I’ve finished reading Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (see this recent post), and I’m already looking forward to rereading it in a few years—it’s one of those books you keep going back to as you accumulate more knowledge and understanding. It makes me interested in Goethe’s Faust in a way I’ve never been before (and now I can’t find my copy, which I dragged around for years despite being sure I’d never get around to reading it), gives me new insights into Dostoevsky (and makes it clear how Notes from Underground is in some respects a response to Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, in particular the Crystal Palace rant), and confronts Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in new and interesting ways, among many, many other things. I won’t even try to summarize his argument; instead, I’ll quote a brief bit about language from the Baudelaire chapter:
Consider a phrase like la fange du macadam, “the mire of the macadam.” La fange in French is not only a literal word for mud; it is also a figurative word for mire, filth, vileness, corruption, degradation, all that is foul and loathsome. In classical oratorical and poetic diction, it is a “high” way of describing something “low.” As such, it entails a whole cosmic hierarchy, a structure of norms and values not only aesthetic but metaphysical, ethical, political. La fange might be the nadir of the moral universe whose summit is signified by l’auréole [‘the halo’: Baudelaire’s prose poem “Loss of a Halo” centers on a poet whose halo “slipped off my head and fell into the mire of the macadam”]. The irony here is that, so long as the poet’s halo falls into “la fange,” it can never be wholly lost, because, so long as such an image still has meaning and power—as it clearly has for Baudelaire—the old hierarchical cosmos is still present on some plane of the modern world. But it is present precariously. The meaning of macadam is as radically destructive to la fange as to l’auréole: it paves over high and low alike.
We can go deeper into the macadam: we will notice that the word isn’t French. In fact, the word is derived from John McAdam of Glasgow, the eighteenth-century inventor of modern paving surface. It may be the first word in that language that twentieth-century Frenchmen have satirically named Franglais: it paves the way for le parking, le shopping, le weekend, le drugstore, le mobile-home, and far more. This language is so vital and compelling because it is the international language of modernization. Its new words are powerful vehicles of new modes of life and motion. The words may sound dissonant and jarring, but it is as futile to resist them as to resist the momentum of modernization itself.
And in a footnote on the same page, he mentions the Brooklyn Dodgers as an exemplar of modernism: “The name expresses the way in which urban survival skills—specifically, skill at dodging traffic (they were at first called the Trolley Dodgers)—can transcend utility and take on new modes of meaning and value, in sport as in art. Baudelaire would have loved this symbolism, as many of his twentieth-century successors (ee cummings, Marianne Moore) did.” I love this guy, and I thank Noetica again for the book.
I do have some minor gripes about his dealings with Russian literature. He admits up front that he knows no Russian, so his mistakes are forgivable, but I still want to correct them. For some reason he thinks Neva (the name of Petersburg’s river) means ‘mud’; he says this twice. It doesn’t. He treats Edmund Wilson’s prose translation of “The Bronze Horseman” as though it were Pushkin’s text, which is understandable but leads him into error when he quotes “he had to work for decent independence” and adds “irony here, because we will see how indecently dependent he is forced to be”: the Russian has nothing corresponding to “decent.” He refers to “Znaniemsky” Square (should be Znamiensky) and Gogol’s character “Pishkarev” (should be Piskarev or Piskaryov). Most seriously, on page 201 he quotes this line from Gogol’s wonderful story “Nevsky Prospect” (which he analyzes brilliantly): “Don’t look into the shop windows: the frippery they display is lovely, but smells of assignations.” He then says “Assignations, of course, are what this whole story has been about.” Unfortunately, the Russian text says “пахнут страшным количеством ассигнаций”: ‘they smell of a frightful quantity of banknotes’—literally assignats. I don’t know where he got “but smells of assignations” (he drew on several translations, but Google finds that phrase only in his book), but it’s a mistranslation plain and simple.