Friday, January 13, 2006

William Styron's Essays and the Legal System.



William Styron, This Quiet Dust (New York: Random House, 1982).
William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Vintage, 1992).



William Styron's prose immediately conjures thoughts of rural splendor in an imaginary Virginia countryside. I picture us sitting in rocking chairs, staring off at the blue hills, next to us is a friendly old family dog, and there is straw in our hair. It is a lazy Sunday afternoon, and a faint but delicious aroma of smoked ham is in the air.

I better stop at this point since there is a danger that I will become the smoked ham.

I like William ("Bill") Styron. Those of us who have never met him are allowed to call him "Bill." He writes a sumptuous, languid prose, which must be read out loud at least once. He is intensely moral and political in his concerns, romantic and passionate. Styron's two great subjects are slavery, in the context of the American experience, and the Holocaust. Best books: Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice. He is dismissive of the importance of his essays, but he should not be. They are just as good as his fiction, which is great. "Call me Stingo ..."

His wonderful book Darkness Visible, is an unforgettable account of a nearly lethal plunge into despair and madness. Having experienced many of the same emotions, I have found solace in the thought that I am not alone. Among our fellow sufferers must be listed all of the following artists: Randall Jarrell, Primo Levi, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf.

We have both been outraged by the imbecilities of the American legal system, by the increasing number of stupidities or worse which must be placed next to the law's diminishing successes, by the spectacle of human cruelty and insensitivity in judges and politicians, by the scandalous racism and cruelties of the petty tyrants wielding power in too many courtrooms and police stations.

I wish that Mr. Styron would have written of recent revelations concerning the torture of Iraqui and other detainees by men and women in the U.S. armed services. I wonder what he would say of the growing evidence of secret tortures within the U.S., both before and after 9/11. One significance of 9/11 may be that it has allowed much that was hidden in the American legal system to become blatant and overt. This new overtness in the use of harsh methods of law enforcement, or just criminality by the powerful, may be a blessing -- for it will allow for some honest discussions, or so I hope.

The law (and one must assume that a definition of the law includes the totality of its many arms, including the one known as law enforcement) is not merely imperfect, it is all too often a catastrophe. To the weak and the underprivileged the law in all of its manifestations is usually a punitive nightmare. Even in the abstract the law is an institution of chaotic inequity, administered so many times with such arrogant disdain for the most basic principles of justice and human decency as to make mild admissions of "imperfections" sound presumptuous. If it it is true that the law is the best institution human beings have devised to mediate their own eternal discord, this must not obscure the fact that the law's power is too often invested in the hands of mortal men [and women] who are corrupt, or if not corrupt, stupid, or if not stupid, then devious or lazy, [I think that it is all of the above,] and all of them capable of the most grievous mischief.

Styron's efforts on behalf of the afflicted -- like inmate Benjamin Reid -- and his campaign against the death penalty are commendable efforts to improve things. They make for depressing reading, nonetheless, since I am sure that things are much worse today than when this collection of essays first appeared.

We can now count on a great deal of so-called expert testimony from "psychiatric consultants," whose competence and motives are called into question with regularity. Styron's description of "Dr. Gold," to whom he is assigned during his own bout with mental illness, is distressingly familiar to anyone forced to endure a conversation with some of the middle-brow, semi-illiterates found in the therapeutic profession these days. (See "Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.") Styron's account of a therapist's deliberate cruelty to a woman participating in a group therapy session is infuriating, yet mild by comparison with what I have seen and experienced.

Among moronic therapists, those who spend their professional lives testifying in courtrooms are the worst of the worst. Known (unaffectionately) as "whores of the court," they are walking encyclopedias of banalities and politically correct panaceas. Styron's Freudian intentions in coming up with a name for his "therapist" gets the point accross:

[Dr. Gold's] platitudes were not Christian but, almost as ineffective, dicta drawn from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (much of which, as I mentioned earlier, I'd already read) ...

Styron mentions a police officer's child-like fascination with his polygraph device and the territoriality of court clerks, who become enamored of their expertise in the manipulations of the arcana of court procedures and practices.

It is the people who "run" the courts, behind the scenes, who wield most of the real power, so that your best bet, if you plan to be a lawyer, is to get to know them and figure out how they want you to file things early on, so that you can save yourself a lot of grief. Every clerk you will ever meet will tell you, at some point, that it is he or she who is really running the courthouse or the judge's courtroom. About half the time, they're right. In most of those cases, this is fortunate. All of them will assume that they are smarter than professionals who bothered with college and graduate school. Many times they are correct about this intellectual superiority.

Judges hope to find a device or gadget that will allow them to escape the responsibilities of judgment (since judgments may result in a reversals or embarassments), so computers or polygraphs feed into America's pop scientism, as does psychobabble, allowing many officials to avoid accountability.

"Computers do not lie." When judges say this, it usually means that your client -- if you're a young, apolitical lawyer -- will be screwed and that whatever government agencies say based on their "computer records" will be accepted uncritically. It is always a good idea to argue that computer records indicate that all computer records are inaccurate. Bring lots of statistics with you -- the more confusing, the better.

My depressing reading of the all-too familiar horrors of the legal system in Styron's book called for some comic relief, so I turned to some pop culture reviews and portraits found in the book. The essay entitled "Lollipop" is hysterical. Styron is witty and a charmer when he wishes to be. But in the end, the dark chapters dealing with the death penalty and the overwhelming mediocrity of many (and the malice of a few) important participants in the legal system linger, painfully, in the mind and heart of the reader. It must be possible to do better than this:

[It is important to focus] a bright light on the unconscionable methods which the law, acting through its enforcement agencies and because of its lust for punishment, uses to victimize the most helpless members of our society. And thus it once again shows the law's tragic and perdurable imperfection.

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