Friday, November 27, 2009

Some Things I've Been Reading: Shattuck, Garton Ash, Sharma, and Davis

Some things I've been reading recently:

"Nineteen Theses On Literature" by the literary scholar Roger Shattuck, the author of two fine books on Proust and Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography ("Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings and thoughts and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.") The idea that literature allows us to feel more powerfully on our pulse than in real life "the lived time of mortality" seems to me exactly right; this is what we turn to literature and to narrative art for. See also Shattuck's essay "When Evil Is Cool", and a chapter from Proust's Way.

"1989!", an essay by Timothy Garton Ash on one of the most momentous years of the twentieth century, and one that offers a number of sage arguments against the temptations of reductivist approaches to history ("Every writer on 1989 wrestles with an almost unavoidable human proclivity that psychologists have christened 'hindsight bias'—the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time [for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe].What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen. Henri Bergson talked of "the illusions of retrospective determinism." Explanations are then offered for what happened. As one scholar commented a few years after 1989: no one foresaw this, but everyone could explain it afterward. Reading these books, I was again reminded of the Polish philosopher Leszek KoĊ‚akowski's 'law of the infinite cornucopia,' which states that an infinite number of explanations can be found for any given event.") Garton Ash has written some excellent books of reportage, and is also the editor, most recently, of Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, a massive collection of essays by different hands about different lands that I am hoping will be on my desk to reading soon.

"How Sanskrit Should be Taught" by the scholar of religion, in particular Hinduism, Arvind Sharma ("It is an axiom in some schools of Indian philosophy that a question can be fully addressed only if it is approached negatively as well as positively. This means then that a consideration of how Sanskrit should not be taught is integral to a discussion of how it should be.") On this theme, you may also want to read Sheldon Pollock's essay "The Real Classical Languages Debate". Pollock recently set up an endowment to fund three fellowships in Sanskrit at Columbia University each year exclusively for Dalit students. I am not entirely persuaded by the logic of this reservation, but perhaps we will hear more about the reasons for Pollock's thinking, and the expectation should be that the recipients should in time rebut any skeptics with the quality of their work. On the question of a revival of decaying traditions of classical scholarship, see also "A New Loss" by Sugata Srinivasaraju. Arvind Sharma's excellent blog Indological Provocations is here.

An interview with Dick Davis, the translator of the poet Ferdowsi's great Iranian epic Shahnameh ("[Ferdowsi has] become more mysterious to me, further away. I used to think I 'knew' him, or something of him anyway; I don't feel that now. The more one knows of the poem the more complex and fascinating one sees it is [...] He has the discomfort-producing quality that all truly great narrative artists have; he makes you question what you know and what you assume, especially perhaps what you know and assume about himself.")

"A Translational Friendship", an essay by the renowned translator of Arabic fiction Denys Johnson-Davies on Naguib Mahfouz, an excerpt from Johnson-Davies's book Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature. Not only is this essay a charming work of reminiscence and homage, it also reveals the number of fortuitous connections, word-of-mouth circulations, and serendipities by which even work which retrospectively appears self-evidently great is published or translated.

"Dostoevsky's Dowager"
, a profile by Martin Ebel of Dostoevsky's German translator Svetlana Geier ("But the 'main thing,' the summit of a life dedicated to Russian literature has been first and foremost translation. 'Hold your nose high,' a teacher once advised her, and she followed his counsel to great advantage. He meant that she should avoid getting caught up with individual words, instead focusing on the whole, should hold within her gaze at least an entire sentence – and in principle the work as a unity. And even more importantly: in her ear. Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, 'its melody.' Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations.") Speaking of Dostoevsky, Princton University Press has just issued, in a handy abridged single volume, Joseph Frank's biography of the writer, originally in five volumes written over more than four decades, and one of the greatest achievements ever in literary biography. Chapter One is here.

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