Favourite Readings 2022 – A Year in Reading Fragments

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Andrei Tarkovsky Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema translated from Russian by Kitty Hunter-Blair (Bodley Head 1986) 245 pp.

Inger Christensen, Susanna Nied (trsl) and Anne Carson (introduction), It (New Directions 2006) 237 pp.

Sappho and Anne Carson, If not, winter: fragments of Sappho (Random House 2002) 416 pp.

Wang Guiguo (ed), Myth Systems and Operational Codes: Selected Essays of W. Michael Reisman (Law Press China 2019) 600 pp.

Laurence Boisson de Chazournes and Vera Gowlland-Debbas, The International Legal System in Quest of Equity and Universality: Liber Amicorum Georges Abi-Saab (M Nijhoff 2001) 849 pp.

As in previous years, EJIL review team, Gail Lytjgoe and Christian J. Tams, have asked colleagues to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Matina Papadaki. You can read all the posts in this series here

Despite devoting a lot of time to reading and looking forward to the ESIL Readings of the Year Series, I had never undertaken an end-of-year stocktaking of my own reading. If anything, my enjoyment of this Series made me apprehensive to participate, fearing my reading choices might be too idiosyncratic and haphazard. But this proved an important exercise in introspection in two ways: first in exploring my frame of mind during this year, and second in discovering a thread running through my choices.

First, a quick note on selection: I chose to present books that I kept reaching for this year and exclude books I came across for my current research projects. This way, I avoid books I approach in a functionalist manner, reading in a fragmented way to substantiate and inform my own work. This, for me, often drains the pleasure out of reading. However, this piecemeal reading mood seeped into the entirety of my readings this year. 2022 was, for me, a year of fragmented attention, spent reading a multitude of blogposts and articles punctuated by war, climate and other global and domestic anxieties during yet another pandemic year.

The first book, excerpts of which I reread multiple times, was Sculpting in Time by the director Andrei Tarkovsky. The acclaimed director is one whose movies have stayed with me over the years with their arresting imagery, slow takes, themes of memory, childhood, nature, and metaphysics. However, the book stands separate from the movies and is a source of profound reading pleasure, even for those not interested in film theory, as it beautifully merges self-reflection, poetry (much of it written by his father), the goal of cinema as art, and the duty of an artist vis-à-vis their audience. Tarkovsky’s final years were spent in exile, and this strongly tints parts of the book, serving as a melancholic-philosophical backdrop rather than as a direct political commentary. The structure of the book is loose, allowing the reader to read it in a non-linear fashion. The writing feels allusive and free floating, mirroring the qualities of his filmmaking. I found myself highlighting parts that also felt applicable to my perception of academic writing:

Once you start to speak of things that are precious, you are immediately anxious about how people will react to what you have said, and you want to protect these things, to defend them against incomprehension. (at 134)

The second book I have read and reread this year was It by the Danish poet Inger Christensen, first published in 1969. With my meagre Danish, I first approached it in its original language but failed – which meant that I also failed to appreciate its mathematical structure that comes through in Danish. The book is dizzying in its scope and ambition, covering everything from birth to death, both personal and cosmological, to political critique, and the nature of human perception. Its appeal to me during this year grew stronger because the book can be read in two completely different modes with a differing effect: a technical one, active, deconstructing, almost deciphering, appealing to the intellect, and a passive one, where you let the feelings and its internal logic wash over you. It is a book about language and how it orders and gives meaning to our perceptions of the world. And in this context, I found myself instinctively and unwittingly locating parallels of how to academically approach the form, content, and timing of writing during disciplinary crises and war:

How to integrate the razed building

How to guide writing into place in its chaos

The dust is thick/and beneath it the rubble

of toppled statues/bodies in preporno-

graphic positions/the clamor of the languishing

gazes/the helplessly outstretched hands

How to integrate a world

completely and hopelessly ended

into a world that will not begin

How to integrate thunder

into silence/…(at 198)

The next book I read like an oracle of sorts, kept close on my work desk and opened frequently, at random pages when my eyes needed pause. If not, winter is a collection of what remains from the 7th BC Greek lyrical poet Sappho’s oeuvre, which has survived only in fragments. The poems are presented with brackets and empty space representing missing text, and they are introduced and magisterially annotated and contextualised by Anne Carson, a Canadian poet, classicist, and professor, who also holds a very special place in my heart (read this or this). The text is presented in both its original ancient Greek version and its translation by Carson. The language was also important to me, as it sadly seems that the English language dominates even my reading for pleasure, and I try to actively counter this on an individual level (see Odile Ammann’s insightful article on this, in particular at 23). The poems hold so much brightness, intensity and beauty even in single lines:

Ψαύην δ’ου δοκίμωμ’οράνω δυσπαχέα/ I would not think to touch the sky with two arms (at 106-7)

The palimpsest of meanings and their changes through the passage of time was truly special. Layers read upon layers altering meaning, applicable to all discourses, but also relevant to legal terms of art. A good example of how we cannot interpret without contextualising, is the following annotation on the word etaira which would translate to ‘whore’ in modern Greek:

“friends” (hetairai): cited by Athenaios (Deipnosophistai 13.471d) in a discussion of the word hetaira, which began to be used in the sixth century B.C. as the term for “courtesan” or “mistress” (distinct from porne ̄, “whore”) within the elite sexual commodity trade of the male symposium. In Sappho’s language, however, hetaira appears to connote a close female companion or intimate friend in a relationship that may be sexual but is not commoditized. (at 378, note 142).

Somewhere around the beginning of this summer I was in poor health and a bad mood trying to work on several projects and finding my attention flickering like an unreliable lightbulb. This usually manifested in borrowing random, freely available books, often from Professor Roucounas’s personal collection at the Academy of Athens. Two surprised me with the enjoyment I drew from them: Reisman’s Collected Essay, which seems not to be widely available so here is the table of contents), and the Liber Amicorum to Professor Abi Saab.

Starting with the book in honour of the work of Professor Abi Saab. It is an edited volume, which to me normally signifies the epitome of functional reading, where at times uneven, uncoordinated work makes finding rewarding pieces more like striking gold. But this is not the case here. The unifying theme and Abi-Saab’s personality and scholarship lead to deep, wide ranging scholarship as its table of content attests. In my current reading mood however, what struck me were some of the pieces that became dated to the extent that we read them as history rather than current acquis. A particular example of this Julio Barberis’s chapter ‘State Crimes: A Decaffeinated Coffee’ relating to the removal of the concept of State crimes from the Articles on State Responsibility. It argues, among other things, that maintaining a concept of crimes without distinct consequences would be a decaffeinated coffee. It offers interesting and important points, but their relevance felt faded as the definitive text of the ASR has become the orthodoxy. All these glimpses of choice and contingency in law-making were to me interesting and useful finds.

While I had read some of Reisman’s work, and I had been taught the New Heaven School many years ago while an undergrad, I cannot say I followed up the methodology or ever became deeply acquainted with it; however, this find of Reisman’s Collected Essay gave me much reading pleasure. The reconstruction and interpretation of fact and law are engaging. I suspect what drew me in more was that his was a jurisprudence of suspicion ‘aimed at demystifying our commonplace understanding of the phenomenon of legality and making it more truthful.’

Reisman is a gifted writer and his introductory phrases grab instant attention. From the homonymous to the book essay:

From the standpoint of the disengaged observer, the most overwhelming feature of social systems is the integrality and the seamless symbiosis of controller and controlled.

In another one titled ‘Acting Before Victims Become Victims: Preventing and Arresting Mass Murder’:

Murder, the taking of life, is the ultimate and irrevocable violation of human dignity and, for each individual, the ultimate terror.

It is also brimming with insights and quotable passages:

‘Even within the confines of Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court, the problem for the scholar and the international practitioner is not a dearth of things that look like law. The international system produces documents in the legislatistic genre with promiscuous abandon.’

Even in the specialized sections, like one on investment law, he speaks about central public international law with evocative images which reminded of a more recent writing and the use of imagery in the context of custom by Başak Etkin and the Heraclitan river:

Hans Kelsen explained that law—‘nomos’—can be viewed in both ‘nomo-static’ and ‘nomo-dynamic’ terms. His distinction sets in relief the curiously contradictory ways in which international lawyers look at customary international law. Nomo-dynamically, customary international law is a video of an ongoing, informal and unorganized process of consuetudo and desuetudo, of formation, confirmation, transformation and termination of the shared expectations and demands of politically relevant international actors about the right ways of doing things. Nomo-statically, customary international law is one still frame of that video, a snapshot, from one moment, of those expectations and demands that were established in that informal and unorganized process of law formation. The snapshot redacts those expectations and demands as rules. But the resulting (and, to the positivist-inclined jurist, reassuring) nomo-static codex of customary international law begins to blur, in part, and change, in part, the moment it is redacted, thanks to the nomo-dynamic process of customary international law. As a result, juridical depictions of all customary law tend to be double exposures. (emphasis added)

I think that the above choices share a very loose connection in the form of a reading attitude. Themes and trappings of work intermittently intercept our focus and subconsciously, inevitably, transmute some of what we are reading into something functional. In the end, our interests and needs align and latently guide our choices. As already acknowledged, there’s a transference of a fragmented attention to fragmentary reading. But perhaps unity and continuity are in any case active constructions.

 

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