Sunday, November 11, 2018

Recently read: Lost communities

Eastside Road, November 11, 2018—
Doig, Ivan: This House of Sky
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979
ISBN 0-15-689982-5. pp 314     read 11/5/18
LeBaron, Gaye, and Bart Casey:
The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove
Historia II, 2018
ISBN 978-0-692-17702-0. pp 204     read 11/6/18
Wolf, Margery: Coyote‘s Land: a Novel Ethnography
Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2018
ISBN 9787-145756-430-7. pp 312     read 11/11/18
MANY HAVE RECOMMENDED Doig to me, but I resisted until urged by an engaging woman who sells her produce at the local farmer’s market told me she’d spent a night in his bedroom. (“It was not what it sounds like, he’s a friend of the family and lent his house while he was away.”)

The house in question is in southwestern Montana, where the author was born and raised in surely one of the last survivors of hard frontier landscape: cowboy country, sheep ranching, desperate economy. This House of Sky is a memoir centered on the author’s father — his mother died young. Like the other two books read in the last week or so are, it is nostalgic, evoking a time and place recent enough to be imaginable but irretrievably lost.

I'm old enough — older than Ivan Doig — to remember a landscape similar though less harsh than his high, bare, frequently frozen Montana: the bleak wartime northeastern Oklahoma of 1944-5, where we lived without running water, and impoverished Sonoma county farm country in the next few years, where we lived without electricity. Unlike the Doigs on their sheep ranches, we at least had society.

Doig centers his memoir on his father and on isolated ranching, but populates it also with other memorable characters: a stepmother; his grandmother; assorted dubious ranch hands; the drifters morosely drinking in a series of bars negotiating the limited available social stratas of what passes for his home town.

The book is poetic and laconic, like the best cowboy songs, and deserves the praise it's received. Doig's style is sophisticated, artful, but (except for italicized summaries to each chapter) never jarring, always related to what one presumes is the language of his subjects. Clearly the Doig line harbors — and passes along — a gift for language: the stories are so rich and at times improbable, the quotes so colorful and apt, that a reader could be forgiven for suspecting occasional authorial invention.

We need books like this, not only for their evocation of the land and society much of this country was until postwar prosperity and technological advance erased it, but also for its suggestion that the stamina and inventiveness of those times may be needed in a time still to come. In the meantime generations have grown to maturity lacking, with rare exceptions, first-hand familiarity with even the possibility of such virtues.


THE NINETEENTH CENTURY in this country was a time of frontier expansion, hardscrabble farming, urban development, and robber-baron capitalism. It also saw a considerable reaction to the worst qualities of those developments in a wave of idealistic communitarianism. Some of the resulting societies are fairly well known: Brook Farm, Oneida, Amana. But one of the longest-living of them has been largely overlooked: The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove corrects that historical neglect.

The Fountaingrove community began, as so many such attempts did, in rural New York, where Thomas Lake Harris, only one of many exhortative preachers, after running his course in one parish after another, decided his only success must be in establishing a society of his own. He was apparently a magnetic, persuasive figure, and in lectures in New York, New England, and London he attracted followers who signed on with their fortunes as well as their lives as individuals.

With their labor and their money Harris built what can only be called a cult, at first amusing his neighbors, ultimately attracting sufficient cynicism and suspicion that he found it expedient to move along. Each cycle lasted seven years: a farm at Wassaic in eastern New York, bought in 1861, a more elaborate settlement near Brocton on the Erie shoreline, in 1868; finally, in 1875, the Fountaingrove community, outside a provincial city growing up north of San Francisco.

A number of strands weave through this history: the members of the community, including a disillusioned, wealthy Englishman and a Japanese samurai; the various approaches to financing, including investments and agriculture; the relations with outsiders including the press; and of course the cult psychology and culture Harris developed.

The principal characters are fairly well and efficiently presented: apart from the enigmatic Harris, they are the wealthy Englishman Laurence Oliphant and the quietly competent Kanaye Nagasawa. Harris began as a frontier preacher subject to fits and visions; eager to return humanity to its pre-Expulsion innocence, he dictated thousand-line poems describing that state of bliss while in trance induced by deep breathing — and, one suspects, slow sexual experiences. Oliphant, the only child of an important British colonial officer, was an adventurous traveler whose books brought Central Asia and the Crimean War home to England. And Nagasawa was sent in his early adolescence from isolated Japan to Scotland, then England, to learn the methods and values of the mysterious West so that his native country might enter the modern global world.

For every man in Harris's communities there seemed to have been at least three or four women — wives, mothers, sisters, friends. Except for Oliphant's mother they never fully emerge from this narrative. Even Harris's second wife, who was significant in the Fountaingrove years, is present more as referred to by other personages than as a fully limned figure in her own right.

The same might be said of Nagasawa, whose motives and values are occasionally hypothesized but not clearly stated. The temptation to fictionalize this history has been kept successfully and, I'd bet, carefully at bay.

Who, then, is this book for? It appears at a poignant time, the first anniversary of the destruction of the locally famous Fountaingrove Round Barn, until last year the only surviving physical evidence of the community that once prospered on the northern edge of Santa Rosa. I found the book satisfying — but I should reveal that one of the authors, Gaye LeBaron, is an old friend, whose dedication to history and whose insistence on fact I can attest to.

Much of the value of The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove lies between the lines, partly in matters only hinted at — the authors are decorous — partly in questions the reader will be led to pose. Foremost — and this question is raised, more than once, though without being settled — was Harris merely a confidence man? or was he truly visionary and idealistic in his attempt to found a new life based on communitarianism, free from the distractions of private ownership and individual expression?


TWO OTHER VERSIONS of the perfect life contend in Margery Wolf's Coyote's Land: the ancient and apparently perfected culture of the Coast Miwok, based not far from Fountaingrove in the present southern Sonoma and northern Marin counties, and the Franciscan version of Catholic Christianity as it evolved in the California missions early in the 19th century.

Wolf, who was also a personal friend, died early last year, soon after completing this book. She was an anthropologist whose career was somewhat outside the anthropological norm: her first book, The House of Lim, still used as a textbook in anthropology classes, was written without the virtue of a degree in the field. (She was married to an academic anthropologist at the time.)

Coyote's Land is an interesting and, I think, significant book for a number of reasons, one of them stated by the author at the outset. The first and longest and most evocative of its two parts is what she calls "informed fiction," fictional narrative informed by a comprehensive knowledge of both details and context. Her purpose, she writes, is to make ethnography interesting to the common reader. She is a little defensive about this, as she's been criticized by professionals in her field for straying from academic norms — but in truth it's the academic professional writers who should be criticized for forgetting, in their books, that readability and appeal are greater authorial responsibilities than convention and boredom.

If Coyote's Land is significant as "informed fiction," it is also important — especially at this moment! — for dwelling on the tragedy of one culture's destruction at the hands of another. And this particularly when the destruction is wrought in the name of religion. Wolf begins her novel with a series of chapters thoughtfully, pleasantly, sometimes entertainingly evoking the daily life of the pre-conquest Miwok; then turns to the inevitable end of that idyllic culture, in the early years of the 19th century, when the chain of missions reaches San Francisco Bay.

Wolf centers her narration on an improbable device, dividing the central character between two women: Charlotte, a 20th-century anthropologist eager to learn the (pre-conquest) Miwok culture, and Sekiak, a Miwok woman condemned to immortality for a transgression against the natural order. Driven by a fierce desire to make the Miwok way known to European-Americans, she renders herself and Charlotte invisible and gifted with fluency in all languages, and the two travel back and forth between the present and the pre-conquest past, enabling Charlotte to observe daily life and eavesdrop on native conversations, thereby comprehending the contexts of both Miwok and mission life.

Not usually attracted to Magic Realism or time-travel fiction, I tried to catch little failures in this narrative device, moments when anachronism of either detail or plot might break Wolf's success. I found none. I don't know if she planned it, but to me one of Wolf's greatest achievements here is her treatment of the plasticity of Time as we humans live it and in it. And this brings me to a final irony of Coyote's Land: a valedictory book, it often pauses to contemplate — even if only for a sentence or two — the nature of Death. Charlotte's invisibility is not dependably effective to those on the point of death.

One old woman was tending a slow, smoky fire under a couple of racks of drying fish. She stared in Sekiak and Charlotte's direction; then blinked her eyes several times before turning her attention back to the fire.

"Can she see us?" Charlotte asked uncertainly.

"A little maybe. She is very old… you know old people are less attached to their time than young people… They tend to wander. We need to keep our distance. She knows she will die soon, and she is watching for the spirits of old friends who will show her the way."

Toward the end of the book it becomes clear, in a few lines charmingly describing the presence of a fox in the bushes near a campfire, that Charlotte's invisibility is attached to the fact of her being in an alternate time. The fox immediately brought Leoš Janáček's opera Vixen Sharp-ears to mind, and I saw that intrinsic to both the style and the substance of Coyote's Land is a haunting, affectionate, even visionary awareness of the beyond-time nature of death and dying and of truly aware living. Janáček was 70 when he completed Vixen; Margery Wolf was dying in her last year, while completing Coyote's Land.

The irony, then, is that the death of the cultures — the Coast Miwok way, which had stood for millennia; the California missions, imperfect improvements no doubt on Spanish feudalism but unable to survive Mexican independence let alone the coming of the Yankees — those deaths are as natural and inevitable as the deaths of our grandparents and our parents. Immortality — Sekiak's sentence — is what is unnatural and wrong. The manner in which one culture destroys another may be condemned, but the destruction is inevitable.

Whether intentionally or for lack of time, Coyote's Land seems not quite finished. The novel ends inconclusively, Charlotte apparently returned to the present but certain plot elements still tantalizingly vague. The second part of the book, the "backstory," offers a quick historical survey of the Miwok and their land; the missions, their Spanish background and their ambivalent intentions; and a foretaste of the transition the young California will soon make into the United States. This part of the book is matter-of-fact and carefully documented in the conventional bibliography.

The backmatter does not detract from the real value of the book, the "informed fiction." It is a real gift: to those of us who live in what is still Coyote's Land; to those who want to see farther than the authorities who have (temporarily) survived the Miwok and the mission ways; to all the living.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Looking back: "Notes to a contextual ars musicae"

IN 1964, not yet (quite) thirty, I tried to work out an approach to discussing music. Writing about music, maybe talking about music, thinking about music.

That year I was studying music privately — composition with Robert Erickson, conducting with Gerhard Samuel. A modest gift from a wonderful woman who'd been taking lessons on the recorder from me made it possible to devote that entire year to music.

I had studied English literature at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1960, and had thought of various ways of turning that degree into a career. I tried graduate work in library science, then in secondary education, but neither graduate school nor high-school teaching appealed to me — I think without my knowing it music was shouldering everything else aside.

That year, 1964, my younger brother somehow was given editorship of the UC Graduate Student Journal, and he asked me if I had anything to contribute. I decided, I suppose, that it was time to put my thoughts down on paper. I had been reading the criticism of local concerts in the newspapers — in those days the San Francisco Examiner had two music critics, the Chronicle three, the Oakland Tribune one — and was not satisfied with their coverage, particularly of contemporary music.

Published music criticism, as far as I could see, knew only one kind of music: that based on the conventional tonal system reflected by composers from Bach through Mahler. The rare review dealing with 12-tone music might or might not have reflected knowledge of that "system." No critic, with the possible exception of Alfred Frankenstein in the Chronicle, was attentive to the avant garde.

Critical thinking had been latent in my college studies of literature, but rarely discussed directly in any of these undergraduate courses. It may be that it was only in my final weeks at Cal, in the summer session of 1960, when I was finally required to take the freshman course English 1B of all things, that the subject was discussed — I don't recall much of that class now, other than occasional conversations with the instructor, Frederic Crews, a fairly recent hire only two years older than me.

I'm not exactly sure when I wrote this essay. I do remember that it was partly written as parody of academic writing — the sort of thing I found unattractive in graduate school. Looking it over now, though, for the first time since it was written, I'm not too embarrassed. It's a bit dense and should probably have been expanded. I never went further with it — except that its process and definitions no doubt underlay my approach from then on as a music critic. I regret only that something kept me from sending it to my colleagues at the time, among whom only Robert Commanday seemed to bring a background of professional study to the work.

You can read this "Notes to a Contextual Ars Musicae" here. I've cleaned it up just a little, left the marginal headings so thoughtfully allowed by the original typesetters, and added a short afterword. I make it available with thanks to my brother Jim, who may have fuller recollection of those distant days.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Pines of Rome

IMG 1108

Viale Trastevere, October 3, 2018—

PINUS PINEA.
The graceful stems, stripped of unnecessary lower limbs, sustain broad canopies,
intermediaries between our soil and the skies above.

In Rome's Pamphili park, catching evening autumnal light, their company dwarfs idlers strolling below.
The trees are rooted but they seem to dance; people beneath them appear in a trance.

Rome tends her pines with care: light streams beneath them, dancing around the trunks, among the bare limbs above, supporting those cloud-canopies, intense dark greens pinning the stucco'd buildings to the streets. IMG 1273

Some years ago I made a little book of photos casually taken of these pines — I don't have them with me, of course, and will have to post them to this blog on our return to Healdsburg. No promises.

On our return I will also have to arrange a rendez-vous with a tree man to work on our own pines. They were given to us thirty years ago and more and have grown to such maturity as to need attention. I hope to find some information about the pruning of Pinus pinea while we're here in Rome — sources on line and at home suggest they need no more than the removal of damaged limbs (see a video here) but I definitely want these limbed up and thinned out.

IMG 9258

Two more points: the seeds of P. pinea are the pignoli, "pine nuts," obligatory in making pesto, and so tasty as to justify the work of extracting them.

And those you don't harvest are harvested by blue jays and squirrels, and germinate readily: I've got to start clearing out a lot of saplings!

Mallarmé

IMG 1103
Viale Trastevere, October 3, 2018—

A RECENT EXCHANGE on Facebook began with this question:

What is it about this moment that makes so many people post poetry — and most of it translations — today on Facebook? Is this present need for poetry something good on its own terms — good people making eloquent assemblies of words — or a marker of catastrophe, present or impending, vox clamantis and all that? And is translation a hopeful sign of an impulse to reach across boundaries or a symptom of the ultimate hopelessness of that project?

Followers of this blog will have noticed an elegiac mood lately: it has been deepened by a week in Rome, eternal Rome, where the timeless grace of the pines look down on the mindlessly futile activities of humanity.

What had prompted that query was my posting a translation of Stéphane Mallarmé:

  Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

   Virginal, vivacious, beautiful new day !
Will it rip us apart with its drunk wing beating
This hard forgotten lake, haunted beneath its ice
By a transparent glacier, frozen flights not flown !

A swan of former times recalls that it was he,
Magnificent but hopeless, who had given up
Because he had not sung of the place where he’d lived
When sterile winter shone around with lassitude.

His feathered graceful neck shakes with white agony
Inflicted on the bird by the space he denies —
But not the soil’s horror, taking his plumage.

His pure display assigns an empty phantom here,
Immobilized within a cold dream of disdain,
Clothing, in his useless exile, the Swan.

It is, of course, the famous sonnet Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui, famous for its resistance to both interpretation and translation. There's a good account of this resistance in a fairly recent post by Elisabeth Cook, who mentions the confusing imagery and meaning, wordplay, rhyme scheme, sound clusters, and grammatical precision of the original, all presenting major challenges to a translator.

And to any reader. My French is barely there; certainly not up to reading Mallarmé. But for sixty years I have wanted to understand this poem — not comprehend it, just begin to come to grips with it. It was only yesterday that I got down to work. Spending a couple of weeks with a foreign language put me in the mood, no doubt, though Mallarmés cygne, that swan that sounds like signe, sign or symbol, resists Italian almost as much as English.

And today, reflecting on all this, and on what brought the assignment to mind in the first place, I begin to comprehend a fair amount of meaning behind it all. (It's another example of what Jean Coqt discusses in the line quoted in my previous post here: Mon esprit est partout. Au fur et à mesure que je vieillis, il va encore plus loin, jusqu'à ce qu'il me quitte complètement. (My mind is everywhere. As I grow older, it goes even farther, until it will leave me entirely.)

I made this translation — I make it, I should say, as it seems to get touched up every time I look at it — in order to explore the poem, not in order to write another; I am no poet. In doing it, of course, I ran up against Elisabeth Cook's challenges. I think I've respected the grammar, allowing for the different attitude French has to past and present tenses. I haven't consciously placed phonemes for musical effect, but certain clusters have emerged on their own, as they will.

I rejected rhyme from the start. Very rarely does the attempt at rhyme fail to distort translation, and literal rhyme, respecting the original scheme, is even worse.

Critics agree on seeing this poem as "about," among other things, the writer's confrontation with the blank page, which itself a metaphor for one's confrontation with non-existence. The new day — today in the original — is Life; the frozen lake is non-existence. The swan's white plumage is the blank page; buried (the soil's horror!) and denied it is revealed as futile.

Many years ago someone asked me what I'd like to accomplish before dying. I was quite young and answered with rash (though wistful) self-confidence: I'd like to have figured things out. Perhaps this modest reading of Mallarmé is another — futile — step in that process.

In any case, Daniel, as to the final question in your post, yes, of course, translation, or at least this attempt at translation, is both an impulse to reach across boundaries and a symptom of the ultimate hopelessness.

As to your opening question: this moment — speaking as an American — is perhaps fatally depressing. Our country is lapsing into dictatorship and it seems to me nothing short of literal revolution will stop the descent. The original concept of enlightened federal democracy cannot work in so big, populous, and varied a society; certainly not without an enlightened, educated, and motivated electorate. The present page of American history is scribbled over to the point of illegibility, and we need a drunk wing's brushing — or a grove of pines — to wipe it clean.


Postscript: I have just read — or re-read; I forget (alas!) whether I read it when it appeared, two years ago — Alex Ross's marvelous New Yorker piece on Mallarmé. It's well worth reading.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Miscellaneous autumn notes on the eve of another journey

…la morte deve spaventare ma non troppo. La natura che ci circonda, gli uomini e gli esseri viventi sono una cosa sola. Come non si deve offendere le persone, così non si offenda la natura. Il campo troppo sfruttato si rifiuterà di produrre e così le viti e gli alberi da frutto. Anche dagli animali non si deve pretendere troppo, perché il troppo li rovinerà.

—Paolo Jacob, Chiomonte: Tradizioni, ricordi, e un po' di storia, p. 153

SEPTEMBER. The light is a little lower, the evenings more golden-colored; and not only because of the smoke in the air. The Zinfandel is nearly ripe; already birds are at the grapes, and fox-scat is full of grape seeds. I love this season, but it inevitably brings on an autumnal mood. I’ve just turned 83 and can’t expect too much more patience from that lady with the scissors, what’s her name, Atropos…

Atropos: without swerve. Most of the pagans seemed to think of fate as linear, implying that life was seen (and still is, I think, in general) as a progression from birth through lifetime to death. (And possibly beyond: that was the promise of Christianity and afterward Islam; and a hollow promise I think it is.)

But as I grow older I think otherwise. The Self no doubt is linear, which makes life necessarily tragic and possibly even futile; but I am more than my Self. I am also all those things — events, persons, awarenesses — that accumulate within my ken during my lifetime. Some years ago I read a beautiful passage in a book about tradition and local memory in an Italian valley:

“... death must frighten but not too much. Nature, which surrounds us, humans and other living beings are all one thing. As people should not be offended, so we should not offend nature.The field too exploited will refuse to produce; likewise the vines and fruit trees. From animals, too, we should not expect too much, because too much will ruin them.” [My translation.]

The same with time.

Just as a spider secretes the thread down which she climbs, so you secrete the time you need to do whatever you have to, and you proceed along this thread which is visible only behind you but usable only ahead of you. The key lies in working it out properly. If the thread is too long, it goes into loops and if it's too short, it snaps.
Réné Daumal, A Night of Serious Drinking, p. 38. 

Maxwell: Ancestors, 307-8:

It is not true that the dead desert the living. They go away for a very short time, and then they come back and stay as long as they are needed. But sooner or later a time comes when they are in the way; their presence is, for one reason or another, an embarrassment; there is no place for them in the lives of those they once meant everything to. Then they go away for good. 
When I was in college I was wakened out of a sound sleep by my own voice, answering my mother, who had called to me from the stairs. With my heart pounding, I waited for more and there wasn't any more. Nothing like it ever happened to me before, or since. 

Ilya Pfeiffer:

Emigrating is like writing a new novel whose plot you don't yet know—not its ending, nor the characters who will prove crucial to how the story continues. That's why everything I write has something tentative about it.
La superba , p. 91

Wordsworth:

…Ye mountains and ye lakes,
And sounding cataracts, ye mists and winds
That dwell among the hills where I was born,
If in my youth I have been pure in heart,
If, mingling with the world, I am content
With my own modest pleasures, and have lived
With God and Nature communing, removed
From little enmities and low desires—
The gift is yours.

[Quoted in Types of Scenery and their Influence on Literature, by Sir Archibald Geigke, 1898, repr. Kennikat Press, Port Washington, N.Y./ London]


from a recent exchange on Facebook:

Cecilia: “The poet wants to drink from the well of origin; to write the poem that has not yet been written. In order to enter this level of originality, the poet must reach beyond the chorus of chattering voices that people the surface of a culture. Furthermore, the poet must reach deeper inward; go deeper than the private hoard of voices down to the root-voice. It is here that individuality has the taste of danger, vitality and vulnerability. Here the creative has the necessity of inevitability; this is the threshold where imagination engages raw, unformed experience. This is the sense you have when you read a true poem. You know it could not be other than it is. Its self and its form are one.” [—John O’Donohue]

CS: Absolutely. As Jean Coqt wrote: Mon esprit est partout. Au fur et à mesure que je vieillis, il va encore plus loin, jusqu'à ce qu'il me quitte complètement.

Cecilia [quoting]: Mettez un lieu commun en place, nettoyez-le, frottez-le, éclairez-le de telle sorte qu'il frappe avec sa jeunesse et avec la même fraîcheur, le même jet qu'il avait à sa source, vous ferez œuvre de poète. Tout le reste est littérature.

CS: Yes but Jean Coqt loathed Cocteau, who he called qu'un parisien, il cause il cause c'est tout qu'il peut faire, and went on to say Duchamp's pun lits et ratures was made with Cocteau in mind. Of course Coqt was a savoyard, and probably annoyed about the similar surnames, which must often have got him into trouble…

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Leedy on Fate

(Another in the occasional postings of essays by my late friend Bhishma Xenotechnites)


ANCIENT GREEK ETYMOLOGIES OF FATE






MOST OF OUR FORMAL English words for Fate, Fortune and Destiny come from Latin : “fate” is from the past participle of fari , “to speak,” and was for the Romans something decreed or pronounced by the gods ; the root of “fortune” is fors, “chance” ; “destiny” comes from destinare, “to determine.”   ( “Lot” and “luck” are obviously Anglo-Saxon.  )

For the ancient Greeks , however , happenstance ( also Anglo-Saxon ) was imagined rather differently : their most common verbal expressions came from words whose root sense is to distribute or parcel out.  The main one of these seems to be meiresthai , “to receive as one’s lot or portion” ; connected words include meros , “part,” and , probably best known , moira, “fate” ( i.e., one’s portion ) , personified as Moira , or the Moirai , the Fates one finds named in Hesiod’s Theogony the Daughters of Night ( Nyx ) : Klōthō ( “Spinner” ) , Lákhesis ( “Apportioner” ) and Atropos ( “Unturnable” ) ( 213 , 217ff. ; with a different genealogy, 901ff. ).  Moira is one of the forces of Fate invoked in the Iliad ( Book 24.209 , for example ).  “Destiny” they also derived from this root , using a perfect passive participle , “the allotted” portion , heimarmenē ( moira ) , associated later with Stoicism , “the bit of Fate with your name on it” ; a similar participle , peprōmenon , the portion “that has been bestowed ,” from a defective verb ( *poro ) meaning “to give or bestow ,” came to mean “destined” or “fated.”

The proliferation of names for Fate in Homer is remarkable : kēr is “the doom of death” ( Iliad 9.411 , for example ; Hesiod identifies the Kēres ( pl. ) , Theogony 217 ; the number of dismal forces named in the passage 211-32 is alarming ).  ( There are two sorts of kēr in Homer , it may be useful to note : the preceding , with a rising intonation ( kér ) , and kêr , with a falling intonation, meaning — and cognate with — “heart.” Aisa ( perhaps related to aitia , “cause” ) is commonly invoked in Iliad as “due portion” ( 1.416, for example ).  Another verb meaning to apportion , daiein , gives us a familiar noun for a god of fate ( among other things ) , daimon , later transformed through Latin into “demon.”

( Two important Greek words that have to do with allotment , portion or distribution that don’t carry the sense of fate or doom are nemein , with a meaning of apportionment that extends to the pasturing of animals as well as to custom and law ( nomos ).  And klēros, “allotment,” or “lot,” in the sense of drawing lots , was a key concept of ancient Greek society and property ; the root and sense survive in English “clerk  ,” “clergy.”  )

Three final words : yet another for Fate , potmos ; this one comes from the verb piptein , “to fall.”  And the main Greek word for ( good ) fortune , luck , chance, often personified , Tyche ( Tukhē ) , whose related verb is tunkhanein , “to hit ,” “to happen ( or chance ) to be.”  And an unrelated but vitally important word , anankē , “necessity.” 

The size and nature of this vocabulary of fate invite us to consider ancient Greek attitudes as compared with those of the modern era , in which we like to think we have some control over our own fates.  The idea of  “free choice” or “free will ,” however , is a relatively recent and quite Western idea that may have its origins in medieval Christian philosophy.  It does not come from the Greeks , yet we stubbornly look for it there : in the original Introduction to his celebrated 1951 translation of the Iliad , Richmond Lattimore wrote that the tragedy of Achilles , his early death , “is a result of his own choice” ( p.48 ).  In a recent review-essay on the Iliad , its history , and its English translations ( “Battle Lines ,” The New Yorker, 7 November 2011 ) , Daniel Mendelsohn writes ( p.78 ) that the hero Achilles “had been allowed to choose between a long , insignificant life and a brief , glorious one.” 

Disrespected by Agamemnon , the Greeks’ commander , Achilles threatens to take his men and abandon the fight against Troy.  He explains to his comrades the double destiny his goddess-mother Thetis has told him he carries toward his death ( dikhthadias kēras thanatoio, 9.411 ) , described by Mendelsohn as “a choice.” Does he himself choose whether to return home, or stay and fight ?  Is it his choice to allow himself to be persuaded by his companion Patroclus to let him venture into the fight with the Trojans and Hector , in Achilles’s own armor , only to be killed by Hector ?

Patroclus’s death ( which we see aided by the shadowy presence of the god Apollo ) must be avenged by the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles , who is thus forced to join the fight and “choose” the briefer , heroic life.  He acknowledges to his mother , come to console him over the loss of Patroclus , that “all these things the Olympian [ Zeus ] brought to accomplishment” ( 18.79 ) ; and his mother : “I must lose you soon , my child , since it is decreed ( potmos hetoimos ) your death must come soon after Hector’s” ( 18.95-6; all translations are Lattimore’s ).  What are the wishes of a mortal against the force of the gods’ decrees ?  And can even the gods themselves escape the decrees of the Fates ?

In his influential book , The Greeks and the Irrational ( 1951 ; The Sather Classical Lectures at the University of California , Berkeley ), the distinguished scholar E. R. Dodds wrote , “To ask whether Homer’s people are determinists or libertarians [ advocates of free will ] is a fantastic anachronism : the question has never occurred to them…” ( p.7 ) ; “Some have pointed out that Homer had no word for act of choice or decision.  …  I should rather say that Homeric man does not possess the concept of will...  and therefore...  not...  of  ‘free will’ ” ( p. 20, note 31 ) .  Thus Achilles’s tragedy , like other famous tragedies of antiquity, was not one of free choice , but a tragedy of the inexorability of Fate.




Bhishma Xenotechnites xii.2011


Monday, June 04, 2018

Leedy and translation

Eastside Road, June 4, 2018—
ANOTHER IN WHAT I hope will be a series of occasional posts having to do with my late friend Douglas Leedy (Bhishma Xenotechnites), composer, musician, and scholar, whose frequent letters and telephone calls did much to extend my awareness of all sorts of subjects. First, a letter, sent soon after we had visited him at his home in Corvallis :
3 May 2009
Dear Charles and Lindsey,

It was lucky for me you were able to visit — not only was a very enjoyable, but it seems also to have been helpful : as you will recall, I was wondering how the grade and length of our Woodpecker walk would affect me. The next day I didn’t have any muscle pain (or the night before), but I didn’t walk much. On Sunday I found to my surprise that my walking was noticeably better than it has been recently. The next couple of days weren’t so good, but this suggests of course that I can be a bit more ambitious without undue risk. I’ll give it a try.

As I mentioned, the most memorable scene in the [Philip] Glass documentary (PBS) was his Qigong lesson, and I’ve incorporated some of what I can recall of the routine into my own daily (brief) workout. I’ve noticed some real (I think) benefit from this.

Let me have some feedback on the James Beard‘s Mother’s Raisin Bread. And I hope to hear about your Los Angeles theater etc. trip. You had, apparently, the better weather. I was hoping for a little more rain here, and it really arrived with a vengeance, up the coast from central California, with heavy winds. Portland had a big thunderstorm, power outages, at least one death (that by falling tree). Today, with sunshine and blossoms everywhere, only one disoriented bee.*

So, I’m hoping to be in touch with you by phone before you leave for the paese vecchio. When you get around to reading Emily Watson‘s excellent essay on Anne Carson’s An Oresteia (NATION 27 April) please note two errors : on page 30, left column, mnesimon should read mnesipemon ; but the one on page 32, left column, is serious — 14 lines from the bottom, instead of “— as was Aristophanes’ Frogs” read “as in A.’s Frogs.” !

Buon viaggio — or as the Germans say, Gute Fahrt!
Bhishma monogram

PS – Forgot quite a few things when you were here, including the epic “Bush Family Cookbook“ with its references to the “White House Mess“, and also the story about Aeschylus‘s death by dropping tortoise. In his 1937 critical edition (Oxford) of A., Gilbert Murray includes the old/ancient “Vita” and other bios from antiquity, which all have the story. No one today gives it much credence, and M. l. West’s new critical edition of A. omits all the old, traditional biographies — unwisely, to my mind.

——
*My therapist just got a number of beehives ( boxes) for his yard and vicinity.


Next, his enclosure, a fascinating study of a few lines from Aeschylus :

A LITTLE EXERCISE IN TRANSLATION FROM AESCHYLUS

Lines from the opening choral ode (or parhodos) of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, recalled by Robert Kennedy in the eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr. only hours after King’s murder — can these be what H. J. Rose, in his Commentary on the Surviving Plays of Aeschylus (a formal commentary takes up critical issues in the text and its interpretation), calls “a highly poetical but obscure passage, every word of which calls for examination”?

Here is the original Greek, transliterated from Gilbert Murray’s edition of 1937/55 (lines 179–83 ; I have marked a long alpha that affects the mostly trochaic scansion) :

stázei d’ ant’ húpnou prò kardías
   mnēsipémōn pónos : kaì par’ ā-
   kontas êlthe sōphroneîn.
daimónōn dé pou kháris bíaios
   sélma semnòn hēménōn.

The English version Kennedy (slightly incorrectly) recalled was identified as that of Edith Hamilton :

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despite,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

It is quoted here from an excellent review-essay in the 27 April 2009 issue of THE NATION by classics scholar Emily Watson of An Oresteia, a trilogy composed of the Agamemnon, Sophocles’s Electra and Euripides’s Orestes, all translated by the classicist and poet Anne Carson (Faber and Faber), produced recently in New York City. Carson translates :

Yet there drips before my heart
   a griefremembering pain.
Good sense comes the hard way.
   And the grace of the gods
      (I’m pretty sure)
   is a grace that comes by violence.

Carson does justice to mnēsipémōn, an Aeschlyean coinage, meaning “remembering misery“ ; we recognize kardías and daimónōn ; sōphroneîn, a basic Greek principle, is indeed having “good sense“ or “prudence” (not really “wisdom“) ; kháris is familiar as “grace,“ “favor.“ Akontas is as Hamilton has it, “against the will.“ Selma is a ship’s upper decking, extended to a “rower’s bench“ as well as “seat“ or “throne,“ a location missing from the above English renditions.

Now we face some of Rose’s obscurities. Ant’ húpnouo means literally “instead of“ or “against sleep,“ but the text is a conjecture. Pro means “before, in front of,“ as Carson gives it. The verbs stázei (“drips“), êlthe (“comes“) are third-person, with subjects ponos (pain) and sōphroneîn : there is no first-person “my” or “our“ in Aeschylus's personal schema. A literal version might read :

And there drips, against sleep, at the heart,
remembered misery's pain ; even to the un-
willing comes moderation.
But of the gods, I suppose, the grace (that ?comes is) violent,
(they) upon their solemn throne seated.

M. L. West, in his new critical edition of Aeschylus (Teubner/de Gruyter) has instead of biaios (“violent“) the adverb biaiōs (“forcibly“), and inserts a comma after kharis ; the last four words now mean “occupying their solemn throne by force.“ Then for pou (“I suppose“) he reads (on authority yet unclear to me) poû (“where?“), making the sentence from daimónōn a question : “But where (is) the grace of the divinities, who forcibly occupy their solemn seat?“ As Gilda Radner‘s Emily Litella used to say, “Well — that’s different!“ (and perhaps more Aeschylean?).

There is another fine review of Carson's trilogy, by Gary Wills (NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, 14 May 2009), where in considering her Agamemnon he mentions Robert Browning‘s “oddly neglected translation,“ concluding that for a disputed passage from the Watchman’s opening soliloquy, not long before our lines, “Browning gets it right.“ In the course of investigations for this essay I was fortunate to have already been put on the trail of Browning’s Agamemnon, published in 1877. Here is his version of the above lines, to my mind the best of the eight or so I have compared :

In sleep, before the heart of each,
A woe-remembering travail sheds in dew
Discretion, — ay, and melts the unwilling too
By what, perchance, may be a graciousness
Of gods, enforced no less –
As they, commanders of the crew,
Assume the awful seat.
Unfortunately Browning himself needs some translation today ; and here, once again, is the perpetual dilemma of the translator : to decide, without resolving intentional ambiguity, what the author meant to say, and to convey that meaning, with the right tone (and for Aeschylus, do we try to imitate his often strange and by-then-old-fashioned language?), in words understandable to today’s ears and eyes — and in the case of dramatic works, to the theatai, spectators, but listeners, above all, for the meaning and music of the words.

bh.x.                                                                                          v.2009

APPENDIX : two further English translations

Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory ; against
our pleasure we are temperate.
From the gods who sit in grandeur
grace comes somehow violent.

      Richard Lattimore (Modern Library, 1942)
   We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
      the pain of pain remembered comes again,
   and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.
From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench
          there comes a violent love.

                                          Robert Fagles (Viking, 1975)

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Educated and translated

Eastside Road, June 2, 2018—
•Tara Westover: Educated
HarperCollins, 2018
pp. 400      ISBN 978-0-399590-50-4
•Ed. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, & Russell Scott Valentino:
     The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life In Translation
Open Letter Books, 2014
pp. 313      ISBN 978-1-940953-00-7
ANOTHER PAIR of significant books, significant for the wider cultural implications beyond their apparent immediate concerns — memoir in the case of Educated, literary translation in the case of The Man Between.

Tara Westover's memoir, out quite recently, has come in for plenty of discussion. Much of it centers on the immediate story, which is both harrowing and hopeful enough: a girl raised with six siblings by a fundamentalist Mormon family living as far from society as possible. No schooling. Virtually no friends or relatives outside the nuclear family — survivalist parents who rely on faith in their Mormon God, rather than any kind of science or medicine or, for that matter, seat belts. Through luck, the timid pioneering of the oldest brother who had had some schooling before the family dropped completely out, and a quick and tenacious mind, she manages at 15 to enter school for the first time, quickly moving through college, then graduate work.

There are two parallel stories here: the squalid background, in a desert junkyard in Idaho, and the academic progress, at Brigham Young University, Cambridge, and Harvard. The first is the more dramatic, of course, and Westover portrays her parents, siblings, and the setting dramatically and effectively — to the extent that some online "reviewers" have questioned the authenticity of the memoir. I don't; in my childhood I saw similar families, and can well believe there are still plenty of them in this country — think of Waco, think of the Oklahoma City bomber, think of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Westover's father seems paranoid as well as loony, but he's not really a terrorist in the bomber sense. He's simply deeply mistrustful of Government, which he thinks is out to impose its own views of reality on those he prefers to hold. But Westover's subtle choice of title suggests that she is ultimately writing about something far beyond her own story (and that of her father): the fact that there are people who are convinced that their dedication to "faith" and magical thinking is sounder than science and theoretical education. Educated suggests there is a total divide between two classes: those who are educated and those who remain ignorant.

The Enlightenment is not to be taken for granted. We who have received relatively conventional educations have difficulty believing the extent to which the ignorant suspect, scorn, and reject education, for themselves and, most poignantly and damagingly, for their children. This is not directed at those who choose to home-school in some attentive manner. Nor does it excuse more or less formal alternative school "educations" that reject science and reason.

Westover's story spins almost out of control toward the end, when her parents find themselves profiting from the kitchen remedies they cook up as alternatives to medicine following a series of disastrous, nearly fatal accidents. But even here the story offers a scary premonition of the fiery catastrophe that may be needed to resolve what seems to be our biggest danger: the failure of reason in a complex moment, and the dividing of humanity into two tribes opposed over selfishness and community, fear and invention, instinct and consciousness.


TRANSLATORS USED TO BE invisible, or try to be: there was an attitude that their work was to move a book from a foreign language into the reader's as effortlessly as possible. In the last twenty years of the 20th century that changed, as a generation of translators pushed publishers and academicians to realize that the content of a book issues from not only the author's mind, including his language, but from the cultural and societal qualities forming and influencing that mind.

To judge by The Man Between, one man was almost heroic in this evolution: Michael Heim, a quiet, eccentrically modest and frugal man who mastered a number of languages but who also had a gift for creative writing and an organizational turn of mind allowing him to formulate literary theory without freezing it into academic stricture.

The Man Between centers on this man through seventeen essays, ten of which seem to me remarkably significant as well as entertaining. Of course language and literature are fundamental to the narrative, but a bigger issue develops: the sad yet undeniable failure of the anglophone community to invite authors writing in other languages to the table. I remember such series as New World Writing and Botteghe Oscure, which flourished in their marginal way in the 1950s; and Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar magazine, 1967-1973, as bravely continuing Ezra Pound's Modernist imperative to extend literary conversations beyond the Culture of the Now that dominated — and continues to dominate — a society more interested in distraction and entertainment than penetration and learning. But the dynamics of marketing and technology distorted commercial publishing in the decades after, as they did the art and music businesses.

Heim, the translator at the center of this celebration, was a very attractive man, clearly both loved and respected by colleagues and students. He was energetic and activist in his dedication to his art, but apparently quite egoless — to the extent of donating a quarter of a million dollars to establish the PEN Translation Fund, which supports translating projects and their translators (many of them at the beginning of their careers) on the condition that his gift be strictly anonymous: only after his death was his name identified with it. (You may be sure he never made that kind of money translating books; not even Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)

What were Heim's beliefs about his art? That "A good translation will allow a person who has read a work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it."

"Principles, not rules,” he told Maureen Freely, who took over the class he was prevented, by his final illness, to have given.

Everything he did in the classroom was obased on an assumption that there are principles you can extrapolate from your work, that you can work with material a systematic way.” His overriding principle was that “languages have a genius of their own — something that makes them different from other languages.” He encouraged his students to “characterize their nature’ and to see all other languages in terms of genius, too. The genius of English, for example, was its rich vocabulary. “You need to keep that in mind. If you don’t take advantage of it, you are losing a resource.”

He elaborated his other principles as he talked me through two student translations, drawing from the examples he found on the page. Pay attention to rhythm, he said. Think about register — is it appropriate? Is it consistent? Modal auxiliary words (should, might, may, etc.) were important in relaying nuance, so it was important to get them right. Pay close attention to tense, he said. Different languages used them in different ways. Then there was punctuation, which offered different challenges for translators, because it was so important to keep the flow. “We need to make sure that our punctuation is creative, but based on certain rules. Punctuate long sentences extremely carefully. No colons unless it’s very long and complicated. Use the punctuation of the target language but at the same time, stretch its rules.” When his students drew back from that challenge, he would try to push them forward. “I tell them they can do it. If they want to, they can.”

Concision was another thing to keep in mind."You're translating from a language with a certain genius and sometimes that does take more words. So balance it with concision." And not to forget logic. "Always make sure that what you're saying makes sense in English." There were also what he called “first and second tier choices” It was important to use the word that reflected how English-speakers spoke, and not the word that seems at first to be its obvious counterpart. For example, German speakers use the word auch a great deal more than we in English use the word also. If you translate every auch as also, the text might be correctly translated, but it will also sound German.

Always allow space for the imagination, he said. “For the idea that comes from oneself, as the Germans say. If a student has done something really good, point it out. Tell them it’s a beautiful solution.’

Above all, they should understand what an important service they were providing. “I believe in translation.” It is thanks to the work done by translators that we have access to literatures from across the world. Without translators, even those of us with four or five languages would be shut off from whole continents of great literature. "When I think of all the authors I would never have read... ,” Mike said, his voice trailing off. And then it came back again: “It’s literature that’s my passion.”

Esther Allen, one of the editors of this book, notes that Heim
neither deplored nor resented the dominance of theoretical discourse within the humanities during his lifetime and spoke with considerable admiration of a number of colleagues whose theoretical studies mattered a great deal to him, among them Mikhail Bakhtin, Roman Jakobson, Pascale Casanova, David Bellos, Barbara Cassin, Lawrence Venuti, and his dear friend Efrain Kristal. Their work bolstered the cause and, as he says of Bakhtin in A Happy Babel, “helped me to see things in books . . . that I would have missed otherwise”. He was grateful for that but had little interest in engaging directly in theory himself. He understood translation itself as an enactment of the issues the theorists debated in the abstract: the inherent ambiguity of language, the relationship of signifier and signified, form and content, the politics of the world republic of letters, the ownership of the translation, the question of untranslatability… Mike preferred situational particulars to generalities: his mind focused on individual words, grammatical structures, narratives, literary works, writers, languages, situations of cultural interanimation… "A translator must deal with every single word," he said.
Heim may not have been interested in theory, but Allen doesn't hesitate to propose a series of nine "theoretical positions" consistently underlying his forty years of work. They are:
• All literary canons are fluid and must be continually renewed with new material.
• Literary fiction can afford us a crucial understanding of history.
• Literary translation is a primary, necessary form of literary scholarship.
• Literary translators need formal training in the practice of translation itself.
• Literary translators must be proactive agents of cultural mediation.
• Translation is a central component of literature itself, which is revitalized by support for translation.
• The publishing marketplace is not only a necessary object of study but an arena for action.
• Translation into English enhances the literary and scholarly capital of all languages by allowing writers and scholars to continue to work in their first language, while still reaching a global audience.
• The boundaries between disciplines and fields of knowledge are artificial constraints that must not be allowed to define or limit one's own interests and areas of endeavor.
• Translation enriches texts by transforming them.
These are more than bullet points, and Allen fleshes them out with interesting, often surprising examples drawn from specific situations. A triumph of both Heim's work and his teaching is its specifiticity, its practicality, its workmanship. I don't see how any writer, or any reader interested beyond his own back yard, could fail to be fascinated, entertained, impressed, or enlightened by this collection.