Saturday, March 07, 2009

Things I've been reading recently: Lombardo, Nehamas, and Paglia

Some very fine things I've been reading recently (I recommend a cup of a good brew and at least an hour of free time for the proper reception of each of these sections):

An interview with Stanley Lombardo, one of the most recent flagholders of a venerable tradition, that of translating Homer's Odyssey into English ("The word Muse in Greek means ‘mind’ originally...Mind is for me the essence of translation. Odysseus has to attain the minds of many people in his wanderings. That’s what Homer has done, and it’s why his characters are so real — he attains the human mind, he attains many human minds. Translation is mind to mind, not dictionary to dictionary. Homer is a mind that I try to attain."). Chapter One of Lombardo's translation of the Odyssey is here, and if you'd like to hear a recording of him reading from the same section it is here. A friend recently bought me Lombardo's translation from the US (it is published by a small but very good publisher of classics, Hackett), and I've been trying to read it against the widely available Penguin translation by Robert Fagles.

An interview with the classics scholar Alexander Nehamas about Socrates, Nietzsche, Foucault, and also the relationship between book-learning and living in the world ("In modern times philosophy has traditionally been taken to be in the broadest sense a scientific discipline.... But in ancient Greece, as well as in a modest modern tradition, the primary issue is not to find answers to particular philosophical questions like 'What is knowledge?' or 'What is reality?' or 'What is good?' The primary issue is to live a philosophic life. To be a philosopher is to be a certain kind of person, not simply to have views on certain issues. A philosopher who is a certain kind of person is also, of course, a person who has views on philosophical issues. But what matters is not just the answers such a person gives. What matters is the kind of connections you establish between various philosophical issues and the rest of your life. What matters is that a personality emerges who has asked certain kinds of questions and given certain kinds of answers to them, and who, most importantly, has constructed a life around such questions and answers...I am trying to reclaim the defining tradition of Greek philosophy, philosophy as techne tou biou the art of living. Though 'art' is not a particularly accurate translation of the Greek techne, which is not art in the sense of our 'fine art', but something between art and craft.") I was also intrigued by Nehamas's idea that "the features that characterize oneself and one's life are similar to the features of literary works. The virtues of life are comparable to the virtues of good writing connectedness, grace, elegance." If you enjoy this, you might also want to read "Plato or Schopenhauer", the opening chapter of Nehamas's book The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.

An interview with the iconoclastic classics and poetry scholar Camille Paglia by Michael Sragow (himself the author of a recent biography of the American film director Victor Fleming) on the subject of the films of Alfred Hitchcock ("In writing my study of 'The Birds' for the British Film Institute, I had the opportunity to review all kinds of films from Hitchcock's past that were not available when I was young -- films from the silent era and the 1930s that are now on video. I was just stunned by what I discovered: the blatant continuity of Hitchcock's sensibility, down to tiny little details in the earliest films in matters of decor or geographical setting or the plot. It's clear that what we have in the works of Hitchcock really is, despite the ups and downs of the quality of the films, a giant oeuvre one huge imaginative projection.") You might also enjoy Paglia's essay "The Mighty River of Classics", and "Rhyme and Reason", the introduction to her 2005 anthology Break, Blow, Burn, a set of readings of 43 of her favourite poems ("My secular but semi-mystical view of art is that it taps primal energies, breaks down barriers and imperiously remakes our settled way of seeing. Animated by the breath force (the original meaning of 'spirit' and 'inspiration'), poetry brings exhilarating spiritual renewal....Like philosophy, poetry is a contemplative form, but unlike philosophy, poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech"). Paglia describes the selection process for the anthology here.

Some of these pieces were published many years ago, and discovering them brings home how, on the Internet, as in a library, everything remains "current" in such a good way.


Anu M said...

Hi, been reading your blog for a long time but just surfacing. The reviews are really thoughtful and detailed - and the authors featured are not the usual suspects. Its been a particularly great way for me to keep up with Indian books.

Unknown said...

Anu - Thanks for your very kind words. If my reviews seem thoughful and detailed, it's often because the books that come my way are themselves so thoughtful and detailed that they demand the best of me. Just the world of Indian trade publishing, which is still a minor though significant arm of English books worldwide, is now so big that I struggle to keep up with all the good books coming out, and invariably miss many. And of course a blog allows for greater depth of engagement with a book that print often does. So I am lucky to be working in a time when many forces have been favorable.

youprat said...

When you read things such as this, it is the equivalent of coming upon some magnificent temple, or wonder of the world, which looms into view; all along hidden by trees and shrubbery, which you could see only the top or bits of, as you were trekking to the spot. On the attainment of mind, it seems, not only the initiator, even as a recipient you like those works/things which do so. What comes to mind, as reason, on "In modern times philosophy has traditionally been taken to be in the broadest sense a scientific discipline.." is that there's so much new knowledge being created (especially last 2-3 centuries. especially scientific). And when that happens , what exists gets challenged, and has to accommodate new findings and observations, and has to answer the questions which arise. So no field can remain constant and distant from current ideas and knowledge.

It seems not only couple of good brews, but scores of meals have to be digested properly before these issues themselves (and the branches they shoot off, and other treasures like 'Tithonus' by Tennyson!) can be digested.

Shweta said...

Chandrahas, you asked for an hour, I give you a week. The link to the opening chapter of the Nehamas book took me on all sorts of tangents and has me currently re-visiting a book on Wabi-Sabi* as an antidote for excessive engagement with Western thought.:D
But for anybody else like me, who emerged a little frustrated from the opening chapter of The Place of Beauty in a World of Art which meticulously paints in the premise and leaves you with a cliff-hanger of a one-liner thesis, these essays may be of benefit:
They are a set of lectures which I assume formed the basis for the book.

*I was first handed the book by a friend, a Japanese artist-maker who lent it to me with this qualifier -“Of course the book only got written because it was written by an American; if he had really got the concept, he wouldn’t have attempted to write about it.