THE FANTASY OF UNDERSTANDING.

I’m slowly working my way through Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs, and I’ve run across a couple of quotations that not only rhyme with each other but enter into a useful dialog with the recent controversy over translation, in which the complete review raised hackles by objecting to the whole concept. I’ve tried to make the case that they were simply pointing out the fallacy of thinking you’ve made real contact with a work of literature by reading a translation, but these quotations put the issue in a larger context.


The first is from David Antin‘s 1984 book-length poem tuning (a long excerpt of which is online here). Antin (who was studying Arabic) had gotten into a conversation in French with an Egyptian who had just seen the same Egyptian movie that he had, and then had to translate for a third party who joined the conversation and spoke neither French nor Arabic; Antin reflects on the fact that although he’d understood all the words that had been spoken to him, “i also knew i was not even close to an understanding   of what he meant by ‘england’ or ‘france’   as he was not even close to what the american had understood as the ‘united states’ and ‘russia’.” Then comes the following passage:

            i was
beginning to arrive at a notion of how far we might be from
  each other and what sort of distance we might have to travel
          i would
like to contribute to human not understanding     i would like
  to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding     so
    that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are
  approaching or leaving other people     and see how far away
they are     and whether there is any reason or prospect for
      reaching them     because one thing that’s been promoted
      endlessly in this world is the fantasy of understanding the
    notion that it is always possible     desirable     and costs
      nothing

A view from the other side of the barrier is provided by Jean Said Makdisi in her Beirut Fragments, in which she describes what it was like for those who stayed in Beirut during the civil war of the ’70s and ’80s, when most sensible people had fled:

Those who are outside looking in see only the war. For us, there are people, friends, life, activity, production, commitments, a profound intensity of meaning. It is these things that have given us the strength to coninue, even when we are filled with doubt, for they reassert themselves during and after every battle….
We have paid a heavy price for this community. Let those who would comment lightly on us beware: We are unforgiving judges of those who have not shared our experiences. We are like a secret society. We have our own language; we recognize signs that no one else does…

This brings to mind Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem, written towards the end of the terrible Russian Civil War, which begins (in Hemschemeyer’s translation):

I am not with those who abandoned their land
To the lacerations of the enemy.
I am deaf to their coarse flattery,
I won’t give them my songs.

I want to listen to the words of people who have had very different experiences, I want very much to understand what they have to say… but not quickly. You’re fooling yourself if you think you can understand too quickly, or too well.

Comments

  1. Marvellous post. For some reason, I thought immediately of Steiner’s essay “On Difficulty.” I trust you won’t mind my including a couple of long quotations in this comment, since they speak directly to the ideas you’ve expressed about the impossibility of “translation” and the illusion of easy understanding.
    “Poetry is knit of words compacted with every conceivable mode of operative force. These words are, in Coleridge’s simile, ‘hooked atoms’, so construed as to mesh and cross-mesh with the greatest possible cluster of other words in the reticulations of the total body of language. The poet attempts to anchor the particular word in the dynamic mould of its own history, enriching the core of its present definition with the echo and alloy of previous use. He is an etymologist, often violent and arbitrary as was Holderlin, who attempts to break open the eroded or frozen shell of speech in order to compel to daylight and release the dynamics, the primal crystallizations of perception that may lie at the roots. The poet’s discourse can be compared to the track of a charged particle through a cloud-chamber. An energized field of association and connotation, of overtones and undertones, of rebus and homophone, surround its motion, and break from it in the context of collision (words speak not only to the ear, but to the eye and even to the touch). Multiplicity of meaning, ‘enclosedness’, are the rule rather than the exception. We are meant to hear both solid and sullied, both toil and coil in the famous Shakespearean cruces. Lexical resistance is the armature of meaning, guarding the poem from the necessary commonalties of prose.”
    “…we may find ourselves saying ‘this is a difficult poem’ or ‘I find it difficult to grasp, to place this poem’ (the shift in focus into a first-person register of experience is, here, significant) even where the lexical-grammatical components are pellucid. We have looked up what there is to look up, we have confidently parsed the elements of phrase — and still there is opaqueness. In some way, the centre, the rationale of the poem’s being, holds against us. The sensation is almost tactile. There is, at empirical levels, ‘understanding’ — of the rough and ready order represented by paraphrase — but no genuine ‘comprehension’, no in-gathering in the range of senses inseparable from the archaic Greek legein (to ‘assemble’, to ‘enfold in meaningful shape’). The experience of obstruction is at once banal and elusive. A move in American slang, though already somewhat dated, may pinpoint the cardinal distinction: we ‘get the text’ but we don’t ‘dig it’ (and the suggestion of active penetration is exactly apposite). The poem in front of us articulates a stance towards human conditions which we find essentially inaccessible or alien. The tone, the manifest subject of the poem are such that we fail to see a justification for poetic form, that the root-occasion of the poem’s composition eludes or repels our internalized sense of what poetry should or should not be about, of what are the intelligible, morally and aesthetically acceptable moments and motives for poetry. The poem enacts language in modes we find illicit; there is radical impropriety between its performative means and what we take to be the spirit, the native pulse, the constraints of the relevant tongue or idiom. Here the notoriously abbreviated and therefore elusive Aristotelian notion of ‘propriety’, of that which is proper to a given poetic genre, would be pertinent.”

  2. Long quotes are always welcome here, and these are excellent. Now I’m going to have to go read Steiner, who I haven’t looked at in years. “Lexical resistance is the armature of meaning”—I like that very much.

  3. jason streed says:

    I appreciate that long quotation, too. It reminded me of something Wallace Stevens said: “Poetry should resist the imagination almost successfully.”
    See also his poem “Of Modern Poetry.”

  4. I see that the tradition of comments consisting of long quotes goes right back to the beginning of LH. I feel better about it now.
    So here’s a long quotation from Eichmann in Jerusalem that seems to me to fit here (remember, the date is 1961), and provides a fine contrast to the Akhmatova poem:

    Eichmann’s distortions of reality were horrible because of the horrors they dealt with, but in principle they were not very different from things current in post-Hitler Germany. There is, for instance, Franz-Josef Strauss, former Minister of Defense, who recently conducted an election campaign against Willy Brandt, now mayor of West Berlin, but a refugee in Norway during the Hitler period. Strauss asked a widely publicized and apparently very successful question of Mr. Brandt: “What were you doing those twelve years outside Germany? We know what we were doing here in Germany” — with complete impunity, without anybody’s batting an eye, let alone reminding the member of the Bonn government that what Germans in Germany were doing during those years has become notorious indeed.

    The same “innocence” is to be found in a recent casual remark by a respected and respectable German literary critic, who was probably never a Party member; reviewing a study of literature in the Third Reich, he said that its author belonged with “those intellectuals who at the outbreak of barbarism deserted us without exception.” This author was of course a Jew, and he was expelled by the Nazis and himself deserted by Gentiles, people like Mr. Heinz Beckmann of the Rheinischer Merkur. Incidentally, the very word “barbarism,” today frequently applied by Germans to the Hitler period, is a distortion of reality; it is as though Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals had fled a country that was no longer “refined” enough for them.

    Or as Tolkien says of those who complain of “escapism” in literature:

    Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery.

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