Sunday, July 25, 2010

Unenviable style

A phrase of Paul Fry's suggested something interesting to me as I was writing one of my last posts. Fry says Dryden's preface to his Fables "is written in the enviably casual manner," and this got me thinking about what an enviable style would be like, if it were viewed as a project not unlike the answerable style of Milton (see Book 9 of Paradise Lost): if we sink under the fitness of Milton's verse (fit to what, though, we don't know), as Johnson once said, perhaps we reach out and over to Dryden--despite having been put to shame by his deftness.

Regardless, Fry's phrase also made me recall a wonderful little meditation near the end of Tristram Shandy (Book 9, Chapter 11), which gives the thought a different coloring. For it tells us what might be involved in an unenviable style:

Now in all common and ordinary cases, there is nothing which I have found to answer so well as this——
——Certainly, if there is any dependence upon Logic, and that I am not blinded by self-love, there must be something of true genius about me, merely upon this symptom of it, that I do not know what envy is: for never do I hit upon any invention or device which tendeth to the furtherance of good writing, but I instantly make it public; willing that all mankind should write as well as myself.

——Which they certainly will, when they think as little.


Of course, what's so fascinating about Tristram Shandy is its propensity to be imitated, despite the style being unenviable. This, however, is just one of the many paradoxes of True Shandeism.

Now, this thought doesn't really develop in the next chapter (Chapter 12), but it certainly continues——indeed in this unenviable, perhaps also unanswerable vein——and is so excellent that I might as well end by quoting all of it:

Now in ordinary cases, that is, when I am only stupid, and the thoughts rise heavily and pass gummous through my pen—

Or that I am got, I know not how, into a cold unmetaphorical vein of infamous writing, and cannot take a plumb-lift out of it for my soul; so must be obliged to go on writing like a Dutch commentator to the end of the chapter, unless something be done—

——I never stand conferring with pen and ink one moment; for if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me——I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off; taking care only if I do leave a hair, that it be not a grey one: this done, I change my shirt——put on a better coat——send for my last wig——put my topaz ring upon my finger; and in a word, dress myself from one end to the other of me, after my best fashion.

Now the devil in hell must be in it, if this does not do: for consider, Sir, as every man chuses to be present at the shaving of his own beard (though there is no rule without an exception), and unavoidably sits over-against himself the whole time it is doing, in case he has a hand in it—the Situation, like all others, has notions of her own to put into the brain.——

——I maintain it, the conceits of a rough-bearded man, are seven years more terse and juvenile for one single operation; and if they did not run a risk of being quite shaved away, might be carried up by continual shavings, to the highest pitch of sublimity——How Homer could write with so long a beard, I don't know——and as it makes against my hypothesis, I as little care——But let us return to the Toilet.

Ludovicus Sorbonensis makes this entirely an affair of the body [...]——but he is deceived: the soul and body are joint-sharers in every thing they get: A man cannot dress, but his ideas get cloth'd at the same time; and if he dresses like a gentleman, every one of them stands presented to his imagination, genteelized along with him—so that he has nothing to do, but take his pen, and write like himself.

For this cause, when your honours and reverences would know whether I writ clean and fit to be read, you will be able to judge full as well by looking into my Laundress's bill, as my book: there is one single month in which I can make it appear, that I dirtied one and thirty shirts with clean writing; and after all, was more abus'd, cursed, criticis'd, and confounded, and had more mystic heads shaken at me, for what I had wrote in that one month, than in all the other months of that year put together.

——But their honours and reverences had not seen my bills.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Johnson, rambler

We see the essay as a vehicle for an opinion. But for Johnson, as he says in his Life of Addison, the essay aims to

teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties, to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and to remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation.

It is an explicitly didactic enterprise, perhaps because didacticism does not seem so loathsome to him as it does to us in the US, who associate all regulation and correction only with outrages of authority upon the individual, and never with the removal of annoyances through a little rambling.

I say this because it might ease one into Johnson's Rambler, which I want to reproduce here every so often, unlocking some of their lessons as I go. Yesterday was the 21st of July, so I thought I'd start with Johnson's Rambler 36, which came out on that day (it was a Saturday) in 1750.

This number is indeed concerned precisely with the removal of annoyance and whether "knowledge of the busy and tumultuary part of the world" (as Johnson will call it below) is better imparted or avoided. And it shows well how Johnson dissolves these extremes by teaching us about them, letting literary critical judgment encounter them in literature: Rambler 36 was a reflection on pastoral poetry, which involves precisely the retreat from such tumult.

Fittingly, it takes it's epigram from two lines of the tumultuary Iliad, giving Pope's translation:

Ham’ éponto nomêes
Terpómenoi súrinxi; dólon d’ oúti pronóêsan.


-- Piping on their reeds the shepherds go,
Nor fear an ambush, nor suspect a foe.


These lines appear in the great description of the shield of Achilles. But the context is not just the tumult of war in general. What makes it all the more poignant is that in the description itself armies siege a city, and just after these lines they fall upon the herdsmen, slaughtering them along with two of the city's scouts they happen to be piping near:

In arms the glittering squadron rising round
Rush sudden; hills of slaughter heap the ground;
Whole flocks and herds lie bleeding on the plains,
And, all amidst them, dead, the shepherd swains!


The retreat cannot be total: the tumult will seek you out.

•••

RAMBLER 36
Saturday, 21 July 1750

There is scarcely any species of poetry, that has allured more readers, or excited more writers, than the pastoral. It is generally pleasing, because it entertains the mind with representations of scenes familiar to almost every imagination, and of which all can equally judge whether they are well described. It exhibits a life, to which we have been always accustomed to associate peace, and leisure, and innocence: and therefore we readily set open the heart, for the admission of its images, which contribute to drive away cares and perturbations, and suffer ourselves, without resistance, to be transported to elysian regions, where we are to meet with nothing but joy, and plenty, and contentment; where every gale whispers pleasure, and every shade promises repose.

It has been maintained by some, who love to talk of what they do not know, that pastoral is the most antient poetry; and, indeed, since it is probable, that poetry is nearly of the same antiquity with rational nature, and since the life of the first men was certainly rural, we may reasonably conjecture, that, as their ideas would necessarily be borrowed from those objects with which they were acquainted, their composures, being filled chiefly with such thoughts on the visible creation as must occur to the first observers, were pastoral hymns like those which Milton introduces the original pair singing, in the day of innocence, to the praise of their Maker.

For the same reason that pastoral poetry was the first employment of the human imagination, it is generally the first literary amusement of our minds. We have seen fields, and meadows, and groves from the time that our eyes opened upon life; and are pleased with birds, and brooks, and breezes, much earlier than we engage among the actions and passions of mankind. We are therefore delighted with rural pictures, because we know the original at an age when our curiosity can be very little awakened, by descriptions of courts which we never beheld, or representations of passion which we never felt.

The satisfaction received from this kind of writing not only begins early, but lasts long; we do not, as we advance into the intellectual world, throw it away among other childish amusements and pastimes, but willingly return to it in any hour of indolence and relaxation. The images of true pastoral have always the power of exciting delight, because the works of nature, from which they are drawn, have always the same order and beauty, and continue to force themselves upon our thoughts, being at once obvious to the most careless regard, and more than adequate to the strongest reason, and severest contemplation. Our inclination to stillness and tranquillity is seldom much lessened by long knowledge of the busy and tumultuary part of the world. In childhood we turn our thoughts to the country, as to the region of pleasure, we recur to it in old age as a port of rest, and perhaps with that secondary and adventitious gladness, which every man feels on reviewing those places, or recollecting those occurrences, that contributed to his youthful enjoyments, and bring him back to the prime of life, when the world was gay with the bloom of novelty, when mirth wantoned at his side, and hope sparkled before him.

The sense of this universal pleasure has invited "numbers without number" to try their skill in pastoral performances, in which they have generally succeeded after the manner of other imitators, transmitting the same images in the same combination from one to another, till he that reads the title of a poem, may guess at the whole series of the composition; nor will a man, after the perusal of thousands of these performances, find his knowledge enlarged with a single view of nature not produced before, or his imagination amused with any new application of those views to moral purposes.

The range of pastoral is indeed narrow, for though nature itself, philosophically considered, be inexhaustible, yet its general effects on the eye and on the ear are uniform, and incapable of much variety of description. Poetry cannot dwell upon the minuter distinctions, by which one species differs from another, without departing from that simplicity of grandeur which fills the imagination; nor dissect the latent qualities of things, without losing its general power of gratifying every mind by recalling its conceptions. However, as each age makes some discoveries, and those discoveries are by degrees generally known, as new plants or modes of culture are introduced, and by little and little become common, pastoral might receive, from time to time, small augmentations, and exhibit once in a century a scene somewhat varied.

But pastoral subjects have been often, like others, taken into the hands of those that were not qualified to adorn them, men to whom the face of nature was so little known, that they have drawn it only after their own imagination, and changed or distorted her features, that their portraits might appear something more than servile copies from their predecessors.

Not only the images of rural life, but the occasions on which they can be properly produced, are few and general. The state of a man confined to the employments and pleasures of the country, is so little diversified, and exposed to so few of those accidents which produce perplexities, terrors and surprises, in more complicated transactions, that he can be shewn but seldom in such circumstances as attract curiosity. His ambition is without policy, and his love without intrigue. He has no complaints to make of his rival, but that he is richer than himself; nor any disasters to lament, but a cruel mistress, or a bad harvest.

The conviction of the necessity of some new source of pleasure induced Sannazarius to remove the scene from the fields to the sea, to substitute fishermen for shepherds, and derive his sentiments from the piscatory life; for which he has been censured by succeeding criticks, because the sea is an object of terrour, and by no means proper to amuse the mind, and lay the passions asleep. Against this objection he might be defended by the established maxim, that the poet has a right to select his images, and is no more obliged to shew the sea in a storm, than the land under an inundation; but may display all the pleasures, and conceal the dangers of the water, as he may lay his shepherd under a shady beech, without giving him an ague, or letting a wild beast loose upon him.

There are however two defects in the piscatory eclogue, which perhaps cannot be supplied. The sea, though in hot countries it is considered by those who live, like Sannazarius, upon the coast, as a place of pleasure and diversion, has notwithstanding much less variety than the land, and therefore will be sooner exhausted by a descriptive writer. When he has once shewn the sun rising or setting upon it, curled its waters with the vernal breeze, rolled the waves in gentle succession to the shore, and enumerated the fish sporting in the shallows, he has nothing remaining but what is common to all other poetry, the complaint of a nymph for a drowned lover, or the indignation of a fisher that his oysters are refused, and Mycon's accepted.

Another obstacle to the general reception of this kind of poetry, is the ignorance of maritime pleasures, in which the greater part of mankind must always live. To all the inland inhabitants of every region, the sea is only known as an immense diffusion of waters, over which men pass from one country to another, and in which life is frequently lost. They have, therefore, no opportunity of tracing, in their own thoughts, the descriptions of winding shores, and calm bays, nor can look on the poem in which they are mentioned, with other sensations, than on a sea-chart, or the metrical geography of Dionysius.

This defect Sannazarius was hindered from perceiving, by writing in a learned language to readers generally acquainted with the works of nature; but if he had made his attempt in any vulgar tongue, he would soon have discovered how vainly he had endeavoured to make that loved, which was not understood.

I am afraid it will not be found easy to improve the pastorals of antiquity, by any great additions or diversifications. Our descriptions may indeed differ from those of Virgil, as an English from an Italian summer, and, in some respects, as modern from ancient life; but as nature is in both countries nearly the same, and as poetry has to do rather with the passions of men, which are uniform, than their customs, which are changeable, the varieties, which time or place can furnish, will be inconsiderable: and I shall endeavour to shew, in the next paper, how little the latter ages have contributed to the improvement of the rustick muse.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Moral music and the shirt-sleeve manner

Paul Fry makes a great point about the "undue solemnity" of literary theoretical writing in the following, which is from his excellent 1988 book, The Reach of Criticism. Fry is introducing a (particularly good) chapter on Dryden:

Shelley's Defence of Poetry [...] rivals any theoretical text of which I am aware in its metaphysical precision and range, but also succumbs in a good many places to the undue solemnity and curdling of expression that lessens the impact of much current writing [...]. Dryden's "Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern," to which I now turn, is theoretically precocious almost by accident, perhaps, although its intricacy of thought remains extraordinary however one accounts for it, but is written in the enviably casual manner that has been tacitly forbidden in modern criticism, especially in American universities, ever since impressionism became a code word for irresponsibility and laziness.
-"The Other Harmony of Dryden's 'Preface to Fables,'" in The Reach of Criticism 87.

This is of course right about Dryden, and the idea of not an answerable, but an enviable style is a wonderful one, exactly capturing how we feel while reading his flexible (and often funny) prose: we sink under Milton, as Johnson (quoting Addison) once said, but we reach out and over to Dryden--despite having been put to shame.

But Fry's remark is also right about "current" writing: though the solemnity in theoretical writing has definitely fallen off from the unbearable years--right at the time Fry pens these lines--I think Fry might be (and probably is) surprised at just how solemn theory still is. Lightness is returning as theory rediscovers literature (and critical theory fritters itself away, gets replaced by more practical theoretical ventures like architecture and media studies, or turns to philosophy departments finally made tolerant by its efforts), and we are truly entering a new age of interpretation and theorizing about interpretation. But we still are subjected to so much "curdling of expression" or, to use another apt characterization, "weird moral music." This last phrase is used by Michael Wood to characterize "certain sentences" of Paul de Man (in a current work, Literature and the Taste of Knowledge, see p. 181), and I think it not inappropriate--as de Man, however much the solemn also solemnly detest him, can be considered the type and symbol as well as a key originator of this sort of attitude.

Fry takes a broader view of the origin of this phenomenon, and attributes it to a certain tradition that has governed criticism in America. But what's most fascinating about this is that, for Fry, the tradition doesn't directly encourage solemnity: the curdling of expression isn't a result of any sense that American criticism needs to be serious. It emerges instead from a prohibition of unseriousness, of a casual manner in interpretation.

This is a claim that supports and is supported by the main position of the book and his massive, more nuanced, more expansive, more recent Defense of Poetry (1995): namely, that interpretation proceeds despite its method, surrendering to the suspension of sense produced by the multiple senses of words. This might seem completely unrelated, but the connection is easy to make and forceful one it's made. Though Fry isn't an enemy to all method in all endeavors, he believes that methods for interpretation try to minimize this suspension of sense. It is not that the aim of following a method will often limit the attentiveness one can have for multiple meanings, but in every interpretation it is the words that call to us, not the procedure, regardless of whether we follow method or not. So what we end up doing when following a method of interpretation is remain open to meanings, and then proceed to sacrifice the openness we had to produce a reading. The interpretation comes from this jockeying between what the method accepts and what we read in the text, not from the effort to bring out more of we read in the text and to supply it with some shape. Naturally, this latter effort is going to be more frivolous, more playful, since the suspension of meaning involves precisely allowing that words might not have a serious, earnest intention behind them. So method cultivates solemnity as it curbs meanings, and the tradition of Anglo-American criticism in America has always encouraged the subjection of interpretation to a method or methodized sort of procedure. Indeed, for Fry, this is encouraged by much "current" theory as well. We never really have allowed to experiment with casual interpretation.

But all this is clear enough from the passage, though the point is made by developing this last claim. This, however, actually makes things more poignant, since it involves developing its other side: the notion that everything we take to be casual in interpretation never really has been truly casual at all. We think the casual manner is the freedom allowed to impressionism, but the real situation is that the latter only flourishes with solemnity--as evidenced by the fact that it can turn back into solemnity in an instant (de Man, for me, is again the best example of this). Never acquainted with the hard work involved in the casual manner--which is hard work, involving a deft control of that indirectness Americans have never tolerated--we think we can pass of the products of laziness as the same thing.

But in the book Fry adds to a wonderful footnote to all this, which is really my reason for discussing his claim. Why? Because it recommends two critics who defy this prohibition. Now, you might think Fry may or may not be right about all the above. I personally don't think method is as responsible for the problems of criticism as the desire to follow a method in criticism, and I think that while it is very justifiable to group these things together and oppose method tout court, it might be better to stress the difference. Another way of putting this is actually to put Fry's claim another way as well: real methods are developed only after we think we have followed them. So the problem is the desire to get out in front of a method and just coast. But what this tells you is that the desire to methodize is something different altogether than the desire to follow a method, and I myself think this former desire should be cultivated--instead of the desire for theories, which we could for the sake of argument just call the grounds of various methods. It has become too easy to come up with the ground of something, and we have too many of them now: instead of developing grounds, what needs to be developed are more ways over the ground, which are more closely related to the paths actually traversed in an interpretation. And involved in that is (if you'll indulge the overdrawn metaphor one last time) a refusal to conflate these ways with those actual paths, such that people can come along and think they can just follow a way instead of an actual path--as if the way existed before they interpreted. Fry isn't, you see, too far from this, and of all the critics out there I think he most admits of this other approach (and certainly in my eyes he has the most definitive view of what a literary text is and what interpretation involves). But regardless of what you think, you have to grant that he is exactly right in the following, the footnote, which I'll leave you with:

Nearly all critics adopt the shirt-sleeve maner from time to time in order to indulge their audience or themselves, but the only modern critics since the decline of belletrism who consistently write with negligent ease (though others write very well in more formal, more severely plain, or more playful styles) are two of the best, William Empson and Kenneth Burke.
-The Reach of Criticism, Note 1 to Chapter 3, 217.

Plain dealing

A week or so ago I chanced upon perhaps the best academic review that I have ever seen (and reviews in my corner of academia--literary studies--tend to be extremely good). The review is by Arnold Stein, an amazing, principled critic of Donne and Milton, as well as a subtle theorist of the high humanist movement in literary studies after the war. It concerns Wesley Trimpi’s interesting 1962 book Ben Jonson’s Poems, A Study of the Plain Style, and is published in the third number of the thirtieth volume of ELH in 1963 (p. 306-316), and is entitled “Plain Style, Plain Criticism, Plain Dealing and Ben Jonson.” It begins with a whopper:

It is now a braver thing than all the Worthies did to write the history of a literary tradition (306).

I knew I was in for something special, though, when I read what followed:

Even the loyal historian of a religious or political vision, whatever his difficulties, may at least begin with a cheerful confidence in the firm shape of what he is chronicling. But the modern historian of a literary tradition must assemble the materials by which he is to establish the existence of what he proposes to describe. A certain amount of strain and overdecisiveness are therefore to be expected, nor does one demonstrate the existence of a literary tradition without some awareness that history may be made by being written. It will require unusual generosity on the part of the historian not to be influenced by the thought that literary objects which uninstructed taste has been admiring are in the process of having their value corrected (306).

The apology utterly damns Trimpi, but what struck me was the degree to which Stein frames it as an apology. Histories of literary traditions are extremely difficult to write, because they usually end up not being histories at all: such a statement ends up revealing itself as wonderfully sarcastic, but tarrying with it so long in a serious vein, thinking hard about how a project’s lack of accuracy actually is a burden the nonliterary historian does not have to encounter--this comes out on the other side of sarcasm and makes us think hard about how much we indeed should indulge misguided projects. A certain amount of strain and overdecisiveness is expected when one is willing into being the history one wants to write, but how much should such bravado be excused, when the problems of the brave task are so much more global? I was thus happy to find that Stein gave such prominence to what I found most disturbing about Trimpi’s work: a certain unwarranted forcefulness that takes advantage of your indulgence rather than rewarding it. But that Stein here also suggests we might consider such bravado to be more inexcusable than the aim of the study--this was almost as impressive as seeing Stein go on to argue it:

The basic charge to be made against the scholarship of this book is that it practices an eclectic dogmatism. It disparages rhetoric in poetry and does not hear its own rhetoric. The degree of critical self-awareness is limited. As F. H. Bradley wrote, "You are left in short with brute conjunctions where you seek for connexions." In this book the "brute conjunctions" are many, and confidently pass themselves for "connections"; a few key points are brought in as if their truth were to be proved by the frequency with which they can be made to appear.

The account of the plain style culminating in Jonson is not believable as argument partly because the saw and glue are too much in evidence. To begin with, in rummaging among the ancient rhetoricians Trimpi takes what he needs without much concern for what he leaves behind. Firm discriminations are made and supported by a quotation or two from Quintilian, or Cicero, or Demetrius, or Dionysius of Halicarnassus, or Horace--though in some instances the ancients themselves differed over fine points which may still be debated. The origins and development of the plain style as we get them in Fiske's account [another study of the fate of ancient rhetoric] are more varied and do not grow cleanly in straight lines. The origins are Socratic but also Cynic and Stoic. The "freer and looser tradition of the nature and limits of the plain style," which Fiske finds in Lucilius [Stein cites Fisk], and the contribution of sententious writing, do not belong in Trimpi's version of the classical model, but with quiet astuteness he converts these hints to the English scene where they reappear in the native tradition and in Senecan excess (310-11).


I’ll continue this look at Stein’s piece in another post soon.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fagles' English

I will be talking a lot about translations of the classics in the coming months, as I will be teaching the Odyssey when the semester begins. In particular, there is a lot to say about Robert Fagles' stark translation which we will be reading. Right now, I'll simply say that as I read it this summer I found it immensely exciting and slightly disturbing at the same time: the colloquialisms are just inspired, but often come from an American business-English that shames rather than surprises you, it is so crass. I never thought I'd hear Homer talk of "prime cuts" (in Book 3) something a yuppie buys for potential clients:

They roasted the prime cuts, pulled them off the spits,
and sharing out the portions, fell to the royal feast.


It's not that the phrase in question is a bastardization of Homer--though the old idea of the primitive nobility of Homer obviously bears on all reflections that go down this line. Indeed, it is better than the straightforward Lattimore:

When they had roasted and taken off the spits the outer
meats, dividing shares they held their communal high feast.


No: the issue is rather that translation of an epic freezes language, sets it off, allows us to inspect it, and thus can easily turn into a critique as well as a celebration of a culture. (This is even more the case with Fagles' recently released Aeneid, which has however been praised much more unreservedly. Here I am even more astonished to see trees, in the famous description of the harbor where Aeneas lands in the first book, loom over cliffs "as a backdrop": "Both sides of the harbor, rock cliffs tower, crowned / by twin crags [...] Over them as a backdrop looms a quivering wood"). And while there's nothing wrong about "prime cuts," it has a certain forceful compression, a blatant directness which, demanding the subordination of its potential richness as a metonymy to a mere descriptive function, pretends to concision rather than achieves it. The phrase's fitness seems to come precisely from its ability to label something for quick consumption, and we can't help but wonder why.

Particularly agitating is the phrase's insensitivity to more elliptical grammatical structure, or rather the way it makes you feel as if all other structures are elliptical. This makes me think long and hard about what happens to the other parts of language in this version, like the expunging of the great Homeric "but." Here it is, in Lang and Butcher's version of the famous invocation, which like Lattimore sticks close to the Greek:

But he saved not his company, though he desired it sore. For through the blindness of their own hearts they perished, fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios Hyperion: but the god took from them their day of returning.

Even though most other translations (Mandelbaum's, Lattimore's, Fitzgerald's, even Cowper's and Chapman's, to go back further) do something similar, in Fagles' version, we get the added sense that such wonderful grammatical surprise would be too complicated, too oblique (though to do him credit, Fagles does include this "but" in the opening of his Iliad). It sets up all sorts of play between expectation and outcome--as Empson so wonderfully argues in Some Versions of Pastoral--the antiquated concerns of a world full of gods. Here, those concerns are at most thematic, if not simply irrelevant: certainly they never intrude on the level of the sentence. So while other translations make an attempt to soften this disjunction that is really a conjunction (via "even so," "therefore"), the solution for Fagles is to erase the problem:

But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove--
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.


The effort to shift the play over to tension between two metaphors of blindness ("blind fools" and "wiped from sight") is too neat, and is what really makes this an intolerance of indirectness, an erasure: acting as if metaphor could carry the whole burden of grammar just makes it clear that grammar is now a burden, a hindrance, something keeping us from the story. It is a shift of emphasis that only works on larger scales, in giving you a different holistic experience of the poem that is both more and less metaphoric (more because there simply is more; less because metaphor is trivialized or flattened when it is used so freely, with minimal relation to grammar or other figures), and Fagles carries it out wonderfully. But on the small scale, it makes us feel something is more than lost: that last "and" is sacrificed to some mistaken notion (which is ours more than it is Fagles') of communicability, clarity, plain speaking. And so, even though Homer still isn't bastardized, we feel he might be dumbed-down.

The verbs are more pleasing, however. I particularly enjoy "falling to" in the passage on the meat, above. It is so blandly metaphoric that, like "prime cuts," it similarly makes us retreat from any inquiry into the thing. But instead of disturbing us, we are now content with calling it "idiom," and remembering just how metaphoric our English is. The empty language for action has an appeal for us that an empty language for things just can't: here, directness becomes numinous, and makes the translation fresh and exciting.

But this makes it only more clear that, unlike a truly plain and simple translation (which we can find in Stanley Lombardo's wonderful new version), the purpose of Fagles' translation is to provoke us, to reveal to us the ramifications of our attitudes in language. What's so fascinating about Fagle's Homer, and the reason why his sometimes overhyped translations are worth looking at, isn't his Homer, but his English.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Trilling on psychoanalysis

When Freud's thought was first presented to a scandalized world, the recognition of unconditioned instinctual impulse which lies at its core was erroneously taken to mean that Freud wished to establish the dominion of impulse, with all that this implies of the negation of the socialized self. But then of course it came to be understood that the bias of psychoanalysis, so far from being Dionysian, is wholly in the service of the Apollonian principle, seeking to strengthen the "honest soul" in the selfhood which is characterized by purposiveness and a clear-eyed recognition of limits. The adverse judgment increasingly passed upon psychoanalysis [...] not only expresses an antagonism to its normative assumptions and to the social conformity which is believed to inhere in its doctrine, but is also an affirmation of the unconditioned nature of the self, of its claim to an autonomy so complete that all systematic predications about it are either offensively reductive, or gratuitously prescriptive, or irrelevant.
-Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 56.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Emma adapted

I have been finally getting around to watching the new 2009 BBC adaptation of Emma, and so far I have to say it is wonderful. It's a lot plainer in the use of language--even coarse at times, in shocking splurts of "vérité" half-phrases--so the pleasures coming from that (so many in Austen!) fall away. But this is because everything is converted so well into a visual and dramatic mode. In short, Emma is all there, on the TV, which is something I just never thought I'd ever be able to see.

I personally think that of all the Emma's out there (excepting Clueless), the 1996 Douglass McGrath version (with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam) is the best, because, besides keeping a lot of the language, I think it takes a big risk and makes the Knightley-Emma relationship much more playful, much less severe than the most common interpretation of the book, in an effort to make the whole thing feel a bit more like Pride and Prejudice (the black sheep in the Austen canon, not the typical Austen novel we think it is), tends to make it. You know the interpretation I mean: the one where Emma is put in her place for being wrong all the time, which is best represented by the Andrew Davies' version (but with a sort of irony). It makes you think that what people really don't want to see is a powerful opinion or judgment expressed confidently by a woman. The easy way to change this would be to simply show how Knightly, if you look closely, gets things wrong just as often: he is wrong about Frank, about Harriet, and even in certain respects about Elton.

But McGrath goes further, perhaps on the hunch that what people really might not want to see here (though it is no less involved in sexism) is any judgment at all without prejudice. He thus doesn't change the rightness or wrongness of Knightley or Emma, but changes the dynamic of the relationship everywhere to involve the correction, rather than the admonishment, of statements that are neither right nor wrong but simply correct or incorrect. And while this makes the movie lighter (tamer, some who hate the big Hollywood versions of Austen might say), I find this is actually how Emma's and Knightley's judgments are in the book: indeed, Knightley doesn't even say that Emma is wrong on Box Hill, really, but only that "I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance." All the emphasis is upon the latter half of the sentence, on the remonstrance he is performing, since what he is doing in making it is really making it a bit easier to swallow:

"Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible."

In short, "I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance," is actually just correct statement about what is happening. "Wrong" only really means wrong in a heavy or strong sense--the sense in which something wrong is inherently wrong, almost wicked or evil--only insofar as there is a remonstrance occurring, and, crucially, we aren't even sure it is occuring with all the sweet-coating that going on. But this is because what is much worse than acting wrong is what Knightley goes beyond remonstrance to actually yell about: that "It was badly done, indeed!":

"Oh!" cried Emma, "I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her."

"They are blended," said he, "I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!—You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now."

What went on in the whole insult to Miss Bates ("it") was a poor performance of the act of judgment, failing to factor in everything that would make it correct and, moreover, proceed exemplarily (as "many... would be entirely be guided by your treatment of her"): "wrong" is said in the way we say something malfunctioning feels wrong, is out of place or broken down--that is, only when "right" means merely okay, functioning, normal. "Wrong" isn't the opposite of "right" here, but the opposite of "true" ("I will tell you truths while I can"), and however unpleasant the truth is to hear, hearing it is not the same as being shamed. And it is actually more unpleasant than not being in the right, as it holds close to the contours of the incorrect action itself, and demands its readjustment or realignment. We can easily excuse someone for their prejudice, since it is either excusable or not: what becomes painful there is not the process of excuse but everything in one's attachments and situation that prevents it. But what Emma is about is the difficulties that arise when when we are in a way only accountable for our actions, the things that foster prejudices but which can always be done differently, done better than badly.

Interestingly, Sandy Welch's new version takes the first approach I already outlined, and makes Knightley wrong from the get-go--about his brother and Isabella, no less. And though it's about as rough as the approach to the language, it's a start, and puts it close to McGrath's version in my mind. But what really makes it a rewarding experience is this sort of solid work of interpretation is combined with an effort to include everything in the book. I wonder indeed if it is the closest thing to a full Austen novel that we have, besides of course Andrew Davies' massive, amazing P&P. All the characters are there! How refreshing! Even, indeed, Mr. John Knightley, who never causes so many problems in the movies as he does in the book!

Most importantly, because the new Emma can include so much, it can stress one of the most fundamental--but often missed--aspects of the novel. This is the fact that all the characters (excepting Knightley and Elton) have to deal with a huge blow to their family--a blow that has the effect of radically isolating them, almost orphaning them. Not literally, of course, but Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith are moved into different families, and a strange, almost foundling-like plot lurking behind each of these creatures. It is this that the first reviewers perhaps noticed first, when they called the book "plotless": what we are given in all three (and only Emma herself really has the smarts to see it) is the promise of a plot that never delivers. No other version really sketches this out, while the new adaptation puts it first. No where else do we have such pressure put on this part of the book, though this version seems to use it to show why exactly Emma is so entitled, rather than why she is so powerful or commanding (thus the motif of sunlight hits this home a little too much).

There is much more to say (and I will say it), but the whole thing is just overflowing with so many elements of the novel that are never usually picked up, together making Emma even after it's many adaptations more like Sense and Sensibility before the latter was filmed: that is, something whose fuller dimensions are never really grasped by many people. But this isn't for the same reasons: the irony of Sense and Sensibility is much more present, and so it is tough to convey without a narrator or really selective direction (as in Ang Lee's masterful work), while the world of Emma is just so full--and so full because it seems plotless--that it just can't all make it up there on the screen. The effort of adaptation involves giving Emma what seems like the plot it needs (and the closer to P&P--as always--the better), and so there's no time for other characters. Here, things are different, and though they threaten to actually make these half-plots into stories at the same time as pushing the Darcy I mean Knightly angle (the laziest way to make this book have a plot, when it challenges us so much by depicting so many relationships among women), the effort is at least welcome because it will tend towards correction rather than innovation (or innovation through correction). I'll have to see if the insularity of Highbury (best conveyed in the basically gothic Davies' version, where the big bad abbey becomes Highbury itself) then doesn't come through, or whether the piece has enough patience to convey this.