What Is to Be Done?

I said here that I was “bracing myself” to read Chernyshevsky’s famous 1863 novel; I knew it was not a good novel, but I couldn’t ignore a book that had such powerful influence (Joseph Frank wrote “No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? in its effect on human lives and its power to make history”). So I started it a few days ago.

Oh! what a bad novel! I read a few chapters and realized there was no way I could force myself to read the entire thing; I’d sooner have another go at Tolstoy’s Second Appendix. The language is stilted, the characters wooden, the storytelling childish; Chernyshevsky’s idea of heightened prose is repetition, sometimes varying the order of words (“Здание, громадное, громадное здание” [A building, enormous, an enormous building]; “Здесь царствую я. Я царствую здесь” [Here I rule. I rule here]). Fortunately, salvation was at hand in the series of posts Tom at Wuthering Expectations consecrated to the book a few years ago. This post begins:

“It’s the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress prison and began the book” writes Scott Bailey. It’s Part 3, chapter xxix, “An Extraordinary Man.” You always know something is up when Chernyshevky gives a chapter a title. With minor changes, the chapter could be an independent short story.

The story is the biography of Rakhmetov, revolutionary superhero.

Ah yes, Rakhmetov, the model for all later Russian revolutionaries! OK, I’ll read that chunk. (Incidentally, Scott Bailey’s blog has vanished from the internet, which is a pity.) And I’ll read the famous chapter of Vera’s Fourth Dream, with the Crystal Palace image that so enraged Dostoevsky and inspired Marshall Berman (see this LH post). And I did, skimming the other chapters just enough to get a vague idea of such plot as there is (a ridiculous love triangle, an impossible sewing collective, an absurd fake suicide, etc.).

The Fourth Dream is, frankly, boring stuff, and I skimmed a lot. It’s interchangeable with every other utopia of the period, with a noble denizen of the shining future showing a dazzled visitor from the benighted present how it all works: “See the abundant, productive fields! See the masses going about their light work with pleasure and enjoying their innocent entertainments! There is enough for all, once mankind comes to realize life must be lived on sensible, utilitarian principles!” (That’s a summary, not a quote, but that’s how it sounds.) There’s a direct line of descent from that to the engineer-written scientifiction of the 1920s (“Well, Bob, as you know, the power of the electron was unleashed centuries ago…”), and it’s hard for me to see how anyone over the age of, say, fourteen can take any of it seriously.

But the Rakhmetov chapters are, from our vantage point a century and a half on, terrifying. Tom quotes Joseph Frank to good effect (from his “N. G. Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia,” published in Southern Review in 1967 and reprinted in Through the Russian Prism):

The ideal of the disciplined, dedicated revolutionary, coldly Utilitarian and even cruel to himself and others, but warmed by a love for mankind that he sternly represses for fear of weakening his resolution; the iron-willed leader who sacrifices his private life to the revolution, and who, since he looks on himself only as an instrument, feels free to use others in the same way – in short, the Bolshevik mentality, for which it is impossible to find any source in European Socialism, steps right out of the pages of What Is To Be Done?

Rakhmetov’s “Покорность всегда награждается” [Submissiveness is always rewarded] sums up the “vegetarian” Soviet purges of the 1920s; his “Но вы этою отговоркою только уличили себя в новом преступлении” [But with these excuses you are only proving yourself guilty of a new crime] takes us to the Great Terror of the ’30s; and “— что значит пятьдесят человек!” [what is the significance of fifty people!] is at the root of all the contempt for human life and “bourgeois morality” shown by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et hoc genus omne. Chernyshevsky, of course, would have been horrified by all such developments; he was the kindliest of men, and only wanted humankind to perfect itself. But we all know about the road signposted with good intentions.

New Year 2018.

Потому что жизнь не ждет.
Не оглянешься и святки.
Только промежуток краткий,
Смотришь, там и новый год.

Because life does not wait.
Turn, and you find Christmas here.
And a moment after that
It’s suddenly New Year.

My favorite stanza from Pasternak’s “Снег идет” (tr. Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, “Snow Is Falling”; a different translation here). A very happy new year to all of you!

Two Pronunciation Puzzles.

1) I happened on a mention of Wanaque, New Jersey, and of course wanted to know how to pronounce it. The Wikipedia article said “(/ˈwɑːnəˌkjuː/ or /wəˈnɒki/)”; I thought “that can’t be right,” but it turns out both are correct. From the references:

19. Hanley, Robert. “Full and Not at All: The Difference Between 2 New Jersey Reservoirs”, The New York Times, March 5, 2002. Accessed March 10, 2011. “The primary reason is that the Wanaque (pronounced WAHN-a-cue or wa-NOCK-ee) is now supplemented by a new reservoir and pumping stations built after the 1980’s drought. Yet despite those projects, trouble is looming again.”
20. Gansberg, Martin. “For Wanaque, Growth Is a Problem”, The New York Times, May 27, 1973. Accessed June 26, 2017. “WANAQUE-The first thing that one discovers on entering this Passaic County community is that the 9,500 residents cannot agree on the pronunciation of the name of their hometown. Longtime residents use the old Indian WA-NAH-KEY when they refer to the borough, while new homeowners call it WA-NAH-CUE.”

2) From “Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson on How They Created ‘Phantom Thread’” in today’s NY Times: “For Alma, Mr. Anderson sought a European unknown and found Ms. Krieps (pronounced krehps), 34, whom he’d seen in the German black comedy ‘The Chambermaid’ (2014).” Once again, I thought “that can’t be right,” but (chastened by my Wanaque experience) I withheld judgment. Just because as far as I know Krieps would be /krips/ (“kreeps”) in both French and German doesn’t mean this particular woman doesn’t pronounce her name /kreps/. But I’m still leaning towards the Times having screwed up (especially since elsewhere in the article, what appears online as “In previous films, including ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ and ‘The Master’” shows up on the printed page as “In previous films, including ‘Punch-Drunk Love’needs this hyphen and ‘The Master’”). Anybody know?

The Influence of Translators.

Sam Leith interviews the publisher Christopher MacLehose, and has some good bits:

In some cases an author acquires a translator-symbiote, so that it becomes near-impossible to read – or, to translate – Proust except through CK Scott-Moncrieff-shaped spectacles. Thanks to Scott-Moncrieff, for instance, Du côté de chez Swann is, pretty much indelibly, Swann’s Way in English (he nicked the usage from Beowulf) and Sodome et Gomorrhe is Cities of the Plain. […]

I asked Boyd Tonkin, who chaired the last Man Booker International Prize, about this subject and he offered a wry and cheering example of how a translator could be hugely influential but also not very good. Thomas Mann’s first translator, HT Lowe-Porter, got a whole lot wrong – and, Tonkin says, Mann himself knew she wasn’t the whole nine yards: but “she was doing them very fast so they would appear in English soon after being published in German: he wanted them out there”.

I can’t argue with his conclusion: “As the – justly peevish – hashtag has it: #namethetranslator!” Anybody know what the Beowulf reference is about? (Thanks, Trevor!)

A Magical Muddle.

From Diane Purkiss’s TLS review of Brian Copenhaver’s The Book of Magic:

Schemas are confounded by efforts to find a legitimacy for magic. The English word comes ultimately from Greek magike (in which the original Persian word is spliced with tekhne, “art”), while the Persian magos “one of the members of the learned and priestly class” ultimately derives from magush, “to be able, to have power”, from which we may also derive the word “machine”. So my social hierarchy is your magic, and my magic might be your craft – or even your machinery.

I don’t even know where to start. “The English word comes ultimately from Greek magike”: no it doesn’t; by your own account, the Greek word goes back to Persian. (Or do you not know what ultimately means?) “…in which the original Persian word is spliced with tekhne”: Huh? What is “the original Persian word” (you haven’t even mentioned Persian yet)? You mean “the Greek adjective magike modifies tekhne.” And Greek magikē (to give it its proper long vowel) is the feminine of magikos, an adjective formed from magos ‘magus, sorcerer,’ which per AHD is “from Old Persian maguš” (= the reviewer’s “magush”) and per the more cautious M-W is “of Iranian origin; akin to Old Persian maguš sorcerer.” Note that the Old Persian word means ‘sorcerer,’ not ‘to be able, to have power’; this latter comes courtesy of AHD’s “see magh- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots,” where PIE *magh- is given with the meaning “To be able, have power.” #5 in the appended list of derivatives is “Possibly suffixed form *magh-u‑. magic, magus, from Old Persian maguš, member of a priestly caste (< 'mighty one’)." And #4 is "Suffixed lengthened-grade form *māgh-anā‑, “that which enables.” machine, mechanic, mechanism, mechano-; deus ex machina, from Greek (Attic) mēkhanē, (Doric) mākhanā, device,” hence “from which we may also derive the word ‘machine.’” What a mess!

This sort of thing used to enrage me. Now that I’m older and mellower, I realize it’s absurd to expect people with no linguistic background to be able to interpret dictionary etymologies; they just pick up the sparkly bits that appeal to them and make an ornament out of them. So I guess my conclusion is the usual hopeless “Why can’t everybody get a basic grounding in the science of language in school?”

Veltman’s Misfortune.

I’ve finished Alexander Veltman’s last novel, Счастье несчастье [Good luck is bad luck/Fortune is misfortune] (1863), and once again I’m disappointed (see this post) — as a novel, it has virtually no interest. It’s basically an anecdote: Mikhailo Ivanovich, trained as a clerk, wants nothing more than to return to Bessarabia and live with his beloved Lenkutsa in a small house with a garden, but is promoted by a remorseless Fortune to ever-higher positions, acquiring all sorts of things he doesn’t want while remaining unable (because of his weak sense of self and hypertrophied sense of duty) to chuck it all and lead the life he longs for. It’s not a bad anecdote, and would have made a nice jeu d’esprit like Tynyanov’s “Подпоручик Киже” [Second Lieutenant Kizhe], but stretching it out to fill a 700-page novel is ridiculous; it’s full of repetitious activities by characters no one cares about, even the author. The one good character is the drunken but faithful ex-soldier Larin, and in the course of researching that unusual surname, known to me only from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, I discovered this passage from Nabokov’s commentary on Onegin:

The name Larin exists. Sometime in the 1840’s, in Moscow, the writer Aleksandr Veltman (Weldmann [sic]; 1800-60 [sic; should be 1870]) ran into an old acquaintance of his, Ilya Larin. He was “a character,” a crackpot and a bum who had roamed all over Russia and, a quarter of a century before, in Kishinev, had amused Pushkin with his antics and drinking parties — incidentally presenting the poet with a name for his squire (perhaps a subliminal link may be distinguished here connecting Larin, Pushkin’s court fool, and the Yorick of the next lines). In the course of the conversation, Larin asked Veltman, “Do you remember Pushkin? He was a good soul. Where is he, do you know?” “Long dead,” answered Veltman. “Really? Poor fellow. And what about Vladimir Petrovich” (whoever that was), “what is he doing?”

Now, that’s an excellent anecdote, and the real Larin is just the same as in Veltman’s novel.

Here are a couple of passages of linguistic interest; the first, on lexical distinctions:

Aleksei Alekseevich [the governor, and Mikhailo’s boss], threw on a greatcoat, which he liked to wear instead of a dressing gown, donned a service cap, and set off on his unexpected descent upon the municipal hospital [bol’nitsa], alias gospital’ [‘military hospital’]. The names might seem to be identical, but careful philological consideration will show them to be completely different. A military gospital’ cannot possibly be called a military bol’nitsa; a municipal bol’nitsa cannot possibly be called a municipal gospital’. A gospital’ can go on campaign, but a bol’nitsa can’t. And herein lies a subtlety of the enrichment of language. The medical facility of the provincial capital never went on campaign, and so we will call it a bol’nitsa.

Между тѣмъ Алексѣй Алексѣевичь, снарядясь, накинулъ на себя шинельку, которую любилъ иногда носить вмѣсто халата, надѣлъ фуражку, и отправился совершать непредвидѣнное нашествіе на городскую больницу, она же и госпиталь. Казалось бы названія тожественны; но при внимательномъ филологическомъ воззрѣніи совершенно различны. Военнаго госпиталя никакъ нельзя назвать военной больницей; городской больницы никакъ нельзя назвать городскимъ госпиталемъ. Госпиталю можно быть походнымъ; но больница въ походъ не ходитъ. И въ этомъ заключается тонкость обогащенія языка. Врачебное зданіе губернскаго города, никогда въ походъ не ходило, и потому мы будемъ называть его больницей.

And the second, on women’s education:

They [Lizochka and her friends] considered themselves in the forefront of the highest provincial circle; they could distinguish the enlightened European languages, except for Greek, from the Asiatic, they knew that the climate of Russia is worse than any other, that church services in Russia are carried on in some unintelligible Slavic language, and that the ne plus ultra of a girl’s education is being able to understand French novels.

Онѣ считали себя въ высшемъ губернскомъ кругу на первомъ планѣ, умѣли отличать просвѣщенные европейскіе языки, кромѣ греческаго, отъ азіатскихъ, знали, что климатъ Россіи хуже всѣхъ, что церковная служба въ Россіи идетъ на непонятномъ славянскомъ языкѣ, и что nес рlus ultrа дѣвственнаго образованія есть пониманіе французскихъ романовъ.

And now, on to Leskov and (bracing myself in advance) Chernyshevsky!

Corpus Avesticum Berolinense.

The Freie Universität Berlin’s Institut für Iranistik has exciting news:

We are happy to announce that we have got today the confirmation that the German Research Foundation (DFG) has decided to fund our new project Corpus Avesticum Berolinense (CAB) for the next 12 years at the Institute of Iranian Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. This gives us the opportunity to undertake the expected new edition of all Zoroastrian rituals attested in the Avestan manuscripts. Two post-docs, some PhD candidates and student assistants will work together for twelve years beginning in 2018 in order to achieve this huge task.

In the last thirty years, a complete renovation of our understanding of the Avestan texts has been produced. Whereas they have usually understood as fragments from a longer long collection of books, today we believe that most of these texts were composed for the function in which they are still used today: their recitation in the different rituals performed in the Zoroastrian community. In fact, most of very numerous manuscripts containing these texts are complete descriptions of the rituals, including not only the Avestan texts, but also ritual instructions in different languages (depending the manuscript place of production).

Any edition of these texts would be expected to reflect their function and transmission; but, for several and very different reasons (the late antique transmission of the texts; the modern scholarly perspective on the Avesta), none of them does. As a result, the liturgical character of the Avestan texts passed on to us is not taken into account by any of the modern Avesta editions. The scholars edited the texts deprived of their ritual and performative contexts, many of them were even arranged in a different order as they are used in the performances and many variants and combinations were not edited at all, since they were considered just secondary ritual re-arrangements.

The new edition bears the consequences of the new insights and tendencies in the Avestan studies since the 1950ies. It will be the first edition which presents all texts belonging to the Avesta in its concrete shape, i.e., as ritual texts and strictly according to the manuscripts. […]

The proposed edition builds on the previous work of the Avestan Digital Archive, led by Alberto Cantera at the University of Salamanca between 2008 and 2016 and since May 2016 at the FU Berlin. Beside the finding of almost 300 hundred manuscripts, its most important achievement has been the discovery of a new branch of the transmission: the Iranian one, whereas all previous editions rely basically on Indian manuscripts. The Iranian manuscripts has brought to light that the Avestan transmission is a dynamic, fluid transmission deeply influenced by the ritual performance. Under these circumstances, the reconstruction of an ahistorical archetype seems no longer reasonable. We intend instead the presentation of the rituals as they were historically performed. The space-temporal we have chosen is the Safavid period in the region of Yazd-Kerman.

It’s wonderful that projects like this are still being funded; I enjoyed studying Avestan over forty years ago, and I envy the students who will be able to work with this material. Thanks, Trevor!

The Last Speaker of Taushiro.

Nicholas Casey writes for the NY Times about Amadeo García García, the last speaker of Taushiro (also known as Pinche or Pinchi), and how he and his language got to this point:

The waters of the Peruvian Amazon were once a vast linguistic repository, a place where every turn of the river could yield another dialect, often completely unintelligible to people living just a few miles away. But in the last century, at least 37 languages have disappeared in Peru alone, lost in the steady clash and churn of national expansion, migration, urbanization and the pursuit of natural resources. Forty-seven languages remain here in Peru, scholars estimate, and nearly half are at risk of disappearing.

I came to the river outpost of Intuto, 10 hours by speedboat from the nearest city, to figure out how the Taushiro, like so many other cultures, had been brought to this kind of end. The journey began in forgotten linguistic papers and historical sketches. It even led me to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, where a retired Christian missionary rummaged through the last existing pictures of the Taushiro, nearly coming to tears as she looked through them for the first time in years.

And it brought me here, to the banks of a silty brown river, where the cumulative experience of the Taushiro people swung alone in a hammock: A man around 70 whose memory was fading and whose grasp of the language was slipping away because he had no one to speak it with. […]

Now Amadeo lives alone in a clapboard house behind the town’s water tower, spending many of his final days drinking. Desperate to speak and hear whatever Taushiro he can, he sits alone on his porch in the morning, reciting the only literature ever written in the language — verses of the Bible translated into Taushiro by missionaries who sought to convert the tribe years ago.

Ine aconahive ite chi yi tua tieya ana na’que I’yo lo’, he read aloud one morning. It was the story of Lot from the Book of Genesis. Lot and his family become the sole survivors of their city when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot loses his wife when she looks back at the destruction, against the instructions of God.

It’s a sad story, but well written and well worth reading. Thanks, Eric and ryan!

Xmas Loot 2017.

An enjoyable but tiring day, I’ll just list a few items of LH interest:

The Guy Davenport Reader (thanks, jamessal!)

The Russian Memoir: History and Literature, edited by Beth Holmgren

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips

I was also thrilled to get Irina Mashinski’s latest book of poetry, Делавер [Delaware] (thanks, Irina!); the title sequence is online here and my account of a 2014 reading at Mount Holyoke College is here.

I wish everyone the very best of holidays!

Smorgon Student.

Reading Veltman’s last novel, I got to the unintelligible phrase сморгонский студент ‘smorgonskii student.’ I guessed it was a student from someplace called “Smorgon” (or Smorgona?), and that turned out to be sort of true, except that the students involved were bears: the Lithuanian/Russian/Polish/Belarusian town of Smorgon (Сморгонь/Smurgainys/Smorgonie/סמאָרגאָן‎) once housed a school for training bears, and so in the nineteenth century “Smorgon student” was a clever way to refer to a mammal of the ursine persuasion (Dahl adds the parallel phrase сергачский барин ‘nobleman from Sergach,” which apparently also had such an academy). This is just one example of the sort of odd fact the internet is a great help in unearthing.