Law in Contemporary Society

Questioning Cerriere's Answer

-- By CarolineFerrisWhite - 15 Apr 2010

Truth, Beauty, and the Law

Martha Tharaud believes that "the truth will be revealed." Though she is speaking about the fundamental nature of the employment relationship, her words have a Keatsian ring; in talking about truth, she is talking about beauty. Her own deep appreciation of beauty is evident: downtown Manhattan speaks to her in artists' names, and her conversation is peppered with Dreiser and Dante.

Tharaud's final speech before meeting Cerriere reveals that keeping oneself open to the beauty of the world is crucial. She argues that "to know anything about beauty, you have to take the trouble to learn." Some lawyers pose as "cosmopolitans" and connoisseurs, Tharaud contends, but "they don't know very much about very much at all." This ignorance comes at a price: "there are a lot of people hurt by it, really hurt." This provokes a sense of futility in her: "I'm not sure, either, what you can do about it, other than protect yourself, protect what you believe in, those whom you love."

Tharaud's claim is startling: beauty matters to the law. Not only does the appreciation "of subtlety, of beauty" make you a more capable lawyer, but a lawyer lacking that capacity is dangerous. What happens when that lawyer realizes the depth of what has been lost, of what he has missed in the course of lining his pockets? "[I]t's too late, it's already over, so they try to bring you down to their misery."

To respond to beauty you must be open to the world, but this also leaves you vulnerable. You have to "protect yourself" from those that haven't, or won't, or can't.

At the Fishhouses

This passage took me back to the second week of law school. I trudged home from Legal Methods, overwhelmed and riddled with doubt. I turned to Elizabeth Bishop's At the Fishhouses, and I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

The poem begins with a landscape of silver and fog. Sea, fishhouses, and lobster pots shimmer in the gloaming. Everything is interconnected: flies and the fish scales reflect each other's iridescence; the fisherman is covered in sequins of scales, a fish's "principal beauty." From this homely yet sublime place, the poem finds its way to flight in its closing lines:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Through attentive observation of the physical world--its harmonies and disharmonies, its beauty and its stench--Bishop accesses a higher order. Tharaud calls it "beauty," Bishop calls it "knowledge," but they are talking about the same thing. Bishop reminded me that knowledge is "utterly free" and cannot be corrupted; the power of this realization made me cry. In coming to law school, I had accessed a language and a community of minds that could help me build freedom, no matter how manacled I felt at the time. Tharaud evinces a similar sense of liberation through knowledge/truth when she says "in due course, what can be proved and what cannot will be clear to us all." Like Tharaud, I believe it.

Tharaud might hear words echoed in the poem's only refrain: "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear." I hear other voices too: Lawyerland's epigraph from Rilke ("in the depths everything becomes law"), Eben's exhortation to "think deeper in time," even Felix Cohen and the importance of the unconscious. At the time, of course, I hadn't thought about any of these things, but I felt no less comforted. In acquiring knowledge, "derived from the rocky breasts," we create a primal and nourishing relationship between ourselves and world. This relationship is both happening and happened and we are all a part of it. Balm to the soul of the disaffected law student.

Cerriere's Answer

Tharaud sits just across the table from Cerriere, yet they may as well be separated by an abyss. Tharaud sees truth and beauty in the employment relationship; Cerriere sees employment as a transaction that demands efficiency. Their differing views of employment mirror their differing views of the world. Tharaud sees beauty; Cerriere sees an arbitrary and violent world that is changing too rapidly to grasp. Cerriere might understand the futility that drives Tharaud to protect herself and the ones that she loves, but he finds himself on the other side of the table from her because he can't see much worth saving.

Cerriere detests Tharaud's self righteousness, and finds it ridiculous to advocate for the working class when people are being tortured and executed arbitrarily elsewhere in the world. Ideas, he seems to say, are frippery at best and lethal at worst; hence his reliance on data and efficiency. There's a humanity to Cerriere, but it has lost its way.

Tharaud and Cerriere seem irreconcilable, but I feel both their points of view. The law can be about choosing sides and drawing lines in the sand, but it doesn't have to be. This class has taught me the value of holding two contradictory things together in your mind at once: this is how you come to think creatively as a lawyer, and to ask the questions that lead you to something that wasn't there before.

This essay asks more questions than it answers. Why is the shared artistic project of Bishop, Joseph, and Tharaud of importance to the law? Can feeling deeply about art really make me a better lawyer, as I hope it can? For Tharaud, caring about art is one expression of her open, empathic relationship to the world. Why then her apparent failure of empathy for Cerriere? Does their adversarial relationship preclude mutual understanding? How can I build a career without Tharaud's blind spots, which is to say, can I avoid Cerriere's fate without forgetting that like all lawyers, I suppose, he was a child once?

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r10 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:13 - IanSullivan
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