Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins
Lowell B. Komie
Law Student Stories
Law Student Stories in Komie's The Collected Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie
"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 Chambers and Other Stories 17-30 (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 1994). The story also appears in 25 Legal Stud. F. 11 (2011)] [online 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). The story also appears in 25 Legal Stud. F. 29 (2011)] [online text]
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" or some other lofty future.
Looking back, now, on your law school experience—before it becomes a matter of memory embodied and encoded as ancedotes—what can you say about it? How is your legal education to be described? How will you account for these years you spend in learning to be a lawyer? What configuration of incidents and encounters, successes and failures, fears and dreams, will you draw upon (now and in the years ahead) to tell the story of how you managed to survive (and prosper or struggle through) law school?
"The Interview," 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' "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: The Overlook Press, 1992)] ["Centaurs"]
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 of what the anthropologist, Victor Turner, referred to as liminality, a condition he associates with rites of passage. (And isn't law school a rite of passage?) We might think of Komie's stories, "The Interview" and "Ice Horse," 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)] [Victor Turner]
The following notes from Murray Stein, In MidLife (Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, 1983) provide insight into Turner's concept of liminality:
The English "liminality" comes from the Latin limen, meaning "doorway" or "threshold." Entering a room or leaving it, one crosses a limen, and while 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. [pp. 8-9]
. . . .
In liminality . . . there is an unusual degree of vulnerability to sudden emotional "drafts" originating with or 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 broken 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 of a former self, whose home had been furnished with the presence of persons and objects now absent and had been placed in a psychological landscape now bare and uninhabitable without them. [p. 11]
. . . .
Liminality . . . 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 . . . through a territory of unclear boundaries and uncertain edges; when it is disidentified from the inner images that have formerly sustained it and given it a sense of purpose. Then, the unconscious is disturbed in its archetypal layers, and the Self is constellated to send messages: big dreams, vivid and powerful intuitions, fantasies, and synchronistic and symbolic events. The function of these messages is to lead the ego forward, and this guidance helps it to do what it has to do, whether this is to enter liminality further or, later, to emerge out of it. [p. 22]
[Murray Stein goes on to note that liminality, as he represents it in these quoted passages, "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]
[Stein points out that, "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 exchanges take place, represents a type of consciousness that exists essentially within transitional time and space. Hermes is the god of transitions, and transitions always move through liminality."] [p. 7] "Hermes . . . leads the soul both into and out of that most radical of symbols of liminality in Greek myth, the underworld." [p. 22]
The question—"why do you want to be a lawyer?"—is asked by both of the lawyers who interview Susan at Reavis & Ferris. Can you speculate about the nature and persistent use of such a question?
Finding a Language That Allows Us to Talk About What We Read: As a reader I'm always looking for ways to think about and talk about what I read. Reading Komie's stories a few years ago, I was pleased to find the following statement about the Deborah Eisenberg's stories collected in Twilight of the Superheroes (New York: 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," NY Times Book Review, p. 10 (February 12, 2006)(reviewing Deborah Eisenberg's The Twilight of the Superheroes)]
Marcus comes close, in describing Eisenberg's stories, to present us a way we might think (and talk) about Komie's law school stories.
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 look for books (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]. Stevens may be onto something here. In what sense are Komie's stories a response to the "profane" world in which we find ourselves?
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 that stands in contrast to the person you are at school (and the person you fear you will expected to be as a lawyer).
I have a sense that this idea of "home" is a feature of Lowell Komie's fiction, although we rarely see his lawyer characters at home in any literal sense.
Instructor's Writing ("The Interview" & "The Ice Horse"): The Law World Gets Real
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)