Gnomicon 275

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Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  275
Monday 11 February 2013
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A book might be written on the injustice of the just.
Pauline Kael (19 Jun 1919 – 3 Sep 2001)

This one is a bit of high-rev mind-torque that has me spinning around and wondering if I should even board that particular train at this station – if you can see through the salad of mixed metaphors drenched in its dressing of improbability.  The first task would be to untangle the precise grammar with which the famous movie critic infuses her expression.

For example, is ‘just’ an animate (personal) pronominal in the plural – i.e., ‘just people’ — or is it an inanimate pronominal in the singular – i.e., ‘that which is just’.  Modern English (unlike, for example, Latin) having largely lost its ability to mark for things like number, gender, syntactic relationships on adjectivals, the sentence is inherently ambiguous and thus ambivalent and so not susceptible to being pinned down semantically as it stands.  The phrase “the injustice of the just” could, for example, mean something like ‘the injustice that just people exercise on others’;  it could also with equal plausibility  suggest something like ‘the injustice of what purports to be justice’ – this ambiguity built into the modern language is one of the costs it pays for the morpho-syntactic simplification it has undergone and still is undergoing. In Latin you simply could not make an ambiguous statement like Kael’s but would have to commit to one side or the other.  And I say this with no intent to imply that either is in any sense ‘better’ than the other, simply that the syntactic simplification of the English comes at a semantic cost.  That may be a bad thing (if you want to push precision) and it may be a good thing (if you want to advance ambivalence).

So, what did Kael mean?

Well, not being able to ask her, and having no larger context to guide us in one direction of the other, we can only play out each possibility.

Take the last first: “the injustice of what purports to be justice”.  I am reminded of a beyond-ridiculous item I read recently in the news that illustrates with clarity the bizarre extreme of injustice to which the exercise of justice can go. An Indiana couple took in an injured faun that had wandered on to a neighbor’s property and cared for it, nursing it back to health.  Apparently it is illegal in Indiana to have a deer in one’s possession, so when a mindless and officious official of the state Conservation Bureau learned of this dangerous criminal enterprise, the couple faced the possibility of actual jail time as well as fines.  Is that justice, or what?  Well, I don’t think so, but do see it as an one more unhappy example of the sorts of literal-minded absurdity that we shall increasingly see as the country’s elected and unelected busy-bodies from highest to lowest in every nook and cranny of the land cast their ever-widening regulatory nets over us all – all in the interest of ‘protecting’ us, of course – from ourselves, I suppose.  [See here.]

And now, take the first last: “the injustice that just people exercise on others”.  I here make a hopefully not unreasonable assumption, namely, that prosecutors are just (adjectivally speaking, that is!) people, but that assumption is certainly contradicted by the behavior of prosecutor Nifong in the Duke Lacrosse scandal a few years back (see my recent comments on this utter outrage).

In how many other cases has this kind of injustice by the just been perpetrated on the innocent?

Justice and injustice, the just and the unjust aside – this little scribble does serendipitously illustrate the serious difficulty translators face:  suppose I had to translate Pauline Kael’s “on the injustice of the just” into Latin?  I couldn’t – because here the Latin has to be more precise than the English, and can’t put across the ambiguity of the English without cumbersome periphrases and explanatory riffs that would ponderously destroy Kael’s elegantly concision.  You pick the one you want:

de iustorum iniustitia  [sense 1]
de iusti iniustitia           [sense 2]

Again, I privilege neither language as such, but in this instance the Latin really is much clearer, much more straightforward.  That is no doubt a notion with which, I am nonetheless sure, those — back in the day when people were still actually being educated in high school — old enough and fortunate enough to have marched interminably through Gaul in Latin with Caesar and his Roman legionnaires, Gallic auxiliaries and Germanic cavalry might well wish to take strong issue.

ave atque vale

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