ad astra per alia porci

it’s the last lap
January 9, 2011, 3:51 am
Filed under: diary, Law, Lifeskills

After 3.5 years of slogging, I have finally reached the last semester of law school. I am on course for what I want, the prize is firmly in sight, and I want to go out on a high. This semester is crucial and I need to cement things.

This might seem a bit late, but I guess some self-troubleshooting and advice always helps, regardless of when it is dished out.

Regarding study…

  • Quality not quantitative study – stop thinking that more time spent studying will necessarily result in better results.
  • Think more and read less
  • Speed is not quality.
  • Do not be an intellectual snob – stop being stuck in your own paradigm, embrace and fully understand new views, learn learn and learn more
  • Interact and synthesise the ideas of other writers to make your own unique view with its own justifications – being able to advance your own view is much better than parroting another person’s views
  • Interact with the teacher – understand and interact with his or her point of view
  • Speak up and shut up when you have to
  • Lecture notes must be transferred onto my personal notes within one day of its making – do not stockpile lecture notes and transcribe them all at one sitting

Regarding computer habits…

  • Do not play computer games. Period.
  • Stop shuttling between work and the internet
  • Check emails and IVLE only two times a day
  • Visit my regular news websites only two times a day

Apart from these concrete advice, there is always the less tangible, affective and attitudinal aspects. I do not think that I am doing much wrong in this area so far, but it is worth stating explicitly the values and attitudes I think are good and/or I should display:

  • Education is cultivation of both intellect and character.
  • Do not settle for easy at the expense of cultivation and integrity
  • Exercise the mind
  • Passion – care deeply, without being blind and insensitive.
  • Put in your best effort and create quality work – the quality of work is a reflection of the character of the person who did it
  • Intellectual integrity – make sure that your views are your own and make an honest effort to understand and interact with the views of others, and admit and confront the limits of your knowledge.
  • Humility – never think that you are always right. There is usually something to learn from others.
  • Compassion – help other people who deserve the help; do not help those who do not help themselves
  • Wonder – let the mind wander – think of possibilities
  • Scepticism – challenge convention and always ask questions

This is it. School starts tomorrow and before I know it my law school career will be over. Here’s to a great last semester.

Hugel Riesling 2008
January 8, 2011, 2:46 pm
Filed under: alcohol | Tags: , , , , ,

Dry, direct and very drinkable. I have never tried a riesling before, so I searched for the difference between it and a chardonnay. Apparently a riesling is sweeter and less dry. My impression of the Hugel Riesling is that it is elegant in a mild way, even though it tastes fresh and tight. It is very drinkable; I had three glasses at one go. It does not keep that well though; when I drank it a day after the taste was different. Riesling might just become my favourite white, after pouilly-fume. I think I like minerally, dry wines.

the edge of creation

At a recent dinner with my secondary school class and form teacher, I commented that studying law is easier than philosophy. My friends were quite surprised since law is commonly perceived as an exacting and tough subject to study, in comparison to the “fluffy” humanities. They did not pursue the issue and ask for my reasons.

I really do think that as an academic discipline, law is easier than philosophy. I might not have engaged in the study of philosophy for my entire undergraduate career and indeed I have in fact studied much more law than philosophy, but I think that I have enough experience to give an informed opinion.

It is important to explain exactly what I mean when I claim that it is “easier”. In what way is it easier?

Studying law is easier than studying philosophy in the sense that one can become proficient and adept in law through sheer hard work alone, while the same cannot be said of philosophy. The law is in essence a closed set of explicit rules and principles that, when applied to particular facts and cases, will yield certain results. These rules and principles are all readily found in the textbooks, statutes and legal cases. If one knows and understands the technical machinery of the law, one becomes proficient in the law. It does not take a lot of innate ability to become proficient at the law; it takes only a strong will and hard work. If a student is less adept with language or learns at a slower pace than another student, that student just needs to put in more effort and she will get there eventually.

Something more is required for philosophy. Philosophy has no concept of precedent. Aristotle might be a great philosopher but he has no special claim to the truth by virtue of his reputation and authority alone. His words cannot and must not be taken as absolute truth. Instead, philosophers looks for reasons and arguments that support or run against propositions and subject them to critical analysis. The field of possible arguments are limitless. This lack of limit translates readily to creativity. Philosophers have to perform mental acrobatics and challenge pre-existing presumptions, finding new and viable ways to make good arguments or destroy unjustified belief.

In contrast, for law, the arguments that are required in the conventional cases that may be resolved by pre-existing legal principles and rules are limited by precedent. Certain arguments cannot be made while certain other arguments must be made. There is a correct answer, and all we need to do is do sufficient leg and mental work to find it out.

So far I have treated the study of law as limited in its application to the “easy” cases. What about (to use Dworkin’s term) the “hard” cases which existing legal precedent do not cover and the court has to fashion new rules of law and/or reject existing rules? I readily concede that we see more creativity in the hard cases, because there is no existing legal rule to be applied and a new rule must be fashioned. However, this creativity is not limitedless, as would be the case in philosophy. Dworkin’s interpretive approach to law reveals this. Dworkin suggests that in the hard cases, the judge must seek to fashion a rule of law that presents the entire corpus of law in the best light possible. He calls this approach “constructive interpretation”. Constructive interpretation requires the new legal rule to both fit the past corpus of legal rules as well as bring the law to where it should be. It must be noted that under this view, the new legal rule in hard cases must show respect for past precedent. Hence in this way, the kind and form of legal arguments that may be raised in support of particular new legal rules are still limited in some way by what exists already in past precedent. It is perhaps less limited as compared to the situation in easy cases, but it is still limited.

Personally, I like the challenge of hard legal cases. I like the creativity required, the room to wander intellectually and the opportunity to construct from existing material as well as non-legal material coherent and sustainable arguments in support of new legal principles and rules. I like the tension between respecting precedent and testing legal boundaries. The easy cases fall within the comfort zone of law students and are correspondingly unexciting. It is in the hard cases, at the edges of legal creation, where the really exciting and demanding things are done. I tend to think of this as the legal equivalent of a geological phenomenon: the creation and destruction of land through movements of tectonic plates. When the tectonic plates of the Earth move against or away from each other, existing land is destroyed and new land is created. Similarly, in the hard cases new law is created and old law is destroyed. I have always regarded the edges of the law as particularly interesting, engaging and intellectually exciting since opportunities abound to create better laws and destroy bad ones.

This is the reason why I specifically chose to do my pupillage in the appellate department of a law firm. I hope that I will be engaged in appellate cases, so that I can stand at the edges of legal creation and contribute in some way to the creation of good laws and the destruction of bad laws.  I think that practising in this area of the law will be intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, and I certain hope that I am not wrong to think so.

a million allusions which i cannot catch
January 5, 2011, 4:07 pm
Filed under: the arts | Tags: , , , ,

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

It is tremendously annoying and intriguing at the same time to read a book filled to the brim with allusions and references. Blood Meridian wears a myriad of influences on its sleeve; one sees Faulkner, Melville’s Moby Dick and the Bible all over the book.

The problem is, I have not read all these sources before. The closest I got to being well-acquainted with any of them is reading Moby Dick, cover to cover. And even though I have done that before, I cannot say that I can recollect the novel well enough to sustain a proper comparison between Blood Meridian and Melville’s masterpiece.

So my experience of reading Blood Meridian is that of encountering a very long series of inexplicable allusions and being constantly tugged by the niggling sense that there is a broader significance to events in the novel and that these events and the very writing style draw upon a much larger history and tradition. I constantly get the sense that there is an unseen depth to the novel to which I have no access given my lack of knowledge and experience of related literature.

Undoubtedly, this book is very special. McCarthy is clearly not seeking to replicate verbatim historical events in the Wild West, but rather he is seeking to recreate, and to express his message. McCarthy comments on the ineradicable depravity of men, but withholds judgment. The book reads like scripture, has the grand timelessness of epics, and displays moral complexity (without judgmental finality). It seems to comment on the very fabric of the universe, as would any other primary religious text. As a post-modern novel, Blood Meridian is also keenly aware (thought not explicit) about its place in the literary tradition, as well as the limits of artistic creation. It unashamedly borrows from other traditions and yet at the same time intends and seeks to locate itself in, comment on and contribute to the development of literary traditions.

Blood Meridianl gets its meaning from comparison. In particular, the novel has many parallels with Moby Dick. The judge Holden is an inscrutable, compelling and ultimately horrifying character, a sophisticated and intellectual counterpart to Melville’s Ahab. He knows and speaks in alien languages, understands the complexity of law and science and exudes erudite wisdom and insight. He also brutally murder others, pillages towns, cunningly and falsely frames others, engages with whores and possibly indulges in paedophilia. From my summary searches, readers tend to be captured by the figure of the judge, and it is easy to see why. Professor Hungerford in her lectures ( suggests that judge Holden is a symbol of heroic evil, similar to Milton’s Satan. He has an allure that draws people to him, even though we can see just how morally repugnant he is, for he is eloquent and seems to be always in control, and yet he remains opaque to the reader who must guess what he stands for and what he thinks inside. It is initially puzzling to the reader why the judge is known as such since he is not a judge in the literal sense at all and instead his moral character is diametrically opposed to what we conventionally expect from a normal judge, but this curious inversion seems to lend weight to the idea that the world in Blood Meridian is poised on a knife’s edge, at the meridian, and the judge is the person who orchestrates and decides the flow of inevitable violence. The ironic naming of Holden as “the judge” contrasts with his lack of moral judgement on the depravity of all that goes around him and his active, self-conscious and self-gratifying participation in the propagation of violence and immorality.

However I am more fascinated by the figure of the kid, and how his character supports McCarthy’s (probable) message.

The kid is a poor and limited imitation of the wonderful Ishmael. The kid is flat and opaque, with no richness of moral interiority. He has no name. The reader gains little access to the kid’s inner thoughts and struggles for unlike Melville, McCarthy narrates in the third person and does not adopt the first person perspective from the position of the kid, and the only means of understanding his development (if any) is through his outward actions. However, his outward actions are decidedly cryptic and ambivalent; there are no instances where the kid unequivocally asserts a clear moral stance in his actions. Unlike in relation to the judge, I feels less compelled to understand what lies under the kid’s opaque exterior, for I get the sense that there is nothing underneath. The kid is like a puppet: he only has the outer resemblance of emotion and development. Towards the end of the

Judge Holden openly expresses his opinion that the kid is special, and alone and solely resists the corruption that overtook everyone. However this is deeply ironic for the kid hardly develops and one may even possibly construe the judge’s words as sarcasm. Sometime towards the end of the novel, the kid is described as “the man”. One would naturally expect some moral development or emotional maturity in the kid, but this is hardly evidenced in the novel. What we have is a crude caricature, a stillborn bilsdungroman, where the novel is uneasily crammed into the bildungsroman tradition when there is no material justifying it.

As if to make the point more emphatic, the kid’s final end is left ambivalent and open to interpretation. The reader is left to presume that the kid (now the man) went into the outhouse and was murdered in some gruesome way by presumably the judge, who later leaves to join the debauchery in the saloon and dance his eternal dance. The stark descriptive silence over the kid’s probable violent death greatly contrasts with the novel’s abundant willingness to depict explicitly and in almost virtuosic quality the rampant violence that pervades the novel. It seems almost as if McCarthy is literally erasing the kid from the novel, rendering mute the already scarcely audible voice of the kid. In doing so, McCarthy seems to be telling us that there is perhaps no means of understanding, confronting and subduing the evil that is innate in all men, and in the end moral evil reigns supreme and eternally. The judge dances his dance without end: “He never sleeps. He says he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favourite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

Given the richness and deliberate quality of the writing, I am sure Blood Meridian holds a great lot more than I perceive. I have not been impressed by much of the “modern” fiction (i.e. published in the 1900s) so far, so I am quite surprised to find such a gem. This is a book that I will revisit again once I have read the other books that it references.