Book cover courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

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Dastan-e Western Civ: Martti Koskenniemi as Storyteller


In this review, I suggest we read To the Uttermost Parts of the Earth as an exercise in storytelling that evokes the narrative traditions of India, as also other parts of Asia and the Middle East; and as a story of law, lawyering, and empire told within the book as well as spilling over its edgesan infinite and spawning history, rather than a universal one.


Call-Backs and Epigraphs

To the Uttermost Parts of the Earth is a kind of prequel to The Gentle Civilizer of Nations, and its closing paragraphs will make the readers of Gentle smile. But its initial call-backs are to From Apology to Utopia. Consider the striking resemblance in the opening sentences of both works. Uttermost begins: ‘This is not a history of international law. Instead, it is a history of the legal imagination as it operates in relationship to the use of power in contexts that we would today call international’ (p. 1). FATU begins: ‘This is not only a book in international law. It is also an exercise in social theory and in political philosophy’ (p. 1). Where these sentences alert the reader to the books’ expansive ambitions, Gentle had a more subdued opening, simply that it grew out of Martti Koskenniemi’s Hersch Lauterpacht Memorial Lectures at Cambridge, and was ‘quite a bit longer than those original lectures were’ (p. 1).

Both FATU and Uttermost also draw on literary voices for their epigraphs. Uttermost’s is from the Bible, via a sermon delivered by the English poet and cleric John Donne to the Virginia Company in 1622. This event followed the Jamestown uprising, and was by some accounts an effort to shift the tenor of the English responses to it. Donne’s friend, Christopher Brooke, for example, had composed a poem counselling the ‘extirpation’ of the ‘Indians’, calling them ‘[t]he very dregs, garbage, and spawne of Earth. … Father’d by Sathan, and the sonnes of hell’. The Company’s official publication had relished the excuse to ‘destroy them who sought to destroy vs’ and to compel ‘seruitude and drudgery’. Donne’s exhortation—‘[e]namore them with your Iustice, and, (as farre as may consist with your security) your Civilitie; but inflame them with your godlinesse and your Religion’—appeared as a rebuke of such policies; although hardly of the colonial enterprise itself. Indeed, as Koskenniemi shows, the sermon became a staging post of an influential line of arguments that rested the enterprise upon multiple, interlocking, justifications: economic gain, moral right, and moral duty. (Donne’s arguments did rather less for their immediate addressee, however, as the Virginia Company was soon dissolved, and Virginia became a royal colony.)

FATU’s epigraph is from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The quote, in the voice of Saleem Sinai, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is an extended figurative working of the game of snakes and ladders, which beautifully encapsulates the ascending and descending movements that FATU goes on to describe and deconstruct. Yet, unlike Uttermost, where Donne’s sermon is also part of the fabric of the book, Midnight’s Children and Saleem Sinai have little further role to play in FATU. Having introduced its enterprise, they do not make a return its pages, and the books differ both in context and narrative form. The quote is thus a (telling) fragment or, to use a memorable Koskenniemi image, a finger, from a body that does not come along. That is, until Uttermost; in which unfolds a deeper resonance with Midnight’s Children and its narrator, delivering the full payoff of FATU’s epigraph.

Continuity and a New Ambition for Complex Storytelling

There is of course continuity between all three books. Despite shifts in approach, from ‘cool structuralism’ towards the passions and pursuits of international lawyers, FATU and Gentle were both meditations on lawyering – the production of persuasive arguments in different contexts – and so too is Uttermost. FATU and Gentle were also both field defining, in bringing fresh sensibilities to the analysis of international law; one pioneering tools from literary theory, the other promoting an approach that is part intellectual history part prosopography. These works offered different ways of investigating the profession, its ideologies and its tools, and invited others to think with the methods used. So, what about Uttermost? In what ways will the prequel to Gentle open up new vistas – and become field-defining in its own right?

I would like to suggest here an answer that pivots on, but is not squarely about, the substantive accomplishments of the book. Uttermost is of course remarkable for its temporal, geographic, and linguistic sweep; an inquiry into ‘close descriptions of the worlds of legal imagining in half a millenium’ (p. 3) in all major European imperial centres, and some of the colonies. Tracking the emergence, mutual challenge and dependence, and occasional descriptive unreliability of key conceptual categories – sovereignty and property, public and private law, state and corporation, domestic and international law – it is also a long-arc scrutiny of the frames within which these worlds are usually explored. It is an exercise in combining contextualist and juridical approaches to writing international law’s history, emphasising place and time and melting through them. And, with not only lawyers but also theologians, politicians, philosophers, colonial administrators, and others, as its protagonists, it is simultaneously an examination of religious, politico-economic, and social imaginations, capturing the full sweep of what thinkers of a different bent have protectively taught as ‘western civilisation’. But, and encapsulating all of this, it was Uttermost’s narrative style that caught my attention.

While Gentle was also an exercise in creating ‘intuitively plausible and politically engaged narratives’ (p. 10), Uttermost has a more complex storytelling ambition.  The form of the book invokes – and I recognise of course that this might have to do with the predispositions of the reader as much as the intentions of the author – evokes, then, a narrative tradition that is associated with dastangoi, or storytelling, in parts of Asia. It is into this form that it places the careful examination of the production of ‘legal’ argument that we first saw with FATU. And undoubtedly recalls the source of its epigraph; for Midnight’s Children was also a working of the same narrative form. Rushdie had remade the English novel (or perhaps returned it to older forms), taking inspiration from the capacious and digressive epics of Asia and the Middle East to tell a ‘crowd of stories’, both intimate and expansive, biography and history, and critique and conjuration of India’s authoritarian turn and societal hubbub.

Of Dastans and the Mahabharata

Dastans, whether grand sagas of family, kingship, adventure, and rule, such as Alif Laila (Arabian Nights), Amir Hamza, Mahabharata, and Ramayana, or folios of stories, such as the Jatakas, Kathasaritsagara, and Panchatantra, and the well-loved apocryphal tales of Akbar and Birbal, Mullah Nasruddin, and Tenali Raman, have long served as vehicles of both entertainment and instruction. In most instances, and I’ll focus on the Mahabharata, there is an overarching story. In this case, a long arc tragedy of the rise of two factions within a family, whose jealousies, mutual hatreds, and disputes over property and kingship culminate in an apocalyptic world war, drawing in various other polities and peoples, and bringing to a close the dvaparayuga (the previous age to ours in Hindu cosmology). In some traditions the whole story is told to the sole surviving successor of this family as he embarks on his own ecocidal campaign; in others it is dictated by a narrator-protagonist to a divine scribe, the elephant-headed god, Ganesh.

Dramatic and Game of Thrones-eque as the events are, this story is no more than a frame within which are embedded numerous other stories, philosophical musings, legal debates, and precepts of all kinds from moral to political economic to scientific. The Gita, for example, subject of recent explorations in Indian intellectual history, is told as one episode within the Mahabharata. Rather than the main story, it is these elements, which embroider and spill over the bounds of a simple genealogy, that lend credence to the Mahabharata’s famous claim: ‘whatever is spoken [in this epic] about virtue, wealth, pleasure and salvation may be seen elsewhere; but whatever is not contained in this is not to be found anywhere.’

For after all there is no necessary limit to what can be contained in the epic. It is part of the oral storytelling tradition in which the Mahabharata and other dastans have taken shape that they grow and change with each telling. Dastangos – or storytellers – vary the story to incorporate local traditions; to embellish incidents with discursive detail, character biographies and contextual justifications; to add points of view; and to voice and respond to issues of the day.

Dastans thus work with time in multiple ways. The stories, and the stories-within-stories, may be set in or dated to specific times and places, claiming to narrate history. Yet they may also invoke the immemorial, asserting the timelessness of their wisdom and insight, or the patterned and cyclical inevitability of their events, or the eternality of their sources (‘the sea of stories’, or time-travelling, future-seeing ‘original’ authors). Alongside, they may be ways of articulating the present – the Mahabharata can thus become a critique of colonialism, a satire of democracy and the state, testimony on the violence of family, gender, caste and property (including property in persons), a morality tale on the futility of ‘just wars’ and military victories, or the destruction of nature, and much more.

Much of course comes down to the intentions of the dastango, but the familiarity and set pieces of the main story pave the way. As AK Ramanujan had noted, ‘no Hindu’ – no Indian, really – ‘reads the Mahabharata for the first time’. And the fact that everyone more or less has a sense of where the story goes allows each narrator to place their own imprint on it, to choose what parts to tell, or embellish, or deconstruct entirely, pushing the main set-pieces aside to tell it from its margins as Karthika Nair, for example, has done. Wendy Doniger had summed this up a few years ago, noting ‘[i]f it is true that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time, it is also true that none of us ever hears all of the Mahabharata, or hears the Mahabharata that anyone else hears; we all make our own selections, for warriors or for gods, for prose or for poetry.’

Martti Koskenniemi as a Dastango

Uttermost is and is told as a collection of stories highlighting particular histories and discourses, set within a main story. That main story, Koskenniemi notes early on, is encapsulated by ‘words such as “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “capitalism”, “liberalism”, “nationalism” and so on, words like the “universal” that aim to enlighten us about the trajectories through which the past has been turned into the present’ (p. 3). These frames are simultaneously acknowledged and put to one side, in favour of foregrounding particular exercise(r)s of legal imagination that developed and used the categories of ‘sovereignty and property, public and private’ (p. 11). As with the Mahabharata, the assumption is that the main story is a familiar one; it will not be heard for the first time. The narrator is thus free to give it texture, and tease out its ‘varied and multiple reality’ (p. 3), by sharpening focus on some of the stories within it, featuring actors, texts and events in hitherto understudied ways. (This sense of Koskenniemi as a dastango will be accentuated, no doubt, for everyone who has experience of his extraordinarily compelling quality as a lecturer and speaker).

Uttermost’s introduction explains the selection of stories in a familiar narrative style, with the phrase ‘this is a history of the legal imagination’ serving as a refrain punctuating the explanation of the book’s ambitions. On offer are both courtly gestures – ‘A lot of men and much detail traverse these chapters’ (p. 3) – and meditations on the art of storytelling. For, in Uttermost, this is also the heart of lawyering. ‘Legal work’, Koskenniemi explains, ‘takes place in the context of persuasion. Law is not about the truth of this or that matter but about persuading audiences – usually audiences in authoritative positions – to act in some particular way. Legal persuasion takes place in the context of controversy’ (p. 4). The would-be persuader is a storyteller, concerned with effect rather than truth – with holding his audience (this book is acknowledgedly about ‘a world of white men’). He is distinguished by his adeptness in the craft of bricolage: the alchemical fusion of familiar materials, authoritative sources, conventional tropes of the time into a compelling narrative – familiar yet fresh. His narrative is of the moment and transcending it, shaping the instance for which it is produced and available to be repurposed thereafter. The resonance with dastangoi is strong here. Readers of the Mahabharata will recognise the similar impetus driving the acts of purposeful storytelling that take place within it. Indeed, Koskenniemi’s discussion of the art of producing compelling legal narratives could be transposed with few modifications to explaining both the dastango’s skill and that of the storytellers within the story.

Stories abound in this volume, some vividly resurrecting the scenes of previous centuries. The first chapter for example opens with a few king’s men riding into a town to charge a man of cloth with crime. The king is French, and the man of cloth, the pope, but as with dastans, the narrative also evokes that other famous king/ church confrontation (and attendant rise and fall of various men of legal imagination) that Hilary Mantel has retold. Thus, it becomes both about its place and time and about enduring questions. And if Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip IV’s adviser, recalls Thomas Cromwell, the narrative also resonates with the Mahabharata itself when a young Philip is taught the concentration of a good archer; or when a hot blooded count rises to profess his will to fight, amidst a divided council contending with the spiritual authority of its antagonist. The chapter, like others, layers its central story with backstories – to events, to the king and pope’s relationship, the careers of his bricoleurs, and the available materials – and stories of what comes next in terms of the uses of the narratives developed in context. As with the Mahabharata, these stories both propel and embroider the main arc. Subtle variations in how the stories are told – the intricacy of the narrative about the 13-14th c. French court for instance juxtaposed to the economical narration of the 18-19th c. Scottish philosophers and English utilitarians – then suggests a further aspect of storytelling skill in matching form with substance, in this case, the vocabularies canvassed by the bricoleurs.

The form of the book also acts as an invitation to interpolate yet other stories into it, not least stories that showcase clearly the power of storytelling itself in different contexts. A reference to James Mill, for instance, makes you think about the contrast between exercises of legal imagination against the hegemonic authority of the familiar antagonist (as the pope to the French court), and those which remained untrammelled by actual encounter with the people or polities driving one’s narrative (as with Brooke and Donne). Mill famously wrote a “critical… judging history” of India, denouncing its ‘rude’ and ‘backward’ culture to which Utilitarian rationalism and British intervention would serve as antidotes. All of this without ever a visit, or acquaintance ‘with any of the languages of the East.’ But writing without seeing also brings to mind the extraordinary works of Jules Verne, for whom India became the context of several novels, on anti-colonial resistance, technology and quests to the uttermost parts of land and sea, via behemoth and leviathan. And, then, thinking about anti-colonial resistance circles us back to how meanings are made over time – thus, for instance, the Anglo-Maratha wars that Koskenniemi mentions are recouped both in terms of struggle against British imperialism, and resistance against caste imperialism by Mahar soldiers fighting for the East India Company.

Uttermost has stories nesting within stories, and calling forth more stories, stories capable of being read against themselves, seen in their limits, and supplanted by others, stories both propelling and embroidering the narrative. This is a dastan told within the book as well as spilling over its edges—an infinite, spawning, history, rather than a universal one. Enjoy ranging with it.


My warm thanks to blog editors Christian Pogies and Hendrik Simon, and to Megan Donaldson and Rohit De, for helpful discussions and comments on drafts of this text.

Surabhi Ranganathan

Surabhi Ranganathan is University Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and Deputy Director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law.

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