Monday, March 14, 2011

16 stupid biblical attempts at description: Anne Carson

The following are some of my attempts to describe how Anne Carson influences how I read the Bible.  You might call them stupid.  You might call them biblical.  You might even count them so that when you finally get to 16 you can figure on just how she has influenced me.  I'll try to help:


Attempts at description are stupid: who can all at once describe a human being? even when he is presented to us we only begin that knowledge of his appearance which must be completed by innumerable impressions under differing circumstances. We recognize the alphabet; we are not sure of the language. I am only mentioning the point that Gwendolen saw by the light of a prepared contrast in the first minutes of her meeting with Grandcourt: they were summed up in the words, "He is not ridiculous." But forthwith Lord Brackenshaw was gone, and what is called conversation had begun, the first and constant element in it being that Grandcourt looked at Gwendolen persistently with a slightly exploring gaze, but without change of expression, while she only occasionally looked at him with a flash of observation a little softened by coquetry. Also, after her answers there was a longer or shorter pause before he spoke again.
--George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans), Daniel Deronda (chapter 11)


And for me, even when I read George Eliot, I read her for the descriptions of weather. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to read George Eliot, but how comforting, the way she describes light moving over trees and lying on a bench and somebody’s foot there.  [Paris Review Interviewer, Will Aitken: But you quote Eliot saying that attempts at description are stupid. Did she really say that?]  She did say that. But she keeps on trying to do it. She does limit it though. I think she has a much greater capacity for description than she allows herself. The weather is just a dab at the beginning of each chapter usually. Then she goes onto metaphysical dialogues where people discuss the meaning of life. But the weather is always there at the beginning, and it is undeniable. She just gets it. She describes clouds moving over the sun at eleven o’clock in the morning on a path in an oak forest and it’s just exactly how that it be. I admire that more than any other aspect of writing.
--Anne Carson, "The Art of Poetry No. 88"


..... Attention is a task we share, you and I. To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once [i.e., Simonides of Keos and Paul Celan]. They keep each other from settling. Moving and not settling, they are side by side in a conversation and yet no conversation takes place. Face to face, yet they do not know one another, did not live in the same era, never spoke the same language. With and against, aligned and adverse, each is placed like a surface on which the other may come into focus. Sometimes you can see a celestial object better by looking at something else, with it, in the sky.
..... Think of the Greek preposition πρός. When used with the accusative case, this preposition means "toward, upon, against, with, ready for, face to face, engaging, concerning, touching, in reply to, in respect of, compared with, according to, as accompaniment for." It is the preposition chosen by John the Evangelist to describe the relationship between God and The Word in the first verse of the first chapter of his Revelation [i.e., John's Gospel as revealing The Word with translation]:

..... πρὸς θεόν

"And The Word was with God" is how the usual translation goes. What kind of withness is it?
..... I am writing this on the train to Milan. We flash past towers and factories, stations, yards, then a field where a herd of black horses is just turning to race uphill. "Attempts at description are stupid," George Eliot says, yet one may encounter a fragment of unexhausted time. Who can name its transactions, the sense that fell through us of untouchable wind, unknown effort--one black mane?
--Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost: (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan)


..... What does Alkestis' resurrection mean for the sacrificial contract that Admetos had negotiated with Death? This question is never addressed in the play. Mathematically Death is down one soul; common sense (what the Greeks call Necessity) tells us such a situation can’t last. But Herakles seems a character able to override common sense. He releases Alkestis simply by choosing to do so. As if to say, within every death a life stands waiting to be set free, should anyone have the nerve to do it. As if to say, try looking deep into a house, a marriage, or an idea like Necessity and you will see clear through to the other side. Death, like tragedy, is a game with rules. Why not just break the rules?
..... Rules broken by Euripides in Alkestis include the rule of closure. What are we to make of the ending? Can we be sure the veiled woman is alive? that she is Alkestis? that she will live happily ever after with her husband and children? Critics have doubted all these. There is a kind of nuptial drama staged in the final scene--perhaps a parody of the ancient Greek wedding, which centered upon an unveiling of the bride before the eyes of her husband and some exchange of words between them--that stalls oddly at its peak moment. Here the bride is unveiled to her husband at 971/1121 (or so it seems to me; critics doubt this too) but she will not be permitted to speak for three days due to her death-polluted condition. An eerie silence carries her into the big dark house of her unconventional husband.
..... I find I want to say less rather than more about Alkestis. Not because there is less in this play but because the surface has a speed and shine that evaporate with exegesis, like some of [Alfred] Hitchcock’s plots. Or a trembling of laughter, terrible if it broke out. (248-49) 
--Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides 


Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation.  This may sound like a cliché.  (I think it is a cliché.  Perhaps we can come back to cliché).  There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator.  I want to talk less about physical silence than about metaphysical silence.   Physical silence happens when you are looking at, say, a poem of Sappho's inscribed on a papyrus from two thousand years ago that has been torn in half.  Half the poem is empty space. A translator can signify or even rectify this lack of text in various ways  – with blankness or brackets or textual conjecture - and she is justified in doing so because Sappho did not intend that part of the poem to fall silent.  Metaphysical silence happens inside words themselves. And its intentions are harder to define.  Every translator
knows the point where one language cannot be translated into another.  Take the word cliché.  Cliché is a French borrowing, past participle of the verb clicher, a term from printing meaning "to make a stereotype from a relief printing surface." It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer's die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable.  English has different sounds. English falls silent. This kind of linguistic decision is simply a measure of foreignness, an acknowledgment of the fact that languages are not sciences of one another, you cannot match them item for item.  But now what if, within this silence, you discover a deeper one....
--Anne Carson, "The Question of Translation"


There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit.  I want to explore some examples of this attraction, at its most maddened, from the trial and condemnation of Joan of Arc.

All Joan's guidance, military and moral, came from a source she called "voices." All the blame of her trial was gathered up in this question, the nature of the voices. She began to hear them when she was 12 years old. They spoke to her from outside, commanding her life and death, her military victories and revolutionary politics, her dress code and heretical beliefs. During the trial Joan's judges returned again and again to this crux: they insisted on knowing the story of the voices. They wanted her to name, embody and describe them in ways they could understand, with recognizable religious imagery and emotions, in a conventional narrative that would be susceptible to conventional disproof. They framed this desire in dozens of ways, question after question. They prodded and poked and hemmed her in. Joan despised the line of inquiry and blocked it as long as she could.  It seems that for her the voices had no story. They were an experienced fact so large and real it had solidifed in her as a sort of sensed abstraction – what Virginia Woolf once called "that very jar on the nerves before it has been made anything."  Joan wanted to convey the jar on the nerves without translating it into theological cliché. It is her rage against cliché that draws me to her. A genius is in her rage.  We all feel this rage at some level, at some time.  The genius answer to it is catastrophe.

I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it's easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don't we already know what we think about this? Don't we have a formula we use for this? Can't I just send a standard greeting card or paste in a snapshot of what it was like rather than trying to come up with an original drawing ? During the five months of her trial Joan persistently chose the term “voice” or a few times “counsel” or once “comfort” to describe how God guided her. She did not spontaneously claim that the voices had bodies, faces, names, smell, warmth or mood, nor that they entered the room by the door, nor that when they left she felt bad. Under the inexorable urging of her inquisitors she gradually added all these details. But the storytelling effort was clearly hateful to her and she threw white paint on it wherever she could, giving them responses like:

..... ...You asked that before. Go look at the record.

..... ...Pass on to the next question, spare me.

..... ...I knew that well enough once but I forget.

..... ...That does not touch your process.

..... ...Ask me next Saturday.

And one day when the judges were pressing her to define the voices as singular or plural, she most wonderfully said:

..... The light comes in the name of the voice.

The light comes in the name of the voice is a sentence that stops itself. Its components are simple yet it stays foreign, we cannot own it.
--Anne Carson, "The Question of Translation"


..... It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal. Aristotle tells us that the highpitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices. If you hear a man talking in a gentle or high-pitched voice you know he is a kinaidos (“catamite”).  [See how Aristotle puts this in one of his biological treatises, History of Animals 582a, and in Physiognomics 807a, where he himself has to vocalize nothing, since Aristotle there is a writer to readers, male to other males.]  
..... The poet Aristophanes put a comic turn on this cliché in his Ekklesiazousai: as the women of Athens are about to infiltrate the Athenian assembly and take over political process, the feminist leader Praxagora reassures her fellow female activists that they have precisely the right kind of voices for this task. Because, as she says, “You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be terrific talkers are the ones who get fucked a lot.”
..... This joke depends on a collapsing together of two different aspects of sound production, quality of voice and use of voice. We will find the ancients continually at pains to associate these two aspects under a general rubric of gender. High vocal pitch goes together with talkativeness to characterize a person who is deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self-control. Women, catamites, eunuchs and androgynes fall into this category. Their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable. Just how uncomfortable may be measured by the lengths to which Aristotle [writing On the Generation of Animals 787b-788] is willing to go in accounting for the gender of sound physiognomically; he ends up ascribing the lower pitch of the male voice to the tension placed on a man’s vocal chords by his testicles functioning as loom weights.
--Anne Carson, Men in the Off Hours (page 142)


Females blurt out a direct translation of what should be formulated indirectly [as in one of Aristotle's rhetorical syllogisms, or enthymemes, which he formulates indirectly in his Rhetoric, where, at 1398b, he must concede the male Mytileneans honored Sappho “although she was a woman.”]....  [S]ince woman does not bound herself, she must be bounded.
..... The celebrated Greek virtue of self-control (sophrosyne [σωφροσύνη]) has to be defined differently for men and for women, Aristotle maintains. Masculine sophrosyne is rational self-control and resistance to excess, but for the woman sophrosyne means obedience and consists in submitting herself to the control of others.  [See Aristotle's clear description of this defined division of his, in his Politics, Book I, 1260a]
--Anne Carson, Men in the Off Hours (page 142)


..... Aristotle accords to the male in the act of procreation the role of active agent, contributing "motion" and "formation" while the female provides the "raw material," as when a bed (the child) is made by a carpenter (the father) out of wood (the mother).  We might note also that the so-called Pythagorean Table of Oppositions, cited by Aristotle, aligns "boundary" or "limit" on the same side as "masculine": over against "the unbounded" and "feminine" on the other side.
..... The assumptions about women that underlie the views of Plato, Aristotle and the Pythagoreans can be traced to the earliest legends of the Greeks.  Myth is a logic too.  In myth, woman's boundaries are pliant, porous, mutable.  Her power to control them is inadequate, her concern for them unreliable.  Deformation attends her.  She swells, she shrinks, she leaks, she is penetrated, she suffers metamorphoses.
--Anne Carson, Men in the Off Hours (page 133)



When Isaiah came back in from the desert centuries had passed.

There was nothing left of Isaiah but a big forehead.

The forehead went rolling around the nation and spoke to people
. . . who lept to their feet
and fled.

If the nation had taken Isaiah to court he could have proven his righteousness.

But they met in secret and voted to cut him off.

Shepherds! Chosen ones! Skinny dogs! Blood of a dog! Watchmen
. . . all! said Isaiah.

Isaiah withdrew to the Branch.

It was a blue winter evening, the cold bit like a wire.

Isaiah laid his forehead on the ground.

God arrived.

Why do the righteous suffer? said Isaiah.

Bellings of cold washed down the Branch.

Notice whenever God addresses Isaiah in a feminine singular verb
. . . something dazzling is
about to happen.

Isaiah what do you know about women? asked God.

Down Isaiah’s nostrils bounced woman words.

Blush. Stink. Wife. Fig. Sorceress—

God nodded.

Isaiah go home and get some sleep, said God.

Isaiah went home, slept, woke again.

Isaiah felt sensation below the neck, it was a silk and bitter sensation.

Isaiah looked down.

It was milk forcing the nipples open.

Isaiah was more than whole.

I am not with you I am in you, said the muffled white voice of God.

Isaiah sank to a kneeling position.

New pain! said Isaiah.

New contract! said God.

Isaiah lifted his arms, milk poured out his breasts.

Isaiah watched the milk pour like strings.

It poured up the Branch and across history and down into people’s
. . . lives and time.

The milk made Isaiah forget about righteousness.

As he fed the mild to small birds and animals Isaiah thought only
. . . about their little lips.

God meanwhile continued to think about male and female.

After all there are two words for righteousness, Isaiah could not be
. . . expected to untie this
hard knot himself.

First the masculine word TSDQ, a bolt of justice that splits the oak in
. . . two.

Then in the empty muscle of the wood, mushrooms and maggots and
. . . monkeys set up a livelihood:

here is (the feminine word) TSDQH.

God grave the two words on Isaiah’s palms.

God left it at that.

And although it is true Isaiah’s prophecies continued to feature
. . . eunuch cylinders and
clickfoot woman shame.

And although it is true Isaiah himself knew several wives and begot a
. . . bastard son.

Still some nights through his dreams slipped a river of milk.

A river of silver, a river of pity.

He slept, the asters in the garden unloaded their red thunder into the dark.

--Anne Carson, "Book of Isaiah" Glass, Irony, and God (page 117)


God's Woman

Are you angry at nature? said God to His woman.
Yes I am angry at nature I do not want nature stuck
up between my legs on your pink baton

or ladled out like geography whenever
your buckle needs a lick.
What do you mean Creation?

God circled her.
Fire. Time. Fire.
Choose, said God.

God Stiff

God gave an onomatopoeic quality to women's language.
These eternally blundering sounds eternally
blundering down

into the real words of what they are
like feet dropped into bone shoes.
"Treachery" (she notices) sounds just like His zipper going down. 
--Anne Carson, Glass, Irony, and God (page 46)



Sappho's fragments are of two kinds:  those preserved on papyrus and those derived from citation in ancient authors.  When translating texts read from papyri, I have used a single square bracket to give an impression of missing matter, so that ] or [ indicates destroyed papyrus or the presence of letters not quite legible somewhere in the line.  It is not the case that every gap or illegibility is specifically indicated:  this would render the page a blizzard of marks and inhibit reading.  Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate recored of it.  I have not used brackets in translating passages, phrases or words whose existence depends on citation by ancient authors, since these are intentionally incomplete.  I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you'll allow it.  Brackets are exciting.  Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp -- brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.
..... A duller load of silence surrounds the bits of Sappho cited by ancient scholiasts, grammarians, metricians, etc., who want a dab of poetry to decorate some proposition of their own and so adduce exempla without context.  For instance, .... [s]ome shrewd thinking of Sappho's about death is paraphrased by Aristotle:

..... Sappho says that to die is evil: so the gods judge.  For they do not die.
.....  ..... .....--Aristotle Rhetoric 1398b = Sappho fr. 201 Voight

 As acts of deterrence these stories carry their own kind of thrill -- at the inside edge where her words go missing, a sort of antipoem that condenses everything you ever wanted her to write -- but they cannot be called texts of Sappho's and so they are not included in this translation.
--Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (English and Greek Edition)


--Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (English and Greek Edition)

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (English and Greek Edition)

It was Sappho who first called eros "bittersweet." No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?
____Eros seemed to Sappho at once an experience of pleasure and pain. Here is contradiction and perhaps paradox. To perceive this eros can split the mind in two. Why? The components of the contradiction may seem, at first glance, obvious. We take for granted, as did Sappho, the sweetness of erotic desire; its pleasurability smiles out at us. But the bitterness is less obvious. There might be several reasons why what is sweet should also be bitter. There may be various relations between the two savors. Poets have sorted the matter out in different ways. Sappho's own formulation is a good place to begin tracing the possibilities. The relevant fragment runs:
ρος δατ μ λυσιμλες δνει,
γλυκπικρον μχανον ρπετον
Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up
_____________________________(LP, fr. 130)
It is hard to translate. "Sweetbitter" sounds wrong, and yet our standard English rendering "bittersweet" inverts the actual terms of Sappho's compound glukupikron. Should that concern us? If her ordering has a descriptive intention, eros is here being said to bring sweetness, then bitterness in sequence: she is sorting the possibilities chronologically....  But it is unlikely that this is what Sappho means....  Love and hate bifurcate Eros....  Paradox is what takes shape on the sensitized plate of the poem, a negative image from which positive pictures can be created. Whether apprehended as a dilemma of sensation, action or value, eros prints as the same contradictory fact: love and hate converge within erotic desire.
--Anne Carson, Eros: the Bittersweet


(Y)our Re-View:

Quotations 1 through 3 above are to show how George Eliot's writerly descriptions have influenced Anne Carson profoundly.  It's not just that Eliot can describe things so very well and adequately and beautifully in writing.  It's also that she claims, ironically, that attempts at description are stupid.  Notice how and where Eliot makes the claim (as if she were a literary critic):  she makes it as a novelist in the voices of human beings, characters, in her novel.  This sort of paradox doesn't escape Anne Carson.  Carson reads the Bible, the Greek of the Jewish John, and finds his proposition lacking, which she lets Eliot say is stupid, as a description.  However, in the lack there's much.  When I read the Bible now, whether the gospels or the "new testament" or the "septuagint" in translated Greek or the "masoretic text(s)" in Hebrew, I think about the writers' attempts a lot.

Block quotation 4 above contains these clauses:  "This question is never addressed in the play. Mathematically Death is down one soul."  Here, Anne Carson is finding a Greek original leaving out much, especially formalism where it counts.  In other words, Euripides doesn't need to explain or to describe everything, and math-like logic can't add to or take away from the human soul.  She helps me read the Bible with these perspectives of persons not needed to lock down or be locked down by language, as if it were some sort of hermetically sealed tomb.

Quotations 5 and 6 above get at Anne Carson's philosophy of translation.  She's a woman, of course, and expresses how she's learning from the fragments of a woman (i.e., Sappho) and from the legend of another woman (i.e., Joan of Arc).  The fragments remind me that the Bible comes to us similarly, and the voices Joan of Arc would not translate in masculine ways do too.  Nonetheless, much is learned and heard.

Quotations 7 through 12 above show how much and how well Anne Carson reads of Aristotle.  Feminists did not attempt to describe males and females differently, but Carson does know and does show how Aristotle, by his uses of language, did.  What if God talked with Isaiah as if he were Aristotle?  What if women only could view this male-only God that way?  What if Aristotle were to read the Bible his way?  What if we were free to know and to show what Aristotle was doing?  How then might any of us read the Bible?

Passages 13 through 15 above show Anne Carson practicing what she preaches, teaching what she herself theorizes.  I've included her fragmentary, "foreign" translation of Sappho's fragments.  The first is the famous as-if faux-logical "if not, winter."  But, of course, it's incomplete, which makes readers read it as an attempt at description (which Aristotle's logic would attempt either to complete definitively or to mock as really stupid).   

The second page of translation of Carson's shown above is something Christ-ians might be interested in, since there's "myrrh" in it and "anointing" and such. I want to draw our attention to Sappho's "καὶ π..... [____]," to note how Carson has marked this in Greek as a lack with the brackets.  She's also been willing to speculate the sort of withness that other translators speculate when translating the prologue of the gospel of John.  Isn't π..... to be read as "the Greek preposition πρός"?  And can't we all then read it as the English preposition "with" as in "with God...  And with sweet oil"?  Weren't some around Jesus with sweet oil, male and female, just as lavish?  I'm thinking of those magi and the baby (in the feed manger) and that prostitute and the permissive teacher (in the fellow Rabbi's home).  I'm also looking back at quotations 3 and 14 above.

The third translation of Sappho by Carson is something linguists and bible translators might try to get their heads around.  Here is Sappho's twist on our bittersweet, which must be foreign, right?  I mean, in English we never say sweetbitter.  But did Greek men or women, before Sappho, ever really say that either?  We're left to decide for ourselves about eros and just how stupid an attempt any description of love (even biblical love if we must) must be.  And yet, even so, as if it's completely turned around from what we might first expect, this is how we so richly get it.


Katherine said...

testing? testing?

I really like that phrase "a fragment of unexhausted time". What an interesting way to describe time. It makes me think about certain old works that are described as "timeless", which never makes sense to me since all the works of humans occur within time. But I suppose it is more that their timeliness has not been exhausted-it still has spark and energy, liveliness and S/spiritedness.

J. K. Gayle said...

Katherine! Katherine!

Yay, blogger kept your comment this time. And what a wonderful comment on time you've made. Love how you see our works "within time" that "still has spark... and S/pritedness." (What a concept, time. How do we mark it, or measure it? Like the ancient Greeks with their water clocks, the old Romans with their sun dials, the Lombardy monks' hour glasses, the precise analog Swiss watches, the perfect digital atomic clocks, our improving mechanisms for determining time just leave us with more questions. Isn't it relative, Einstein would say. But if modifiable by "unexhausted" and still by just "a fragment" of that, then what, you say. Thank you!)