Letters Archive
Spring 1994, Vol. 2, No. 2
  • Constructing American Studies
  • Charting the Humanities
  • Team-Teaching: "Political Trials and Trial Narratives"
  • Team-Teaching: "Political Trials and Trial Narratives"

    Lawrence D. Lerner

    Vanderbilt University Professors James A. Epstein, of the History Department and Laurence D. Lerner, of the English Department, taught a joint seminar on "Political Trials and Trial Narratives" to fifteen selected graduate students at the Humanities Center last May. In this article, Lerner reflects on what he learned from the experience.

    Jim and I were both at the University of Sussex, which pioneered jointly taught courses in the 1960s: I taught there from 1962 until I came to Vanderbilt in 1985, and Jim was an undergraduate there in the late sixties. We never met, but when we became colleagues here we soon realized how much our academic interests overlapped: Jim specializes in English history of the last two centuries, and has made a particular study of radical movements in the years after the French Revolution, and I have a strong interest in placing 19th century literature in its social and political context. The chance for us to teach together came through the graduate program in Social and Political Thought; Jean Bethke Elshtain, who directs it, was very supportive of our project.

    We received 27 applications for the 15 places, and choosing was very painful. We had to reject some whom we knew to be very good students. In the end, we took six from English, four from history, two from comparative literature, one from German, and two from law. One of the students of English also had a law degree, and one of the lawyers had majored in political science. A thoroughly interdisciplinary group. For the most obvious definition of interdisciplinary study says that the teachers, and if possible the students, will come from different departments. This is the definition that will naturally occur to an administrator, and it is a clearly useful one, but I think it possible to suggest another. The great interdisciplinary movement of the mid-20th century has been structuralism—the search for deep structures that link together disparate social and intellectual activities: as in Levi-Strauss's comparison between the exchange of women in marriage customs and the exchange of goods, or Chomsky's search for deep structures of grammar that speakers of a language use but cannot formulate. The structuralism, explaining social actions through the analogy of language, is automatically interdisciplinary—as is the post-structuralist, seeing deep structures as inherently unstable, or as political strategies that ought to be destabilized. The difference between the traditional literary historian and the post-structuralist, both operating in the same department, may be more profound than between the former and the historian, or the latter and the deconstructive philosopher.

    This points the way to another and perhaps more valuable conception of the interdisciplinary, deriving from the intellectual activity itself, not from who performs it. Interdisciplinary study, I now suggest, occurs when the same text is examined for different purposes, or when the same question is explored through different kinds of text. After reading the death warrant of Charles I and seeing the obstinate, legalistic integrity with which he refused to recognize the court, we looked at Marvell's Horatian Ode about Cromwell, which compares him to a force of nature ("Then burning through the air he went,/And palaces and temples rent"), and Charles upon the scaffold to an actor playing his part flawlessly among a set of real life groundlings ("While round the armed bands/Did clap their bloody hands"). This was the perfect opportunity to see what poetry can and cannot do in a political situation: it can compress a complex political argument into a balanced sentence—carefully not taking sides in a life-and-death struggle—and beyond that it can reflect on the interconnections between action and contemplation.

    What did the seminar actually do? We met for three hours every morning, Monday to Friday, the students had been told to regard the course as a full-time occupation, and there was enough reading to fill the rest of the day. I found it perhaps the most strenuous teaching experience I had ever had, and I had read most of the material beforehand; for the students who came to it all for the first time, it must have been exhausting. We were aware from the beginning of the danger of joint teaching, that it can become a dialogue between two professors arguing with each other from two ends of the table, while the students turn their heads from side to side like the spectators at a tennis match. Our students were so lively that there was in fact no danger of this, but we nonetheless built in what we thought of as a safety device: one of us would take charge of each session, and the other would not be allowed to speak until after the coffee break. This quaint device worked well enough though the self-imposed restraint sometimes proved too much for the passive partner—to the occasional amusement of the students.

    And what did we read? We were determined to range in time, so we began with the trial and execution of Charles I, along with the contemporary trial of the Leveller, John Lilburne: trying the king and trying the subject. We read contemporary reports of both trials, along with material on the Divine Right of Kings, and Shakespeare's Richard II. Then we leapt forward to England in the 1790s, to study the treason trials of radicals in the panic following the French revolution, along with William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams (1794), and some discussions of the rule of law in 18th-century England. Then another leap forward, to two prominent examples of the modern political show trial: the Moscow trials of 1938 (along with Arthur Koestler's novel on the subject, Darkness at Noon), and the trial of Klaus Barbie in France in 1987. Then we turned from politics to domestic violence to look at the trials of women for murdering their husbands, both in 17th-century England and in 19th- and 20th-century America, in order to ask, among other questions, how far these too should be seen as political. In between all this we had two interludes, to look at two brilliant plays that center on a trial scene, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Brecht, and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. (There is an inherent parallel between trial and theater that thrust itself on us all). Finally we looked at our own methodology, by comparing the study of literature and the study of law, an area of interdisciplinary exploration that has recently become lively and fruitful. We decided that it would be much better to put this theoretical discussion at the end rather than the beginning: there is no shortage today, in the intellectual world that these students inhabit, of discussions of post structuralism and literary theory, of whether history is a text and whether language is inherently unstable, and our seminar would have lost much of its individuality if it had begun by inviting everyone to take up positions about familiar issues and defend them with familiar arguments that would have made few converts. Furthermore, theory, in my view, takes on its fullest meaning only when applied, and the fact that when we came to the methodological discussions we already possessed a body of common reading to draw on made the theorizing richer and more fruitful.

    And what is there to learn by studying such political trials from the past—what, that is, besides satisfying our curiosity (which ought to be insatiable) about what human beings have done to one another in the course of history? Here I must speak for myself: it would be presumptuous to try and say what the students learned, but I know that I learned a great deal. I will start with John Lilburne, a 17th-century radical who had always been one of my heroes: a democrat in the age of absolutism, a colorful opponent of tyranny, a believer in the Inner Light (he became a Quaker at the end of his life). Reading the transcript of his trial, I kept feeling thankful that I didn't have Lilburne in my class; his constant legal quibbles (accompanied by fulsome insistences that he was no lawyer), his questioning of the authority of the court on the most trivial pretexts, reminded me of the worst moments with rebellious students in the heady days of 1969. I found myself identifying with the judges (am I getting old, I wondered), realizing how infuriating they must have found his readiness to identify himself with Christ, and his constant insistence on the Inner Light, until finally one of them burst out, "Never talk of that which is within you; God is in us, as well as in you.

    The English civil war often looks like the womb of the future: the sudden outburst of pamphlets in the 1640s that questioned every human and divine institution seems to throw up the entire political philosophy of the ensu ing three centuries. A good deal of the future (that is, of our present) can be found in Lilburne: proto-Marxism (property is antecedent to magistracy, he claimed), or Hobbesian views of the state of nature ("If you take away the law all things will fall into confusion"). The students, I found, had more sympathy than I had with the legal quibbles, and I wondered if it was because they were American, and had a constitution.

    The treason trials of the 1790s, too, spoke directly to me. John Frost, tried for sedition in 1793, was defended by Thomas Erskine, one of the leading lawyers of the day. Erskine dealt only with the law, not with politics: he ignored the arguments for and against Frost's egalitarianism and republicanism, and confined himself to showing that some of these opinions had been held by Pitt before he became Prime Minister, or that when Frost declared "I am for equality, I am for no kings," it could not be proved that he was speaking about the king of England. Joseph Gerrald, tried the following year, conducted his own defense, stating his political opinions and defending them at length: "Every nation has a right, not only to preserve the form of government which is actually established; but also, by the peaceful and calm operation of reason, to improve that form of government, whatever it may be." Gerrald's reasoned statement of the case for democracy made him seem a heroic figure in the history of political controversy, especially when he said to his obviously hostile judges, "Reason alone and not assertion can convert me. Frost and Gerrald were both found guilty.

    It has become a commonplace among radical deconstructionists today to interrogate the traditional liberal doctrine of the autonomous subject: the very idea of the individual capable of free and rational decisions, it is claimed, conceals the degree to which we are socially constructed. This argument leads to the claim that asserting one's belief in reason is a way of upholding the status quo, and that true radicalism must involve the subversion of the social codes themselves, the deconstructing of the idea of the subject (a "subject," after all, according to a piece of wordplay now widely cited, is subjected to a sovereign). As a good liberal, I have never accepted this argument; and I felt strengthened in this resistance as I read Gerrald and his fellow radical Daniel Eaton and saw how strongly the belief in reason and individual autonomy has in the past been used against the status quo. The true conservative position does not respect the subject, but dismisses the possibility of serious criticism from the "swinish multitude." If authority is to be subverted, then belief in the possibility of free judgment is not self-deception but the necessary basis for criticism.

    One of our students—a historian-expressed himself passionately on this issue. "You are the only one," he declared, "who can constitute your own subjectivity." Existential authenticity, he claimed, is so important that it must not be "objectified into an idea." Our most committed post structuralist, on the other hand, was a literary student, willing to deconstruct the individual into the social pressures exerted on him or her—of which he or she might not even be aware. It seems worth remarking on the irony that the discipline which has traditionally thought in terms of movements and tendencies is history, whereas literary scholars, reading poetry concerned with the growth of the individual mind, used to be the ones who asserted the importance of subjectivity and the autonomy of creation.

    Finally, a word on the twentieth century. As long as we have totalitarianism, we shall have show trials and rigged evidence; so that the trial of Bukharin and his associates, though not all that many living memories go back so far, seemed to be about the pre sent. It came to life startlingly when our Russian student mentioned that her grandparents had been convinced that Bukharin was guilty. The great enigma of the Moscow trials is of course why the accused confessed to monstrous and often ludicrous crimes of espionage and wrecking. As we read the transcript we came across passages like this: "I once more repeat that I am guilty of treason to the Socialist father land, the most heinous of all possible crimes, of the organization of kulak uprisings, of preparations for terrorist acts and of be longing to an underground, anti Soviet organization.... In reality, the whole country stands behind Stalin; he is the hope of the world; he is a creator." How could a man of such integrity and intelligence say such things? Many of the seminar members were certain that Bukharin was speaking in code, declaring to those that had ears to hear that he had committed none of these crimes, that the accusations themselves were the crime. Totalitarianism can certainly lead to such codes, but I am inclined more to the explanation so brilliantly put forward in Koestler's novel, that the accused were still communists, uninterested in individual good intentions, in what is contemptuously referred to as "cricket morality," concerned only with the "objective" political impact of their confessions, and therefore willing to fabricate absurd confessions if persuaded that it would be in the interests of the party. Both these explanations seem to be startlingly alive today: in a world of spreading fundamentalism, the interests of the movement prevail over truth; and public statements are often enough turned into code, even in a democracy.

    I would like to let a student have the last word, and I shall do this on a question that we had not thought of much importance, that the course was not taken for credit, and so not graded. During our post-mortem on the last day, one student remarked that he had thought he was fairly relaxed about grades, and able to concentrate on the work for its own sake; but he had been astonished at the relief he'd felt in this course, and the ease with which he'd been able to concentrate on the issues. At the same time, this ease may have made everything seem to us all the more existentially urgent. As, whenever I think about—it, it still does.

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