June 23rd, 2011
Bleak House…

Charles Dickens’ endless murky description of existence as a sad and murky predicament, figures in John Roberts’ opinion against Anna Nicole Smith’s heirs today.

[Roberts] began with a quote from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House detailing long-running litigation in which the original parties have “died out of it.” Smith died of an accidental prescription drug overdose in 2007. Her husband’s son, E. Pierce Marshall, died from an infection in 2006. Dickens wrote of a “long procession” of judges and a suit that “drags its weary length before the court.”

“Those words were not written about this case,” Roberts wrote, “but they could have been.”

The spectacular opening chapter of Bleak House, with its evocation of a fogged-in, hopeless, and sinister world, is here.

You can read the novel in the way Roberts does, as what a University of Maryland professor calls the “ultimate indictment of law, lawyers, and the legal system in the English language.”

The novel’s institutional world indeed paints us as “litigation-fever” dupes, pinning our greedy and grandiose hopes on the outcome of this or that legal case. Equally greedy lawyers, however, systematically draw those very cases out to infinity, so that we die – our pockets emptied by legal fees — long before the cases are decided.


There’s something Kafkaesque in this portrayal of life as a matter of almost comic futility, and plenty of critics read Dickens’ novel as an anticipation of modernist absurdity and nihilism.

More intimately, the pathos of Smith’s, and her son’s, bleak prescription pain pill lives makes these abstractions real. In the opera based on their lives, the character of Smith’s son says nothing at all, Anthony Tommasini notes, until after he dies:

The only lines that Mr. Rowntree has come after Daniel has died, when, his head peering from a body bag, he sings a litany of drug names.

This is the punishing reality – surreality – of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, the starkest imaginable presentation of our credulity, our vulnerability, our predicament.

Hear them sing it? Ten years in the courts…

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