Friday, April 07, 2023

In the mood for some Russians


I’ve been in the mood for the Russians – and so thought it was time to re-read Notes from the Underground. So I looked up Peaver and Volokhonsky’s translation, and by the second sentence I knew exactly what Janet Malcolm was talking about when she said these translations were not awful, just bland – and thus worse than awful.

The mouse-man says, in the (corrected)  Constance Garnett translation I read when I was a teen  – I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man.

Peaver and Volokhonsky bobble the sentence, one of the great sentences, by turning it into: I am a wicked man.

The Russian word is zloi. Other translators have used “angry”. That is a rather broad emotional term to start off with, without the bite of “spite”. The French translation by Bernard Kreise,  is “méchant”, which is mean or spiteful. Resa Von Schirnhofer, a friend of Nietzsche’s, reported in a memoir that she talked to Nietzsche about Dostoevsky in 1887, and he told her he had compared the French translation, L’esprit souterrain, with the German translation, and found the French better. L’esprit souterrain is a strange book, for the Notes don’t begin until page 156. The book is “translated and adopted” by E. Halperine and Charles Morice, and by this they mean that they have translated The Lodger or the Landlady and amalgamated it with The Notes from the Underground. Nietzsche’s sense of the  Notes – or the journal of a man beneath the floor, as it has been translated as well – was distorted by this presentation. Even in the Halperine and Morice translation, though, the spiteful – méchant – presents itself as the narrator’s defining characteristic.

The Halperine and Morice translation was read not only by Nietzsche, but by Gide and Bataille. One of the duties of the translator, to my mind, is to understand how a work has inserted itself into our general culture – a duty signally failed by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

I was glad to see, looking about, that Gary Saul Morson went to town on the issue of spite and P and V’s cackhanded translation in the Pevearsion of Russian Literature. It is a nice scalping.

“What has wickedness got to do with it? The underground man is constantly turning on the reader, taunting him, putting words in his mouth, answering objections to things he hasn't yet spoken of. During that pause between the first two sentences represented by the ellipsis, it's as if he were thinking: "So, you think I want your pity, and allow you to condescend to me? Well, I'll show you I don't give a damn what you think! I'm a spiteful man, so there!" As the best Dostoevsky critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, put it, the underground man is taking a sidelong glance at his listener, cringing in anticipation either of sympathy or contempt, and exaggerating so as to leave him deniability should someone pin him down by believing him. His prose is all loophole. Garnett caught that tone well enough for generations to experience it. P&V don't seem to have heard it.

Luckily, I think that the P&V train, which seemed to be crushing Russian lit in the 00s, that awful decade, has not had the monopoly power it once seemed to hold.

Spite is, to my mind, such a characteristic Dostoevsky word – and such a characteristic temperamental call in the culture of pre-World War one Europe – that when I read the first paragraph of the Peaver and Volkhonsky translation, I went elsewhere. Then I looked about at the commentary on translating Dostoevsky and found that the issues are usually about whether a translation is literal or not, whether there are mistakes in grammar or not, but not ever about the effect of previous translations – about the reception that has already encoded Dostoevsky’s work in Germany, France, England and America. To be méchant, or spiteful, was, above all, not to be happy.  

The Hermann Roehl translation, which was made for Insel in the early 1920s, uses the word schlecht – thus, a bad man. Roehl’s was just one of the translations in those years. E.K. Rahsin – a pseudonym for Elizabeth Kaerrick – also translated a number of Doestoevsky’s works. Kaerrick was closer in spirit to the  Dostoevskian age than Roehl, who was a philologist with a concentration on ancient Greek. Kaerrick, on the other hand, could have had a walk on role in the Demons. She and her sister met the great impresario of Russian literature in Germany, Moeller van der Bruck, in Paris in the 1900s. Van der Bruck married her sister and persuaded her to translate Doestoevsky’s works for Piper. Piper was also involved in translating Mereshkovsky, who gave Kaerrick a hand in her translations – which is like a laying on of hands of Russian literature itself. These people formed a nest of gentlefolks with very Doestoevskian vibrations, always working on the margins, finding jobs, finding cafes, finding love affairs. From early on, van der Bruck was a convinced adherent of the Sonderweg – that Germany was, like Russia, not part of the  West.  I have a small and messy theory that part of the anti-colonialist discourse comes out of this impure source – the casting off of the “West” by certain German conservatives, up through Heidegger.  If you want to understand Germany’s radical conservative strain, 1906 is an important date – that was when Rahsin’s translation of the Demons was first published. Moeller van der Bruck is best known outside Germany, I should say, for coining the phrase “the Third Reich”, which of course had a long and horrendous history. But that phrase came out of the last years of his life, when he had abandoned literature for radical nationalism.

Spite. Wicked. Mechant. Schlecht. Zloi. So much depends on these faceless middlewomen of culture. So much of my own intellectual life. I owe you, Constance Garnett.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Fear of the People: a geneology of Macron's ultra-liberalism


In Marie Helene Baylac’s aptly named “The Fear of the People, a history of the First Republic, 1848-1852, there is an account of one of those highly charged and very theatrical events that distinguish the 1848 revolution – which in spite of being the revolution of writers (Marx, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Sand, Hugo, and last but not least, Marie D’Agoult, whose history of that moment should be retranslated and introduced by some muckety muck for NYRB books – who will inevitably refer to D’Agoult as Franz Lizst’s lover and the mother of one Cosima, who married another famous composer, Richard Wagner) is not a revolution much loved by historians. A flop, they say. Such hopes, ending in Little Napoleon!

The scene takes place at the Hotel de Ville, which is around 10 blocks from where I am typing this. To set the scene, Louis Phillipe, the last king of France, had fled, and a new republic had been proclaimed , at least in Paris. One of the notable figures in the provisional government was Alphonse Lamartine, a romantic poet and, it turns out, an ultra-liberal. He was in the company when, on February 25th, a worker with a rifle, at the head of a delegation of workers, barged into the room at the Hotel de Ville where the provisional government was meeting and addressed them, demanding “the organisation of labor, the right to guaranteed employment, and a minimum assistance assured for the worker and his family in case of sickness, and to save him from misery once he could not work.” Lamartine rose to the occasion: “You would have to cut off my hand before I would sign that!” Three days later, Lamartine addressed the assembly with even more stirring words about the horrors of undermining the free market in labor, again offering himself as a martyr for the cause: “You can set me to face the mouth of a cannon but you will never get me to sign those two words associated together: Organisation of Labor!”

The phrase is associated with Louis Blanc, who wrote a best-selling book of the same name. Blanc is a socialist of the kind still recognizable on the French left. Baylac quotes a speech he gave which defines, to an extent, the nebulous concept of organisation of labor: “… does liberty exist there were the conditions of labor are such that they are hammered out between the master who stipulates the wage to profit by it and the worker who stipulates in order not to die… one of the thousand tragic incidents that are engendered each day by the immense anarchy of universal competition?” In Blanc’s vision, the state would insert itself in the manifestly bad deal for the workers by creating national workshops and moderating competition. The demand for organized labor was, to an extent, a demand for unions – but this was still a vague organizational notion.

Lamartine is, I think, the true begetter of that strain of social moderation and ultra-liberalism that has found its latest puppet in Macron. One can imagine Macron throwing himself into some hysterical pose to face down the unruly masses – organisation of labor indeed! The combination of police-heavy tactics, a throwback to the French governments of the seventies, if not the Greek colonels of the 60s, and the confidence that the people, like children, will just settle down “after the dust has settled” – the Macronites have a quasi-obsession with the “dust settling”, which is about their entire experience with such things as garbage collection and manual labor – is reminiscent of Lamartine, although not as poetic – the poetry in Macron’s circle is produced by McKinsey consultants, and they earn more for their odes to privatization than Lamartine could ever have dreamed.

I have a feeling, where I sit, that the weight of fatigue has shifted – that the unions, the young, and the seventy percent that oppose the “reforms” are on the retreat. I hope I am wrong – and I know that this retreat is not an extinction of anger, but a sense that the government is sealed against the will of the people. I don’t see the French going gentle into the next period, giving away the national treasure of a social security system for Macron’s beaux yeux. But I also don’t see the Left taking advantage of this moment. Which leaves Le Pen.

And yet, Le Pen has her problem too - someday, somewhere, she  is actually going to have to speak about the French social security system, which her hardcore supporters have fought furiously against for fifty years. This is a dilemma she is helped over by a complacent French media, but these are questions that can't be delayed forever. 

Monday, April 03, 2023

Inactual observations, or how relevance nailed my ass


In one of his notebooks from the 1880s, Nietzsche, who was re-reading his essay on the Use and disadvantage of history for life (the second of his Untimely Meditations – although I like inactual for unzeitgemassige), jotted down one of those lightning bolts “How little reason there is in being as old, and as reasonable, as Goethe!” It is one of those lines that deserves to be haloed with a laughter, something like Johnny Rotten’s guffaw in God Save the Queen. “Is there room in science for laughter?” Nietzsche had asked in The Gay Science – and tacitly, he put himself forward as the answer to that question.

When one grows old – I am putting myself forward as that “one” – and one is as inclined to reason as a cow is to chew its fodder, it is good to remember how unreasonable it is to reason in the first place. It is good to remember that history serves, ultimately, life – and that the nexus between the two has never been satisfactorily resolved by either the mighty – Goethe – or the low – myself. Another note that Nietzsche jotted down as he was making up howlers about Goethe concerned the purpose of the Inactual observations. It was a bait to capture the attention of similar minded readers.

“At that time I was young enough to go fishing with such impatient hopes. Today – after a hundred years, if I am allowed to measure time according to my own scales! – I am always not your old enough to have lost every hope, and every  patience. How strangely it sounds in my ears when a gray old man presses his experience into these words.”

Nietzsche’s inactual observations are the presiding spirit over Georges Didi-Huberman’s giant book, Imaginer Recommencer, which takes in, in typical Didi-Huberman style, an encyclopedic ensemble of history, art and philosophy to make its point: tracing our modernity, or our culture of the modern, back to the Weimar culture of the 1920s, which was Nietzschian for both the left and the right.

The subtitle of Did-Huberman’s book is: ce qui nous souleve, 2. Soulevement is in the air, here in Paris, given the strikes and demonstrations. It is a song in the manif, although the echoes of that song are more melancholic than positive, more 1848 than 1789.   We are rising up, is the atmosphere among the bien-pissant – the pissed off and the disenfranchised. I am one of the pissants, here, and from my perspective, these demonstrations, this crisis, is about time. Human time, which was drained into Capital and recuperated, partially and painfully, by the social democratic initiatives of the twentieth century. Time, which divides into youth and old age, which casts a varied pall over different sectors and employments – for instance, over the garbageman, who is expected to devote more than forty years of his life to his smelly, untouchable job – which as we know, under the new regime of retirement, means no retirement, since death, the end of the garbageman’s time, is the more likely outcome to the new rules.

Which is fine for the rulers, who live in a different time, who reward themselves copiously with the finest pensions the state can offer. Who “work” all the time – at lunch, over a fifty euro meal, in conferences in Switzerland with big name capitalists, and of course at night, with their lovers-assistants, all on the highend dole.

My own dallying with the inactual began, I suppose, in high school, under a different set of parameters: the cry in the seventies was for relevance. Instead of learning fusty poems by Longfellow, we were plunged into, say, Walden 2 – or at least that was the book we read in Humanities class. Or into Atlas Shrugged – that was a book I was assigned and failed to read, the unrelieved one-dimensionality  of Ayn Rand’s imagination repulsing me. I was consciously mostly of how many letters, sentences and black black print each paperback  page bore – which I suppose is the non-reader’s feeling about books in general. They assault the senses, giving nothing to the eyes and making the body feel straitjacketed. Which is why you want to eat when reading a massive paperback tome. To give the tongue some leaway, at least, as the book closes the lid on you.  

So I chose non-relevance, and was quite happy with my choice until the advent of Internet. I dropped out of the inactual with a bang in the 00s, when suddenly social media and the digitalisation of everything enforced relevancy like a motherfucker. Plus, of course, the era of Bush, the Vulcanite Bush, the realization that we were going to be really, really stupid in the 21st century. I was a little witness to the fact that greatness – measured in global effect – can be combined with idiocy to produce catastrophes that will be with us the rest of my life. Everything has been under the shadow of that period, 2001-2009 All the squandered opportunity, the death of the Holocene, the wasting of millions of lives, the neolib glee.

Lately, I’m in an odd place – both angry and suspended in the overwhelmingly relevant and longing for the inactual, for larger projects and maybe even hope.  

Hope. What a word.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...