William H. Gass On The Dialectical Nature Of Love

In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations (Perseus Books, New York, 1999, pp. 13) William H. Gass writes:

During childhood, contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light. So out of the lies and confusions of every day the child constructs a way to cope, part of which will comprise a general manner of being in, and making love. Thus from the contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life is born a dream of what this pain, this passion, this obsession, this belief, this relation, ought to be.

The model that Gass presents here for understanding how we construct our evaluative and operational apparatus of love is notable for its straightforwardly dialectical nature: the child learns to love and be loved and to expect love through a synthesis of the various opposing theses presented to him about the nature of love. It is through these endlessly revisable bringings together and reconciliations that the lover and his or her love emerges. This dialectical origin is reflected in love itself: it is painful and delightful; it is enlivening and deadening (the rest of the world may come alive through the reflected glory of the love, it may appear drab and colorless in contrast, and so on); it reminds us of our unique, individual subjectivities even as we lose ourselves in someone else; it may make us find reason to live, it may give us reason to die. Most of all, love turns out to be something we find resistant to facile reductive analyses, even as we elevate it to foundational principle in philosophies of life and living.

Gass’ model is relentlessly dialectic for the theses presented to the child about the nature of love find their origin, of course, in others similarly reared on such dialectical ‘confusions’; others who, in their own upbringing, confronted the same ‘contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life.’ Moreover, the child has only constructed a ‘dream’ with normative flavor; this dream itself, as noted, is ‘endlessly revisable,’ revisions forced upon it through these encounters with others’ dreams of what love ought to be.

The complex encounter of subjectivities that we call a ‘romantic human relationship’ poses such challenges for our understanding because of this collision: each lover brings to the meeting a lifetime’s worth of painfully constructed notions of love, one devised and drawn up without the consultation of their lover. These are not geared for smooth operation with those of others; they cannot be. As battle plans do not survive their first encounter with actual conflict, so do these notions not survive their first encounter with the ostensible subject and target and dispenser of love.

Note: Gass writes the above paragraph in transitioning from a description of Rilke‘s childhood and his relationship with his mother, to an accounting of his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé.

‘The Spring is The Autumn’

In ‘Henriette Wyeth: Scenes from a painter’s life’ (from A Certain Climate, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988, pp. 164) Paul Horgan makes  note of, and subsequently quotes Wyeth on, the wellsprings of her work:

Ideas added to feeling, then, inform both her still lifes and portraits, and the most constant impulse is the desire to record that which must change and go.

“The reason I paint flowers is that I see them fading. This reminds me of the eternally renewed, the spring time, all of that, because I feel death and disaster lurk right behind them.” Her work is testimony to the enduring power which abides strongly in certain forms of fragility. In a flower detail of a still life, in a child’s wrist, she makes a little essay on mortality, but one reclaimed from morbidity by its celebration of present beauty.

Shortly before my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with breast cancer, she began writing small bits of poetry: fragments of poems, solitary lines, couplets. She wrote these on scattered pieces of paper, sometimes the pages of a notebook, sometimes the margins of a magazine–as and when thoughts, reflections, came to her. She wrote with pen or pencil, as either came to hand; she wrote in English or Hindi, retaining the form in which these thoughts were cast. She told me she did so without ever directing me to read anything she had put down on paper. I did not ask to look at her work, presuming she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself; she, for her part, gave me no indication she wanted me to do so. We might have collectively presumed–at some only dimly sensed level of intersubjective awareness–that I would read her work ‘later.’

But she did tell me about a line that ran through her head once, as winter rolled away and spring moved in, as her treatments for a metastasized cancer entered their fifth month. Then she had seen, on one of the short walks she took in the early evening, glimpses of the coming full bloom: buds and blossoms making their first tentative appearances. In response she had written a single line: ‘the spring is the autumn.’ (The emphasis on the assertion of identity is present in the original formulation–in Hindi.) As my mother put it, at that moment, as she saw a fledgling leaf pushing its way up, poking its head out, she saw it too, as fully grown, and then again, a little further on, she saw it change color and form, yellowing, wrinkling, and falling, drifting down; the new leaf wore its life on its sleeve; the inevitability of its eventual fate was present at the moment of its birth. That, or something like it, was what she wanted to say as she wrote that line down.

I never saw that line written down in her handwriting. But I still remember it–in both its original and translated forms–as it was said to me that day.

 

Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.

Notes:

1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Reflections on Translations-VII: Capturing Class Distinctions

In yesterday’s post, in an attempt to analogize Tea Partiers with demagogues, I included an excerpt from AristophanesThe Knights. Once I had posted a link to the post on Facebook, I made the following note in the comments space–directing it at a pair of friends of mine who work in Brooklyn College’s Classics department:

In the translation I have at home (by Alan Sommerstein) the sausage-seller’s lines are translated as a kind of Cockney slang, right down to the dropped ‘h’s.

Here are some samples of what I am referring to (taken from Act One in Aristophanes: The Knights/Peace/The Birds/The Assemblywomen/Wealth translated by David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, New York, 1978; the excerpts for yesterday’s post were taken from an online source):

Sausage-Seller: So long as wot doesn’t wot–never mind. I like that oracle. But I still don’t know how you expect me ter manage all the People’s business. [p. 44]

Sausage-Seller: But ‘oo will there to ‘elp me? That there  Paphlagonian frightens the rich aht of their wits, and the poor, when ‘e’s arahnd, they can’t even keep their arses shut. [p. 44]

Sausage-Seller: Well, you bloody well oughter know abaht stitching. ‘S yer trade innit? [p. 48]

And so on. You get the picture. I then went on to ask:

What justifies this kind of translation? Is the Greek employed by him [the sausage-sellter] a highly colloquial, “working-class” varietal?

Danielle Kellogg replied:

I just did a super quick scan of the Greek in the scene you referenced, and I didn’t see anything that really stood out to me as strange or colloquial in it. Although Aristophanes does mess with the Greek of various characters in his plays, it’s generally done to indicate non-Athenian-ness (i.e., the Megarian in Acharnians). The Sausage-Seller is an Athenian; I would expect any such “strange” Greek to be assigned to Paphlagon, who is not. However, it’s common for translators to assign different dialects and/or accents to various Aristophanic characters to play upon issues of social class/status that Aristophanes is clearly using in his jokes (Megarian jokes, for example, were the ancient Athenian version of Polish jokes, so the Megarian from Acharnians is often rendered with crude language or a “yokel” accent). [link added]

As Kellogg indicates, the use of the Cockney dialect to render the sausage-seller’s lines appears to be an active choice by the translator to indicate a class marker in the characters.The reason this makes the Sommerstein translation is distinctive, and perhaps excessively so, is that the ‘working-class’ or ‘yokel’ accent invoked is a very familiar one, already made legendary by its depiction in theater and film (and often iconically so as in Pygmalion). To see it used by a character in an ancient Greek comedy is disconcerting.

But it is not clear that any other choice of accent would not have suffered from the same problem and more to the point, we are already immersed in the fantasy of imagining characters with names like Demosthenes and Nicia speaking flawless eloquent English.  The sudden appearance of the working-class accent merely reminds us of this distance from the original, of the unavoidable strangeness of reading not-in-the-original.

Aristophanes’ Sausage-Seller and the Tea Partier

I have just finished writing a draft review of Lee Fang‘s The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (New York: The New Press, 2013); it will appear shortly in The Washington Spectator. As I read Fang’s depressing history of the corporate-funded ‘New Right’ that has derailed the Obama presidency, looked over its rogues gallery of demagogues, racists, and oligarchs, and read samples of their illiterate rhetoric, I was reminded of an ancient and particularly pungent description of the crooked politician; the passage of years have not attenuated any of its biting wit and accuracy.

Here then, without further ado, is an appropriate excerpt from AristophanesThe Knights (Act One), where Demosthenes and Nicias first meet the sausage-seller and introduce him to their intended role for him. Try as I might, on reading these lines I cannot banish from my mind a vision of a Koch Brothers representative talking to a Tea Party candidate, one to be sent to Capitol Hill to peddle bad science, voodoo economics, and racist prejudice. In real life, of course, the Tea Partier would not be so modest, so full of doubt about his mission and his ability to fulfill it; instead, he’d be possessed of a rather disturbing missionary zeal. (My apologies to sausage-sellers everywhere; I realize these analogies with Tea Partiers are insulting in the extreme.)

DEMOSTHENES

According to the oracle you must become the greatest of men.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

Just tell me how a sausage-seller can become a great man.

DEMOSTHENES

That is precisely why you will be great, because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

I do not hold myself worthy of wielding power.

DEMOSTHENES

Oh! by the gods! Why do you not hold yourself worthy? Have you then such a good opinion of yourself? Come, are you of honest parentage?

SAUSAGE-SELLER

By the gods! No! of very bad indeed.

DEMOSTHENES

Spoilt child of fortune, everything fits together to ensure your greatness.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.

DEMOSTHENES

That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises.

….

SAUSAGE-SELLER

The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

DEMOSTHENES

Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

Social Media From Beyond the Grave

Charles Simic describes an ingenious and profitable aspiration for immortality:

[The] poet Mark Strand…told me excitedly one day that he had invented a new kind of gravestone that….would include…a slot where a coin could be inserted, that would activate a tape machine built into it, and play the deceased’s favorite songs, jokes…whatever else they find worthy of preserving for posterity. Visitors to the cemetery would insert as many coins as required to play the recording…and the accumulated earnings would be divided equally between the keepers of the cemetery and the family of the deceased.

[T]is invention… would transform these notoriously gloomy and desolate places by attracting big crowds…complete strangers seeking entertainment and the pearls of wisdom and musical selections of hundreds and hundreds of unknown men and women.

While this invention may strike one as frivolous and irreverent…it deals with a serious problem. What happens to everything we kept in our heads and hoped others would find amusing after we pass away? No trace of them will be left, unless…we write them down. Even that is not a guarantee. Libraries…are full of books no one reads any more. Anyone who frequents town dumps has seen yellowed manuscripts and letters thrown out with the trash—papers that sadly, but unmistakably, not even the family of their author wants. Just imagine…your dead grandmother is a big hit in some large urban cemetery, passing on her soup and pie recipes to an admiring crowd of young housewives; while your grandpa is telling dirty jokes to boys playing hooky from school….you, too, are regarded with interest by your friends and neighbors, who can’t help but wonder how your everlasting selection is coming along and what inspiring words and vile blasphemies they’ll be hearing from your gravestone.

Simic takes this idea and runs with it but he doesn’t go far enough. Surely the entertainment need not be restricted by the physical location of the grave. The eminently sensible extension of this plan would be for the deceased to be set up with their own website–complete with Facebook and Twitter feeds–so that the content to be served up from the gravestone would be efficiently and widely made available in as many forms of media as possible. Video, audio and text could all be provided and a variety of payment options–Paypal, conventional shopping carts–would facilitate the easy receipt of cash. Some minor curation of these pages would be required; this task could be performed by paid staff.

I imagine the most popular content to be served up from my webpage would be, in no particular order: audio recordings of my sonorous readings, in chronological order, of every single post on this blog; classroom videos of my coruscating lectures on all matters philosophical with particular attention and focus on my brilliant responses to student questions; smartphone videos of my joke-telling performances–shot late at night, late in a dinner party’s devolution. I would live on as internet celebrity, thus perhaps ensuring, after death, the fame that was rightfully mine in this life.

And even it didn’t happen, I would care less than I do now.

The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.