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The Failure of the Word opens with an appalling footnote to legal history. In 1943, in Vichy France, a lawyer named Joseph Haennig published an article on Vichy's anti-Jewish law. Haennig called for a restrictive definition of Jewishness and for placing the burden of proof on the state, citing German decisions that had shown "largeness and objectivity of opinion" on this point. Haennig did not question the validity of the law itself. Confronted with evil—with genocide—he analyzed instead of acting. Weisberg, a law professor himself, feels that this is the paradigmatic lawyer's approach. To a work that deals with characters who talk instead of acting, he provides the subtitle The Protagonist as Lawyer.
Weisberg discusses Dostoevski, Flaubert, Camus, and Melville. Throughout these novelists' books, he finds, there are protagonists who, like Hamlet, use loquacity to rationalize or disguise inaction. Even worse, passive but talkative characters ensnare and dominate active, virile figures, or "a series of creative verbalizers [may] organize criminal proceedings against a nonverbal defendant whose moral system differs from their own." Here loquacity becomes "organic mendacity," a smokescreen covering true motive. That motive, Weisberg argues (drawing heavily upon Nietzsche), is ressentiment—generalized rancor and envy, a resentment of imagined insults that gnaws upon inactive characters.
Dostoevski comes into the study because of the ressentiment that possesses his Underground Man, because in Crime and Punishment a prosecuting attorney pursues a law student, and because of Mitya's trial in The Brothers Karamazov. In Flaubert's Salammbô, the verbose Greek Spendius controls the barbarian warrior Matho just as the eunuch Schahabarim, with his "mysterious vocabulary and fantastic imagination," controls the Princess Salammbô. In Sentimental Education, Frédéric Moreau finds in language a refuge from love and political action. The pattern repeats itself in The Fall, in which Camus's lawyer Clamence throws out a self-exculpatory blanket of words. In The Stranger, the murder charges against Meursault are meretricious. He is really put on trial, however, for being a stranger to the social code of the investigating magistrate and prosecution witnesses. "The European trial," Weisberg writes, "is no more than a representation in dramatic and linguistic form of a view of the defendant created by the [prosecutor]."
The book's longest section covers Billy Budd. Weisberg's reading is revisionist. He sees Claggart, not Billy, as the tale's Christ figure; Billy represents pagan vitality, which Claggart resents. Captain Vere is not a good man acting against his will; an unconscious ally of Claggart's, he twists the law in order to have Billy hanged. The explanation Weisberg offers is peculiar: Vere transfers to Billy the ressentiment he holds toward Lord Nelson (who, like Billy and unlike Claggart and Vere, is straightforward and active). [End Page 437]
The points Weisberg makes are interesting, even though his section on Dostoevski, "The Failure of the Christian Narrative Vision," (probably because of Nietzsche's influence) seems to misunderstand the Christian perspective and comes close to mistaking bigotry for dogma. The overall point of the work, however, is vague. Why single out these novels and novelists? In collecting these essays, Weisberg has stopped short of providing a full analytic framework. Similar themes are examined with an unsystematic difference in degree. Why discuss Dostoevski's interest in czarist penal law while skimming over Camus's legal background, or focus on ressentiment in one essay although scanting it in another? Law, lawyers, and legalism are the themes that connect these essays, but The Failure of the Word is not a comprehensive exploration of this literary terrain. [End Page 438]