Do you ever have one of those odd moments when you are seeing something unfamiliar and suddenly it becomes extremely familiar? Or perhaps you see something very familiar but it suddenly reminds you of something equally familiar but totally different? I had one of those experiences today.
I was reading a law review article on Karl Llewellyn. For the uninitiated, Llewellyn is one of the giants of twentieth-century American legal thought, particularly if you â€“ like me â€“ have an interest in real legal subjects like contracts. He was one of early leaders of the Legal Realist movement, Young Turk intellectuals who shook up the jurisprudential establishment in the 1920s and early 1930s. (Imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway as law professors.) He went on to become a pioneer in legal sociology, writing a well-respected book on legal practices among American Indians. Finally, at the end of his life he completed the transition from audacious bad-boy of the law reviews to Grand Old Man, serving as Reporter for the Uniform Commercial Code and largely re-writing the whole of American commercial law, especially the law of sales. Every time you buy a tangible physical object in the United States, you are governed by rules that Llewellyn wrote.
I teach the Uniform Commercial Code, so I have been trying to find tidbits of historical and philosophical color that I can add to my class. Thus, this afternoon I found myself reading a very lengthy article arguing that Llewellynâ€™s jurisprudential development can be traced out in the story of his alcoholism, sexual impotence, and string of marriages. The article was that rarest of beasts in the modern world: Something that took Freudianism seriously. All of Llewellynâ€™s most private dirty laundry was aired, and his adult behavior was carefully correlated to the sexual dynamics of his childhood. I was even treated to a Freudian reading of a poem written by the 9-year-old Llewellyn.
The whole experience reminded me of nothing so much as reading Fawn Brodie or perhaps D. Michael Quinn. The faith in the Vienna delegation was strongly Brodiesque, almost touching in the chastity and simplicity of its psychological beliefs. There were even footnotes of the kind that would have made Quinn proud, solemnly informing me that learning about Llewellynâ€™s inability toâ€¦you knowâ€¦in the mid-1930s allows us to see him not as a lesser being, but as one with a deeper, richer, and more ambiguous life. Apparently, I can still have a testimony of Article 2 of the UCC even after I find out that Llewellyn was teaching his classes drunk and hiding his liaison with his research assistant from his wife. Needless to say, Iâ€™m relieved.
My reaction to the pyschologizing of Llewellyn, I find, is very similar to my reaction to the pyschologizing of Joseph Smith. At one level, the torrent of Freudian characters â€“ id, ego, and superego all chattering away with one another â€“ seems entirely implausible. On the other hand, one canâ€™t help but feeling that one has a better sense of his character for knowing more of the details. And yet, I canâ€™t help but see the attempt to trace the genesis of the UCC to sexual repression in Llewellynâ€™s childhood as being ultimately less than compelling as a jurisprudential theory.
I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™ll include stories of Llewellynâ€™s impotence in my class. It is not that I necessarily feel a need to protect his sacred memory. Llewellyn and I have more than our share of fights, and one of the great joys of being a commercial law professor is the ability to spar with the mind of Llewellyn as it lives on in the code. I just donâ€™t know how much it is going to help my students understand what is going on in the UCC.