I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?
Epidemiology offers a fruitful perspective to consider the malignancies evident in much contemporary writing. My perceptions here are far from universal, first because no one can get a proper grasp on what is happening in literature everywhere, and second because I am not an especially voracious reader. Yet more and more I am seeing not just the usual badness, but a particular and I think new kind of badness in the books I come across, which I doubt can be divorced from the documented rise in narcissistic traits in so-called Western countries – a real trend, even if most of the writing about it is vague, tawdry, and alarmist – and from the peculiar distortions effected on subjectivity, not only by social media, but by the compulsion to identity that appears a part of our Zeitgeist.
The cardinal feature of the badness in question appears to be the presumption either of inherent interest or of a claim on others’ interest independent of the aesthetic virtues of the text in question (the word aesthetic is marked off here because in certain cases, other putative virtues appear to displace, substitute for, or supersede aesthetic value). Dividing the two is a thorny task: in general, one might say that exemplars of the first tend to enjoy the favor of some already extant mediator of regard or privilege, while those of the second seek to exploit some aspect of their alienation from said mediators as evidence of a reprehensible exclusion from consideration.
In books of this kind, though the author may believe himself to have produced something of value, the actual burden of generating interest is passed off onto the reader, who, if he fails in this task, is subject to one of two sorts of opprobrium: the age-old charge of philistinism, if the author is established, or that of bigotry, if the author is excluded, subaltern, or what have you. In either case, the predominant feeling for the reader who is aware of, but has not succumbed to, advance praise, browbeating, or the obligation to enjoy, is boredom, exasperation, and vague, persistent irritation.
Such writing finds its analogue in the perplexing phenomena of social media: the selfie and particularly the status update. In an essay on Ben Lerner and Teju Cole for Uwe Schütte’s Über W.G. Sebald, I used the term “literary selfie” to describe these writers’ work, which is less concerned with the places, circumstances, or persons described therein than with the authors’ prominent visibility against the backdrop they provide. A recent study in Toronto by Dr. Daniel Re, et al. concluded that “Selfies may therefore produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot,” and found that “Selfie-takers generally overperceived the positive attributes purveyed by their selfies.” I have the sense that similar illusions obtain in the literary selfie: that authors who believe they are conveying probity, sagacity, and acumen in general manifest obtuseness, inconsideration, and intolerable self-regard.
As these traits come to predominate, writing suffers in interesting ways. Plotting, traditionally the source of tension, becomes slipshod and piecemeal, because the presumption that the reader is always already interested strips it of urgency, and the rationale for a given incident’s presence in the text is often vague. Repetitions abound, because the author, like a friend who insistently posts photographs of his meals or of drunken nights out with friends, has lost sight of the possibility that he might be boring. In Leaving the Atocha Station, for example, there are forty-seven references to the narrator’s fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, eighteen to taking pills, thirty-five to drinking coffee, fifty-three to cannabis, twenty-three to the narrator’s “project,” and fifty-eight instances of the word “whatever.” Less than plotting, in the traditional sense, or character development, such iterations privilege a view of the subject as an accumulation of self-perceptions or “status updates.” This may account as well for the preponderance of adverbs in many books of this sort, which qualify non-falsifiable gradations of emotion.
The trouble with such writing, beyond its obvious complicity with the self-commodification increasingly requisite for literary success, and the abominable nature of a world in which the enticement of embodying an image or a product eclipses the temptation to be, is its vast incuriosity, its retrograde supposition of the fixity of the self. Even at its most brooding, it seems affected, more concerned with the lineaments of meditation than with its mechanics or the strange shores it might lead to, as though its representatives, starting to cramp from the unnatural posture, are already rankling, ready to post their update and move on.
Today marks the publication of my first book, The Aesthetics of Degradation. I had considered posting some acknowledgements here, but when I started writing them, they came out too grandiose, so I nixed the idea. The book is about pornography, specifically pornography centered on the brutalization of women, a phenomenon that raises fewer eyebrows than it should and strikes me as an ominous symptom of the drift of present-day masculinity; but equally important are the themes of memory and justice and the integrity of the self over time. It is a novel, and I would like it to be taken as such, though publication also means relinquishment of control over how something will be read and interpreted.
Here is a link to the publisher’s page, with information about ordering: http://repeaterbooks.com/books/the-aesthetics-of-degradation-adrian-nathan-west/
Last month, Scott Esposito was kind enough to sand me a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Sleep of the Righteous in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation. The book is excellent, but what particularly interests me is the translation. Naming the translator has become a rallying cry and shibboleth among many people who talk about literary topics online, and though I, as a person who lives by translation, may see some benefit from this hoopla and therefore should be thankful, I am not always in agreement with the push to move the act of translation to the center of conversations about translated literature. In critics who are sympathetic to translators’ claims, it tends to provoke a cursory response, and the dashed-off “cleverly translated,” “brilliantly translated,” “awkwardly translated” etc. no more indicate real thought about the original’s rendition into English than the use of politically correct terms for minority groups, so-called, is a sign of sensitivity as to their status. Writers aware of this sometimes strive to do more, but lacking sufficient information, the attempt often comes out bad. A reviewer of a comic I translated went to the trouble of naming me, only to imply that I had been remiss in failing to translate an important note a character held in his hand; naturally this was the choice of the editor, who didn’t want to pony up for a hand letterer. Frequently, reviewers hoping to look clever will home in on an instance of “mistranslation” without regard to the chain of associations with a certain word in a given text. In Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Landarzt. Porträt eines einfachen Mann, the word Wirklichkeit is thematic, though its scope in German, particularly in the philosophical tradition Améry is responding to, is broader than whatever English term I eventually settle on in the translation. To pick a single occurrence and say, what Améry really means here is objectivity or substantiality or truthfulness or what have you, would be short-sighted. Also, this exercise frequently fails: some years back, I saw a review censuring a translator from Spanish for having rendered maleducado as “ill-mannered.” Really, the critic claimed, it should be uneducated. Naturally, that is ludicrous.
Michael Hoffman makes the seemingly obvious, but still necessary point that his translations aren’t for people who speak German, and advocates for a measure of wilfulness on the translator’s part. What that measure is must be an open question, but it strikes me he is right, at least in many instances. A translation cannot respect the whole range of syntactic, rhetorical, and semantic niceties that undergird a work’s goodness or greatness in its original language; and to attempt to do so halfway may yield something clunky yet still far from illuminating in this respect. Lydia Davis, in her translation of Swann’s Way, claims to have taken pains to follow Proust’s punctuation and word order, but does would a reader ignorant of French really get a better sense of Proust’s French from her version than from the Moncrieff translation? Is it possible for a person who unfamiliar with a language to get a sense of what it is like?
“Fidelity to the original” is invoked at times to justify the awkwardness of a text, ignoring that rhetoric is not ideal, but instead embedded in historical and cultural circumstances that are not always transferable. Due to interference from Euskera, many Spanish speakers from the Basque country and Navarre place their verbs at the end of clauses. Were this reproducible in a target language, that would not make it advisable. At best, it would require a footnote providing the reader with a bit of pedantic trivia. English has a genius for combining words (cankles, frenemy) that carries over poorly into other languages; the same is true of the German yen for ponderous neologisms. Attempts at “fidelity” to the specific resources of the out-language, which also partake of the unique way its speakers think and live, may exhibit brilliance, but they run the danger of yielding something ugly and unshapely, and there are already too many ugly and unshapely books.
(That said, much that is thought inherent to a language may be the result of ignorance of the language’s heritage, which those working in literature ought to struggle to preserve. It is averred, to take a small example, that German syntax is more complex than English and that German sentences requite breaking up. When I hear this, I think people need to read more De Quincey or Johnson.)
Anyway: The Sleep of the Righteous is one of the most exquisite translations I’ve read in some time, and gives some clues as to when and how discussing the translator’s art, even in the absence of an awareness of the source language, may be possible. Look at these beautiful sentences:
With their shoes slipping on the frozen mud crests, now and then the utterly phlegmatic beasts would stop; the coachman’s long, arcing whip, tip flicked out, sank from the white sky onto the horses’ huge rumps, darting there artfully until the mighty animals, making reluctant fluttery sounds with their nostrils, resumed their trot once more; fine wisps of ash rose from their coats as the man on the wooden seat administered those tiny, well-aimed rapier jabs that sometimes cracked like distant gunshots.
You can judge a think like this by counter-example: how could it have been done worse? From the poetic perspective, this is so magnificent, so subtly weighted, that almost any substitution would make it worse. I do not know whether the original is so alliteratively and metrically rich –– if so, Cole’s feat is doubly impressive –– but I also don’t care. No one to whom such phrases occur should fail to write them down. Throughout the book, the translator’s lexicon is so fresh and surprising (licquescing, dapples, asimmer, runnels, flues), and it makes the book a joy to read.
At night, the gleaming birch leaves caught the moonlight, and when they stirred in a breeze, a flutter or flicker passed down the edge of the causeway, an iridescent glitter like crinkled tinfoil, coming from beyond, from the rubbish heaps that loomed nearby forbiddingly with the blood-red light of fires, hellfires, shooting up between them: the red luminescence and the moon’s silver dazzle were echoed in the ripples of the bay…
This is a blog post, not an essay, so I won’t say more, but congratulations and thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole and to Two Lines Press for this lovely book of stories, some of which will stay with me for a long time.
NB: I reread Torii Moi’s review of the now not-so-new translation of Beauvoir’s Second Sex this morning. The entire thing is a fascinating look at how and why a bad translation (for those who do consider it a bad translation) happens as well as the publishing politics that favor one sort of translation over another and that may affect the reviewing process afterward.
Karl Popper famously said: “All life is problem solving.” No theory of consciousness is necessary to define the objectives of a general problem solver. From an AGI point of view, consciousness is at best a by-product of a general problem solving procedure.
I must admit that I am not a big fan of Tononi’s theory. The following may represent a simpler and more general view of consciousness. Where do the symbols and self-symbols underlying consciousness and sentience come from? I think they come from data compression during problem solving. Let me plagiarize what I wrote earlier:
While a problem solver is interacting with the world, it should store the entire raw history of actions and sensory observations including reward signals. The data is ‘holy’ as it is the only basis of all that can be known about the world. If you can store the data, do not throw it away! Brains may have enough storage capacity to store 100 years of lifetime at reasonable resolution.
As we interact with the world to achieve goals, we are constructing internal models of the world, predicting and thus partially compressing the data history we are observing. If the predictor/compressor is a biological or artificial recurrent neural network (RNN), it will automatically create feature hierarchies, lower level neurons corresponding to simple feature detectors similar to those found in human brains, higher layer neurons typically corresponding to more abstract features, but fine-grained where necessary. Like any good compressor, the RNN will learn to identify shared regularities among different already existing internal data structures, and generate prototype encodings (across neuron populations) or symbols for frequently occurring observation sub-sequences, to shrink the storage space needed for the whole (we see this in our artificial RNNs all the time). Self-symbols may be viewed as a by-product of this, since there is one thing that is involved in all actions and sensory inputs of the agent, namely, the agent itself. To efficiently encode the entire data history through predictive coding, it will profit from creating some sort of internal prototype symbol or code (e. g. a neural activity pattern) representing itself [1,2]. Whenever this representation becomes activated above a certain threshold, say, by activating the corresponding neurons through new incoming sensory inputs or an internal ‘search light’ or otherwise, the agent could be called self-aware. No need to see this as a mysterious process — it is just a natural by-product of partially compressing the observation history by efficiently encoding frequent observations.
For the past two months I have been reading, in a typically overcompensatory fashion, the complete works of Juan Benet, to prepare for the foreword I will append to my translation of his Construction of the Tower of Babel, which I believe will come out in early 2017. Benet is a remarkable writer, peerless in twentieth-century Spain. His mind was nimble, his curiosity nearly boundless, his syntax as intricate and subtle as DeQuincey’s and his vision as unique, though far more extensive and recondite, as that of Rulfo, Faulkner, or Bernhard. His reputation hasn’t fared as well as it might have: in Spain, he is said to have disciples but no readers; in France, Pascale Casanova has written intelligent appraisals of his achievement, and his important work remains in print, but I don’t have the sense that its influence has reached writers of later generations; Suhrkamp published several of his books in Germany, though slowly they have gone out of print except for one. He was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in the eighties: the books seem to have gotten decent reviews – A Meditation was blurbed by John Gardner – but Jeremy Davies, formerly of Dalkey Archive, is the only person I know who has read them. I imagine he suffers in translation: though an advocate of the grand style and contemptuous of Iberian insularity, there is something deeply Castilian, even Madrileño, in his writing, particularly in his stock of idioms, that doesn’t carry across easily: in the Rabassa translation, these swatches of local color vanish at times into incomprehensibility, as when the old commonplace coger el rábano por las hojas is translated literally. I would not be surprised to find similar occurrences in the French and German versions.
Benet is thought of as a fiction writer, and now, those who read him probably start with his first novel, Volverás a Región (Return to Región, in Rabassa’s version, or more literally, You Will Return to Región), read twenty or thirty pages, flip through the middle, read the last page, and give up. Benet is exasperating, but I do not think it is right to call him difficult; demanding seems to me the better word. Over long years of reading, one develops a multitude of bad habits that over time make of what at first was engaged appreciation a indolent receptivity little distinguishable from dozing; this is why so many critics lose their discernment with age and why Schopenhauer commends the art of not reading. It is impossible to read Benet lazily: a page skipped, a detail unattended, and too much is lost. Benet’s vocabularly is immense, encompassing archaisms and the respective parlance of technical science, philosophy, and letters, along with a liberal peppering of foreign phrasings and slang from the cities and countryside. Where one writer may content himsef with a vague description of mountain and lowlands and the position of the sun over some scant vegetation, as likely as not to be adventitious or out of season, Benet will spend ten pages on the geological movements giving rise to the specific landforms, the soil composition and mesoclimate. In his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses, as elsewhere, Nabokov stresses the importants of a clear sense of the geography a tale sketches out, and draws a number of maps illustrating Bloom’s and Stephen’s travels. For Rusty Lances, his unfinished meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Benet published a topographical map of the imagined territory of Región at 1:150,000 scale.
Among doctoral students, who must form the better part of Benet’s readership, little mention is made of his essays, though they are arguably as accomplished as his fiction, and certainly provide a more amenable angle of approach to the body of his work. His expository style is urbane, elegant, and imperious, and gives some sense of his legendary sense of humor, which is not always apparent in his novels. In 1970, he was asked to provide a preface to Stewart Gilbert’s famous book on Ulysses, and with typical contumacity, used the space accorded him as the occasion for a public separation; a divorce, as he called it. The following quotes, representative of his never-quite-systematic but always penetrating aesthetic judgments, are taken from that essay.
A writer who with time – and borne aloft by his predilection for his own highjinks – searches for refinement by means of the substitution of a system of puns for a system of ideas, does not seem to me the most consummate intellectual – as certain university professors assert with onerous insistence – if it is agreed to that intelligence is not an end in itself and the intellectual is something more than a tinkering mechanic who makes use of his abilities to define the maximal possibilites of artifice.
What cannot be denied is that [Joyce] was an innovator of the genre. What one must ask oneself, however, is whether his esteem derives solely from his innovations… and above all, from his having achieved them in such an explicit and deliberate manner. To begin, I ask myself as well – making use of examples from the past – whether the renovations and innovations of things as stable as the great literary genres – and the social taste they imply – may be achieved through a conscious will totally committed to such an end. I ask myself whether Tacitus, while he wrote the Annals, was conscious of casting into the world the first seed of uncertainty in history, of the lack of confidence in reason…
If the rare spirit makes use of anything, it is of a certain doctrinal uncertainty – as Keats would have it – convinced that its calling is not so much the ascertainment of hidden reality as the elucidation of certain of its many and contradictory enigmas.
What is in its essence original need not be intentionally original and from this I am led to conclude that what is so in its intention is rarely so in and of itself.
… wisdom is nothing more than a moment’s effort on the part of man to overcome and redeem himself from that radical idiocy that constitutes the substrate of his customs and the continuity of his consciousness.
I recently found a page of notes on Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics in an old notebook I was tearing pages out of. It begins with a note on Alberti. Whether the sculptor or the poet is meant, I have no idea, and strangely, I have no memory of reading either. The notes seemed interesting, so I have transcribed them below.
- As in Alberti, the notion that the significant difference between art and craft is achieved through freedom of action.
- Art represents at once the fracture effected by the progress of the mind and the mind’s attempt to remediate that fracture, which comes to appear, in a certain way, as a form of distress.
- In fact, it is the perception of freedom, of intention, that separates one’s understanding of artistic as distinct from natural beauty, and provokes the special sort of attunement we reserve for art objects.
- The an-und-für-sich Seiende in Hegel must be the primal perception of another being experienced in its twin possibilities of menace and object of conquest (be it violent, erotic, domesticating) – these are our most basic modes of understanding other beings… [This drifts into notes that are partly illegible, and incomprehensible where they are not.]
- In terms both of form and content, art is constrained by its relation to the spirit. The nature of every genre of creative act (art, science) is defined by the specific limits that demarcate its realm of action from that of pure freedom.
The highly abstract and poetic idiom of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny can easily obscure its documentary basis: virtually every episode in the novel is based on some historical or visual record. Painting and photography are particularly important to decoding it. Gimferrer has stressed that the reader need not track down all his references, that what is important is the writing’s poetic force. As a reader, that was sufficient for me, but as a translator, I felt a need to better know the text’s background. My editor at Godine and I considered illustrating my translation; in the end, it didn’t happen; but since I still have a folder of images relating to the text, which not only aided my understanding of it, but also gave me an appreciation for the Fortunys and their artistry, I thought I would put this up here, in case anyone else were interested.
Chapter One: The Man in the Turban
Chapter Two: The Outsiders
Chapter 3: The Flower Maidens
Chapter Four: The Tragedienne
Chapter Five: At Palazzo Martinengo
Chapter Six: Villa Pisani
Chapter Seven: Interlude
Chapter Eight: Eros’s Mirror
Chapter Nine: A Visit
Chapter Ten: Latitudes
Chapter Eleven: Ornithology
Chapter Twelve: The Traveler
Chapter Thirteen: Embellishment
Chapter Fourteen: Visions
Chapter Fifteen: Henriette
Chapter Sixteen: Nocturne
Chapter Seventeen: Return to Villa Pisani
Chapter Eighteen: Theaters
Chapter Nineteen: Intermission
Chapter Twenty: The Wax Figures
Chapter Twenty-One: Instants
Chapter Twenty-Two: The Lovers
Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sphinx
Chapter Twenty-Four: Encounters
Chapter Twenty-Five: Episode
Chapter Twenty-Six: Sisterly
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Table Talk
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Portrait
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Business
Chapter Thirty: The Dwelling
Chapter Thirty-One: The Resolution
Chapter Thirty-Two: Incursions
Chapter Thirty-Three: The Second of May
Chapter Thirty-Four: The Bell
Chapter Thirty-Five: The Japanese Salon
That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:
QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat
Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.
Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.
I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.
Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous. I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.
Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.
My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.
Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.
Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;
Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.
Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.
The above quote from Pasolini, whom I was reading a good deal of two or three months back, did not leave my thoughts for a long time. Nonetheless, there is something sinister to me about Pasolini. When I was younger, I was often approached by gay men in ways that ranged from obtrusive to openly aggressive; this rarely bothered me, because I didn’t fear for my safety, and because – for reasons likely as much genetic as moral – their advances did not disgust me; but in retrospect, it is clear to me that what interested many of these men was closer to exploitation than love. Pasolini is one of a large group of people who might be described as “aesthetic communists,” whose objections to capitalist modernity derive less from concern for the happiness and prosperity of the proletariat than from an erotic inclination toward the degraded and downtrodden, and even toward violence as such, under the guise of an appreciation of authenticity, and whose distaste for the free market’s tawdry fruits betokens an aristocratic bent (as Gombrowicz notes of liberalism in general in his diaries). As I watch, for a second time, Comizi d’amore, I wonder what is so admirable in Pasolini’s subjection, on camera, of members of all classes of Italian society to intrusive sexual questions, particularly as the relationship of interviewer to interviewee so clearly recapitulates the asymmetrical status relations Pasolini allegedly opposed; and the self-consciousness, embarrassment, and perplexity of the respondents recalls a favorite passage from Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard:
It was outrageous, he said, to ask him such a stupid question. Your question is quite simply stupid, he said. She could surely not expect an intelligent answer to such a stupid and insolent question. I think you’ve struck the wrong note, he said, making to get up from his chair, as though he wanted to leave the Auersbergers’ Gentzgasse apartment at once and without further ado, having had enough of this insolent questioning. However, seeing the hostess return with the coffee, he sat down again in his armchair, saying as he did so that he did not have to answer stupid questions like that. Such a tasteless question, he told the astonished Jeannie, would naturally get no answer from him. What impertinent nonsense about my coming to the end of my life! said the actor from the Burgtheater. What impudent presumption! How rude to confront me with your stupidity!
I do not know what it was like to have lived under fascism, or the peculiar psychological pressure it must have induced, especially in a person like Pasolini; I cannot imagine, to take an example from Pasolini’s life, the sophistry required to maintain faith in a dogma whose doctrinaire followers had murdered my own brother. Our appreciation of projects like Pasolini’s springs from a reactive and perhaps misguided Schadenfreude, a joy at seeing bubbles burst and the straight-laced forced to face up to their so-called hypocrisy. I return to those words of Samuel Johnson:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
We long to be free, and freedom must be, in some sense, a basic good, but it is also indisputable that freedom as such is an aporia, that what exists in its stead is a range of minor freedoms made possible by distinct political orders; and when I think of many aspects of the idea of freedom in its current incarnation in the west, whose citizens show themselves increasingly blithe prevail about the superficiality of their sexual cravings, their love of lucre, their disdain for the good, and their detestation of the poor, I cannot help but think that along with hypocrisy, a certain kind of earnestness has also been lost, and that the ideal objects of freedom have grown more vulgar.