Wednesday, June 29, 2011

mentally bifocal

“Hot! Every word of Aristotle exposed!” These diglot-peddlers lack shame

I have an embarrassing confession to make... when I get stuck, I have sometimes weakened and allowed my eye to wander over to the right-hand pages.
Yesterday, a fellow blogger got me laughing out loud when he'd written these words.  So much of the sarcasm resonates with me; it's his parody of the fear of a both-and world that so many have.  Most would prefer an either-or world.  Especially when it comes to the Bible, especially when it comes to the singular notion of absolute Truth, the fear is that one may be wrong while The Other, so different, just may be right.  Before I'd read my fellow blogger's silliness, with more seriousness, I blogged a bit yesterday on three examples of this fear.

Today, I'd like to blog on the value of the diglot.  There's value in having one original language open to a page in a translation of that original.  There's value as much or more in being "mentally bifocal," as Pearl S. Buck put it.  If we were to read that in her English, we'd find it in her autobiography My Several Worlds.  If we were to read it in Italian, then we might go here to find it also as "La mente bifocale."  If we were reading it in English but were trying to understand it, to translate it, into Chinese (which is one of Pearl S. Buck's languages in one of her several worlds), then we might start here.  The point is that we could not stay just in one place, within our comfort zone, a zone of limited-perception singular monocular objectivity, with the Other over there not having any part of me or mine.

"Aristotle exposed," indeed.  Until you've just begun to struggle, some with others, with how his words are so like and so unlike your own, then what's the value of knowing him?  Maya Angelou, for example, who was raped by a misogynistic gynophobe when she was an 8-year-old girl, listens rhetorically to Aristotle and insists, rather exclaims!:  "One needs to know Aristotle.... One needs it desperately....  Must! I mean desperately... if one is to be at ease anywhere."  How has she come to know this need to know?  There's something on the other side from me, isn't there?

Much more positively if more theoretically, Mikhail Epstein speaks of stereotextuality and of interlation.  He's saying that a diglot (and this might apply to a Loeb classical library edition of any of Aristotle's works or even to the Bible with its "absolute Truth" for the fearful and its multiple languages for the willing) has value.  Do you notice, reading Epstein's essay, however, how he ends up asking questions?
Can an idea be adequately presented in a single language? Or do we need a minimum of two languages (as with two eyes or two ears) to convey the volume of a thought or image? Will we, at some future time, accustom ourselves to new genres of stereo poetry and stereo philosophy as we have become accustomed to stereo music and stereo cinema? Will the development of translingual discourses (or, in Bakhtin's words, "the mutual illumination and interanimation of languages") become a hallmark of our century?
Well, I go back to little Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker, to her century now, not ours anymore.  Reading her autobiography, I notice how in the mornings she was working with her mother on the schooling called the Calvert method (named after Lord Baltimore Calvert).  I remember doing the very same thing with the very same curriculum with my mother.  Then she'd go study, differently, with her Chinese tutor.  And so I remember with my tutors, the Vietnamese ones.  This is her context for her stereotexting, for her interlating, for her bifocal mentality.  She speaks of the "damage" it caused.  But how seriously do you want to take that?  She's also speaking of racism and of sexism.  Let me exclaim.  She's also speaking of racism and of sexism!  Of the need for a kalaidescope, as Jacqueline Jones Royster does:
Using subject position as a terministic screen in cross-boundary discourse permits analysis to operate kaleidoscopically, thereby permitting interpretation to be richly informed by the converging of dialectical perspectives.
Had Jacqueline Jones Royster and Pearl S. Buck talked, I think they would have understood this together.  Young Pearl began this valuable kaleidoscopic listening and learning early.
I became mentally bifocal, and so I learned early to understand that there is no such condition in human affairs as absolute truth. There is only truth as people see it, and truth, even in fact, may be kaleidoscopic in its variety. The damage such perception did to me I have felt ever since, although damage may be too dark a word, for it merely meant that I could never belong entirely to one side of any question. To be a Communist would be absurd to me, as absurd as to be entirely anything and equally impossible. I straddled the globe too young.
Later in life Pearl saw, as Jacqueline feels every day, the double-sided difficulties of people who only see one side, who only understand what it is like to be singularly absolutely in the American majority in the world.  Pearl, in 1941, when America was still very profoundly full of race prejudice, wrote this:
Profound as race prejudice is against the Negro American, it is not practically as far-reaching as the prejudice against women. For stripping away the sentimentality which makes Mother’s Day and Best American Mother Contests, the truth is that women suffer all the effects of a minority.
Is this despair?  Or do you yourself know these sides of things?  The value of them?  Does Pearl S. Buck with her binocular mind and words really threaten the "authority of God's word" as this blogger suggests she does?  Or isn't there value in seeing something beyond your own supposed objectivity, of reading the Bible as a diglot even?


Theophrastus said...

I just read this. Very nice. Now I feel guilty for being so snarky.

Suzanne said...

Now I feel guilty for being so snarky.

Not at all. Last March I spent some time with different editions of Erasmus' Greek text, and some Hebrew Latin Bibles and polyglots. I tried to imagine how anyone could possibly translate from the "original languages" without sneaking a peek at the Latin.

On Pearl Buck, my mother wrote her a letter, hoping to "win her back to Christ." Ms. Buck graciously and kindly replied.

J. K. Gayle said...

The snarkiness was called for.

How fascinating, and important, the interactions between languages and the letters of correspondence between Pearl S. Buck and your mother. Thanks for sharing that!

Anonymous said...

Try using bifocal reading glasses!

J. K. Gayle said...

LOL, Anonymous.