Tuesday, September 13, 2016

`Unsheathe His Sword and Be Done with It'

A thoughtful reader who is an attorney has alerted me to a decision handed down last year by the Supreme Court of Texas that cites in a footnote “The Gordian Knot,” an essay by Zbigniew Herbert. I covered courts for many years as a newspaper reporter and never mastered the art of deciphering legal documents or understanding the reasoning of some judges. This case involves a woman suing the University of Texas at Arlington after she fell and was injured in the campus stadium. Read the decision if you wish but the interesting part comes in the concurring opinion by Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd, who writes: “Alexander the Great himself could not figure this one out. Instead, I suspect he would do what legend says he did with Gordian’s Knot: he would unsheathe his sword and be done with it.”

Then look at the footnote on the first page of Boyd’s opinion, or near the bottom of the full decision, for the Herbert citation. It refers to the translation by John and Bogdana Carpenter in The Kenyon Review (1984), which was later collected in The King of the Ants (1999). Herbert is an adept of irony. He never harangues. He is poker-faced when recounting absurdities.  His Alexander is no clever resolver of insoluble problems, but a brutish vandal, not unlike the Stalinist masters who ruled Poland. Alexander, Herbert tells us, “legalized in a sense a certain hideous kind of violence,” and adds, “it is not known at what point the escalation of crime begins.” Herbert concludes:

“And also later, those pyres burning through centuries up to our own days -- torches of darkness -- pyres of heaps of papyrus, manuscripts recorded on calfskin, pyres of books, in which is thrown -- as if only as a supplement -- the nonsubmitting author.”

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