January 27, 2015 | by Damion Searls
But shouldn’t that be the other way around?
Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.
But what’s so wide about it?
To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.
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December 9, 2014 | by Damion Searls
December through the eyes of an Elizabethan poet.
It is now definitely December. Another November survived, and a grim November it was, too, the month Thoreau used to call November Eat-heart—days “as will almost oblige a man to eat his own heart,” in which “you must hold on to life by your teeth.” “You can hardly screw up your courage to take a walk … If you do feel any fire at this season out of doors, you may depend upon it, it is your own.” Even the life-affirming Nicholas Breton goes dark: “Now begins the Goshawk to weed the wood of the Pheasant, and the Mallard loves not to hear the bells of the Falcon. The winds now are cold, and the Air chill, and the poor die through want of Charity.”
Breton, ca. 1554–1626, was a prolific Elizabethan poet, friend to Edmund Spenser, with a penchant for powerfully balanced rhythms (“Sing a dirge on Spenser’s death, / Till your souls be out of breath”), but he’s justly forgotten today. Justly except for his fantastic Fantasticks: Serving for A Perpetuall Prognostication (1626). Along with lesser vignettes on the elements, seasons, hours, and major holidays, Fantasticks contains twelve little descriptions of the months that deserve to be immortal.
Starting in January, when “Time begins to turn the wheel of his Revolution,” Breton’s vivid natural and social descriptions march steadily through the year: “the Squirrel now surveyeth the Nut and the Maple, and the Hedgehog rolls up himself like a football”; in June, “the little Lads make Pipes of the straw, and they that cannot dance, will yet be hopping”; in September, “the winds begin to knock the Apples’ heads together on the trees, and the fallings are gathered to fill the Pies for the Household.” Each month ends with a kicker as balanced as a brace of oxen: May “is from the Heavens a Grace, & to the Earth a Gladness. Farewell.”
Here is December: Read More »
November 18, 2014 | by Damion Searls
The rhythms of overheard speech.
In Martin Walser’s 1987 book Brandung, about a German professor teaching abroad at the very un-German University of California, Berkeley—a novel really not worth reading unless you are interested in German-English translation and able to read it in the Berkeley sun, to a whiff of eucalyptus or a glimpse of Mount Tamalpais, and even then I didn’t finish it—the professor overhears a bit of dialogue. A student steps into an elevator and says “Going up?”; the one in the elevator says “Trying to.” The professor, “who did after all teach English back home, was crushed to realize, yet again, that he would never master this language.” Not long afterward, he sees a campus newspaper headline, “Sex Blind Admission,” and tries and fails to reconstruct the line in German. “English is a language for headlines,” he thinks.
I saw a headline myself in Berkeley, on the unbelievably trashy San Francisco Examiner: “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War.” Five punchy syllables, each pretty much any part of speech—it took me a moment to understand what it meant, then I knew I had witnessed greatness. (I’m not the only one who noticed: a weekly DJ night called “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War!” sprang up a few months later in San Francisco.)
It was walking in downtown Manhattan, on the other hand, past the new construction of, according to the slogan around the scaffolding, TWENTY INDIVIDUALLY-CURATED FINELY-CRAFTED CONDOMINIUM RESIDENCES, that a couple hurried past and we heard the man say, “The problem is in this country people believe they deserve something ... ” Whether his complaint targeted the members of the 1 percent who were building or planning to live in these super-creative residences, or the passersby resenting that they couldn’t, or other groups altogether, it was also a classic example of American speech:
The problem is in
this country people believe
they deserve something
It’s not a haiku—the haiku form has demands besides 5-7-5 syllables: seasonal key words (kigo), one image, two moments with a turn or jump cut between them indicated by a “cutting word” (kireji). It’s the serendipitous, spoken, American form: the overheard haiku. Read More »
October 21, 2014 | by Damion Searls
On a sentence by Robert Walser.
It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.
They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised ᗡ. Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a ᗡ-shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.
By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is. Read More »
September 30, 2014 | by Damion Searls
Remembering Saint Jerome on International Translation Day.
Raise a glass, say a prayer in a language other than Hebrew and Greek, or wear a donkey’s ear in your buttonhole: it’s International Translation Day, aka the Feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and libraries, schoolchildren, students, Bible scholars, and translators. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and died in Bethlehem on this day in 419 or 420 A.D.; he single-handedly (so to speak) created the Vulgate, a translation read as the sacred original for some thousand years.
He famously said that you should translate the meaning of the original text, not the words themselves, but translators must have always known this intuitively—even Jerome cites half a dozen predecessors. Because he was one of the early ones, though, he gets the credit, along with Horace, who said the same thing. Jerome made a partial exception for the Bible, whose very word order was a sacred mystery; his balance between the competing demands is what made his translation so good.
He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.” Read More »
September 6, 2013 | by Jonathan Franzen
This week, to celebrate the launch of our Fall issue, we will preview a few of our favorite footnotes from “Against Heine,” Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Click here to get your subscription now!
In the end, the people who never came out of their province will go farther than the people who never came into one.89
89 I think there’s a lot of truth in this, but Kraus also seems to be making an implicit claim about his own decision to remain rooted in Vienna, in contradistinction to Heine. Here’s the story I tell myself about his agon with Heine. Basically, Kraus arrives too late. He’s an assimilated Jew who has an enormous facility with language but strikingly less talent with “original” forms like poetry, drama, and fiction. And unfortunately there’s already been a German-speaking Jew like him—Heine—who, worse yet, became one of the most famous and influential writers of the previous century. Kraus needs room to live and to work and to believe in the necessity of his work, and what does he have to hold on to in his struggle against his famous precursor? His feeling that there was something wrong with Heine—with the work, the man, his language. And so the story that he tells himself is that Heine was a proto-Kraus who betrayed his gifts by his moral failings and thereby betrayed assimilated German Jews, too. Heine helped create the stereotype of the rootless, linguistically facile Jew. Without Heine, no feuilleton, yes. But also: without Heine, Kraus could simply have been a great satirist who happened to be Jewish. Hence, I propose, the ferocity of the attack in this essay, and the peculiarly moral tone of it. If Kraus also sounds an anti-Semitic note, it’s because he’s trying to annihilate the bad Jew, the stereotypical Jew, so as not to hate himself. That so many Gentile German philistines are willing to forgive Heine’s Jewishness only adds to his rage.
I, too, often make moral arguments about art, but on my better days I’m suspicious of them, because I’m aware of the envy, the powerlessness and self-pity, that lurks behind them. Back in the nineties, I spent a lot of time assembling a moral case against John Updike. I was offended (rightly, I still think) by Updike’s famous comparison of a writer’s work to excretion: you take in life, digest it, and shit it out in paragraphs. Updike was very proud of his three-pages-per-day regularity, and I didn’t need to know much about his personal history to imagine his mother crowing over the neatness and beauty of his daily bowel movements. My moral complaint was that Updike had tremendous, Nabokov-level talent and was wasting it, because he was too charmed by his daily dumps and too afraid of irregularity to take the kind of big literary risks that might have blocked him for a year or two. His lifelong penchant for alliteration was of a piece with this. It made reading even his otherwise fine stories about the Maples painful; I couldn’t get through more than a few lines without running aground on the anal-retentive preciousness of his prose. Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive processes, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist. David Foster Wallace was the one who actually called Updike an asshole in print (in the New York Observer), but I felt the same way. If you’d suggested that I envied Updike for his unobstructed productivity, or for all the women he got to go to bed with him (and then wrote about in graphic detail), I would only have restated my moral case more trenchantly.
Later on, after Updike ceased to seem like such a threat, I went through a period of feeling deeply censorious of Philip Roth, because he didn’t seem to care about his many glaring technical deficiencies as a fiction writer, and because his admirers didn’t seem to, either. Roth’s writing seemed to me, as Kraus says of Heine’s, “always and overplainly informative,” which was why, I believed, the philistines had come to tolerate him a lot better than he tolerated the philistines. As with Updike, my judgments had a flavor of Krausian moralism: Roth was lazy, Roth was an asshole, etc. Naturally, I believed that I was merely sticking up for vital aesthetic virtues—a fiction writer ought to be able to write good dialogue, create convincing and well-rounded female characters, and let a story tell itself without discursive intrusions—but these “vital” virtues happened to coincide with some of my own abilities as a fiction writer. To make my moral case against Roth, I had to ignore or downplay other plausible virtues, most notably Roth’s heroic fearlessness of his readers’ moral judgments, because I subterraneanly envied his fearlessness and wanted people to pay attention to me and not him. This was the kind of thing that Nietzsche had in mind when he mocked the “slave” mentality of moral judgments.
“Heine and the Consequences” is the document of Kraus’s struggle to overcome his great precursor. On his own terms, he may have succeeded; his best-known and most shattering work, The Last Days of Mankind (a documentary “drama” of the First World War) was written in the decade that followed. German readers, however, are not so convinced that he vanquished Heine. My friend Daniel Kehlmann, the Austrian novelist, loves the essay and grants that Kraus scores a lot of points off Heine in it. “But,” he says, “Heine is still wonderful, too.”