31 December 2011

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

The worst defeat, all in all, is to forget, and especially to forget how you've been done in, and to croak without ever understanding what rotten swine people are. When we're standing beside our open graves we shouldn't try to be clever, but we shouldn't forget either. We should tell it all without changing a word, all of the most vicious things we've seen people do. Then we should shut up and climb down into the hole. As a life's work, that's enough.
The above is my own translation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1932 novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit [Journey to the End of the Night]. My source text was the Folio paperback (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), p. 38. The book was most recently translated by Ralph Manheim in 1988, although John H. P. Marks' 1934 version still has a gritty charm. The original French:
La grande défaite, en tout, c’est d’oublier, et surtout ce qui vous a fait crever, et de crever sans comprendre jamais jusqu’à quel point les hommes sont vaches. Quand on sera au bord du trou faudra pas faire les malins nous autres, mais faudra pas oublier non plus, faudra raconter tout sans changer un mot, de ce qu’on a vu de plus vicieux chez les hommes et puis poser sa chique et puis descendre. Ça suffit comme boulot pour une vie tout entière.

30 December 2011

Keep Apart

"Keep apart, keep apart, and preserve one's soul alive -- that is the teaching for the day. It is ill to have been born in these times, but one can make a world within the world. A glimpse of the morning or evening sky will give the right note, and then we must make what music we can."

George Gissing, in a letter to his brother, September 22, 1885.

The Collected letters of George Gissing: 1881-1885, Volume 2,
(Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1990), p. 349.

29 December 2011

Best Observed in the Nude

David Cartwright, Schopenhauer: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 373-4:
To succeed in life, Schopenhauer held, Hegel had made himself a lackey for the church and state, and because he had nothing to say, he had to hide the paucity of his thought within convoluted sentence structures, thick with obscure jargon, and moved by wild, at times absurd dialectical word play. Hegel’s style mystified and misled the learned world, and Schopenhauer saw that the obscure became identified with the profound. Worse, from his point of view just as Hegel’s stumbling, coughing, and disjointed lecture style was imitated by others, the same was true of his horrid writing style. To write badly was now to write well. Truth, Schopenhauer affirmed, was best observed in the nude, and Hegel’s writing had more than seven veils, and the veils covered nothing.

28 December 2011

Transmute Boldly

These are the notes I took while reading Hilaire Belloc’s On Translation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931). At the time it didn’t occur to me that I might want to make them public, so I was not very careful; there are no page numbers, and the quotations may not be perfectly accurate.

The book is hard to find (I consulted a copy in the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto), so my sloppy work may still be of interest:

Rules for Translation 
1. The translation should be into the language of the translator (i.e., his mother tongue) 
2. The translated language should be possessed by the translator as perfectly as possible, short of causing confusion in his mind. 
3. The translator must be emancipated from mechanical restrictions, of which the chief forms are:
i) The restriction of space (word count) 
ii) The restriction of form (verse should be translated into prose)

Concerning the second rule, Belloc says that, as far as he can recall, no perfectly bilingual person has ever made a good translation. “Too great a familiarity with a foreign idiom may render a man confused between that idiom and his own. It may make him at times run the two together within his mind, diluting and marring each with the properties of the other.” 
“There is a certain degree of familiarity with German which makes an Englishman, especially in the logical field, incomprehensible.”  
Belloc warns against including words or phrases from the translated language for the sake of spice or atmosphere. “I should say that any hint of foreignness in the translated version is a blemish. I should keep to my canon that the translated thing should read like a first-class native thing.” 
As an example of good translation, Belloc points to the English version of Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux (The Devil Upon Two Sticks), but also notes that the translator is not named. This is the kind of recognition one may expect in this business.
“The wages of literature anyhow are pretty bad; they come next, I think, in order of disappointment to the wages of sin: but of all literary wages as paid in fame the very lowest are the wages of the translator; and I suppose that is why translation has today almost been given up in despair.”  
“Transmute boldly: render the sense by the corresponding sense, without troubling over the verbal difficulties in your way. Where such rendering of sense by corresponding sense involves a considerable amplification, do not hesitate to amplify for fear of being verbose.” 
“If you discover your effort to be wholly unworthy of the original, it is far better for two good reasons to burn it rather than let it stand. The two good reasons are, first, that by publishing it you traduce the poet; and second, that you commit that unforgivable crime of making a fool of yourself.”

Vapouring and Fuming

John Ruskin, A Joy for Ever; And its Price on the Market (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), p. 31:

[F]rom all I can gather respecting the recklessness of modern paper manufacture, my belief is, that though you may still handle an Albert Durer engraving, two hundred years old, fearlessly, not one half of that time will have passed over your modern water-colours, before most of them will be reduced to mere white or brown rags; and your descendants, twitching them contemptuously into fragments between finger and thumb, will mutter against you, half in scorn and half in anger: "Those wretched nineteenth century people! They kept vapouring and fuming about the world, doing what they called business, and they couldn't make a sheet of paper that wasn't rotten."

True, the book's pages are yellow and brittle. But it will still last longer than the computer I am using to type this.

27 December 2011

The Slime of Avernus

And indeed, it is only through evil conduct, wilfully persisted in, that there is any embarrassment, either in the theory or working of currency. No exchequer is ever embarrassed, nor is any financial question difficult of solution, when people keep their practice honest, and their heads cool. But when governments lose all office of pilotage, protection, or scrutiny; and live only in magnificence of authorized larceny, and polished mendacity; or when the people choosing Speculation (the s usually redundant in spelling) instead of Toil, visit no dishonesty with chastisement, that each may with impunity take his dishonest turn; -- there are no tricks of financial terminology that will save them; all signature and mintage do but magnify the ruin they retard; and even the riches that remain, stagnant or current, change only from the slime of Avernus to the sand of Phlegethon.

John Ruskin, Munera Pulveris (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), p. 65.

26 December 2011

The Cream of a Book

[I]t is wisely appointed for us that few of the things we desire can be had without considerable labour, and at considerable intervals of time. We cannot generally get our dinner without working for it, and that gives us appetite for it, we cannot get our holiday without waiting for it, and that gives us zest for it; and we ought not to get our picture without paying for it, and that gives us a mind to look at it.

Nay, I will even go so far as to say that we ought not to get books too cheaply. No book, I believe, is ever worth half so much to its reader as one that has been coveted for a year at a bookstall, and bought out of saved halfpence; and perhaps a day or two's fasting. That's the way to get at the cream of a book. And I should say more on this matter, and protest as energetically as I could against the plague of cheap literature, with which we are just now afflicted, but that I fear your calling me to order, as being unpractical, because I don't quite see my way at present to making everybody fast for their books.

John Ruskin
A Joy for Ever; And its Price on the Market (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), p. 44.

23 December 2011

A Baudelairean Christmas

In Georges Barral’s account of the five days he spent with Charles Baudelaire in Brussels in 1864, there is an interesting wine pairing that suits this time of year:

After a walk through the old city the two men open a bottle of Corton and eat a loaf of gingerbread, purchased from the (extant) Dandoy bakery on rue au Beurre. “Gingerbread is excellent with wine, especially with Burgundy,” says Baudelaire. “It is even its complement, for it brings out the heady fragrance.”

Baudelaire recommends cutting the bread into very thin slices and coating them with grape jelly or, failing that, another kind of jam.

Social Frivolity

Seriously I think it is a grave fault in life that so much time is wasted in social matters, because it not only takes up time when you might be doing individual private things, but it prevents you from storing up the psychic energy that can be used to create art or whatever it is.

It's terrible the way we scotch silence and solitude at every turn, quite suicidal. I can't see how to avoid it without being very rich or very unpopular and it does worry me, for time is slipping by, and nothing is done. It isn't as if anything was gained by this social frivolity. It isn't: it's just a waste.

Philip Larkin, Letters to Monica (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) p. 83.

Accusations of Madness

Clive Hamilton, The Freedom Paradox (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin,  2009), p. 22.
[M]uch is revealed by the emergence of a class of citizens known as ‘downshifters’ -- people who have voluntarily decided to reduce their incomes and consumption in order to free up time and energy for other pursuits. They represent a surprisingly large proportion of the populations of rich countries. Yet, having exercised their freedom by choosing to assign to market considerations a lower place in the order of life’s priorities, these people report that they face suspicion, accusations of madness, and loss of status. The obstacles put in the way of those who want to partially withdraw from the market are formidable and include being told they will no longer be able to participate in normal discourse and they will be impoverished in retirement.
It is astounding, therefore, that perhaps as much as a fifth of the population of Anglophone nations have opted for this life change in the last decade or so. The phenomenon is a sign that, in the face of unprecedented freedoms and abundance, the pressure to conform to a market model of happiness has for many become unbearable. Libertarians do not know how to respond to this incipient revolt: although they must applaud people who exercise their free will, they are baffled and distressed when these people exercise that freedom by rejecting the values of the market. If one believes that the world is populated by homo economicus, rational economic man, what happens to that world when rational economic man freely chooses to transcend himself?

22 December 2011

The Herd Instinct

Personally, I see danger in the herd instinct as applied to literary supply and demand. Lined up by book societies, martialled by literary journalists, brought to obedience by excessive advertisement, the members of the reading public have now all to read the same books in the same seasons or they will be out of the fashion, they will miss their conversational cues.

There are more books than there ever were; the skill with which they are written is greatly superior to that shown in the books of a generation or so ago; the number of readers has immeasurably increased. And yet fewer authors are being kept pleasantly alive by the labour of their pens. In fact the tendency is for the herd instinct to make a few writers greatly popular and to leave the greater number to neglect. Let me hope that this is but a phase...

Grant Richards, Author Hunting (New York: Coward-McCann, 1934), p. 286.

Bear the Smell Stoically

The first thing to do is to make them admit that they are idiots and machines during working hours. ‘Our civilization being what it is,’ this is what you'll have to say to them, ‘you've got to spend eight hours out of every twenty-four as a mixture between an imbecile and a sewing machine. It's very disagreeable, I know. It's humiliating and disgusting. But there you are. You've got to do it; otherwise the whole fabric of our world will fall to bits and we'll all starve.

Do the job, then, idiotically and mechanically; and spend your leisure hours in being a real complete man or woman, as the case may be. Don't mix the two lives together; keep the bulkheads watertight between them. The genuine human life in your leisure hours is the real thing. The other's just a dirty job that's got to be done. And never forget that it is dirty and, except in so far as it keeps you fed and society intact, utterly unimportant, utterly irrelevant to the real human life. Don't be deceived by the canting rogues who talk of the sanctity of labour and the Christian Service that business men do their fellows. It's all lies.

Your work's just a nasty, dirty job, made unfortunately necessary by the folly of your ancestors. They piled up a mountain of garbage and you've got to go on digging it away, for fear it might stink you to death, dig for dear life, while cursing the memory of the maniacs who made all the dirty work for you to do. But don't try to cheer yourself up by pretending the nasty mechanical job is a noble one. It isn't; and the only result of saying and believing that it is, will be to lower your humanity to the level of the dirty work. If you believe in business as Service and the sanctity of labour, you'll merely turn yourself into a mechanical idiot for twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four.”

Admit it's dirty, hold your nose and do it for eight hours and then concentrate on being a real human being in your leisure. A real complete human being. Not a newspaper reader, not a jazzer, not a radio fan. The industrialists who purvey standardized ready-made amusements to the masses are doing their best to make you as much of a mechanical imbecile in your leisure as in your hours of work. But don't let them. Make the effort of being human.'

That's what you've got to say to people; that's the lesson you've got to teach the young. You've got to persuade everybody that all this grand industrial civilization is just a bad smell and that the real, significant life can only be lived apart from it. It'll be a very long time before decent living and industrial smell can be reconciled. Perhaps, indeed, they're irreconcilable. It remains to be seen. In the meantime, at any rate, we must shovel the garbage and bear the smell stoically, and in the intervals try to lead the real human life.

Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (New York: Harper & Row, 1928), pp. 300-301.

Poetry of Departures

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 64:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

21 December 2011

Like Children in a Theatre

Arthur Schopenhauer, Section 156 and 157 of Nachträge zur Lehre vom Leiden der Welt (an essay usually referred to in English as On the Suffering of the World), from Parerga und Paralipomena. My own translation:
In early youth we sit in front of our lives like children in a theatre, waiting in joyful anticipation for the curtain to rise and the show to begin. It is fortunate that we do not know what is really coming. For if one did know, the children would seem like innocent prisoners, condemned not to death but to life, and still unaware of the implication of their sentence. But despite all this, everyone wants to reach old age; a condition in which one can only say that today is bad and tomorrow will be worse, until the worst finally arrives. 
When one considers, in so far as it is possible to do so, the amount of hardship, pain, and suffering that the sun illuminates in its course, one will admit that it would have been better if it had not called the phenomenon of life into being, and had left the surface of the earth as crystalline as that of the moon. 
One can also consider life a useless, troublesome interruption in the blissful state of nothingness. In any case, even someone who has had a decent time of it will see more clearly the longer he lives that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay a cheat. Or to speak plainly, that it is by nature a giant mystification, not to mention a swindle.
My source text is the sixth volume of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Sämmtliche Werke (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1874), pp. 320-321. It came to mind when I read this post on Michael Gilleland’s excellent blog.