31 December 2009

MCT: Roman Jakobson

Jakobson (wikipedia) is honoured with two extracts in MCT: "Linguistics and Poetics" and "The metaphoric and metonymic poles". Both illustrate his structuralist approach to literature: he is attempting to explain the mechanism of, in particular, poetry, showing how it differs from 'normal' writing.

The first essay identifies common features in poetry taken from a wide range of cultures. Principally, the view is that poetry is structured around repetition and variation, whether this be of sounds (rhymes) or rhythm (metre). He takes a long time to say this, and I can't honestly that the argument is developed. Rather, it is re-inforced by a succession of evidence. The range of evidence is impressive but this man was a linguist ...

The second essay covers the two options of metonymy and metaphor. Apparently, aphasic people fall into two groups: those who misspeak by way of metonymy (contiguity), and those who misspeak by way of metaphor (similarity). Someone in the first group might mistake his wife for a hat; in the second group, he might inappropriately use the word 'bride'. OK, that's what it's about. The point is that different writers, and different schools of writing, tend towards one or the other. So, in art, the cubists used metonymy, while the surrealists tended to metaphor.

Both essays, I suppose, contribute to a framework for understanding how literature achieves its effects. But they are exercises in linguistics. Indeed Jakobson explicitly claims that the study of poetics is part of linguistics. He wants a scientific approach:
Unfortunately the terminological confusion of 'literary studies' with 'criticism' tempts the student of literature to replace the description of the intrinsic values of a literary work by a subjective, censorious verdict.(p142)
Obvious problems there, above all the view that a work has 'intrinsic values', and the rest of the essays suggest that the linguistic analysis of the work will reveal them. Of course analysis of language has be to linguistic; in some sense it can't be anything else. But it really feels like something is missing here. Another book I've been reading quotes Stephen Sondheim's lines:
What's the muddle
in the middle?
That's the puddle where the poodle
did the piddle.
and says there's nothing in Jakobson to explain why that's rubbish. Exactly. I suspect it's the lack of connection to real and important subject matter, which suggests that literary analysis can't ignore the world outside the text.

(Reference is to Hans Bertens, Literary Theory: the basics p39).

29 December 2009

Comparative literature

When I tell people I'm hoping to do an MA in comparative literature, they usually ask what's that? and I usually can't answer. Someone answered the question for herself though; she said so, it's like saying, this book's bigger than that book, right?. Funny, and it seems not that far off certain approaches. I've been given Susan Bassnett's book Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction for Christmas (it was either that or Katie Price's latest autobiography), and I realise the question is one that has been around a long time, and one that doesn't have an easy answer.

One answer has always been that comparative literature is there to demonstrate that our literature is bigger and better than theirs. Here's a table showing some of the us and them alignments:
EnglandvWales, Scotland, Ireland
EuropevThe Orient
EuropevThe Americas
AfricavThe rest of the World
Comparative literature, in other words, has been used as a political tool. The literature of, say, the Middle East is used to demonstrate and maintain prejudices about the nature of its people and society (eg Kinglake and Burton), while the sagas of Iceland were adopted by a ragbag of people, including Nazis, as the exemplary development of male aryanism.

So, according to Bassnett (writing in 1993), the study of comparative literature has declined in Britain, presumably because of the obvious unloveliness of the discipline in this form.

But, she says, there has been a growth in interest in the subject in, for example, India. This has depended upon a revaluation of the local literature, which has put that at the heart of the subject. In India, historically, it may have been hard for local intellectuals to get free of colonial thoughts about the primacy of English literature, in which it is the benchmark against which other literatures are compared. This transformation is partly driven by post-colonial theory, but it means that comparative literature becomes a tool of post-colonialism, a complete reversal of its earlier role.

There's also a fascinating interplay between colonialism and sexuality, which I hadn't realised before. Bassnett clearly brings feminist theory into the subject, but when you realise how often colonisers talked about "virgin" territory, and orientalists speculated obsessively on the sexual secrets of the east, it's hard to deny it was always there.

So, interesting stuff, but I still don't have an easy definition of what comparative literature is. Probably it's too general a concept, and it should be renamed as "world literature". But if the music business is any precedent, "world literature", like "world music", would mean anything that's not from North America or some parts of Europe. So maybe it's just "literature". That can't be right - it's much too simple.

26 December 2009

Strange languages

OK, it's not rigorously academic, but it's interesting. Does the existence of evidential language in Tuyuca mean that its speakers think differently? And how would you translate it?
Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

23 December 2009

MCT: Jacques Derrida

Derrida is another of those "crazy frogs" who had a revolutionary but possibly already diminishing impact on critical theory. One thing I'm finding out is that in some cases, the impact was greater in America than in Britain, and it would be interesting to speculate why. I suspect the adoption of French theories may have remained "cool" in American intellectual circles longer. In Britain, it's now always America that's considered cool, and also maybe the practical criticism tradition is more robust. That's for another day. Today, I'm looking at Derrida's "Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences", taken from his book Writing and Difference.

Derrida starts from the structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and finds that the aim of describing all anthropology in terms of structure is doomed to fail because the structures must have a reference point, which is not itself structural. Lévi-Strauss is said to have acknowledged this, but to have ignored it for the sake of the argument. Because Derrida is treating the question philosophically, rather than empirically, he can't be content with that. In fact, he suggests that this philosophical flaw causes the most obvious failing of Lévi-Strauss's view: the treatment of the incest taboo in the classification of natural v cultural. Lévi-Strauss says that we can consider as natural all behaviours which arise from human behaviour independently of laws or local norms; while cultural behaviours are those which result from social restrictions. But incest is a universal taboo in humanity (which makes it natural) but the restrictions that enforce the taboo are social (which makes it cultural).

One thing I want to say here is that I'd need to be convinced that the distinction between natural and cultural ever was solid. Another crazy frog - now hugely unfashionable - argued that it's impossible to think of a human outside of society: all our behaviour is social, therefore cultural. Never mind that, for now.

Derrida's view is that this weakness undermines any attempt to view human sciences structurally, and so, according to the editors' introduction, post-structuralism and deconstructionism were born. The fixed point, to which everything else relates, does not exist, so instead in a society or in a text there is choice of structures (I'd be inclined to call them networks) of which none has any special truth or value.

At least, that's how it's developed, and that's why it's been blamed for an absolutely relativistic approach to literature. I suspect it's an exaggeration and a misapplication of the original point. But this is a tough one, and I'll have to spend more time on Derrida and on those who developed (to put it neutrally) his insight.

17 December 2009

MCT: E D Hirsch Jr

The fact that Hirsch is "Jr" and that his essay is called "In defense of the author" reveal that he's American. This essay is from his book called Validity in Interpretation or Validity of Interpretation (it's referred to by both versions in the editors' introduction).

It's a defence against what Hirsch would consider the abuse of the "intentional fallacy" argument: the belief, which he traces back to Eliot, that an author's intention in writing something is no concern of ours in reading it. He refers to "the sensible belief that a text means what its author meant". In fact, the whole argument is semantic (appropriately). He distinguishes between meaning and significance. He makes the case that an author must have had a meaning in mind while writing. A reading is better the closer it matches that meaning, and a work is better the more accurately it conveys that meaning.

I'm prepared to accept the view that of course an author had a meaning in mind, and his dismissal of the view that because we can't wholly know the author's meaning, we might as well not bother to try to understand it. I think I'd say, using his terms, that it is significance that is important. The problem with this, for Hirsch, is that there's no normative measure of value in an interpretation based on significance.

But, if we start from the view that the purpose of reading and interpretation is (i) to understand the author's meaning and (ii) to evaluate the work in terms of its success in transmitting that meaning, why would we bother? I don't care if an author wants to tell me that (say) war is a fearful but exciting thing; if a novel should demonstrate that, make me feel the fear and excitement, what does it matter what the author had in mind? There are ways of demonstrating that a reading is valid without reference to the author's meaning: simple things like evocative use of words and imagery. In fact, all the apparatus of practical criticism.

So I'm unconvinced. And I'm prepared to admit that this is partly due to Hirsch's appalling use of non-inclusive language. I mentioned this when I looked at George Steiner, and I know everyone used to do it and I suppose I should cut some slack for something written in 1967. But it's hard to overlook. It's an unconsidered reflex here to use generalising male pronouns: "Since we are all different from the author, we cannot reproduce his intended meaning in ourselves", and even worse: "It is proper to demand of authors that they show consideration for ... the generality of men" (p273). The generality of men? It sounds like a phrase he's invented deliberately to wind me up. But I shouldn't be guessing at his intentions! Just note that above I've managed to avoid using generalising masculine pronouns entirely.

MCT: Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin (wikipedia entry) (1895 - 1975) was a Russian theorist whose work suffered under the Soviet state until near the end of his life, but is, apparently, growing in status now. The piece in MCT, "From the prehistory of novelistic discourse" is one of the longest in the book, but it seems generally easy to follow.

15 December 2009

Anthony Burgess, arse

It almost stops me picking up the book, and certainly makes me wish I'd got it in another edition, this quote on the back of The Book of Disquiet:
It could not have been written in England: there is too much thought racing hopelessly around.
Anthony Burgess, there, someone who, as I recall, wrote books in England. Presumably, like everyone who says "Oh, the English are so shit at cooking/writing/sex/living ..." he wasn't including himself. "Oh, I don't count because I'm vaguely Irish/educated/Catholic/just, y'know, cleverer ..."

He goes on:
There is a distinguished mind at work beneath the totally acceptable dullness of clerking. The mind is that of Pessoa. We must be given the chance to learn more about him.
I bet when he first wrote this, vanity got the better of him and instead of Pessoa, he typed Burgess.

12 December 2009


I've now got hold of Labyrinths by Borges from the library, a fairly new copy (bought in 2008) of the Penguin Modern Classics collection. I've got it particularly to remind myself of what really happens in the story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".

First thing to strike me was how irritating the story is. Borges uses as a narrator an unnamed academic, who is commenting on the works of Pierre Menard and the criticism that has so far been made of him. There is a short list of Menard's published work and then the narrator discusses his work on rewriting Don Quixote. If this story were the work of an English writer, we'd describe it as "donnish". Borges clearly aims the work at people whose work involves textual and literary studies. Here's the best joke. One of the cited works is:
A technical article on the possibility of improving the game of chess, eliminating one of the rook's pawns. Menard proposes, recommends, discusses and finally rejects this innovation.
Oh my sides.

In my memory, Menard had adopted the personality of Cervantes, by reading everything he had. But Borges is clear that he discarded this method. He wanted to remain Menard but still recreate the novel. The way he did so is unclear (deliberately - Borges' narrator makes it clear that there was no trace left of Menard's work in progress). The point is that if we assume that a 20th century writer had - somehow - written Don Quixote, it would be a much richer work, because it would have been written with all the knowledge of what has happened since.

And of course the real point is that when a 20th century reader reads Don Quixote, they are reading something different to what a 17th century reader would have read. A fair point, but I'm not sure we needed to endure all the donnish humour to get to it.

But let's apply these methods to the collection of stories etc we have in front of us. It was first published in 1964 by New Directions. The editors, Donald A Yates and James E Irby did an introduction and some of the translations. Other translations are taken from various magazines and journals. The preface is by André Maurois, and undated, but he died in 1967. So all of the translations and all of the editorial comment in the book are over forty years old. More than a lifetime in literary studies. And Maurois makes the same mistake I did: he states that Menard's method was to be Cervantes. Wrong! The fact that Maurois' mistake doesn't stop him from getting the point suggests to me that the story obscures a fairly simple idea by proposing an impossible scenario to (purportedly) embody it.

The editors' introduction then reports Borges' poor reputation in Argentina, blaming the fact that he was perceived as too European. That seems a fair accusation to me. They quote Ernesto Sábato: "if Borges were French or Czech, we would all be reading him enthusiastically in bad translations". I've a feeling that's what a reader of this book may be doing.

Even if these translations aren't "bad", they're old: new translations are needed, precisely because the Borges a translator reads now is very different from what these translators read 50 years ago. And a new introduction is needed: Borges' reputation has changed and his place in translation theory - a theory that has developed enormously in those 50 years - needs to be reviewed. The preface by Maurois is a historical document now. It might be worth keeping, but surely the opinions of someone who's been affected by magic realism, for example, would be more valuable to contemporary readers. Even the selection and arrangement of works is ripe for review.

I'm disappointed that Penguin is still publishing this sixties view of Borges. Ultimately, it makes it hard to know what Borges' quality and status is. Now.

(Edit. After writing this I've looked at the Wikipedia entry on Borges. It appears his estate is obstructive to publication of translations, in ways that aren't entirely clear. So I guess Penguin have little choice but to persist with this volume. Apologies to them.)

10 December 2009

Alaa Al Aswany (2)

Now that I've read the stories in the collection, it seems to me that they most resemble James Joyce's Dubliners. There's that same sense of injustice over the colonial past, with the same sense of despair at the inability of post-colonial politicians to do any better. Also the writing is simple, sometimes with a Flaubertian narrator, who genuinely reveals little about himself. It's a big difference from the only other Egyptian writer I've read, Naguib Mahfouz, whose writing is formal and ornate - presumably in accordance with a classical Arabic tradition.

Most of the time the stories are small-scale domestic, but one or two stories deal with the politics of Palestine or Egypt. And they tend (like the novella) to have a gap at their heart. To take one example, in the story "Kitchen Boy" a promising young surgeon finds his career progress stalled in a hospital where bullying and intimidation filter down from the head surgeon. One day the young surgeon has a meeting with him.
No one knows what passed between Hisham and Dr Bassiouni on that day, but equally no one ever forgot that meeting of theirs because it was the beginning of the transformation.

Hisham becomes Dr Bassiouni's favourite, and prospers. The narrator concludes:
Frequently we visit him at the surgery department, where we have a lovely time with him, chatting and recalling old memories, though sometimes, despite the cheerful welcome he gives us, and despite our affection for and pride in him, we feel that something about our old friend has changed. It is, however, a thought that we quickly expel from our minds.

You get the feeling that he doesn't need to say the unsayable, because everyone in Cairo will be able to guess what happened, and there's no need for anyone else to know.

The two stories that cover overtly political issues are "To the air conditioning attendant of the hall" and "Waiting for the leader". In the first, a public speaker tells the story of the Jenin attack in the six-day war of 1967, treating it as a story of betrayal by the Jordanian army. The second is about the former leader of the Wafd party, a movement destroyed by Abdel Nasser. In both, there's the sense that both governments and opposition forces let down their people.

Joyce described Ireland as the sow that eats her own farrow; I think Al Aswany sees Egypt the same way.

09 December 2009

Alaa Al Aswany

Another chance find in Catford library, Alaa Al Aswany is a contemporary Egyptian writer, known for two novels and the book I'm reading, Friendly Fire, a novella and some stories. All I've read so far is the novella "The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers". I'd never heard of this writer before, but so far I'm impressed.

It would be easy to take this book as a fertile example of post-colonial literature. The title of the collection, for example. I've no idea what the original Arabic title (Nīrān sadīqa, نيران صديقة)‎ means, but "friendly fire", I think, only came into common usage during the first Gulf war, and is associated with that conflict, with all the irony you wish to put into it.

Then there's a preface, in which Al Aswany is at pains to stress that the views of characters in a book are not necessarily those of the author. He tells of how his attempts to get these stories published - where all commercial publication is controlled by the state - ran up against refusal, leading to his decision to self-publish.

And then the novella itself shows why that could have happened. The leading character, a first-person narrator, tells the story of his life as the son of a moderately unsuccessful artist, and his growing view that he'd rather be anything than Egyptian. He grows infatuated with images of the West, and eventually has an encounter with a German woman, which causes the crisis that ends the story. In the meantime, he is quite shockingly at odds with his mother, who is suffering from cancer (and from being a fairly obvious symbol).

But it does effectively dramatise the dilemma of someone who sees the faults in his own society, but risks losing his own grounding. While I've no doubt Al Aswany doesn't necessarily share his character's views, his reaction to Mustafa Kamil's view that "If I weren't Egyptian, I would want to be Egyptian" is strong. These words
represent (assuming that the one who said them really meant them) the sort of stupid tribal loyalty that makes my blood boil every time I think of it. What if the good Mustafa Kamil had been born Chinese, for example, or Indian? Would he not have repeated the same phrase out of pride in his Chinese or Indian nationality? And can such pride have any value if it's the outcome of coincidence? (p1)
The character then goes to accuse the Egyptian character of actually being worse than most, and it may be there that Al Aswany distances himself. I suspect that artists, or writers at least, must always live in the land of "it isn't as simple as that" - a land that Daily Mail readers apparently don't believe in.

So we could reduce the story to simple (yet ambivalent) post-colonial fable, but there's a level of detail that raises it above this. When Abd el-Ati's father receives a complimentary letter on his art, he reacts in a way that is entirely personal and biographical. And there's a subtle humour. After Abd el-Ati becomes infatuated with the West, he wants to meet some westerners, and so he goes where they will be: "their places - the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, Saladin's Citadel". (p68)

The ending of the novella suggests that Abd el-Ati's position - either personally or symbolically - isn't healthy, and I wonder if the other stories in the collection, or the novels, will move on from this.

04 December 2009

National literatures

I suppose this link is the first I've done that's related to the nebulous concept of comparative literature. Another entry in the sometimes dull, often provocative, Author, Author series in The Guardian Review, here Pankaj Mishra gives some of his experience as a judge on international literary awards.

The story is of how local literatures develop, sometimes in opposition to western norms, sometimes, though, in opposition to nationalist tendencies (eg Joyce & Beckett). He talks about how publication in the West (ie in translation) depends on whether the work meets the West's expectations; so Egyptian novels about the role of women are OK, while Cuban literary mystery novels which don't criticise the Castro state (Leonardo Padura) are not. We want sex and salsa and dissidence from Cuba.

It's a short but thought-provoking piece. I'm sure these are themes I'll come back to.

03 December 2009

MCT: And so, Baudrillard

I'm not sure which weakness is shown up here: either that of MCT's anthological approach, or that of Baudrillard's own view. The extract is from Simulacra and Simulations - the unnecessarily perverse re-titling of Simulation et Simulacres published in 1980, translated in 1983. Examining Disneyland and Watergate, Baudrillard says that these more or less obviously fantasy creations are a kind of mask, hiding the fact that there is no reality. There is a false contrast between their obvious fiction and the assumed, but false, reality of everything else. Watergate is "an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter". OK, I can see that there's hyperbole at work here, but it's unhelpful. You may wish to redefine reality, but surely a belief system that acknowledges nothing as reality - however ethereal the nature of that reality - just can't exist. Unfortunately, in this extract there is nothing to show how Baudrillard sustains this impossible act. Maybe it's elsewhere in his work.

What we do find here is more evidence of his jokey references to other concepts: "When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its true meaning". It's not a great joke, and I'd advise him not to try it at the Glasgow Empire, but suggests something lost in translation. However, I'm not tempted to read it in the original. I'd probably still miss the jokes, and a lot more.

In the extract, though, there are traces of a post-marxist-freudian basis for his view:
The only weapon of power, its only strategy against [its own break-up], is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere, in order to convince us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production.
And he even slips into italics: "Undoubtedly this will even end up in socialism". Let's generously assume that "even" is a clumsy translation and that the French original is a sentence someone might possibly have written. The recourse to italics suggests a recourse to blind hope, or faith in historical inevitability, which 29 years later isn't looking too good.

But again, it's a stretch to link this social/economic analysis to literature. Near the start of the extract, Baudrillard covers some semiotic theory. The denial (by capital) of the non-existence of reality show itself in four successive "phases of the image":
(1) It is the reflection of a basic reality.
(2) It masks and perverts a basic reality.
(3) It masks the absence of a basic reality.
(4) It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.
I'm not sure how this would help me understand what goes on when one reads The Cantos. And even here, the bedrock of the argument is an unargued assertion about the loss of reality.

Is it the fault of MCT's selection or of Baudrillard itself that this argument is unmade? I still can't say, but it's clearly a fault of the approach that I can't tell. The editors' introductions are impartial, correctly, but do refer to critical works, which are probably more useful. Surprisingly, then, my experience of MCT is making me think that it may be better to read secondary works, rather than the sources. And we're getting further away from the actual primary sources, our original concerns, the literature, than ever.

30 November 2009

Sontag and Baudrillard

You'll rarely find what you're looking for in Catford library but you'll sometimes find what you want. In this case, Susan Sontag's long essay Regarding the Pain of Others - a reflection on war photography. It covers questions including the meaning and purpose of war photography. Starting with Virginia Woolf's view, in Three Guineas, that the depiction of atrocities can act to turn people against war, Sontag moves through the fact that the photos always have some drive, and the means of their distribution even more so. The very example that Virgina Woolf uses - photographs from the Spanish Civil War - is a clear example. The photos were distributed by the Republican government to rally support against the Fascists. She move on to the use of photographs, and other memorabilia, as part of the remembering process needed by the victims. There's some astute analysis of how this interacts with political pressures: why is there a holocaust museum in Washington DC but no museum depicting the history and the evils of slavery? She could go further into the question of how much memory and how much forgetting are required, but that's beyond the scope of the book.

And so to Baudrillard. I'm delaying looking at Baudrillard, for no good reason. He's famous for the view that the Iraq war did not take place. I've no idea what the truth of this is. First, you have the hyperbole typical of French theory, which means you have to scale down what's said (like the death of the author). Second, I assume any statement in French would have been something like "La guerre d'Iraq n'eut pas lieu", which for any educated French reader would be a clear pun on "La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu" - the title of a play by Giraudoux, which I have read, long ago, and of which I remember nothing. Third, Anglophone (rosbif) critics of French theorists have a tradition of selecting the most provocative soundbites, to argue that the view is so patently silly, we needn't bother with the details. Essentially, what I'm saying is, I don't know.

Susan Sontag does, and I'm noting her view here for later reference.
According to a highly influential analysis, we live in a 'society of spectacle'. Each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real - that is, interesting - to us. People themselves aspire to become images: celebrities. Reality has abdicated. There are only representations: media.

Fancy rhetoric, this. And very persuasive to many ... It is common to say that war, like everything else that appears to be real, is médiatique

Although Sontag's writing is always simple, those short sentences betray her impatience rather well. She goes on to talk about "several distinguished French day-trippers to Sarajevo during the siege" who seemed to subscribe to the view that the siege would be won or lost on the media battlefield. But:
To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment ..."

When I do get to Baudrillard - and I see his bit in MCT is quite short, so it may be soon - this accusation of neo-colonialism may be worth looking at.

(Quotations are from pp 97-98.)

24 November 2009

MCT: Walter Benjamin

The essay in MCT is “The task of the translator” - originally the introduction to Benjamin's own translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens. Benjamin wrote in German, but that doesn't excuse this sentence:
Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.

In the English, at least, there's an unfunny pun on the meaning of essential, followed by an explanation that explains nothing. The whole piece is horribly written, with huge paragraphs, twisted syntax, and unhelpful similes and metaphors. A key metaphor is that of the 'life' of literary works. In fact, Benjamin is at pains to point out that he is not being metaphorical when he uses the term.
The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.

Translation is a way in which the life of a work is continued; this is one of the reasons translations have to be renewed.

The bulk of the essay, though, is on the question of literalness v freedom in translation. Benjamin separates out meaning and 'the inessential'. In this passage, I think there's insufficient consideration of what those terms really mean. Benjamin show that a totally literal translation is impossible, so then goes on to say that translations serve language – both the source and the target. He refers to the Romanticists' views on translation – he's talking about Schlegel etc – and their view that translations should enrich the target language, bringing in new concepts and terms. I think I have the same trouble with this as I had with Schlegel in Venuti's book.

More worringly, he seems to believe in the idea of a pure language (I think – it really is hard to grasp what he's going on about), a language of forms, of which all real languages are a poor approximation.
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.

Honestly, at this point he seems to me to have crossed the line into the mystical. The wall/arcade metaphor sounds biblical, and the editor's note tells us that Benjamin at this time (1923) was studying Hebrew and considering taking a teaching post in Jerusalem. The text ends with some comments on 'Holy Writ':
in which meaning has ceased to be the watershed for the flow of language and the flow of revelation. Where a text is identical with truth or dogma, where it is supposed to 'the true language' in all its literalness and without the mediation of meaning, this text is unconditionally translatable.

One thing my readings of the extracts in MCT is showing me is that they are only a sketch of the writer's work, often a sketch of a relatively small part of it. I've read some Benjamin before – ages ago, the essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – too long ago to remember anything about it, except the sense that it raised exactly the questions that its title promises. The current essay is also about reproduction of a work, but exactly not in a mechanical way. I shouldn't discard Benjamin's work on the basis of this essay, but it really hasn't encouraged me to read any more.

23 November 2009

Where is the text, and what do we call it?

Time to start putting down some of my own thoughts on questions of criticism and translation. I fully expect that the points I'm raising here will have been dealt with by someone else already, but at least I'll know what I'm looking for.

I've mentioned earlier Susan Sontag's appeal to common sense: there is such a thing as an "original" text. Appeals to common sense always worry me. You've only got to look at McGann to see that Sontag's view is problematic at a very basic level. With long-lived poets, Wordsworth being the epitome, there may be several author-approved versions of a text - which one do you consider original? And then there is the question of assumed typos. With older poets, should you retain the old spellings and capitalisation? With Blake, don't many of the original texts lose something when the illlustrations are taken away? What about typesetting? Even bloggers agonise over the typeface used (obviously I've not agonised long or to any visible effect).

But, finally, after these arguments have been resolved - which I don't intend to try to do here in a general or specific way - the reader has something in front of them. It may be a short poem, a story, a collection or a novel. I think in each case the selection of form will be relevant to the understanding, and it's ok to defer the question of selection from this discussion. Although the reading will be conditioned by the process of pre-editing. Looking at one of the Cantos in isolation is quite different from seeing it in the physical body of the whole collection. Even if you scrupulously avoid looking at any other Canto, you are aware that they exist.

The other Cantos are functionally similar to many other things you know exist. It's impossible to read anything without a context. That context is inevitably different for different people. The Cantos are an acute example of this. Those who know their Homer will get a different experience from those who don't.

George Steiner proposed an ideal of the reader knowing everything about the meaning and associations of the words in a text. It's similar to the Pierre Menard story. But I can't remember if that proposed preparation for an ideal reading included forgetting everything that happened since the object text was written. The context in which we read Shakespeare now is different from what it was even ten years ago. We can't become a contemporary reader. The context has included later works of literature, of course, but also facts of history and science. To take the most facile example, we surely can't read The Merchant of Venice the same way after the holocaust.

So the reading of an object text will change from person to person and from age to age. I would postulate that the reading, as I'm calling it, creates a new object in the mind of the reader. The task of criticism is to record, explain and transmit that reading, so that reading is a new text, new each time. The task of translation is to translate that new text, or a frozen image of it. I think this is why each age needs new translations of the classics. It means that translation can't in any direct way serve the 'original' text.

So: terminology. I've slipped into using the term 'object text' to denote the arrangement of words on paper (or on screen, or on a recording - but let's keep it simple) that is presented to the reader. It's not perfect, but I'll stick with it for now. I should also note that the process of establishing the object text is part of the context. I could go into the extent of context further, but I think I've got enough for now. Then, by applying the context to the object text, the reader obtains what I've called a reading, and I really think I need a better term for that. To call it generated text risks confusion, and so do a lot of other words I could borrow from everyday language. Let's call it the intext then, to recognise the inwardness of it, and to happily accept the associations with intense and somewhat less happily intent. (This is all provisional anyway.)

This is all provisional and I can't believe these considerations haven't been run through the mill already. It stil leaves much of the ground to cover. How would I apply this terminology to questions of lisble v scriptible? I seem to be saying every thing is scriptible, requires the active input of the reader. Is that true? And what I've said seems to make more sense of Zukofsky's Catullus; a modern translation has to acknowledge all the later influences on the translator's reading: the intext includes traces of Shakespeare, Wodehouse and Blyton, though the object text naturally doesn't. Is that right? To be continued.

18 November 2009

MCT: Tzvetan Todorov

A short piece, "The typology of detective fiction", is included in MCT as an example of structuralist analysis. As the editors' introduction says, it is a "cool, lucid and economical expository style - qualities not frequently encountered in structuralist criticism".

It analyses the different types of detective novels, from the whodunnits, at their peak between the wars, to suspense novels and thrillers. It traces the different ways in which the story of the crime, and the story of the solution are mixed up, or not. In classic Christie, for example, the crime is discovered, not narrated; the narration of the event is implied in the narration of the detective's solution. Also the role of the detective changes: Poirot has an immunity from threat, while Philip Marlowe "gets beaten up, badly hurt, constantly risks his life". Finally, a third type is of the suspect as detective: the central character is wrongly suspected of the crime and must solve it to save himself.

It gets interesting when novels break these structures. Todorov comments on The Talented Mr Ripley that although other books have a similar structure, they are "too few to be considered a separate genre". That may have changed since 1966, the date of the essay. And the initial comments on genre fiction as a concept suggests that you might consider defining genre fiction as novels that fit within a genre. It's circular, yes, but it means that all non-genre novels are individually sui generis.

MCT: Jerome McGann

Another extract from MCT, “The textual condition” is McGann’s address to the Society for Textual Scholarship in 1985. I’m not particularly interested in textual scholarship, so won’t stay here long, but it concerns the question of how you know you are dealing with a reliable text; in fact it (disappointingly for me) suggests that you can’t ignore questions of how the text was produced when you are trying to understand it. This has always been clear with Shakespeare, for example, where the Arden editions refer to the various available readings and suggested errors and corrections. But even with later writers, it’s suggested, the process by which a printed text comes into being is significant and can’t be simply left to the drudges of textual scholarship (as I’d see them – obv McGann doesn’t).

The essay closes by looking at the distinction between scholarship and hermeneutics: traditionally scholarship is seen as the drudge work, which provides a basis for ‘proper’ examination of the significance of the text. There’s a reference to ‘copy-text editing’ – a theory in which text editors should separate out accidentals and substantives. Accidentals includes spelling and punctuation, while substantives include the line of thought expressed. The theory says that editors should, by and large, refer to the writer’s manuscript for accidentals, and to later printed editions for substantives. The obvious argument is that this distinction is too simplistic, and that textual scholars ought to be the last people to be taken in by it.

In the middle of the article, though, there’s a reference to Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel, evidently some kind of interactive text, described as “an electronic novel – the first ever published, I understand. It will not be the last.” Perhaps not the last, but the form can’t be said to have caught on since 1985. Obviously such a book would raise questions about the respective roles of reader and writer, where scriptibility is open. But perhaps the fact that such works haven’t proliferated suggests something about the limits of the pluriel. Electronic publication (and of course since 1985 this has come to mean the internet, with even more possibilities than an electronic book on a disk) has provided the perfect medium for such interactivity, but very few people have taken it up. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to me to be doing this, but is maybe the closest. Even in fan fiction, which is probably massively bigger than most people know, the model is of single authors producing, as far as they can, a finished work.

I have spent longer on this than I meant to. I think this may mean that electronic publication is an area I should give some time to.

17 November 2009

MCT: Stephen Greenblatt

Another chapter from Modern Criticism and Theory, I've turned to this one after a reference in Frank Kermode's Pleasing Myself to 'New Historicism', a largely American tendency to treat literature (and everything else) as a pattern of 'ceaseless interreletions or "negotiations" between all manner of contemporary social and cultural practices'. His essay ("On a New Way of Doing History") is about a book by Richard Helgerson and is generally scathing, but Kermode refers to Greenblatt as the 'chef d'école'. The weakness Kermode sees in the approach is that:
since all discourses interract equally you can talk, as for example Greenblatt does, about the relation between the Elizabethan practice of exorcism and Shakespeare's King Lear without assuming that the play is somehow more valuable than Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures.

[Actually, in that discussion, why would you need to compare the value of the play and the declaration?]

Kermode's concern, I think, is that this kind of approach undervalues texts, and that if it is applied to the study of literature, rather than of society or culture more generally, the relativism makes it impossible to recognise the greatest works.

The extract from Greenblatt in MCT is the opening chapter of his book Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), "The circulation of social energy". Greenblatt talks of his initial view that it was necessary to understand the text as fully as possible, and of how that view changed, to accept that the plays are not isolated items, but the work of a whole culture. He gives a lot of time to the structure of theatre as an example of how social energy is created and exchanged. For example, the theatre uses elements of real life either freely (in appropriation) or in real or symbolic trading relationships. So religious beliefs and practices can be simulated on stage, but no-one believes a real religious activity is taking place.

But an introduction is an introduction. The full details of how this approach is applied is no doubt obvious in the four chapters of the book, each of which covers a (loosely defined) genre of Shakespeare's plays. It's clear that Greenblatt, however, somehow is able to say that the plays are exceptional in their power to move and inspire, and his effort is to understand why. I don't think there's any doubt that he appreciates the plays' qualities.

16 November 2009

Susan Sontag

First, a thought about the crazy economics of book publishing. Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag is a collection of essays and speeches from the last 20 or so years of her life. As I've noted earlier, it's a beautiful looking book, and the production inside is just as clean and stylish as the cover. But at about 350 pages, and with no new content, the cover price of £12 is ridiculous. Waterstone's has it in stock at full price, and not included in any 3 for 2 offer. Amazon has it for £8.60, which is more like it, but I bought it from a dealer in Amazon's marketplace for just £3.84 (plus p&p). To make any profit, the dealer must have got it for around £3.50. This is surely a mad, unsustainable business model.

Anyway, I bought the book largely because there's an essay on Roland Barthes. It praises him very highly, but largely despite his theoretical views. Earlier in this blog I looked at S/Z, where you can see Barthes succumbing to a classic narration, despite its lisibility. Sontag more or less argues that he was like that throughout his career; he was an old-fashioned practical criticismist in modernist clothing. I think there may be something in this. As with Stanley Fish, Barthes's analysis depends on many of the skills that people like Richards and Empson valued and developed.

A later piece, "On Being Translated", shows that Sontag doesn't hold with modernist denials of the primacy of the text. In a parenthesis she says:
You will have already noted that I am assuming that there is such a thing as an "original" text. Perhaps only now, when ideas utterly devoid of common sense or respect for the practice of writing have great currency in the academy, would this seem to need saying.

This is from a speech given at a conference on translation. It refers to Sontag's time in Sarajevo, working on a production of Waiting for Godot during the siege. Production was threatened because some people wanted a new translation of the play into Bosnian, to replace the existing Serbo-Croat one. But Bosnian is to all intents and purposes exactly the same language as Serbo-Croat. The call for a new translation was political.

The speech also covers some general points about translations. Unsurprisingly, given the above quotation, Sontag says the translation must serve the original text, but accepts the spread of means in which this can be attempted.

14 November 2009

Margaret Jull Costa

A mention in today's Guardian Review led me to this interview with the woman who's made so much brilliant literature available to English speakers. I think her translations of Saramago are wonderful, in that she creates a wholly believable stream of language, unlike anything anyone else has ever written in English. I love her comment that one of her pleasures is when
a sentence suddenly clicks into place, or when I find the perfect solution to a pun or a proverb (Saramago is full of them). There is, above all, the pleasure of working so closely with a text that it almost becomes mine and of working almost inside the mind of an author whose work I love.
I'd never spot those puns and proverbs, and it's good to have someone trustworthy to pick them up.

13 November 2009

MCT: Edward Said

Edward Said seems to really annoy some people. I suppose you can understand why, since in his book Orientalism he single-handedly set out to define and demolish a view that had been dominant for hundreds of years. I haven't read the book but the extract in Modern Criticism and Theory ("Crisis [in orientalism]") suggests some of the reasons: that orientalist thought defined and limited "the West"'s understanding of the "the East", if only by imposing a single view of a complex area, or, in extreme cases, regarding Islam as a uniform practice across space and time.  Again, "the East" is defined as "different" - the differences define it, rather than any similarities. Said puts it nicely:
What is the meaning of 'difference' when the preposition 'from' has dropped from sight altogether?
It's impossible from this extract to say if Said has proved that something called orientalism exists as the ideology he describes. He could be defining and limiting a diverse body of study and knowledge in just the same way as he accuses the orientalists of doing. I don't know. But some of the examples he quotes show that, surprise surprise, a lot of European intellectuals had a basically racist view of the people of the East. At the root of it there is a dehumanising process: the lives of these people aren't as important as ours.

How does this apply to literature? At the start of the extract, Said refers to a "textual attitude" to life, exemplified in the worst way by Don Quixote. Our reading about certain countries or peoples can but shouldn't control our thinking about them:
What seems unexceptionable good sense to these writers [Cervantes, Voltaire] is that it is a fallacy to assume that the swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live can be understood on the basis of what books - texts - say; to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin.
There's an inherent contradiction in that, which might require some thought.

One way in which Said upset a lot of people was in another of his books,  Culture and Imperialism, in which he dared to bring politics into Jane Austen. The bastard! But in Mansfield Park he finds a gap, a silence, about the origin of the Bartram family wealth. I think that clearly is the job of criticism: to identify the silent assumptions in a work, and to think about why they are there.

12 November 2009

MCT: Frantz Fanon

The latest extract I've read from Modern Criticism and Theory is that by Frantz Fanon, from Black Skins, White Masks (1952 - but not published in English translation until 1967), a section headed "The Negro and Language". This is the first extract I've read in this collection on the theme of post-colonialism. The subject was barely on the radar when I was at university, but reading the essay now, it seems to be making arguments that are hardly in dispute.

Fanon was a doctor from Martinique, so found himself in the position of being highly educated (in French) but not accepted as equal. Even within colonialism he finds a gradation of disrespect: in the French army, for example, Antilleans are considered to be superior to Senegalese, because they are more French, whiter.

He talks about the different valuation given to Creole and French, and how people use their choice of language to define themselves; those who wish to demonstrate a commitment to the old ways will keep using Creole, while those who wish to succeed, and to modernise society in a French model will of course seek to improve and to frenchify their French.

But the colonial relationship makes this different from other language conflicts.
I meet a Russian or a German who speaks French badly. With gestures I try to give him the information that he requests, but at the same time I can hardly forget that he has a language of his own, a country, and that perhaps he is a lawyer or an engineer there. In any case, he is foreign to my group, and his standard must be different.
When it comes to the case of the Negro, nothing of the kind. He has no culture, no civilization, no 'long historical past.'
But he is sceptical about "the strivings of contemporary Negroes to prove the existence of a black civilization to the white world at all costs."

Fanon also is maybe one of the first to point out the insulting redundancy in comments like Andre Breton's view of Aime Cesaire: "Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can."

It's a very nicely written piece, with a lot of subtle content, handled in a style that is, presumably pointedly, far from classical in its sentence structure.

I would say one thing that might have been missed (here - in a short extract) is a consideration of how the 'native' language came to be a creole in the first place; that seems like an act of ethnocentric violence in itself. Perhaps Fanon's work was a necessary first step.

And although I've said most of the ideas seem uncontentious now, you still find people saying why oh why is it all right for someone to call me a Brit, but if I call someone a Paki, I'm the racist.

09 November 2009

On the Natural History of Destruction

Another chance finding in Catford library, Sebald's essay on the response of Germans to the destruction of so many towns and cities by allied air-raids in the second world war was an appropriate read in the remembrance season.

What an astonishingly fair and sane view he has! He scarcely looks at the morality of the raids - that's not the point, but he does comment that after Dunkirk, air-raids on Germany were the only practical way Britain could be involved in the war in Europe, and recognises too that Germany would have similarly flattened British cities, if it could.

What concerns him is that German culture knows that

about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids and 3.5 million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war 7.5 million people were left homeless ... but we do not grasp what it all actually meant.

He then surveys the literature that covers the experience, finding it either superficial or self-serving. Instead, he finds that Germany appeared to have treated 1945 as a start from scratch: people have overlooked the history, including the Nazis and the consequences they brought upon the country. It doesn't seem to have been driven by a sense of shame, but was an act of dislocation: the new Germany has little to do with the old. (I have a feeling there's been a similar process at work in East Germany after re-unification: a failure to consider how the system of neighbourhood surveillance sustained the government for so long. If anyone wants to know how that worked, though, just wait around and look at Britain in 2015.)

The essay started life as lectures in Zurich, and provoked a lot of response, including one from a Doctor H of Darmstadt, whose views are quoted extensively. His view is that
the Allies waged war in the air with the aim of cutting off the Germans from their origins and inheritance by destroying their cities, thus paving the way for the cultural invasion and general Americanization that ensure in the post-war period. This deliberate strategy ... was devised by Jews living abroad, exploiting the special knowledge of the human psyche, foreign cultures and foreign mentalities that they are known to have acquire on their wanderings.

The book also contains an essay on Alfred Andersch, a German post-war novelist. Apparently quite successful in his time, but, says Sebald, hopelessly morally compromised and therefore unequipped to write about the real experience of the country. Obviously, I have not read and never will read anything by Andersch. Reading the essay raises the question of how removed from actual literature literary studies can be. What does come out of the essay is Sebald's view of what qualifies literature to be valued: it's a question of moral integrity that's at the basis. Although Sebald uses some modern techniques of analysis, his judgement eventually comes down to that question. I think that's inherent in his own novels, which, with this new insight into his mind, I am looking forward to reading again.

25 October 2009


I was watching one of the Swedish Wallander episodes the other night. They're brilliant programmes, and thankfully subtitled rather than dubbed. You really begin to feel you're learning Swedish as you watch, because sometimes the rhythm of speech sounds so much like English - or even more like Scots. It turns out that the Swedish for come in - a phrase people use a lot - is komm ein. I'm picking up some words that I'd heard in Grieg songs: glömma is forget and aldrig is never. The usual word for good is bra (pronounced braw), which is exactly Scottish.

However, to get to my point, towards the end of this episode, a clue was given by a child. Watching a children's animation, she says "That's how they [the attackers] spoke." I assumed they (the animation characters) were speaking Swedish with an accent. The attackers turn out to have been north Africans. In fact, replaying, I've realised that the speech was in French. It's a brief, quiet speech and it took a while to realise this. Obviously, first time around, I thought it was just more Swedish I didn't understand. But a Swedish viewer would have known immediately that the speech was in a foreign language, even if they didn't know which one.

Moving on to a question of accents, there's a character (Marco Zuluaga) in Almodóvar's film Hable con Ella who turns out to be Argentinian. This is, I assume, obvious for a Spanish audience from his accent, but it's only apparent to an English-speaking audience (me) when one of the other characters refers to him as "The Argentinian", as if it were obvious. For a moment you wonder who she's talking about. His nationality doesn't seem to be significant to the plot, but the accent must arouse stereotype assumptions in a Spanish audience, just as an Australian accent in an English film would.

The final example is from Balzac. Several of his novels feature a character called Nucingen, who's German, and don't we know it. He speaks like this: Je fus tonne ma barole t'honneur te vaire le bossiple, which in standard French is je vous donne ma parole d'honneur de faire le possible. It's a fairly simple system: voiced consonants (d, b) are replaced by unvoiced equivalents (t, p) and vice versa. It's really fucking irritating, though. Every speech is represented this way, and always in italics. I suppose in time you don't have to read aloud or subvocalise to get the meaning, but I've never got to that stage. You have to stop and listen to the sound. I don't know how English translations handle this: to be accurate, they'd have to be really fucking irritating too.

So, three examples of ways of signifying, or not, a foreign accent. Another thing for me to get exercised about.

20 October 2009

Bad news, good news

I've just discovered that Steiner published an extensively revised version of After Babel in 1992 with "a new preface setting the work in the present context of hermeneutics, poetics, and translation studies", so that's the one I ought to read, I think. (I'm not intending to do a detailed study of the differences between the two versions!) And that edition doesn't seem to be owned by Lewisham Library.

So that's the bad news. The good is that I can get on with reading something else: Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter, which I picked up on spec at the library last week.


It's not intended you should be able to, or want to, read these images. They are a footnote that spreads over pages 120-121 of After Babel.

The sentence that provokes this footnote?
One finds few answers to these questions in the literature.

19 October 2009

Babel (2) - Language and Gnosis

In chapter 2, Steiner looks at the contrasting views of language as monadic or universalist: are languages all similar at some deep level or not? First though, he raises the question of why different languages evolved at all. He says it can't be an evolutionary process, because there's no benefit from the change. Why would a community lose the ability to communicate with neighbours? Well I can think of political reasons, which can be seen at work even now. Serbian and Croatian are, as I understand it, essentially the same language in different scripts, but I bet they are diverging more than coalescing at present. Similarly, I think it's likely that Portuguese diverged from Spanish as an act of national self-definition.

The discussion on the deep structure of language boils down to this paragraph right in the middle of the chapter:
Whether it is indeed 'possible to convey any conceptual content in any language' is what I seek to investigate.
and it's nice that he's finally expressed the purpose of the book.

I don't want to go into any detail of the discussion of linguistic theories for these reasons:
(i) the book's over thirty years old, and I'm sure the discussion of Chomsky's view has moved on a lot
(ii) I don't fully grasp the points being made or
(iii) the relevance of the detail to the general point.

As before, in this chapter Steiner displays the enormous breadth of his knowledge, but doesn't always show how it relates to the matter in hand. The multiplicity of examples hammer home arguments that aren't contentious. The book could be a lot shorter.

But here's a question. There's a film (Windtalkers) about the US military's use of native Americans to transmit messages in their language, which was so obscure and different from any known language, that it acted as an unbreakable code. The monadist view of language difference would surely say messages either could not be translated into and out of that language or that they would be irrepairably changed in the translation process. But apparently it happened. I haven't seen the film, and don't know more about the case, so I'll leave the thought there to come back to.

After After Babel

I've started reading George Steiner's After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. It's my first recent use of Lewisham's library service. Ordered online, the book was delivered to Catford library for my collection for 50p, which is entirely reasonable. The book itself is the hardback first edition, 1975, which doesn't appear to have been read very often.

It begins with a discussion of a passage from Cymbeline, followed by similar discussions of a passage from Sense and Sensibility by 'Miss Austen', as Steiner, unbelievably even in 1975, refers to her on occasion, and one from Noel Coward. The point, heavily made, being that reading a text from the past is an act of interpretation: the meaning of words slips and the further back we go, the more we have to use dictionaries to understand the text.

Steiner's reading of the Cymbeline extract is close, detailed and learned. But underlying it there's an unquestioned (so far) assumption that the text is a decodable, lisible, container of meaning.
To read fully is to restore all that one can of the immediacies of value and intent in which speech actually occurs.
There are tools for the job. A true reader is a dictionary addict. He knows that English is particularly well served [...] Skeat's Etymological Dictionary and Principles of English Etymology are an indispensible first step towards grasping the life of words.
I think that use of 'he' to denote the true reader was already dodgy in 1975; it's a signifier that Steiner is avoiding 'fashionability', at least. And he might have considered new theories of reading to be just fashions, too. Certainly, this is pointing so far towards a view of the text as having one true meaning, which it's a matter of knowledge and skill to uncover.

I sometimes have doubts about more relativistic theories, so it'll be interesting to see if the book sticks to this point of view (I'm only on page 25, for heaven's sake!)

03 October 2009

MCT: Hélène Cixous

Hélène Cixous turns out to be quite straighforwardly feminist. The real difference is that a lot of her piece in the book, "Sorties", is written in an eliptical, notey, form, and uses a variety of neologisms which the translator (Ann Liddle) tries to replicate, such as hierarchized. It's actually a very good translation, in that it isn't ashamed to use footnotes to point out, for example, a pun on Baudelaire's line Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.

So there's a kind of playfulness in the writing, which is quite obviously intended as a contrast to more formal writing. We start with this:



and there are other slightly strange headings, eg WHAT DOES ONE GIVE?

But what establishes itself is a view that maleness has been valued and associated with other attributes. Cixous looks at the way Freud and Ernest Jones looked at this and suggests they were both limited by assumptions that went deep into their thought. I may be missing something, but it doesn't seem outlandish at all. The feminist criticism of Freud is so well established, that surely everyone knows he got this wrong.

So far, so unrelated to literary theory. Cixous then argues that creation (literary, philosophical ...) is only possible with:
the presence in the intervening subject of an abundance of the other, of the diverse
I'm happy with that conclusion, but I'm not sure it springs necessarily from the foregoing. There's something missing.

Incidentally, looking for background on Cixous, I found this site, which gives some background, but astonishingly - to my feminist-aware mind - uses the term authoress. Tsk.

02 October 2009

MCT: Stanley Fish

I’ve started looking at the chapters in Modern Criticism and Theory, the key text book for the Modern Literary Theory syllabus, and turned to the section on Stanley Fish. He’s a representative of “reader-response” criticism – an approach I hadn’t come across before (which is why I read it).

The text here is “Interpreting the Variorum”. Not really a helpful title, but it is based on close examination of some poems by Milton, and was first published when the Variorum was published. In that book, Fish sees critics arguing over close interpretation of Milton’s texts, based on a formalist approach, and sharing the assumption that the poem contains a meaning, which the reader/critic can more or less successfully extract.

His view is that the reader actually creates the text, and his detailed analysis of the Sonnet 20 (“Lawrence of virtuous father virtuous son”) shows how the readers expectations shift as the poem unfolds, but also that the poem itself seems to be refusing to give a clear meaning. The last two lines are:

He who of those delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

and the debate has always been about the interpretation of the word spare. Does it mean avoid or spare the time? (I remember briefly discussing this with a tutor back at Cambridge.) He says that what ever it means, the closing phrase (not unwise) throws the whole question back into doubt anyway.

The second sonnet under discussion is “Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints”, where he closely analyses the way the expectations of the reader are built, then satisfied or baffled, and the sense therefore changes as the poem progresses. He seems to focus particularly on the poem as having a duration – not being a single event, but a stream.

This is good, but I can’t help thinking it is actually very similar to formalist textual analysis. It is the way the words are chosen and arranged that enables the reader to construct their meaning.

He goes on to say that the reader creates an intention, and further to say that the reader (only) defines what the poem is: so it is the reader (with the benefit of prior knowledge) who decides that line-ends are significant places in 17th century sonnets; it is the reader who defines what is and isn’t a poem at all.

In the final part of the essay, Fish posits interpretive communities to account for the fact that many readers have very similar readings. This seems reasonable – and his description of these communities as multiple, overlapping, and mutable seems entirely right. We read Milton in a different way today from the Victorians, for example. But poets and writers are themselves part of interpretive communities, aren’t they. And what they write is therefore affected by them. Milton wrote in a way that to some extent complied with the expectations of the 17th century, so his poems are particularly marked by that community. They aren’t completely rebuilt by each new age’s reading.

But it’s interesting that Fish is in a broadly anglo-saxon tradition. This kind of negation of the priority of the text is quite French, I think, but even so I think he takes it too far. Anyway, it’s a start. I may have a crack at Helene Cixous next. She looks engagingly batty.

24 September 2009

Dawkins and Plato

In his condensed version of The Greatest Show on Earth, John Crace puts these words in Dawkins' mouth:
that fool Plato, who scuppered any intelligent discussion of the origins of life for two millennia with his idea that each species has a perfect form.
It's funny, and almost fair. Dawkins tries to understand why the notion of change in life-forms never took hold in mainstream thought, and suggests that Plato's theory of ideal forms meant that people held on to a notion of, for example, 'rabbitness' which didn't allow them to envisage something that was halfway between a shrew and a rabbit. Now as I'm typing this, it seems like absolute nonsense. What struck me at first was that we don't need Plato to make us think that some rabbits are more rabbity than others. For me, similarly, I think a border collie is the doggiest of dogs, but can still see that a poodle's a dog too.  I really can't see that Plato's theory of forms has had such an effect on everyday thinking.

It's a common allegation that Dawkins is arrogant, and the slagging-off of Plato fits that. Although he was almost always wrong, Plato's method was revolutionary, not his conclusions. In The Republic for example, Plato's prescription of an ideal society is quite obviously bonkers, which he probably knew. Plato wasn't writing a practical guide but exploring ways of thinking. It's a Blakean thought, isn't it, that the mistakes of geniuses are more valuable than the correctness of merely clever people.

Meanwhile, Dawkins, undoubtedly very clever, uses some dodgy methods in support of conclusions that are quite obviously right. It's not his fault that someone still has to collect all this evidence in one place.

And, on the arrogance question, try this. Dawkins comments that sunflower seed oil was exempt from religious dietary prohibition "for a reason that I - untutored in the profundities of theology - shall not presume to fathom". Except that he then goes on to do just that, in a footnote.

So, there is something in the allegation, and various bits of phrasing betray his impatience with people who don't get it. But he's doing work that needs to be done, and I shouldn't overlook the wit that occasionally surfaces through the exasperated tone.

(This post could have gone in either blog. The Dawkins stuff should have been in Stickleback, but I think Plato's going to be a theme here, so here it is.)

24 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (last part)

Chapter 6, "Simpatico" is in some ways one of the most interesting, as it's largely based on Venuti's own practice, and follows his developing beliefs. He tells the story of how he was advised, early in his career, to begin translating someone of roughly his own age, so that he could develop as a kind of alter ego, all the better to express that poet's meaning. Venuti's field is Italian poetry, and he began to concentrate on the works of Milo de Angelis. So he uses the word simpatico to express the desired relationship between poet and translator.

I know nothing about modern Italian poetry, and helpfully Venuti gives a crash course. It is apparently dominated by Eugenio Montale (1896 - 1981) but since the war a generation of poets Venuti describes as experimentalists has arisen; in fact they seem like old-fashioned modernists. Montale is accepted in anglophone poetry circles, whilst the experimentalists are seldom translated or published. Venuti argues this is because Montale's work usually adheres to the dominant romantic view of the poem as the expression of the poet's thought. Even when it doesn't, translators twist it so that it does. He quotes a translation which even I thought was dodgy. Montale says:
La speranza di pure rivederte
which is translated by Dana Gioia as:
I had almost lost
hope of ever seeing you again;
and I spotted (hooray for me!) before Venuti pointed it out that this changes the structure of the sentence making the poet's voice more active grammatically, and so conforms to the anglophone idea of a feeling, suffering poet.

De Angelis goes further in refusing to construct a poet's voice in the poems. Like Ez, you are often unsure who is talking. The poems could be translated 'helpfully' - inserting words that appear to give context, but this would be to add something to the poem. The concept of simpatico presumes that the translator can become so like the poet that s/he can understand what the poem means, and reproduce that meaning in the target language. (Incidentally, Venuti never uses the term 'target language'. It's always 'translating language' - a subtlety I don't grasp.)

And I think for the first time the term Platonic crops up: the mistaken belief that there's a real reality the poem refers to, so that a translation can be another, though inevitably flawed, image of that.

So Venuti's translations of De Angelis don't tidy up the discontinuities. Even where the Italian might be easier than it seems - eg in the lack of a subject pronoun for a verb, he leaves the uncertainty in (looking back to the Flaubert snippet, this would be equivalent to leaving out the word 'forward' in 'she leaned forward'). He calls this 'resistancy'..

The end of the story is that in trying to be 'simpatico' with a poet whose work resists the idea of the poet being a constant persona, he learned that this approach doesn't work.

The final chapter "Call to action" sets out, after a discussion of Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights, which again seems to 'valorise' (one of his favourite words) generic archaism, sets out some proposals for ways readers, translators, editors, critics etc might bring the translation process into the foreground.

Final thoughts are that this was an interesting read - a good way to get started on the subject - but I'm not wholly convinced by Venuti's argument. Which is strange, because I thought I would be. The weakest point is that so many examples of 'foreignising' translation concentrate on the use of multiple linguistic resources (language, register, era) which although they all say "this is a translation", don't say, for example, this is a translation from early Italian and you need to know that virtu is complicated concept. Another gap in the book, I think, is about variety of purpose of translation.

But I'm very happy that I do disagree. Those critical faculties are still alive.

20 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (5)

As previewed some time ago, Chapter 5, "Margin" is about modernist approaches to translation, starting with Ezra Pound, mainly for his work on translating from the Provencal.

The trouble with this chapter, as with the chapter on Newman's Homer, is that the products of a "foreignising" translation practice appear so ropey. Obviously, that may be because I've absorbed the hegemony too much, but I think there are other problems.

Pound obviously had a better ear for music than I do, and a major concern of his translation is to keep the music of the original, which he points out were always intended for singing. So words are chosen to replicate the rhythm and melody. But like Newman his process of foreignising often involves use of English archaisms. Venuti suggests this is to communicate the strangeness of the originals. But it seems a generic strangeness. Similarly, as I saw throughout the Cantos, there's a use of jarringly 20th century idioms, but again it's hard to see how these do anything other than say look how different those other words were.

Venuti then looks at the translations of Catullus by Zukofsky. These translations are interesting. Hm. Mrs Zukofsky provided a literal translation, and Mr Z then roughly translated them homophonically, using words that closely fit the sounds of the Latin, but are barely intelligible. I have to give an example:

Nulli si dicet mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, no si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in uento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
whom but one, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

Venuti says Zukofsky's works "heard a dazzling range of Englishes, dialects and discourses that issued from the foreign roots of English (Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French) and from different moments in the history of English-language culture."

When I looked at Pound's version of "Donna Mi Prega", I wondered if the word 'translation' was the right one. Same here. Isn't Zukofsky doing something different, which can only be called translation if you completely deny the existence of an author called Catullus?

The chapter then looks at the work of Paul Blackburn, a disciple of Ezra Pound, who also cut his poetic teeth on translations from the Provencal. Venuti comes over all Freudian, analysing Blackburn's oedipal conflict with Pound and its role in his development as a poet. It led to a similar blend of archaism and slang. And I have a similar doubt about the outcome.

I had a real problem with this chapter. In theory, something other than invisible translation sounds like a good idea, but in practice the results are horrible!

16 August 2009

Lost in Austen

DVD packaging
I've just finished watching the DVDs of Lost in Austen and can't help thinking it's relevant to the concerns of this blog.

The set-up is that a modern woman, who's always loved Pride and Prejudice, finds herself walking through a doorway into the world of the novel, while Elizabeth Bennett goes the other way. One of the very best things about it is that there's no attempt at an explanation of how the doorway works; it's obviously fantasy so you just better get used to it.

But why I really love this series is the love and respect it shows for Jane Austen's work. So much more than any literal period rendering of the story. In this version you get a real engagement with Austen's world, a real discussion between now and then. There's a nod to the material differences - cleaning teeth with birch twigs and chalk - but the social differences are celebrated and criticised rather than seen as fixed. In this version for example, Bingley and Jane decide to make their future in America, and Elizabeth Bennett decides she was born out of time and her independence and wit mean she'll be happier staying in the 21st century. It's like a recognition of Jane Austen's outsider status. My only gripe would be that Elizabeth's part is so small. Like every sensible man I love her, but she appears briefly in the first episode then disappears (in a brilliantly bold bit of writing) until halfway through the last. Meanwhile the 21st century character with a very Austenian name, Amanda Price, is utterly engaging, but in the end her choice of regency life with Darcy is quite disappointing.

Personal reactions aside, I think the lesson is that this kind of creative engagement with a work from a different culture is far more productive that a straight 'translation'. And, my god, this was on ITV!

15 August 2009

Translating Gawain

Using this blog as a scrapbook, here are some of Simon Armitage's comments from his introduction.

Cover of hardbackThe lack of authorship seems to serve as an invitation, opening up a space within the poem for a new writer to occupy. Its comparatively recent rediscovery acts as a further draw; if Milton or Pope had put their stamp on it, of if Dr Johnson had offered an opinion, or if Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth had drawn it into their orbit, such an invitation might now appear less forthcoming.

Some translators, for perfectly valid reasons and with great success, have chosen not to imitate its highly alliterative form. But to me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is directly located within its sound. The percussive patterning of the words serves to reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory.

It's surely no accident that the second passage is itself so alliterative, but also noticeable that it sounds perfectly natural. English, modern or middle, likes alliteration. And that's not the only advantage Armitage has. As a northern poet, you feel his diction is directly derived from the Gawain poet.

I read the book in three or four train journeys in three days. It's a really good read, thanks both to the brilliance of the original story, and to what seems to me to be wonderful translation. Very occasionally you sense that the alliteration is forced, leading to a jarring choice of word, but why not? Chances are, that happened in the original, and it's a poem, not a news report. It should tease and tickle the heart's inner ear.

13 August 2009

The Last Man and the Green Man

Cover of The Last Man
I've been reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man for what seems like months, but have now finished it. It's mentioned in the reading list for the Comparative Literature syllabus, for its imagining of a world without people: specifically, what is the meaning of a city without people? It sounded interesting, and I'd never heard of it so gave it a go. The initial reaction to the book (when it was published) was terrible, but the critical quotations in the Oxford Classics introduction express disgust with the subject matter, rather than the technique. The subject matter, eventually, is a plague that gradually kills off all but the narrator. So there's lots of disease and death. The Introduction suggests that the book has now become more popular because we are less alarmed about looking at the possible end of the world. Maybe. But there's also a clear wish-fulfillment at work: of course we wish Mary Shelley had written something else as good as Frankenstein; we wish she had written something that could be construed as a critique of patriarchy.

The big problem with the book, though, is that it's at least three books in one, and it takes forever for the big story to start. There's apparently a roman-a-clef going on, with characters who represent Percy Shelley, Byron and others. This at times suggests a strong emotional drive - Mary Shelley saw so many people die too young. But this also maybe gives rise to the second problem: the variability of peoples' characters. That might not matter in a less conventional novel, but this is essentially a standard Victorian form. You just get the feeling that whenever she needs to move things on she just recasts.

And the interesting stuff about adjusting to a world without people comes right at the end; a tiny proportion of the book. By then I was forcing myself to read on, not taking the time to think about the issues. But it didn't strike me as being particularly focused.

One thing that's not mentioned in the introduction is the attitude to religion: there's a token theism, but strikingly no reference to Christianity at all, which must have been strange and contributed to the book's poor reception. Although, obliquely, the last hundred pages or so can be read as a rewind of the Genesis creation myth.

Anyway, I have now moved on to something lighter: Simon Armitage's translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. It really is lighter, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about it in terms of translation theory, but for now I'm just enjoying the story.

10 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (4)

In the third chapter, “Dissidence” Venuti looks at how the selection of works for translation can be part of a foreignising project in the translating culture.

The major part of the chapter is about the work of Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, an Italian writer of the mid-19th century, who belonged to a group called scapigliatura (roughly, ragamuffinry). He wrote in the fantasy genre, and it’s suggested this was a literary and political challenge to the orthodox style of realism, enshrined in I Promessi Sposi, which underrepresented any social divisions within the new Italy. There’s a long discussion of Tarchetti’s translation/plagiarisation of a Mary Shelley story, "The Mortal Immortal". He published this as his own work but it is very much a translation. However, by not claiming (or admitting) to be a translation, the work is able to part company with the original. Venuti argues that this enables Tarchetti to strengthen the role of class divisions.

Venuti seems to regret that there’s no place for this kind of translation/plagiarisation today. It’s forbidden by copyright law and contracts. He suggests that the concept of the author as embodied in copyright law is over-simplified: the work is not simply the product of the person who wrote it, and the modern emphasis on single named authors doesn’t allow the kind of collaborative work that we may imagine Homer to be. And there would be a kind of frankness in a translator being able to say they have made several changes to the original to make it more relevant to the target culture.

But he says that people can attempt to introduce some foreignising influence into their translation work by their choice of material.

The chapter ends with a rather separate but interesting exploration of a recent phenomenon in English language publishing: the popularity of translated crime novels – eg the Wallander books. It’s unconclusive. On one hand, you can see the readers of these books as wanting to read about a different culture. But if that was so, why don’t they read mainstream literature in translation? On the other hand, the books that tend to be translated are firmly in the anglo-american tradition, focussed on the police officer or detective’s solution of the crime. The discussion has made me want to read some Wallander, though, as well as some of the other less mainstream books discussed, eg Miyuke Miyabe’s Kasha (translated as All She Was Worth. Venuti ends with the happy thought that even unchallenging books like the Wallander series can expand the range of acceptable books in the mainstream culture. I think that’s true: anecdotally, it seems to me that the choice of translated books that appear on Waterstone’s tables is becoming more adventurous - which bizarrely means more mainstream.

That’s it for today. The next chapter is called “Margin”. It’s quite a long one, and it features - tada! - Ezra Pound.

The Invisible Translator (3)

Chapter 3 of The Translator’s Invisibility is called “Nation” and it examines three studies of a “foreignising” approach to translation.

The first part is about Friedrich Schleiermacher’s 1813 essay “On the different methods of translating”. Schleiermacher was writing in a context where German-language culture was seen as subservient to the French, and from the account given here, it appears that he believed that there was an inherent superiority in German culture – actually, it’s becoming clear how often people involved in translation theory find their own culture to be superior – but could improve if translations incorporated some foreignness so that the scope of the thought would be widened. It’s a position that’s inherently contradictory in many ways, and I can’t actually see that Schleiermacher’s a good model to follow. What’s more interesting in this chapter is the underlying tension between Venuti and André Lefevere, who has translated Schleiermacher and Schlegel, using a very domesticating style. Sometimes this only shows up in the footnotes. But when I was reading the quoted text, this caught my eye. Schlegel wrote an imaginary dialogue in which a Frenchman says:
The Germans translate every literary Tom, Dick, and Harry.
That can’t be right, and it turns out, in a footnote, that the original reads
Die Deutschen sind ja Allerweltsübersetzer
which is quite different.

The second part is about the quarrel between Francis Newman and Matthew Arnold over Newman’s translation of Homer. He explicity tried to make the work seem strange, using a ballad metre, and copious archaisms. Arnold attacked the translation on grounds that rely on the existence of a cultural elite which is the arbiter of taste. He refers, tellingly, to the “nobility” of Homer’s prosody, while admitting that this nobility is hard to define but easy to recognise. Which sounds precisely ideological and hegemonic to me. Venuti argues that Arnold’s view (which became dominant) denigrates anything but the elite form of discourse, excluding class and regional differences.

But again, I don’t think the issue’s entirely clear-cut. Newman’s strategy is not to make the work look Greek, but to make it look generically ancient. Here’s an extract that is quoted:
“Chestnut! why bodest death to me? from thee this was not needed.
Myself right surely know also, that ‘tis my doom to perish,
From mother and from father dear apart, in Troy; but never
Pause will I make of war, until the Trojans be glutted.”
He spake, and yelling, held affront the single-hoofed horses.
Naturally, Arnold found that yelling ignoble (it “leave[s], to say the very least, much to be desired”), but criticised the use of Chestnut for Xanthus, Achilles’ horse, as an unnecessary translation. But that’s a domesticating usage. Arnold’s concern isn’t so much with domestication v foreignising as with valuing and maintaining the position of the cultural elite.

But the history shows that it was the fluent strategy that came to be seen as democratic.

In the third part, Venuti looks at how foreignising translations can work and avoid the tag of elitism. His strongest case here is the 1990 translation of The Brothers Karamazov by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Apparently this has been enormously successful, and Venuti compares its somewhat alien style with the smoothness of Constance Garnet’s Edwardian version. It is, he says, a better reflection of the changes in register of Dostoevsky’s original. I have to take his word for that, of course.