“A rose by any other name…”: a few thoughts on translation

Here’s a challenge:

Take a book written by Wodehouse, or by some other comic writer who appeals to your sense of humour; pick a passage that makes you laugh; and, neither adding nor subtracting anything in terms of content, rewrite that passage in your own words, and in your own sentences. Chances are, your re-write is not funny. Or, at least, nowhere near as funny as the original.

This is the problem with translation – especially translation of comic writing, or of poetry: the literal meaning of the words is so often the least of it.

Not that I don’t think that literal translations have their place: nowadays, when there are so many different translations of the acknowledged classics of Western literature, there is room for all sorts of approaches. And it is certainly interesting to know precisely what the original text says. But a translation that is slavishly literal is unlikely to be very readable, as Nabokov proved with his ultra-literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: that translation tells us very accurately what Pushkin had written, but the result cannot be read as a poem in English.

Translators vary from the literalist to the interventionist, and, if one is sufficiently interested to follow such matters, one may find a great deal of heated controversy. Recently, Janet Malcolm created a bit of a storm with an article in New York Review of Books, laying into, amongst others, the very popular translations of classic Russian literature by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. Malcolm rather destroys her own credibility, however, by admitting that she cannot read these works in Russian: if the critic cannot compare a translation with the original, then, I’d have thought, the critic is completely disqualified from passing judgement. At best, such a critic may say how the translation reads in English; but its fidelity, either to the letter or to the spirit, is beyond this critic’s scope.

There’s a very interesting response by Erik McDonald to Janet Malcolm’s piece in which he argues that Tolstoy is, effectively, “unruinable”. I know no Russian myself, but I can readily believe that: I have now read Anna Karenina in four different translations – by Rosemary Edmonds, by Louise and Aylmer Maude, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, and, most recently, by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, and, despite the translators’ very different approaches to their art (for art it surely is), they all made on me impacts of comparable magnitude. If I reacted differently to these translations, that is only because I read them in different times of my life. Perhaps we can make too much of these differences in translations. Pevear and Volkhonsy’s literalism is, I think, most certainly a valid approach, though not, of course, the only valid approach.

It’s when it comes to comic writing, and to poetry, that I am not certain that the literal approach is the best one to take. Certainly, the Pevear & Volkhonsky versions of Gogol’s short stories are the only ones I have encountered that did not make me laugh, and I would hazard a guess that this is due to their literalist approach: to convey the humour of a piece of comic writing by sticking literally to what is being said is a bit like trying to paraphrase Wodehouse: when the humour is not so much in the contents of what is said, but, rather, in the author’s choice of words, in the rhythms and cadences of the prose, and, indeed, in what I would call the authorial “tone of voice”, the literalist approach seems to me to miss out on much that is essential. And, it seems to me, the translator of such works is perfectly entitled to diverge from the literal meaning in order to capture some of these other things that can be at least as important, if not more. In John Rutherford’s translation of Don Quixote, for instance, he describes Don Quixote’s niece as being “on the right side of twenty” and his housekeeper “on the wrong side of forty”: the “right side” and the “wrong side” are both, I am told, Rutherford’s invention, but if this helps establish a certain tone of voice, a certain narrative rhythm, then I, for one, welcome it, and think it much to be preferred to a more literal reading in which the authorial voice remains relatively bland.

This is particularly the case with poetry. Of course, there are many who would say that poetry cannot be translated at all, and they may well be right: literal meaning often counts for very little in a poem, and much depends on the actual sound of the thing – that one thing that cannot be replicated in languages other than that in which the poem was originally written. But good translations of poetry do nonetheless exist: if the sounds of the original are not available in the target language, then the translator has to find sounds in the target language itself – different sounds, inevitably – that convey at least something of what the original conveys. But, of course, it’s not easy. Perhaps it’s best demonstrated with an example.

There is a very well-known poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore which, in its original Bengali, is very romantic – so much so that it has, through excessive repetition, become something of a cliché, like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. But if one can look at the lyric with fresh eyes – or with fresh ears, sinceTagore had also set this poem to music – it really is very lovely. But to convey that loveliness in English seems to me well-nigh impossible. Let us focus on the first line. A completely literal translation would read as follows:

That day, the two of us had swung together in the forest

Well, that clearly won’t do. Let’s see if we can brush it up a little, so it makes more sense in English:

That day, the two of us had sat together upon a swing in the forest

The idea of two people sitting together upon a swing may strike the Western reader as a bit odd, but, at least, it makes a bit more sense than what we previously had. However, it is still a bit wordy. Perhaps “the two of us” and “together” may be removed, as they are implied by the context:

That day, we had sat upon a swing in the forest

The rhythm still isn’t right. Let’s jig it about a bit, and remove the “had”:

That day in the forest, we’d sat upon a swing

That’s certainly much better, but hardly ideal. The original sounds mellifluous: this doesn’t. The word “sat” especially is squat and ugly, and needs to go, although I can’t honestly think what to replace it with.

Also, there’s the matter of connotations. The forest has suggestions of the dark and mysterious – and that is the case in Western culture also (e.g. the forest in which Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in The Grimm brothers’ fairy tale). But the swing, in Indian iconography, often represents the amorous, or even the erotic. So, from this very opening line, a Bengali reader or listener would have no difficulty in recognising a meltingly romantic love song.

Sadly, in English, swinging in the forest suggests merely Tarzan. It is at this point that one has to concede defeat.

The Knight of the Lions: the second part of “Don Quixote”

The excerpts quoted from Don Quixote in this post are taken from the translation by John Rutherford, published by Penguin Classics.

In the first part of Don Quixote, Don Quixote had dubbed himself The Knight of the Sorry Face. This was how literal-minded Sancho had described him after one of their many misadventures, but Don Quixote, with his mind ever ready to transform literal plainness into something strange and wonderful and resonant with meaning, happily takes on that sobriquet for himself, and forces it to signify far more than Sancho could ever have imagined. But in this second part, Don Quixote chooses for himself a different name: The Knight of the Lions.

quixote

“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” by Honore Daumier, courtesy of National Gallery, London

 

This new name Don Quixote adopts in the second part, written some ten years after the first, signifies a somewhat different concept of the character. Earlier, Don Quixote had developed from being merely a joke figure into something more significant: he had developed into a figure who had, of his own free will, rejected the tyranny of reality, preferring to live by his fantasy instead, in his own mind and in the real world. And Don Quixote actually knows he is insane:

That is the whole point … and therein lies the beauty of my enterprise. A knight errant going mad for a good reason – there is neither pleasure nor merit in that. The thing is to become insane without a cause …

He has chosen to be insane, but not for any cause: it is not because reality is too painful, or too dull, to face. In my post on the First Part of Don Quixote, I had suggested that Don Quixote had chosen fantasy over reality for such reasons, but I think I was wrong: there is nothing whatever in the text to suggest this. As Don Quixote says himself, there is no cause – no reason, merely his own will. In the First Part, this rebellion against the brute facts of reality did not, and could not, result in triumph: Don Quixote knew, or, at least, must have known, that these brute facts of reality are not negotiable, that windmills really are just windmills, that flocks of sheep really are just flocks of sheep, and that defeat in the face of these brute facts is, ultimately, unavoidable. It is this underlying awareness of ultimate defeat that made for the Sorry Face. But in the second part, he is more ebullient: defeat is not here, to his mind, inevitable. Indeed, at several points in this second part, we see the power of his imagination conquer reality – we see Don Quixote triumphant. Here, he is no longer the Knight of the Sorry Face: he is the resplendent Knight of the Lions.

It is all too easy to say that Cervantes in this novel questions the nature of reality, but the nature of reality is such that it does not admit questions: two plus two is always four, and no flight of the imagination can make it otherwise. “Questioning reality” is one of those things postmodernist writers seem always to do – to what end, I’m not entirely sure – but what Cervantes does in this novel is to explore the nature of our human reaction to this brute force of reality, this ultimate tyranny of reason that will brook no dissent. And in order to do this, he sets up a dizzying series of levels – not of reality, since there is and can only be but one level of reality, in which windmills are but windmills and sheep but sheep; but of fantasy, of fiction. He had set most of these levels of fiction up in the First Part, but, for whatever reason, had made very little of them there: but in the Second Part, there’s no escaping them.

We had been told in the First Part that the author – who may be Cervantes, or who may be an invention of Cervantes’, thus introducing a new level of fiction – had found a manuscript in Arabic, telling the story of Don Quixote. And since the author – Cervantes, or an invention of his – knows no Arabic, he has had to employ a translator, and what we are reading is his translation: this sets the narrative of Don Quixote at yet one further remove. Cervantes doesn’t make any more of that in the First Part, but here, in the Second Part, we are constantly reminded that the narrative we are reading is not the author’s invention, but, rather, a translation by an unnamed translator of an Arabic manuscript written by a Moorish author called Cide Hamete Benengeli. Who this Cide Hamete Benengeli is, and how he came to know in such close detail – even down to what was going on in the characters’ minds – we are never told. It may even be that the whole thing is an invention of Cide Hamete Benengeli’s. (Should he exist, of course.)

In any case, what we are reading is not a pure translation from the Arabic: there are many passages that couldn’t possibly have been written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, such as the several points where incredulity is expressed – either by the translator, or by the author, or by Cervantes himself should the author be fictional – at some of the events narrated.

On top of all this, the characters in the Second Part have read, or, at least, know of the contents of the First Part. So, presumably, the action we read of in the Second Part must have taken place at some time after the publication of the First Part. And that First Part, as we know, is a translation of a manuscript written by Cide Hamete Benegeli, and it is this translation that has made famous the exploits of Don Quixote. However, this Second Part also appears to be a translation from Cide Hamete’s Arabic, and where the author of this Second Part (or Cervantes) has got hold of Cide Hamete’s manuscript of the Second Part isn’t made clear. And it certainly makes no sense that a Second Part should be promised in the First Part when the events narrated in the Second Part have not yet taken place.

As if all this weren’t enough, there had appeared, between Cervantes’ publication the First Part and his writing the Second, a volume published under a pseudonym (the real author has never been identified) claiming to be the Second Part of Don Quixote. This volume is often referred to by Cervantes in his own Second Part, and denounced as inauthentic, although what the criteria of authenticity are in this context seem impossible to identify (other than the obvious fact at the most basic level that Cervantes was not the author of this volume). Cervantes very quickly makes of this volume yet another level of fiction, and soon, these different levels of fiction interact with each other to quite vertiginous effect. At one point, Don Quixote changes his plans – refusing to go to Saragossa as he had intended, simply because the other Don Quixote had done so – simply in order to demonstrate that he is not the Don Quixote of the spurious publication, but is, on the contrary, the real Don Quixote – although what he, or we for that matter, understand by “real” in this context is buried under all sorts of competing levels of fiction.

In another chapter, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza actually meet a character from the spurious volume, and Don Quixote presents himself to this character, who, though a fictional character in a world declared to be fiction, is somehow real enough in a world declared not to be fiction. Don Quixote compels this character, fictional but real, to admit that it is he, Don Quixote, who is the “real” Don Quixote, and not the other Don Quixote whom he had known in some unreal fictional world. The mind swims, and all sorts of impossibilities seem suddenly to open at one’s very feet. If this man whom Don Quixote addresses is real, does it not also follow that the “other Don Quixote” whom he had previously encountered must also have been similarly real? What, if anything, could possibly distinguish the two? What is “real” here, and what is “fiction”? But maybe this incident did not take place. Maybe it is but an invention of Cide Hamete Benengeli’s. Or maybe of the translator’s Or of the author’s. Or of Cervantes himself. Who knows. It’s all fiction anyway.

But for all this playfulness, for all the sheer sense of fun, it is not reality that is questioned for the simple reason that reality is beyond questioning: it is always there, like the repeated ground bass of a passacaglia, constantly underpinning the glorious melodic and harmonic inventions. But it is the very fact that reality is impervious to questioning that compels us to challenge it: if all tyranny is to be challenged, then the tyranny of reason, that ultimate unnegotiable tyranny that underpins reality and gives us no choice but to concede that twice two equals four, and cannot possibly equal anything other than four, must be challenged also, even in the knowledge that the challenge is pointless and futile.

Turgenev’s Bazarov, a sort of anti-Don Quixote, revels in this absolute tyranny of Reason, and disdains any challenge to it: “What’s important is that twice two is four”, he says, “and all the rest’s nonsense.” And it’s nonsense not merely because, in the face of such absolute tyranny, any challenge is bound to be defeated, but because, to Bazarov (at least, at the start of the novel), this absolute tyranny is a fine and desirable thing. But to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, it is something which, even if it cannot be defeated, can, and should, be resented: he knows that twice two does indeed equal four, but insists that “twice two equals five” is also a fine thing.

Don Quixote, like the Underground Man, is loath to accept that twice two is four, that windmills are but windmills and not giants; but he has a Spanish temperament, not a Russian, and, rather than sit in an underground cellar embittering his soul with resentment, he creates, in his own mind, of his own volition, and without a cause – without reason – an alternative, competing world – a world of the imagination. Even if he knows that his challenge is bound to fail, it is still, for him, worthwhile to make this challenge; even though he knows that reality will win in the end, because reality is implacable and non-negotiable and cannot be overcome, nonetheless, till that end comes, it is, for him, worthwhile to say “bollocks!” to that implacable reality. He rebels against reality not because reality is too painful to face, as it is, say, to Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck; nor because it is too dull and mundane: nowhere in either of the two parts is there any indication that it is the dull and mundane nature of reality causes Don Quixote to become a knight errant. He rebels against reality simply because it is reality; he challenges it simply because it is impervious to challenge.

The question remains to what extent he believes in his own fantasy. His comment to Sancho in the First Part, where he praises becoming mad “without a cause”, suggests that he knows he is mad. But if he is indeed aware of his own madness, that would, by a Catch-22 kind of logic, make him madder still: a man tilting at windmills because he thinks they are giants may certainly be considered mad, but what can we say of someone who tilts at them actually knowing that they are merely windmills?

In every other aspect, Don Quixote is not merely sane, he is also knowledgeable, intelligent, and eloquent. The man dressed in green, whom Don Quixote encounters in Chapter 16 of the Second Part, is impressed, and is, indeed, taken by surprise by the intelligence and the eloquence and the sanity of Don Quixote’s conversation. But, just at the very point where he finds himself impressed by the fineness of Don Quixote’s mind, they encounter lions being transported in a cage, and Don Quixote, who had been till that point speaking with the most perfect acuity, demands that the cage be opened so he could face these lions. It’s almost as if his sanity and his insanity both occupy in his mind the same place: his insanity, far from being an aberration, seems almost an aspect of his sanity.

Sancho’s character has also deepened in the Second Part. Previously, he had been little more than greedy and venal, following his master even though he is aware that his master is crazy, simply with the rather simple-minded hope that, despite his master’s craziness, he will eventually be made, as promised, governor of an island. But here in the Second Part, we have a character considerably more complex. In the first place, he follows his master primarily because he loves him. There can be few protestations of love in all literature more sincere or more touching than Sancho’s:

“…… he’s as innocent as the babe unborn, he couldn’t hurt a fly, he only wants to do good to everyone, and there isn’t an ounce of malice in him – a child could make him believe it’s midnight at noon, and it’s because he’s so simple that I love him from the bottom of my heart, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave him, however many silly things he does.”

This is a Sancho astute enough to know not merely to know that his master is mad, but also to know how to handle his master’s madness. When charged with finding Dulcinea, rather than tell his master to his face that he is mad, he finds a lusty peasant girl, and claims she really is Dulcinea … but Dulcinea enchanted. And this introduces yet another level of fantasy: Dulcinea is an imagined figure even in the context of various levels of fantasies, but here she is made “real”, made flesh, through yet another fantasy. And the fantasy this time is Sancho’s, not his master’s.

While this particular fantasy helps Sancho get out of a tight corner, not all his fantasies are merely for the sake of expediency. After the magical ride through the air on the flying horse Clavileño (they stay on the ground, of course: Cervantes knows better than to banish reality from the proceedings), Sancho makes up all sorts of fantastic stories about what he had seen on his magical flight. And he fervently declares them to be true. It’s almost as if he has joined Don Quixote in his battle against reality. The Don immediately understands:

…and Don Quixote went up to him, and whispered into his ear:

“Sancho, since you want people to believe what you saw in the sky, I want you to believe what I saw in the Cave of Montesinos. I say no more.”

It is a pact. I will accept your fantasies, says the Don, if you will accept mine. Only a man who knows his fantasies to be but fantasies could even propose such a pact. One may not be able to defeat reality, but to give in to it without a challenge, without defiance, is, to Don Quixote, shameful, and, such is the attractive force Don Quixote exerts, that even the practical, down-to-earth Sancho is drawn into his master’s orbit.

And Sancho Is not the only one who is drawn into his master’s orbit. Much of the Second Part is taken up with Don Quixote’s and Sancho Panza’s residence with a Duke and Duchess, who have read the First Part, and who are so amused by knight and squire that they play along with them, gratifying their own fantasies, purely for the sake of amusement. So far do they take matters, and with such meticulous planning, that one begins to wonder who is the more insane – Don Quixote, or the Duke and the Duchess. For they too, after all, are living out a fantasy: they too are challenging reality after their fashion, although the essential cruelty and heartlessness of their amusement contrasts most sharply with the nobility of Don Quixote’s mission to right the wrongs of the world.

Then there’s Doña Roderiguez, a duenna at their court, who actually comes to Don Quixote not in jest, but as a genuine damsel in distress. What exactly she had been expecting from Don Quixote, heaven knows, but she too finds herself sharing something of Don Quixote’s madness.

And, in some of the most amusing chapters of the novel, Sancho does indeed become governor. And he is actually a very good governor – possibly far better than any the Duke and Duchess may have appointed for real. But Sancho at this stage is a very different character from the merely covetous blockhead he had been in the First Part: it doesn’t take him long to realise that, riches or not, this is not for him, and that what he valued more was the simple companionship of his beloved master.

Indeed, so successful is Don Quixote in infecting others with his fantasies, that at times he really does seem triumphant – the Knight of the Lions. But defeat is inevitable. Perhaps Don Quixote had always known it. And the way Cervantes presents this defeat is curious: he places it in the background, while filling the foreground of the canvas with all sorts of seemingly trite and irrelevant matter.

Near the start of the Second Part, there had been a passage where the literary merits of the First Part had been discussed, and all the flaws and shortcomings openly discussed: there can, indeed, be no criticism of that First Part that Cervantes does not make himself at the start of the Second. Among the shortcomings discussed is to interrupt the narrative with frankly rather dull and irrelevant love stories – of maidens unsurpassed in beauty bravely seeking out their loves from whom circumstances have separated them, and so on, and so forth. Having ridiculed such stories at the start of the Second Part, Cervantes, unsurprisingly, keeps them out of the narrative. However, towards the end, he brings back just such a story of the kind he had ridiculed. And he spends considerable time with this, despite knowing that such stories are absurd and tedious; and despite knowing further that the reader knows they are absurd and tedious. And while he keeps this absurd and tedious story in the foreground, he allows Don Quixote to be defeated. It is almost as if the defeat of Don Quixote – which, in Richard Strauss’ tone poem, is nothing short of cataclysmic – were merely a passing detail, and no more. Like the Fall of Icarus somewhere in the background, it is something that happens somewhere in the distance while everyone else is getting on with their day-to-day lives. As Auden observed, about suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.

And the defeat is handed out, ironically, by a fantasy: it is Don Quixote’s fellow villager Sampson Carrasco, who delivers the final blow, while pretending to be a knight. So immersed is Don Quixote in his own fantasy that it takes time for the implications of his defeat to sink in: only after he has reached his own village does he have the time to pause and think what it means. It is not so much that he can no longer believe in his being a knight errant: there was always at least a part of him – I think a very large part – that never believed that anyway. It is more that he is no longer capable of pretending that his fantasies are real. And with this loss of his ability to pretend comes the loss of his will even to live: without his knight errantry, Don Quixote must now face the ultimate reality of all from which none of us can escape – death. A brute fact, a tyrannical fact, but a fact nonetheless, and one that cannot be circumvented, any more than can the fact of twice two equalling four.

And so we have possibly the most moving death scene in all literature.

“Oh no, don’t die, master!” Sancho replied crying. “take my advice and live for a long, long time, for the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands except the hands of depression doing away with him.”

And with these simple but deeply felt words, Sancho turns the whole world upside-down: now, it is accepting reality that is “the maddest thing a man can do”.

But it is over. Reality is not challenged, cannot be challenged, because it is impervious to challenge Don Quixote’s defiance of that reality – for no reason, no cause – was, simultaneously, glorious, ennobling, futile, and absurd. Twice two is four, always has been, and always will be: that has never been in any doubt. But perhaps it is no surprise that this novel, in which the brute fact of twice two being four is, if not challenged, at least defied, was the favourite novel of Dostoyevsky’s, creator of the Underground Man; and that he went on describe it as “the saddest of all books”

 

Previous posts on Don Quixote:.

Starting again on “Don Quixote”

The Knight of the Sorry Face: the first part of “Don Quixote”

“The Tempest”: further performances for children on the autistic spectrum

Some time ago, I wrote a post on this blog about a remarkable event I had attended, designed specifically for children and young adults on the autistic spectrum. It was produced by Flute Theatre: it re-enacted scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and encouraged the children to join with the actors in performance and mime. I went there initially rather sceptical about the project, but was completely won over as I witnessed, to my surprise, the children joining in with evident enjoyment.

This event will be repeated at the South Bank Centre in London on the weekend of Friday 29th July to Sunday 31st July, 2016. Please see here for details.

I have seen for myself – and not merely at this event – how liberating the arts can be for children on the autistic spectrum, and how joyously they can respond to it. So, if you are anywhere near London, and are parents or carers of children on the autistic spectrum, or know anyone who is, may I warmly recommend this event.

When Henrik nearly met Fyodor

According to Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen, when Ibsen was staying in Dresden in 1870, a near neighbour of his was Dostoyevsky. It is unlikely that Dostoyevsky would have heard of Ibsen at that time, even though Ibsen had already written the two great verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen would, most likely, have heard of Dostoyevsky, who had, by 1870, written Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, but he would not have known that Dostoyevsky was at the time in Dresden; and even if he had known, he would have had no particular reason to seek him out. In 1870, Ibsen would still have been working on that vast two-part historic play Emperor and Galilean, which he, if not posterity, thought his most important work; and soon afterwards, he would start on that series of twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, and ending in 1899 with the visionary When We Dead Awaken. Dostoyevsky was working at the same time on Demons.

According to Meyer, the two both enjoyed long walks in the Royal Gardens, and they both frequented the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace. It would have been surprising indeed if they had never at least passed each other. But, attractive though the idea might be, it would have been even more unlikely for them to have met and conversed.

One could, of course, easily imagine that they did. That, after exchanging initial civilities, they had engaged in talk on literature, exchanged ideas, spoke about God and the Universe and Man’s Immortal Soul, and spurred each other on, each casting new light on all the great thoughts and ideas that were whirling so tumultously inside the other’s head. One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.

What intrigues me even more, however, is the possibility that they had sat near each other in some café, without the first idea who the other was, and that the only words exchanged were when Henrik had asked Fyodor to pass the salt. And that after the salt was passed, they had both returned to their respective thoughts, barely aware of the other’s presence.

Perumal Murugan: an update

Last year, I wrote a post highlighting the plight of Indian author Perumal Murugan, who had been deemed to have committed that gravest of crimes, “hurting religious sentiments”, and who had been compelled, as a consequence, to announce that he would henceforth desist from hurting religious sentiments further by the simple expedient of ending his literary career.

Well, there’s some good news on this front. The Madras High Court recently quashed a criminal case against Murugan; dismissed a plea moved by residents of his home town to initiate further criminal action against him; and held that Murugan’s public promise to write no more is not legally binding.

All of this is most welcome, of course, and a good reason for rejoicing. But it remains nothing short of a national scandal that, in a free and democratic  country, an author could end up in court in the first place for “hurting sentiments”. And I wish I had confidence that Mr Murugan will not be further harassed by those whose sentiments have been so badly hurt.

On dancing elephants, flatulent horses, and a scene from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

Whenever I start a post protesting that this isn’t a political blog, the word “but” inevitably appears, and I make a political point. And then I retreat decorously. This blog is really about literature,  I say. About cultural matters. A bit of art, a bit of music, and the like. Politics? Nah – not here, mate. We’re above all that here.

But it’s hard avoiding politics these days. It’s always hard avoiding politics, but it’s especially hard these days. For those who don’t know, Britain has voted to leave the EU; after campaigns that have focussed almost unremittingly on the issue of immigration, and have, in the process, prodigally sent out coded and not-so-coded racist and foreigner-hating messages, racist and foreigner-hating incidents are now, unsurprisingly, dramatically on the rise; the country has a huge deficit and, now, a negative credit-rating; the pound is in freefall; the Prime Minister has resigned; one of the favourites to become the next Prime Minister is an unprincipled scoundrel – and the other contenders are not too inspiring either; the major opposition party has just entered the latest stage in the process of tearing itself apart; UK may well break up, as “England expects that the rest of you will go along with whatever we bloody well decide” is not likely to go down too well in Wales, in Northern Ireland, or in Scotland; and so on, and so forth. In short, it’s not looking good. We are floating on a wild and violent sea, each way and none. Duncan’s horses may not yet have eaten each other, but they’re eyeing each other threateningly, and licking their lips in anticipation. And frankly, in times such as these, it becomes hard to focus one’s mind on the structural intricacies of Henry James’ novels.

But I really don’t want to talk about political matters. There is too much noise being made already, and no-one is listening to what anyone else is saying. So I’ll stick to commenting on what I usually comment on – literature, language, music, art – all that kind of thing that, surely, no-one can object to. So, in this post – the first, I realise, after a fairly long hiatus – I shall focus on a Bengali expression that, robbed as it is in translation of its rhythm and rhyme, loses its impact when put into English; and I shall be drawing attention to a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The Bengali expression I have in mind is hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. It is a somewhat crude expression, and not one spoken by people of refined sensibilities: it is used to pour scorn on excessively high expectations. When someone is excited about how wonderful things will be, and you are somewhat sceptical about it all, you say hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. Literally translated, it means “Elephants will dance, horses will fart”, but, as I said, shorn of its rhythm and its rhyme, the literal translation does not communicate the epigrammatic force of the original.

The scene in Julius Caesar to which I would like to draw attention is Act 3, Scene 1, the scene of Caesar’s assassination. There were some good arguments on the conspirators’ side: Caesar’s ambition was certainly a danger to freedom, it was highly likely that he would make himself dictator, and so on. Some of the conspirators, admittedly, had less noble reasons also, but at their best, they did have the welfare of Rome at heart; Brutus certainly did. But whatever their motives, their focus had been on the act of assassination itself: they had not given proper consideration to what would happen in the immediate aftermath:

CINNA
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.

CASSIUS
Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ 

BRUTUS
People and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not; stand stiff: ambition’s debt is paid. 

CASCA
Go to the pulpit, Brutus. 

DECIUS BRUTUS
And Cassius too. 

BRUTUS
Where’s Publius? 

CINNA
Here, quite confounded with this mutiny. 

METELLUS CIMBER
Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar’s
Should chance– 

BRUTUS
Talk not of standing. Publius, good cheer;
There is no harm intended to your person,
Nor to no Roman else: so tell them, Publius. 

CASSIUS
And leave us, Publius; lest that the people,
Rushing on us, should do your age some mischief. 

BRUTUS
Do so: and let no man abide this deed,
But we the doers.

In the absence of a coherent strategy, they all speak on top of each other, and can do little more than repeat slogans such asLiberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” while everything seems to collapse around them.

For rhetoric is all these people have, Soon, they are reduced to acts that, far from addressing a chaotic situation of their own making, are merely symbolic, and, frankly, rather grotesque:

                        Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty!’

Why do I keep thinking of this scene, I wonder? Well, who knows. It may or may not have some relevance to what is happening now. I certainly hope not: I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, and to eat humble pie if I am. But I think that’s about as much as I want to say here on political matters. This is not a political blog, after all! And nothing I say is likely to count for much – not with all those elephants dancing and horses farting all over the place with such gleeful abandon.

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 548 other followers