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Friday, April 08, 2011

on translating the preface to Daybreak

All of the English translations of the preface to Daybreak begin with a simple decision that concerns the first sentence, “In diesem Buche findet man einen "Unterirdischen" an der Arbeit, einen Bohrenden, Grabenden, Untergrabenden.” This has been translated by Hollingdale as: In this book you will discover a 'subterranean man' at work, one who tunnels and mines and undermines.” The simple decision here is to add “man” to Unterirdischen. This is a standard practice in translating from German to English, as the former language nominalizes certain adjectives that the latter language wants to return to the modifier/modified form. And yet here one feels that something has been slightly lost. For in the course of this paragraph, it is not at all clear that the Unterirdische starts out as a man, although he, or it, is definitely subterranean. It is impossible, really, not to show one’s hand in translating this sentence, if you translate Unterirdischen as the Subterranean, you must still decide about Bohrenden, et. all.
My translation of the paragraph is much less smooth than Hollingdale’s, but this is what it would look like if we retain the ambiguity of whether the Subterranean is a human or not: In this book one will find a “subterranean” at work, boring, burrowing and sapping. One looks at it – that is, if one has the eyes to see such work of the deeps, as it slowly, thoughtfully, with soft inexorability, comes forward, without revealing too much of the pain entailed by every long renunciation of light and air. It could even be called satisfied with its dark work. Doesn’t it seem like some belief leads it on, some comfort consoles it? For it will perhaps have its own long darkness, its incomprehensibility, its hiddenness, its riddlesomeness, because it knows, what it will also have: its own morning, its own salvation, its own daybreak? .. Certainly, it is turned around: don’t ask it what it wants under there, it will tell you itself, this seeming Trophonious and subterranean, when he becomes ‘a human’ again. One forgets the fundamental rules of silence, when one has so long, like it, been a mole, been alone…”

My idea, in translating this, is that Nietzsche wants, here, to suspend the moment in which the figure we are viewing “becomes a human again’. In that state of suspension between the human and the it, the human and the mole, the human and the spirit of the dead, the full force of the way this subterranean is defined – in terms of a burrowing and boring that exhibits, in that wonderful and rather disgusting phrase, ‘soft inexorability’- helps us understand that this underground will not be of the same kind as Dostoevsky’s. Where Dostoevsky counters the crystal palace with the sewer, Nietzsche counters the human city with the sub or super-human burrow.

We know, however, that the superhuman for Nietzsche is not a matter of burrows. Bataille, in his essay on ‘The old mole and the sur in surrealism”, justly calls Nietzsche an icarian. For some reason the mole in Bataille’s essay is connected to Marx and Hegel, but not to Nietzsche – Bataille ignores this preface, and presents Nietzsche under the aegis of Zarathustra’s creature, the eagle, rather than Hegel’s mole.

“In point of view of appearances and splendor, the eagle is evidently more virile. Not only does the eagle rise into the radiant regions of the solar heaven, but it is situated in permanence with a dominant prestige. The absolutely sovereign character of this virility is implied by the hooked and cutting beak, because sovereign virility cuts everything that enters intoi competition with it, and cannot be cut.

“However, reduced to the subterranean action of the revolution’s economic facts, the ‘old mole’ digs out tunnels in a soil that is decomposed and repugnant to the delicate nose of utopists.” (OC II 96)

Already, in this essay, Bataille has learned to manipulate concept-images from Nietzsche. These images are not exactly metaphors or similes, for the analogies they set up they are also part of – after all, the analogy to height and depth is not just an analogy to abstract concepts, but concepts that have been abstracted from physical height and depth, in which physical eagles fly and physical moles crawl. Like the hexagrams of the I ching, or like dream images in Freud’s theory, they cannot be easily purged of their lateral, connotative addenda, nor abstracted to a conceptual schema – since they put into question the process of abstraction, the fine, shedding arc from impression to idea.

While the underground of the mole or the dead spirit is, I have maintained, different from the underground of the Dostoevskian deviant, it is of course related to it. But it is also related to a more primitive moment in the modernizing process, one that is older than capitalism: the social remove from nature.

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