My Book as a Russian Novel

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.

These wise and witty rejoinders to my book made me, as usual, want to write another book in response—perhaps, the original book, but heavily modified. Reading one’s reviews is often a fraught business. One carefully placed arrow and you’re dead. Generally speaking, no matter how laudatory, we only remember those stinging, accurate barbs. But reading these essays had the opposite effect. Each of them made me think I’d written a better book than the one I actually wrote.[1]

NB, G and TN

Nathaniel Berman re-imagines my book as a Russian novel. Coincidentally, I had just been reading Emmanuel Carrère’s My Life as a Russian Novel when I was sent this review. Here we all are then, characters in War and Peace, moving between the drawing room, and the salon, between the battlefield and the sites of high politics.[2] It was Tolstoy’s genius, I suppose, to offer us the whole canvas—the machinations of the private and public, and private-public life. And so, N finds himself in my novel. There he is, on page 36, skewering someone’s book in The American Journal of International Law, no less. But for N, the main character alongside this Tolstoyan tableau of states and politicians and lawyers, is G.

And the truth is G has come in for a bit of flack for putting himself at the center of this story, or at the margins of the center, or the center of the margins at least. When I presented this work at LSE in 2016, someone asked me why I insisted on talking about myself all the time. In a letter Philip Larkin wrote to Kingsley Amis, Larkin recounts his embarrassment at having gone on about his winter cold in a conversation with a lady who later informed him she had been diagnosed with cancer. Still, as Larkin noted, the thing about his nasty cold was that it had happened to him. So, here I am talking about what I know, a late-in-the-day lawyerly bildungsroman. And part of the reason I wrote this book was because of a whole series of experiences of micro-dissonance rather similar to the one that N relates in his stylized speech by the international lawyer who visits Haiti (but it could be a thousand different places), is horrified by what she sees and then returns to Harvard Square for drinks and supper. We fly in, we fly out. And then there is, as N has N’s imagined narrator put it, a choice: “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.” Even better (or worse), we might choose to re-describe, over the course of a book, the experience of repression and its relationship to the original trauma and so on.

Now, my book is an argument against the idea that books are about one big reductive and unappealing thing. The big idea and the plot are usually the least interesting things about a novel, for example. And anyway, every time I am asked what the big idea behind the book is, I come up with an entirely different big idea. But N’s capsule description of the (this?) international lawyer’s psychic split and need for psychic repair or repression comes pretty close to capturing this book’s big idea.

The book, then, is marked by what it resists or what it isn’t: my life as a Russian novel refusing to be either the novel or “my life.” In this case, it entails declining the invitation to be a standard international legal account of the world I inhabit, not then the “macro-story” about intervention or norms or the relationship of “law to politics.” But if not this, then what? In the case of The Narrator (TN) of N’s Haiti story, one option is to lurch towards high morality. But that seems too “overwrought” (N) and too “melodramatic” (G). So, TN, rather like G in his teaching practice, is caught between technocracy and tearfulness. Here is G: “So, every course I teach in this area is a rehearsal of my own angst about these things. But then I worried that war crimes law shouldn’t really be about my angst” (Sentimental Life 52).

But on the other hand, the book is a 200-page description of this angst. No angst, no book. Or, no man, no problem (to paraphrase Stalin). How, then, to approach this angst? N zooms in on the deployment of bathos and irony. There is a very nice distinction drawn between bathos as farce and bathos as tragedy. The former punctures the screen of solemn encounter (worrying about angst, worrying about dengue fever and the lack of toiletries in the Port au Prince Holiday Inn); the latter frames the whole business (perpetually caught between the ships-in-the-night languages of geo-political wisdom and the degraded actuality of human suffering).

Irony, according to N, is G’s position. He counsels irony, lives an ironic life, and finds it to be an inescapable aspect of both local and global politics and our orientation towards them. But what kind of irony is this? Here we are urged back to the Viennese (great-grand) Father and his distinction between neurotic and psychotic defenses (outright rejection, annihilation) in the encounter with unacceptable, intolerable ideas (or realities). Grateful to fall into the neurotic category, G unhappily oscillates between passion and gravity: obsessional but not psychotic. There is a book to be written about international law’s psychotic mode (or maybe most international law books are written precisely in this mode) but meanwhile, G—consumed by his own unusually sensitive internal anguish and finding little comfort in bathos—just can’t let go of the discipline’s voice of disappointed authority and its endless yo-yo-ings. In the end he is reduced to a bag of contradictions: complaining about procedural irregularities and recommending giving it all up to fight poverty in Bangladesh, or maintaining an ironic distance from both poles. As N points out in a passage that re-writes G’s book for him, this situation resembles the therapeutic encounter in which the intense affect of transference must be both kept at bay (lest we all fall in love with our analysts) and yet also permitted so that the transference can work (in a safe place). G’s book then is a kind of room in which all of this can occur.[3]

What happens to the characters after the novel ends? The truth is that at some important level, we don’t want to know. And when we are told the dread sequelae, we can only feel disappointment (Portnoy, respectably married; Foxy Whitman, bloated and gin-soaked; Miss Bennet, divorced). At the end of N’s re-writing of G’s novelistic rewriting of G’s life as an international lawyer, G can either live out a life scandalizing audiences at conferences (perhaps with his outlandish views on Ukraine) or he can do something different. Like gardening. Either literally giving up international law for horticulture or less literally just giving up international law or metaphorically adopting a utopic mind-set leavened with an anterior history of irony. But this going back to the country can be read only in light of the prior work producing a perfect moment of bathetic sincerity or utterly sincere ironizing. BD, like G, like TN, like N, affirms and denies both, or neither. . . .

still gardening

Angela Naimou calls this pastoral inclination “a longing to garden,” and in her generously attentive reading this longing comes in many forms as a “repertoire” of possible re-envisionings of world life and life worlds. What some might interpret as “complacency and retreat,” she chooses to think of as affirmative and hopeful. But what of that unexploded ordnance, “complacency and retreat”? This is an objection many people have had about the book and its counsels. Isobel Roele worries in Opinio Juris that its luxuriousness might count against it among those not blessed with the ambiguous fruits of seniority, wealth, tenure (a student told me at NYU that he would lose his (precarious) position entirely if he wrote his own sentimental life of international law). Fair enough, I say. Of course, I tried awfully hard to own up, to position myself, to ironize my position and my place, but I couldn’t quite escape it. One of the effects (or lack of affects) of this was an absence of outright anger or a less demure, modest form of resistance (a “bleak meagerness,” as AN characterizes it) in the book. Whither “The Furious Life of International Law”?

So, Naimou does what good readers do, and she extends the argument, and provides counter-point readings of it. Where I leave Malika Husseinova untended with her garden in the Bart Camp (representing a form of defiance), Naimou travels to the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan where Syrian refugee women grow gardens as a way of resisting the temporality of displacement (a curiously bloodless word) and the intrusions of militarized surveillance. Here is a true taking back of the land. Elsewhere, she offers Jamaica Kincaid—in conversation with her daffodils representing colonial regimentation, Wordsworth, and rote learning but then replanted on soil that is at once both her own and Mohican land—as a counter-point to Leonard Woolf, and Darab who lives and works as a well-digger in Iran but who tends dying walnut trees that he cannot bear to have cut down. These trees represent a possibility (however remote) but also a contemporary experience. They are, after all, “still beautiful.”

sweet disposition

In responding to my book, Anne Saab performs a kind of sentimental life of her own. Her notations on my book are “personal and minute,” and are written in the spirit of the book itself. Where should we locate the book and indeed, Saab’s work itself? I say at one point that I hope my book will not be described as “interdisciplinary” and I say it because it just seems a rather impoverished and lazy way of describing the kinds of things I want to do. But Saab offers another compelling reason to refuse the designation. For her, the language of interdisciplinarity has the effect not of dismantling disciplinary boundaries but instead of re-enforcing them. And so, she makes the telling point that books like this, and work like hers, should be understood as expanding the boundaries of international law itself or at least getting us to think about where the boundaries might lie. As I say somewhere in the book, we should really be asking: “What isn’t international?”. Or what would not count as international law in this expansive phase in the field’s history? And Saab points to a field of “law and emotions” scholarship that I have not, with one or two exceptions, paid enough attention to. This is not really an “Emotional Life of International Law” with all that might require, but it is clearly related to it. And as Saab points out, this emotional life would be a useful counterpoint to law’s rationality. Finally, Saab offers up a little micro politics of her own. Who are these human rights typespromoting global justice, or contemplating food insecurity, or fighting for the environment—who don’t treat other people terribly well? We have all come across them, doubling down on their abstract commitments while treating flesh and blood human beings shabbily. Little Lenins: loving humanity, despising human beings. But it’s to Saab’s credit that she wants to turn the sentimental spotlight on herself and think about the relations between her work as an international lawyer and her life as a human being. In the end she grows some zucchini and continues to think about her various positions.

Sinja Graf rewrites some of my concerns about style to such good effect. Her questions—getting to the heart of things—are: “Who has it? Who is capable of acquiring it? Who is more likely to misrecognize the importance of its practice?”. This last question, with its piercing ambiguity, is stylishly stated and probably unanswerable.

I like, too, Graf’s idea of the book as a series of refusals. Indeed, following on from something I said earlier and in an earlier book symposium, this book could have been titled Refusing International Law. This seems even more vital in light of the response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine that has been articulated through a series of international legal maneuvers each of which in its own way has foreclosed the kind of subtle diplomacy I advocate in the book. What would it be like to refuse the temptations of punishing Russia by using sanctions (and at the same time wrecking the world economy, condemning millions to a freezing winter, and visiting a form of collective punishment on all but the richest of Russians) or resist the seductions of war crimes trials (an obsession of the moderns as Edwin Bikundo puts it reframing Agamben and the idea of amnesty as a political duty) with their instrumentalization by political elites, their potential for prolonging the misery in Ukraine, their hiding-in-plain sight hypocrisies, or reject the absolutisms of maintaining territorial integrity (guaranteeing an extended and inclusive war or the use of weapons of mass destruction by Russia) and the renunciation of neutrality as a political virtue (the Swedes and Finns rushing into the arms of NATO, Bikundo locating me in a now interred Helsinki of the mind). The refusals that Graf points to are linked to this, and she puts it perfectly when she says: “A sentimental answer thus does not answer to ‘what is to be done’ but rather to ‘how else might we experience’ an international legal conundrum.”

If only G had thought of that!



[1] Thanks to Catriona Drew for improvements to the text.

[2] See Hayden White, “Against Historical Realism,” New Left Review 46 (July–August 2007): 89–110.

[3] In his expansive and graceful review, Edwin Bikundo returns us to my neurotic defences in another more full-blooded (than mine) Freudian (but with nods to Shakespeare, Marx, and especially Agamben) reading of international law and the international lawyer. Despite all my protestations about not putting international law on the couch, it turns out that I have (but that wouldn’t be much of a surprise to Freudians attending to my pre-emptive defence mechanisms). What are international law’s “concealed things, despised . . . features” and what do they reveal? And can my barbarian international law help us in this task? It turns out, happily, that it can. Civilisation—itself forever barbarian (Benjamin)—circulates around a twin cities image of Athenian “democracy” and Judeo-Christian Jerusalem with their repressed characters or primitive id being, perhaps, Zizek’s camp or (a once neutral) Helsinki. I respond here to Edwin, largely parenthetically both in the spirit of the book’s own long footnotes and in a Bikundoesque fashion.

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