International Law: A Novel, by G. (reviewed by a protagonist)

This essay is part of a symposium on Gerry Simpson’s The Sentimental Life of International Law. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.


[I]rony [is employed] as a defense,

. . . especially against the expression of intense affect . . .

– M.H. Stein (1985)

G.’s aspiration in his splendid new book[1] appears to be to rewrite international law as a vast novel, much as (another) G. sought to rewrite world history as a vast novel two centuries ago, in his Phenomenology of Spirit. When this kind of “novelization” works, one no longer thinks of the participants in the field (be it world history or international law) without seeing them as literary characters. In G.’s rewriting, international lawyers, diplomats, judges, academics, war criminals, philosophers, whole populations, indeed States themselves, appear and interact with each other like the protagonists in a crowded Russian novel, where the reader continually needs to refer to the list of dramatis personae. Even G.’s readers, for example the writer of these lines, find themselves taking their places among the novel’s characters. And even G. himself. Perhaps especially G. himself.

It may be that international law lends itself to transformation into narrative literature; indeed, others have made such attempts.[2] No previous attempt, though, has been as thoroughgoing as G.’s, whose totalizing impact may be definitive. A variant of an oft-told parable can serve to illustrate this impact. I have many times heard an international law colleague recount the following story, whose broad outlines will be all-too-familiar to anyone in the field.

In 1995, I went to Haiti as an election observer on behalf of an international human rights organization. It was the first election after the UN-authorized American intervention that restored lawfully elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, deposed in an illegal coup. The three members of my team—two originally from North America, one from West Africa—all taught international law in the United States. We all felt a grave responsibility to international law’s post-Cold War restoration to its rightful place (as well as to the people of Haiti).

We also all worried about dengue fever.

Equipped with Paul Farmer’s devastating The Uses of Haiti, we embarked for Port-au-Prince. We diligently visited polling places, talked to as many real Haitians as we could—in French, since none of us spoke Creole. We were amazed by the courage of the people. We were also overwhelmed by the severe poverty of the vast majority of Haitians. Did I mention that the poverty stunned us all?

We didn’t drink the water. On the last day, we bought local artistic souvenirs in an upscale neighborhood.

On the return flight, I felt nearly speechless. The disjunction between my life and those of the people I had seen could not have been greater if we were living on different planets. I intended, of course, to write a conscientious report, both accurate and moving. But there seemed to be only two choices going forward: spend the rest of my life as a single-minded activist on behalf of Haiti or repress the experience’s intensity and resume my life as an international legal theorist. Anything in between seemed impossible.

I went straight from the airport to Harvard Square and drank the night away with colleagues.

Thank God, I didn’t get dengue fever.

One could assign each narrative element in this tale to one of the multiple linguistic codes of 1990s internationalism, in a manner similar to that of Barthes in S/Z.  Moreover, every character presented in this story appears in G.’s rather allegorical novel: from the UN as the embodiment of the international; the US as the servant/usurper of internationalism; Haiti as the passive object of international/imperial military and civil humanitarian action; and so on all the way to the uber-privileged moral/professional agents embodied in “the team” and their collective motivation embodied, however parenthetically, in “real Haitians.”

As G. suggests, legal writing conventions would lead one to write the macro-part of this story, framed by the lawfulness/lawlessness optic, in the impersonal voice of the international legal narrator (15). This narrative might be celebratory or critical: for example, the US as the knight of democratic internationalism or the dragon of revanchist imperialism. The impersonal narrator could perform in a variety of genres, depending on the audience: tragedy, epic, farce, and so on. The performer might, at G.’s recommendation, consult Hayden White on genre-choice (137).

But The Narrator (henceforth, TN) who repeatedly tells “his Haiti story” over the years is also a character in G.’s novel, even a central character. At the surface level, TN bounces between the tediously impersonal voice of international law and the overwrought voice of the moralist, taking his place firmly among G.’s novel’s protagonists (51). Indeed, as a character in G.’s novel, TN may have no choice. Once the structure of the story has been established—the cosmopolitan election observers parachuting into a country where they only speak the language of the colonizer—their actions, even their thoughts, unfold inexorably. While TN thinks he is engaged in self-reflection, G.’s reader understands his repeated retellings, with their glaring blind spots, as predictable, even satirical, episodes in the novel. TN’s scenes write themselves.

At a deeper level, TN’s narrative is thoroughly shaped by two of the tropes that are central to the discourse of G.’s protagonists: bathos and irony (64, 93). First, bathos. TN’s perpetual oscillation between impersonal gravity (the “restoration of international law to its place” in the “post-Cold War period”) and moral passion (the “stunning poverty” of “real Haitians”) is continually punctuated/punctured by bathos, both farcical and tragic. Farcical bathos comes to the fore when TN’s gravity and passion are interrupted by his self-centered concern with dangerous water, strange tropical diseases, exotic souvenirs; in other variants of this parable, one may hear about dismal accommodations, squabbles with street merchants, petty intra-group conflicts. By contrast, the tragic-bathetic appears beneath TN’s consciousness in the very structure of the situation: the grandeur of post-Cold War internationalism undone by the parenthetical evocation of “real Haitians” dwelling at the outskirts of imperial/humanitarian language. The wonky attempt to self-educate by hastily reading Paul Farmer on the plane partakes of both the farcical and the tragic: a symptom of internationalists who seek to familiarize themselves with the human objects of their solicitude via the writing of a genuine saint of humanitarianism. Even if, tomorrow, it will be somewhere else, some other human beings, and some other saint.

Second, irony—and here we approach the distinctive character of G. as author/protagonist. G.’s voice in his own novel is that of a wise, if chastened, counselor to his fellow protagonists. In the face of the oscillation between gravity and passion, G. counsels irony (63). Here, perhaps even more than in the overtly autobiographical passages, G. becomes a character in his own novel, a putatively self-reflective (reliable? unreliable?) narrator.

Irony, of course, is notoriously hard to pin down, the subject of a thousand definitions over the millennia, slipping away each time. But here, with a little help from psychoanalysis, I think we can pinpoint G.’s distinctive variety of irony in a defense mechanism identified by the Viennese Father. Freud distinguished between neurotic and psychotic defenses. In the neurotic variety, defense against an intolerable idea is “effected by separating it from its affect”; the “idea itself” remains “in consciousness, even though weakened and isolated.”[3] This defense often effects a “transposition of affect”: the affect diverted from an intolerable object to one seemingly unrelated. Such a “transposition” sometimes manifests as obsessional neurosis.[4] By contrast, in psychotic mechanisms “the ego rejects the incompatible idea together with its affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all.”[5]

The kind of irony at stake in G.’s novel is clearly of the neurotic, rather than psychotic, kind. The highly self-aware international jurist lucidly sees the oscillation between gravity and passion inscribed in the structure of the profession, as well as the ever-present possibility of slipping into bathos. Nonetheless, not only can the jurist not escape this situation, the jurist is affectively devoted to both poles of the oscillation. By professional identity as well as utopian hope, the jurist is devoted to the grave voice of international law. By moral fervor as well as instinctual revulsion, the jurist is devoted to testifying to the suffering of the victims of the world’s horrors. The jurist, whether G. or one of his fellow protagonists, cannot let go of either of these, even at the risk of bathos.

For example, even in the midst of his thoroughgoing critique of war crimes trials, G. cannot refrain from evoking doctrinal minutiae, indicting such trials for not adhering to procedural niceties (93) (bathetic gravity) – as well as proclaiming they concern atrocities so great they “defy legal judgment” (69) (bathetic passion). At one point, G. narrates his own character recommending that jurists abandon international criminal law and devote themselves to fighting “poverty in Bangladesh” (199). A proposal worth considering, in all seriousness. But it is one also firmly anchored in the structure of G.’s novel, with a striking affinity to TN’s vignette (substitute the parenthetical “Haitians” for the illustrative “Bangladesh,” or some other universal-particular stand-in for the real).

How does irony help? Irony often functions to hold seemingly incompatible opposites together, refusing to affirm or deny either, or purporting to affirm and deny both.[6]  Each opposed pole is counter-balanced by the other, warding off the intolerable affective charge that both carry. As one psychoanalyst writes, “verbal irony characterizes the discourse of certain patients who employ it as a defense, both adaptively and as a resistance, especially against the expression of intense affect associated with the transference.”[7] This function of irony makes it particularly suited to deal with the incompatible and overwhelming affects here: the passionate commitment to internationalist ideals and the crushing disappointment at their failures—as well as the passionate horror at the poverty of “Bangladesh” and the crushing feeling of powerlessness in the face of it. Irony serves to distance the jurist from these unbearable and incompatible affective experiences, more effectively even than Oedipal rage against the discipline’s authority-figures.

I reiterate the last words of the psychoanalyst’s depiction of the threat warded off by irony: “intense affect associated with the transference.” Psychoanalysis insists on “transference” for its efficacy: the re-enactment by the analysand of problematic real-world relationships by projecting them on the analyst, thus making them accessible to consciousness in the safety of the analytic situation. Yet every psychoanalytically literate analysand knows both that the analyst isn’t really their father or mother (or whoever) and that the analysis won’t work unless they allow the transference to operate. And so, irony is the perfect stance: neither affirming nor denying (or both affirming and denying) the reality of the transferential situation. Irony wards off both the overwhelming affective relationship to the object of the transference (the analyst) and the crushing disappointment stemming from the knowledge that the relationship isn’t fully real, but is staged by an actor (the analyst) who is being paid for their services. Analogously, the self-aware international jurist both wards off their commitment to international law, which their critical mind knows is indeterminate, biased, an instrument of imperialism, and so on, as well as their overwhelming disappointment when international law fails to live up to the demands placed by their persistent devotion to it, even down to its technical minutiae. The novel plays the role of the analytic situation where these intolerables can be treated.

One might, at this point, ask how G.’s novel ends. Do G. and TN (and the rest of the cast) keep going, holding together their simultaneous cathexis and de-cathexis of international law, traveling from conference to conference eliciting scandalized reactions? Do we bid them farewell as they embark once more? Or do they “do something different” in the last chapters, abandoning their ironic situation for an idyllic other existence? This alternative—between remaining and fleeing—has a family resemblance to the psychanalyst’s observation that the defense mechanism of irony may be one of “adaptation” or “resistance.”

The question of “something different” appears, as one might expect, increasingly as G.’s novel nears its end. One avenue G.’s characters take is that of utopian writing, though of a self-aware, critical variety (188). G. fully acknowledges that such writing, and its relationship to the field, is itself inscribed in the field: the doctrinal distinction between lex lata and de lege ferenda (188). The struggle to write beyond this well-worn path itself requires the kind of irony that the “something different” may have sought to escape.

In the last chapter, another “something different” appears, when we learn that G.’s name evokes not only the philosopher G. of Jena, but the Gardener. G. has apparently taken to counseling gardening as an alternative to mainstream international law. But here there is again an ambiguity—or an irony—heralded by the title of the novel’s last chapter, “gardening, instead, or, of pastoral international law” (185). G. narrates his practice of literal gardening, evoking perhaps someone who has abandoned international law altogether, retired to his little plot of heaven – or rather, as befitting a cosmopolitan, several plots, on two continents (210). But he also treats gardening as a metaphor, the germ of an alternative, “pastoral,” international law, one more modest and local in its attentions (207). Gardening, like the G. who is its advocate, is never evoked without an ironic twinkle in the eye, oscillating between the literal and metaphorical, and between the serious and the jocular. And just as G. cultivates several plots in different locales, so pastoral international law seems destined to move from one locale to another, as befitting its own irremediably cosmopolitan predilections.

And so the novel offers two endings. In one, G. escapes international law to his garden(s); in the other, G. remains within it, offering yet another project of a “new international law.” G. affirms and denies both; or, perhaps, affirms and denies neither. The reader, already transformed into a character, has no choice but to live this indeterminacy through sentimental irony.


[1] Gerry Simpson, The Sentimental Life of International Law: Literature, Language, and Longing in World Politics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[2] See, for example, Nathaniel Berman, “Drama Through Law: The Versailles Treaty and the Casting of the Modern International Stage,in Peace Through Law: The Versailles Peace Treaty and Dispute Settlement After WWI, ed. Michel Erpelding, Burkhard Hess, and Hélène Ruiz Fabri (Baden-Baden: Nomos & Hart, 2019), 31–64; Natasha Grace Wheatley, “Spectral Legal Personality in Interwar International Law: On New Ways of Not Being a State,” Law and History Review 35, no. 3 (2017), 753–87.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense” (1894), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1954), III, 57.

[4] Freud, 53.

[5] Freud, 57.

[6] A. Blaser, “Ironie und Zynismus als Formen der Abwehr” Confinia Psychiatrica 19 (1976): 80–88.

[7] Martin H. Stein, “Irony in Psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 33 (1985): 56.

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About Nathaniel Berman

Nathaniel Berman holds the Rahel Varnhagen Chair in Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies. His work concerns the construction of alterity in discourses ranging from early-twentieth-century international law to thirteenth-century kabbalah. Among his publications are Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of The Zohar: The “Other Side” of Kabbalah (Brill 2018) and Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (Brill, 2011).