The Failure of the Word


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The Protagonist as Lawyer in Modern Fiction

Richard H. Weisberg

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The cruel power of misdirected words, artfully structured but spiritually empty and bearing the stamp of law or legalistic reasoning, is a persistent theme in the modern novel.  Richard Weisberg, who has written extensively on both literature and law, explores the role of legalism and its abuses in eight major novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Beginning with Dostoevski and moving by way of trenchant analyses of Flaubert and Camus, Weisberg culminates his argument in a brilliantly revisionist reading of Melville’s Billy Budd


In each of the novels treated, Weisberg sees a verbally gifted central character relying on wordiness to avoid or distort previously revealed truths.  He argues that the malaise Nietzsche called ressentiment goads these characters to verbalizations that do violence to others and, ironically, indict their very creators.  He identifies the legalistic theme as the major mode of iconoclasm in modern fiction and the source of its holocaustic vision.  Writers, he reflects, viewed with profound skepticism their culture’s tendency to substitute complex narrative formalism for earlier, absolute approaches to justice.  In this, Weisberg concludes, their works anticipated the jurisprudential discourse of today. 


The Failure of the Word is a creative, provocative, and learned work, written with style and feeling.  Weisberg brings to bear on his core themes (the legalistic proclivity and ressentiment) a wide body of knowledge and thought in law and philosophy, literary history and theory.”—Robert L. Jackson, Yale University

"The Failure Of The Word is a creative, provocative, and learned work, written with style and feeling.  Weisberg brings to bear on his core themes (the legalistic proclivity and resentment) a wide body of knowledge and thought in law and philosophy, literary history and theory."—Robert L.  Jackson, Yale University

"An extraordinary achievement.  It applies the insight and interpretative discipline of contemporary literary studies to the common thematic problems of law and literature.  This book constitutes a methodological and thematic departure of significant magnitude for contemporary jurisprudence." —Robert M.  Cover, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History, Yale Law School

"Weisberg raises fundamental questions through his fresh reading of the centrality of law in certain important modern novels."—Milner S. Ball, Caldwell Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Georgia Law School

"It is the remarkable interdisciplinary achievement of this book that it literally establishes a field of study, law and literature, as a new and powerful approach both to legal and literary theory. Professor Weisberg anatomizes common legal themes and moral failures in the way lawyers and legal argument are treated in Dostoevski, Flaubert, Camus, and Melville, and thus shows how we deepen our understanding both of literature and law by seeing the world whole. His fresh vision and moral passion is a bracing and unanswerable challenge to the hermetic isolation both of current literary theory and the American law school from one another and their larger moral responsibilities to society at large.  It should move and challenge both the legal and literary worlds, and will enlarge central jurisprudential debates over legal and ethical reasoning."—David A.J.  Richards, New York University School of Law

"[This is] comparative literature at its best, and yet it goes beyond comparative literature, too, drawing on intellectual history, the distinctions between legalism, legality, and morality, and showing a deep concern with both individual and psychological wellbeing, and social and political issues.  It is a thought-provoking book."—George Gibian, Goldwin Smith Professor of Comparative and Russian Literature, Cornell University

"These astute and sagacious discussions of Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Camus, and Melville represent a kind of summa in Weisberg's scholarly bibliography in law and literature in that they draw from many of his previous and well received explorations in the field.  They constitute a fascinating and finely written study of the iconoclastic treachery of verbalization, replete with implications for the modern world."—Jean-Pierre Barricelli, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of California, Riverside

"Richard Weisberg examines how misused language, that is, language skillfully used but detached from ethical considerations and bearing the stamp of legalistic reasoning, is a major theme of modern novels.... [He] has provided us with a rare and  valuable perspective, and . . . [has] done so with humanity and authority."—Bin Ramke, Georgia Law Review

"Professor Weisberg's overarching theme of the 'protagonist as lawyer' is deftly illustrated by his variegated readings of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground and Melville's Billy Budd, the Sailor, as well as works by Flaubert and Camus. . . . [His] unique perspective and trenchant analyses also open vistas of new possibilities for the law-laden tale of 'mutiny' on the Bellipotent in Billy Budd. . . . addition to a sound exposition of his main theme, Professor Weisberg also gives us more generally a 'Literary Lawyer's' reading of modern fiction."—Jay Wishingrad, New York Law Journal

"As an account of a particular vision of the dark side of Western legalism it is a valuable and fascinating study."—A.W.B. Simpson, Times Literary Supplement

"An especially timely and valuable study of the modern intellectual's moral and social dilemma."—Ronald Baughman, Legal Studies Forum

"The work will be of particular interest to scholars working in the law and literature area, but it also deserves careful scrutiny from anyone troubled by the emergence of a belief in law as perhaps the central faith in Western life."—David R. Papke, The American Journal of Legal History

"The Failure Of The Word is a tour de force, a subtle and provocative volume bound to spur much creative thinking about the role of lawyers in modern fiction. . . . Although ostensibly about literature, Weisberg's book is really about law. The Failure Of The Word can be understood, in its broadest sense, as an original and penetrating essay on constitutional law and legal interpretation. . . . Weisberg's book may be the first step on the road to a new jurisprudence . . . its implications are broad and relate to the most current debates in constitutional law."—Daniel J. Kornstein, Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal

"This refreshing and thought-provoking book is to be recommended to all students and scholars of literature, and especially to those interested in the modern period."—Anglo-American Studies

"Weisberg's work is one of the finest expressions of...the developing field of law and literature. . . . Few works have so completely reflected the most basic concerns of the field."—William H. Page, Vanderbilt Law Review

"The Failure Of The Word is a very fine work exemplifying the contemporary interest in learning more about law through the study of literature. . . . Weisberg presents an unusually trenchant analysis of the rhetorics adopted by fictional lawyers as they re-present the cultural modes of which they are an increasingly central part."—Susan Sage Heinzelman and Sanford Levinson, Cardozo Law Review
ISBN: 9780300045925
Publication Date: September 10, 1989
224 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4