Difficulty/Overintellectuality

“INTERVIEWER

What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.

[GEOFFREY] HILL

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. I think we’re dealing with a phantom, or as Blake would say, a specter. The intellect—as the word is used generally—is a kind of specter, a false imagination, and it binds the majority with exactly the kind of mind-forged manacles that Blake so eloquently described. The intelligence is, I think, much more true, a true relation, a true accounting of what this elusive quality is. I think intelligence has a kind of range of sense and allows us to contemplate the coexistence of the conceptual aspect of thought and the emotional aspect of thought as ideally wedded, troth-plight, and the circumstances in which this troth-plight can be effected are to be found in the medium of language itself. I could speak about the thing more autobiographically; it’s the emphasis where one is most likely to be questioned, n’est-ce pas?”

—From Hill’s Paris Review interview.

‘Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.’

“Another aspect of Beckett’s figurative language is its tendency to resist absolutes. Specifying too much when speaking about indistinct mental constructs heightens the risk of settling on inauthentic facsimiles. Beckett’s language is therefore characterised by equivocation and ambivalence; his heroes continually posit and question, affirm and negate. This ambiguity prevents the crystallisation of spurious images of the self or of the world and counters the tendency of language to transform what is imperfectly apprehended into a caricature of its remote original.

If Beckett seems habitually to question every hypothesis, it is not because he is a perpetual naysayer who denies all positive ideas or values. Nihilism is itself an assertive position that, like other dogma, must be tested. Beckett’s heroes therefore challenge the validity even of the methods they use for testing and questioning; it would be simplistic to report to an extreme like negating every proposition.

Implicit in Beckett’s skeptical method is a prohibition against the predictability and easy cynicism of absolute negation. This sometimes leads to a wary endorsement of positive ideas or an unexpected glimmer of affirmation at the end of the via dolorosa. The antitheses Beckett used are related to paradoxes, litotes, oxymorons—figurative elements that in their syntheses of contraries sometimes lead to positive concepts. Such syntheses occur in many of Beckett’s works; after the process of chopping away, subtle, complex ideas begin to emerge, their profundity enhanced by the beauty of Beckett’s spare prose.

Thus, along with demonstrating how logical constructs and reasoned explanations can prove fruitless, Beckett shows how the act of abandoning conventional modes of thought can lead to more promising alternatives. This is hinted at in a conversation Celia has with Murphy: “she began to understand,” the narrator wryly observes, “as soon as he gave up trying to explain” (p. 67).”

—Rubin Rabinovitz, Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction

 

Rosemarie Waldrop: practise and philosophy of translation

“A student asks what sustained me in translating so many volumes of Jabès. I say: Envy and pleasure in destruction.
I am not altogether joking, Destruction is unavoidable. Sound, sense, form, reference will never again stand in the same relation to each other. I have to break apart this ‘seemingly natural fusion’ of elements, melt it down to–what? The ‘genetic code’ of the work I have called it, following Novalis who contrasts a superficial ‘symptomatic imitation’ with ‘genetic’ imitation.’ It is a state in which the finished work is dissolved back into a state of fluidity, of potential, of ‘molten lava’ (Harold de Campos)–not unlike the ‘state of dissolution’ in which ‘reality is contained in language,’ according to Wilhelm von Humboldt. In this state the translator will be able, with a mix of imagination and understanding, to penetrate into the work and re-create it.

There is pleasure in the destruction because it makes the work mine. It is the same ‘no’ to what already exists that is a crucial part of all making, even a translation. Destruction is part of creation. It provides the energy.
Envy provides the impulse. August Wilhelm Schlegel admits: ‘I cannot look at my neighbour’s poetry without immediately coveting it with all my heart, so that I am the prisoner of continuous poetical adultery.’ Just so have I loved and coveted Jabès work. A work so rich in pleasures, with such scope, such depth that is has fed my own thinking endlessly, has taken me into metaphysical dimensions that are not in my own ‘nature.’ How could I not want to have written it?
Together, I say, these two vices have allowed me to write a work that I could never have written on my own.” p.23

It was compelled by such an impulse that I bought an old typewriter and copied Lispector’s novel Água Viva, to feel what it was like to write something so extraordinary.

There is no better book than Waldrop’s at describing a philosophy and practise of translation.

“When I say I make Jabès work ‘mine,’ I do not at all mean adapting him to ‘my style.’ On the contrary, I want to ‘write Jabès’ in English, write à l écoute de Jabès, write listening to his French.
My translation process always moves through three stages–I should say four, actually, because there is of course a preliminary stage of intense reading, which, together with my first round of writing (interlinear, almost word for word) attempts to understand the work, Antoine Berman is right that a translator’s understanding if ‘different from a hermeneutico-critical comprehension.’ It aims more at retracing the author’s steps, his creative process, than at analysing how the finished product fits within its culture. as Valéry puts it:

Translating . . . makes us try to step into the vestiges of the author’s footprints; not to fashion one text out of another, but to go back from this one to the virtual epoch of its formulation, to the phase where the state of mind is that of an orchestra whose instruments awaken, call out to one another, try to be in tune before the concert.

In the second round, I do not look at the French. I must separate myself from its authority. I treat the mess of the first draft (which is neither French nor quite English) as if it were a draft of my own, though with a sense of the text’s intentionality in mind. I try to reproduce, re-create it in English. The importance of this stage of separation cannot be exaggerated, and I am still grateful that I was very early pointed in this direction by Justin O’Brien.
In the third round, I go back to dialogue with the French and try to wrestle the English as close to the French as possible.
It is hard to say if one stage is more important than another. Each is only possible once I have gone through the preceding one. I can only write an English text once I have ‘understood’ the French. I can only get close to the French once I have a text that can stand by itself as a text in English. With Jabès, much of the work at the third stage has been on syntax, on letting the sentences approach again the length of the French ones, on trying to catch the rhythm of the paragraphs.” p. 27-28

Rosemarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès.

For a decade: 33 theses, reflections, quotes

In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:

  1. “The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
  2. Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
  3. Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
  4. “Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
  5. Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
  6. “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
  7. Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
  8. Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
  9. “If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
  10. There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
  11. There are also good and bad readers
  12. “I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
  13. Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
  14. Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
  15. “Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
  16. The Death of the Author is a delusion
  17. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
  18. We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
  19. “As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
  20. Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
  21. Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
  22. Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
  23. Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
  24. The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
  25. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
  26. Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
  27. More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
  28. All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
  29. Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
  30. “My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
  31. “How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
  32. I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
  33. ” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector

To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.

 

A Snowbound Weekend’s Reading

‘ – a love can sometimes cease / in the extinguishing of an eye / and what we come to see / is love’s extinguished eye.’ These lines from Ingeborg Bachmann (t. Peter Filkins), who I must read this year. Poetry, prose, more. Love ceases of writers’ work I once thought indispensable. This hazard of re-reading. A one-time companion now seems over-sentimental, another so riddled with cliché that the work is unreadable.

And yet a new discovery still has the capacity to rob me of sleep, lines rolling around and over, even hissed in the middle of a dream. Anna Kamieńska: there is little in translation of her fifteen books of poetry and two books of notebooks. (These edited and translated by by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon.)

‘So it’s necessary to keep on shedding skin . . .
We live among question marks’

‘Yes
even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, last year’s discovery. Something shifted after reading her Book of Communities (t. Audrey Young), and my reading keeps circling the same question marks, the unbeliefs. I’m not in any hurry to read the last two books of Llansol’s trilogy. There is little of her small body of work in translation but I’m told more is forthcoming.

This snowbound weekend afforded time to read. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginning of Spring confirmed I’m not the reader for her elegant comedies of manners. I also read Kate Zambreno’s latest, Appendix Project, essays and talks based on sections excised from her remarkable Book of Mutter. I may have more to say on these. Zambreno’s writing gets richer with each book.

Jean Starr Untermeyer’s Private Collection

“Throughout this narrative I have confined myself largely to one aspect of my life, since circumstances, and it may be, destiny itself, placed my adult life chiefly among the literary. For the sake of formal veracity, I have kept my communications for the most part within the framework of the literary art and its makers. For that is what it is–merely a framework of an inner activity so personal, so probing, so demanding, so unceasing, that I can scarcely hint at it.”

A perspective of art, particularly poetry and music, as a pinnacle of its age, as an embodiment of vital personality in contrast to, and refuge from, vapidity and conformism, is implied in Jean Starr Untermeyer’s literary memoirs, as well as the personalities that are her subjects.

Wittgenstein often expressed the idea that philosophy should only be written as one would write poetry. (“I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written as form of poetic composition.”) This belief goes to the core of what Hermann Broch thought to be the primary function of the novel. Inevitably, in the finest chapter of Untermeyer’s memoir she relates the experience of working with Broch on the simultaneous translation into English of his The Death of Virgil. The word for word, comma by comma, translation partnership is fascinating to read about as the tension rose towards the book’s publication. This five-year literary engagement to turn into English a deeply philosophical work that Stefan Zweig deemed untranslatable is extraordinary and would have perhaps failed but for the impact Broch’s work made to Untermeyer’s life, her absorption in the task almost an act of therapy for the losses, both actual and spiritual, that preceded it.

It isn’t just the Broch relationship that makes this memoir compelling. Untermeyer and her husband made their lives among poets, musicians and artists in America and Europe, and this book tells of a lifetime of verse recitations, music making and intellectual discussion. It is a portrait of what appears from today’s perspective a golden age.

[That my edition of these memoirs is a presentation copy that Jean Starr Untermeyer gave in person to the poet Bryher makes it an especially valuable addition to my library.]

Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers

‘Literature is always an impatience on the part of knowledge.’ Sontag quotes Broch’s formula, going on to say, ‘Broch’s gifts for patience were rich enough to produce those great, patient novels The Death of Virgil and The Sleepwalkers, and to inform a grandly speculative intelligence.’ Patient in that The Sleepwalkers is a leisurely novel of ideas, preoccupied with the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its cultural legacy, as well as the decay of values and moral bankruptcy that accompanied the shift from a medieval metaphysics rooted in a world as a manifestation of God, to the nihilism of the early twentieth century.

Psychoanalysis is arguably the Austro-Hungarian empire’s enduring legacy, as conceived by Freud and Americanised by exiles who, like Broch, found themselves in America during and beyond the Second World War. In his trilogy The Sleepwalkers, Broch weaves psychoanalytic treatment of the characters into all three novels, interspersed in the third novel with lengthy digressions on the ‘Disintegration of Values’. These are often only loosely connected with the surrounding text and serve to distance a reader.

Broch viewed Christianity as emerging from a diminished paganism and reaching its bankruptcy in the modern day, ‘a five-hundred-year dissolution of values.’ With no successor value system to adopt, contemporary man, he argued, is a sleepwalker suspended between the decline of one system and a system yet to be conceived.

This novel is his way of exploring the consequences of this state on different socio-economic classes and psychologies. It is in some sense a philosophical novel but never gets too bogged down with the abstractions of German philosophy, and in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation, a reader can at least be reassured of the work’s literary merits.

It was an absorbing place to spend a couple of weeks, reflecting on an endlessly intriguing historical period. Is anything in history more fascinating that the last, decadent days of a dying empire? Its exploration of the degradation of values remains highly relevant. Its form and style kept the project from becoming turgid and, unlike the longueurs of The Magic Mountain, I only once felt it necessary to skip the philosophical digressions (and went back to it a day later.)