Monday, 25 July 2005

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The Coarse Underwear of Some Minds It's official: if I read another word written by Jack London, I will hunt down his great-grandchildren and make them pay for his sins by shaking my fist with force and a countenance so unsubtle even their great-grandfather would understand it. Arguments about aesthetics often boil down to nebulous notions of complexity, but I think that wrong-headed. Boiled to the bone, it really is a matter of what familiarity breeds: contempt or contemplation. But the category of contempt needs to be considered more carefully. Does it breed a contempt for a particular author or for the written word itself? Does reading and re-reading a particular author drain from you the desire to ever read anything again? Does it make you doubt the value of the printed word? To counter the "London Effect" I'm re-re-reading Musil's The Man Without Qualities. I've read it through twice and both times I've been struck by the intensity of the experience of reading a 2,545-page unfinished novel. After 250 pages you begin to think like the narrator. I'm all of eleven pages into my re-re-reading, but its allure's already a comforting reacquaintance. Reading about the "the fine underwear of their minds," or what it's like to be "irritated by the subservience of a man who was, after all, a member of the intellectual aristocracy toward the owner of horses, fields, and traditions" reminds me that not all writers possess the "depths" of Jack London. I've been plumbing them and my forehead pounds from my results.
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Not Bedazzled by the Norten Lights: On The Literary Wittgenstein, by Not Negative Nancy As those of you who read my contribution to the Theory's Empire event no doubt remember, what I value about the anthology is that it demands readers think about the conflicting claims of different theoretical approaches. So I'm pleasantly surprised that Marjorie Perloff's "But Isn't the Same at Least the Same" and David Schalkwyk's "Wittgenstein's 'Imperfect Gardens'" essays in The Literary Wittgenstein work according to logically incompatible assumptions. Perloff argues that Wittgenstein's language is translatable because it's concerned with language being translatable. Like Beckett, Wittgenstein's vocabulary consists of personal and demonstrative pronouns, ordinary verbs, basic nouns, and simple declarative sentences. The result is that his work, like Beckett's, can easily be translated. No controversies over the relative merit of the various translations of The Philosophical Investigations swirl because his quaint diction and calm style make the translator's job easy. Thus, Perloff concludes, Such language games will become increasingly prominent in an age of globalization where the availability of translation is taken for granted. Poets and fiction writers, I predict, will increasingly write in what we might call, keeping Wittgenstein's example in mind, a language of translatability. (52) There's no wrangling over the details and implications of Wittgenstein's work the way there is in the German translation of Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour." Here's the English: One dark night, my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull; I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, they lay together, hull to hull, where the graveyard shelves on the twon... My mind's not right. Here's Perloff's analysis of it: [W]hat eludes [the translator, Manuel] Pfister is Lowell's particular tone. "One dark night," for starters, has a fairy-tale quality (as in "Once upon a time") that gives an ironic edge to the reference to St. John of the Cross's "Dark Night of the Soul"--a quality lost in the German In einer dunklen Nacht. In line 2, the pun on "Tudor ("two-door") Ford" disappears even though Pfister retains the absurdly pretentious brand name. And his rendition of the third line is at once too specific and too long-winded: Lowell's casual "I watched" becames the emphatic ic hielt Ausshau, and Scheinwerfer ausgeschaltet ("headlights turned off") does not allow for the resonance of "lights" or of "turned down," which here connotes beds as well as the lights themselves. (35) She continues in this vein for another paragraph, but you see her point: that mode of analysis that cannot be done on Wittgenstein's writing. "Wittgenstein's propositions are by means untranslatable in the sense that Lowell's "Skunk Hour" [is] untranslatable" (36, emphasis hers). Quoting Wittgenstein, she contends that his language has "remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions" because of its near-perfect translatability (43). Hammered home yet? Good. On to Schalkwyk, who begins his essay with a discussion of the untranslatability of Wittgenstein's prose: The statement that philosophy should be written as poetry appears in Culture and Value: Ich glaube meine Stellung zur Philosphie dadurch zusammengefast zu haben, indem ich sagte: Philosophie durfte man eigentlich nur dichten...

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