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William C. Altreuter
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Friday, October 08, 2004

The lawyer who moderated the conference in Salzburg and I had a conversation about our experience of Europe the last night we were in town. She lives in Prague at the moment, and finds herself noticing some of the same odd disconnects that I do-- the disconnects that come from our American perception of history in contrast with the European experience of it. Some of it is purely cultural, and some of it, I think, has to do with the fact that in Europe all of it is still so close to the surface that one almost has to deny some of it.

She recommended a novel called "Austerliz" by W.G. Sebald (and a collection of essays: "On the Natural History of Destruction" which I want to read next). "Austerlitz" is terrific, a narrative of identity and displacement in the form of a discussion about, among other things, architecture. One of the buildings touched on is the Palace of Justice in Brussels, a huge pile that I saw for the first time right at the height of the pedophile scandal that consumed Belgium a few years back. Two weeks before I was there the local firemen had hosed the building in a symbolic protest with a meaning that was abundantly clear in the city which has as its monument Mannequin Pis. I was there attending a lawyer's conference, and the building had been opened to us for a reception. That evening, as we mounted the stairs, there were photographs and votive candles set out as memorials to the abducted and missing-- a further reproach to a justice system that had horribly failed.

I love courthouses, and I have always maintained that the ornate grandeur of courthouse architecture is important because it helps to impress upon we participants the solemn responsibility of working justice. It is easy to get lost in the sausage-making routine of practicing law, and easier, sometimes, in a courtroom that has the Formica ambiance of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Sometimes, though, the symbolism carries a different freight, and I was reminded of this on that evening, and again the other night, reading Sebald's book. The innumerable rooms, the maze of corridors, the anonymous numbering of every place we scuttle to and from in a courthouse are the embodiment of bureaucratic oppression, the impulse to create a structure with so little human scale that the end result is an institution which has no humanity left in it.

This is part of the European legal heritage we have inherited, as surely as are the Hellenic ideals of individual rights and all the rest of it.

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