Tuesday, July 24, 2012

people sometimes go in quest of one thing, and meet with another

As some readers might know, I've been slowly working through my own creative response to Don Quixote for quite some time.  It's technically in the revision stages, so I wouldn't call the little bits I'll share here finished.  But I wouldn't be sharing all of my thoughts on a literary work if I didn't share some of my more "poety" thoughts.

The following is an imaginary letter from Sancho, Don Quixote's squire, to Dapple the donkey.

people sometimes go in quest of one thing, and meet with another*


            Having given more time to considering the matter of the history of our adventures, I found I was puzzled by certain matters which seem to occur in the book differently than I remember, and others which I was shocked to discover any person could have known of.  In the first instance was, your very own abduction by Gines de Passamonte.  For either Cid Hamet Benengeli, or Signor Cervantes Saavedra (or perhaps the English-man*** Mister Smollett) has mistakenly depicted you as having mysteriously re-appeared, before you were joyfully retrieved from Passamonte, the scoundrel.
            With regard to those accounts which I would have thought the author ignorant, there is the most strange matter of the loss of our history, and its retrieval at the exchange of Toledo.  I do not understand how the first part of our exploits came to be known at all.  For, as there was no one present to record the assailment of the innocent wind-mills, the incident of the Benedictine fryars, and the auspicious sally of the sage Don Quixote, upon the Castle of the Innkeeper, together with its damsels—I say, I do not comprehend how these things came to be known if Signor Cervantes (or Cid Hamet Benengeli, or again Mister Smollett) only found the history, as it commenced after these extraordinary adventures.

            And finally, there is the occasion of my own entry into the history, along with your own most valorant self, precisely at Volume One, Book One, Chapter Seven, page eighty and five.  For how could anyone have known that we did in fact list ourselves as Don Quixote’s servants, at that very moment, as no one but our selves was there!  I might almost believe you to have spoken to Signor Cervantes, if I did not know you to be a donkey who keeps his own counsel.
            Altogether I find the explanation of our travels to be almost more confusing than the traveling of them.  I find cause here to rejoice at my own inability to read, or to write, and leave such confusions and obfuscisions to the perusal of such men as the clerk who records this letter for your perusal.
Your humble master and friend,
Sancho Panza

*  de Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel.  The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote.  Trans. Tobias Smollett.  New York:  Modern Library, 2001.  Print, page 150.  No, no, that's not right.  Page 367.**
**  Sorry.  I was right the first time.  Page 150. 
***  Sancho here makes a slight error as to the nationality of the translator.  Tobias Smollett was in fact a Scottsman, and not an Englishman.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

darkness visible: an homage to a phrase, and the art of translation

            I'm guessing that I'm not the only writer who feels this way, but I like to imagine that words and language have a sort of life and intelligence of their own.  That words contemplate, breed, die, ache, and chat over tea (or scream recriminations at one another).

            Darkness visible.
            Beautiful phrase, even though (or because?) it refuses to articulate its meaning on casual encounter.

            In the midst of this and other such savoury conversation, they quitted the tent, to examine some snares they had laid; in which amusement the day soon elapsed, and was succeeded by the night, which did not appear so serene and composed as it might have been expected at that season of the year, which was midsummer, but along with it came a certain darkness visible, which greatly assisted the design of the duke and dutchess.  (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, trans. Tobias Smollett.  Modern Library 2001 edition, p. 809.)

            I first met the words in the 1989 memoir by William Styron.  Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness.  In the book, Styron carefully and hideously details his descent into depression, and what he found lurking in the pit.
            Strange to meet the phrase in a 17th century Spanish novel.  For a moment, I wondered if it had come into English from Spanish, through the Quixote.
            But then I remembered, some long-ago-learned detail:  the phrase "darkness visible" entered the English language with Milton.  Note that in the following quote, the "he" is Satan:

            At once as far as Angel's ken he views
            The dismal Situation waste and wild,
            A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
            As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
            No light, but rather darkness visible
            Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
            Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
            And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
            That comes to all; but torture without end
            Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
            With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd.  (Paradise Lost, John Milton.  Book I, lines 59-69)

            But Milton's poem was published in 1667, over fifty years after the second half of the Quixote.
            Enter the translator, Tobias Smollett.
            It suddenly dawned on me that Smollett, translating Cervantes' novel almost 150 years after it was published in Spanish, and nearly 100 years after Milton's poem, chose this phrase as his translation of an entirely different phrase in Spanish (would that I could read Spanish and locate that phrase).  In his book Is that a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos states, "all utterances have innumerably acceptable translations."  This of course does not mean that any translation of a given utterance is acceptable, but it does mean that the ways an "utterance of more than trivial length has no one translation."
            In the scene following, Don Quixote and Sancho meet "Merlin," as well as several other "inchanters," and a Dulcinea who is actually a young, attractive man in drag.  All being pulled along on a cart by oxen with candles made to look as though they are growing out of their horns.  It strikes me that the Pythons might have read Cervantes.
            If words have a life and intelligence of their own, then I think here Smollett's words are undoubtedly poking at Milton's, and saying something along the lines of, "Hey!  Don't take yourself so seriously!"  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Inns and Castles

            Among other confusions, Don Quixote is prone to view inns as castles.  One night, at one particular such...er, resting-place/noble abode, four men on horseback arrive and ask for entrance.  Don Quixote (fairly justifiably) points out that it is ridiculously early and they should stop making a ruckus at such an ungodly hour and wait for the king to wake up.  They object to the notion of royalty residing in said building, one of them declaring that "in such a sorry inn, without any sort of noise or stir, I cannot believe that any persons of such note would lodge."
            "You know little of the world, replied Don Quixote, since you are so ignorant of the events that happen in knight-errantry."
            Quixote has many such comical "fall-backs" as it were.  Here, as in other places, he responds to others questioning his interpretation of a situation by attributing the conflict in views to the ignorance of others.  I.e., I have read more than you, and therefore understand this situation far better.  An expedient I have known more than one professor (or pseudo-intellectual such as myself) to fall upon.  But aside from these diversions, this scene starts to get at my ambivalence towards Quixote.
            The part of me that is all nostalgia — the part of me that gets completely nailed by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris — can't help but sympathize with Don Quixote.  I am always wanting a different time and place, and I chafe at the texture of the world I find myself in.  Quixote has decided to do away with the chafing altogether, and somehow change reality, insofar as he is able through a movement of consciousness.  But this, I think, is where I begin to feel a slight disgust at the apparently logical conclusion of my own nostalgia.
            I cannot countenance such a denial of reality.  When I was younger, I would have found it romantic.  I was insecure enough to want art and religion to manipulate reality, to make it into something less frightening and less painful than it is.
            But now, even if the reality is that life is ambiguous and unsatisfactory, frightening and painful, and, God, so humiliating...even then, I would like to face up to it with some honesty, and to hopefully not cause anyone else pain while doing so.
            I know this is idealistic, in a sense, and probably sounds very proud and self-righteous.  Also, it is easier said than done.  But I spent most of the book not liking Don Quixote.  I felt about him the way one might feel about a friend, whom one loves, but doesn't really trust to have any common sense.
            But how can I say I didn't like Don Quixote, when I absolutely adore Don Quixote?  There is no book without the star-gazing madman.
            Before I read the book, I had him romanticized into a hero of my own rose-colored glasses tribe.  But having read the book, and seen the fallout of his actions and misguided violence, my feelings changed considerably.  There was the initial revulsion, of course, followed by the adolescent's "I'm not going to be like that anymore!"  Which mellowed into something weirder and more complicated.   (That last sentence seems to be the theme of my thirties so far.)
            I can't help wondering how Quixote is viewed by people who know him through the book, versus those who know him by reputation only.  For those who haven't read the book, is he a figure of nostalgic heroism?  Or of pity?  Something else?  And for those who have read it, was there a change in your view of him? 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Quixote

            Having successfully mangled my foot to such a degree that I can't work for the next week, I find that I have plenty of time to write some posts for my new blog.  Since I'm always complaining that I don't have enough time to read and write, I suppose I should be grateful?
            Yes.  Gratitude is the perspective I'll try to take.
            Well, amongst other reading, I am slowly - so, so slowly - reading through the classics.  The first on my list was Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and it took me a mere six months to get through it.
            I shouldn't complain about the pace too much, though.  I was afraid I'd lost the patience for slow reading, and I loved every square inch of that book.  I'm going to sort of assume readers know the general premise of the book - man goes mad, decides to become a knight-errant, and embarks on all sorts of misconstrued adventures - but here are a couple of details I myself didn't know beforehand that I found very helpful.
            First of all, I had no idea that it was in fact books and reading itself which drove the man crazy.  (Incidentally, his real name is Alonso Quixano; Don Quixote is a name he gives himself.)  Books are a huge topic throughout the novel, and it is far more "meta" than much more modern literature:  "As for Don Quixote, he leaned against a beech or cork tree; for, Cid Hamet Benengeli [our supposed narrator] has not distinguished the genus," (p. 1052, Modern Library, 2001 paperback edition).  Books, their narrations and unreliabilities, are at the center of Quixote's madness.
            The second detail I hadn't realized was that knight-errantry was already quite old-fashioned by the time Quixano decided to join its gallant ranks.  Somehow Cervantes' Spain, being chronologically closer to the time of knights-errant, seemed also culturally closer.  But in fact, the knights-errant were already a thing of the past, and largely a thing of fantasy novels.
            It's a long book.  Mine is just over 1,000 pages.  But I really, really wish I could get everyone I know to read it.  It was such a reading pleasure, and far easier to get through (and funnier!) than I'd expected.  I got lost in it, and it sort of became part of my life, the way books did when I was a kid.  The way Elizabeth Bennett, and Lucy and Aslan, and Juliet Capulet became friends when I read about them.  I'm not sure why some books are able to do this, and others remain simply stories, but Quixote and Sancho feel like old friends now; and for that (as well as my broken/sliced-up foot), I'm grateful.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Vocation and (Women's) Work

“To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace.”  Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night.

            Gaudy Night is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her famous detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey and Wimsey’s love interest, Harriet Vane (incidentally the Harriet of the blog’s title).  Harriet is, like the real-life Sayers, one of the earlier women to have graduated from Oxford, and there is a fascinating discussion towards the end of the novel on academic ethics and principles.
            The College Dean has mentioned a novel in which one academic discovers that another professor has deliberately falsified data in order to obtain his position at their university.  The man who discovers the truth, however, reveals it to no one, “because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.”
            This is a group of female professors, discussing whether truth, and loyalty to truth, can and does come before considerations of family, financial obligations, etc.  It should perhaps be kept in mind that, at the time Sayers wrote this novel, there was still a very prevalent belief that learning somehow “turned” women’s heads.  In other words, rendered them unnatural; unnaturally callous towards children, husbands, and so on.
            The Warden presses the point:

            “A false statement is published and the man who could correct it lets it go, out of charitable considerations.  Would anybody here do that?  There’s your test case, Miss Barton, with no personalities attached.”
            “Of course one couldn’t do that,” said Miss Barton.  “Not for ten wives and fifty children.”
            “Not for Solomon and all his wives and concubines?  I congratulate you, Miss Barton, on striking such a fine, unfeminine note.  Will nobody say a word for the women and children?”
            (“I knew he was going to be mischievous,” thought Harriet.)
            “You’d like to hear it, wouldn’t you?” said Miss Hillyard.
            “You’ve got us in a cleft stick,” said the Dean.  “If we say it, you can point out that womanliness unfits us for learning; and if we don’t, you can point out that learning makes us unwomanly.”

            I don’t know why this novel has been on my mind, lately.  I find something both deeply comforting and disturbing about Harriet’s view, which is encapsulated in the opening quote:  “To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace.”
            Personally, the sentiment comforts me because I identify so strongly as a writer and it seems that no one can take that away from me.  Other desires that we have – and this of course includes many, many men in it as well – for instance to have a marriage and a family, a stable home for some, a well-knit community for most of us…  In a sense these are vocations over which we have very little control.  Devotion to work seems in some ways so simple
            But these other works – long-term relationships, children, stability, community – you can hurl yourself into them all you want, and simply have them not work out.  Your spouse might leave you, you might not be able to have children, you might be unfortunate enough to live in the community-starved United States, whatever.  Harriet’s thought is comforting, because insofar as the artist or scholar prioritizes their work, which is less susceptible to others’ whims and emotional variations, they can withstand these trials because they have something larger to devote themselves to.
One detail I find interesting here is that the work traditionally allotted to women seems to me the more unstable work because you need particular people there to do it for.  Though the Roman Catholic Church officially recognizes marriage as a vocation for both sexes, I would argue that most of us don’t tend to look at being a husband as a “job.”  It is something which good, dependable men do, and the women are lucky if they find someone who is faithful, or at least talented at covering up his infidelities.  His work is elsewhere, outside the realm of family.  The women’s work is, traditionally and for many women today, the family.
            But maybe I’m taking too romantic a notion of vocation here.  After all, most moderns don’t seem to have any vocation other than that of family and friends.  I would hardly ask anyone to regard being a financial analyst or an office manager as a vocation.  Isn’t it simply a job?  A person does their job, and then gladly clocks out to go and live their real life.  A nice clean separation between the thing you do to make a living, and the things you would rather be doing.
            Clearly there is often a distinction between the work we do to keep a roof over our heads and the work we take satisfaction in.  One pulls a paycheck; we can (and should) try to have a good attitude towards it, but aren’t we always happy to have a vacation?  The other is a band we’ve formed with friends, or the family life we are building, or whatever; this is the work we want to spend our vacation focusing on.  But here is the question posed by those Oxford women professors:  what if one unfits you for the other?  In other words, what if being a mother makes you unfit to be an intellectual and a scholar?  Or what if being an intellectual unfits you for being a mother?
            I hardly think most of us would believe this possible, but let me take this a little farther:  what if being a financial analyst or an office manager unfits you for your band/poetry/family life/etc.?  Doesn’t this happen?  I would argue even further that some of the so-called jobs we’ve created for writers and artists — such as being writing/art/music teachers and editors/curators/conductors — clearly unfit them for writing life.  What good can it possibly do an experienced and educated writer, who needs time and peace and quiet more than anything, to have to read and work with the fairly pathetic words of a bunch of undergraduate creative writing majors?  And how many editors keep writing at the end of the day, when they have effectively spent their whole day rewriting the works of others?
            Of course one can always try "to be true to one's calling."  Until confronted by the fact that one's emotional life (as well as its financial demands) almost forces itself into the center of your life, relegating the calling to the fringes.


            As some readers know, I did one blog (forms and usages) which was a wonderful learning experience.  One of the things I learned is that blogs are hard.  I was reminded of the fact that I am not a particularly fast writer, and as I had made a commitment to putting up one new piece each week, I found that that piece was all I could really manage in the course of the week.  As I don't want to focus all of my energies on projects that are blog-appropriate, I have decided to restrict my commitment in terms of how often I'll write, and actually try to maintain the blog for longer.
            I anticipate that there will be a lot about books here.  And if you care to read them, I will post bits of my own work as well.  Take a look at the tabs above for more information, and please, please, please feel free to respond with comments!
            Oh, and there's no real reason for the German.  We used random French and German words when I was growing up, and I find they come up at the strangest times.  This blog seemed to want to introduce itself with a bit of the old country in its gestures.