Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Pines of Rome

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Viale Trastevere, October 3, 2018—

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!


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


…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)


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 :


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.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Gail Chadell Nanao

IMG 9436
paintings by Gail Chadell Nanao, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (my photos)
Eastside Road, May 26, 2018—

Her View: The Bay Area Figuration
of Gail Chadell Nanao

at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art,
551 Broadway, Sonoma, California
Wed-Sun 11-5, closing June 10, 2018
I MET GAIL CHADELL NANAO in 2006, I think, when we were invited to the Nanao home in Berkeley for dinner. Her husband the painter Kenjilo cooked beefsteak on a hot griddle at the table; it was delicious. Five years later we met again when I visited Kenji’s studio in Oakland to discuss writing an essay for his forthcoming retrospective at the Triton Gallery in Santa Clara. A bittersweet occasion: Kenji was in his last year.

After Kenji’s death we tried to maintain acquaintance with Gail, but you know how it is: we live sixty miles away; our life is full and so is hers. (Negotiating the dispersal of Kenji’s studio must have taken all her energies: I’m always struck by the enormity of the tasks faced by painters’ survivors.)

And for some reason, admirable as her work is, it is not represented in Bay Area galleries. We had driven over to Sacramento in 2012 to see her paintings and ceramics at the B. Sagata Garo Gallery — a memorable show, I thought. But since then, nothing, until the other day, when we were in the town of Sonoma to see her first retrospective.

I suppose Gail’s resumé is that of many women of her generation. She came early to her art, studying paintings in the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; she attended the university in Buffalo where she was knocked out by an exhibition of Clyfford Still at the Albright-Knox; she continued at the ssfo Art Institute where she was moved by the community that grew up around the two poles then current, Bay Area Abstract Expressionism and Figurative, as practiced by Lobdell, Jefferson, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Oliveira, and Neri, Joan Brown, and Jay De Feo.

At the SFAI however she also met and soon married Kenji. Soon, in the early 1970s, they had a child. Before long she was working, full time, as a social worker. She stopped painting until 1996, when she and Kenji were awarded a stay in Norway at Ekely, Edvard Munch’s home and studio. The Norwegian master’s emotional power seems to have reawakened her own, and she resumed painting. IMG 9438

The career curve is worth considering: it began with the influences of Symbolists like Beckmann and Munch (though already in her childhood she was fascinated by Modigliani), caught fire through the abstract ecstasy of Still, ripened in ssfo through the influence of Oliveira and Lobdell, then slept for twenty years, then was reawakened by immersion in the work and place of Munch.

Through it all, of course, she was living with the presence of Kenji and his work — painting and printmaking which on its face seems to have little to do with the figurative emotional depth of Gail’s influences, though behind the serene surfaces of his work I would argue there’s considerable human experience. (I’ve written about Kenji’s work here and here.)

Now, in this new age of awareness of the place of woman in the human condition, Gail Chadell Nanao provokes a renewed consideration of a female sensibility. That’s at the base, I think, of Susan Landauer’s essay in the catalog accompanying the exhibition she’s installed in the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, in which she argues for a uniquely female eye guiding Gail Nanao’s work, the emotions in her work, and her approach to the nude (especially the female nude).

IMG 9440
Of All Things Lovely, 60x50 in.; 2016
Laudauer may be right. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that the painter’s eye is necessarily gendered; I think much gendering is done by onlookers. I’m more interested in how this work acknowledges its source community while maintaining its own identity. Nathan Oliveira, the early Joan Brown, and other familiar Bay Area masters clearly look on among the paintings in the Sonoma Valley Museum gallery, but Gail Nanao’s work holds its own. Her canvases are strong and beautiful and Susan Landauer is right to observe that the work expresses a uniquely individual viewpoint.

I admire the great San Francisco Bay Area work of its time for an unusual quality: strength, even power, that is somehow devoid of ego-expression. This separates it from, lifts it above the work of, for example, Clyfford Still. (Picasso is another matter, and worth contemplating.) What reassures me in Gail Nanao’s work, which goes on — the most recent painting here is from 2016 — is its evidence that this quality is not merely of that time of fifty years ago; it is a living quality, probably more valuable and needed than ever. It’s a quality undoubtedly born of the tragedy of the mid-twentieth century in the wake of World War II (and such later ones as the Kennedy assassination, which influenced one of Nanao’s early paintings, Birthday Party), but is transformed, in these paintings, from witness to previous tragedy to oracle of the near future.

And through it all, beauty; the beauty of acknowledgement and patience and expression and realism.

And lyricism. There are two or three watercolors on view, energetic but tender and affecting. And a number of painted ceramic pieces — vases, plates, bowls, and trays — that might easily be overlooked. Don't miss them.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Two books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog ; Mother Tongue

Eastside Road, May 12, 2018—

Muriel Barbery : The Elegance of the Hedgehog
tr. from the French by Alison Anderson
New York : Europa Editions, 2008
isbn 978-1-933372-60-0
Tania Romanov : Mother Tongue
Palo Alto : Travelers’ Tales, 2018
isbn 978-1-509521-27-1
TWO VERY DIFFERENT BOOKS, a novel and a travel memoir, both full of insights into the human condition, individually and societally. I do think it important to read such books ; it enlarges our view of that condition, sharpening our awareness and sensitivity to the plight of others and thus deepening our understanding of the successes and failures common to us all.

Not everyone likes The Elegance of the Hedgehog. For many tastes it is, I suppose, too French, centered on life in an upscale six-storey Paris condominium, and too “intellectual,” with its (necessary) references to Marx, Husserl, Tolstoy, Mozart. But one reason it should be read by middlebrow American readers is its reminder that more literate societies are aware of such cultural identities: this is a theme of the novel.

It concerns one Renée Michel, a fortyish, plain, short, quite private widow who has worked as concierge in that condominium most of her life. There: she’s a concierge ; how many American readers will be comfortable with that? A sort of European version of a New York “super,” she sweeps the lobby, polishes the brass buttons of the elevator, receives deliveries, and keeps track of the comings and goings of visitors. To most of the residents she is invisible and inconsequential ; any meaningful private life she may have — let alone interesting ! — is unthinkable.

Except, in the course of the novel, Paloma, one of the several children in the building, a bright, observant, self-assured twelve-year-old who, though a girl, reminds me of Holden Caulfield for her uncanny identification of everything phony in the complacent society surrounding her: “ ‘Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe.”

The men heading these families — a food critic who must have modeled for the animated film Ratatouille, a government minister, others presumably independently wealthy — are mostly absent from the narrative. Their wives are intent on shopping for identifiers of their social position and, to an extent, raising children who will take their place on this empty social staircase. Except for Paloma, whose first-person narrative alternates with the concierge’s in the elegant, effective structural balance of this novels, finally of course converging in a literal deus ex machina ending that has disappointed many readers but seems to me perfectly viable, both artistically and logically.

The book recalls others: Georges Perec’s W, or the Meaning of Childhood for its structure ; Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard for its moving death scene. It is often funny as well as sardonic and, think I, pointedly accurate in its view of intellectually empty, culturally joyless contemporary society. And the characters are memorable.

Mother Tongue is, as I’ve said, quite another matter — artless rather than polished, straightforward rather than complex, descriptive rather than suggestive. The author, who I hasten to say has been an acquaintance for a number of years, was born in Serbia in 1949 to an White Russian (Ukraine) father and a Croatian mother, and spent her early childhood in a refugee camp in Trieste; the family finally reached the United States in 1953, settling in San Francisco. (I met her in Healdsburg, where she ultimately retired with her husband.)

The book is a record of her parents’ and (maternal) grandparents’ generations in what was then Yugoslavia, from the years just before World War II, when Mussolini’s ambitions reattached much of Slovenia and Croatia to Italy, through the formation and eventual crumbling of the Yugoslav state, down to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The result is an absorbing, memorable book full of attractive and sympathetic characters and non-judgmental political insights. Romanov begins with an account, humorous and evocative, of a trip she took with her husband and her aging mother — recovering from her husband’s recent death — to Istria, where they tried to find the family house and surviving cousins. From there the book flashes back to the grandparents’ time, when more-or-less secure and independent village life in such backwaters fell victim to the post-World-War-I realignment of the old Austro-Hungary.

Much of 20th-century history is the search for a new kind of security in the wake of destroyed imperialisms, and the case of the Balkans is particularly poignant. Settlers brought in by Italy displaced workers and farmers who’d been in Istria for centuries (though the grandfather proudly maintained his descent from immigrants from Montenegro, four hundred years earlier). For a time Tito’s benevolent dictatorship seemed able to hold society together, but in uncertain times, caught between the Soviet and American empires east and west, tribal assertiveness overcame any sense of community. Where once Christians and Moslems, Ukrainians, Serbs, Kosovars, Croatians, Montenegrins and Slovenians intermarried and lived in peace, inevitably the decline of social structures, weakened by interference from outside and exacerbated by power-hungry individuals within, led to violent conflict.

All that social history lies well below and behind the surface of Mother Tongue : to the credit of the author, I think, who intends to present simply the immediate human individual view of these circumstances, the excitement of transition, the triumph of survival and — in the case of her parents — transplanting to a promising new society.

The family members Romanov found in her journeys, with and without her mother, are engaging and sympathetic, sketched with a fond and expressive pen. The history is sad, inevitable, but ultimately, for the lucky, survivable. The book is warm and thoughtful.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

How big a frog? how small a pond?

Eastside Road, May 3, 2018—
Fame or sanity

ah, old pond
frog leaping into
water noise

THAT'S BASHŌ*, of course; I'm thinking about it in connection with a friend who reaches out yet again, anguishing over public neglect of his work. He is a painter and a good one. We have known him for years; several of his paintings are on our walls.

For a time he was in the San Francisco Bay Area, to my mind a significant locus of painting (as of litereature, of music, of cuisine, of so much) — an area as rich with history and creative energy as any Paris, Vienna, London, or New York. Already then uncomfortable, I suspect, with his view of his place in such a center he ultimately settled in Santa Fe, ironically itself a smaller version of the same kind of cultural and artistic focus.

Here’s the problem: how does an artist (a composer, a writer, a painter) live and work with any degree of contentment in a global society addicted to fame? Why, my friend asks, does the art community — meaning the galleries, the museums, the critics — celebrate garbage instead of the true and faithful work he is doing?

By “garbage” — my shorthand, not my friend’s — he means gimmicks, the trendy, the wannabe intellectual. Doggy art: Giant topiary poodles; photographs of Weimaraners. And so on.

I tell him I think art is always local. By that I mean the artist responds to his life experiences, with the means and techniques he has learned. So the results of his work — his paintings, poems, musical compositions — are best given to his own community. Forget the international market; let it go to its own devil. I'm not sure it's better to be a big frog in a small pond than a small frog in a big pond, but only because I think it's best to be an appropriately sized frog in one's own local pond.

Think of the exceptions as accidents. Rauschenberg, Thiebaud, Philip Glass, writers whose names I won’t think of because I rarely read current work — they are lucky beneficiaries of an essentially unjust system. Envy their wealth at the expense of your own contentment.

Of course in a just society one must make a living. In my youth I was impressed by the composer Charles Ives, who early decided not to pursue a career in music, so that he’d be free to write his kind of music, not music that would satisfy a paying public. Make a living in a related field, if you like — I myself chose journalistic criticism and a little bit of teaching. Or in a totally unrelated field.

The danger is that you will be considered a hobbyist or a dilettante. The greater danger is that your work will turn inward, lacking the feedback and commentary and coexistence with the work of others that enables it to stretch and grow.

Like so much else of the social sphere, art — and works of art, and the artists who make them — has thrived or not within successive forms of societal structure. The largesse of wealthy individuals, the support of social institutions, the whims of monarchs — and since the rise of capitalism the vagaries of the commercial market.

Recognize this, and make a living, and do your work. (And mind your business, my grandfather would have added.)

And don’t, I told my friend, don’t subscribe to the art magazines. Don’t read about the latest trends, the latest superstar; it’ll only make you resentful.

All that said, there is the question of marketing, even within your own community. You can buy my own books by clicking here. Be careful about the shipping fees!

*My translation, in 3-5-3, replacing the original 5-7-5

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Performing Music of the Grand Siècle

Eastside Road, April 25, 2018—
Performing Music of the Grand Siècle

Douglas Leedy

Continuing an occasional upload here of miscellaneous writings, mostly on musical subjects, by my friend the late Douglas Leedy, I post here a short review he wrote of a book on the performance of French Baroque music.
—Charles Shere
Performers devoted to Baroque music usually find the most difficult style to capturer is the French. With more and more first-rate recorded performances of early music available, it becomes easier to study different musical accents, including the French, by ear. One of the real revelations of musical style, and a very recent one, has come through excellent new recordings of large works by Lully and Charpentier, the two most important composers of the grand siècle or “great age,” the reign (1661-1715) of Louis XIV, an era that was graced also with music by d’Anglebert, Corbetta, Chamonnières, Louis and François Couperin, Visée and Marais, among others. the musical style of this period, important enough in itself, has special significance because of its influence on music outside France from Purcell to Bach and beyond into the classical style.

A remarkable new book that providers almost everything you need to know about the elusive, elegant grand siècle style is Betty Bang Mather’s Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque, modestly subtitled “A Handbook for Performance” (Indiana University Press, 1987; $37.50). The title of the book is a bit misleading; it is more for singers and instrumentalists than for dancers. But by presenting grand siècle music from the point of view of the dance (which was inseparable, in France, at least, from almost all secular music of the era), while at the same time making the connection to verse rhythm and poetic rhetoric, Mrs. Mather gives us important and truly indispensable insights into the music. As she says in her preface, “Our chief goal is to help modern performers give life and soul to French Baroque dance music through understanding why French dancing masters, librettists, composers, dancers, singers,, and instrumentalists created and articulated music as they did.”

Beginning with a lucid discussion of those two great opposites, Reason and the Passions, which grand siècle musical rhetoric unites, Mrs. Mather devotes chapters in turn to the subject of guitar strumming patterns, poetic rhythm, rhetorical proportions (what we would call “form”), tempo and meter, text pronunciation, and bowing and articulation on different instruments. Dance steps (and the progression of larger dance units, similar to the musical phrase or period) are carefully described and explained, beginning with the simpler Renaissance steps that led to the dance types of the grand siècle. Mrs. Mather is a specialist in Baroque woodwinds, and her mastery of the French style is evident in her sure-handed synthesis of its components.

It is as difficult to describe a dance-step in words as to describe how to play a musical instrument. The author does an admirable job, including also a brief instruction on interpreting the visually elegant 18th-century dance notations of Feuillet. Most musicians with a burning desire to try the steps — and the physical movements of the dance convey an unexpected wealth of insights and clues for musical performance! — will want an expert to show them the basics.

There may be as few frustrations for users of this book: Some of the author’s explanations fall short, some of the terminology confusing or cumbersome (“arsic-thetic,” for example), the subject of “affect” seems slighted, and some important terms (e.g., “break,” “petite reprise,” “mensural proportion”) are not defined clearly and are not to be found in the index. A glossary of terms would be very helpful.

Yet it would be hard to name a single volume with so much information on this subject: One of its useful features is that it summarizes recent research in a number of related areas, for example, on the controversy over the rhythmic interpretation of ornaments. The last third of the book takes up in detail 15 dance types from allemande, through folies and menuet, to saraband, giving for each one the tempo, dance steps, typical guitar rhythms and bowing patterns among other information. To get the most out of this part of the book, the previous chapters, cumulative in effect, need to pretty well understood. The reader especially can’t afford to skim over the presentation of the rhythmic patterns derived from Greek poetic meter. Those were considered by musicians of the time to be the rhythmic basis of dance music; for us today they provide some surprisingly valuable information for performers — it can make a difference, for example, in triple meter whether the figure dotted quarter-eighth-quarter* is interpreted as a “divided trochee” or as a “ternary dactyl.”

The book abounds in musical illustrations, both instrumental and vocal, and at its close Mrs. Mather appends six complete “dance songs,” mostly by Lully, which in effect summarize her study. This is an essential — and enjoyable — book for any performer or devotee of Baroque music.

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