Ferdinand von Schirach, Take Two

I am having one of those burnt out kind of days in which the idea of writing a column about the practice of law seems about as appealing as spending another 12 hours in the office. Some days, lawyering is less intellectual feast than it is emotional marathon. Just how much can you take, counselor? Here’s another wallop. And another. And another.

The darkness of this life sometimes moves me to the verge of tears. We pretend that the world is composed of folks bargaining in the law’s shadows. Wrong. The shadows that are cast are often as not projected from within. Meet a lawyer with gray or graying hair who lacks stories about irrationality and you are meeting a man or woman who simply refuses to tell the truth.

I’m not sure who decided that rosy-tinted glasses were part of the American uniform, but I’d like to slap him silly. The world is not reason; it is dark passion, and anger, and fear. David Hume put it politely when he spoke of reason being the slave of the passions.

The reasonable person standard? A fantasy. Just desserts? Balderdash. All this talk of standards, presumptions and burdens of proof is the stuff of pettifogging theorists. Reality beckons, and it is red in tooth and claw.

I was reminded of this the other night when I read an author named Ferdinand von Schirach. A good friend pointed him out to me. Schirach is a German criminal defense lawyer. He has two books out in English, Crime, published in 2009, and, Guilt, which is, as we like to say, “hot off the press.” Schirach is a dark genius.

Reading works in translation is sort of like kissing that pretty girl’s image in a mirror. You get a sense of the feel of those lips, the scent of something alluring. But you are forced to wonder, whence comes the fascination? The glass has no pulse, no sense of style. The mirror is but a reflection of what you want. Love makes fools of us all; so does morality.

Schirach reads well, even in translation. His world is a dark place, and he tells tales of cases in which he has been involved without the moralizing desire for order, and without the outrage of a person who believes he is entitled to sensibilities the world must honor. His clients rape, kill, engage in acts of petty cannibalism, and steal. He tells their tales in brief chapters studded with short, declarative sentences that leave the author eerily absent. He is an observer of the dark arts.

I cannot think of an American legal author who stares so unflinchingly into the abyss. Yes, Scott Turow tells a mean tale, but his world is one of moral ambiguity: ordinary people struggle to be good amid circumstances that often defeat them. Can American literature escape the moralist’s seduction? Why is it that John Grisham’s two-dimensional world of good versus evil in the same formulaic plot sells again and again and again? Do they read Grisham in Europe? 

I read Schirach and I could taste a little bit of Kafka, some Nietzsche, and the post-modern sense that good and evil are flavors on a foreign menu. And still, he does not lose nerve. Mysterious people with deep troubles appear on his doorstep. He sits with them, giving them the time they need to talk. He is a counselor as well as a lawyer. I read his works with ambivalence: I wish I had his equanimity in the face of the chaos I see day by day; yet I worry what I would become if I were to become too acquainted with the sorrow attending ordinary and extraordinary failure. I chase my tail and pretend the race is taking me somewhere. Schirach knows better.

One night I had trouble sleeping. I read Schirach through the night before dozing off for a few hours. When I awoke to prepare for a day’s court, I was surprisingly refreshed. I give credit Schirach credit for that: Looking the dark side in the eye without the need to correct, admonish or even condemn is liberating in its own melancholy way. Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will without the need for redemption abide the darkness.

Get thee to a bookstore. Find Schirach. Read him. You’ll be a more contented lawyer, even if you are more disturbed human being.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.



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