Tag Archives: satire

Great Globs of Verbosity

She found this charming, and laughed. She looked so sweet—like the moon emerging from behind a cloud and showing her full face. Before long her words expressed what her wandering fingers were already demonstrating. 
—Petronius, translated by Andrew Brown,
Satyricon (122).

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Considering the fragmentary nature of Satyricon, with its myriad lacunae, absence of a clear narrative, compounded by seemingly jumping into the story mid-stream—it is quite fun to read.

And I think bees are divine little creatures; they puke honey…even though people do say they get it from Jupiter. And if they sting, well, that’s because there’s no sweet without sour (44)

The print I made above was partially inspired by the feast scene at Trimalchio’s in which the endnotes say that “damsons with pomegranate seeds” in the original Latin was “Syrian plums with Punic apple seeds.” In a long round-about way,  having to do with an annoying print I had made of apples, which I hated, and a lovely drawing my daughter had made for me of a pomegranate—the words “punic apple” simply solved all my frustration and  lit a minor fire under me until I ended up with the above.

Quite the astrologer.  And witty with it! We applauded (30).

Of course I am hardly the first to be inspired (however loosely) by Satyricon. After I finished the book I decided to watch Fellini’s Satyricon.  If I did see it in my youth all that was left in my head were still-images, which may have been all I had seen in the first place. But seeing it, perhaps again, I’ll just say—Fellini didn’t become an adjective for nothing. He takes the surreal aspects of the book and just runs with it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he leaves the humor in the dust. The thing that I liked about the book was the youthful view of the hoity toities, those bitchy-shallow-people who one is so immaturely excited to be deigned an invitation  to dinner with, but which turns into a wacky bender that doesn’t end. All the bits and pieces of the book  have a hilarious ridiculously-bad-night-should-have-stayed-home quality to the thing.

115. We heard a strange low noise and a stifled roar, like a wild animal trying to escape, from under the master’s cabin. We followed the sound—and found Eumolpus sitting there, filling a huge piece of parchment with line after line of poetry. so, amazed to see him able to find time to compose poetry with death so close, we dragged him him off, in spite of his vehement protests, and begged him to be a sensible chap. But he flew into a rage at being interrupted.
“Let me finish my piece!” he shouted. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the last lines!”
What a maniac! I grabbed hold of him and Giton to help me drag the petulant poet ashore (103)

The recent 2013 Italian film La Grande Belleza is very much a Satyricon-influenced film, it retains the ridiculous humor but it adds an element of modern angst bemoaning the ultimate emptiness of it all. There is none of that in the original Satyricon, nor does Fellini bother with that sort of moralizing either, but Fellini’s over the top surrealistic film is so heavy in a way…the tedium of these sorts of people is never lifted in the way that Petronius and Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza manage, even when truly awful things are happening.

The sun shines on everyone. The moon, with countless stars in attendance, even shows wild beasts the way to their food. Can anything be considered more beautiful than water? And yet it flows for everybody. So shall love alone be something to be stolen rather than openly prized? (86)

Petronius (if that is who really wrote this vulgar epic tale—by which I mean both senses of the word “vulgar”) captures a swirling world, that doesn’t seem that different from some of the circles people race about in this day and age. That is the truly remarkable thing—very little changes.

*Title from page 3: “It’s great globs of verbosity, smeared with honey: every word, every deed sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds.”

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Bathing in Language

I am Comrade Korotkov, V.P., from whom the documents were just stolen…Every last one…I could be arrested…”
“Very simply too,” the man on the porch affirmed.
“So let me…”
“Have Korotkov come personally.”
“But I am Korotkov, comrade.”
“Give me your identification papers.”  (20) 
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad

rooster.j.ryanI read a book of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov (Diaboliad and Other Stories) this weekend, intermittently taking breaks to read another book, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In fact, just as the child learns to know himself through others, he learns to know others through himself; he also learns to speak because the surrounding language calls up his thought, because he is enticed by its style until a single meaning emerges from the whole” (51, Merleau-Ponty)

Language calls up thought…the two (language and thought)are distinct…if one considers Bulgakov’s Diaboliad within that distinction, his use of satire, indeed satire generally, becomes a thing of great substance. His language is calling, what thoughts emerge? Perhaps it is only because I was (more or less) simultaneously reading a book about language that  I was lead to consider, more deeply, the ‘language of satire.’ But once I did, it seemed to me the first order of business was to consider the translating of such a genre. I find the myopic world of English-speaking literature annoying, (please indulge me while I get this little rant out of the way) translations* into English are far less frequent than the reverse, and that bothers. How better can one experience different cultures, worlds, and times than through literature? I’m sure I don’t know, but the insularity of the English literary world is problematic not  to mention emblematic.

The most characteristic of a word is “what the others are not.” Signification exists not for a word but for all words in relation to one another. Our present tense could never be the same as the present tense of a language without a future tense. It is for this reason that one can never exactly translate from one language to another (99, Merleau-Ponty).

Translation is a fascinating project, and satire is an entirely different order of complexity. As Merleau-Ponty elucidates, translation is in some regards, impossible. Language is more than a grouping of words. Every word is connected to a web of other words and the ability to see that web, to be conscious of the layers and interconnectedness is particularly essential in satire.

A very fat and pink man met Korotkov with the words, “Just marvelous. I’m putting you under arrest.”
“I cannot be arrested,” replied Korotkov–and he laughed a Satanic laughter, “because I am no one knows who. Of course. I cannot be arrested or married” (40, Bulgakov).

Fortunately for Bulgakov the horrors of bureaucracies are keenly understood by most. The entire tale revolves around Korotkov’s loss of his ‘papers’ but the sickenly bizarre frustrations of state agencies are not lost. It is the particular: the play of names, the references to the Soviet state idiosyncrasies, the absurdity interlaced with cultural artifacts and references of the day  that make the ride, in translation, less smooth than the original language required. The totality of the web of language is difficult to fully see and feel by a translation. Still, I am not dissuaded.

As far as the imitation of speech is concerned, one finds himself in possession of a double kinesthetic gift which is lacking in the imitation of gestures (36, Merleau-Ponty).

I think that what Merleau-Ponty is referring to is the phenomenological truth that in regard to the senses, language, which one speaks and hears with the ‘other’ to which the language is directed, is unique among our experience in the world. If I wave my arms, I can never see myself doing it as you do, but if I speak to you, we experience the language together without a marked difference of perspective.

There is no radical difference  between consciousness of self and consciousness of other people (46, Merleau-Ponty).

There seems to be, to Merleau-Ponty,  a circular wrapping around of the concept of ‘egocentric.’ A child is so entirely egocentric that there is actually no separation between herself and the other. For me, it is a reminder of the basic neutrality of individual words to consider what is thought of as an ugly and maligned concept such as ‘egocentric’ in a different way. There is a unity with others in the egocentric inception of our being; what is unity but a melting into our centers, in which the center is everywhere. Language unites, but it also, in fact, is what ultimately separates us. Once a child integrates the rhythm of their native environment, the pronouns, and prepositions…the lacunary nature of existence is delineated. There are spaces between us after all.

This meditation of the objective and of the subjective, of the interior and of the exterior–what philosophy seeks to do–we can find in language if we succeed in getting close enough to it (102, Merleau-Ponty).

Bulgakov buries a world of pain in the language of the absurd, but because language is more than a grouping of words, more than a mode of communication, it doesn’t matter so much that I don’t know that a green felt covered desk is shorthand for ‘institution’ – I’ve spent enough hours at the DMV to know that a Gogol-esque moment of a nose running across the tiled floor is entirely possible. The original state of our unity is the subtext, it is the baseline of sanity by which satire is possible.

A momentary enlarging of his own life: it consists of living for a moment in other people, and not only living the same thing as others for his own benefit (39, Merleau-Ponty).

Language, and by extension literature, is just that- a momentary enlarging of our own lives. Just as an infant begins with the ability to articulate every sound possible in any language, she also begins in a state of complete union to others. However, through the maturation of our individuality,  the sense of shared consciousness can wither away.

According to Delacroix, “the child bathes in language.” He is attracted and enthralled by the movement of dialogue around him, and tries it himself (12, Merleau-Ponty).

Our consciousness is made through language. As many people have figured out, control of language becomes control of thought. Bulgakov and others took subversive hold of their language through satire thereby holding the line on sanity. That what separates us is every bit what unites us is a beautiful paradox. As David Foster Wallace famously said – this is water. We bathe in it. In this mad world it is through language that we will all float.

*Speaking of translations – Diaboliad and Other Stories was translated by Carl R. Poffer, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language was translated by Hugh J. Silverman.

In a Word

“One suffers so much,” Denis went on, “from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean.” ( 211) – Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow IMG_2167 Chrome Yellow was recommended to me by a lovely fellow blogger after I read Lady Ottoline’s Album. In this wonderful and often hilarious book, Huxley satirizes his ‘set.’ Chrome, the fictional name of the estate, based on Ottoline’s own Garsinton Manor, is seen and experienced by young Denis who comes with youthful ambitions to be a writer, poet, indeed – a man!

“Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative–it’s admirable, isn’t it?” “Admirable,” Mr. Scogen agreed. “And what does it mean?”

Huxley describes the ennui of the upper crust of society to perfection. He mocks  the superior “education,” bestowed with entitlement,  which often results in a shallow, dilettante class.

“They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold […] On the label was a list of virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. It seemed so wonderful to describe that sensation of internal warmth” 

While the Ottoline-esque hostess is distracted by occult mysticism, artists come to find their muse and paint, writers come to work, young girls to have serious discussions and not fall in love.

Later, when I discovered alcohol, ‘carminative’ described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well.”

…of course everyone is there to fall in love or  at least die flirting. They all seem somewhat silly, either by virtue of excessive seriousness, or a certain passionlessness. But what does it all mean?

“Well, what does it mean?” asked Mr. Scogan, a little impatiently. “Carminative,” said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, “carminative, I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivatives, like carnival and carnation.”

A word is like a mystery, a snare of syllables encase it: understanding is within. The meaning is an opening, a pandora’s box of symbols and curiosities which mingle with the impression already given by the sound or vision of the letters: aligned, curving, swaying, with dancing periods hopping along the ‘i’s’ – a thing of beauty.

“Do come to the point, my dear denis,” protested Mr. Scogan. “Do come to the point.” “Well, I wrote a poem the other day,” said Denis; “I wrote a poem about the effects of love.” “Others have done the same before you,” said Mr. Scogan. “There is no need to be ashamed.”

A house, and the lives within,  seen from the outside can only be ill understood. Huxley takes that idea and has a lot of fun shrinking it to a word, then broadening it to person, a house, a village…

“I was putting forth the notion,” Denis went on, “that the effects of love were often similar to the effects of wine, that Eros could intoxicate as well as Bacchus. Love, for example, is essentially carminative.”

Of course true to our training, and nowhere is that training better than in England- except perhaps some Scandinavian countries that will remain nameless, we never simple state things, or leave our insides out for others to see or know. Often, one hardly knows one’s own insides.

“And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked the word up in a dictionary.”

Huxley’s story is highly amusing. The days are long, golden, frustrating for youthful would-be lovers, but full of quirky erudite conversations. The evenings are cool as the history of Chrome as its own heartbreaks and drollery is read aloud by Henry Wimbush, the current master of the grandiosity that is Chrome.

“Carminative: for me the word was as rich in content as some tremendous, elaborate work of art; it was a complete landscape with figures. ‘And passion carminative as wine…’ It was the first time I had ever committed the word to writing, and all at once I felt I would like lexicographical authority for it. A small English-German dictionary was all I had at hand. I turned up C, ca, car, carm. There it was: ‘Carminative: windtreibend.’   Windtreiband!” he repeated. Mr. Scogin laughed.

Of course, there is always the possibility that we are exactly the ridiculous creatures that we fear we are.

*As Huxley does not, I will be kind to those that don’t know the word in German either, as it turns out it means: relieving flatulence. Oh, Poor Denis. Poor us.

** All quotes come from pages 211-14

Not So Muted Mirth

“It’s nothing but a kind of microcosmos of communism – all that psychiatry,” rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (52)

IMG_0288One of the most delightful aspects of this blog is when someone comments that they are excited to read a book or author that I have written about. A rare, but delightful joy. The other morning I was collecting some of the essays that I have written, about the books of one of my favorite authors- Vladimir Nabokov. By the time I was done re-reading and repairing them, as much as I could, for a critical viewing, I was overtaken with desire for more Nabokov. I controlled myself long enough to take a shower but then practically ran out of the house with a towel turban still on my head in my febrile haste to the library.

Once the book was in hand, I had a moment’s calm to reflect, and I was struck with the realization that I was that person! I had influenced someone to run in a dead heat to the library to read something! I was quite pleased with myself. Right up until the moment that dawned – I was that person. Oh. That’s pretty pathetic, Jessica. Might even have to remove the qualifier from that sentence- nothing pretty about it, the narrator in my head added.

Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you an anarchist?’ I answer ” -time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth – (11)

Call me over sensitive, but the narrator of Pnin hovered around charity, sometimes dipping a finger into condescension. I found myself talking to him, “Narrator, be nice. Poor Pnin is trying, and his heart! He’s heartbroken. Do be kind.” Pnin is a Russian émigreé working in the world of academia. With a caustic charm, Nabokov gently skewers the ridiculous people that populate Pnin’s world: from his silly colleagues, truly awful ex-wife, to a hilariously serious conversation about the flawed chronology of Anna Karenina. It’s all wonderfully told.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading the bulk of this book in an examination room of a cardiologist with my client. Every now and then she’d look over at me, “It’s very funny,” I would offer. But her narrator was keeping her busy working her up into a fit of fury that exploded on the doctor’s head when he came in. She was too cold, had waited too long, and had come too far. Finally, the heart doctor made an intellectual decision to say, “I’m sorry.” She was not fooled. “That doesn’t help me AT ALL. You have wasted the time of this valuable person!” All eyes turned to me. Of all three people in the room to have the word “valuable” attached to…I smiled with wholesome disquiet at the floor, looked up to the doctor and gave him an I have no idea what she’s talking about look, but he was done with me before I got to I have n-. Meanwhile my narrator was in a paroxysm of giggles flopping about uncontrollably, mockingly holding up my paycheck- Oh shut up. I went back to my reading.

“Our friend,” answered Clements, “employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are ocacular. He calls my wife John.”  (165)

The narrator of Pnin does not fully insert himself into the story until very near the end, just to underline and dot the head-scratchingly odd awkwardness of Pnin. But it’s not, perhaps, Pnin that is entirely at fault, it’s what’s distorted and lost in translation. That’s a feeling we all understand: translating what we feel, into what we say and how we act, into how we are then perceived- it’s a wonder there are any forms of successful communication at all. Maybe there aren’t. We all just think we understand each other. Pnin’s narrator is at the ready, standing by to laugh under his breath, shake his head just a little, Oh you poor dear. You’ll be alright.

“So I take the opportunity to extend a cordial invitation to you to visit me this evening. Half past eight, postmeridian. A little house-heating soiree, nothing more. Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?”
( Oh, punster Pnin!)   (151)

Pnin is very endearing, but of course it’s the narrator that we fall in love with. He’s the voice in the head of the book, in a good mood, teasing without malice. I wish my narrator was in a good mood more often.

More reads by Nabokov, towel turban or not:

Avoid Vocatives: King, Queen and Knave
More Bleeding Stumps of Verse: The Gift
Sun and Stone: Speak, Memory