quinta-feira, novembro 29, 1990

Simultaneous Worlds: "Wittgenstein's Mistress" by David Markson

(Original Review, 1990)

I think the point—or premise?—of Wittgenstein's Mistress is that the monologue of the only person on Earth—necessarily, in the physical sense of "only", a "monologue"—is not actually a monologue. Language itself—emerging or disclosed in and through the concrete words and usage of Kate's 'monologue'—is already communal, social, cultural, historical — even if there's only one person left. Every word and usage that Kate turns to—or that leaps upon her as thought—preexists her usage of it, even as, in dialectical turn, those meanings and values are transformed by her usages. Even a neologism emerges in a preexisting linguistic context, and even a grunt or shriek of emotion comes to be understood linguistically. Not an argument against solipsism, exactly: the premise of the book is that there's no other living person than 'me'! But definitely an argument against linguistic solipsism—against the sense that one can be alone in language. I'd locate Markson's response to Wittgenstein (through this novel) not in either TL-P or PI, but rather in the movement from one to the other: a movement (however broken or gradual) from thinking of language as directly containing and transmitting cargo to thinking of language as constitutive. And maybe, along with the ubiquity of other persons in language—even for the "only" person on Earth—, the ubiquity of loneliness in language—regardless of other persons in language or embodied—.

David Foster Wallace, meanwhile, in his 1990 essay “The Empty Plenum”, is much more emphatic, describing Wittgenstein's Mistress as “a kind of philosophical SF, i.e., it’s an imaginative portrait of what it would be like actually to live in the sort of world the logic and metaphysics of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus posit”. Certainly there are enough connections, lying deeply enough, to make reading the two alongside one another rewarding. Anyone opening the Tractatus to its first page alone would concede that statements like, “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”, “The facts in logical space are the world”, and “The world divides into facts”, speak directly to Markson’s book. So too, lying deeper in Wittgenstein’s text, do “All propositions are of equal value”, “The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy”, and—undeniably—the blunt, “I am my world”.

Markson is an artist. He wasn't interested - thank god - in writing a book of philosophy, but a novel. He takes what interests him from Wittgenstein and leaves what doesn't. I think Wallace's essay, although fascinating and well argued, overdoes the tightness of the links between the novel and Wittgenstein's thought. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel, not a book of philosophy; it isn’t an argument about its subject but an embodiment of it.

Bottom-line: The simultaneous worlds of (a kind of) privacy and (a kind of) community.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sexta-feira, novembro 16, 1990

The Centrality of Honour: "The Iliad" by Homer

First a disclaimer: I don’t have ancient Greek (or any other kind), so please correct or chastise me if I misunderstand any passages for that reason. Equally, my analysis involves some assumptions about what was common, idiomatic English in Pope’s day: if I’ve got it wrong, please set me right!

I think the overarching drama played out between the vigorous, up-and-coming Greeks and the more cultured, slightly decadent Trojans is one that we profoundly recognise. In western societies, we are of course at the Trojan stage, but most western societies can look back at an earlier, less sophisticated, more vigorous founding generation or generations. And even where the parallels are not nearly exact, I think there’s a sense of recognition. In fact, I think most readers have a sneaking regard for the simple, thuggish side of the Achaeans. This is maybe reinforced by the fact that we know that these Greeks eventually produced the Classical Greece society and invented democracy. In a sense, we are the Achaeans and the Trojans at the same time. I’ll leave the question to one side as to whether Homer and the Greeks stamped this archetype on our minds or whether it is a universal of human nature (or to stay in this corner of the Med, a Platonic ideal). This drama is also played out at the family level, and people still love stories of rough, determined self-made people who carved out a successful living and founded a dynasty. We don’t expect these founders to be morally impeccable or culturally sophisticated: they allow subsequent generations to be that.

Why is “The Iliad” modern?

a) It’s modern because it’s been pretty much an uninterrupted influence. Homer was a big influence in his way on Classical Greece (reading Plato, it’s remarkable how conversant all the “characters” are with Homer’s poetry). And at least from the Renaissance on, Classical Greece has been a model for all European and American nations, especially those with aspirations of empire. In other words, Homer doesn’t feel alien to us because he made our minds what they are. An interesting thought experiment here would be to imagine that The Iliad had been lost before Classical Greek times and then suddenly a manuscript of the text was discovered last year. Without all the influence exerted by the book over the intervening period, how alien would we find the story then?

b) The Iliad feels psychologically modern because of the plot arc. A lot of the archaic weirdness is front-loaded and eventually we end up at Priam’s tent and we understand, it seems, every nuance of what is said and every corner of the characters’ hearts;

c) Homer (i.e. Homer-the-author-of-The-Iliad), like Shakespeare, was a unique genius who speaks to our inner selves.

My perspective here has been that of an European. Beyond a certain universal core, people from different cultures and traditions will of course feel different levels of proximity to the book. Incidentally, the only long narrative I’ve read from a similar time as the "Iliad” that feels as psychologically familiar to me is the stories (or at least much of them) spanning the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings in the OT (NB: The NT feels psychologically familiar too – for many different reasons of course, one being that the places where Jesus lived were to some degree culturally Greco-Roman then & the NT was written in Greek etc.) I have no textual analysis to back this up, but the author of “The Odyssey” feels very different to me to the author of the "Iliad”. To me “The Odyssey” smacks a little of multiple sources spliced together, but I strongly feel that the material of the "Iliad” was drawn together by and filtered through a single consciousness (whether orally first or not is a different question).

And I don’t feel close to that person, even allowing for the cultural differences of 3,000 years. Why is that?

Let’s delve into this some more; I think of any other ancient epic you like (The Odyssey comes to mind). Jumping forward in time to Virgil, I have to say that the Aeneid is perhaps even stranger and more confusing (and maddening) to my imagination than the Iliad. Or if we take any European work with roots in pre-historic tales or the Early Middle Ages, I feel that it is much more alien to me than the Iliad. There is much in Beowulf, the Arthurian legends and the earliest Robin Hood ballads that makes no psychological sense to me. In part this is because the versions that were written down were not shaped by a single (supremely talented) imagination. (And because sometimes different tales were cobbled together without much editing, that accounts for some psychological inconsistency.) But I don’t think it’s the full reason: I think the people who told and consumed these stories were very different to me. Put bluntly, psychologically I feel I have more in common with Achilles than I do with King Arthur or Lancelot. By the time we get to Chaucer and Dante, I think we know pretty much exactly where we are (psychologically speaking).

Some further thoughts on rhyme and Pope’s translation of the Iliad (analysing translations is a lengthy business, so apologies in advance for what will be a long comment):

First of all, a rhymed version hasn’t (as far as I know) been attempted in a very long time, and the reasons are obvious:

a) ancient and classical poetry isn’t rhymed, so a rhyming version is anachronistic;
b) observing a metre (e.g. blank verse), conveying a range of poetic effects and delivering the content of the original is plenty to be getting on with;
c) for some reason rhyme is capable of carrying the most serious subject-matter when used in lyric poetry, but can seem inappropriately bouncy for ancient epic poetry.

One of my favourite scenes in all of literature is in Goethe’s Faust (Part 2). To explain for those who haven’t read it: most of Part 2 involves extended fantasy sequences where Faust flits between various eras and settings and mingles with legendary characters of the past. After a long scene in front of Menelaus’s palace which uses exclusively classical metres (and no rhyme), Faust and Helen of Troy wind up at a medieval castle. There a character makes a speech in rhyme, and Helen is amazed. She says:

But teach me why that man spoke aloud
With curious speech, familiar but strange.
Each sound seeming to give way to the next,
And when a word gave pleasure to the ear,
Another came, as if to caress the first.

In a translation into German by A.S. Kline we get:

Doch wünscht ich Unterricht, warum die Rede
Des Manns mir seltsam klang, seltsam und freundlich.
Ein Ton scheint sich dem anderen zu bequemen,
Und hat ein Wort zum Ohre sich gesellt,
Ein anderes kommt, dem ersten liebzukosen.

Faust explains a little and then induces Helen to begin rhyming by leaving his thoughts incomplete for her to supply the missing rhyme. In other words, he tees up little rhymes for her. This all symbolises their coming closer (and also of course it symbolises a union between ancient Greek and medieval German). It’s such a delightful scene, and its whole impact is dependent on understanding that rhyme was hardly ever used in ancient or classical verse and is something that emerged with force in medieval EuropeIn this context, Alexander Pope’s decision to translate the Iliad into heroic couplets can appear philologically dubious and generally wrongheaded. In the period between Pope and Goethe, as I understand it, a lot of classical research was undertaken and there was a general resurgence of interest in the classical world (the era preceding Romanticism isn’t called Classical for nothing). So it’s easy to see Pope and his rhymed version as forever stranded, although of course his Iliad also had its critics in his day and shortly afterwards – including Cowper.) A few years back, I expressed some scepticism about Pope’s heroic couplets for the reasons above and some others as well. But I promised that I would read some of the Pope with an open mind. So I’ve dipped into the Pope translation, especially the sections in Book I and Book VI that were excerpted from the new Caroline Alexander translation. That’s allowed me to compare Fagles and Pope. The other translations I’ve just used as comparisons: my focus has been on Pope.

I made the point earlier about inappropriate jollity or bounciness. Well, Pope as good as owns up to this at the end of the second line:

Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!

That exclamation mark is justified in one sense by the imperative, but surely it is also an acknowledgement of Pope’s audacity/brass neck. In fact, exclamation marks pepper the translation, including sometimes – rather incredibly – at a caesura. Presumably these exclamation marks have nothing to do with Homer’s text or ancient Greek punctuation (at least they’re absent from Caroline Alexander’s and Fagles’s translations). Of course, coming up with a rhyme every two lines is a kind of performance in itself, and I think it’s not too much of a stretch to see or hear an implied exclamation mark every time a verse comes home (i.e., every two lines). So I think these implied exclamation marks build up their pressure and eventually force Pope to use real ones when the rhymes are particularly extravagant. Already we see that the use of rhyme is forcing Pope to drift away from Homer’s text into a kind of parallel one. (Of course, all translation is a parallel text in some sense; I just mean that Pope is pushed further off course than modern translators) ...

Before reading (some of) the Pope translation, I assumed that heroic couplets (with their double strictures of rhyme and iambic pentameters) would inevitably result in rum word choices and unnatural word order. Over a long translation, I think this is simply inevitable. And indeed you don’t have to look far to find them:

Her bosom laboured with a boding sigh,
And the big tear stood trembling in her eye.

The big tear? Prosody experts can correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect that the only reason it’s “the” big tear and not “a” big tear is because “a” would count as a weak stress, and that would mess up the iambs. (Of course, it’s a kind of suspension of disbelief anyway to imagine that “the” would be pronounced with a stronger stress than “big” but it’s necessary for iambics to be viable; otherwise you couldn’t have a single-syllable adjective precede a single-syllable noun.)

That quarter most the skilful Greeks annoy,
Where yon wild fig-trees join the wall of Troy

One suspects that the position of the word “most” and the use of the word “annoy” are only there to serve metre and rhyme and have little to do with idiomatic – or even poetic – (early 18th Century) English.

Thrice our bold foes the fierce attack have given,
Or led by hopes, or dictated from heaven.
Let others in the field their arms employ,
But stay my Hector here, and guard his Troy.

Or if we move back to the very start of the poem, we have this rhyme:

Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
And then around 20 lines later:
If mercy fail, yet let my presents move,
And dread avenging Phoebus, son of Jove.

So how is the word “Jove” pronounced then? (Or have the pronunciations of “move” and “strove” changed since Pope’s time?) ...

.. And yet, and yet … I have to say that Pope’s translation does many things very well. There’s a tidiness to his verses – partly imposed no doubt by the couplets but also I think by his general poetic mastery. For example:

The nurse stood near, in whose embraces press'd,
His only hope hung smiling at her breast,
Whom each soft charm and early grace adorn,
Fair as the new-born star that gilds the morn.
To this loved infant Hector gave the name
Scamandrius, from Scamander's honour'd stream;
Astyanax the Trojans call'd the boy,
From his great father, the defence of Troy.

To me, that’s all beautifully clear and efficient. It doesn’t read like a translation. I think Pope outdoes Fagles here.

This is Fagles:

She joined him now, and following in her steps
a servant holding the boy against her breast,
in the first flush of life, only a baby,
Hector's son, the darling of his eyes
and radiant as a star . . .
Hector would always call the boy Scamandrius,
townsmen called him Astyanax, Lord of the City,
since Hector was the lone defense of Troy.

To me, the inversions lend Andromache’s speech a perfectly apposite rhetorical nobility. And as two lines of euphonic verse, they are just lovely on their own terms. And often Pope is winningly ruthless when it comes to leaving out unnecessary details. For example:

Yet while my Hector still survives, I see
My father, mother, brethren, all, in thee:
Alas! my parents, brothers, kindred, all
Once more will perish, if my Hector fall,
Thy wife, thy infant, in thy danger share:
Oh, prove a husband's and a father's care!

Again, we see Pope’s tidiness of mind and impressive economy. He’s left out some details of the Greek (or at least I infer that he has from the fact that Fagles included them).

Here’s Fagles again:

You, Hector—you are my father now, my noble mother,
a brother too, and you are my husband, young and warm and strong!
Pity me, please! Take your stand on the rampart here,
before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow.

I presume that Fagles is more faithful to the Greek text (readers of Greek can correct me if I’m wrong), and I suspect that the Greek word/inflection for “noble” or “honoured” fits nicely into the grammar and metre of Homer’s verse. But (to me at least) it feels awkward in English to give the mother an adjectival attribute in the middle of the list and not the father or the brother on either side. So I suspect that Pope, by jettisoning “noble”/”honoured”, has exercised good judgement as far as the demands of good English verse is concerned. Equally, I guess Andromache calls Hector strong and young in the original Greek – and it could be argued that it adds to the pathos to have her say these words – but we know Hector is young and strong, and I don’t mind not having that information here if it makes for a better verse. Certainly modern translators are held to higher standards of fidelity than 18th Century ones, so my praise of Pope here should not be understood as implicit criticism of Fagles. In general, I don’t want to get into the fidelity vs demands of target language debate, but I do want to praise Pope for keeping a concerned eye on his readers.

Other verses of Pope that I wish to offer up for simple admiration are:

The chief replied: "That post shall be my care,
Not that alone, but all the works of war.
How would the sons of Troy, in arms renown'd,
And Troy's proud dames, whose garments sweep the ground
Attaint the lustre of my former name,
Should Hector basely quit the field of fame?
My early youth was bred to martial pains,
My soul impels me to the embattled plains!
Let me be foremost to defend the throne,
And guard my father's glories, and my own.

I really feel that the last line in particular is pure poetic brilliance.

Or to prove that Pope’s rhymes are capable of capturing the humanity of the characters, there’s this one for example:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch'd his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse's breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.

Having said all that, I could only recommend Pope to someone who was going to read a modern translation as well. I loved the Fagles version and am looking forward to reading the Pope once again after 10 years. But my closer reading of the Pope back in the day, has made me appreciate that his translation is more than just a slightly misguided artefact. I’m now inclined to think it’s a towering and still relevant achievement. In any case, it has made me want to read his whole Iliad translation … which all goes to prove that there is no set of preconceptions that won’t be overturned or deepened by a proper encounter with something, especially when the thing is the work of a great poet.

Why don’t I like the “Iliad” the same way I do with the “Odyssey”? No modern author would choose a vain, sulky brat (Achilles) as their hero (even if they tried, the character would be interpreted as an anti-hero). No modern author would make another of the main heroes as devious and underhand as Homer portrays Odysseus (a modern author would have to make Odysseus’s cunning more ingenious than sneaky if the character was to have any hold on our sympathies). Another way in which the "Iliad" is psychologically alien is the nature and role of the gods. Clearly Homer (and by implication his audience) had a very different conception of human autonomy. Having the gods intervene in the action to pursue petty vendettas really does feel alien to us. There are no doubt other ways too in which the book is alien. However, my overall feeling when I read the "Iliad" for the first time was of psychological involvement/engagement with the characters right through to the end (i.e. the opposite of alienation from them). This was very different from my experience of reading The Odyssey (which I’d read first). I found Odysseus tiresome, maddening and strange, and many of the individual episodes were also estranging experiences (in other words, weird stuff happened that I couldn’t really psychologically comprehend), but the overall story arc of the Odyssey is very engaging and it ends very satisfyingly. Achilles, on the other hand, is not a hero in the modern sense of the word. He is individualistic. He broods in his tent while his brothers-in-arms are hacked to pieces. The near-victory of the Trojans seems to leave him indifferent. Achilles is in it for personal glory. He sulks when his honour is publicly diminished, and only takes up arms in a vengeful rage. Any notion of communal glory or fighting for the advancement of his people seems to be absent. His instruction to Patroclus not to ‘make my glory that much less’ (by attacking the city) strikes me as the kind of thing Messi might say to a teammate before a match if he thought he could get away with it.

Having said that, none of the Iliad made sense to me until I understood the centrality of honour. I found the scrambling for armour in battle, with the adversary already dead and his comrades closing in, particularly baffling. But of course, if your main objective in battle is to prove your valour, then the best way to do that is to grab a trophy from a slain enemy. It’s worth the risk if honour is valued more highly than life.

If I'm a man and not crippled or very old, I'm a hoplite, and if I'm a hoplite my shield hangs over the hearth most of the time. Every few years my wife takes it down and polishes it up and then I go off to kill a few other hoplites from out of town and someday, very likely, get killed myself. Meanwhile, between wars, these wandering storytellers come around and entertain us for a modest price. One thing I know: it will have to be one hell of a story to top the stories I could tell you myself. You think your last commander was a piece of work? Let me tell you about Agamemnon. You had some tough guys in your army? Let me tell you about Achilles. When he was on your side, you always won. Always. Nobody could stop him. But what an amazing jerk he could be! Get this, there was the time...I think all this is psychologically real to us because it's every war story you can think of - and every story in the form of a war story - we've ever had. But it's not conforming to us, it's we who are conforming to it whenever we revert to war story mode. In every other way the world of the Iliad is impossibly foreign to us. Nobody thinks about anything in the Iliad: some god jumps straight into their head and tells them what's what. Always, all the way through. And yet it doesn't feel nearly as strange to us as it ought to - because when we're in war story mode, we don't do a whole lot of thinking ourselves, either. We only think we do. I can certainly see the old veteran describing (in painstaking detail!) the ships he saw and itemising the legions and their commanders. That could be the veteran of almost any major war. (Whether Homer himself saw action is a different question). And much of the middle of the Iliad is like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan in many respects. The heat of battle remains the heat of battle. In addition, the sympathy we feel for the Trojans is probably not all down to Homer's skill but because we understand what defeat means. It has not fundamentally changed.Yet, when we think of all the myths and stories about the Trojan War that were available to Homer, wasn't it a stroke of complete storytelling genius to begin late in the siege with the squabble in the Greek camp and to essentially tie the whole drama of the war to Achilles's internal struggle? And the basic structure of internal squabbling, then battle with the enemy, then poignant aftermath at Priam's tent: I don't think any of that is self-evident as a structure: it needed a genius. Think of what a muddle could have been made with the same material. In other words, I don't think Homer just got there first in describing a war and did a decent job and had his influence for that reason. To give an example I mentioned above: Robin Hood has become a kind of archetypal hero (a good-hearted outlaw in an unjust society), but if you read A Gest of Robyn Hode, you can see what a strange mess (from a modern perspective) can be made out of such material. (In the case of that ballad, this is of course partly due to it being written by different sources). And the Gest of Robyn Hode is much, much more recent.

Coming back to the "Iliad", I might say: Nobody thinks about anything in the Iliad: some God jumps straight into their head and tells them what's what. Always, all the way through. I agree 100%: that's how the poem develops, line by line. And yet the Achilles that talks to Priam at the end is (internally, psychologically) a very different person/demigod to the sulking youth of the start. And importantly, it's not that he has learned a pat lesson: he has actually become more complex as a result of the war. We are not shown the train of thoughts (like the brilliant scene at Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice where we eavesdrop on Elizabeth Bennet's thoughts and listen to her arrive step by step at the truth about her feelings and Mr. Darcy), but nonetheless we must infer that they have occurred. Anyway, this has turned into a long riff on just two words, so apologies!