gilded anacoluthon

At this point a dozen or so critics have detailed the architectural infelicities of the billionaire food court that is Hudson Yards, so I’m not going to join the pile-on with something about the “climbable version of an MC Escher drawing” at its center. I instead approached Hudson Yards as a philologist, and I discovered on the ground floor of the “vertical retail space” some labyrinthine syntax that cannot be matched even by the trickiest pages of Thucydides:


HYxOffTheWall is a highly visible and compelling platform on which the work of 13 significant artists an be experienced within the vibrant fabric of New York City. The title, HYxOffTheWall, is inspired by two connected ideas; the artworks are physical extensions of the vibrancy within the walls of Hudson Yards, and the definition of this phrase signals what might be expected: the unusual, remarkable, and curious, that often incorporates a unique sense of humor. With the specific location of Hudson Yards in mind, all artworks relate back to the site’s past, present or future. The large scale pieces welcome interaction, and visitors who engage with the art simultaneously become their activators. By standing in an installation tableau, participating in interactive works, taking photos and sharing individual points of view, people of all ages and backgrounds organically build a HYxOffTheWall community album.

What are these “two connected ideas,” really? How can a phrase signal something “expected” and also “unusual”? Does the inconsistency of serial commas suggest that the “present or future” is paradoxically in apposition to the “past”? Even in my best attempts as an engaging activator, I can’t quite tell what any of this means.

I’m not sure how many millions Hudson Yards paid Culture Corps to provide us this master class in inscrutable Gorgianic irony, but maybe that hefty sum was worth it: here I am, organically building the community album, too.

perjury, perjury, in the highest degree

The tyrannous and bloody act is done,
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, who I did suborn
To do this piece of ruthless butchery.Richard III IV.iii.1–5

The criminal act of “suborning perjury” now frequently appears in headlines, and it probably won’t be disappearing soon. The verb “suborn,” however, hasn’t become any more familiar to my eye. It’s still Latinate legalese, no more colloquial than sua sponte.

I recently came across the Shakespeare passage above, and it caught my attention because it’s not perjury being suborned, but “ruthless butchery.” Can we suborn any kind of crime, or even other non-criminal acts? Time to put some of those lexicographical muscles to work.

My first hunch was that “suborn” had something to do with “ornamenting” or “dressing up” misleading language—the Latin verb ornare is a buzzword of ancient rhetorical theorists in discussions of decorating speech with literary figures appropriate to its content. But this chiefly rhetorical understanding of “ornamentation” didn’t quite make sense for something like “ruthless butchery.”1 On top of that problem, here Shakespeare suborns people (“who”), not actions. Rather than “decorate,” he “incites” or even “commands” when he suborns.

Turning to the classical period, this notion of suborning a person (rather than an action) dominates among Roman authors. Early Latin examples suggest an original meaning removed from the strictly legal context we use today, and it means something more like “to equip” or “to supply” a person with an instrument.2 In one Ciceronian speech (Phil. 13.32), we find pecunia Brutum subornastis (“You supplied Brutus with money”), and in one of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales (24.5), he writes of a homo non eruditus nec ullis praeceptis contra mortem aut dolorem subornatus (“a man neither learned nor supplied with any teachings to defend against death and pain”).

Sometimes, we might supply a person not with “money” or “teachings” but instead with an actual “ornament.” I like one example from Petronius (36.2), where we find a leporem … pinnis subornatus—a “rabbit decked out with feathers”—at Trimalchio’s feast. (ut Pegasus videretur, he continues. This avian bunny is supposed to look like Pegasus, apparently?) To ornament a person or a thing, of course, might verge into deception. Just as one suborns a rabbit with a feathery costume, one might suborn a person with a disguise, and this deceitful kind of “ornamenting,” it seems, draws us closer to our English criminal idiom.

Even Cicero, who writes well before Petronius, uses subornare to denote this sort of “dressing up” a person for the purposes of deception: he accuses someone of having “suborned a false witness” (Falsum subornavit testem Roscius, Q. Rosc. 51). But it’s still not exactly suborning the perjury itself, but instead suborning (“gussying up”? “preparing”?) a person to provide it.

The OED reports that this original, ancient meaning of disguising or preparing a person in order to commit criminal acts persists even in contemporary culinary writing.3 One can dress up a false witness (falsus testis) in the garb of truth-telling, and perhaps Shakespeare could disguise murderers with a smile before committing “ruthless butchery.” (In that sense, one might suborn an assassin or an Iago but not, say, a Michael Myers.) To “suborn” isn’t just to “recruit,” but maybe something like “to clothe in disarming kindness” or “to bedeck with false innocence.”

In a way, then, our contemporary formula of “suborning perjury” reminds me of the ill-chosen vagueness in the passive voice: “mistakes were made,” “the victim was shot.” Who are the actors? Who agreed to butcher? Which witness agreed to lie? Viewed through that grammatical lens, our current idiom for suborning an act rather than a person elides the crime’s conspiratorial dimension. As the Bard would remind us, your dirty work doesn’t just “get suborned.” You have to find someone to do it.

  1. The first definition listed in the OED affirms that one can suborn not just perjury but any “crime or misdeed” (OED 1a).
  2. The first definition in the OLD is “To supply, equip.”
  3. OED 1a: “A. Bourdain in K. Williamson Rovers Return (1998) 121 I’d even suborned one of his prep cooks, so he’d feed me information, regularly, on what was going on in Jimmy’s kitchen.”

practice, practice, practice

He is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.Testimony of Michael D. Cohen, Committee on Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, February 27, 2019


So things done are called just and moderate whenever they are such that the just person or the moderate person would do them; whereas a person is not just and moderate because he does these things, but also because he does them in the way in which just and moderate people do them. So it is appropriate to say that the just person comes about from doing what is just, and the moderate person from doing what is moderate.Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1105b5-11, trans. Rowe and Broadie