Law and Conversation

October 21, 2011

Terror in literature and real life

I’m shedding no tears at the death of Muammar Gaddafi, just as I shed none on learning of the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, or any other brutal dictators.

But I’m not dancing in the streets over it, either.

A friend and fellow Illinois lawyer, Lee Goodman, posted thoughtfully today on Gaddafi’s demise, the ensuing celebrations, and the coincidence of today being Simchat Torah, the significance of which another friend explained to me a couple of nights ago. (Lee is president of MentorCLE, which has a presentation of mine, “Persuasive Writing for Lawyers,” that you can watch and, if you’re a lawyer, get 1 hour of MCLE professionalism credit for; if you pay for the credit, I receive a small royalty.)

A famous line from Shakespeare’s play, “Henry VI,” is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Back when I thought lawyer jokes were funny (that was a LONG time ago), I thought that was hilarious. Since then, I’ve not only become a lawyer but learned the context of that line: it’s what an aspiring tyrant proposes to do to make it easier for him to assume absolute power and despotism, and it isn’t a bit funny. As I was pondering Lee’s post and the events of yesterday, I started thinking about what it must be like to be a resident in a country where such unrest is occurring and how lucky I feel not to be there and, instead, in a country where the rule of law remains strong.

Libya and Iraq seem very far away, not only geographically but culturally, and Romania isn’t that much closer. But periods of terror have certainly happened in western cultures as well, and even in the fairly recent past: Romania straddles west and east, Hitler was dictator of Germany within living memory, and there are those in Spain who still mourn Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who, though ruthless, did bring Spain out of the horrible Spanish Civil War and into peace.

Here are some memorable literary treatments of historical terror:

1) Can’t start this list with any book other than Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” depicting life during the Terror in France in the years after 1789.

2) A number of people retweeted British author Adel Darwish‘s comment earlier today that the fate of Gaddafi’s body reminded him of the scene in “The Iliad” when Priam begs Achilles for the release of Hector’s body as he was dragging it toward the Greeks’ camp. Coincidentally, The Economist has a nice review of four translations of Homer’s epic poem and recommends sticking with Richard Lattimore’s 60-year-old classic work while checking out Alice Oswald’s recent “Memorial” for a reminder of how shocking Homer’s gory descriptions are, even in the third millennium after he composed them. (Hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily.) I picked up our household copy of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, a thoughtful gift from my sister, and was struck by how opening it practically anywhere at random yielded a graphic, blood-soaked description of killing.

3) Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning  “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” provides a snapshot of life in the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, as bad a ruler as they come.

Finally, Literary Kicks has an interesting post from last year by Claudia Moscovici on life in Ceausescu’s Romania. And Britain’s The Daily Mail has a piece on the demises of several notable tyrants, concluding with The One That Got Away: Josef Stalin, who, unlike his fellow tyrants, was never deposed and died in his bed of natural causes.

This Friday night I’m wishing for an end to terror in Libya and elsewhere, and a return to peace and the rule of law. Since Germany, Spain, Romania, France, Greece, and many other countries who have had awful periods of terror now enjoy peace and democracy, there must be hope.


  1. You put it all in a thought-provoking context. So different from the nightly newscast that I just watched. I’m not sure how to read the last line, wherein you say “there must be hope.” I could read it as “I insist that there is hope” because we cannot live without hope, or “these events prove that things can get better.” Probably both are appropriate.

    Comment by Lee — October 21, 2011 @ 6:45 pm | Reply

    • Definitely both, Lee.

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — October 21, 2011 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

  2. Right on the money:
    I ’m shedding no tears at the death of Muammar Gaddafi, just as I shed none on learning of the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, or any other brutal dictators.

    But I’m not dancing in the streets over it, either.
    Many critical minds share your feeling’

    Interesting connections!
    Isn’t it true that the great works of literature are timeless?

    Comment by Osayimwense Osa — January 19, 2012 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

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