Friday, May 8, 2009

The law, half sick of shadows

I have long wanted to post a photograph of this. It's Boalt Hall School of Law, festooned with an odd quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
When I think ... of the law, I see a princess mightier than she who wrought at Bayeux, eternally weaving into her web dim figures of the ever-lengthening past – figures too dim to be noticed by the idle, too symbolic to be interpreted except by her pupils, but to the discerning eye disclosing every painful step and every world-shaking contest by which mankind has worked and fought its way from savage isolation to organic social life.
A Victorian medievalism subtends these interesting metaphors. The law is represented as feminine, and a weaver, a feminine-coded occupation. (The Bayeux tapestry is actually embroidered.) The law weaves a history, like the one represented in the Bayeux tapestry; in this sense the law is an observer and a recorder.

Calling the tapestry a "web" evokes, at least for me, the Lady of Shalott, who is bound to see the world only through a mirror, and weave the reflected images into her tapestry.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights
The reflected images are only "shadows" of course, hence removed from reality and "dim" like the images that Holmes describes. Curiously, Holmes makes much of that dimness; he mentions it twice. No matter how "might[y]" this princess, her web is by definition dim; the law is explicitly a recorder of shadows, and retired from the world. Tennyson focuses on the weaver:
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.


She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Holmes, on the other hand, cares more about the tapestry. There's no question for him of whether Princess Law likes weaving under a curse. Still, the "dim" occupation doesn't make the law sound any too jolly.

Notice, too, how "princess" is not a political label here, even when the princess is "might[y]." "Princess" is a bizarre term to use for the law in a democracy, since it at least superficially recalls monarchic law, but here "princess" is clearly only code for "classy woman constrained to weave forever in a tower." She is "might[y]," but not politically or even artistically mighty. It is a mere reflection, and thus mere fallen mimesis, calling on a whole discourse of women's reproductive work, as contrasted with masculine creation. Her weaving is not even excellently mimetic; it is "dim" and difficult to decipher because it is "symbolic." Her might as a weaver seems to lie in quantity; the tapestry goes on "eternally."

All this is to say: what a strange thing to quote on the front of a law school.


skg said...

Yes! Urgh. Tennyson, and the peaceweaving women married off as tokens of remembrance of truces in Bwf, lit. "freothuwebbe." (On phone, cannot produce eth.)

Natalia said...

Oh, yes, I'd forgotten the peaceweavers. Interesting to think of identifying them as law.