Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I recently picked up a copy of this at a “girls’ night in” book swap at a friend’s place. So far, it is conceptual, rather than being about how to bring flow into one’s life (ie not so much applied and more theoretical). Interesting, though I would have loved some tips and the like. Nonetheless, the book does yield inspiration for getting into flow by discussing some of the characteristics of the state and also by just reminding me of the state itself. In that sense, it’s not too bad, and moderately readable. But more a skim kind of book than one that I’d want to linger over. It’s about extracting the information or the function one is seeking rather than about the aesthetic pleasure of reading and of getting into the way the book tells its story (though it happens to be non-fiction in this case, they’re all stories, ultimately).

Incidentally, this is also my first post using my iPad, and also using new software I purchased on impulse that is meant to be optimized for blog posting. So it’s kind of a test post, but I didn’t want to go with the banal, content-free test post approach, so this is what I’m trying instead… Let’s see how it looks.

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Trite but True: Writing as a process of self-discovery

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I have already started doing revisions on my novel, even though it’s not quite finished, because the plot flaw I discovered requires an extensive revision to fix, and the finale will not work until that rewrite is completed.

I’m using Holly Lisle’s one-pass revision process–which I highly recommend, if you can pull it off in one pass! (Thus far, I’ve never been able to do it, but I am forever hopeful…)–the first step of which required that I distill certain key facets of the narrative–theme, main character arc, plot logline and synopsis–all very useful things, and an essential step to ensure a focussed rewrite. So far, so good.

An aside about my approach to fiction: usually, there’s some piece in the protag’s internal conflict/resolution that works in with emotional issues I’m dealing with in my own life, often disguised so well that even I only notice it halfway through the writing. Some sadness or loss or struggle. For instance, when I moved across the country, away from my parents, I struggled with guilt. What if they fell ill, or worse, died alone, because I wasn’t nearby and on hand to help out? The question haunted and worried at me–and lo! and behold, suddenly, character after character in different pieces I was working on had at least one distant parent. Sometimes, the parent had died, and the prodigal child returned, wracked with guilt and unable to make amends for past frictions. Sometimes, the parent fell ill and… you get the idea. The stuff would work itself out in fiction. One of the interesting things about this book I’m working on now, though, is that I figured there wasn’t anything there that really related to me, per se, except some concepts and settings that interested and engaged me (19th-century Russia, for instance).

But then, as I made my notes today, it became obvious that the main protag’s journey is one of self-acceptance, and that a big part of said self acceptance was learning to accept the ways in which her genetic pattern had been altered in tragic ways, that made her (feel) less human, and excluded from the ebb and flow of human life. These were out of her control, but she felt guilt and anger, all the same, for having been a victim of it–and for all she had been robbed of as a consequence. And so part of her journey was learning to forgive herself for being changed in this way by forces beyond her control, to accept herself as she is now, and to embrace her continued humanity–she might not be human in the same way she used to be, but she is still human in a fundamental way, and is far from being the monstrosity she believed herself to be.

And writing about her need to learn self-acceptance, it sank in. Yes–I did it again. My subconscious once more sneaked in there and patterned the story in a way that was necessary for me. Because I’m infertile–it’s a genetic mutation, a condition that is beyond my control, that has resulted in egregious and incurable damage (I’ve been under the knife many times, as the doctors did their best, but to no avail). And not being able to have kids, being unable, biologically, to participate in the flow of the generations did make me feel less human, somehow–and like I was on the outside of the regenerative facet of the ebb and flow of birth, life and death. From a biological perspective, I am not particularly viable, and therefore something of an oddity, at best. This is all stuff that, intellectually, I know is extreme. It’s not the end of the world. But being barren marks the end of a certain life that I had dreamed of having. It’s a loss–a deeply emotive one, and when the emotions get tangled, then everything telescopes and becomes big and painful and consuming, no matter how the intellect tries to contain it and put things into perspective.

And so… once again, my main protag and I are on the same journey. And, if I can write a successful resolution, involving self-acceptance, self-love and possibly even empowerment for her, then maybe, just maybe, there’ll be some hope for me getting there someday as well. We’ll see.

Dollhouse S1 & Neverwhere (the book)

We saw the last, unaired episode of Dollhouse S1 yesterday, and though it was likely to be going that way–I could kind of see it coming–I was still disturbed/saddened/haunted by it. I was sad that this was what had become of the characters. Topher’s decline was forseeable, in the sense that I knew who they were talking about when they had the conversation about him “not taking his meds” and so on. It wasn’t necessarily as forseeable in the context of the character as we have seen him, where his morality has been very much out of the picture. He is fascinated by the technology, by his own hubris with regard to his accomplisments, and by the mechanics of what he can and cannot do. Morality isn’t on the radar. So it’s interesting that it comes back to him with such a vengeance.

It was also interesting seeing the behind the scenes doc, which showed how much they were kind of groping for direction in the early episodes, despite the concept and all that being in place. It makes sense when you watch the episodes, but the doc made them seem like they were groping far more than was revealed by the episodes. I guess that’s why they did start off with the more episodic, building the relationships between the characters, kinds of shows, and then moved into the overarching plot shows later, as they knew what the show was becoming and started to see the directions they’d need to take.

But still, I was saddened by the extent of the apocalypse. The technology reminded me a little of Snowcrash in its manifestation–I wondered whether they might not have borrowed a little from there (unconsciously at least). It was similar–listen to a series of sounds and suddenly, your brain and personality are wiped and you become whatever they want you to become.

I have to say, though, I agree with the notion of our technologies as Pandora’s Boxes. We shouldn’t be opening them, half the time. But we do anyway. We advance–and I know that once we reach a certain stage of shared knowledge, there’s no suppressing the next step. If Gutenberg hadn’t done it, someone else would have (and did, but didn’t get the credit because Gutenberg did it first). There was enough knowledge and technology in Europe at the time to allow people to put the pieces together and create a printing press. It was next-to-inevitable. That’s how I feel about most technologies, so the message of the show is not out there at all for me. It did feel that the episode was a little too heavy-handed, but then again, it was the obvious and logical consequence, and if my world were destroyed, I’d be pretty bitter and rant-y about it, too.

A bit on Neverwhere. I’m just not getting into it. The characters aren’t grabbing me–it’s just not pulling together the way I feel it needs to. I do like the concept–the blend of literal underworld and the whole faerie reality in London. Two cultures piled on top of each other. I also read that as a metaphor for the homeless and dispossessed of any big city. They become invisible to many in the “real” world, and once they fall into homelessness (along with whatever condition caused it, be it addiction, mental illness or some other tragedy), it’s very hard to go back. The world of homelessness is a harsh one, but that people become homeless also tells the story of how uncompromising our society can be, that it’s just so difficult for some individuals to stay within its constraints. It’s a hard thought.

At any rate, I thought Neverwhere touches on that idea and its variations in a cool way. But that’s about it, for me. It reinforces my sense of Neil Gaiman as a conceptual powerhouse (I still love, love, love the Sandman), but not necessarily the strongest writer. I have Anansi Boys and may give him another chance with that (I’ll also finish Neverwhere, if school doesn’t pull me away from it), but I’m not feeling compelled to try again. Or maybe I’m just in an absurdly picky mood right now…?

We’ll see. Sorry for the disorganized post. I’m trying to go for regularity, once more, over organization etc. I’ll try for a more organized, more “pointed” post next time. This one feels a little all over the place, and unfocussed. Ah well… my apologies to my reader (if I even have 1 reader!). 😀

Ingluorious Basterds

We finally got around to watching this one last week. It was entertaining in a classic, Tarantino-esque way. That is, there were bloodbaths, scenes with fabulously edged tension, and expansive, engaging villains who were fascinating to watch.

So, classic in all those senses. I didn’t love it, but it was entertaining. I should also say that the visual styling–colour saturation and cinematography, was really different to many of his other works, and often quite beautiful. The finale, with its flames and laughing ghost-projections, was also quite wonderful in its horrifying execution of ultimate justice.

The strongest two factors in the film, for me: the villains, and the scenes of tight tension. Generally, the latter was a function of the former. The main villain was utterly mesmerizing. Every scene he entered he totally owned. He toyed with characters and manipulated them with a mesmerizing charm and adroitness. I never wanted him to win–but could feel the inexorability of the noose, tightening in each scene, as he watched and manipulated and finally kicked out the supports and let the person hang. Hypnotically well done. The one tableau scene that did not feature that villain featured a stand-in. A similarly perceptive, sharp-witted villain who was ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. And because it was Tarantino, the weakness eventually manifested–and the best the characters could ever hope for was a stalemate.

The other strength–the tense, edged tableaus–were a direct result of these mesmerizing villains. One sign of strong writing, particularly in a visual medium, such as film (where it’s so much about movement and visual interest, often as not), is when you have a scene in which people are simply sitting, conversing, but the tension is so edged that you’d cut yourself if you got too close. What’s amazing with this movie is that Tarantino didn’t just do this once or twice, but again and again. Each time, there was the same tension, the same sense that the scene could implode at any moment. And often as not, it did–but not every time, which is another part of the charm. Just as the villain toyed with his victims, so Tarantino toys with us, in these sequences.

The weakness of the film, for me, was a function of its strength. The tableaux of edged tension were so dominant, that the rest of the plot felt fragmented–it hung between the tableaux, which were so still, but also so pivotal in the plot developments. The movie didn’t feel like a cohesive whole, but a series of powerful scenes that had been loosely strung together into some kind of narrative that ultimately coalesced in a way that felt haphazard at times–satisfying in some senses, but not in others. Definitely about the journey, in this case, and not the destination.

Bottom line: worth watching, if you’re a Tarantino fan. If you’re not, beware of the gore–Tarantino loves his blood spatters almost as much as Dexter does.

Plugging Plot Holes and Creating Brilliant Characters

I recently read Grisham’s The Firm, which was fine, though I didn’t love it (see review, below). Still, one of the strong points for me, was that Mitch, the main protag, behaved intelligently. He didn’t make the kind of stupid mistakes that drive me crazy in some books. He wasn’t blind beyond the point of reasonableness to another character’s flaws, or to the obvious disaster lurking around the corner.

This, in turn, raised an interesting question for me: namely, what’s a writer to do, when working with a protagonist, or even a secondary character, who is smarter than she is?

For me the best answer is to plot out the character’s actions–sketch out appropriate next steps, figure out flaws in your planning, and then think your way out of those flaws. That goes for other plot holes as well. There’s little that annoys me more, as a reader, than feeling that a writer hasn’t done this. It feels like the writer has taken shortcuts or gotten lazy in not looking for obvious flaws in the narrative and addressing them. It makes for far more difficult writing, but the results are exponentially better, and far more satisfying.

For instance–and this isn’t a matter of intelligence, but rather just of a plot issue that’s really going to screw up my self-imposed deadline, but needs to be addressed. In my current WIP, I was hurtling towards the final showdown, when suddenly it came to a screeching halt. I kept staring at the screen and getting annoyed with myself. Why wasn’t I busting through? Why wasn’t I getting these final scenes written? The end was so close I could taste it.

It was actually a discussion with friends–a Facebook thread (thanks, James and Andrew!)–that brought the “aha” moment I’d been missing. One of my friends remarked upon the archetypal quest paradigm and the importance of the journey, not just the destination. I responded:

“It’s true, re the journey itself. That’s where the insights are learned and gained, and the hero’s transformation takes place. But the finale is the test of those insights–where we see whether they actually stuck or not. There’s always the concern that the destination, in that sense, be worthy of the journey taken.”

And there it was. I had it. I sat down and wrote down each of the main characters’ story arcs. And voila! All my characters, EXCEPT my two main characters had great story arcs. All my secondary characters had cool, believable changes and developments in their emotional arcs. But somehow, in the middle of all those comings and goings, I had lost track of plotting those changes for the TWO MAIN characters! Embarassing, but it would have been more so, if I hadn’t spotted it. I don’t know that this sort of flaw is that obvious–it would more likely be a subtle sense of dissatisfaction, upon finishing the book. A sense of emptiness, like something was missing. And the thing that was missing is that my main female protagonist did not change or develop or do much of anything other than walk around, during the entire narrative (an exaggeration, but that’s almost how it feels to me, thinking back on it, without that emotional underpinning and transformation). And that’s why the ending wasn’t coming–because she had nothing to test in herself. Nothing had changed, so she was just going through the motions, in survival mode–acting rather than developing.

So, no showdown. I don’t think it’s worth writing at this point. I need to go back and rework the scenes between my main female and male protags. The male protag’s story arc is better–he does change, but it’s not strongly enough drawn as it is, so that also needs to be brought out more clearly. I suspect once I fix that, the finale will write itself. Wish me luck.

As as for the question of writing about characters who are more intelligent than I am. It’s a conundrum all right–but again, just working through the steps, methodically and critically, at least enhances the character’s intelligence. After all, that character must figure out those solutions in a high-stress situation, and often has to think on his or her feet and make snap decisions, where I will have spent time, and many sheets of paper, working it out, and trying to eliminate the issues. In that sense, it reminds me a little of the LSAT. They say that most people, given enough time, can get high marks on an LSAT–it’s getting high marks in each section, with tight time constraints, and under the stress of a high-stakes exam situation, that’s the tricky part.

The Firm: John Grisham

Just finished reading The Firm by John Grisham. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t love it.

Stylistically, the writing was functional without being exceptional. It was obviously very well-plotted and well-paced. For me, one of the biggest strengths was that Mitch didn’t make stupid mistakes. He was prudent and thought out his next steps in a meticulous and sensible way. I liked that. It always frustrates me when a main character is built up as some kind of brilliant somethingorother who then makes idiotic mistakes left, right and centre–mistakes that even I can see through on a quick read (and I’m far from being brilliant).

Of course, the intricacy of his plan and the execution of it during the final sequence was also skillfully and engagingly accomplished.

There were, however a few questionable plot points–the main one being the issue of why the draconian partners in the firm were so willing to go easy on Mitch, when they seemed to flinch only slightly before eliminating other dubious associates who seemed to be in contact with the FBI or engaged in suspicious activities. It wasn’t clear to me why they were willing to let it slide in Mitch’s case. I found that problematic, but not a deal-breaker.

Other issues for me included Abby’s passivity–she was extra-super flat as a character, in the book. She knows she’s being tailed and she does nothing, instead leading the tail straight to the rendez-vous point?! What?! But this also gets at the bigger issue, which is that I really didn’t care very much about any of the characters. Mitch was a bit of a jerk often as not, and I mildly sympathised with the position in which he found himself, but I wasn’t rooting wildly for him as the vise closed in. And, as with Abby and the other characters in the book, he didn’t feel particularly developed or compelling to me. He was a vehicle, and as such he served his purpose well enough, but I felt largely disengaged from the narrative at an emotional level. I persisted only out of a cerebral or intellectual curiosity to see how it would all develop and resolve itself. And at that level, I did think it a reasonably rewarding read–but there was no corresponding emotional payoff for me at the end.

Overall–thumbs up for an intricately-plotted thriller, so long as you’re not looking for a big emotional connection or dazzling prose style.

The Firm: Amazon.ca: John Grisham: Books.

Listening to the Music of the Spheres: Arecibo

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As a young teen, my brother was fascinated by Carl Sagan’s works. Cosmos opened up fascinating new worlds and new possibilities. As a younger sister, I was initially intrigued because my brother was intrigued, but soon, the fascination became self-supporting for me as well. Sagan’s Cosmos got at the core concepts of astronomy, extra-terrestrial life and the wondrously ungraspable scope of the universe beyond. It brought out the delight and the heady excitement of the possibilities implied by the vastness of space out there. I loved the idea of becoming an astronomer and even did a junior high school research project on radio astronomy, in preparation for my scientific career.

But, as the years went by, I discovered that Sagan’s portrayals were at the level of concept. The real, day-to-day encounters with the universe out there were via a language of complex equations and mathematics–and knowledge was advanced in tiny increments, with only the occasional burst of revelation.

I became drawn, instead, to the speculative worlds of sf/f. It was the human story that most fascinated me. I was intrigued by the things that remain common to all of us, and the things that shape us differently, from society, to society. What are foundational paradigms, and what are culturally-shaped perspectives? The lines between those two divisions fascinated–and continue to fascinate–me. My only return to the wonders of physics was via widely-accessible public lectures, or books like A Brief History of Time, which brought out the wonder of the quantum and the macro-worlds, without resorting to the daunting idioms of scientific jargon.

Still, I retained a fondness for those years of looking up at the night sky and being carried by a giddy yearning to know more–for that vertiginous sense of the vastness, and of our tininess. That sense of being poised on the surface a spinning globe that hurtles through space at extraordinary speeds. I still feel that sense of wonder and delight when I look up at the sky above. And so, when we had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico, a visit to the Arecibo observatory was an absolute must.

The road to and from the observatory was often unpaved, twisting and turning through dense thickets–too narrow, in many places, to admit more than one car at a time. If you encountered another vehicle, you had to engage in the little ritual of determining who would pull over onto the shoulder and allow the other to pass.

On the way, we ate at a roadside place that served a hearty chicken and plantain stew on rice–our first encounter with plantains and that distinctive bananna flavour in a non-sweet context. It was tasty, though I ended up eating around the chicken (I’m unfortunately finicky about chicken). Then, back on the road in our rental car, bouncing and bumping our way through the daunting landscape as we crossed our fingers against flat tires or car breakdowns. No four-bar coverage in this vicinity. And then, a final turn, and signs, welcoming us to our destination.

The radio telescope is a vast dish, made of mesh, so the rain can fall through. Underneath, shade loving plants thrive. The surface of the bowl, like everything else, is subject to the entropy of the tropical climate–the discolorations of rain, humidity and the small mildews and fungii that propagate in such climates were starting to take their toll. And yet, it was still so impressive–this vast bowl, occupying an entire valley, in the middle of a tangled wilderness. Again, I felt that touch of wonder, that sense of giddy, excited yearning, as the strange, metallic construction conflated, in my mind, with the potential that it represented. This was our receptor for listening to the music of the spheres–our way of reaching out to the wonder of the ineffable vastness of the cosmos, one radio blip at a time. 

Laura by Vera Caspary

Since I’m on holiday, I’m getting a chance to catch up with some of my fiction reading. I have lofty goals for these holidays, but don’t know how much I’ll accomplish, given that I’m bone-tired in the wake of the last few weeks of stress and prep for mid-terms and finals at law school. I’m hoping to finish my novel, to get lots of relaxation reading done (I’m ravenous for fiction right now, I find), update my website, create my resume (summer jobs!! Gotta pay that law school tuition somehow!) and so on. The list is absurdly long.

Still, I’m on glorious break, for now.

The first book I read was Laura by Vera Caspary. I loved the film as a teen, and probably still would–it’s elegant, wistful and has the trappings of noir in so many ways, but is ultimately more haunting, idealistic and less gritty than the usual bleak urban contours of the genre. The book had much of that as well–though there are differences in the adaptation, I’d still call it a faithful one in many key ways. It’s an apt translation to film, such that I wasn’t shocked at the differences and enjoyed the book as a more faceted version of the movie, rather than something vaguely related (read: Blade Runner v. Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?) with some similar concepts.

So, the book. There are a few things that are striking, that I’ve been mulling over since finishing reading it. First, the narrative of class delineations–Mark McPherson as interloper in the glittering world of Manhattan socialites. You can see the striations between the classes (Bessie, the Irish made who works for Laura, represents a third class, closer to Mark’s than to Laura’s), and it presents such a fascinating glimpse of the layers that existed in the New World metropolis of the 1940s, each level piled upon each other like a sample of sedimentary rock.

A second thing that fascinates me: it was written in the 40s and set in the 40s–a contemporary narrative. And the details show so much in common with our world, and yet so many differences that emerge and show that the day-to-day experience of living in that world, for all its familiar, larger, conceptual trappings, would have been utterly bewildering to someone from today. The challenges, the inconveniences and the implicit expectations–around gender, etiquette, dress and interaction. Utterly different. Tom loves to reiterate the quote “the past is a foreign country”–and indeed, it surely is, for all that so much of it is familiar to us.

A third thing–Caspary’s writing. It’s fascinating to see the way she creates the mannered, pedantic voice of Waldo Lydecker–it feels self-conscious and somewhat belaboured, and she’s wise enough to make that part of his character as well: that of a writer whose estimate of his own talent is rather more generous than reality would indicate. But still, the effort of creating that voice is apparent. Mark’s voice is similarly marked by some indicators of effort or struggle. Caspary has, again, worked that into the character, who is intelligent, curious and ultimately conflicted between the trappings of elegance, education and the glittering world he sees on the one hand, and a pious, Presbyterian outlook that wants to disdain any sign of airs, graces or pretension. The voice she has created for him reflects that as well–it moves between the standard tropes of the hardboiled private eye and a more articulate, elegant kind of prose. But, most revealing of all is the section written in Laura’s voice. It’s only when I read her section that suddenly, the constraints and tensions of the other sections became evident. Laura is eloquent, her voice is rich, multi-faceted and her character is utterly alive and organic. Her confusions are vividly painted, encapsulated in a vibrant, compelling presence. Suddenly, the writing comes alive, and makes the rest seem stiff and a little clunky by comparison.

I enjoyed the other sections very much–it’s a fun and utterly readable narrative–and it’s mainly by comparison that the other sections suffer. But Laura’s voice is really what makes the book the most fascinating to me and what provides these fascinating, tantalizing glimpses into the tensions and complexities of life that a career woman of the 1940s might have faced. Otherwise, it’s a fun, noir-edged piece of pulp fiction–but that section takes it to a new and fascinating level.

On the Road to Kingston

… we stopped by the roadside “service station”–where they have fast food and fast gas. We stopped for a fast bite and a visit to the facilities. As I washed my hands, a woman beside me wielded eyelash curlers and was busy shaping her eyelashes. Which is all well and good (I have nothing against curling eyelashes in general), except that I wondered why she would feel the urgent need to do it at a public rest stop just off the 401.

I suppose it’s my own dislike of public restrooms–a fastidiousness that doesn’t serve me well–but I feel like I get slightly (very slightly) soiled by the mere act of entering one. I cannot imagine wanting to do anything, except perforce, that requires me to have any kind of contact with my eyes. And so, I left, slightly mystified, and we continued our drive to Kingston.

On our way back, we tried to stop in at a Canadian Penetentiary Museum in town, but alas, it was closed. As we were turning, a red fox streaked by at a fast run.

Later, we stopped in at the Canadian Aviation Museum (or maybe the Canadian Airforce Museum?). I didn’t expect to be engaged, but ended up finding it fascinating. The planes themselves were the most interesting. They had a full-scale replica of an early flying machine. The wings were of stretched silk, and the body was of wood, with copper strips and rivets holding the separate pieces of glowing, varnished wood together. It had a single “ski”, instead of dual pontoons, for a water takeoff an landing, and the two wings had tiny little wooden pontoons at the very ends. The seats for the two riders were tiny, and I cannot imagine even a regular-sized adult fitting into either of them, today.

The device, the gears, the rest of it was all lashed together with an exquisitely crisscrossed mass of thin metal cables. It looked beautiful–a strange mix of organic warmth (the wood, the silk) and rigorous, symmetrical structure. It also looked dauntingly fragile–those cables were thin, and I can only imagine the kinds of stresses they would be put under in flight. And nothing–no protective metal covering or any other kind of reinforcement to help alleviate that stress. A few, key snaps of cable and it all would come tumbling down.

Somehow, it felt like it had been pulled from a dreamer’s fancy–and, too, it seemed like a testament to the amazing, fragile wondrousness of our ability to imagine, and plan and then to bring those imaginings into the world and to give them solid form. We envisage dreams and nightmares both and they come, when called. This, at least, was a dream, though the nightmares came too–and were hinted at in other parts of the museum (the boys whose planes were shot down–who were immolated in midair, or lived out years in prison camps).

All this, on the road between Toronto and Kingston.

Nested Narratives of Case Law: It’s Stories All the Way Down

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Well, it has been some time since I had any kind of opportunity to update this blog. I don’t know that I’ll be any more reliable in that regard, in the weeks and months to come, either. I started law school in September, at U of T. An amazing, wonderful, fascinating and engaging experience. Law school is pretty much all I hoped for and possibly more. I love reading the cases. They are narratives within narratives.

At the most obvious level, we find the story–often tragic–of the facts around the case being heard. Who wronged whom, who breached which contract, and so on. Sometimes the wrongs seem trivial, sometimes they’re a little bit humorous, and other times they are really, really sad. But this is human drama, at its core. This is story–true stories that are about the struggles and sufferings of real people. They’re riveting, and often deeply moving, at that level alone.

The next level of is that of the reasoning of the judge, as he or she tries to puzzle his or her way to justice. Sometimes the judgments read as crisp, clear, dazzling exercises in thought, revelations of insight or explications of method. Other times, they are dark, tortured and reveal another dimension of struggle and conflict, as you see the judge torn between the common law precedents–or the constraints of the statute–and the ruling that would be just in this instance. Sometimes the tension is between the justice of the moment, of the case at hand, and the clear concern that in using the precedents a certain way, and deciding the case a certain way, a new and dangerous precedent could be set, and the law could take a very problematic direction if left unchecked.

And then, there is the way the cases fit together–the way that subsequent judges look at the precedents, they way that they read them, and struggle with them, such that each case piles upon the previous ones as a tottering, precarious structure that doesn’t always fit well together, but somehow all manages to remain upright. It’s a beautiful thing, the way we try to bring order to the chaos of our complex, everyday interactions and the wrongs we do each other.

We try to bring order to it, but also want justice, and the flexibility to administer that, within the constraints of a fair system. As you can imagine, these are all ideas in tension with each other: the challenge of bringing order to chaos, with flexibility and fairness. And that tension shows, in processes that try to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance and are consequently ungainly and slow; in decisions that rub each other the wrong way, as society changes and suddenly past precedents begin to chafe; in decisions that show the conflict involved in trying to figure out how we should be treating each other, and against what standard that should be judged.

The rulings are messy because we’re messy. Any system that’s too restrictive and rules-based would result in more injustice than justice. So instead, common law moves, and bends and shifts this way and that, as it tries to find the just, middle ground. And that messy, tangled mass of rulings that are full of these subtexts of conflict are beautiful–they’re our dream of justice, our dream of a fair society, under the rule of law.