Resisting Translation

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”

Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1

Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

A Quiet Revolution Triptych

For a long time I was genuinely puzzled as to how so many suburban American teenagers could be entranced, for instance, by Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life — a book, after all, written in Paris almost forty years ago. In the end I decided it must be because Vaneigem’s book was, in its own way, the highest theoretical expression of the feelings of rage, boredom, and revulsion that almost any adolescent at some point feels when confronted with the middle class existence. The sense of a life broken into fragments, with no ultimate meaning or integrity; of a cynical market system selling its victims commodities and spectacles that themselves represent tiny false images of the very sense of totality and pleasure and community the market has in fact destroyed; the tendency to turn every relation into a form of exchange, to sacrifice life for “survival”, pleasure for renunciation, creativity for hollow homogenous units of power or “dead time” — on some level all this clearly still rings true.

David Graeber, Revolution in Reverse

We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

Raoul Vaneigem, Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut people off the past.

Hannah Arendt, Home to Roost

The Epic of Words

Time and again in my afternoons on the plateau, I applauded the epic of words. And I laughed as well, not the laughter of ridicule, but the laughter of recognition and complicity. Yes, there is a word for the bright spot in a cloudy sky, a word for the way an ox runs back and forth on a hot day when he’s stung by a horsefly, for flame suddenly bursting from a stove, for the juice of stewed pears, for the star on a bull’s forehead, for a man on all fours extracting himself from the snow, for a woman’s stocking up on summer clothes, for the sloshing of liquid in a half-empty bucket, for the trickling of seeds out of seedpods, for the skipping of a flat stone over the surface of a pond, for icicles hanging from a tree, for the raw spot in a boiled potato, for a puddle in clayey ground. Yes, that’s the word.

In trying to select a favourite passage to reveal the languid beauty of Peter Handke’s Repetition I could have selected from so many pieces. I have a notebook filled with passages from Repetition. It is an extraordinary book, which I urge you to read. WG Sebald has written a wonderful essay [PDF] about Repetition.

Acts of Unlearning

The pathways of thought we will sketch have need of poetry, which in its nakedness and directness invades analytical language and allows it to open up; Arendt rejects instruments of comprehension that have proved dull or irrelevant. She allows them to go missing, unlearns them. Many things must be freed from entanglements so that we can argue about and conquer then anew. Such acts of “unlearning,” born of shock and distress, are intellectual awakenings.

From the Preface to Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott (trans. David Dollenmayer).

To burn delight from suffering

When someday this long affliction
will have broken up, like ice,
it will be spoken of
as of the Black Death;
and children on the heath
will build a man of straw
to burn delight from suffering
and light from ancient dread.

Gottfried Keller
The public slanderers

Thomas Mann quoted Keller’s poem in an essay he wrote after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. It seems equally apposite today, but I wonder bleakly whether the hope that our present day affliction will break up is less certain.

Adventure with The Last Night

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This extended passage is from one of those books that elicits a personal response, an engagement, an adventure. It may not resonate so strongly with everyone (of course). In particular, Campagna’s citation of the importance of friendship and daydreaming acted like a bucket of ice cold water.

Friendship, then, felt like a good ground to start my investigation. There was always something that allowed me to distinguish between the long list of unmemorable relationships and the few who were to remain. In all my strongest friendships, in all the best relationships I have ever had, an element seemed to constantly recur. It was the feeling of a movement together with the other person, a tension towards something or somewhere, a common action, a sense of solidarity within the frame of a shared intent. The people I have ever felt closest to have been something more than friends: they have been comrades.
Of course, I accept the political connotations of the word. But with a difference. Like political comrades, we were bound by a common desire and a common tension. Differently from them, however, our desires and tensions could not be limited by the dogma of some abstract ideals, let alone pre-existing ideologies. Between us, there was something that originated from us alone.
There was still motion between us was exactly it, the noun I was trying to look for.

What was it then?
Apart from in my friendships, I have encountered it in other places, in which I have never set foot but with my mind. In books, in films, in stories I met it countless times. And it had a name, then. A name so common, so simple, and that we all have long known. In those books that I used to read as a child, it was clearly stated, as a whole literary genre.
Finally I found it.
It was adventure.

Adventure!

Federico Campagna
The Last Night: Anti-work, Atheism, Adventure

A Vanishing Breed of Writer

I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.

William Gaddis — from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976

Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing


Insidious, that’s my one word summary for Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing, ‘proceeding in a gradual, subtle way’ confirms the dictionary, ‘but with very harmful effects’. Like insomnia. I finished Nobody is Ever Missing forty-eight hours ago unsure whether I enjoyed reading Lacey’s story. Sometimes that happens and a few hours later I’ve forgotten a story, other times it won’t leave me. It encroaches on my thoughts like a screwworm, burrowing deeply.

There are many ways in which Nobody is Ever Missing could be different, even better. For the first forty pages I was going to abandon the book, leave it on my commuter train for someone else to give a fuck. The following paragraph was almost the moment to quit:

She pulled over in front of a café with a sign that said THE INTERNET. I got out of the car and the old lady said, Good luck, take care, and I didn’t know what I was going to spend any good luck on or what I could care for, but I said, Thank you, because that’s what you do

That’s the cutesy note that puts me off a shedload of American literature, normally time to give up, but something of Lacey’s voice kept me reading. The deftness of narrative control whilst depicting the inchoate narrator’s chaotic inner monologue is thrilling and really smart. The way that Lacey handles the passage between monologue and narrative creates a fluidity that sustains the compulsion to read on. There’s also a lightness of touch that situates the story almost, but not quite, on the razor edge of comedy , awaiting a turn to the comic, but the turn never comes. Instead it spirals into deepening notes of darkness, but without losing its place on that razor’s edge.

Forty-eight hours later Lacey’s story is still playing on my mind. The ending is brilliant. It doesn’t allow you to leave the story behind. I don’t know if I enjoyed the book, but I want to read more of Lacey’s work. As a début, it is staggeringly good.

Homogenisation of Perceptual Experience

Philosopher Bernard Stiegler has written widely on the consequences of what he sees as the homogenization of perceptual experience within contemporary culture. He is especially concerned with the global circulation of mass-produced “temporal objects,” which, for him, includes movies, television programs, popular music, and video clips. Stiegler cites the advent of widespread internet use in the mid 1990s as the decisive turning point (his key date is 1992) in the impact of these industrial audiovisual products. Over the last two decades, he believes, they have been responsible for a “mass synchronisation” of consciousness and memory. The standardisation of experience on such a large scale, he argues, entails a loss of subjective identity and singularity; it also leads to the disastrous disappearance of individual participation and creativity in the making of the symbols we all exchange and share. His notion of synchronisation is radically unlike what I referred to earlier as shared temporalities, in which the co-presence of differences and otherness could be the basis for provisional publics or communities. Stiegler concludes there is an ongoing destruction of the “primordial narcissism” essential for a human being to care for themselves or for others, and he points to the many episodes of mass murder/suicide as ominous results of this widespread psychic and existential damage. He calls urgently for the creation of counter-products that might reintroduce singularity into cultural experience and somehow disconnect desire from the imperatives of consumption.

A paragraph from Jonathan Crary’s bold 24/7, an important book that demands a personal reaction.

Stepping Lightly on the Volcano

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For months on first knowing you, I said to myself here’s one of these talkers. They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them. Because everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling – when Lytton seemed to be dying – well yes: I can’t go into that, even now. But to my surprise, as time went on, I found that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I can’t imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano.

Letter to Ethel Smyth (1931)
Virginia Woolf