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Monday, March 20, 2017

the great Georg Lichtenberg

There are many English translations of selected passages from Georg Lichtenberg’s Sudelbuecher, but unfortunately, there is no complete translation, nothing like the complete and unabridged translation of Leopardi’s Zibaldone that Farrar Straus published in spite of the fact that it was, economically, a bit of a suicide mission. Leopardi, it has to be said, sometimes allowed himself very boring divagations into philology. Lichtenberg, page for page, is less boring.
The NYRB put R.J. Hollingdale on the case in 2010. Good choice. Hollingdale cut his teeth translating Nietzsche, a writer in Lichtenberg’s spirit. Both had a knack for throwing tasty lightning phrases about, which you could sit down with and think about all day. Still, Hollingdale only translated some 1,085 aphorisms, as he chose to call them – not jottings, not throw aways – and the book amounted to 230 pages. Consider that the German suhrkamp edition of Lichtenberg’s Sudelbuecher consists of 948 very closely printed pages, and you can estimate the loss.  
For instance: Hollingsdale’s translation does not include one of Lichtenberg’s last throw aways. It has been translated, but only as part of an essay by Roberto Bolano in Between Parentheses. In the essay, he checks Lichtenberg as “our” philosopher, adding, parenthetically, that “frankly, when I say “we”, I don’t know what I am talking about”. The translation there (which I modify a bit here) goes like this:
“On the night of February 9, 1799 I dreamt that I was on a trip and eating in an inn, or rather a roadside shack, in which a dice game was going on. Across from me sat a well dressed, somewhat dissipated young man, who, heedless of the people sitting around him, was eating his soup in such a way that at every second or third spoonful, he’d throw it into the air, then catch it in the spoon and quietly swallow it.  What makes this dream really peculiar to me is that I made my usual remark to myself, that you couldn’t make this stuff up, you had to see it. (I meant that no novelist could make it up); and yet I was making it up that very second. At the dice game sat a tall, thin woman, knitting. I asked her what stakes could be won and she said nothing; when I asked her if anything could be lost, she said no. The game struck me as very important.”
As Bolano points out, Lichtenberg died 14 days later. There’s only one more entry. It’s rare that anyone’s death – outside of a novel – happens with such expressionistic drama. The man with the spoon, who seems to have been captured from a Brueghel cartoon, in juxtapositon with the knitting woman watching the stakeless game of chance – Bolano calls this the atmosphere of Kafka, and surely it would work in an Ingmar Bergman film. But my impression is that Lichtenberg, the most enlightened of German thinkers, has somehow, here, touched on a chthonic current of myth, opened up a panel to some epic long buried and forgotten.  

Well, I want to translate another bit of Lichtenberg tomorrow. Gotta now turned to more pressing tasks.