Archive for April 2012
Two things about Coetzee’s recent review of Stanley Corngold’s new translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the NYRB:
1) The extended first section of the review, which deals with the play of truth and fiction in Goethe’s novel, seems like it might be relevant to – that is, it might be an oblique commentary on – Coetzee’s own recent (and incessant, from Lives of the Animals forward) entangling of the truth and fiction. For instance:
The image of Werther as a twin or brother who has died or been killed and returns to haunt him recurs in a poem entitled “To Werther,” written when Goethe was near the end of his life. Between Goethe and his Werther self there was a complex, lifelong relationship that swung back and forth. In some accounts, Werther is the self he had to split off and abandon in order to live (Goethe spoke of the “pathological state” out of which the book emerged); in others, Werther is the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed, to his own cost. He was haunted not only by Werther but by the story of Werther he had put out into the world, which called out to be rewritten or more fully told. He spoke at various times of writing another Werther and of writing a prequel to Werther; but it would seem he could not find his way back into Werther’s world. Even the revisions he did to the book in 1787, masterly though they are, were done from the outside, and are not at one with the original inspiration.
Difficult not to read this in relation to Coetzee’s ostensibly late-life depictions of “himself” – or depictions of fictional depictions of himself – in Summertime and elsewhere. Yet another reframing – is his portrayal of himself (or, again, portrayal of portrayals of himself) as emotionally desiccated a kind of yin to Goethe’s yang, something he had to “split off in order to live,” or do something else than live. Anyway, bears some thinking through, this.
2) Corngold and his translation are mentioned only twice in the course of this long essay. The first time is to criticise the fact that the translator does not retranslate a long excerpt that Werther recites from The Works of Ossian but rather inserts Macpherson’s original. The second mention is simply to introduce some consideration of another broad question:
Corngold’s scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original?
A great question, but one that leads off from rather than back into Corngold’s own translation. So, after these two slight incursions into the edition at hand – incursions that mostly offer Coetzee to offer brilliant riffs of his own on the topics which and implicitly leave Corngold looking a bit under-rigorous in these spots – Coetzee makes a jarringly abrupt turn into the final paragraph of the review:
The Sorrows/Suffering of Young Werther has not lacked for translators. Among first-rate modern versions are those by Burton Pike, Michael Hulse, and Victor Lange. Corngold’s new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe’s German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel.
Wait, what? Sounds like the first paragraph of a more conventional review, the 800 word pieces you see in other magazines and newspapers. After all this, just “very highest quality, punctiliously faithful… sensitive to gradations of style”? After all of these complex and provocative analyses that Coetzee has offered – only some of them provoked by anything specific to the translation ostensibly under consideration?
In other words, it seems as though Coetzee here has written something like a pastiche of the style of the “long-form” reviews that we’re accustomed to find in the LRB and NYRB, where the expectation is that the reviewer does her or his own routine about the topic and then, only late, turns back to the book at hand. Which is what he does here too, but comically starkly, as if to make yet another point – this one performative – about the issue of writerly personality and its vicissitudes.
The agreement came despite a series of setbacks in Afghan-American relations, including the burning of Korans, the massacre of 16 civilians attributed to a lone Army sergeant, and the appearance of grisly photos of American soldiers posing with the body parts of Afghan insurgents.
“In the midst of all these meteor strikes, we were able to still sit down across the table and get these documents agreed to,” one NATO official noted. Many Afghans, including some who are ambivalent about the American presence, believe that the country’s survival is tied to having such an agreement with Washington.
More meteor strikes, slightly older ones, from the Guardian this weekend. One example, if you don’t feel like clicking through, although you really should:
I saw Patrick Keiller’s exhibition at the Tate yesterday. It features, among so many other things, a few meteorites that had fallen in Britain. The most interesting one of all – at least to me – is the Wold Cottage meteorite, the one in the middle in the picture above. It fell in Yorkshire in 1795.
What is important about it, as Wikipedia summarizes, is this: “The Wold Cottage meteorite was the first meteorite observed to fall in Britain and is the second largest ever recorded to land in the United Kingdom. It was used by scientists as proof that extraterrestrial matter existed, and was made of the same materials as terrestrial matter.” In other words, it wasn’t until they found this one in a field that they believed that meteorites were in fact real rather than superstitious fictions.
What’s fascinating about that, of course, is that while we’re accustomed to thinking of the progress of human thought (or Enlightenment, if you will) as a process that involves the dispelling of myths (things that weren’t true that were thought to be) in some cases, as with this one, it works in reverse: things that were thought to be untrue, to be a matter of myth, were proven to in fact be true.
The usage of the phrase “meteor strikes” by the NATO official in Afghanistan, which have threatened to undo the persistence-despite-withdrawal of American power there, seems to me to partake of the pre-Wold Cottage meaning of the phrase. Events like these are taken as random and immaterial, lacking a physical foundation or cause, meta-effects like fireworks projected onto a screen rather than, as the photos in the Guardian begin to illustrate, part of the predictable weather patterns of our world as it is currently arranged.
The sounds of singsong anger and general tautness. But in little girls’ voices, voices that have somehow been wrecked for the adult world. That have receded or regressed somehow.
Out the window, then, two women seated on the stairs leading into the building across. They are squabbling, it seems, but then the squabble turns into a sort of sexual rubbing, the one frantically rubbing the crotch of the other.
Are they both women or not?
One jumps from the stairs and darts between two parked cars. She drops her trousers and squats and a circular puddle forms on the street.
Passers-by do not look, do not stop to look, even though assuredly they can hear what she is doing even though they do not stop to see it.
She moves back to the steps, to her companion.
On these steps, each a week just before the weekend, a couple – posh and white, tenants of the building – sit and await the arrival of a delivery. He repeatedly checks his phone until two others roll up on bicycles – a man and a boy. There is some small talk, some awkward attempts at customer-service and good-customership in the form of feigned racial cross-toleration, and then an exchange of goods for a wad of cash.
But today, the woman in the flat across the street and one story down leans out of her window to look. She is blonde, in her late thirties, and a window peeper without the excuse of smoking. Normally when she sees that she is seen in her peeping she pulls back and yanks the curtain across. As she does now.
More playground noise. They are in the course of a transaction of some sort. Then one of them – not the one who peed on the street – pulls tight to the area railing and from her hands comes a massive flame. Though she is smoking crack, she sits back to chat as she tugs on the pipe. Casually, like an office-worker on her break, chatting with a colleague.
Another arrives. This one, unlike the others, is white. And apparently elderly, or at least looks that way. She is wearing enormous fluffy slippers on her feet and she walks with an injured shuffle. She shuffles down the middle of the street toward the pair on the stoop and stops to complain or cajole and then begins to weep. The tears of a little girl.
The curtain across the street is drawn again and the blonde woman reappears, extends her head out the window, as well as an arm whose hand grips a mobile phone tightly.
The tears of the old-looking woman continue as the pipe runs out and is returned to the smoker’s backpack. There are more faces visible at more windows. A man – overweight and of a certain age, but still in his way dashing in his way – exits the door behind them. With arthritic difficulty, he negotiates the steps and then heads south on Great Titchfield Street.
Now the two black women are taunting the white woman. Laughing at her and then laughing harder when she extends an open hand toward them, palm up, imploring them to share with her. The tears continue; the black women embrace wildly, again as if to show the other her place in this association. A man passes, and then a well-dressed woman. Someone is setting up tables outside the pub at the corner.
The woman at the window across draws the curtains again and disappears. She will not reappear during the course of this vignette.
The women on the stairs stand and begin to walk down the sidewalk, past the puddle and below the window of the woman who just now was watching. More tinkling taunt talk, more weaving and some rail-grabbing for steadiness’s sake – and more tears from the white woman who shuffles slowly in her slippers, too slow to keep up.
Only when the two in front turn to taunt does she make up ground on them. If they were to walk normally and ignore her they would quickly leave her behind.
From Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life”:
In this way a struggle is launched between the will to see all and forget nothing and the faculty of memory, which has formed the habit of a lively absorption of general colour and silhouette, the arabesque of contour. An artist with a perfect sense of form but one accustomed to relying above all on his memory and his imagination will find himself at the mercy of a riot of details all clamouring for justice with the fury of a mob in love with absolute equality. All justice is trampled underfoot; all harmony sacrificed and destroyed; many a trifle assumes vast proportions; many a triviality usurps the attention. The more our artist turns an impartial eye on detail, the greater is the state of anarchy. Whether he be long-sighted or short-sighted, all hierarchy and all subordination vanishes.
I wonder what Walter Benjamin made of this passage. Hard not to think of his description of a “perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction,” although, of course CB is warning against the arrival of such a mode of perception while WB is (with due ambivalence) welcoming its arrival.
Obviously the relationship between literary form and political form is complex – incredibly complex. But it’s nonetheless there, and there more than simply as metaphorical. I’m going to leave this as I’m busy with nothing more than a potential suggestive stub which I’ll hopefully return to soon: linguistic / discursive / narrative forms come and go, and with them ways of seeing or thinking. Avant garde literature at times tries to bring new forms into existence or even into currency.
(One other stub: I might be wrong, but it strikes me that we have only paintings of crowd scenes from Paris 1848-1851 not photographs. We only get unmanned barricades in the latter, as the photographic process at the time demanded long exposures. This to me seems interesting, and almost undoubtedly relative – if tacitly – to what I’m trying to suggest about the quotation above from Baudelaire… See here… And correct me if I’m wrong…)
Haven’t seen the film yet, but strange, this from the New York Times review of Tiny Furniture:
One of the knots that Ms. Dunham requires you to untie while you’re watching “Tiny Furniture” is the extent to which she is playing with ideas about fiction and the real, originals and copies. Is the character Aura actually Ms. Dunham (the unique woman who lived in that loft) or is the director playing a copy of herself? Ms. Dunham doesn’t overtly say. One hint, though, might be the character’s unusual first name, which suggests that Ms. Dunham, at the age of 24 and herself a recent graduate, has read the social theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1930s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” one of the most influential (and commonly classroom-assigned) inquiries into aesthetic production and the mass reproduction of art.
Benjamin argued that an original work of art (say, a Rodin sculpture), has an aura, which creates a distance between it and the beholder. But aura decays as art is mechanically reproduced (say, for postcards). This decay is evident in cinema, where instead of individuals contemplating authentic works of art, as in a museum, a collective consumes images in a state of distraction. While there were dangers inherent in this shift, and while cinema could uphold what he called “the phony spell of a commodity,” its shocks might also lead to a “heightened presence of mind.” (“The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is criticized with aversion.”) Cinema, in other words, might spark critical thinking.
Strange move, if that’s what’s going on. Seems perfectly evocative of the way that certain “canonical” theoretical texts turn, via the way they are presented in undergraduate classrooms at liberal arts colleges and the like, into a generalized soup of “life philosophy” and gnomic multi-use utterances. Someone texts their girlfriend / or boyfriend: Please stop texting me to check what I’m doing when I’m drinking with my friends – it’s like I’m living in the panopticon! Or, on a bros night out, Dude, she’s like your pharmakon – the medicine that you need but also the poison that’ll kill you.
Loss of the aura indeed. Suppose it’s bound to happen. “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction…” and so forth.