Category Archives: Thinking

Year of a Database

 

close up of beeFor the last twelve months I have kept a database of “books read.” Besides the function, which this blog has also so valiantly served, of providing offsite data storage for my brain, I find that I enjoy the time, after I read a book, to think on it a bit. Writing helps me to think. No, that’s not quite it, writing helps me to organize my thinking. I am a person who cannot resist the allure of organization.

I suppose that what has drawn me back this-a-ways is that, by necessity, a database is a bit bare-bones. It has, however, been fun looking over the data. Some of my fields are for open text: title, author, thoughts; but some I made multiple choice, like, genre. I recently had to add memoir to my genre choice pool, but otherwise I had nature, history, science, philosophy, novels and biography—I was trying to get away with using biography for memoir, but it was wrong, I can see that now, so I capitulated and added memoir—I’ve only one memoir in my 2019 reads, and one biography which really is a memoir-y thing.

I also have a rating system: read, skimmed, gave up. There were three “gave ups” two “skimmed” and a “read, gave up” and then a “read, skimmed,” multiple choice is allowed in my database. Now that I am a woman of a certain age I allow myself the luxury of giving up on a book. It still takes quite a lot to force myself to quit, but I have no regrets. Life is short and there are too many books to read that I will enjoy to slog through the books I do not.

Nine of my “nature” books were books about bees. Not surprising as we started a little apiary this year. I’m enjoying calling myself a smallholder now. Very exciting. We have concerns, by which I mean ventures, although I guess with ventures come concerns of the worrying kind.  Alas not money-making concerns, but who knows, one might need to live off the land sooner than one likes to think. We’ve been at work with our chickens, bees, mushrooms and an orchard full of peaches, pears and berries. Soon apples!

Two books were entitled The Idiot. Dostoevsky, of course, and the other by Elif Bateman. Of the later, I wrote in the “Thoughts” column of my database: “Flits along from one thought or minor event to another, but all goes to show the awkwardness of what appears to be a young mind, but in fact is the awkwardness of a thoughtful mind whose attachment to “knowing” is weak—only to discover that “knowing” and knowledge are weak properties. Bateman doesn’t make cute and adorable the awkwardness. And no good comes of it. It’s just a perpetual discomfort of not knowing what the right thing to do or think or say is. It’s a long book (400+) but very readable and engaging. Bateman has a humor that is endearing: writing of taking the train back to Harvard in January after the break, “I had listened to my Walkman while reading Père Goriot. Père Goriot’s previous owner, Brian Kennedy, had systematically underlined what seemed to be the most meaningless and disconnected sentences in the whole book. Thank God I wasn’t in love with Brian Kennedy, and didn’t feel any mania to decipher his thoughts.” (P 81)

I seem to have gone off on at least two bends in 2019. The first was with Wittgenstein and the second was a dive into the neurology of emotions. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions are Made in which she expands upon her research showing that “we are the architects of our own experience” and that affective realism, concept construction, and social reality form our experience of our emotional response, is wonderfully thought-provoking. Her book led me to The Accidental Species: misunderstandings of human evolution by Henry Gee, The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser, Selfie: how we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us by Will Store and finally the novel The Idea Of Perfection by Kate Grenville. These were in a cluster because I heard Barrett and Store on a podcast (Ezra Klein’s) and so I read both their books and some of the books they recommended. All very edifying.

Seems books about books is a category I don’t easily tire of: I read The Library Book by Susan Orlean, I noted in my database that this was “a paean to libraries. Fascinating and interesting.” I also read Double fold: libraries and the assault on paper by Nicholas Baker which I found a tad obnoxious. Referring back to my database I find my thoughts ran along this line: “Unnecessarily of the j’accuse tone—naming names, calling out even lowly librarians who don’t necessarily have much say in how things are done. So that’s rude. He’s not wrong, he’s just an asshole. And, big error, one doesn’t need gloves to handle rare books. Also, by his lights we should never throw anything out. I don’t know what we should keep, but keeping everything seems absurd. That said, microfilm sucks.” The Archivist and The Bookshop (Martha Cooley and Penelope Fitzgerald, respectively) were two more. I preferred the later to the former: “Started out engrossing.” I wrote nicely enough, but I then continued: ” Lost me for the entire middle as story shifted to diary entries of the mad wife. But, I wanted to see how it ended and so was very disappointed by the end in which the archivist destroys TS Elliot’s letters to his long time mistress. The story did not coherently lay out the case for the reason of the act. His entire mea culpa regarding his wife, after all, was that he was incapable of bearing witness to truth (the horrors of WWII). Or at least to stay firm next to her while she at least faced the truth. So the culmination of the novel is to destroy personal letters? To decide what is whose business? Who gets to stand witness of what? As if it fucking matters 100 years after everyone is dead? If this is true, what is the point of archives? Who draws the line on art or records and none of your business? Would he destroy Hitler’s love letters? Why not? Stupid novel. Too long.”

Well. Aren’t I the opinionated one. If it weren’t for my database I’d probably forget many of these books. I certainly do not recall the vehemence of my response above. I must have been cranky that day. That is a difference between this blog and my database. I have always only written about books I really like or found interesting here. But my database is all the books. So things are said.

I’ll round up my 2019 review of my Books Read Database with this gem: Effi Briest by Theodore Fontane. I love it because I picked it up at the League of Women voter’s annual book sale knowing nothing of it. I was on the committee and so helped them to sort books by genre. It was so much work, much more mentally taxing than you might think. To consider each of the thousands of books and sort them into their correct genre table (as designated by someone else. I really wanted a non-fiction table, or an essays table, there are, it turns out, a lot of books of essays and musings, but not alas, according to my local LWV). We were allowed to take a book per shift. I worked many shifts. There were even a couple of books that I took, read, and then returned before the sale even began. (oh darn, I just recalled a book I read and returned but forgot to enter into my database….Genre: nature. Micheal Pollen’s Second Nature. It was good. Damn it, that reminds me of some others not in the database. So much for completness.) Anyway, Efie Briest was lovely and unexpected. Now that I think about it, it was similar in tone (not quite in mood, but certainly in tone) to Bateman’s The Idiot. Efie’s story is not cynical though—or whatever the modern term is for a sort of disengagement. Selin, the protagonist of The Idiot, is sweet but does not embody the heroic aspects of her story in the way Efie does. Efie’s engagement with her own life leads her to a transformation of her thinking about what it means to discover that it all amounts to not much. Selin’s discovery of the same sort is almost like an after-thought. Instead of—my, god! it’s much ado about nothing and yet the stars still shine— it’s our modern day disaffection—oh. that’s it? okay…— Both feel true however, depending on ones mood, but the first warms and second cools.

The redemptive quality of Efie Briest was done in such a way that even my alienated little heart lost out to my other insuperably joyful and hopeful heart: “the love affair, for all that the novel’s plot and point turned upon it, was very subtly done. But in the end, that was correct because it was all nothing of import. How much trouble things of no import cause.” But the stars, they do still twinkle.

 

A few more highly recommended reads from my database:

The Field of Blood: violence in congress and the road to civil war by Joanne B. Freeman

Milkman by Anna Burns

The Queen Must Die: and other affairs of bees and men by William Longgood

Blue White Red by Alain Mabanckou

Petersburg by Andrei Bely

The Dancing Bees: an account of the life and senses of the honey bee by Karl von Frisch

The White Book by Han Kang

Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

books and loves: an immigration

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“When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he’d get up and say thank you and go—so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.
What about you?
It was the wrong thing—there! She’d done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could speak if he wished, it wasn’t up to her.” ~ The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer (12)

I was staying at a beach house rental this past summer for a multi-family holiday and noticed a small bookshelf shoved off in a corner of the dining room. I always enjoy looking—just looking mind you I certainly don’t need more books to read— but I am curious, pure objective curiosity, as to what books there may be in any given corner of the world. So I took a gander.

Choosing a book has a feel that is similar to a pickup, doesn’t it? Especially when one is just looking at a random take-one, leave-one type shelf. It was an odd and motley mix. An unpredictable mix of high brow and low brow “summer reading” fare. What catches my fancy and why is an internal mystery I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. As I have matured I am only aware that I simple surrender to it—in love and books, it’s the same.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer is an extraordinary book. I’m still well under its fog. Whenever I get very involved in a work of fiction the feeling I have when I must turn the corner down and lay the book aside for a moment to deal with reality, is like coming back from another country, another realm.

This book, which concerns a South African woman, Julie, and an Arab man, Ibrahim, is a powerful account of the unaccountable intimacy between two people. Gordimer articulates by direct and indirect means, obscure and exact thoughts and language, the unexplainable attachment of two people—unexplainable to others, of course, but also to themselves. The story is told mostly from Julie’s perspective. The intensity of their difference: she a white woman, he an “illegal” from a poor Muslim village of an unnamed country highlights what is true in all relationships—the inescapable otherness of the beloved which occurs within the closed cocoon of a romantic relationship, a private sphere, alone and freestanding, within the outside world.

“Brooding in a bed in the dark has a kind of telepathy created by the contact of bodies when words have not been exchanged.” (187)

The story is beautiful, sensual, and oddly inevitable. The story follows the lovers from their pickup in South Africa to an unnamed desert of Ibrahim’s origin. I couldn’t think of any other way it could have ended—the ending being something of a beginning. There was a small chance of the man not acting so much like a man, but that was never going to happen, so the course upon which the novel struck at the end had to be.  And it leaves one feeling frustrated, resigned, and sad, while at the same time one surrenders to the romance, the unspoken parts, the fidelity to self, and trust in the other—and if not the other than the desert which stands for the stability of time and Nature, humbling us all, reminding us of our smallness in the face of its persistent, calm beauty. The book does not leave one thinking they can know how it all turns out, it only leaves one knowing it had to be this way.

“He gave his wife his smile, that of himself which was for this one: for her.” (155)

The Joy of Circles

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If ever there was a book that perfectly summed up the case for why I love books, [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist by Reviel Netz and William Noel would be exhibit A. The reasons why, as points covered in this wonderfully entertaining read for bibliophiles and lovers of multidisciplinary fields in action, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. The book as a material object
  2. The book as a historical record
  3. The book as a conveyor of information
  4. The book as a technology
  5. The book as an advancer of technology

All this and more comes together in one. Noel and Netz take turns in the telling according to their areas of expertise. Noel, as Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Museum in Baltimore was given the opportunity by the anonymous owner of the codex to steward the study of this famous palimpsest. Netz’s specialty is in ancient science, and so between the two we get a very through understanding and deconstruction (literally) of book provenance, structure (with forays into paper, ink, and binding), forgeries, conservation, and cutting-edge methods of reading the unreadable, as well as a brief history of Archimedes, his impact on the whole history of math and science, the differences between how math was approached in ancient Greece compared to our own age, and quite a bit of the actual math involved. For me, it was a thrilling read. History, science, math, literature, and book studies all in a single object—the most ubiquitous and under-rated technological wonder of them all: a humble book.

A palimpsest, for those not familiar with the term, is a document (in this case a codex, which is a book in our familiar form as opposed to a book in scroll form, say) which has been erased (in this case, scraped away off the parchment, as opposed to erased off of paper) and written over again. What looked like a simple prayer book, was actually written over several books of Archimedes. Of those Method survives in the palimpsest alone. No where else! What may seem to be an act of unforgivable folly—using Archimedes text as scrap paper! is the very thing that allowed its improbable survival. And so we are grateful.

The process of reading the Archimedes text underneath the prayer book (and to add extra fun to the challenge, a modern-day forgery of illuminated illustrations), is difficult difficult lemon difficult* not to mention painstaking. I will admit that I have at least a passing interest in rare books and book conservation, so the technical aspects of the work of uncovering the text was fascinating to read. But, I would think it interesting to any reader if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding and measure of respect for a book’s structure and material evolution (or de-evolution as is sometimes the case—I’m looking at you, acidic paper!)

But, fascinating too were the passages dedicated to Archimedes, his way of thinking, and enormous impact on science, in fact, some of the most sophisticated technology employed in the effort to read his text would not have been possible without his proofs and methods.

The revelations of Archimedes true intent in regard to the Stomachion, for instance, read like a mystery novel. The Archimedes Palimpsest, incredibly, has pushed back the historic timeline of when combinatorics were first thought to be robustly considered and developed. Combinatorics, I might add, had no practical use to Archimedes, and yet, without that particular field of mathematics, computers would not be possible and you would be sadly deprived of learning about this book from me. Full circle. Is there anything more satisfying?

*to randomly quote, as I am wont to do, the very funny film In the Loop

**Illustration from p 45 of [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist

Beauty is Lurking Everywhere

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“The most notable and revolutionary feature of Darwin’s theory of mate choice is that it was explicitly aesthetic. He described the evolutionary origin of beauty in nature as a consequence of the fact that animals had evolved to be beautiful to themselves.”
The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum

I once came across this wonderful sentence: “Beauty is lurking everywhere.” Damned if I know from where, but I latched onto the sentence, if not the author of the sentence, with a rare tenacity (at least as far as my mind’s usual light grip on factoids is concerned). If I was forced to guess I’d say Shakespeare…but given Shakespeare’s proclivity to produce delicious bon mots by the boat load, that feels like cheating—it’s like guessing a particular invention came from China.

I was prompted today to not be such a terrible blogger (it’s been about a year…) and get back to my purpose here which is to help me not forget all the books I read! And, as well,  make a good reading suggestion for others at the same time. What’s the fun of reading if you can’t share the fun?

So, back to beauty—Richard O. Prum’s fascinating book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us asks the next logical question for a person who believes, as I do, that beauty is indeed lurking everywhere, and that question is: but why?

“Throughout the living world whenever the opportunity has arisen, the subjective experiences and cognitive choices of animals have aesthetically shaped the evolution of biodiversity. The history of beauty in nature is a vast and never-ending story.”

Prum focuses on Darwin’s book which followed Origin of the Species, Descent of Man. Darwin was not satisfied with the problem of beauty which his theory of natural selection could not adequately explain. The peacock’s gorgeous arrayment left Darwin feeling nauseated. Not because of the excessive pulchritude, but because those long ridiculous feathers can not really be much help in survival, not least of all of the fight or flight variety.

What is so wonderful about Prum’s book is his expertise in ornithology, his explanation of the null/ not null practice of data collection and how that suppresses a whole lot of data, scientific bias, as well as his promotion of the subversive nature of what Darwin was really getting at—female empowerment. At times the book feels like a feminist apologia. Why is beauty lurking all around us? Because the ladies like it like that.

“What was so radical about this idea was that it positioned organisms—especially female organisms—as active agents in the evolution of their species. Unlike natural selection, which emerges from external forces in nature, such as competition, predation, climate, and geography, acting on the organism, sexual selection is a potentially independent, self-directed process in which the organisms themselves (mostly female) were in charge. Darwin describes females as having a “taste for the beautiful” and an “aesthetic faculty.” He described males as trying to “charm” their mates…..”

Because this theory, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of beauty, is so hard for some to accept as it throws into disarray the parameters of how evolution functions (fittest, Yes! but prettiest too!), the final third of Prum’s book is more speculative than he, or I, would prefer. But it at least leads in a direction of discovery that says damn implicit/explicit misogyny! our evolution is fascinating, complicated, and positively dripping in implications whether some might like what is revealed or not! Prum is not afraid to apply facts and humor in order to recuperate Darwin’s controversial ideas in the service of science. And I like it like that.

In the Face of Kitsch

The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side (78).
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Strangely, when I picked the book up off a friend’s shelf, I couldn’t quite remember if I had read it— Kundera’s most beloved novel. But I couldn’t put it down (again?). Thanks to my soveryvery archive I can go back and relive The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (a post, now that I am speaking of not remembering, which I coincidentally titled “What I Remember”—but with Kundera one can never clearly delineate the remembered from the forgotten) and Slowness (in which I posted the excellent Slow Love by Prince to accompany my thoughts which is sadly no longer available for viewing, but you can sing it to yourself while you read if you are so inclined).

Happiness, as Kundera writes, is to repeat: “the sweet law of repetition” (299). The unbearable lightness of the non-repeatable is what leaves us in a state of abject unease. And so I let myself be taken away, repeated or not, inside the weight of love between Tereza and Tomas.

Woven in between that story is the tragic story of political hypocrisy and fakery, or as Kundera names it: kitsch.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (251).

In these days where we appear on the brink of a cyclical, reactionary return to the dark and stupid days of authoritarian bleakness, it is the fakery of it all that really rankles me: The forced cheers of political pyrrhic victories, the outright lies and gaudy veneer of those claiming to represent the “real folks.” The intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is sickening at best, deadly at worst.

When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end up by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mothers who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply” (252).

What to do? In this novel, Kundera takes seriously this question. We only live one life. We can not repeat. At this point in time, most of us can choose to shout out against the fuckery of injustices facing our environment and fellow inhabitants—but there is a time looming in the future, and already here for those at the margins, where laughing out loud, shouting, resisting, and fighting against the backward steps, leads to our hastened ignominious erasure.

Which is why I find such solace and sweetness in Tomas and Tereza. It’s not that they describe a perfect love—theirs is full of troubles, pain, and worries, in addition to the crushing political world around them. Their love is a vagabond pushed, or pushing them, farther and farther away from the vacant up-righteousness of kitsch. Tereza nearly lets it go uncredited as love, believing that their love can’t be equal since her love acted as a mission that Tomas seemed incapable, to her, of sharing. But their love is not a mission. It must be. In the end, it’s simple.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions” (313).

It’s an obvious statement to say—we only have one life to live, but this makes it clear to me that there is no mission, there is only each day and hour. The weight of that is freeing. “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas asks. Reason and love will meet us on the other side of history. It must be.

Grasping Truth

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When I came to the sea, I was afraid I might have to spend whole days with hordes of strangers, shaking hands and passing compliments and making conversation—a regular labor of Sisyphus.
—Cesare Pavese, “The Beach” from The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (22)

Once I got settled into my room and daily life here in Rome, I knew I had a problem. The book I had brought with me to fill in the hours I was not at my internship was all wrong. I don’t often give up on books, and it was not as if it was a bad book—it simply was not the right book.

I spend my hours on the weekends and after work walking the city. It is not unusual for me to get back to my room having walked ten miles or more (lately, a little more often on the less side of ten as I become more familiar with the labyrinth streets and therefore spend less time doubling back upon my lost way). But even I can not walk all day, and so, once I knew my reading situation was in a bad state—the book, being set in an even more foreign setting increased my feeling of disorientation, I could barely find the will to get ahold of the specific nomenclature of the trades and dialects discussed and I had no feeling for the characters and so nothing at all to hold on to in my own state of loneliness in a foreign city. What I wanted was someone here to speak to me. I headed to the first bookstore that came up on google—a far walk but well worth the effort. As soon as I began reading I knew I had found a friend.

I was finding my boyhood just to have a companion, a colleague, a son. I saw this country where I grew up with new eyes. We were alone together, the boy and myself; I relived the wild discoveries of earlier days. I was suffering, of course, but in the peevish spirit of someone who neither recognizes nor loves his neighbor. And I talked to myself incessantly, kept myself company. We were two people alone (66 “The House on the Hill”).

I had not heard of Cesare Pavese’s work before I picked the book up off the shelf: an acclaimed Italian writer and influential translator who lived from 1908–1950, but he is the one keeping me company now. His stories, mostly set in his hometown of Turin, in and around World War II are beautifully told. There is a melancholy I respond to here in my own isolation—which is to some degree self-imposed by my rather reserved personality which sees in Pavese a kindred spirit. As well as a familiarity and sheer interest of reading stories set in the country where I am, once again, temporarily situated. Having lived in Italy for a short while over ten years ago, but now here alone, I found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. Feeling lonely, yes, and deeply reflective, but also the wonder of it all—the beauty of the sights, sounds, and energy of this ancient city.

The second story in my book of selected works is The House on the Hill. It is one of the most accomplished anti-war stories I have every read. Most anti-war stories can hardly avoid glorifying the very thing they are critiquing, but not Pavese’s. There are no heroes, just people—people who get tangled up in the war in the middle of their own already tangled lives.

They promised punishments, pardons, tortures. Disbanded soldiers, they said, your fatherland understands you and calls you back. Hitherto we were mistaken, they said; we promise you to do better. Come and save yourselves, come and save us, for the love of God. You are the people, you are our sons, you are scoundrels, traitors, cowards. I saw that the old empty phrases weren’t funny any more. Chains and death and the common hope took on a terrible daily immediacy. What had once floated around in the void, mere words, now gripped one’s insides. There is something indecent in words. Sometimes I wished I were more ashamed of using them (126).

Corrado is the emotionally distant protagonist of the story. His elegiac telling of the chaos and danger in the period of Nazi withdrawal and fascist defeat of Italy is terrifying. Not just because it is terrifying, but also because it is so hard to imagine and at the same time, given the recent lean towards neo-fascsim in the world—all too easy. And that is preciously the same feeling that Pavese relates in the midst of it all—does one worry about having a coffee in the morning, or whether or not the son of a woman whose heart he broke is his? Or does one worry about being arrested, murdered—or worse evading arrest when all your friends are taken? Life is big enough for all those worries at once. And then:

I came up below the spring, in a hollow of thick, muddy grasses. Patches of sky and airy hillsides showed among the trees. The coolness there smelled of the sea, almost briny. What did the war, what did bloodshed matter, I thought, when this kind of sky shone amid the trees? (92)

But, of course, it does matter, and it all begins to lose sense in the senselessness of war.

It wasn’t discomfort or the ruins, perhaps not even a threat of death from the sky; rather it was a final grasp of truth that sweet hills could exist, a city softened by fog, a comfortable tomorrow, while at any moment bestial things might be taking place only a few yards away, things people only discussed in whispers (125).

As I wander, mostly in a wonderful, timeless, aimlessness around the city of Rome, I can not help but be struck by the beauty, yes—but also by the ravages—the evidence of the rise and fall of empires, religions, individual fortunes, even the Tiber itself.  “At any moment bestial things” have and are still taking place. We are all human beings on this planet, and so, for Pavese, “every war is a civil war” and every victim of war a body that calls us to account.

Pavese’s voice comforts me in a cautionary sort of way, and gives context to the country that I am immersed in. Of course I am watching my own nation’s news from afar. So while I  worry about where to get coffee without getting lost and missing my loves while relishing being here, I also read the news and worry about whether or not the unimaginable will happen….because we must grasp the truth that it can.

*The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese is translated by R.W. Flint

 

 

 

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.”