An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

Literary: Anything waxing literary and Classical goes here. Occasionally I’ll put up a post which is entirely or largely a poem. Those go in Poetry. I even sometimes (though I would be the first to tell you that “literary criticism is bunk”) post some critique.

Tafel :: literary :: critique

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

The most mind-altering thing about this book is its catalogue record. At least, it's the first thing I noticed when looking for The Men Who Stare at Goats after having it recommended to me.

After talking with a friend, I was told, "If you like all those crazy Cold War spy novels, you'll love it!" Never one to turn down a book recommendation from a fellow addict, I wrote it down and forgot about it. Next time I was at the library, I pulled out The List, re-noticed it, and looked it up.

As I said, the first think I noticed about it was its catalogue record. Specifically, the line that said, "355.3RON; 1 copy; Fiction Book; in Fiction books".

As an astute student, no doubt, of the Dewey Decimal System, you'll probably note an inconsistency right away. See, the 300s are Social Sciences, not Fiction (800s). 355.3, specifically, concerns the "Organization and personnel of military forces".

Of course, even though they'd given it the wrong call number, at least it was part of the fiction collection, so I should be able to find it by last name in the stacks.

No luck.

On a lark, I decided to see if they'd mishelved it amongst the militaria anyway (which would've been immensely amusing — if you know anything about the book, you know it's about "telekinetic special ops" and "psychic spies"); and of course (since you know I did eventually find it) they did. I discussed my amusement about this shelving mistake with the librarian as I checked out.

See, before I go on, you should know that military fiction is a genre with a fastidious readership: their particularity for authenticity and realism is really surpassed only by the "serious historical fiction" and the "hard science fiction" readers. No author knowing the "reality" demands of the military-fiction audience would write anything as crazy as Uri Geller being hired as a psychic spy for a top-secret project inspired by hippies. No author wanting to sell his books to the savvy and shrewd military-history buffs consuming his particular subgenre would dare go so far as to expect his reader to swallow the training of special-ops in Zen-like meditation practices so they could stare at, and will to death, the eponymous goats. And a general who believed he just needed to concentrate a little harder to walk through his office wall would be a character for a comedy author — not a well-researched and serious military-fictioneer. Such an author would be accused roundly of not doing his research, writing sci-fi under the guise of military fiction, and making a mockery of the genre.

So the only way this book got written was by being true.

The mind-altering thing about its catalog record? The call number is correct.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Translation and Critique of Stroope's "Amor de mi alma"

Little irks me like a poor translation. One of my favourite songs that we sang as the PCC Symphonic Choir is "Amor de mi alma", by Z. Randall Stroope. It's a painfully-beautiful setting of Garcilaso de la Vega's "Soneta V" — lovely, that is, until you attempt a reading of the English gloss.

Its abysmality is beyond words. (Of course, I'll try to put words to it anyhow.) It makes no attempt to remain true to the poetic spirit of the original, and makes legion irrational changes in wording and phrasing.

Keep in mind that this isn't simply a gloss intended for the performers — that would be bad enough. The translated text is used in programs and readings for public performances of the piece across the country. Yeah. It's that serious.

Problems start with the very first line. The Spanish, "Yo no nací para quereros" sashays nicely into the literal English, "I was not born but to love you." For whatever heinous reason, Stroope has decided that "I was born to love only you" — colourless and inaccurate — is more apt. May God have mercy on his soul.

The second and third lines set up the evocative image of wrapping oneself in one's beloved like a cloak. Garcilaso sets up his textile image beginning with the cutting of a garment to tailor-fit ("ha cortado a su medida"). Stroope takes the "cortado", which can mean nothing but "cut", and renders it as the more benign and irrelevant "formed".

The third stanza is likewise mangled. Stroope's rendering of "Quanto tengo confiesso yo deveros" (lit. "How much I must confess I owe you") as "All that I have I owe to you" is at once dishonest in its use of the absolute and uninteresting in its lack of poetic vigour.

As well, the final line, "Y por vos e de morir y por vos muero", rendered to include an improbable and anachronistic "give my last breath", betrays Stroope's lack of research into the linguistic environment of Garcilaso's works. The phrase "[h]e de morir" is a 16th-century Castilian idiom which means, roughly, "I would be obligated to die, were it to become necessary": a depth of meaning lost to the reader of Stroope's gloss.

This depth of meaning greatly reveals the emotions intended resident in the final "muero". "Muero" connotes not simply a literal "I die" but "I am now called on that obligation, and, by dying, fulfill it".

I've skipped over the second stanza temporarily, and now to it return. The entire stanza is difficult to understand in this edition. However, if you realize it has been greatly altered in Stroope's edition even prior to translation, clarity becomes possible. The third stanza is the first stanza in the original, and is here missing a total of eleven words, constituting two lines. The original:

Escrito está en mi alma vuestro gesto,
y cuanto yo escribir de vos deseo;
vos sola lo escribisteis, yo lo leo
tan solo, que aun de vos me guardo en esto.

gives us much more information, where the text of "Amor de mi alma" leaves little to explain the complex phrasing of "que aun de vos me guardo en esto". Reading Garcilaso's original words:

Written it is on my heart your gesto,
and how much to write of you I desire;
you only have written it, and it I read
only, that even from you I hide myself in it.

I'll get to "gesto" later. The rough literal translation above (it's not entirely accurate, but should help those who don't read the Spanish) tells a plaintive tale. "Your gesto is written on my heart, and I want desperately to write so much more of you. None but you has written it, though, and I can only read it, since any more would reveal my love to you, and that I must hide even from you, by retreating to this vision of you."

Okay, not perfect, again, but the paraphrase gets the idea across. The closest English synonym for "gesto" is "countenance" circa AD1600. It means, in this context, "your being, as expressed on your face". However, that's currently beside the point: I just wanted you to be able to read it properly for now. The core problem is the missing eleven words from the beginning of the second line (Garcilaso) almost to the end of the third line (Garcilaso), which fit between the first and second lines (ed. Stroope).

Stroope creates a destructive ambiguity both by leaving out the lines in question, and by skipping an ever-so-important comma between "tan solo" and "que aun". Without knowing that this gesto was written upon the poet's heart without his having the ability to add to what is there written, we have no way of knowing that his love is unrequited. Without this veritable keystone of a comma, we have no way of discerning between the two unrelated meanings: "I only read it" and "I only hide from you". The latter, which is how Stroope seems to parse his edited Spanish when translating it, leaves the original meaning far behind.

Below are Stroope's text and gloss, and a more accurate replacement translation to replace his gloss in performances of the piece. Following are Garcilaso's original text, and an English verse translation thereof.

“Amor de mi alma” ed. Stroope

Garcilaso de la Vega

Yo no nací sino para quereros;
Mi alma os ha cortado a su medida;
Por hábito del alma misma os quero.

Escrito esté en mi alma vuestro gesto;
Yo lo leo tan solo que aun de vos
Me guardo en esto.

Quanto tengo confiesso yo deveros;
Por vos nací, por vos tengo la vida,
Y por vos e de morir y por vos

Tr. Stroope

I was born to love only you;
My soul has formed you to its measure
I want you as a garment for my soul.

Your very image is written on my soul;
Such indescribable intimacy
I hide even from you.

All that I have, I owe to you;
For you I was born, for you I live,
For you I must die, and for you
I give my last breath.

Tr. Keith Beckman

I was not born but to love you.
You my soul has cut to its measure:
it’s you I want as a cloak for my soul.

Your every aspect is written on my soul:
I no more than read, that within it,
even from you I might hide myself.

How much I must confess I owe you:
for you I was born, for you I have life.
Were it necessary, for you I would die;
and for you I do die.

“Soneta V”

Garcilaso de la Vega

Escrito está en mi alma vuestro gesto,
y cuanto yo escrebir de vos deseo;
vos sola lo escrebistes, yo lo leo
tan solo, que aun de vos me guardo en esto.

En esto estoy y estaré siempre puesto;
que aunque no cabe en mí cuanto en vos veo,
de tanto bien lo que no entiendo creo,
tomando ya la fe por presupuesto.

Yo no nací sino para quereros;
mi alma os ha cortado a su medida;
por hábito del alma mismo os quiero.

Cuanto tengo confieso yo deberos;
por vos nací, por vos tengo la vida,
por vos he de morir, y por vos muero.

Tr. Keith Beckman

Your every aspect is written on my soul:
and how much more I desire to write!
None but you has written, and I may only read,
that in reading, I might hide even from you.

In this I am and ever will be settled,
even though I see in you some few incompatibilities
(because I do not well understand what I believe,
already taking my fidelity for granted).

I was not born but to love you.
You my soul has cut to its measure:
it’s you I want as a cloak for my soul.

How much I must confess I owe you:
for you I was born, for you I have life.
Were it necessary, for you I would die;
and for you I do die.

Friday, February 18, 2005

“The Garden”, by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall,
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
To a sort of emotional anæmia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
Will commit that indiscretion.


“The Garden” holds out, “like a loose skein of silk”, the wealthy and wise whom Pound despised, to be soiled by contact with what is less delicate, and in his view, of more worth. Those “sturdy, unkillable infants” who would inherit the earth deserved the earth, since they were the “very poor” generated by the years of privilege which had bred this exquisite, bored beauty.

“In her is the end of breeding.” Yes, we all know that Pound was opposed to any sort of elite. However, the picture of her we see is one of a woman truly deserving of our contempt. Lest we feel justified in loving or allowing the wealthy (in the which case, her mere station — which was Pound’s cause against her — would not be enough to prejudice us against her), Pound ensures that wealth is coupled intimately with a character innately disturbing.

In her “exquisite and excessive” boredom, the woman meandering through Kensington Gardens is a commentary on what the elite had become by Pound’s day. While fortunes were built on foundations both good and bad (the oppressive foundations of wealth predictably dwelt upon by Pound’s contemporaries), they eventually became self-existent entities of a being entirely separate from those who owned them. The elite became no more elite by right and by labour, but elite by mere descent. The woman is not a victorious, worthwhile producer of wealth, but merely an end user of her parents’ and grandparents’ work. She is our decadent.

However, hate for its own sake is never so strong as a justified disliking. Pound never gives us a woman to hate, but rather, nearly an inamorata into whom we see too much to allow us to act upon our love. We feel appropriate and unbiased in condemning her decadence, since we are acting contrary to the strong drawing power she has upon our emotions (hence, contrary to our surface bias): we cannot be reacting unjustly, since we are in love with our beautiful, silken, “end of breeding”.

She is also described as emotionally anemic. Herein, I think, is Pound’s reason for ascribing a greater worth to the “sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor”. Pain produces emotion, and if she is both worthless and without emotion, one might deduce (subconsciously, of course) that those who possess emotion are inherently of greater value.

So he destroys, in an act of beauty, a moral segment of society by its association with her problems. “The Garden” is, regardless, an act of beauty.

The image of the silk blowing up against a wall is pregnant, somehow, with a power which only grows the more familiar the image becomes. At the first, I was able to read swiftly past it, noting in the first stanza nothing more than “ . . . Kensington Gardens . . . dying . . . emotional anæmia.” However, upon successive readings, the opening image rose in my mind to the point that, before remembering even the garden (though that is second), this poem comes to my mind as a white drapery of silk being held (off-camera) so that it hangs next to a river-stone wall of about six feet in height, and perpetually blowing, caressingly, against the smooth stones and grey mortar.

The “exquisite and excessive” boredom is that carried by generation upon generation of women who are familiar with the sound of men’s hearts shattering. The sound, after so long, does not produce in her any more the thrill it once did, and indeed, she secretly wishes both to hear and to not hear the faint cry of one more. Her beauty, though, precludes any hope of her not hearing such a cry.

The tense thoughtfulness which is fondly thought to reside in such unattainable women by the men who worship them is present in her desire (at least from the man’s perspective) to be spoken to, and in her fear that he of all men will be the one to do so. Pound must have felt at least a twinge of desire for this woman whose class he detested and feared, and in whose “breeding” he saw no purpose. Only one who knew the allure of an exquisitely bored woman — of the challenge it would be to demolish that willful boredom — would know her fear.

And, in the fourth stanza, written in the margins only by the imaginations of those who have known and loved such women, her fears are realized; for I know that the indiscretion must be committed. “I will commit that indiscretion.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

You Want to Ban What Book?

Banned Books I’ve Read and Recommend

I just ran across the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1999–2000. A few of them, such as Daddy’s Roommate (at number two), Madonna’ Sex (number 19) and Curses, Hexes, and Spells (number 73) make sense. They’re the kind of books that concerned parents taking an active part in their children’s lives would ask librarians to remove. However, some made no sense at all.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (5) — Huh? I don’t see how a masterpiece of American literature, and icon of abolition, and clean, moral story can be challenged by any comers. Oh. I get it. It’s because the characters use the term, “nigger”, isn’t it? When will people understand that language changes over time? Even the abolitionists of the day called blacks “niggers”. It was merely the term in common use.

The Giver (14) — One mother said, “This book only offers one thing, ideas on the destruction of humanity.” How can you think that Lowry is advocating a Big-Brother state? The book is about rebelling against the inhumanity of the machine!

A Wrinkle in Time (22) — Let me guess: “occultism”? I don’t know of any kids who would take religious cues from a science fiction novel about interdimensional travel. Face it: if you have a world which allows things like interdimensional travel (or trans-wardrobe travel, a la Narnia), you’re going to need to change your universe around somewhat merely to maintain internal consistency. Our real universe with its one Creator God is just that — real. Surreal and supernatural stories require surreal and supernatural settings.

The Witches (27) — No, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with witchcraft in literature. How is it different from, say, stealing; since a sin is a sin is a sin, in God’s book. Would you ban a book (such as those in The Hardy Boys series) since it dealt with crime? Sin in a book is not wrong. Glorified sin is wrong. Dahl’s The Witches uses witches as villains, not heroes.

Blubber (32) — So now we can’t have a book in which the main character is both overweight and unpopular? Hmmm . . . I despise political correctness, and when the political-correctness crowd trys to ban a book for being “mean”, I get mean. When will they learn that that’s life? I was always the mocked kid (for being a geek/nerd/wimp at school. If anyone would have a reason to ban this book, it would be me. My vote: keep it.

To Kill a Mockingbird (41) — They seem to like banning my favorite books, do they not? Or mayhap my taste in reading is just a bit contra-establishment, eh? Well, the story of a rape trial. Are you saying that middle schoolers and high schoolers don’t know what rape is, or that they ought not, in a society gone mad, read at least one example of someone trying to handle the case the right way? Or is it bad because a black man is on trial? It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? Listen, folks: it’s not racism just because the defendant is black. Racism is when someone is deprecated for their race. Just like Huck Finn, this is an anti-racism book getting a bad rap from stupid people: those who don’t/can’t/won’t thing about the message of a book rather than their preconceptions about it.

Flowers for Algernon (47) — Now, what possible controversial topic could be in this book? Insensitivity to the mentally handicapped? (The book promotes their cause, rather than deprecating it.) Sex? (The main character develops a crush on his teacher, which never goes farther than his asking her for a kiss.) Drugs? (The main character receives a mind-enhancing operation to treat his retardation.) ?????

A Light in the Attic (51) — I grew up reading Shel Silverstein. I think I’d know it if one of his poems were inappropriate. Oh, wait. You’re talking about that “camel” poem, aren’t you. I don’t know about you, but in my family there was just an understanding that that one wasn’t read. Didn’t you grow up with parents who raised and trained you right? Hmmm. Few and far between, huh?

Brave New World (52) — Let me say that this one doesn’t surprise me. Our daddy-state and resident liberals don’t want any free thinkers around. Yes, it’s not appropriate for kids. No, I don’t think it would be a problem for high schoolers. Let the kids read Animal Farm until they’re old enough for Brave New World and 1984. Rather surprisingly, they have not yet tried to ban Animal Farm

James and the Giant Peach (56) — I suppose giant bugs and a giant piece of fruit are supernatural enough to entail drastic action. I can see that. Dahl’s Peach is going to make kids everywhere go out into their back yards and cast spells on their fruit trees until the fruit becomes big enough to travel in, right? Wrong.

Lord of the Flies (70) — A lot of books from my “must-read” list I give people are showing up on the banned list.

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across that square, red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

1 2 3 4

Look how well-written that is! Golding captures the essence of his childhood point of view required by the story in that passage. Matter-of-fact, like a jaded, frightened child. It’s not “nice”, though, is it. Face it: a sin nature is not a nice thing. I halfway think they want to ban LOTF because it acknowledges the innate evil of mankind. Not very enlightened of Golding, is it?

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (84) — I think I already dealt with this under Huck Finn. Learn this, people: “nigger” was not a racist term in the mid-1800s. Everyone from abolitionists to slaves to slavers used it. It’s called “period dialect”.

How to Eat Fried Worms (96) — Look, moms. No matter what disgusts you, you can’t ban a book because it’s “icky”. Trust me. There is no questionable content in here. Not even the fleeting use of mild cursing. Nought. Nada. Zilch. Fried Worms is a one-hundred-percent clean book with a one-hundred-percent appeal to boys. No, mom, you probably won’t like it. That doesn’t mean it’s evil.

Looking back at that list, I’m rather surprised at how many of the books on the list are classics. Some I have never read are on that list, and it’s making me want to read them even more. Fahrenheit 451, anybody? Let’s have us a book un-burning! Read a banned book. Better yet, tell someone else about your favourite banned book.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Higgler, by A.E. Coppard

The Higgler, by A.E. Coppard

Alfred Edgar Coppard was an early-modern English writer who preserved much of the romanticism of the late nineteenth century even well into the twenties and thirties. The Higgler follows a travelling merchant as he woos two women, and weds the wrong one.

Opening a copy of Coppard’s Collected Tales, The Higgler is the first to greet you. This is unfortunate, for it fairly spoils the taste for any of the following stories. Once The Higgler is in your blood, everything else seem but a paltry excuse for a bedtime-story. The “what-ifs” and “whys” stay in the mind until resolved — but nothing can dissolve the worst travesty of any life: to marry the wrong woman.

Harvey is a fairly honest, hardworking sort who cares for his widowed mother and is trying to make something of himself by higgling (buying and selling from local farmers) so he can marry Sophy, his sweet-heart. Higgling brings him to Mrs. Elizabeth Sadgrove, an austere but friendly farm widow whose daughter, Mary, has “red hair, a complexion like the inside of a nut, blue eyes, and the hands of a lady”, and very quickly has all of Harvey’s heart.

Harvey continues to woo Sophy while making inroads (or rather, being brought in) to the Sadgrove good. A marriage with Sophy is planned, and Mary (who seldom talks to Harvey) remains a mere worshipful fascination. Knowing that “I love Sophy best. It’s true enough I love Mary, too, but I love Sophy better. I know it; Sophy’s the girl I must wed,” Harvey tries eventually to put out of his mind any possibilities of wedding Mary. However, when Mrs. Sadgrove invites Harvey to take Sunday lunch with her and Mary, she reveals — in Mary’s absence — that “I want to see my daughter married” before her death.

To worship someone from a theoretical “afar” is simple; to have a marriage proposed by the mother of the worshipped is far from so. Throughout the following weeks, he wrestles with the proposal. Mrs. Sadgrove had told him of Mary’s considerable inheritance, and Harvey — as a very peasant — was far from impervious to financial enticements. However, his suspicions of Mrs. Sadgroves motives, of a “too-good-to-be-true” offer, as well as those of Mary’s innocence of any knowledge of the proposal, grew upon him, until he finally married Sophy and severed ties with the Sadgroves.

The following months were not easy, and eventually he became disillusioned with his quarrelsome bride and financially-burndensome marriage. Needing money to support his wife and failing business, he put off calling on the Sadgroves as long as possible. Finally, he gives in, and, knowing that Mrs. Sadgrove, besides being wealthy, “had no call to be unfriendly to him”, he called on the Sadgrove farm.

Mary, for the first time ever, answered the door. Speaking to him for the first time in months, she informs him that “Mother’s dead.” He helps her to lay out the body (as the doctor is long in coming), and when she is sufficiently calm, begins to talk with her.

Suddenly the higgler turned to her and ventured: "Did you know as she once asked me to marry you?" he blurted.

Her eyes turned from him, but he guessed — he could feel that she had known.

“I've often wondered why,” he murmured, “why she wanted that.”

“She didn't,” said the girl.

That gave pause to the man; he felt stupid at once, and roved his fingers in a silly way along the roughened nap of his hat.

“Well, she asked me to,” he bluntly protested.

“She knew,” Mary's voice was no louder than a sigh, “that you were courting another girl, the one you married.”

“But, but,” stuttered the honest higgler, “if she knew that why did she want for me to marry you?”

“She didn't,” said Mary again; and again, in the pause, he did silly things to his hat. How shy this girl was, how lovely in her modesty and grief!

“I can't make tops or bottoms of it,” he said, "but she asked me, as sure as God's my maker.”

“I know. It was me, I wanted it.”

In that moment, his suspicions of Mrs. Sadgrove going behind Mary’s back to ensnare him flashed through his mind. His misbegotten marriage to Sophy, his ill lot financially — if only he had taken the one good thing offered him.

“Oh, if you'd only tipped me a word, or given me a sort of look,” he sighed, “Oh, Mary!”