Leiden Law Blog

Disturbing the Comfortable: Why Fiction Counts

Disturbing the Comfortable: Why Fiction Counts

On October 16th 2014, the book Fundamentele verhalen. Over recht, literatuur en film (Fundamental Stories. On law, literature and film), C. Bouteligier & A. Ellian (eds.) will be presented at the Lorentzzaal in the Kamerlingh Onnes Building. In this book, fourteen stories from literary and cinematic works are analyzed in relation to one of the following three important underlying notions of contemporary law: 'liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity'. For those interested: you're invited to attend the book presentation (all in Dutch, 14.00 - 17.00 hrs). This book aims to re-examine the nature of the importance of stories - in literature and film - for the law and its practitioners.

Certainly this interdisciplinary approach can, in a way, hardly be called 'new'. Has it not already been said often enough that it is important for law students and jurists to read literature and to engage themselves with fiction? Within the field of 'law and literature', the importance for jurists to develop fancy, to feel empathy and compassion towards the other as a person has been extensively brought to attention. However, fiction can do much more, as the book Fundamentele verhalen and my own research on this topic hope to demonstrate. Fiction offers a unique external perspective when it comes to law, and stories are indispensable for law students and jurists. The role of fiction in my thesis is researched on the level of philosophy and ethics.

So why is fiction such a valuable external perspective? First of all, stories have a great influence on our appreciation of notions like 'liberty', 'equality' or 'fraternity'. They contribute specific and concrete meanings to these abstract and ambiguous principles. Stories directly influence the law, because rules of law are based on these underlying notions; rules are drafted to realise 'liberty', 'equality' or 'fraternity' in our society. This also means that rules of law have to be interpreted according to principles we want to realise. But if stories can give meanings to abstract notions, they can challenge and disturb these meanings as well. And when the content of these underlying principles changes, so do the rules of law.

Secondly, we can state that stories reveal possibilities in reality. Whether these possibilities will actually happen or not, is irrelevant. By being shown other possibilities, we are challenged to transcend the necessity of law and to think about how things could be. That law as it is in the present, is not necessarily the way it should be. As a consequence, our perspective on legal reality will be broadened because we are forced to rethink - and sometimes even revise - our own view or definitions of law and even reality in general, including our own lives and those of others. Fiction therefore provides an external perspective. It disrupts dogmas and instigates a renewed reflection on fixed ideas. This is of the highest importance, because from a solely internal (i.e. a purely legal) perspective it is impossible to truly reflect on and criticise law. For reflection, distance is required. Through stories we can break loose from the confinements of our legal view and rethink the fundamental principles of law, even on the essential level of law's legitimacy. Like the famous writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) once strikingly said: (good) 'fiction's job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable'.

Finally, another valuable aspect of fiction is that it uses narrative forms, allowing reflection from a human point of view. This is where fiction distinguishes itself from other external perspectives like economy or philosophy. Unlike (traditional) philosophy for example, where abstract definitions are used to understand and categorise the world, stories emphasise that the world and our reality is ambiguous and cannot simply be understood from an analytical or theoretical view alone. This humane perspective is essential for everyone who is engaged in law, whether as a student, a scholar or a practitioner. We are educated in a way to think analytically and legalistically, using schematics and formulas to solve cases, but stories make us realise that people of flesh and blood are involved when it comes to law. The abstract legal reality can come into conflict with the particular human reality. Fiction can exemplify how abstract, systematic theories and rules of law can lead to injustice in concrete situations.

It is clear that fiction does not 'comfort the comfortable'. The role of fiction is to create doubt and make it seem like we are left behind with empty hands. This is necessary, because only when we dare to climb out of our comfort zone can we sit back for actual reflection and come to realise that stories hand us a powerful and indispensable tool. 

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