I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbor has a mind to my cow, he hires a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now in this case I who am the right owner lie under two great disadvantages. First, my lawyer, being practiced almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which as an office unnatural, he always attempts with great awkwardness if not with ill-will. The second disadvantage is that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law. And therefore I have but two methods to preserve my cow. The first is to gain over my adversary’s lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by insinuating that he has justice on his side. The second way is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he can by the cow to belong to my adversary: and this, if it be skillfully done will certainly bespeak the favor of the bench.
Archive for March, 2006
I here present your Highness with the fruits of a very few leisure hours, stolen from the short intervals of a world of business, and of an employment quite alien from such amusements as this:
- Ellis tells a story just as sad as the one in my last post.
- Ed lampoons Sir Vidia. I remind him about the monkeys.
- TEV remembers McGahern.
- RSB talks with the wonderful Josipovici.
- AS Kline offers a nice archive of classic poetry in translation.
- Patrick Kurp writes about Kazin (via BooksInq)
- Literary translators blog.
- New books, all kinds.
The intro’s from Swift. But you knew that.
The Tribune’s culture correspondent Julia Keller on literary style:
On Jonathan Swift:
On James Frey:
On the work front, I’m in the midst of delicate negotiations involving two subcontractors who don’t get along with one another. I have another contract I have to sign by tomorrow afternoon. I have five books to read by Thursday for this quarter’s LBC selection. I’m pretty much totally unprepared to leave for China in two weeks.
Fortunately, many years of balancing competing priorities have prepared me well for this moment. What am I doing? I’m reading Dante, of course.
(My choice has nothing to do with Beckett’s upcoming anniversary, though I think he’d approve.)
You know, this volume, La Vita Nuova (1292), is a nutty little book. It’s a collection of poems wrapped in a memoir. The title is usually translated as “The New Life,” but as Paolo Milano helpfully suggests in the introduction to the volume I’m reading, “nuovo” has several meanings in Italian, so that the book might also be dubbed simply, “Youth.” (The translation I’m reading is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s classic 1861 version.)
If the book had a subtitle, it might be: “How I loved and wrote.” A man in his 20’s tells the story of his love for the beautiful Beatrice. They first meet when she is eight years old and he is nine. He doesn’t see her again for nine years. Then, on May Day 1283, he’s out and about in his native city (Florence) and boom — he runs into her on the street. She gives him a “sweet salutation.” After that he’s Love’s slave. He writes some poems. He works up the nerve to go to a gathering where she’s present, but when he sees her he practically faints, almost, but not quite, knocking a painting off the wall in the process. Everyone laughs. He has to go home immediately and write a poem. Later, he runs into a couple of women from the gathering and they say, how are you going to love Beatrice when you can’t even stand up in her presence? They laugh. He writes some more poems. Then Beatrice’s father dies. He goes to the funeral. Then, suddenly, Beatrice dies. Poems result. He meets another “gracious lady” but can’t stop thinking about Beatrice. He writes some more poems. The end. I’m leaving some things out.
As you can probably tell, I’m finding this book quite amusing. First, our hero seems almost more interested in writing than he is in his beloved. Every chapter veers off into “here’s how I wrote about it.” After he gives you the poem, then he has to explain it to you. The explanation is often longer than the poem:
All I encounter in my mind dies,
when I come to gaze on you, sweet joy:
and when I am near you, I feel Love
who says: ‘Run, if you care about dying’.
The face shows the colour of the heart,
that, fainting, leans for support:
and in the vast intoxicating tremor
the stones beneath me cry: Death, death.
They commit a sin who see me then,
if they do not comfort my bewildered soul,
if only by showing that they care for me,
through pity, which your mocking killed,
that is descried in the dying vision
of eyes that have wished for death.
This sonetto is divided in two parts: in the first I give the reason why I do not hold myself from going near to this lady: in the second I say what happens to me from going near her: and this second part begins with: ‘e quandi’o vi son presso: and when I am near you.’ And also this second part can be divided in five, according to the five differing subjects: in the first I say what Love, counselled by reason, says to me when I am near her: in the second I show the state of my heart revealed in my face: in the third I say how I come to lose all confidence: in the fourth I say what sin they commit who do not show pity for me, since it would be some comfort to me: in the last I say why others should have pity, and that is because of the pitiful look that fills my eyes: this pitiful look is destroyed, that is does not appear to others, by this lady’s mockery, which draws to similar action those who perhaps might well see that piteousness. The second part begins with: ‘Lo viso mostra: the face shows’: the third with: ‘e per la ebrieta : and in the vast intoxicating’: the fourth with: ‘Peccato face: They commit a sin’: the fifth: ‘per la pieta : through pity’.
(In Chapter XXVI he gives us a break, saying, in effect, “this one’s self-explanatory.”)
I suppose approaching Dante this way may seem to you the height of ignorance, but I disagree. In fact, I recommend “finding something to laugh at” as a useful first step when approaching the classics, or, truthfully, any serious book. In this, once again, I follow Johnson:
When at Oxford, I took up Law’s Serious Call to a Holy Life, expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I became capable of rational inquiry.
Your man Jones greatly enjoyed the documentary on Eugene O’Neill that aired on PBS last night, hagiographic though it was. I could have done without Pacino, for sure. But wasn’t Plummer fantastic?
Jonathan Kalb, writing on the documentary in the New York Times yesterday, offered this opinion on O’Neill’s status:
The big question for many critics and writers is the extent to which O’Neill, the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, ever really succeeded in manipulating his soap opera into great literature.
First Dreiser isn’t literature, now O’Neill isn’t. Leaving aside the question of what American playwright could possibly be “in” if O’Neill is “out,” this is the kind of thing that makes me fear for the future.
In such circumstances, the mind longs to repose in what Johnson called “the stability of truth.” This time, truth comes from the unlikely source of Gore Vidal:
Literature is, primarily, a chain of connections from the past to the present. It is not reinvented every morning, as some bad writers like to believe.
I almost forgot about this Coetzee piece on translation, until Bookboojum’s post on Coetzee reminded about it. It’s a really wonderful account of some of the questions authors deal with when their books are translated into other languages:
Phrasings planted in Waiting for the Barbarians for their generic Far Eastern associations naturally aroused the interest of my Chinese translator. The crucial passage in the book was the following, spoken by the Magistrate:
I … am no less infected with [the vision of Empire] than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not he then his son or unborn grandson) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolised eternal domination.
“It would be highly appreciated,” wrote my translator, “if you could help clarify what Summer Palace and globe surmounted by the tiger rampant … refer to. I wonder if [they] refer to the Old Summer Palace in Beijing that was destroyed by British and French allied force in 1848.” The question may seem simple, but it holds surprising depths. It may mean: Are the words Summer Palace intended to refer to the historical Summer Palace? It may also mean: Do the words refer to the historical Summer Palace?
I, as sole author, am the only person able to answer the first question, and my answer must be that I did not consciously intend to refer to the palace in Beijing, and certainly did not intend to evoke the historical sack of that palace, with its attendant national humiliations.
At the same time, I did intend that enough of an association with imperial China should be evoked to balance and complicate, for instance, the association with imperial Russia evoked elsewhere in the book by the phrase Third Bureau, the arm of the security forces for which Colonel Joll works.
As for whether the words in question do refer to the palace in Beijing, as author I am powerless to say. The words are written; I cannot control the associations they awaken.
But my translator is not so powerless: a nudge here, a nuance there, and the reader may be either directed towards or headed off from the Beijing of 1848.
A reader recently let me know that Charles Newman — novelist, critic, and founding editor of TriQuarterly magazine — passed away on March 13 at age 67. Newman has been somewhat forgotten in recent years. Just last October, in fact, I noted this exchange in Robert Birnbaum’s interview with Stuart Dybek:
RB: I know TriQuarterly from the Charles Newman and Elliott Anderson days.
SD: I go that far back. Sure. And now Susan Hahn.
RB: Where are they now?
SD: I don’t know. Elliott Anderson ended up in Hawaii, which is not a bad place to end up in, but I’m not sure where Newman is.
As it happens, Newman was teaching, as he had for many years, in the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis. Last spring, the program’s newsletter featured a conversation with Newman in which he discussed growing up outside Chicago; his 10 years at Northwestern; his experiences at the magazine; his tenure as head of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and subsequent experiments in agronomy; and the novel trilogy he left unfinished at the time of his death.
Newman published four books of fiction: New Axis (1966), The Promisekeeper: A Tephramancy (1971), three short novels in the volume There Must Be More Than Death (1976), and White Jazz (1984). His best-known book, however, was The Post-Modern Aura (1985), which divided contemporary novelists into “formalists” and “realists” and lamented the failure of literary fiction to compete in the contemporary cultural marketplace. You can get a sense of Newman’s style (and sense of humor) in this review he wrote for the New York Times in 1988.
His chief distinction was his role in the creation of TriQuarterly. One memorable issue that he edited (together with Alfred Appel) was a festschrift for Vladimir Nabokov on the occasion of Nabokov’s 70th birthday in 1970. Among the contributors were Robert Alter, George Steiner, Simon Karlinksy, the Proffers, Stanley Elkin, Anthony Burgess, John Updike, Alfred Kazin, John Barth, and many others, including Newman himself. (Newman recounts carrying a rolled-up copy of Pale Fire in his pocket through Army basic training.) You might enjoy Nabokov’s written response to this issue, which includes some kind words for Newman’s contribution. (Other contributors, like Steiner, weren’t quite as lucky.)
TriQuarterly had been knocking around Northwestern for years as a student and faculty publication before Newman took the helm. But in Newman’s time it became one of the truly great literary journals of the 20th Century. I just thought it made sense to mark his passing.
Addition 3/24: A New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox appeared on March 22. She describes how Newman’s novels were received: “Critical response was divided, often within a single review. Perhaps this was the point: he succeeded in atomizing even the individual critic, who fractured and flew apart with the effort of interpretation.”
Addition 4/10: Another good obit at LA Times.
Some catchy expressions from Claude Rawson’s review of The Cambridge History of English Literature 1660-1780 in the March 10 TLS:
“A fondness for sweeping enumeration”
“Vaguely panic-stricken geniality”
“Knowing, coat-trailing, and oblique”
“Forays into trendiness”
“Competitive tribal incantation”
“Flaccid programmatic pieties”
You hockey fans out there have probably noticed that the new Detroit location of Cheli’s Chili resembles a miniature version of London’s Staple Inn, where Dr. Johnson lodged while composing Rasselas. They say NHL veteran Chelios is a big fan of the 18th century lexicographer.
(It’s amazing I have time to even think these thoughts, let alone blog them.)
Welcome to the new home of Golden Rule Jones. For the past 3-1/2 years I’ve been using the Blogger platform, hosted on Blogspot.com. For at least half that long I’ve planned to move to a better platform, but it was only the performance problems over the last week or two that finally put me to work on the transition.
I followed Peter Forret’s instructions (including selecting BlueHost as a host), and the whole thing was surprisingly easy. The aptly named tool Fantastico, running on the BlueHost servers, installed Word Press automatically, and I was able to pull all my old content from Blogger over to the new site with a single click. As Peter says, friggin’ awesome.
I’m still tweaking — for example, links to my own site which I’ve embedded in past posts still point to the old site — but it seems to be working fine so far.
End of technical bulletin. Back to literature.