Friday, July 29, 2022

the time is here


In the Dictionary of Untranslateables – a title that doubles down on the oxymoron – the section on Times, as temps in French, describes, although it doesn’t explain, the remarkable doubleness of the term for both time and weather. The “time and the weather” – when I was a kid in Atlanta, you could call a number and a recorded voice would tell you both the time and the weather.

The time, in English, is connected by the most obscure of routes to weather – in as much as it is connected to the sun, divided into A.M. and P.M. However, most philosophers who have approached time ignore the weather. That the Latin tempestus and the English Tempest have, ticking in them, a term for time is one of those etymological chances, as meaningless, to the philosopher, as  the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.

But this decade is proving that time, human time, and the weather are so connected that one can feel the juncture in one’s blood. We’re in Montpellier right now. We go out, every afternoon, to swim in the Mediterranean on the beach near La Grande Motte. Here, the water is still fairly cool. But the local newspaper reports that the water on the Cote D’azur – the most famous of the French coasts, the one that includes St. Tropez and Cannes – is registering at 27 to 30 degrees Celsius. We make much of the difference between climate and weather, but these bits of weather, deformed by our industrial and post-industrial system, are crying out that the time has come.

The notion that time comes to an end is one way of looking at the set to which time belongs – those things or events that are finite. The finitude of time, however, is hard to imagine – while we can imagine, because we are seeing, the finitude of local climates. The weather of a place goes wrong, then deeply wrong. The weather of the water goes wrong, and the dead phyla pile up on the shore. We can see our time in the sky, as any child on a swing in a swingset knows.

The Oxford English Dictionary blog has a nice piece on the etymological origins of weather. Weather was once more than a word denoting the given atmospheric conditions of a given place – it meant, as well, wind, sky, breeze storm. We don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing this summer. Can we undo what we have done – unjam our windjam? What I see, right now, is that the swimmers at St. Tropez will just take their boats out a little farther from shore. We accommodate.

And we wait for the next summer to be worse.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

a metaphor from Shklovsky


In the book of interviews that Serena Vitale  conducted with Viktor Shklovksy, he says a wonderful thing about poetry, quoting Mandelstam: “…poetry is the “deep joy of recognition.” That’s it. The poet searches, gropes in the dark, and my dear contemporaries, so prolific in words, the structuralists, who filled the world with terminology . . . You see, they don’t know this thing, this affliction of the presentiment of art and the joy of recognition. Only the great poets do. They know they’re going to write. They don’t know what will come out, whether it will be a boy or a girl, they only know that it will be poetry. Only the poet knows this tortuous search for the word, the physical joy of “recognition,” and sometimes, also the anguish of defeat. Again, take Mandelstam: “I have forgotten the word I wanted to say. A blind swallow returns to the palace of shadows . . .” I knew Mandelstam, I remember him rushing down the stairs of the House of Arts declaiming these verses. You see, a poem is born from struggle. A rhythm, a word, like an echo, then a word with a different meaning, in the dark you only see individual, separate things, but then, little by little, your eyes adjust to the change in the light, they can see, and it’s poetry.”
I like the registers of this remark, from birth to physical joy. It has a long history, this male mimicry of birth – art’s competition with the mother. A competition that is won each time by the mother, of course – try as the poet may, the words that come out are of a different substance and nature to the naked human being. The words are promised the chance at “immortality” – to be passed on for an insignificant geological time in books or by word of mouth. The child, meanwhile, is at the center of a crisis of recognition  – hence the supplement of the name. Poetry is never changed in the cradle with the child, and out of the breakdown of that metaphor – which re-presents itself, neurotically – we find other metaphors, murkier ones – for instance of poetry as a struggle for recognition  in the Manichean dark. A dark that, one finds, is actually simply a change of light, not its annulation. Who struggles, here?
Later in the interview, Shklovsky says: You should be afraid of the books you agree with, not the ones you disagree with.
I figure it is the same thing with metaphors.

Monday, July 25, 2022

two cheers for the inventor of the underground: Constance Garnett!


Monroe Beardsley wrote a long and rather brilliant essay about the Underground metaphor in Dostoevsky in which he acknowledges, as an aside, that Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground was actually named something like Notes from under the Floorboards, or from a Mousehole.

I bow down to Dostoevsky, but sometimes a translator should be her due. It was Constant Garnett who “mistranslated” that title. I believe Nabokov somewhere takes a shot at Garnett. Frankly, Garnett’s title is an improvement. Dostoevsky’s reputation worldwide depends, in part, on the fact that the “Underground” is a much more powerful image than “the Mousehole.” True, one of Kafka’s great short stories is called “The Burrow”, but it is not one of Kafka’s most known short stories, I think.

How did Constance Garnett bring the Underground to Dostoevsky – a pairing that seems absolutely appropriate?

I imagine – I have no letter or diary entry about this – but I imagine this is a case of cross-pollination. Constance Garnett learned Russian under the tutelage of a man named Sergei Stepniak, who had escaped from Russia and written a memoir, of sorts, about his career as a nihilist and agitator: Underground Russia. This was translated from Italian into English in 1882. It was not until 1893, however, that the Garnetts, who had all become Stepniak’s supporters, learned the real reason he fled Russia. In December, 1893, the New Review published an article from on Ivanoff, a pseudonym, detailing the moment that Stepniak – then under his own name, S. M. Kravchinskii – cut the cord, so to speak.  To quote Thomas Moser on the Stepniak affair from his article of 1992:

“On August 4, 1878, this man [Stepniak] acquired a kitchen knife.. At 9 a.m., “sneaking on tiptoe”, he plunged the knife into [General Mezentsev, the Russian police chief’s] abdomen, turned it round in the wound, jumped into the victoria (carriage) and rode out of St. Petersburg.”

The Garnett’s faced up to the knowledge that their friend was not just a revolutionary in theory, but a man who turned a knife in the abdomen of another man in fact, with a rather admirable tolerance. The General was no innocent. The deed had been committed in retaliation for the torture and capital punishment being meted out by the Czarist regime to revolutionaries. Death for death – as the pamphlet penned latter by Stepniak was entitled.

David Garnett, Constance Garnett’s son, wrote: "I had been brought up to accept acts of political murder and violence with sympathy bordering on admiration; I had known and respected at least two eminent assassins".  Probably Stepniak was one of them. Constance herself was a Fabian and 2nd International socialist. She knew that the people who shunned Stepniak would shake the hands of torturers and murderers, as long as the latter were in uniform or had an aristocratic title. Although it became fashionable for a while, especially in the wake of Nabokov, to criticize Garnett for “bowdlerizing” Russian literature, the accusation is really this: she was a woman of the Edwardian era. Or, more simply: she was a woman. 

And she did things that few women do today. In 1904, she left her husband and 2 year old son in England and went to Russia, ostensibly to help with famine relief there, and - as a side project - to deliver letters from an exile Russian revolutionary community to revolutionaries inside Russia. 

But she is ever the "Victorian woman", just as Dostoevsky -  whose entire mature life coincides with the Victorian age - is always the modern novelist. This point made well by Claire Davidson-Pignon in the essay: “No Smoke without fire? Mrs Garnett and the Russian Connection.” Garnett’s politics – this was a woman who translated one of the first pamphlets about the Potemkin revolt into English, after returning from Russia in 1905 – is consistently neglected, in favor of terms like “gentility” and “Victorian.” I do wonder how many of her critics would be so “Victorian” as to mingle with an assassin who, according to the press, was a terrorist.

She was very much not a Victorian. She was very much an Edwardian, like Conrad. And as an Edwardian, she was more attracted to “Undergrounds” than mouseholes. In this, she was like H.G. Wells, who also wrote about undergrounds, and even Jules Verne. The ghost of Dostoevsky owes her.




olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...