The Hidden Pain Of Others

A few years ago, as I walked down the street that I live on in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, toward my home and my waiting family, past a row of restaurants and coffee shops with their happy and contented consumers, I spied a pair of friends and neighbors of ours. They were sitting outside a local eatery, waiting for their wood-fired oven pizza to be brought out to them. The husband sipped on his wine while his wife chatted on the phone, smiling and laughing as her conversation ensued. I stopped and stared for a second, wondering whether I should stop by and throw out a quick hello and make some small talk. I moved on; they looked busy and preoccupied, enjoying their meal, each other’s company, and the fine late summer weather. They looked, for all anyone could tell, happy and prosperous and content. Elegant glasses of white wine; outdoor seating at a not-cheap restaurant; they looked exactly like the people who were supposed to be living in my neighborhood: Brooklyn thirty-somethings, successful and intelligent, well-educated, with adequate privilege and comfort underwriting their lives.

But I was in the possession of some knowledge about my friends that complicated the sunny picture above. For a few months prior to this spotting, they had lost their only child, their daughter, a toddler scarcely two years old, killed by a piece of falling masonry from the eighth floor of a building in Manhattan. It was the worst parental nightmare of all: the loss of a young child to a freak accident, one that you could have done nothing about. It had devastated them with grief and regret and anger in ways that I could scarcely comprehend, and yet, here they were, seemingly oblivious to this fact of their own lives. They would so easily have been the targets of envy at the moment I espied them: good-looking, happy, content, well-fed, prosperous enough for leisure and good cuisine and wine, connected with friends and family, savoring life’s gustatory pleasures. Someone might have congratulated them on their good fortune: “You guys have got it all!” But they didn’t. They were like all of us, who don’t have it all.

It was time, obviously, to relearn some old lessons. We imagine all too easily, that others are happier than they are (the chief cause of our unhappiness, as Montesquieu famously said.) We wear masks all the time; we are brave, more resilient than we imagine; the surfaces that are presented to us, and that we present to others, in our daily lives and social interactions, offer the barest hint of what lurks beneath; we should never presume too much about the happiness that we find exposed to us–for it sits alongside a great deal else–anxiety, fear, grief, self-hatred–in those interiors that we have no access to. Every life when viewed from the inside, as George Orwell said, is but a series of small failures; viewed from the outside, we are prone to imagining that life as enjoying the fortunes that passed us by. The truth lies elsewhere.

Social Media And Envy

Of the many states of mind I fear–trust me, there are many precincts of my mental spaces where I fear to tread–I dread envy the most.  And a prime domain for the evocation of envy is social media: it is where, after all, your ‘friends’ and those you ‘follow’ let you know how wonderful their lives are, how loving and sensitive their partners, how accomplished their children, how many books and essays and articles they have published, how productive their writing and reading day has been, how well-traveled and fed they are; we feel indirectly slighted when praises Y but not us. I’m guilty of all of these forms of behavior, and I do not doubt for a second that I’ve irritated and vexed many by my behavior in turn; with probability one, many of my ‘friends’ have stopped ‘following’ me, turned off by the content of my posts; my apologies to one and all, including those whose timelines I cannot bear to look at any more. I’ve often thought of departing from Facebook and Twitter, and only really stay on so that I can have a place to post links to my posts here; but if I leave, I do not doubt that it will the fear of envy and the memory of some particularly debilitating attacks that will have made me pull the trigger.

The damage that envy does to relationships–friends, lovers, family, co-workers–is, I think, quite well-known. That damage is especially pronounced in competitive fields of endeavor; academia is one of them. This is not as strange as it might sound; advanced education, no matter how abstract or philosophical, offers little by way of defense against the assault envy mounts on our mental ramparts. Moreover, jobs are scarce; those without secure employment envy those with; in turn, the supposedly ‘lucky’ ones may spend their time fretting they have not published enough, in the right places, gotten praise from the right quarters, attained the right kind of recognition, and so on. If you are afflicted by impostor syndrome, social media is a very bad place to be. Sporadic reassurances that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome are of no help when the vast majority of your daily diet consists of various species of trumpet blowing.

Envy is corrosive, an almost instantaneous killer of self-esteem; it damages one’s relationships with those we are envious of; we resent them, and worse, we may come to seek distance from them so as to prevent a recurrence of the emotion. In these moments, we forget the wisdom in George Orwell’s remark that “Every life, when viewed from the inside, is a series of small failures.” Those we envy are quite cognizant of their own failures and would not recognize our perspective on their lives; we, in our turn, fail to recognize their flourishes of triumph as quite possibly their attempts to beat back the ever encroaching doubt that one’s life is an irredeemable failure. The chief cause of our existential unhappiness, as some wise person once put it, is that we imagine others to be happier than they are. And social media, of course, is where we all go to pretend to be happier than we are. Envy follows in our wake.

The ‘Victims’ of ‘Realistic Literature’

In 1965, Gordon Lloyd Harper interviewed Saul Bellow for the Paris Review (9.36, 1966, 48-73). During the interview the following exchange took place:


It’s been said that contemporary fiction sees man as a victim. You gave this title to one of your early novels [The Victim], yet there seems to be very strong opposition in your fiction to seeing man as simply determined or futile. Do you see any truth to this claim about contemporary fiction?


Oh, I think that realistic literature from the first has been a victim literature. Pit any ordinary individual—and realistic literature concerns itself with ordinary individuals—against the external world, and the external world will conquer him, of course. Everything that people believed in the nineteenth century about determinism, about man’s place in nature, about the power of productive forces in society, made it inevitable that the hero of the realistic novel should not be a hero but a sufferer who is eventually overcome.

Bellow might be accused of a little overstatement but perhaps not too much. After all, didn’t George Orwell say, in one of his characteristically cheerful moments, that ‘every life when viewed from the inside is but a series of defeats?’ (Orwell’s quote, captures quite well, I think, the ‘common unhappiness’ of man, which  psychotherapy, with its alternative narratives, attempts to ameliorate.) ‘Realistic literature’ often might be that same view conveyed from the ‘outside’: a tale of implacable, indifferent, forces arrayed against human endeavor, with ambitions and aspirations running aground on one shoal after another.

But these series of wrecks do not have to be caused by man being ‘determined’ or ‘determinism’ or anything like that; after all, why would it not be possible for some humans–even ‘ordinary individuals’–to have a bright future ‘determined’ for them? That does not seem statistically improbable. Rather, it is that at any given moment, no human can be conceivably aware of all that may render his or her plans moot. That ‘all’ includes not just the forces of nature but more often than not, other humans’ objectives and efforts.

And that is what may make the language of ‘victim’ appropriate. To use that term for a human afflicted by nature alone seems inappropriate; nature seems far too blithely unconcerned about man’s doings for such a personalized description to resonate. Man can only be a victim of others like him; victimhood is a state attained at the hands of humans. It is the ‘productive forces in society’, the economic and material circumstances and engines that alter and shape the world around man, that turn ‘ordinary individuals’ into ‘victims.’  It is they, driven by contrary human ambition and desire, that lend the fate of man a particularly grim hue. These opponents of ours, those supposed to be our fellow travelers, turn out to be, on closer inspection, precisely those that induce God’s supposed laughter at our putative plans.

Note: The interview with Bellow is reprinted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Third Series, ed. Alfred Kazin. (London: Viking Press, 1967). 175-196.

Contra Ed Smith, Plain and Clear Language is Still a Virtue

In the New Statesman Ed Smith pushes back at Orwell‘s classic ‘Politics and the English Language‘:

When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction ‘Let’s be clear’, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored….There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion. (‘Don’t be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue‘, New Statesman, 9 February 2013).

Smith is right (in a way), but his invocation of Orwell is misleading; the point that Smith wants to make can be made without suggesting that Orwell’s thesis is up for contestation. The politician or corporate shill is not ‘speaking with misleading simplicity’; rather, he is not being simple at all. There is nothing ‘misleading’ about his ‘simplicity’ for there is none to speak of. Mere conciseness or brevity does not equal simplicity, for otherwise a straightforward reductio of Orwell’s thesis would present itself: speak and communicate as little as possible. When Orwell spoke of writing simply, he had in mind a very particular kind of economy and clarity: use the most felicitous combination of words that express your meanings, no more, no less; there is a Aristotelian golden mean to be determined here, one that a good writer aims for constantly. Sometimes he overshoots and bores his readers with loquaciousness; sometimes he undershoots and leaves his readers mystified.  And it is not just the numerical measure of his writing–in words or length of description–that Orwell had in mind, but the particular choice of words. The bullet-pointed list can be extremely vague too.

The dabbler in lists and bullet points is engaging, not in simplicity or conciseness, but in obfuscation; he is peddling in the modern version of the jargon that Orwell deplored. The management consultant that puts up Powerpoint slides full of concentric circles, arrowheads, and other members of the geometric menagerie is not relying on the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ compaction thesis; rather, he is relying on distraction: look at these fancy, beguiling figures, while I indulge in some artful bullshit peddling. The bullet pointed-list and the consultancy chart shorten descriptions, but they leave out a great deal, giving us not just a skeleton but a misleading one.

If Orwell were to be brought to a corporate boardroom and subjected to the execrable management consultant presentation, he would rewrite his essay to include this modern abomination as an example of the bad ‘writing’ he had in mind.

Note: Yet again, a H/T to Corey Robin (and Doug Henwood) for pointing me to Ed Smith’s article.

Reflections on Translation – I: Accepting and Assessing Translations

Like any reader with a sufficiently long career, I have read many works in translation. In doing so, I have been aware of the distance between the author and myself, of being subject to the same constraints as any other reader of translated works is. Still, I have never ceased to be surprised when I hear someone tell me that they have read a work–known only to me in English–in translation, in a language I would not associate with the author. The most dramatic instance of this astonishment came while talking to an Austrian graduate student who told me he had read Orwell in German; I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could read Orwell in German. I had the tables turned on me when I told a Russian friend I was  reading Dostoevsky, and was greeted with the perplexed inquiry, “You’re reading him in English? How can you do that?” Indeed. How could I do that? But my incompetence in Russian meant it was the only option available to me, and so, I’ve had only one window into that entire body of literature, one that has enriched me in more ways than one, an interaction with which has been subject to limitations I’ve acutely been aware of. I have come to reconcile myself to this shortchanging with my awareness that my engagement with those works is still unique because of my particularities as a reader. It’s a minor blessing, but it will do for now. (I find my relationship to Russian literature especially poignant in its limitations because I’m aware that as a young man my father read many Russian novels  in English translations and then later, went on to learn Russian well enough to speak it–or so I am told–reasonably fluently; I often wonder whether he went back  to reread those same works in Russian.)

I grew up bilingual, so I’ve had a chance to bridge this sort of gap. In high school in India, we read the short stories of the Indian novelist Premchand in Hindi. Later, after moving to the US, and during a trip back to India, I picked up a collection of Premchand’s short stories–translated into English. The temporal distance between my first exposure to Premchand’s shorts and this one was too great; when I read them in English, I was aware of a difference, but it was not one I could adequately describe or articulate. I was merely cognizant of the fact that I was reading distinct works and was unable to make any sort of critical assessment of the quality of the translation.

I have a chance to conduct this experiment again; I own three of Premchand’s novels in the original Hindi, and plan to pick up translations in English on my next trip to India. I have often found myself groaning at the quality of the subtitled translations of Indian cinema; if  more than one established translation of Premchand into English can be found, I intend to make those rough expressions of discontent more formal, to finally be the kind of snob that is able to say “I prefer X’s translation to Y’s.” I say this with all due humility: my fluency in Hindi is debatable; I am aware of the indeterminacy of translation; but still, it’ll be nice to be able to turn the tables, to go from being the one on the outside, being told of my separation from the translated work, to being the one on the inside, informing others of theirs.

Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essayists and Posterity

For a couple of days now, Katha Pollitt’s obit/remembrance of Christopher Hitchens has been making the rounds to near-universal adulation. For good reasons; the piece is well worth a read, especially as it highlights aspects of Hitchens’ writing and personality that few have seen fit to focus on (especially not by his drinking buddies, whose cliche-ridden remembrances will be chuckled over by many for years to come).

But toward the end of the article, Pollitt throws in the following:

Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Pollitt seems to be trying to establish the following thesis (roughly): Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. I disagree. (Notice, incidentally, that Pollitt has thrown “essayists” into a group that includes “columnists” and “book reviewers”; I do agree that “columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work. I’m also aware that “non-fiction” is too broad a category in my purported thesis above but I think it is clear what Pollitt and I are aiming at.)

The simplest way to refute Pollitt’s assertion is to dredge up examples of essayists whose place in posterity is secure without their being famous through the fiction they wrote: Michel Montaigne, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Susan Sontag, Jacques Barzun; the list goes on. (Standard caveat: to really settle this dispute check back in a couple of hundred years). We can disagree plentifully about how well posterity is treating every single member on the list we would generate, and about its definitive membership, but when the smoke would clear, we would still list many essayists to whom posterity has been “kind” without requiring that they have written a best-selling novel or two. Indeed, in some cases, it would be clear their literary fame has been achieved not because of the fiction they wrote but in spite of it (I think this is especially true of Sontag, whose fiction I simply could not stand).

But there is another problem in Pollitt’s assertion given its reliance on the case of Orwell. Would Orwell simply have slipped into obscurity had he not written those “indelible” novels? Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out. And popularity in that genre can have the salutary effect of attracting a broader readership to the rest of a writer’s corpus. And yes, Orwell’s writings became famous only after he wrote his best-selling novels (I’m inclined to think that 1984, incidentally, is a not-very-good novel whose fame was ensured by a particular set of historical contingencies). But is a large readership what Pollitt means by being treated kindly by posterity? Or would posterity still be kind to a writer if critical acclaim for the writer’s non-fiction corpus were to endure through the ages? If the latter, then since Pollitt is trading in hypotheticals, let me do so too. I think anyone that wrote Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Decline of the English Murder, How the Poor Die, Shooting An Elephant, Why I Write, or Politics and The English Language would have found enduring critical, even if not popular, fame.

Lastly, slipping a mention of Orwell into a remembrance of Hitchens shows that Pollitt has succumbed to the temptation to lump the two together. Please. Cease and Desist.