Juan Guzmán Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Confronting Chile's History: Conversation with Juan Guzman, Chief Judge, Court of Appeals, Santiago, Chile; 4/17/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Law and Literature

Are there any books of literature or poetry that stand out in your mind from your studies, both as a young person and then in college, any books that influenced you?

Well, mostly poetry. And within the English poetry, I would say If by Kipling has been a prayer that I have always said and conserved and utilized. That poem has meant something very special to me. And ... well, many things written by Shakespeare. I used to say them by heart before. Now, I wouldn't dare to try.

Soliloquies.

Soliloquies. You know, I used to say them, but now I don't think I remember any of them.

You did graduate work in France, I believe?

Yes, post-graduate. I studied literature, but I didn't get a degree, really. I was mostly focused on doing other things -- reading, living, and working a lot. I had several jobs there.

One of our distinguished Justices of the Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter, once wrote a letter to a student and said, "No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man. The best way to come to the study for the law is to come to the study of the law as a well read person." Do you agree with that?

Absolutely. And you can see that in Chile's legal profession -- I'm speaking of lawyers in my country, I have no experience in that matter here in the States -- but most of the Chilean lawyers are very illiterate in the way they express themselves and the things that they do, and in their ambitions. And that makes them very poor when they are in a hearing sometimes. You realize that they have very little culture. No, I think that to be a good lawyer or a judge, it's good to have a good cultural background.

Frankfurter went on to say that he thought being a well read person would meet fundamental criteria: a lawyer has to think clearly, he has to have cultivated his imaginative faculties, and he has to deepen his feelings.

That's right, yes.

And reading can do that.

I think it's the beginning, perhaps. Afterwards, I think you have to choose authors and see where your line of life is taking you. Now, for a certain time, I've been reading more philosophy than fiction. But I did read fiction for many, many years, and I really think that fiction has an enormous importance, especially when it has to do with sensitivity and with emotions.

Do you think that fiction gives you a capacity to empathize with the kinds of cases you see, when you might not be able to do that because of a different background?

I think so. I think so, and you have all that literature to draw on. Anatole France, for example, Emile Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, etc., who are writing in the nineteenth-century world -- especially Zola, in France -- and this writing is telling you how harsh and hard life is for certain people. I think that people that have a little bit of sensibility have to empathize with the authors and with the stories and with what the author is trying to give you. I think so, yes.

Now you say you're reading more philosophy. What does philosophy bring to the table? How does it clarify your thinking as a judge, do you feel?

Well, it's a difficult question. I never thought of it that way. I thought of it as something very necessary to be able to find your happiness. I've never thought of how it could help me as a judge. So I couldn't answer you, really.

So, really, for personal reflection, then.

Yes, it's for personal reflection. It's a known story. I went to France to study philosophy, try to change from law to philosophy. And before I studied law, something I omitted to tell you, I was more towards being a teacher, a teacher in literature. But teachers are very badly paid in my country. So I thought it twice, and finally I said, "Well, I need something that could make me help myself, living and having a family and all that." And during the years, I realized, as I told you in a private conversation, that one really doesn't choose what to do. Most of the time, things just occur and you turn out to be, as Somerset Maugham would say, "A creature of circumstances." I think that's what I am.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to interview James O. Freedman, who is also an attorney and was the president of Dartmouth College. And he wrote the following:

Both strands of learning, the literary and the legal, concern themselves with the dilemma of the human condition. The consequences of individual decisions and actions, the tolerance of conflicting views, the balancing of justice and mercy, freedom and authority. These themes are the grist of the novelist's imagination, the poet's vision, the essayist's insight, no less than a lawyer's craft.

Would you agree with that?

I agree, and I find it extremely beautiful. And very poetic. You see that he is a very enlightened person.

Next page: Being a Judge

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