Canada is supposedly marking its 150th year this summer. Just 150 years, that’s all? What a drab view of such a storied history. Better to recall:
When Jacques Cartier and his crew visited Hochelaga in 1535, the Indians were eager to trade: “These people came towards our boats in as friendly and familiar a manner as if we had been natives of the country, bringing us great store of fish and of whatever else they possessed, in order to obtain our wares, stretching forth their hands towards heaven and making many gestures and signs of joy.”
– New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, 2nd ed., by Colin G. Calloway, Johns Hokins U, 2013. P. 44.
The natives’ good faith was betrayed, in due time. But there’s something to be said for this incident. Canada is already there — the indigenes going to meet the new arrivals.
Angel in the Forest: An Epic of Two Utopias – A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America (1945) – Marguerite Young
The Middle Passage: A Triptych of Commodities (1976), U.S. Dept. of the Interior (1980) – Paul Metcalf (reread)
Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 (1982) – John R. Stilgoe
Achab (séquelles) (2015) – Pierre Senges
Winslow Homer at the Addison (1990) – Paul Metcalf
“There comes a delicate moment: the moment of suspicion when one starts to consider encyclopedism, the thirst for knowledge, no longer as the ideal antidote to stupidity, but as the insidious and inevitable vehicle of stupidity. As we know, libraries all around the world paradoxically abound with expressions of this suspicion toward books and reading: St. Augustine’s suspicion, Lucian’s satire pillorying an ignorant bibliomane, Nicholas of Cusa’s reservations about the limits of our knowledge, all that returns anew with each successive generation like the critique of scholasticism reborn from its own ashes, and, of course, Gustave Flaubert’s Sottisier too.
“Formerly knowledge appeared as self-evident, an incontestable antidote, but soon it assumes a different kind of self-evidence, rather like the pomposity described by Pierre Damien, like the malady of the Sorbonnites, like the stupor characteristic of overfull heads—between the two self-evidences, while passing from the first to the next, there comes a moment of instability when uncertainty has an important role to play, when it seems as if it might be able to compete with stupidity—stupidity, standing perfectly on its own two legs, comfortable everywhere, in contact with all that’s a given: the stupidity of illiterate peasants and the stupidity of doctors both. We find this moment of uncertainty in the pages of Bouvard and Pécuchet, and also in Flaubert’s letters when he was writing Bouvard and Pécuchet: the emotion is the same; familiarly, we go on from page to page; and ask ourselves, how can we resist stupidity when projects of universal erudition such as Auguste Comte’s Essay of Positive Philosophy, the exact opposite of ignorance, in fact contain entire Californias of grotesquery?”
Pierre Senges, “Undertaking and Renunciation,” trans. Jacob Siefring, in Prodigal Lit Mag
The Dust of Suns (c.1930/1990s) – Raymond Roussel (trans. Harry Mathews)
The Philosophers’ Madonna (1931/2008) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. Antony Melville)
Exercises in Style (1947/2012) – Raymond Queneau (trans. Barbara Wright & Chris Clarke)
Trial Impressions (1977), The New Tourism (2008?) – Harry Mathews
The Attraction of Things (?) – Roger LeWinter (trans. Rachel Carreau)
The Nonconformist’s Memorial (1993) – Susan Howe
The Case of the Persevering Maltese (various) – Harry Mathews
The Emerald Light in the Air (2014) – Donald Antrim
I read only three of these stories, and was sufficiently terrified to leave off there. “Another Manhattan” in particular left me feeling I couldn’t go on. I read Antrim’s first novel about seven years ago and found it nothing to write home about, but this is hardly the same author. I think I would enjoy, and will seek out, Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers.
What Is Landscape? (2015) – John R. Stilgoe
plans sauvages (2016) – Hélène Fréderick
Debths (2017) – Susan Howe
The Transport… (2017) – John Trefry
My Back Pages (2017) – Steven Moore (Skipping around in this. Is Moore America’s best (living) critic? I would hazard to say so.)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1600) – William Shakespeare
The Conversions (1960) – Harry Mathews
The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971) – Harry Mathews
It occurs to me that Mathews’s default sense of the phrase and of diction (when he’s not up to disturbing linguistic conventions) is essentially Victorian in nature. This of course aligns with his love of Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and The Aspern Papers. I found this to be a masterpiece, every bit as good as Cigarettes and The Journalist.
The Players (1985) – Paul Metcalf
An odd play for the stage that Metcalf wrote sometime in the 1980s; not entirely sure what to make of its whimsical construction. Apparently the play was performed in Pittsfield, MA in the summer of 1986.
17 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987/2016) – Eliot Weinberger
A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English (1992) – Anthony Burgess (some chapters, not the whole compendium! a lot to work through here)
Working the Stone: The Natural, Social, and Industrial History of the Village of Farnams, Town of Cheshire, County of Berkshire, Commonwealth of Massachusetts (2003) – Paul Metcalf and Lucia Saradoff
The Quarry (2015) – Susan Howe
I’ve had little patience for Howe’s work & style lately; partly it’s discovering certain repetitions, the same material reworked when I was seeking something new. She has a new title forthcoming from New Directions this year, Debths, which I shall attempt to review.
Attrib. and other stories (2017) – Eley Williams (hopskotchin around in this)
Gorse Journal #7 (2017)
Glad to have a Pierre Senges translation of mine published in this – buy it!
J’ai fait de plus loin que moi un voyage abracadabrant
il y a longtemps que je ne m’étais pas revu
me voici en moi comme un homme dans une maison
qui s’est faite en son absence
je te salue, silence
je ne suis pas revenu pour revenir
je suis arrivé à ce qui commence
“L’homme Rapaillé: Liminaire,” Gaston Miron
“After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realised that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save in so far as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.”
First paragraph of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect by Spinoza.
“Let us admit, going over the Atlantic was a tragic mistake…”
Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 15.
“Proposal: a series of regional research and cultural projects—attack each region—using students, locals, natives, whatever—and from every angle, every scholarly discipline, every mode of expression. In the end, for each region, produce a book, and an arts festival.”
U.S. Dept. of Interior, Paul Metcalf 1980
The Revenger’s Tragedy (c. 1580s) (not for nothing is it considered one of the grandest of Elizabethan revenge tragedies)
English Prose Style (1950?) – Herbert Read (ridiculously pedantic in places but useful in others; many of the example excerpts are so long they kill my appetite to read them; is my attention, my patience winnowing?)
Chromos (1940s/1990) – Felix Alpau (begun on a lark; ain’t gonna persevere, not till the time’s right. As I read I keep thinking who translated this? It’s that kind of a book. Reminds me of Zeno’s Conscience, which I could never truly penetrate.)
Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (1971) – Walter J. Ong (Ong was one of English lit. & lang.’s foremost scholars in the late 20th century, doggedly forging his own niche. Confounding to think of the implications of such a phrase as “Jesuit scholarship.” I read about the first half of it, got what I needed, & cut out. Interesting argument that the ideology of Romanticism, with its emphasis on individual expression & feelings, could only arise once everything was sufficiently written down in dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias, etc.)
Flight to Canada (1976) – Ishmael Reed (I read it because Paul Metcalf takes an epigraph from this book for his Both. Previously I’ve read Mumbo Jumbo. I found this one entertaining, verging on laughter in a few places, but not quite what I was looking for. I plan to read Reckless Eyeballing sometime soon. As Biblioklept knows, Reed is a neglected treasure.)
Atlas () – Glen Baxter
Patagoni – Both – Firebird – I-57 (1988) – Paul Metcalf (By the end of this I will be the world’s foremost expert on Paul Metcalf.)
Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate (1990) – Paul Metcalf, et al. (not strictly speaking a “Metcalf book,” but a commissioned collaboration. I regret not going to Oakland last fall & seeing the area when I had the chance.)
Garbage (1993) – A.R. Ammons (Finally — a work suited to my despair of the present. I’ll be (re?)reading Glare very soon I think & 1 or 2 of the major works included in Ammons’s Collected Poems 1951-1971 or whatever the dates are.)
The Night of the Gun (2008) – David Carr
Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 40:
One day, Ephraim Bedlam, the water-drinker and raw carrot and celery philosopher, who always smelled like musk or gymnasium sweat, tweaked me on the cheek, asking, “Have you seen any human beings lately?”
The Flea of Sodom (1950) – Edward Dahlberg (can’t recall the last time I was so disoriented; a mix of tiresome & exhilarating)
Will West (1956) – Paul Metcalf (reread)
“Sardonicus” (1961) – Ray Russell (I wasn’t scared much)
Genoa (1965) – Paul Metcalf (rereading in progress)
Edward Dahlberg: a Tribute; Essays, Reminiscences, Correspondence, Tributes (1970) – ed. Jonathan Williams (this was great)
The Alteration (1976) – Kingsley Amis (+++)
Fatale (1977) – Jean-Patrick Manchette (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2011) (not quite memorable enough)
The Leafless American and Other Writings (1986) – Edward Dahlberg (I liked several essays inordinately)
An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin (2007) – Rohan Kriwaczek (abandoned with spite)
The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, 2nd ed. (2008) – Lawrence Venuti (great section on Paul Blackburn)
Time Travel (2016) – James Gleick (stuck!)
From Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (1951):
“Are Americans really stupid?” I was asked in Warsaw. In the voice of the man who posed the question, there was despair, as well as the hope that I would contradict him. This question reveals the attitude of the average person in the people’s democracies toward the West: it is despair mixed with a residue of hope.
During the last few years, the West has given these people a number of reasons to despair politically. In the case of the inteIlectual, other, more complicated reasons come into play. Before the countries of Central and Eastern Europe entered the sphere of the Imperium, they lived through the Second World War. That war was much more devastating there than in the countries of Western Europe. It destroyed not only their economies, also but a great many vaIues which had seemed till then unshakeable.
Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world. The clothes he wears are exactIy what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor. He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money as the main guarantee of peace and security. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariousIy on the edge of a cliff.
His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the “naturalness” of his world. The wind scatters papers from hastily evacuated offices, papers labeled “Confidential” or “Top Secret” that evoke visions of safes, keys, conferences, couriers, and secretaries. Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread. Strangely enough, the world goes on even though the offices and secret files have lost all meaning. Farther down the street, he stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes — the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds — cut open to public view. The house itself, no longer a rock, but a scaffolding of plaster, concrete, and brick; and on the third floor, a solitary white bathtub, rain-rinsed of all recollection of those who once bathed in it. Its formerly influential and respected owners, now destitute, walk the fields in search of stray potatoes. Thus overnight money loses its value and becomes a meaningless mass of printed paper. His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies. The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.
He finds he acquires new habits quickly. Once, had he stumbled upon a corpse in the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions. The man who fired the gun must have had his reasons; he might well have been executing an Underground sentence.”
Translated from Polish by Jane Zielonko. (Pp. 24-26 in the Vintage, 1990, edition)
E. Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (1950):
“Then I bought a chair, trundling it in a wheelbarrow along 7th Avenue. I recalled how Crates insulted whores to discipline himself, and to reprove froward flesh, I passed out cards on which was written, ‘For the frog drinking-water, for the snail cabbage and thyme, but for a rebuke nobody’. A newsvendor considered me so droll I had diarrhoea three days.”
Harry Mathews, author & translator extraordinaire, died yesterday. I never met him nor did I ever speak to him, yet his works spoke to me, and so I feel his loss as a very personal one. I wasn’t always able to appreciate his work, much of it struck me as purposefully trying and removed from the things I care about, and yet so much of it I found very moving, or funny, thought-provoking. In several slim works, such as the Autobiography and 20 Lines a Day, he seems to have courageously revealed his innermost self. It’s these works and the voice I found therein that resonate with me today as I think of his absence from our darkening scene. I find solace in letting my thoughts abide with Harry.
I picked up from my desk The Order of Things by Michel Foucault to consult a favorite passage, the edition in question being the Vintage Books, 1994 edition. (Original French title: Les mots et les choses, 1966. Literally, Words and Things.) This is a book I have never been very interested in finishing, since I initially abandoned it way back in… college? It was hard going then and it’s not so tough anymore but now I don’t care to read it through.
Quickly locating the marked page, I read it while saying to myself yes yes very true indeed and considered posting an excerpt here. (Another day, perhaps.) I went to see who did the English translation and was quite bewildered to learn that the party responsible for the translation is neither named on the book’s title page, nor on the copyright page, nor the front nor the back cover, nor in the library record for the original 1970 edition, published by Pantheon. Nowhere that I can see.
This is almost unheard of in the contemporary era. I’m sure that with some targeted keyword searching I could ferret out the desired information, but now I’m more interested in this anomaly than learning who did the deed. There are surely some other instances where the translator resides in anonymity, especially in past centuries, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Let me know if you’re aware of any such anomalies, I would be most interested…
Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
Not far from the source of the Great Miami River in western Ohio.
When does a footprint or a deposit of feces or urine (used by many species of animals for communication) become ‘writing’?
– Walter J. Ong, Orality & Literacy, p. 82
“This is a difficult book to describe: it is a book of fictional invention masquerading as historical artifact, further masquerading as scholarly treatise. It never flinches, it has not one single tell that it is anything but what it appears to be: a 16th century work, of questionable authorship, that methodically and systemically argues against the existence of the ‘New World.'”
Writing a translation, publishing a translation:
Hesitations and doubts play no small part therein, and not just before the piece goes to press… All truth told, I can’t read a translation I’ve had published without itching to revise (read: correct) it.
For this reason, I’ve begun to conceive of translation as a series of progressive revelations, with ever a film of impurity remaining on my eyes, akin to a cataract: a permanent, partial blindness (so irksome).
One irony is that some of the revisions or corrections I would introduce, I would just as soon repeal or overrule, one fortnight on. Though I earnestly seek it, I find no stable ground.
The Jew of Malta (c. 1592) – Christopher Marlowe
Pericles (c. 1608) – William Shakespeare
The Stars My Destination (1956) – Alfred Bester (in progress)
Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) – Jack Womack
I do read a little contemporary literature, but for a year-end list the more interesting thing in my opinion is always to focus on what’s obscure, the chance discovery, the forgotten tome. So here goes…
Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594) – Thomas Nashe
You will not find another author so madcap entertaining as Thomas Nashe. No, it’s not easy to read. When I read Nashe it feels I’m looking through a glass darkly to a time when the conventions of written English were in radical flux, coming into formation. I tried to read Pierce Penniless but my attention felt worn out after about 15 pages. It (and The Unfortunate Traveler and Lenten Stuff) await my attention another moon. From Terrors of the Night:
“As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror, so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences; no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us.” (full text)
Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg
Rainer Hanshe recommended Dahlberg to me as being up my alley, and that was after I’d read Paul Metcalf’s high praise of Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh in From Quarry Road. So I knew it was time. Well, an American who lived and breathed in the twentieth-century went and wrote a whole book about himself and his mother in soundly Elizabethan language. Sounds risky, but the mad codger flew high. Some will spurn it for its reconditeness, others will smear it for what they perceive as its misogyny, but I revel in its relentlessly rhetorical turns and its abstruse diction. But a small taste:
“Only a man cankered by his own zeal would crimp Scripture in order to call a lady barber a disorderly Magdala. When the time came she would be a steadfast wife and provide a husband who cherished her with a jolly, bawdy bed and fat gammons. She would look just as legal and righteous as any other female householder. Love restores the blind, the palsied and the virgin, and even if a lady barber smeared her bridal sheet with Heinz ketchup, no bridegroom should be so foolish as to examine it. A man who scrutinizes everything that he does–or someone else does to him–will die swearing or live to run mad in the streets with no cover for his nude soul but a syllogism. Besides, a woman is a marvelous chameleon creature, for she can cheat, lie and copulate, and still be the tenderest pullet.” (p. 25 in the New Directions edition)
Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe
“On Monday, massacre, burning, and pillage
On Tuesday, gifts, and visits among friends”
(from Chanting at the Crystal Sea, strophe 20; link to blog post on Howe)
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Tiny but crucial, Orality and Literacy maps out some of the differences between speech and writing, between what Ong calls “primary oral cultures” and societies governed by writing. This is very stimulating for anyone curious about the history of literature, the cognitive dynamics of language, and much much more. A nice reminder of what we are almost wired to forget:
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (1994) – Roger G. Kennedy
I became interested in the extinct mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States (many mounds of which may still be visited today) this year. I had visited several mounds throughout my adoloscence but what is there really to be seen or to know beneath the imposingness of a monumental heap of dirt? I’m plagued and perplexed by my partial knowledge still, and no matter how much I read about the mounds they remain impenetrable to me. Kudos to the archaeologists and paleontologists whose efforts have increased our understanding of these early inhabitants of North America, and to such historians as Roger Kennedy who in this book aims for a synthetic understanding of what those civilizations must have been like. It might it help to mitigate a little bit of that amnesia from which Americans always seem to be suffering.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) – Stephen Jay Gould
I found this book at the library’s annual used sale quite on a lark; I headed for the science and nature section with a yen to redress my ignorance in matters of geology. Well, I’m still little more than an ignoramus when it comes to the deep time of the earth, but my eyes were opened to the mind-boggling difference of such alien arthropod life forms as Anomalocaris, Marrella and Opabinia. Gould’s book is a tour de force, illuminating not just the radical contingency of history, but the ways institutions and ideologies shape the way scientists look at history. This was the first book I had read of Gould’s, and it is Cambrian natural history written with the clip and ease of an airport thriller, what a rare thing.
Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges
A good swath of this book (about 6,000 words) will be published in my translation next spring in the newish London-based journal Hotel. The book consists of short texts (ranging from half a page to 5 pages or so) composed from Kafka’s unfinished beginnings found in his notebooks. That probably sounds odd and not too inviting, but what makes this book so extraordinary is the humor, the undreamt of flights of fancy which Senges schemes up time and time again. I hope I can find a publisher who wants to publish the full book in English. I will keep trying. For now, there is The Major Refutation.
“They killed the President today so they let us out of school early. They shot him while he was going from a building to his car. I didn’t like him but he was the President so I should feel said they said at school but I don’t really. The new President is the guy everybody always makes fun of.”
from Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack, p. 66
The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.
The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.
The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…
It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.
Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.
The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it in the bath. Read it for fun.