California Literary Review

Nick Bottom’s Blessing

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March 26th, 2007 at 12:24 am

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Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated!
— Peter Quince, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

When it comes to Literature, what is meant by “intercultural exchange”? Presumably, that what writers throughout the world today create in their various languages must be reciprocally interesting per se to all other writers. After all, writers are creatures distinguished by curiosity: in principle, nothing human is alien to them, no matter what their personal moral bias, their intellectual predilection, their political obligations and/or ideals.

First, a proviso: we cannot assume that when we have decided what “intercultural exchange” means, it will have unexceptionably the same value for others, or even, again per se, that it must be a good thing for all concerned. Consider for instance the poet who stands as the great source of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, for whom the works of the Enlightenment meant everything because they marked the end of the Medieval era and the possible entrance of Russia into the contemporary European community at a time when the cultural power of the Ancien Régime could be imagined as nearing its demise — although nearly a century had to elapse before it was certifiably dead in Europe — when its Czarist imperium metamorphosed after 1922 into the plutocracy of a police state, from which it devolved into Stalin’s terrorized totalitarian society, which is presently reverting to corporatist despotism. But one also remembers a remark made by Henry David Thoreau, Pushkin’s American contemporary, in his great book, WALDEN. Thoreau was taking note of his countrymen’s jubilation over the connection of Maine to Texas by means of the first telegraph line. While conceding it was a technological marvel, he also expressed skepticism about its worth, remarking that, though it was all very well if Maine and Texas could now talk with each other over a thousand miles — suppose Texas and Maine had nothing to say to one another? Perhaps he was not being simply ironic; indeed his question was soon revealed to have been profound. Thoreau did not live to see the Civil War commence seven years after WALDEN was published; but that tragic event of American history demonstrated that vast Texas, a slaveholding region, and tiny Maine, a state fiercely committed to the abolition of black slavery in America, had nothing whatever to communicate!

That example may caution us to be wary of applauding exchanges, when even those occurring between different regions of one nation are fraught with immanent death and destruction. Nevertheless, it is also a truism that the history of literature in great civilizations is a history of intercultural exchange, for words have been carried across frontiers and through societies on papyrus, vellum, parchment and bamboo, translated in all senses of the word, and knowledge of the gods as well as ideas about the physical world have traveled in the form of such (re)written, and altogether other words. Until the printing press and paper became common in the West, which arrived late with the Renaissance, a good deal more was carried in the form of speech, as the study of oral literature, folktales, mythology and epic poetry has taught us during the past two hundred years.

In short, the history of literature, both oral and written, has from its beginnings been a history of exchange; moreover and obviously a history of inspiration across vast spaces and during long periods of time — as for example the ancient romance of Tristan and Iseult that some have called the quintessential Western European romance may be seen to contain at its heart the essential story narrated by a great Persian epic, VIS AND RAMIN, composed in Isfahan in the middle of the 11th Century. No student of literary history would question the immense power and influence of such transfers; most scholarship devotes itself to tracing their course over time; and most writers hope for some fame derived from alien languages as well as the relative immortality such exchanges can confer.

Yet the question of influence, if it leads to “inspiration,” remains a complicated matter. I will pose what follows in the form of a problem and a question. Pardon me if I simplify things.

*

As our education taught us, within the history of literature the idea of tradition contains the chronological record of the vicissitudes experienced by the genres of prose and verse — whether the works that have been passed down were historical, dramatic, poetic, fictional, philosophical, or scientific — as well as the abstracted structure of the modes of thought and expression of a language known as rhetoric or philosophy. Tradition expresses and distinguishes the characteristics of certain peoples and nations, so that we can recognize what is peculiar, for instance, to Scandinavian epics, to Hellenistic romances, to Persian heroic tales, and the like. Tradition in this latter sense, according to Ezra Pound, is the succession of masterpieces that make up the literature of a nation or a civilization; tradition is what the writer must confront; and the individual talent, as T.S. Eliot put it, must accommodate itself to the ghostly company of those great works, altering itself in the process, while subtly altering our perception of the ranking within that pantheon. Writers are not merely awed by the great ones of tradition; writers are inspired by them, whether positively or adversely is unimportant. One would never know how to recognize an anti-hero, for instance, were it not for the old models teaching the idea of the hero and ideals of the heroic.

Furthermore, “Tradition,” as we rather self-consciously know it in our scholarly and critical era, is composed of the past, the several pasts, of the many languages in any one family of languages; it is the chronicle of their flowering and decay, or development and decline — all of which goes into the tapestry of the modes of expression we contemplate, and which, as Eliot so well said, gives us our sense of the presentness of the past, as well as showing us the pastness of the past. (Of course, when Eliot said those things he was rationalizing (and justifying) his pastiche, “The Wasteland,” a poem that demonstrates brilliantly what sort of inspiration the past and its various traditions provided that learnèd poet.

That relationship of the writer to the past has not changed, especially because, as the other arts amply illustrate, we live in an archival civilization, in which the expressive forms of the past are easily accessible, assembled in museums, catalogued in libraries, published annually by the tens of thousands in mass reproductions as prints and recordings, exemplars and titles of both old and new. How could there fail to be a universal influence from the past, together with its corresponding inspiration; and how could the future — with communications satellites sitting in orbit around the globe and broadcasting language and music, television and films, and soon all previously-written books resident in cyberspace and easily drawn down from the servers of the worldwide web — fail to project and provide universally the forms of the arts, commercial and popular, or the more complex creations of independent artists? Loudspeakers can be heard day and night, and information (where not suppressed) travels with the speed of light, illuminating the little screens toted everywhere.

This archival civilization and its global dissemination is something we in Western nations have known throughout most of our lives; its far-reaching effects are rather too familiar. We know that a Neruda would not have been the Neruda of the CANTO GENERAL without Walt Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS; or Symbolisme what it was without Edgar Allan Poe, or T.S.Eliot, Eliot, without Laforgue and Corbière; or Fuentes Fuentes, or Marquez Marquez, without James Joyce; or even Joyce himself Joyce sans Homer, Dante, and Flaubert, to mention a few of the many writers we hear echoed in reading him. Our literacy is constituted of previous cultural exchanges. Given the reality of exchanges and their consequences for literary art, we are also beginning to recognize inherent troubling aspects: we may celebrate those tradings in the study of what is termed “comparative literature,” but we ought nevertheless to feel some anxiety about it.

For instance, Americans cannot believe that our Edgar Allan Poe is the Edgar Poe understood by Baudelaire and Mallarmé, although something of the French Poe returned to American writing, transmogrified into something strange and powerful, as late as the 1950’s, when Nabokov was composing a tour de force, LOLITA. This odd recycling of hand-me-downs suggests our problem regarding exchange in our immediate yet passing present, not some “eternal present” of the literary pantheon. What is interesting is the relativity — not the relations — of cultures between which exchanges occur. This relativity arises from the ineluctable fact that diverse and various cultures, while interfacing today, even while subsisting coterminously, do not run parallel to each other, nor at the same velocity. Indeed, they are not to be located in the same temporality, neither with respect to their social organization, their economic and political structure, nor their literary history — and certainly not with respect to whatever intention or meaning their writers express.

A writer — any artist for that matter — perforce addresses an audience that shares the cultural moment. Literature is said to be a family affair; and we know that each family has its private language. (As far as that metaphor goes, we are also aware that communication between grandparents, parents, and children of the same family is usually difficult enough, since in our day these generations themselves live in different, sometimes fatally-separated and even opposed worlds, so accelerated is social change.) Moreover, even within the same society, different groups or communities may be found in separate zones of time. Black playwrights, for example, began to enter mainstream American theater in the 1950’s, while their work was usually fabricated in the dramatic idiom of the 1930’s: they were after all writing for Black audiences receptive to the Realist mode, who would have been baffled by plays offered in the style of the Absurdists derived from Beckett and Ionescu. August Wilson, our most prominent contemporary Black playwright, has written his work in the mode of the later Eugene O’Neill, who died when Wilson was eight years old. Again, for instance, when in the 1980s I offered my translations of contemporary Bulgarian poetry to the editor of a “vanguard” magazine, he rejected them, saying that “such work did not belong to the history of 20th Century poetry.” When I suggested that the Bulgarian poets did not by and large share what had happened in Europe after Appollinaire, but were on the other hand in direct continuity with their own tradition, he replied, in effect, “So much the worse for them,” because their work was of “little interest in the light of the task facing poetry for the rest of this century.” In brief, what Bulgaria offered to exchange with the West was not from his point of view worthy of the least consideration. (Of course, that editor believed he himself knew what “the task” of poetry in our time must be. That is a bathetic example of the deplorable effects of the politicization of the arts since Lenin & Company, Hitler, later on Mao, and recently our Anglophone academics besotted with a belated French enthusiasm for pre-World War II German linguistic Phenomenalism and Existentialism.)

Again, a rather interesting discussion took place in the 1980’s in the People’s Republic of China. Their society stood on a truly vast, supreme literary achievement; yet there was sudden heated controversy over the novel use of what is by now a rather old device in European fiction: stream-of-consciousness narrative. Also, in China, a proposal to translate D. H. Lawrence’s LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, an old-fashioned Romantic novel even when it was written in 1926, was summarily rejected. Why that should have appeared a threat to Mao’s authorities puzzled me, though there were to be sure the issues of Lawrence’s teaching on society and the individual embedded in that late novel — for Lawrence himself had forcefully rejected Europe’s socialist revolutions by 1922, and by 1924 its nascent and noxious programs of collectivism. (Incidentally, when LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER was the subject of a censorship trial in England about 45 years ago, the Queen’s Counsel argued in his prosecution that it was dangerous for such a work to appear in an inexpensive, mass-market, paperback edition of 400,000 because it might all-too easily fall into the hands of factory-workers, girls and women, whose morals it would corrupt … his implication being that there still existed a chasm between the literary sophistication of the middle and upper classes and the newly-literate women of the working class. What he could not say in a democracy in 1960 was that Constance Lady Chatterley had forsaken her crippled, impotent, aristocratic husband for a man of the people, which is the romantic theme of the novel — that would have suggested the prosecution was implicitly terming its publication an act of provocation — even though he was attempting to censor the book on snobbish, upper-class grounds. And that would have shown itself patently absurd after Atlee’s long Labor Party rule. But how could such a theme have been repugnant to China, where Maoist ideology extolled the supreme virtue of the common people? Yet again, plays by Arabs, Egyptians and Palestinians for example, are nowadays written in the agit-prop Soviet style of the 1920’s; more or less non-Marxist, it is tribal theater, or wouldbe nationalist, blending propaganda with the mores of epical heroism derived from the 11th or 12th Centuries. Medieval metaphors like bloody swords are constantly brandished by Muslim preachers of war on the television today, who swear to drink the blood of their enemies, as well as shedding it daily far and wide.

Such examples are commonplace in much contemporary literature that originates in time zones scattered as it were everywhere in by-gone centuries. It is not because vanished epochs, with their ruins, memorabilia and echoing souvenirs cannot serve as inspirational models for contemporary writers, but because writers from widely heterogeneous societies are writing from today’s actual cultures, many of which are utterly remote from the present calendar days of the West. Some of these cultures are recognizable from earlier pages of our own history books. Nonetheless, they live elsewhere, tribe by tribe and village by village, despite a garnishment of quartz-movement wrist-watches, iPods, portable video players and cellphones easily adapted as detonators for bombs. They may brandish Kalashnikov submachine guns and lug ground-to-air missiles; they may drive a fleet of tanks and parade the rest of the awesome armory of techno-militarism, none of it a product of their own cultural history, but purchased and shipped in from other parts of the world. Some of several such societies banking in Switzerland, say, have ominously regressed from their 17th-century condition; others are trying to hold fast to the 14th-century regardless of their dependence on transistor-controlled air-conditioning, Mercedes-Benz limousines, personal jets, and arrays of computer terminals, meanwhile soaking in sloughs of 12th-century nostalgia and sectarian dogma; whereas still others remain marooned in eras timeless on any scale — where, despite the occasional appearance of vaccines and helicopters, trade in transistors and ballpoint pens, they live mired in dissolving clay villages left over from the disintegration of empires that once dominated desert and jungle. Ulan Bator in remotest Mongolia stomps to a rock-music beat of today’s downloaded music.

So the question is, What is being exchanged with what? And, Who gets what from whom?

*

Today’s journalism with its global network of instantaneous communications has never rightly comprehended the fact of the world’s historical heterogeneity. Journalism absurdly reports the utterance of rulers and bureaucrats, elites and functionaries, armed megalomaniacs, the bandits and guerrillas commanding all kinds of societies, who announce their Truths in the lingua franca of the media. As though the discussions between leaders of European nations and the rulers in the Near East, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, parts of South America, or even east of the Urals, were more or less direct, clear, unimpeded speech between peoples inhabiting one and the same century! They certainly are not. It is not a question of distance; it is one of time — and times. In point of fact, not only the variety of languages must be translated to permit intercultural exchange, but the contexts of complete human worlds. That is not possible. And it’s not merely a question of power, but of unequal, disparate and disproportionate, utterly mistaken communication. Misunderstanding is inevitable and unavoidable. There cannot exist or be invented any “common ground” between cultural eras without reducing both partners in the exchange to some lowest denominator or superimposing one upon the other — which is tantamount to obliterating of the essential nature of one if not the other as well. Anthropologically speaking, it may always be the case that contact between contemporary cultures existing in different time zones results in the disruption of traditional, or archaic, orders of society; in short, ineluctable change. William Golding’s novel, THE INHERITORS, put such a case in terms of Neanderthal versus Cro-Magnon. The “direction” of change need not be “progressive,” need not lead towards “higher human values.” Those who have undergone such change scarcely regard their adaptation and consequent alteration as an improvement of the individual’s mental or spiritual lot. Physical survival may seem the essential value for cultures or ethnic sub-groups though in a generation or two the essence of a group’s identity may be lost. What was once expressed in its literature, can never be understood even by its own posterity; and certainly not by any successor culture. It has been aptly said that the past is a foreign place. Emerson remarked poignantly that he was depressed in a museum exhibiting the clothing of his grandparents: what was missing was the light of life in the eyes of the dummies dressed in those “costumes.”

Hence we return to the question: Are cultural exchanges in literature good per se? Must they be pursued as the blessing of “diversity,” currently the shibboleth in American education and politics? Paper, porcelain, pasta and powder for guns reached Europe from China with silks and spices; but what was taken up in poetry, for instance, during the 20th Century? The simplistic reduction of ideographs in Chinese poetry emerged as the theoretical foundation of Imagism. Although it meant to attack that legacy of overwrought “poetic” language from the latter part of the 19th Century, it was misunderstood, whether deliberately or not, by Ezra Pound. What was touted as a revolutionary poetic technique contained in itself no hint of of the prosody and music of Chinese poetry. As if Chinese poetry consisted merely of characters that could be transliterated into the pidgin of brief verse! During the same period, Futurism and Modernism were rejected and destroyed in the Soviet Union. So was Surrealism in 1930. Those who were the commissars of culture recognized Dada too as a threat to Stalin’s form of “socialism,” which had been directed to engineer the human soul. It may have been a policy similar to the prohibition of stream-of-consciousness fiction in the People’s Republic of China mentioned earlier. And one should recall that Jonathan Swift, a master of the English language, feared in the 1740s that the degeneration of the word had already begun in his time, carried by a wave of barbarism he termed “Gothicism.” Swift believed the “Goths” were in fact at the gates of the civilized mind (though Romanticism did not reveal the full power of its sentimental grotesqueries until the 1820s.).

*

For all that, I think writers are interested in and excited by wares offered in other languages and cultures, possibly because they are exotic, possibly because bygone, even forgotten and lost modes of thought can seem novel; but most of all because their inherited, inveterate or fossilized local tradition seems tiresome and too-familiar, even exhausted — a form of hebetude and paralysis, the simulacrum of death. Whereas the exotic comes to shake the sleeper awake, to shock us alert, to infect us like a fever against which resistance is useless. Creative writers are not critics and historians: they are constantly on the hunt for ideas, forms, ways to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound exhorted, and seldom reckon the price. Yet a price must be paid, as Swift feared 250 years ago. In the nature of cultural things, it is not, it cannot ever be, anything other than a passage and trade of unlike things. Perhaps it is not an exchange, certainly no equal one, as might be inferred from the word “exchange. ” That this is so is revealed by the fact that censors operating in every despotic, tyrannical, or enslaved society (perhaps still over a majority of the world’s population) are quite aware of the power of intercultural trafficking, especially through the mass media. In a modernizing country like Brazil, for example, the importation of books is still restricted … for economic reasons, it’s said. Granted, the fashion industry has always flourished by recycling archaic and exotic dress for women, whereas exhibitions of the profoundest religious dogma and practices of millennia of Pharaohs have never influenced later theologians.

*

To summarize my notion: despite the network of communications spread around the globe, the last thing communicated is what we may still think of as Literature. The literary work is refractory, fundamentally unassimilable; its cultural ambiance in time, the historical location of its language and people, is intrinsically intractable to transmission without destruction of its unique identity. [Let it be expressed in formula: A = A; but A ≠ B.] Though the Quran, for instance, has been often enough translated, it’s forbidden for the Muslim to pray in words other than the Arabic of the received text, which was declared the words transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet. That surely raises two questions in relation to the problems discussed above.

In the first place, the tradition of the foundation belief of Islam informs us that Gabriel was the “translator” into Arabic of messages from a source it seems the angel was privy to, which (by default) was neither Michael nor Raphael. In the second, Gabriel’s deliverances during 23 years were handed down orally from that higher authority. The first translation into writing (of the first Hadith) from Arabic is said to have been published by Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammed. In other words, if not Arabic, not authentic; merely more or less a facsimile immediately permeated by the speech of another culture. Nevertheless, the “seeker of truth” must be immersed in the original speech itself for prayer, as T.S. Eliot puts it, to be “valid.”

The bizarre phenomenon of religious sects, air-lifted as it were, from their chthonic situations in the Eastern hemisphere, and grafted onto formless and ever-shifting congeries of individuals in the United States, is a vivid instance of one kind of “intercultural” exchange that occurs nowadays. It suggests that exchanges can in their paradoxical way carry a charge of enormous force, despite their being abstracted and filtered through cultural lenses. That they can inspire so many, transcendentally so to say, seems extraordinary. Ultimately, however, adoption leads to conversion; and conversion is an absolute alteration of identity, no matter what outcome was sought. To imagine that translation results in “the same” is at once thoughtless and trivial. What did Gautama write? And after him, what did Jesus write? And in what language did they speak, which was set down, that is, translated, afterward?

*

The basic issue, as it was at any hour in past eras, is, Whether intercultural exchanges are good and bad in their effects? “Good” and “bad” may not be proper terms; nevertheless good and bad are values inherent in the question (and were so taken up when Plato discussed art and poetry in THE REPUBLIC). In Iran today, a Shi’a theocracy clearly declares its political culture and is prepared to enlarge it by promises to use the ultimate weapon of our epoch. There is rigid censorship in almost all Arab nations, with the possible (temporary) exception of Tunisia and Morocco. Degrees of freedom to read, write, publish, let alone to worship are assessed annually in reports from such organs as Freedom House in the US. We are all-too familiar with the previous outcome of fanatic political obscurantism in our Western 20th Century. Despite the deep skepticism of the foregoing review, a decent regard for the history of humanity and any hopes for its future progress towards freedom requires courage to open barriers and borders preventing intercultural exchange. Not because exchanges are harmless — they promise danger — but because in principle at least writers ought not to fear risk. What is precious may well be lost to any culture whose literature is so inspired by another’s as to transform itself. If nothing is gained, so be it. Let it be chalked up to experience, which is history itself. When Thoreau was admonished to remember that past experience is the great teacher of men, he retorted that experience amounted to no more than so many wrecked vessels lying stranded on the beach.

You taught me language ; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you,
For learning me your language !

— Caliban to Prospero, THE TEMPEST

The past, whatever vestiges remain here or there, whether Persian, Mayan, Egyptian, Chinese or whatever, is past. What happens in our own lifetime is part of a present soon to become past. And that cannot be held onto. Yet we make our past; so we’re obliged to make it new, or else to acquiesce in the worn out and meaningless. Certainly, avoiding intercultural exchange in the present, we reiterate our own tradition, so making a sort of past more past. That’s a sign of cultural sclerosis, today’s epidemic disease, one symptomatic in many societies. Each of us may wish to cling to what remains of the past, what we venerate and admire. Whatever may be comprehensible in a tradition, which is little enough, even less is utilizable for the thinking, serious writer. That can include the archaic and primitive, as Picasso showed. But he also inevitably altered everything he touched, as Prospero’s servant Spirit taunted the young lovers:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

— Ariel, THE TEMPEST
Cultural challenge comes from elsewhere to confront us. Because it is other, does not mean it’s good, beautiful, true, or even useful. It may be noxious, ugly, dated, exhausted and obsolete. Intercultural traffic is augmenting today. Advertising, which permeates the media, reveals it most clearly at the high end of goods. Resistance to its flow is likely impossible. Better to open our eyes and ears — since exchange incites recognition of difference, it incurs recognition of ourselves. Exchange is more or less influential. Certainly transformative and more or less inspirational. Nevertheless inevitably misunderstood. In our boosting of diversity, we like to say with the French — and that shrug of indifference which signals avoidance of judgment — Chacun ? son gout. To each his own. We do not hear the implicit, unvoiced corollary: Tant pis! Which says, So much the worse! A relativism relishing diversity for diversity’s sake eschews æsthetic judgment and choice. Both are necessary. And one has to be careful when picking a way through our vast, global bazaar of junk.

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