The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

Narrating War

“Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World War] that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? . . . A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn street car now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remain unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny fragile human body.”

Benjamin, The Storyteller.

A poignant text, of course. Something of the reality of mechanised warfare silences the storyteller. A particular relationship between the breaking of narrative frames and the shattering of the world. Sebald, Semprun push the same questions. Just a few notes, maybe something more another time.

Sebald, Benjamin – Life-Bio-Mapping

In Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle,  he wrote, “Memories, even when they go into great breadth, do not always represent an autobiography.” Memories may appear as text in Benjamin’s fragmentary reminiscences of Berlin, but his explorations go deeper than memoir, in a form that dissolves genre, and widens its reach to embrace philosophical and political concerns.

Adorno wrote, it “was as if [Benjamin] had paid a horrible price for the metaphysical power of what he saw and what he attempted to express in infallible words; as if he spoke as a dead man in return for his ability to recognise, with sobriety and calm, things which the living are not normally capable of recognising.” The same observation could so easily have been made of Sebald. Both Adorno and Benjamin were important influences on Sebald’s thought and writing, their books filled his library more than any other writers.

Since reading Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz six years ago I’ve been accumulating Sebald’s other published works. I’d mentally categorised the four ‘prose fictions’ (Sebald’s preferred term) as the great works, and fully expected the poems and literary essays to be minor augmentations. After reading After Nature and A Place in the Country, I now see that Sebald defies this sort of canonical classification.

His books, regardless of form, are one vast symbiotic composition; the form changes but the labyrinth assembly of memory, places, personalities, images and recollections is undeviating across all the work. In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote, “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life-bios-graphically on a map.” In his mapping of subjective histories, Sebald completes what Benjamin began.

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

Ten Outstanding Books That Combine Walking and Thinking

Inspired by Verso Books’ excellent Guide to Political Walking, below is my guide to books that effortlessly combine walking, with musing about culture, literature, politics and geography, a form of exercise that I endorse.

  1. Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
  2. A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor
  3. Wildwood – Roger Deakin
  4. The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
  5. The Arcades Project – Walter Benjamin
  6. London Orbital – Iain Sinclair
  7. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways – Phil Smith
  8. A Field Guide to Getting Lost  – Rebecca Solnit
  9. Psychogeography by Will Self
  10. The Lost Art of Walking – Geoff Nicholson

I’ll also point you to Paul K. Lyons’ compelling straight line walk across London, which some enterprising publisher ought to pick up.

Please make suggestions of any books that ought to expand this list.

Unburdening and Unpacking

Throughout packing to move to a new house on Friday, my recurring thought was: when and why did I acquire so much stuff? I’m not alluding to the two thousand books that were carefully, lovingly boxed up for the relocation. I can rationalise the books, satisfactorily at least to my wife and daughter, who more than share my passion for reading. It was the other stuff that made me feel bilious: casual (mostly minor) purchases, gifts, evidence of complacent consumption. In theory, I am revolted by the seduction of consumerism, shopping turned into a pastime rather than the acquisition of needed goods. In practise, I have been seduced into a near-bovine acquisition of needless baubles.

Resolved, I partly alleviated my biliousness by making several expeditions to charity shops and the local dump. Unpacking items, in the same disposition, has lead to further similar journeys, and a sincere intention to continue to unencumber myself of under-used possessions. I am resolved to build a stronger resistance to the allure of the market-place

Last night I began to unbox my books, and shelve them in what I have pompously termed ‘the library’. Is it conceivable to unpack a library without recalling Walter Benjamin’s admirable essay? Although the boxes of books are meticulously labelled, alphabetically by writer’s surname, I am shelving them unsystematically, with no attempt of sorting the books by name, genre, colour or any other classification; they are being shelved as randomly as is humanly possible. Am I nuts? How will I ever find the book I am seeking?

I want fortuitous discovery; to enter the library seeking a particular book and be waylaid, hijacked by an author I haven’t read for ages or perhaps at all (such examples are all too abundant in my collection of books). The randomness may drive me nuts and find me within a month staying up into the small hours to impose order. Already I am enjoying the juxtapositions thrown up by a lack of order: would Edward Said enjoy being nestled up to Hannah Arendt? Perhaps not, but it brings a smile to my lips.

Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag

Rare are those artists whose incandescence stretches to both writing fiction and literary essays: Coetzee, Woolf, Kundera. Though she preferred to be thought a novelist Susan Sontag’s fiction is grandiloquent, best avoided or as she says of Antonin Artaud “rewarding to … read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.” Sontag’s form was the essay where her mastery of language, erudition and pedagogic skill achieved its apotheosis. Whatever topic, Sontag’s essays are a joy to read, an adroitness she shares with Geoff Dyer and Gabriel Josipovici.

Under the Sign of Saturn includes a diverse selection of topics. My favourite is the essay on cultural extremist Antonin Artaud, of whom I knew little before. His attempt to create “total art,” an environment that was “magical, paroxysmic, purgative, and, finally opaque” was fascinating and sadly foredoomed, but what a noble ambition. I cannot decide whether I wish to go down the Artaud rathole, tempted though I am.

Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the numerous descriptions he gives of his pain that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy.

In other essays, Sontag unforgivingly, but necessarily, refutes the attempt to whitewash Leni Riefenstahl’s history as chief Nazi propagandist film-maker, and unpicks how fascist regalia was adopted for sexual theatre. She writes brilliantly of Walter Benjamin’s attraction to astrology and subjects him to a Saturnine  analysis. There are shorter, but illuminating, pieces on Barthes and Canetti.

The latter essay spurred me to follow these essays with Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé (1946).

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.

An Infinite Amount of Hope

Odd figures recur in the tales of Kafka and Walser, childlike yet with the potential for duplicity. That the assistants in The Castle have their prototype in Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten did not escape Coetzee’s attention.

In Illuminations Walter Benjamin likens these resolute figures to the gandharvas of Indian mythology: “celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state.”

Benjamin retells Brod’s account of a conversation with Kafka:

‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”

Benjamin adds, ‘These words provide a bridge to those extremely strange figures in Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle, and for whom there may be hope.’

Notes On Translation

My reading of Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, a thought provoking book, offered up this question:

Is [a] text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

When reading a translated text, currently Walter Benjamin’s collection of essays Illuminations, and specifically his essay The Task of the Translator, this question is unavoidable.

Richard of The Existence Machine raised the same question recently to reply to an argument that, “… if you can’t read Handke in German don’t bother since Handke’s main interest is the language.” Thomas Bernhard made an analogous point:, “[Translation] doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.”

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator requires time to unpick. The essential substance of a work of literature is not its words or sentences, it is what is contained in addition to this information: the unfathomable, the ‘poetic’. The role of a (good) translator is to render this mysterious quality in a new translation. Rendering the unfathomable ‘perfectly’ in a new language is impossible, but the translator aspires towards  a ‘language of truth’, transcending the original and the translated language: “If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is – the true language’.

The task of the translator is finding and communicating the artist’s intention, a successful translation produces an echo of the original: “The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter’.

To strive for linguistic fidelity is almost always an error, truer the further away a translator is from the origin of a work: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully”.

Benjamin, like Pound, sees a translator as extending the life of a literary work, as each generation translates a static original: “For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a translation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change”.

As Alberto Manguel has said, “Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today”. Yet what are we to do while Borges awaits the translator who is able to unlock his intention. Not reading Borges, even in a flawed translation is an unsatisfactory but acceptable compromise. To end with another quotation from Grossman.

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable.