What company do you keep? On 'Star Wars' and more

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia testifies before a House Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this file photo takne May 20, 2010. Scalia, 79, was found dead on Saturday in Texas, the San Antonio Express-News reported, citing a U.S. district court judge. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2010. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The late, great Wayne Booth, an English professor at the University of Chicago, had two sensational ideas. The first involves the "implied author"—the person who seems to stand behind the text, and who may or may not be similar to the real human being who wrote it. We'll get to "Star Wars" soon, I promise.

Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, had an unforgettable implied author: funny, sharp, warm, occasionally hot and sometimes cutting, but also full of mischief (which leavened the cutting). Paul Krugman has an equally distinctive one: smart, learned and quick, but at times arrogant, uncharitable and superior. By contrast, Tyler Cowen has a terrific implied author, notable for wit, generosity and capaciousness of spirit. Orin Kerr, of this blog, has a sensational implied author: fair-minded, curious and unfailingly decent.

Booth's second idea involves "the company we keep." He urges that works of literature are a bit like friends, or company, in the sense that we visit with them, and they can poison our emotions and our attitudes toward the world. They can also be uplifting.

Some novels are horrendous company, even if we are drawn to them. Booth's chief example is Peter Benchley's "Jaws." As the novel starts, Benchley prepares readers for a violent encounter between a woman (who has recently "thrashed" with her boyfriend in "urgent ardor on the cold sand") and the "big fish," the shark, moving "silently through the night water," with eyes that are "sightless in the back" and "a small, primitive brain."

Here is Booth's point: By arousing the reader with the prospect of violence and by reveling in the "bloody adventure, the story at each step molds me into its shapes, giving me practice, as it were, in wanting certain outcomes and qualities and ignoring certain others. I become, for the hours of reading, that kind of desirer." (Remind you of any op-ed writers?)

As excellent company, Booth points to William Butler Yeats's "The Fiddler of Dooney." As Yeats writes, St. Peter will call the fiddler quickly through heaven's gate: "And when the folk there spy me / They will all come up to me / With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!' / And dance like a wave of the sea."

True, it's not exactly modest to say that you'll zoom right through heaven's gate. But there's such joy and delight in the poem and such contagious exuberance, that readers feel that they are themselves dancing to Yeats's fiddle.

Judges, lawyers and law professors would do well to think about Booth's two great ideas, because they create implied authors, and because they may or may not be good company. (A confession: I regret the title and the tone of my 2005 book, "Radicals in Robes"; I don't love the implied author, who's agitated and sometimes accusatory. He's not good company.) By Booth's standards, Justice Robert H. Jackson gets Olympic gold, because he's honest and fair. Justice Hugo Black does far less well (I think). Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is a complicated one. He's witty and fun, and he's wise, but sometimes he doesn't treat opposing arguments with respect.

Among law professors over recent decades, Guido Calabresi stands out. Like Kerr, he's unfailingly fair. Like Scalia, he's appealingly mischievous.

Which brings us to "Star Wars." People of all kinds find it to be terrific company. It's warm and it moves fast, and it's generous of spirit. Darth Vader is the worst person in the galaxy (with the exception of Emperor Palpatine), but he has good in him (Luke was right!), and so he's the chosen one who restores balance to the Force. If Vader's son, the hero of the narrative, also has some Dark Side in him (and he does), and if he himself can choose the Light, well, any Manichean approach to politics, law or life is probably a big mistake.

The implied author of "Star Wars" is immensely likable. George Lucas—the actual author, though he had a lot of help—once said that the most characteristic feature of his films was "effervescent giddiness." (He added that he found that puzzling, because he's not at all like that as a person.)

It's a lot of fun to be in the presence of effervescent giddiness, but much more is going on in "Star Wars": puzzles, journeys, choices, politics and even law. Writing a book on "Star Wars" was an unexpected adventure for me; a central motivation was that the movies are terrific company.

A small suggestion for writers of all kinds: When you're choosing projects, and what to write, it's not the worst idea to think about what kind of company you'll keep—and also what kind of company you'll turn out to be.