A Turning Tongue

The peculiar flexibility of human languages to bend themselves to new meanings is part of what makes translation not only possible but a basic aspect of language use. Using one word for another isn’t special; it’s what we do all the time. Translators just do it in two languages.
—David Bellows, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (89)

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reflection at Belrespiro in Rome, Italy

Once I realized I was several kilos under my weight restriction for baggage on the cheap-o airline, I packed a few more books. I reasoned—why not take advantage of the countless hours in transit to read a book long-awaiting my attention? And since I am going overseas, what better book than one on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos?

As I find myself having to turn my English words into Italian, I wonder what is a word anyway? An impossible thing to describe with perfection. And yet, according to Bellos, the same can be said for all things. But of course there are some things that are, as he writes, symptomatic.

Smells, noises, physical sensations, the presence of this or that natural or manufactured object, have symptomatic meanings all the time (70).

Which I know well, as hand gestures and pointing fill in many a linguistic gap for me and my intermediate fluency. Even having said something gives it symptomatic meaning. In other words, the physical world provides tremendous context to our words, many of which would otherwise be meaningless, or difficult to comprehend. Writers are aware of the difficulty—so many words that verbally, in situ, bridge precise meaning, tone, and sense, for the speaker, must be laboriously explained on the blank, sterile, page.

In this way, as Bellos compellingly argues, we are all speaking in translation, trying to find the right word or words—we just usually do it one language as opposed to, like the translator, in two. The aspiration of the nomenclaturista (I just made that word up, but I mean one who clings to the idea of nomenclaturism—the belief that everything has a name—that “words are essentially names” (85)) will never be realized because the words themselves resist meaning only one thing!

Take the word ‘word.’ When did the group of letters, as a single concept, which we named ‘word’ come to signify an oath? as in—you have my word. Indeed, when did it come to signify ‘totally awesome, man.’ My kids say that to me all the time—I might say, “Guess what guys! I’m making your favorite pasta al forno tonight.” And they will invariably answer, “Word.”

As Bellos explains, the oft-abused word ‘literal’ as an adjective, stems from “the noun littera, meaning “letter” in Latin” (109). Sorry to disappoint the purists, but literal was something that was worth writing down, its figurative or literal truth was not the important quality. Its hard to imagine a world in which the skills and instruments of writing were rare, but for a long time they were, and so not every damn thing was written down, only important and “true” things. The literal truth.

To Bellos’ mind, the very act of language is a form of perpetual translation. When people say that poetry is lost in translation, Bellos cries foul. It is not poetry that is lost, he argues. The only thing that a translation from one language to another can not accomplish with ease, or at all, is the embedded sense of the community that speaks with true fluency, which manifests itself in all sorts of assumptions and particularities of grammar which may signal customs, tone, power dynamics, and myriad other subtitles which come with the singularity of really knowing the language and the people that speak it.

It makes no sense to imagine transporting the ethnic, self-identifying dimensions of any utterance. Absolutely any other formulation of the expression, in the same or any other dialect or language, constructs a different identity (338).

It’s a fascinating read, and one that has me thinking deeply about language as I struggle with two.

Because, like many people, I have enough trouble with one. What gives any word I choose to use its meaning? Think of the many concepts we don’t bother to name, or worse, name vaguely—which does not at all preclude our readiness to articulate—or have fun trying. Philosophers love to torture themselves by trying to describe things like ‘freedom,’ ‘human nature,’ and ‘friendship’ and yet these things elude precise meaning. And thank goodness, where would we be, really, if we could describe words like ‘love’—thousands of years of music, poetry, art, and film wiped away in an instant. A pity, e un peccato, in any language.

*Title inspired from page 29: “In Sumerian, the language of ancient Babylon, the word for “translator,” written in cuneiform script, […is] pronounced eme-bal, it means “language turner.”In classical Latin, too, what translators did was vertere, “to turn” (Greek) expressions into the language of Rome.”

 

Imperfect, But Trying

He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy.
—Alain De Botton, The Course of Love (42)

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We’re all nuts and merely tolerating our beloved is the crux of love. At least according to Alain De Botton’s sweet and insightful novel The Course of Love. His novel takes off where most end: at the end of the beginning—the “happily ever after”—after the event of falling in love, where most novels, films, and love songs end.

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane (85).

Interpolated in the story is the narrator’s calm analysis explaining the effects of the certain disillusionment that comes from close contact with another person. In the case of this particular story the persons involved are Rabih and Kirsten, an Edinburgh couple who are disappointed to discover in each other flaws that exasperate their own shortcomings. These exasperations result in the sorts of fights in which, for example, the absurdity of railing against a wife who is competent and nice seems logical, at least to Rabih. Kristen’s of a differing opinion in regard to her character but is also paralyzed by her own reasonableness which stems solely from fear of the out-of-control situations she experienced in her formative years.

“He’s calm, he likes to go walking, he doesn’t seem to think it’s such a terrible flaw that I’m ‘reasonable.’ Anyway, to get back to the larger point: How can I make it any clearer? Being nice is not boring: it’s an enormous achievement, one that ninety-nine percent of humanity can’t manage from day to day. If ‘nice’ is boring, then I love boring (171).

De Botton succeeds in making the reader care about the individuals and about the couple, and yet, his talent lies in the way in which one also identifies with the characters—maybe one more than the other (am I anxiously attached like Rabih or is Kirsten’s avoidance attachment more me? Jesus, I think I’m both. Is it possible it be both? That probably bodes ill, right? Damnit.) —and in this way the novel gives the reader a perspicuity into their own pathos. It’s an enormously clever book.

That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood (64).

It is temping, of course, to hold out for a mind-reader, but barring that, this book offers to frame love very differently than the classic, (albeit deeply appealing) romantic fantasy, and it is in many ways a more daunting, mature, but satisfying kind of love—a love that trusts. As I wrote here, in regard to De Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I don’t particularly care for books that might be found on the self-help shelf, but I do rather like De Botton’s sly hand in delivering a penetrating look into where we misstep and why. His voice is at once forgiving and hopeful, and that is reassuring.

Fundamentally, De Botton advocates for the examined life. Empathy and caring can carry us through the landmines perpetually detonating as a result of our flawed childhoods. The glorious thing is, none of us are perfect. Not a one! There is no perfect one. There is just you and me. When we let go of the romanic ideal and let the beloved be imperfect, let ourselves be imperfect without hiding in either silence or acrimony, then we can all be ourselves—imperfect, but trying. That is the course of love.

 

The Penumbra

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The utter mystery of what transpires beneath the folds of the brain is profound. And love, more perhaps than any other emotion, reaches into nearly every dark shadow of our gray matter. Our brains want love, need love, and are improved by love. And sex too for that matter. According to The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain, by Judith Horstman, not only are love and sex good for your brain, they are good for it in different ways. More than that, one merely has to think of love or sex to benefit.

Just the thought of love or sex can improve brain performance, but in different ways. Thoughts about the two states have different impacts on performance: Love makes us creative, whereas sex makes us analytical (Horstman 88).

A friend jokingly asked me, which, in that case, would be better for SATs? Sex, obviously—but who has to tell a teenager to think about sex?

Can it be said that sex is left brain and love is right brain? On the face of it, it makes sense. Sex is obviously very action, ‘now’ oriented, necessarily focusing on details of the event. Love, on the other hand, is expansive and discursive, reaching into the future, and back into the past as well.

And this all made me think of another book I just finished, The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson. To easily test this notion of right and left thinking (and I did test a friend to verify) one can think about a slightly complex question involving language (the example question in the book was: name three synonyms for boredom) one looks to the left (which the right side of the brain controls) whereas when the question is a mathematical question requiring some thought (how many corners does a cube have?) one searches into the right field of vision for the answer. This is one of the ways scientists determine that the right and left hemisphere of the brain dominate different modes of thinking.

But here is an interesting consideration: likewise, when we recall negative memories we tend to look to the left as the right side of our brains is activated. Positive memories will induce a rightward gaze.

positive and negative emotions are distinguished by activation in the left and right prefrontal cortex, respectively (Richards 31).

Davidson’s research led him to discover that “positive” and “negative” emotions were largely processed in different regions of the brain. Why might this be, he asks? He speculates that it comes down to qualities that every emotion balances between: “approach” and “avoidance.”

Whether to approach or avoid is the fundamental psychological decision an organism makes in relation to its environment (Richards 39).

It is fundamental, and the brain has evolved in such a way, perhaps, in order to keep these two competing drives neatly separated.

But back to sex and love. One can see how this may fit in. Sex depends upon an “approach” sort of instinct—that seems obvious. Does that mean that love reigns in the “avoidance” hemisphere? It would seem so. I hasten to interject here that, I think, one must step away from value judgments about “positive” and “negative” for a moment to follow my train of thought. There is much more going on in each hemisphere of the brain than can be reduced to “good” and “bad.” Not to mention the obvious fact that each brain is individual (a driving thesis in Richard’s book), complex, and each region of the brain deeply, inextricably interconnected. So, that said, the more I read about the subject, the more I begin to see a pattern which begins to lead my research question: is love a mechanism that works under the constraints of avoidance or limits. Why yes, of course: I love this and not that, I love you and not someone else.

I am starting to see love as a beautiful process which quiets the noise of all the myriad choices we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. It makes for specificity. It simplifies and concentrates by naturally encouraging an avoidance of things I don’t love.

I have been focusing on the senses’ relationship to the emotion of love, and I see this sort of manifesting in those realms as well. It’s quite fascinating. I have to think more on this, follow my thoughts more thoroughly, but one thing that I find truly lovely about our brains, and love in the brain, is the complexity and the simplicity: an unavoidable truth that there is a wholeness in the peaks and valleys.

 

Our Hearts

IMG_6744The problem with the burgeoning, if thrilling, forays into the neurology of love and the study of the brain with its recipe of chemicals and influences both inborn and learned, is that at the end of the day—what do we know? It is not that we know nothing, of course we know a lot—oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin, and all the attending receptors, neuropeptides and neurotrophins—we know the ingredients! But what does it make?

Love, as a topic of scientific inquiry, has long suffered from a reputation of frivolity as far as reasoned science is concerned, particularly romantic love. As Kayt Sukel relates in her book Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, the attempts to approach romantic love while maintaining a vestige of objective scientific pride resulted in no studied structures of understanding and a lot of very dry synonms:

There was already ample evidence in neuroscience literature to suggest that love was a worthy topic of research. But the scientists never called it such, avoiding it like the dirty word it is. Instead they referred to the related topics of pair-bonding, monogamy, attachment, and mating behaviors (3).

Perhaps if we call it pair-bonding we won’t remember what fools for love we are. Nice try guys, but love is now a subject that is being given some serious attention despite the fact that many of us—those who come up with terms such as mating behaviors included—make asses of ourselves in allegiance to this essential aspect of our beings.

The science is new and inconclusive. Oh, but the temptations to conclude! To draw deep breathes of poetic justification over the mundane chemical imbalances precipitated by love.

Take neurotrophins, also called nerve growth factor (NGF), they are proteins involved in synaptic plasticity—which is the ability of the connections between neurons to change (36). In couples who report to be wildly in love, or “romantically afflicted” (ha. ha.), the levels of NGF in the blood stream are significantly elevated (37). Like all hormone hysteria associated with the event-encounter (as Alain Badiou terms it) of falling in love, the levels taper off and normalize after one to two years, but scientists can see there is a strong elevation during the seismic event of falling in love. What scientists can not yet tell us is—why? And to what purpose?

The rate at which hard-scientific analysis can devolve (or evolve, depending on your disposition) into straight-up poetry of speculation, at least for me, is enough to make one’s head spin. It is too hard to end with we don’t know. For goodness sake, these proteins are involved in synaptic plasticity!

Doesn’t it sound lovely and logical? Positively poetic? One falls in love and what is the first thing that has to happen? You must change. You must allow the other to change you. That our brains chemically pave the way for these changes to transpire on a synaptic level is beautiful. Love does that.

In Praise of Annoyance

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2011 portrait of my annoyance by my then 9-year-old Augustus

The happenstance of the stacks is a wonderful thing. One finds a call number, consults the map and marches purposefully to the floor, section, stack on which the book they seek lays waiting. And then something happens. All the neighbors call out, “read me! read me!” You could say I am a sucker, or you could congratulate me on passing thousands of other books and resisting them all, save one. But with a title like Annoying I couldn’t even pretend to resist.

There’s never a time when a fly buzzing around your head isn’t annoying (24).

That’s for damn sure. And it turns out (contrary to popular belief) I am not a mad woman for getting thoroughly annoyed by a mosquito that conducted flybys over my head for a full hour before I had to wake up the other morning. Even when I begged it to simply bite me and be done with it, even when I covered my head with the pillow—it persisted.

According to Joe Palca and Flora Lichen, the authors of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, there is a legitimate reason to be annoyed, and it does not solely depend upon your disposition. In the case of buzzing insects, it is the roughness of the sound (the change of amplitude over time) which is something that we notice and are hardwired to become annoyed by if the roughness is distracting. Which a mosquito’s is. It is not predictable: the sound starts and stops randomly, the volume a stochastic nightmare. And, we don’t like that.

The irritant alarm is ancient. Unlike smell and taste, which appear to have evolved multiple times over the course of history, the signal for irritation has been conserved since the Cambrian period. Our ancestors—in fact, the ancestors of all vertebrates and invertebrates—had this protein [TRPA1 which stands for “transient receptor potential A1” pronounced “trip-a-one”]five hundred million years ago, meaning these chemicals could have been annoying life on Earth for half a billion years (237).

So perhaps my one hour of mosquito torture pales a bit in comparison to that time frame. Still, it is actually helpful to know that these reactions are innate. It’s not just you. Or me. We don’t like overhearing cell-phone conversations, not because they are mostly inane, but because our brains prefer to predict. When you can only hear one side of the conversation you can not predict when the person is going to start talking again or how they might answer based on the other end. And this is annoyingly distracting. The distractibility of it gets in the way of simply re-focusing our attention. Our brains are mostly set up to help us make sense of the world and one could look at annoyance as a sort of first-defense mechanism. The brain is geared to let us know when it can not work optimally. Most of us don’t let annoyances become anything other than annoyances, and some of us should just let me others be annoyed when they are seriously annoyed (my friends, not un-coincidentally, tell me ‘annoying’ is one of my favorite words).

But what of annoying people?

Is it possible to come up with a shorthand test, one that simply measures how annoying someone is? (164)

According to Robert Hogan who runs a management consultant business—yes. He breaks “the annoying inventory” down into three parts: irritable, arrogant, and picky. In the book there are a series of questions you can answer true/false, or on a scale, to assess how annoying you may be. The problem is, of course, that one of the hallmarks of annoying people is that they do not know or believe that they themselves are annoying!

Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, is a fascinating book that covers a lot of ground: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and on and on. Being annoyed is a complex matter. But, I feel I have been helped in understanding myself and others better. I have, on occasion, been accused of being overly-anylitic, but I swear it does help me to be able to stop and analyze a situation— why is that person or thing annoying me? —Oh! because my brain is unhappy, or—oh! that’s right. because they are fucking annoying! Once I know the source it is easier to then deal with the problem, or keep the lid my annoyance accordingly. It is when annoyance flares into anger that people start to have real problems. So I  say, let’s all embrace our mild defender: annoyance. After all, to be annoyed is to be alive.

Love, Logic, Love

The requirements of logic and the needs of a beloved supersede any contrary preferences to which we are less authoritatively inclined. Once the dictatorial regimes of these necessities have been imposed, it is no longer up to us to decide what to care about or what to think. We have no choice in the matter. Logic and love preempt the guidance of our cognitive and volitional activity.
—Harry G. Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (66)

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Waclaw Szymanowski, Blooming Apple Tree 

I am involved in a year-long research project,* and now have an official reason to indulge my insatiable curiosity on the subject of love—oh joy! I mention it only to preemptively explain the expected preponderance of books about love, the senses, and neurology that may be forthcoming. Although, it occurs to me that there may already be a preponderance—or at least a driving theme— of such books in my reading habits. So be it.

There is a striking and instructive resemblance in the matter between love and reason. Rationality and the capacity to love are the most powerfully emblematic and most highly prized features of human nature. The former guides us most authoritatively in the use of our minds, while the latter provides us with the most compelling motivation in our personal and social conduct (64).

As Harry Frankfurt states, in his book The Reasons of Love, love and logic are what dignify us—they are “distinctly humane and ennobling in us” (64). The entire book is dedicated to examining the preeminence of love in our lives. The mere fact that “caring” distinguishes our attention; our affection; our past, present and future proves, by his lights, the very quiddity of the emotion. Why do we love? Because we care. Not selfishly, or even unselfishly—to use words such as ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ distorts the question—love is a sine qua non condition of being human.

Bertrand Russell alludes to “the restfulness of mathematical certainty.” Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe (65)

When we commit to loving, we no longer have to deliberate, consider, or weigh the options. That declaration of love—the ‘I love you’ (as Alain Badiou so eloquently described in its form of “stage fright”) is the leaving-off of doubt for the restfulness of certainty. The comparison to logic is clear, and yet, and yet…we all know that love is more prone to distortion than logic (although—politics, for one, could cure one of that notion as well). And we all know that certainty is the domain (again, Bertrand Russell, not to mention Voltaire) of fools and fanatics. Still, when I think of my own children I understand love perfectly. There, in my heart, is a restfulness like no other.

The fact that we can not help loving, and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps us to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course (66).

Love, like logic, is constrictive in that we are compelled through the very laws of each to obey. That we do not necessarily choose whom to love is important. Who can solve the mystery of why this person and not that person? Frankfurt suggests that this is a form of freedom. The stage fright of ‘I love you’ is, in this light, a respectful fear of certainty. Given the horrific events in Orlando I am more afraid of people who hold rigid beliefs than I have ever been. I have never understood absolutism, belief, certainty, dogmatism….And yet I do think that love, as a manifestation of certainty, like logic, may inhabit unique space. Neither is capable of doing harm on its own, although both are often used to excuse acts of perversity which defy the very meaning of the words. Love and logic simply are.

One doesn’t choose to love their children anymore than one chooses to believe two plus two equals four. That seems obvious. Not having to constantly re-evaluate or reassess those truths is freeing. Frankfurt sticks to child-parent love for a reason, as he states it: it is a more pure love without all of the distractions of romantic love. Yet for all the complications and distractions, it remains true that all love is freeing in that it is binding. It binds us together and limits how we behave in accordance to what is good for the beloved and the lover: the demands of profane love, that which cares and is caring.

 

*I will be a 2016–17 Kahn Institute Fellow, in the “Shaping Perception” project. My proposed project, which may change slightly as my research develops, is on the relationship between the senses and the emotion of love.

That Goodly Mansion

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There is something truly wonderful about a very long book. And Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is indeed a very long book. With so much time to develop the characters the reader can sink deeply into the story no matter the pace at which they read it. Life, being what it is, forced me to renew this book at the library an embarrassing number of times. But this book, being what it is, will stay within me indefinitely.

“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored. “let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! Would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, engrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!” (223)

Anyone familiar with one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre,  will be familiar with Brontë’s typical heroine. Both Jane and Lucy Snowe are sober, realistic, controlled but deeply feeling. They are orphans, not just in actual fact—but emotionally—they absorb the losses of their lives with equanimity to the point of capriciousness. This book, more than in Jane Eyre, deeply examines the English and Protestant underpinnings of that disposition. Set in Catholic France the cultural differences are pronounced by the added condition of expatria, and yet, what is truly wonderful about the book is the human feeling of loneliness and yearning for a true and intimate companionship that Brontë beautifully captures.

“As if one could let you alone, when you are so peculiar and so mysterious!”
“The mystery and peculiarity being entirely the conception of your own brain—maggots—neither more nor less, be so good as to keep them out of my sight.” (391)

Lucy can be a little sharp-tongued, but her honesty is refreshing and her wit is true and never malicious. Brontë’s characters are,to me, deeply appealing. Villette is not constructed like other novels of this genre. The plot takes time to get going, and the narrator’s relationship to the reader is fascinating.

Of course it was a particular style of the time for the narrator to address the reader—it is intimate—one becomes the special confidant and is subtly elevated to an active role. The famous closing remarks in Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” still warms my heart, but in Villette there is an oddity in that the Lucy’s reserve extends to the reader as well—she does not reveal some of her thoughts or reactions, and sometimes she even refers back to times in which she did not relate all that her heart felt. In a subtle manner her relationship to the reader is like her relationships to the other characters int he book. If you listen to her, and withhold judgment or projection, the fineness of her character comes through.

“Happiness is the cure—a cheerful mind the preventative: cultivate both.”
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to
cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” (315)

The novel takes place in the interior of Lucy Snowe’s mind. The brilliant thing that Brontë accomplishes with this mode of narration is that one understands that the mind is not the perfect narrator—there are things which we hide from ourselves before we even have a thought of hiding them from others. It is the complexity and isolation of the interior terrain of the mind that Brontë develops in a surprisingly avant-garde manner considering the pre-Freudian era it seems to have forecasted.

“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then: Do you mediate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief in your answer. Hope no delight of heart—no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling—give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunication” (287)

Ah, romance. Yes! of course it is a romance! One to swoon the heart at that. But it is the battle between the mind and heart that is Brontë’s specialty—and what I particularly love about her books. For all of Lucy’s quirks and stringent coping mechanism, Brontë makes clear that her heart’s raging passions are valued above all. And it is that estimation alone that makes her novels so deeply satisfying and pleasurable.

Villette. Everyman’s Library, 1909 edition.

*Title from pg 581: “I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.”

**photo by Augustus Accardi