Thursday, October 28, 2010

Someone is right on the internet

Deep in the comments thread of this LL post about "untranslatable" words (Schadenfreude, litost, and the like), John Cowan said:
No, none of these are untranslatable. The real untranslatable words are things like hottentottententententoonstelling 'Hottentot tent exhibition'. I mean, you can't just replace that word with its English gloss. You'd have to find something in English with similar impact, and where can you find that? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and ultramicroscopicosilicovolcanoconiosis just don't cut it.

Or you could go with hard, which cannot be translated into German because in a given context you need one of about 40 German adjectives, of which the only one I remember offhand is alkoholisch.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Read: Atmospheric disturbances, Everyman

I highly recommend Rivka Galchen's novel Atmospheric Disturbances; it falls off near the end as the plot veers into implausibility but the first two-thirds of it is quite compelling. (Hm. Independently, it turns out the Economist also liked the first two-thirds...) It's also beautifully written. The story is about a therapist -- the narrator -- who is convinced that his wife has been replaced by an exact replica of herself; he soon ends up in Argentina exchanging emails with a dead meteorologist and signing up to do a poorly-defined mission for a nonexistent agency in Patagonia. The basic charm of the thing is that it's a horribly sad book but the narrator usually doesn't register the sadnesses -- he's interested mostly in the detective-story end of things, trying to find out where his real wife went, etc. -- and the fact that it's so deadpan saves it from sentimentality and whininess.

I'm ambivalent about Roth's Everyman. It has much of the tediousness of American Pastoral but little of the energy; the writing is limpid but unmemorable, none of the characters really come to life, and a great deal of the novel was evidently written on autopilot if one knows one's Roth. I get that the novel is supposed to be skeletal and schematic like the play, but it just comes off as diluted Roth. Perhaps it is one of those books that you won't like if you have the wrong politics -- a lot of it is a tedious paean to the bourgeoisie that only comes to life at a couple of points, the best of which is the peculiarly resonant scene near the end in which a gravedigger explains the mechanics of grave-digging to Everyman shortly before he dies. There are also a couple of other arresting moments here and there, but not very many.

Friday, October 22, 2010

After the Cleveland School

Lord, thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An taught by time I tak' it so--exceptin' always steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see thy hand O God -
Predestination in the stride o' yon connecting rod.

 (Kipling, "M'Andrew's Hymn")

Zach Sachs shared T.J. Clark's essay about "modernism, postmodernism, and steam," which is built around the same ambiguous symbol that Kipling is using here: steam, as an emblem both of evanescence and of machinery, represents the basic tension of modernism, which is between the anarchic individualistic tendency of modern (pre-1945) thought and the contrary, regimenting tendency of industrial life. It is surprising how close the parallels between literature and art are -- when Clark says,
You could say of the purest products of modernism [...] that in them an excess of order interacts with an excess of contingency.

he might as well be talking about Ulysses. (By the way, a point this essay brings home is that WW1 was a very minor part of the story, as most of the currents of modernism had been around for years.) Of course it's much wider than that: earlier this afternoon I was leafing through Russell's History of Western Philosophy at a Borders, looking for a passage about Locke, when I found a very close echo of Clark's thesis in Russell's remarks about how the English empiricists were driven by their arguments, against their natural temperament, to a position of extreme subjectivism that was at odds with the Zeitgeist. 

So, at a minimum, the tension that Clark associates with modernism is at least as old as Hume and Blake. One is tempted to write a long essay about this but it would never actually get written -- I'm too lazy to finish anything -- and the point of this blog is to record my half-digested impressions without worrying about structure etc. So I'm just going to assemble a few notes.

1. Modernism is, of course, one of two successful responses to modernity, the other being Romanticism. Romanticism wasn't a formalist movement in any deep sense; its basic tendency (seen from the modernist end of the telescope) is escapist; still, escapism might be fruitful under some conditions, and it might be that current conditions are better suited to good escapist art than to good formalist art.

2. Related to this, High Modernism was perhaps a decadent movement in Empson's sense that it depended on a tradition that its example was destroying. The best modernist art and literature works largely through unexplained and jarring juxtapositions. The idea always seems to be to force a new emotion into existence by making you think in multiple registers, each with a certain level of vividness, at once. A lot of the juxtapositions only worked while they remained unexpected, i.e., before the first-wave modernists were assimilated. Much of the later work maintains the unexpectedness by stylizing to a degree that makes the tension unimmediate and therefore ineffective. A lot of Pound is no longer readable: the Pound of flesh is now a Pound of maggots. Looking at the pictures that accompany Clark's text, one is tempted to say that something like this must also have happened in the visual arts beginning around Picasso.

3. An excess of contingency is implicit in an excess of form: why that pattern, one could ask, rather than any other? (The number of possibilities grows with the complexity of the pattern.) Had Keats's odes been identical except for being acrostics, we might think them less inevitable. In Clark's terms, Through the Looking Glass is a deeply modernist work, being schematic in the same way as Ulysses and some of the paintings Clark discusses. Victorian writing differs from Modernist writing in lacking the element of direct shock. My sense is that the shock value was primarily about forcing people to look at the work rather than through it, by frustrating their expectations. I don't think this is feasible or interesting at present because the better sort of readers have no expectations at all.  

4. To oversimplify somewhat, the internet has resolved the central tension of modernism; the dominant tendency is currently toward solipsism, and the basic tension is between the world of windowless monads and human nature, which is reluctant to adapt to this world. (The "objective" tendency is represented by neuroscience, which "tells us" that the mind is maladaptive.) So the natural theme of fiction is psychosis, and the struggle to reimagine a reality that is perfectly intelligible on its own terms -- which are Leibniz's -- in ways the mind is at home with. There have, for instance, been several novels lately -- Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (very good!), Richard Powers's Echo Maker (juvenile and lame), etc. -- about characters who are obsessed with the fogeyish notions of authenticity and identity. (The latter two are about people with Capgras syndrome, which (for novelists) is a disorder that leaves you convinced that your family and friends are actually exact replicas of your family and friends.) I wonder if Clark has read these books and what he makes of them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death and whistles

I. from Xenia, I.
Eugenio Montale

We had planned a whistle
for the hereafter, a sign of recognition.
I try it out in the hope
that we are all dead already without knowing it.

II. Widgeon
Seamus Heaney

It had been badly shot.
While he was plucking it
he found, he says, the voice box--

like a flute stop
in the broken windpipe--

and blew upon it
his own small widgeon cries.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dotterel, whimbrel, kestrel, scoundrel

The suffix these words share is of such antiquity that the OED is rather tentative in deriving it from the French suffix -eau/elle, an analogous wide-ranging diminutive. The problem is that, whereas some examples like kestrel are straightforward borrowings from Old French, others are not:
Further formations within English on bases not of Romance origin appear in Middle English (e.g. GANGREL n., DOGGEREL adj., DOTTEREL n., MONGREL n., SUCKEREL n.); also, in some cases where the base is of Romance origin, it is uncertain whether the suffixed word was borrowed or formed independently in English (compare COCKEREL n., the equivalent of which is apparently rare in Anglo-Norman and Middle French (Normandy) and not otherwise attested in continental French).

(In many of these cases, even "kestrel," no one knows quite what the current form is a diminutive of.) What the surviving words of this class -- except mongrel -- seem to share is a quaint prettiness, no doubt due to their antiquity, that's nevertheless very disproportionate to what they mean. For instance "whimbrel" meant "little whimperer," and "dotterel" -- the prettiest of the lot -- meant "little dotard," a puzzling name for a bird until you learn that it was "A species of plover (Eudromias morinellus): so called from the apparent simplicity with which it allows itself to be approached and taken." Beyond this it gets messier: e.g., "mackerel" does not have anything to do with "a popular tradition that the mackerel assisted in the sexual activity of the herring" (?!), nor is a scoundrel a little trouble("scunner")-maker. 

By the way, a "ketterel" -- an obscure Scots word meaning "wretch" -- is not to be confused with the eminent physicist, one of many reasons why I'm grateful that my spell-checker does not use the OED.