verdicts of white Southern jurors and the judgments of white Southern judges who, in freedom suits, sided with slaves and against masters.

Marshall could be an ardent nationalist attempting to effectuate the supremacy of federal law. One is therefore tempted to attribute his rulings against state laws in cases about slavery to his longstanding desire to centralize federal power. But that is only part of the story. Finkelman brings to light exceptions, including when Marshall selectively deferred to state law if doing so meant that slaves remained the property of their masters. Finkelman highlights these decisions to show that Marshall was hypocritical, compromising his otherwise plenary nationalism to ensure that contractual and property arrangements regarding slaves were protected by law.

Story was also a nationalist, having evolved from Jeffersonianism to anti-Jeffersonianism and eventually becoming Marshall’s jurisprudential adjunct. Unlike Marshall, however, Story could sound “like a full-blown abolitionist.” His opinion in United States v. La Jeune Eugenie (1822) was “an antislavery tour de force,” decrying slavery and the slave trade as “repugnant to the natural rights of man and the dictates of judges.”

Yet he prioritized radical nationalism over the rights of humans in bondage. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), writing for the Court, he deemed unconstitutional a state ban on the extradition of blacks out of Pennsylvania for purposes of slavery. Story jumped at the chance to pronounce the primacy of federal law over state law even if it meant employing the Supremacy Clause to validate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. “A justice who had once thought slavery was deeply immoral,” Finkelman bemoans,

rewrote history, misstated precedents, and made up new constitutional doctrine to nationalize southern slave law and impose it on the entire nation. The decision jeopardized the liberty of every black in the North, whether free or fugitive. The injustice of this opinion was profound.

Author of the notorious Dred Scott opinion, Taney is the most predictable of Finkelman’s targets. By the end of the Civil War, he was vehemently denounced and widely despised. Progressives in the early 20th century, most notably Felix Frankfurter, rehabilitated his reputation in part because progressive economic policy during that era promoted Taney’s approach to states’ rights and political decentralization. The mood has changed; most historians now probably agree that Taney “aggressively protected slavery” and “made war on free blacks.” Few law professors would recall Taney’s “early ambivalence about slavery and his defense of the Reverend Jacob Gruber,” who was arrested for sermonizing against slavery at a Methodist camp meeting and subsequently charged with inciting slave rebellion. Finkelman’s chapter on Taney thus runs with the grain, not against it.

At times Finkelman exaggerates or wishfully portrays the role of judges. He asserts that, prior to the Civil War, courts rather than Congress or the executive had “room for protecting the liberty of free blacks, liberating some slaves, providing due process for alleged fugitive slaves, enforcing the federal suppression of the African slave trade, or preventing slavery from being established in federal territories.” This claim may hold up in some of the cases Finkelman discusses (e.g., LaGrange v. Choteau [1830], in which Marshall declined the opportunity to enforce federal law that could have freed a slave who had traveled into free territory), but not in all of them. If a judge were faced with a problem of statutory construction, he (there were only male judges then) could have asked what the language of the statute meant, how it applied to the concrete facts and material rules before him, and whether it was constitutional, but anything more would have arguably exceeded the scope of his office.

The Constitution was silent about slavery until the Civil War Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Prior to them, any attempt to render slavery unconstitutional would have required appeals to natural law, natural rights, or other like doctrines that appear in the Constitution only in spirit, not in letter. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed the Constitution was affirmatively proslavery, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” If this is true, then when judges swear an oath to defend the Constitution (the basic framework of government with which all other laws in the United States must comport), they are also inadvertently vowing to defend the institution of slavery — unless the law is more than what statutes and the Constitution provide, in which case these judges could reach beyond the positive law to principles pre-political and universal.

Finkelman suggests another alternative: that certain constitutional provisions supplied a basis in positive law for antislavery strategies and stratagem. He cites, among other things, the congressional powers exercised in the reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance and the enactment of the Missouri Compromise and Oregon Territory; the admission of new free states into the United States; the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment; the rights of criminal defendants protected by the Sixth Amendment; the Privileges and Immunities Clause; and the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Each of these would have been problematic during the period Finkelman covers. There was not yet a 14th Amendment through which provisions of the Bill of Rights could have been incorporated to apply against the several states, although state constitutions contained protections of fundamental rights that federal judges recognized and affirmed. Moreover, the provisions Finkelman enumerates empowered Congress, not the courts, to pursue robust antislavery measures. Courts could have responded to and interpreted actions and directives of Congress, but they could not have initiated legislation or litigation. Had the Constitution enabled federal judges and the United States Supreme Court to strike down proslavery laws and regulations with ease, the Civil War Amendments might not have been necessary. But they were necessary to facilitate the demise of slavery.

Finkelman speculates about what the courts could have done to advance antislavery causes, but courts cannot do anything unless the right litigants bring the right cases with the right facts before the right tribunals while making the right arguments. Judges do not commence lawsuits but handle the ones brought before them. Finkelman could have examined some cases more closely to reveal how the facts, issues, reasoning, and holdings should have differed in rationale, not just in result. Too many cases receive only cursory treatment; lawsuits are more than picking winners and losers.

At one point, Finkelman accuses Marshall of reading a statute “in favor of slavery and not freedom,” but the statute isn’t quoted. Readers will have to look up the case to decide if Marshall’s interpretation was reasonable or arbitrary — if, that is, his hermeneutics adequately reflected a common understanding of the statutory language or intolerably controverted congressional purpose and prerogative. Finkelman chides departures from precedent, but rarely analyzes the allegedly controlling cases to verify that they are, in fact, dispositive of the later controversy by analogy of received rules.

One is regularly left with the impression that the only issue in the cases Finkelman evaluates was whether a slave should be free or not. Many of the cases, however, involved procedural and jurisdictional complexities that had to be resolved before grand political holdings implicating the entire institution of slavery could be reached. We’re still debating the ambiguities of federalism (e.g., how to square the Supremacy Clause with the Ninth and 10th Amendments) that complicate any exposition of the interplay between state and federal law, so it can seem anachronistic and quixotic to condemn Marshall, Story, or Taney for not untangling state and federal law in a manner that in retrospect would appear to have occasioned more freedom and less bondage.

Then again, it’s hard to fault Finkelman for subjecting these giants of the law to such high standards. That men like Marshall and Story have not been investigated as their contemporaries have in light of the horrors and effects of slavery speaks volumes about the willful blindness of the legal profession and the deficiencies of legal scholarship. Finkelman remains an important voice in legal education and has pushed scholarly conversations about slavery in new directions. At 68, he’s likely got more books left in him. Anxious readers await the next.

Three Poems by James Hochtritt

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on June 13, 2018 at 6:45 am

James Hochtritt has been a featured reader of his poetry at venues in California and Oklahoma over the years. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Oklahoma and is a full-time professor of history at Rose State College in Midwest City, Oklahoma. He lives and writes in Midwest City.

EXETER, CALIFORNIA

He monitors smudge pots,
Shadows illuminating his face,
Black smoke burning his eyes.
A pungent aroma of citrus mixes
With an acrid blend of chemicals
Whose names he cannot pronounce.
His thoughts drift in and out,
Recollect his youth in Zihuatanejo,
Christmas memories, novenas, orphans,
Focus on the antics of a spotted dog
That ambles beside him.

Looking up at stars he fondles a small cross
On a silver chain around his neck,
Brings it to his lips as a gesture of faith.
Wishes he was back in bed
And the soft breathing of his wife.
Inhaling the bite of the night frost,
He squints at ornaments and candy-colored lights
Strung like a necklace around a house,
Counts three blessings for each of his children.

Disconnected from the earth in December’s dark
He dreams of home and his father.
Prays for those
Who bleed and give birth in the fertile soil of the fields
Among the insects and the furrows.
Hates that he understands
That men like him are necessary,
Harnessed mules, machinery,
Hands that sow what others reap.
The puzzling chasm that lies between
That which is holy and merely human.

VOTIVE

Passer’s by and visitors, strangers, reporters,
Relatives fold paper flowers and mementos
Into the honeycomb of the cyclone fence.
Tie ribbons onto wire, tape poems to poles,
Paste locks of hair onto photographs
Wrapped in angels made of foil.
Morning, noon, and night the vigil evolves
The guilt-ridden who survived, tourists,
The inquisitive and curious,
Weak knees, helplessness, countenance transfixed,
Palms and faces pressed against the barrier,
Introspection above the hole.
Low whispers barely audible,
Prayers to the beloved, Eucharist
For the grieving, comfort for the anguish.
Our penitence an epitaph,
Speechlessness, invocation of the lost,
Liturgy of tears, consecration of rubble.
Without pause, the requiem,
The mournful eulogy continues,
Watery eyes like reflecting pools or grottos,
Blank stares articulating silence,
Inability of the living to sanctify with words
The blasphemy of the aftermath.

HOUSE

Apologies were never enough.
Words flew like sparks from her mouth,
Her arms flapping up and down
Like some apoplectic bird.

Fixed in the cross hairs
Of her cubist eyes,
Her smeared lipstick
Angled her face into a cockeyed shape.
It was advisable to not say a word
But bob and flinch, hunch and cower.
Grit the teeth
Amidst the knickknacks
Swept from their places,
The shattered glass,
Interminable silences
Simmering like steam.
Ride it out the best a child could
Within the confines of the cage,
Until rage flattened to tears
And the claws retracted.

Only then was it safe
To venture a breath,
Feign a posture of guilt
With a downward glance
And tip-toe past the beast
Through the rancor and the ashes,
Escape into the fields
And the kisses of the rain.

Review of Richard Posner’s “The Federal Judiciary”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Jurisprudence, Law, Writing on December 27, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

“I’m not a typical federal judge,” Richard Posner says in his new book The Federal Judiciary, which seems designed to affirm that claim.

Released in August, this tome shouldn’t be confused with his self-published Reforming the Federal Judiciary, released in September. The latter has generated controversy because it includes documents internal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, including personal emails from Chief Judge Diane Wood and confidential bench memoranda. The former, the subject of this review, is no less blunt, though one suspects the editors at Harvard University Press ensured that it excluded improper content.

Publication of both books coincides with the sudden announcement of Posner’s retirement. This quirky and opinionated jurist is going out with a bang, not a whimper, after serving nearly 36 years on the bench. He could have taken senior status; instead he’s withdrawing completely, citing his court’s handling of pro se appellants as the prime reason.

The Federal Judiciary presents “an unvarnished inside look” at the federal court system, which, Posner insists, “is laboring under a number of handicaps,” “habituated to formality, resistant to change, backward-looking, even stodgy.”

Posner is a self-styled pragmatist who champions resolving cases practically and efficiently through common-sense empiricism without resorting to abstractions or canons of construction. He adores Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose jurisprudence resembled the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. His methodology relies on analyzing the facts and legal issues in a case, and then predicting the reasonable outcome in light of experience and the probable consequences of his decision. Accordingly, he follows his instincts unless some statute or constitutional provision stands in the way. Most of the time, the operative rules remain malleable enough to bend toward his purposes.

This fluid approach to judging stands in contradistinction to that of Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom Posner has little affection. In fact, Posner establishes himself as Scalia’s opposite. Where Scalia was formalistic and traditional, Posner is flexible and innovative. Where Scalia was doctrinaire, Posner is pragmatic. Where Scalia was orthodox, Posner boasts, “I am willing to go […] deep into the realm of unorthodoxy.”

Posner’s criticisms of Scalia can seem irresponsibly personal, involving not only Scalia’s originalism and textualism (legitimate objects of concern) but also his religious views on Creationism (about which, Posner declares, Scalia was “wrong as usual”). He calls Scalia’s belief in the devil “[c]hildish nonsense” and denounces Scalia’s unhealthy lifestyle. In a low moment, he calls Scalia “careless” for dying next to a sleep apnea machine the ailing justice wasn’t using. This rebuke is irreverent, but is it constructive or extraneous? Does it advance Posner’s judicial methods while weakening the case for Scalia’s?

Aspiring to be “relentlessly critical and overflowing with suggestions for reform,” Posner attacks the “traditional legal culture” that, he says, “has to a significant degree outlived its usefulness.” Cataloging the targets of his iconoclastic ire would be exhausting. He jumps from subject to subject, castigating “judicial pretense” and treating with equal fervor such weighty topics as statutory interpretation and such trivial matters as the denotation of “chambers” versus “office.” He confers delightfully disrespectful labels (“slowpokes,” “curmudgeons”) on his colleagues but can also seem petty (complaints about food in the US Supreme Court cafeteria come to mind).

Most of his critiques have merit. His persistent assault on the sanctimony and pomposity of federal judicial culture is acutely entertaining, signaling to some of his more arrogant colleagues that they’re not as important or intelligent as they might think.

Posner likes to shock. What other judge would assert that the Constitution is “obsolete” or ask when we’ll “stop fussing over an eighteenth-century document” that institutes the basic framework of governance for the country? A bedrock principle underlying the separation-of-powers doctrine holds that the judicial branch interprets law while the legislative branch makes it. Posner, however, announces that federal judges legislate even though they’re unelected. Conservative commentators would offer this fact as condemnation, but Posner extols it as an indispensable prerogative.

Although he alleges that judges are political actors, he’s impatient with politicians. He ranks as the top weakness of the federal judiciary the fact that politicians nominate and confirm federal judges and justices. (The president nominates and the Senate confirms.) The basis of this objection is that politicians are mostly unqualified to evaluate legal résumés and experience.

A refrain Posner employs to advance his argument — “Moving on” — might serve as his motto for judges, who, in his mind, must break free from undue restraints of the past. “The eighteenth-century United States, the nineteenth-century United States, much of the twentieth-century United States,” he submits, “might as well be foreign countries so far as providing concrete guidance (as distinct from inspiration) to solving today’s legal problems is concerned.” This isn’t meant to be hyperbole.

His citations to Wikipedia and tweets — yes, tweets — enact the forward-looking attitude he celebrates: he’s not afraid of new media or of pushing boundaries. Consider the time he asked his law clerks to doff and don certain work clothing to test facts presented by litigants in a case before him.

His advice to colleagues on the bench: Let clerks refer to you by your first name; do away with bench memos and write your own opinions; stop breaking for three-month recesses; stagger hiring periods for law clerks; don’t employ career clerks; don’t procrastinate; don’t get bogged down in procedure at the expense of substance; be concise; read more imaginative literature; avoid Latinisms; abolish standards of review. If you’re an appellate judge, preside over district-court trials. And whatever you do, look to the foreseeable future, not backward, for direction.

Readers of his most recent book, Divergent Paths, will recognize in these admonitions Posner’s distinctive pet peeves. He believes that judges who don’t author their opinions are weak or unable to write well. If judges were required to write their opinions, he supposes, fewer unqualified lawyers would sit on the bench: inexpert writers, not wanting to expose their deficiencies, would not accept the nomination to be a federal judge.

Posner’s love of good writing is so pronounced that he praises Scalia, his chosen nemesis, for his “excellent writing style.” He sprinkles references to Dante, Tennyson, Keats, Fitzgerald, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot, Orwell, and Edmund Wilson and supplies epigrams by Auden, Yeats, and Alexander Pope. Those who didn’t know it wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Posner majored in English at Yale.

Still one comes away with the impression that he has sacrificed precision for speed. He appears to have cobbled together several blog posts and other articles of only ephemeral significance to pad his polemic. He discusses judges’ “priors” on page 116 but doesn’t define that term (“a mixture of temperament, ideology, ambition, and experience”) until page 148. Liberal with block quotes, scattered in focus, he recycles by-now familiar arguments against Bluebook and legal jargon and other staples of the legal academy. Even those who agree with him on these points will balk at the redundancy.

The repetition isn’t only at the thematic level: it involves diction and syntax. He tells us on page 408, “Pope Pius XII made peace with evolution in 1950.” Then a page later, he states, “The Church had had a ‘problem’ with evolution until Pius XII had made his peace with it in 1950.” On page five, he writes, “almost all federal judicial opinions are drafted by law clerks […] in the first instance, and edited more or less heavily by the judge.” He then echoes himself on page 22: “[M]ost judges (and Justices) require their law clerks to write the initial draft opinion, which the judge then edits.” He describes this same process again on page 276. “I write my own opinions,” he declares only to repeat himself later: “I write and edit my own opinions.” These are mere samples of a striking trend in Posner’s book.

A former law professor, Posner concludes by assigning grades to the federal judiciary in eight categories: selection of judges (B), judicial independence (A-), rule of law (A), finality of judgments (B), court structure (B), management (C), understanding and training (C), and compensation (B+). Total? Around a B average. For all the fuss, that’s a decent score.

Posner’s characteristic arrogance is grandly exhibited. “I’m a pretty well-known judge,” he assures us. His preface includes a short bibliography for “readers interested in learning more about me.” He names “yours truly” (i.e., himself) in his list of notables in the field of law-and-economics, an indisputable detail that a more humble person would have omitted. Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting, depending on your feelings toward him.

Yet he’s honest. And forthright. Not just the federal judiciary but the entire legal profession thrives off mendacity, which is not the same as a lie or embellishment. It’s a more extravagant, systemic mode of false narrative that lawyers and judges tell themselves about themselves to rationalize and enjoy what they do. Posner sees through this mendacity and derides it for what it is. His frank irritability is strangely charming, and charmingly strange. The federal judiciary has lost a maverick but gained a needed detractor.

Talking “Of Bees and Boys” on “Writers’ Voices”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Writing on October 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Anton Piatigorsky, Author of “Al-Tounsi”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, liberal arts, Literature, Novels, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Writing on October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

AM: Thanks for discussing your debut novel with me, Anton.  It’s titled Al-Tounsi and involves U.S. Supreme Court justices who are laboring over a case about an Egyptian detainee held on a military base in the Philippines. How did you come up with this premise for a novel? 

AP:  I was interested in the intersection between contemporary legal and political issues and the personal lives of the justices. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which the writ of habeas corpus has been used (and suspended) throughout U.S. history.

The Great Writ is a heroic call to responsibility—a demand made by the judiciary for the executive to live up to its obligations to imprisoned individuals. While it has obvious political and social ramifications, it also has philosophical ones. It encourages moral and psychological reckoning: what are our responsibilities to others?

I was excited about writing a novel where two strains—the political and the personal—overlap and blend. I realized that if I fictionalized the important 2008 Guantanamo Bay case Boumediene vs. Bush—by changing key events, decisions and characters—I could use it as the basis for a novel about the Court that explores all my interests.

Anton Piatigorsky

AM: How did you decide to change directions and write about the law?  Did this case just jump out at you?  Your previous writings address a wide variety of subjects but not, that I can tell, law. 

AP:  I came to the law, strangely enough, through religion. I’ve long been interested in how religion functions, and especially in the ways that secular systems mimic religious ones. When I started reading about American law and the U.S. Supreme Court, I saw those institutions as a part of an Enlightenment era secular religion. From this perspective, law is a system of rituals, codes and writings that helps establish an identity for a community, a set of shared values and beliefs, and a way for people to function within the world. I found that fascinating. It inspired all sorts of questions.

What are the general beliefs about people and the world that lie beneath the American legal system? How are those beliefs enacted in cases, courts, and legal writings? How do they play out in the rituals of the Court?  How do the justices of the Supreme Court —who are, in some ways, high priests of the legal world — reconcile conflicts between their personal beliefs and the foundational beliefs of the legal system they guide?

The fictional stories I wanted to tell about justices’ lives grew out of these general questions. Those questions also led me into an investigation of the main case before them.

AM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book, to me, is the Afterword, which consists of the concurring opinion of the fictional Justice Rodney Sykes.

AP: I have always loved novels of ideas, when a character’s emotional journey overlaps with their complex thoughts and beliefs. Whenever that type of fiction really works — as it does with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the character’s philosophy or worldview stands alone as a work of non-fiction. And so the novel becomes part fiction, part critical thought. It functions as a critique on ideas that circulate in the real world.

That’s what I hoped to achieve for Justice Rodney Sykes’s formal opinion in the novel’s Afterword. I wanted Rodney to reach a powerful critique of basic tenets of the American legal system. I wanted him to address what our responsibilities are (or aren’t) towards others in the legal system, and the problems with that system’s fundamental faith in individual actors. In his concurrence, Rodney takes an unorthodox and unlikely stance for a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s what makes it a work of fiction. A novel can be the perfect forum to discuss how a real person might come to a radical decision, and how that decision might revolutionize their thoughts and actions.

AM: Who are your favorite living writers?

AP:  I particularly admire J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro. I think about their works often while I’m writing and editing my own.

Coetzee has written several fantastic “novels of ideas.” Both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello manage to incorporate far-reaching critiques into their larger stories about characters, and they do so while using imaginative formal techniques. I also love Coetzee’s cold and austere style in his less overtly intellectual books. They’re cleanly written, shockingly honest, and endlessly compelling.

Alice Munro—although it’s almost a cliché to praise her at this point—shows remarkable insight into her characters, gradually revealing their motivations, resentments and surprising decisions without ever erasing their fundamental mysteries as people. Her stories are complex formally, but in such a quiet way that I often don’t notice their structures until I’ve read them a few times. Her writing is a great model for how to show characters’ lives and decisions with efficiency and imagination while maintaining mystery.

AM: Do you intend to continue in the novel form in your own writing?

AP:  Absolutely. I would love to write more legal fiction, as well. I’ve spent years learning about the law, but know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many potentially interesting legal stories. I’m also at the early stages of a new novel, which is not explicitly about law, but does feel like an outgrowth of Al-Tounsi in certain ways.

AM: I worked for a state Supreme Court justice for over three years, and I agree: there are many interesting legal stories out there, and I’ve found that facts are often stranger than fiction.

AP:  It must be fascinating to work on the diverse cases that roll through a court. I can only imagine how many potential stories you and other lawyers, judges and court workers can recall—ideas for a million novels and movies and plays.

I think legal stories are particularly exciting for fiction because they distill big questions into concrete human situations and personalities. The giant subjects of guilt and innocence, love and betrayal, responsibilities towards others as opposed to ourselves, community or self-reliance, greed, jealousy and ambition all play out in specific facts and events, in the concrete details of a case. It’s just like in a novel. And since the American legal system is, in my mind, an application of an entire Enlightenment, philosophic worldview, these test cases and stories also pose huge philosophical, ethical and moral questions. It’s no coincidence some of the best novels ever written involve detailed legal plots.

AM:  That reminds me of something Justice Holmes once said: “Law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else.”  But it sounds as if you and I would go further and say it might open a way better than many other things do.

AP:  Law is like applied philosophy; It puts general ideas to the test in the real world. If a philosophy remains theoretical it never really touches what it means to live it, inside it. The answers theoretical philosophy provides are always tentative.

A huge inspiration for my novel was the work of the late French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While Levinas’s writing is often arcane and difficult to get through, I find his thinking to be a powerful and searing indictment of basic Enlightenment principles. While I was writing Al-Tounsi, I used Levinas’s insights—directly—to help me construct Justice Sykes’s final concurrence. It was hugely inspiring to find a concrete way to use this philosophy I have long loved. All the questions and problems I was interested in exploring were present in this genuine legal situation, in the constitutional habeas corpus case, Boumediene vs. Bush, on which I based my fictional case of Al-Tounsi vs. Shaw.

So, yes, I completely agree with you and Justice Holmes!

AM:  So glad we had this opportunity to talk.  Let’s do it again.  

 

 

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