On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.

‘Westworld’ And The American West As Locale For Self-Reconfiguration

It is perhaps unsurprising that Westworld is Westworld; if American mythology is to be staged anywhere, the West is a natural locale. In the original Westworld, the West meant a zone in which certain kinds of adventures were facilitated: gun battles mostly, but also sex with perfect strangers who cared little for who you were and only wanted your money. In the new Westworld, an implicit motif of the first becomes more explicit: Westworld is where you go to find yourself–whoever and whatever that may be. In this new Westworld, the landscape, only background scenery in the old, now becomes more prominent; we are reminded again and again of its beauty, wildness, and implacable hostility and indifference. If you want to make a show about self-discovery, reconfiguration, journeys into and across space and time, the American West–for many historical and cultural reasons–is a good call. The physical spaces are vast, mapping neatly on to the immense unexplored spaces of the mind; the beauty is enthralling, sparking vision after vision in us of possibility, and also, as Rilke reminded us, bringing us closer to terror: those cliffs, those bluffs, those steep walls, that burning sun, the rattlesnakes, the dangers of other humans. The deployment of the American West also taps into a deeper mythology that self-discovery takes place away from other humans–in the wild. If we are to traverse our mind, then Westworld–like many other recountings of human experience before it–suggests we need tremendous physical spaces too. We could not do this in a crowded city. Those endless horizons and canopies of the sheltering sky are necessary for the suggestion of infinite possibility.

And then, there is the violence. The American West’s land is soaked in blood, in memories of a people decimated, of massacres, starvation, and rape. If you want to stage a modern day genocide–and the continuing thirty-five year old slaughter of ‘hosts’ is most definitely a genocide, even if an eternally recurring one–then, again, the West is the correct locale. It is significant that in this version of the American West, there are very few Native Americans; there are some ‘greasers‘–cannon fodder, obviously–but very few ‘redskins.’ The makers of the show seem to have wisely decided that it was best to mostly write Native Americans out of the show rather than risk getting their depiction and usage wrong, which they almost certainly would have. (The one episode in which Native Americans make an appearance, they are the stuff of nightmare, much as they must have been for the ‘pioneers,’ their imaginations inflamed by stories of how they had to keep their women safe from the depredations of the savages on the prairies.) This American West is one which has already been cleansed of the Native American; an alternative rendering of Westworld, one whose dark satire would have cut too close to the bone, would be one in which park visitors would get to shoot all the whoopin’ n’ hollerin’ Injuns they wanted.

MedievalWorld, SamuraiWorld would also allow for the exploration of themes pertaining to the possible sentience of robots, but their locales might not, at least for American audiences, suggest the possibilities of our own reconfiguration quite so well.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Mountains Of The Mind

A few years ago, while visiting my brother in India, I browsed through his collection of mountaineering books (some of them purchased by me in the US and sent over to him.) In Robert MacFarlane‘s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, I found the following epigraph:

O the mind, mind has mountains  – Gerard Manley Hopkins c. 1880

It wasn’t the first time I had read Hopkins’ immortal line. And my first reaction to it, and its embedding in the poem in which it features made me question MacFarlane’s deployment of it as an epigraph to his book, and indeed, in its title.

MacFarlane’s book is, as an excellent critical review on Amazon notes, “a series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the “mountains” and exploring the mountains.” Man is fascinated by the mountains; bewitched and bewildered, we seek to climb them, hoping to find on their slopes and summits nothing less than our true selves, brought forth and revealed by adversity. Or perhaps mountains will grant us access to the key to this world’s mysteries; visions will be induced in our journeys that will pull back the curtains and reveal what lies beneath the surface and appearance of reality. Mountains have many roles to play in our projects of self-imagination and construction–in MacFarlane’s narrowly conceived Anglocentric sphere. (This last critical point is the primary focus of the review linked above.)

But what is Hopkins’ line doing, serving as an epigraph to such a book? Hopkins’ poem is about melancholia; indeed, it might be one of the most powerful and moving explorations of the mind’s travails. Here is how I read his line: our mind is capable of entertaining thoughts and feelings which contain within them chasms of despair, points at which we stare into a dark abyss, an unfathomable one, with invisible depths. These are our own private hells, glimpses of which we catch when we walk up to the edge and look. The effect on the reader–especially one who has been to the mountains–is dramatic; you are reminded of the frightening heights from which you can gaze down on seemingly endless icy and windswept slopes, the lower reaches of which are shrouded with their own mysterious darkness; and you are reminded too, of the darkest thoughts you have entertained in your most melancholic moments.

In MacFarlane’s book, the fear that mountains evoke in us is a prominent feature of man’s fascination with mountains (this suggests too, the interplay between terror and beauty that Rilke wrote about in the Duino Elegies.) But melancholia does not feature in MacFarlane’s analysis. MacFarlane seems to quote the line as saying that our fascination with mountains stems from the fact that our mind itself contains mountains, that some part of our primeval sense responds to them. This is not what Hopkins was writing about. He uses mountains as an image to convey the depths visible from their heights, as a symbol of how far we may fall in our melancholia. Fear is present for Hopkins but in a wholly different manner; we dread the depths to which we may sink in our ruminations. That is not the kind of fear MacFarlane addresses; it is related only peripherally.

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.

Reflections on Translations – V: The Special Challenges of Poetry

I have previously confessed, on this blog, to being mystified by the magical processes of translation, especially when I realize important components of my literary and philosophical education consisted of reading translated works.

This mystification is especially pronounced when I confront translations of poetry, where the translator’s task appears ever more difficult. When I read Pushkin‘s Eugene Onegin (Penguin Classics1986), I read Sir Charles Johnston’s ‘Translator’s Note’ with a great deal of sympathy; indeed, I wondered why anyone would take on such a task.

As Johnston put it,

Few foreign masterpieces can have suffered more than Eugene Onegin from the English translator’s failure to convey anything more than–at best–the literal meaning. It is as if a sound-proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default; the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem; the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling compulsive grip of the novel; the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.

I’ll take his word for it, for I can’t read or speak a word of Russian.

I do read and speak a little bit of German and so am always a bit more curious when confronted with translations from that language. Here are two samples of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic poem, ‘Death Experienced’ – the differences are slight, yet fascinating. First, the original in German:

Todeserfahrung

Wir wissen nichts von diesem Hingehn, das
nicht mit uns teilt. Wir haben keinen Grund,
Bewunderung und Liebe oder Haß
dem Tod zu zeigen, den ein Maskenmund

tragischer Klage wunderlich entstellt.
Noch ist die Welt voll Rollen, die wir spielen,
solang wir sorgen, ob wir auch gefielen,
spielt auch der Tod, obwohl er nicht gefällt.

Doch als du gingst, da brach in diese Bühne
ein Streifen Wirklichkeit durch jenen Spalt,
durch den du hingingst: Grün wirklicher Grüne,
wirklicher Sonnenschein, wirklicher Wald.

Wir spielen weiter. Bang und schwer Erlerntes
hersagend und Gebärden dann und wann
aufhebend; aber dein von uns entferntes,
aus unserm Stück entrücktes Dasein kann

uns manchmal überkommen, wie ein Wissen
von jener Wirklichkeit sich niedersenkend,
so daß wir eine Weile hingerissen
das Leben spielen, nicht an Beifall denkend.

Then, the first translation, the form in which I encountered it first, translated by J. B. Leishman–long considered ‘authoritative’ by many Rilke scholars–excerpted from the collection Possibility of Being, New Directions 1977:

Death Experienced

We know just nothing of this going hence
that so excludes us. We’ve no grounds at all
to greet with plaudits or malevolence
the Death whom that mask-mouth of tragical

lament disfigures so incredibly.
The world’s still full of parts being acted by us.
Till pleasing in them cease to occupy us,
Death will act too, although unpleasingly.

When, though, you went, there broke upon this scene
a shining segment of realities
in at the crack you disappeared through: green
of real green, real sunshine, real trees.

We go on acting. Uttering what exacted
such painful learning, gesturing now and then;
but your existence and the part you acted,
withdrawn now from our play and from our ken,

sometimes recur to us like intimations
of that reality and its laws,
and we transcend awhile our limitations
and act our lives unthinking of applause.

Here is an alternative translation by Cliff Crego:

Death Experience

We know nothing of this going away, that
shares nothing with us. We have no reason,
whether astonishment and love or hate,
to display Death, whom a fantastic mask

of tragic lament astonishingly disfigures.
Now the world is still full of roles which we play
as long as we make sure, that, like it or not,
Death plays, too, although he does not please us.

But when you left, a strip of reality broke
upon the stage through the very opening
through which you vanished: Green, true green,
true sunshine, true forest.

We continue our play. Picking up gestures
now and then, and anxiously reciting
that which was difficult to learn; but your far away,
removed out of our performance existence,

sometimes overcomes us, as an awareness
descending upon us of this very reality,
so that for a while we play Life
rapturously, not thinking of any applause.

Because my competence at German is limited and thus I cannot really read Rilke in the original in any meaningful, emotionally infused way, I cannot critically comment on the translations; I am content to say that the Leishman translation is more formal, more stilted, while the Crego one ‘flows’ a bit more and is a bit truer to the original’s language. But here I’m restricted to merely commenting on the English, and perhaps just a little on the fidelity to the German; so I find myself frustrated again by my lack of linguistic competency.

The truly fascinating case, of course, is that of the bi-lingual writer (and poet) who translates his own work into his second language. The most famous instance is Vladimir Nabokov; I’ll have a post on his translations soon.