Speaking Volumes: poétiques

October 11, 1996

Peter Goodrich on Legendre's Paroles poétiques .

A long time ago, I struggled through the obscurity and tedium of a law degree and went briefly to Lincoln's Inn. I learned to listen over mid-morning coffee and stale biscuits to the self-confessed triumphs, the finesse and the prattle of my seniors and betters.

In my first week as a pupil, an elderly lady lost the right of way from her door to her coal shed, a kindly witness burst into tears when too aggressively cross-examined and Paul McCartney wanted a lucrative settlement from the break-up of the Beatles. In short, I feared that in 20 years' time I would be unchanged, a glorified office boy in an expensive wig and a pinstrip suit. I fled to a doctorate in another jurisdiction.

Like many academics I sought the release of writing. I encountered a world not of freedom but of dogma and internecine squabbles. After a year of research, I desperately needed the therapy of the unfamiliar. It came in the form of a work by a French legal philosopher and psychoanalyst, Paroles poetiques echappees du texte (Poetic phrases run astray from the text).

The psychoanalytic thesis of Paroles poetiques is simply stated. The western tradition is a legal tradition, and specifically one of texts. These texts are our fate. We are, in Legendre's phrase, "children of the text". As captives of the institution, we are born, we live and we are led eventually to die within the parameters of a life mapped in advance in the inherited texts of western law.

The most appealing feature of this Freudian account of the form of legal power is its insistent assertion that communication of law is predominantly and necessarily unconscious and its practice should be addressed with the same seriousness as the analysis of the work of dreams. He addresses himself to those "whose discourse wavers", to those who have not decided already, to artists and intellectuals and not to academics, filing clerks or lawyers. In place of legal dogmatics, Paroles poetiques proposes an account of law's capture of the soul through emblems, enigmas, images and other signs. He argues that we have forgotten the poetic role with which law was historically associated. In sum, Paroles poetiques argues that we should read law in the same way as we read the dictates of our other sovereign, the unconscious. Indeed the texts of law are to be understood as belonging to the same genre as love letters.

Needless to say, the highly francophone and somewhat radical message of Legendre's work found little approval among my peers. When I proposed a review of Legendre's work for a legal periodical, the editor, suspecting satirical intent, rang a prominent English legal philosopher to establish if Legendre existed. After researching the question, the jurisprude replied that the Bodleian library contained no books by Legendre. There were three catalogue references to his work, but these were in journals so obscure as not to be held by the Bodleian. The ineluctable conclusion was that Legendre did not exist but was rather a satirical invention.

It is probably fair to say that Legendre's Quixotic enterprise remains unintelligible to the common law mind. Like other minds, a combination of conscious and unconscious causes is still too threatening a project for a complacent and insular profession.

I am profoundly grateful that I did not return to the practice of law and I attribute at least some of my resolve (and my impecuniousness) to Legendre's inspiration. When Legendre visited briefly and lectured at the University of London for the first time last year, the audience was small and rapidly depleted when he started speaking in French. No practitioners attended, and although I invited the professor who had so doubted Legendre's existence, he insisted on expanding at length why he had been right to conclude that on the balance of probabilities Legendre was a hoax. My sense remains that his work still represents something foreign but like other denials and repressions it sounds from within.

Peter Goodrich, Corporation of London professor of law, Birkbeck College, University of London.

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