Ben Lerner and the Transcendence of Words

Leonardo Da Vinci famously argued that painting is superior to poetry, in part because painting calls upon the “more worthy” sense of vision, whereas poetry merely acts “by way of the ear.” Moreover, a portrait clearly resembles its subject, but the verbal equivalent of a portrait, the subject’s name, is arbitrary, and corresponds in no clear way to its bearer. Finally, Da Vinci points out that a painting of, say, a battle, will have more viewers, provoke longer consideration, and garner more praise than a poem about a battle.

Some have said that Da Vinci’s argument is merely a clever rhetorical exercise, and clearly, his is not the final word on what has come to be known as the paragone (Italian for “comparison”) between the verbal and the visual. Recently, for instance, the topic was taken up in Ben Lerner’s short story, “The Polish Rider,” in which the unnamed narrator states that “I love [stories] that involve ruined paintings or missing paintings or unmade paintings.” He goes on to discuss non-existent paintings that have been described in fiction, pointing out that they demonstrate how writing/literature is superior to painting:

words can describe paintings the crazy artists can’t actually paint, or intuit canvases that were as of yet unpainted, unpaintable. And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?

In an interview, Lerner acknowledges that while the narrator’s point may be overstated, we should still take him seriously. Lerner explains:

Take the classic example of ekphrasis: the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. The description is so elaborate and expansive as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail… . The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even effectively paint… .

Lerner’s claim that words can “transcend” the visual is strikingly similar to a comment Coleridge made about Milton. For the sake of clarity, I include the passage from Milton that Coleridge discusses:

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 9.39.05 AM.png

Milton’s description is a tissue of contradictions: a shapeless shape consisting of an insubstantial substance: “for each seemed either.” Coleridge explains that Milton’s passage compels the reader to attempt to visualize “the unimaginable,” which will not be reduced to “a mere image,” thereby “exhibiting the narrow limit of painting, as compared with the boundless power of poetry.” We simply cannot picture what this passage attempts to depict. In other words—specifically, Lerner’s—Milton “transcends the visual.”

The idea that the verbal can somehow overwrite the visual is underscored by the title of Lerner’s story, “The Polish Rider.” It’s also the title of a well-known painting by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is never actually named in Lerner’s story about two missing paintings. It’s as if the painting has been supplanted by a story that itself describes a provocative absence.

Yet Lerner’s thinking does not stop there. Words not only have the capacity to figure the unimaginable, but—as Lerner argues in his recent book, The Hatred of Poetry—they can also describe a literature that cannot be written. Lerner points out that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot achieve”:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Lerner cites Michael Clune regarding Keats’s “images of a virtual music,” and explains that it’s “a music Keats can describe but not play (and that nobody can play: it’s not difficult, it’s impossible). Literary form can’t achieve Keatsian music, it can only figure it… . [W]hat [Keats’s lines] describe can’t be realized by any human instrument in time.” This is the source of poetry’s “hatred” of itself: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a value no particular poem can realize… . Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry.”

Capital-P Poetry, then, is an impossible ideal that can be posited, but cannot be achieved, by individual poems. Or as Wallace Stevens put it 60 years before Lerner, each poem  is “a part, but part, but tenacious particle, / Of the skeleton of the ether, the total / Of letters… “ (“Primitive Like an Orb”).

Towards a Plural Poetics: on C. D. Wright’s “The Poet, The Lion”

The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All
C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon, 2016

Published a week before her death in January, C. D. Wright’s The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All is itself a demonstration of the poetics it proposes to discuss.

Consider its sprawling title. “Poetics,” my dictionary informs me, is a plural noun that’s to be “construed as singular,” which suggests that any given understanding of poetic practice must be somehow cohesive and unified. Wright’s title tells me that my dictionary is wrong: for Wright, a poetic practice worthy of the name will not be reduced to a principle or precept, but is necessarily expansive, plural, and protean. “Less and less am I persuaded by the medium’s essence,” Wright informs us early on, “and more and more I am pulled by its mutability.”

The book consists of brief prose sections—many less than a page—that variously take up the book’s many themes, most of which are indicated by the title. The “lion,” for instance, refers to the eight sections called “Hold Still, Lion” devoted to Robert Creeley’s writing, life, and death. The heading comes from a few lines from his poem “Drawn & Quartered,” cited by Wright: “Hold still, lion! / I am trying / to paint you / while there’s time to.”

Other poets figure prominently in the book: Jean Valentine, Brenda Hillman (she’s the “Fire” in the book’s title, drawn from Hillman’s recent book, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire), and John Taggart (her introduction to his collection Is Music is included in its entirety). Another longish section discusses the studied artlessness of Michael Ondaatje’s poem, “Driving with Dominic.” William Carlos Williams and his circle are explored in the six sections called “Spring & All.”  Sculptor Anne Truitt and painter Agnes Martin are mentioned throughout the book, and, with Valentine, form a kind of personal artistic trinity for Wright:

Anne, Agnes, Jean: theirs is not a system of theories, not a representation of portents, but a commitment to the labor. ‘Writing a word / / changing it.’

Reflections on favorite words and language in general are found under sections headed “In a Word, a World.”  There are several headings that only appear once—”My American Scrawl” or “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal the World’s Biggest Retailer”—but even those sections touch on many of the more visible leitmotivs of the book.

The result is an intricate weave of ideas stated, revisited, extended, explored. Each iteration does not build linearly towards a conclusion, but keeps the subject open and allows it to resonate with other themes. “Poetry moves by indirection,” Wright explains, “Indirection…changes the route, and often the destination.” For the reader, the repetition of terms and themes provides a kind of non-sequential, open-ended coherence.  I’m reminded of a passage Wright cites from Taggart, vis-à-vis his hallmark repetition: “Augustine on repetition: a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his, way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all form arises.”

The Poet, The Lion, then, is not an argument, nor is it an apology, or statement, much less a manifesto. The book would be best described as an anti-manifesto: what is bestowed upon the reader is not a set of sureties and precepts to believe/live by/write by, but a shift towards an open, expansive relationship with language and the world. In this way, the book aspires to engender in its readers a kind of poetic thinking, a contemporary version of Keats’s negative capability. In a central passage, Wright explains:

The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.

Yet this listening is not passive.

On a wall in Whitechapel [Gallery] I saw it written:
I propose to keep looking. I propose
we all keep looking. I propose
it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.

It is responsive, fluid: “One has to be responsive to [poetry’s] movement. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one’s best ear on its retrofitted lyre.” Poetry as dialogue, interaction. The poet is one with others. Speaking of One Big Self, her collaborative book with photographer Deborah Luster, Wright observes, “Collaboration offers an opportunity to break out of the isolation of one’s own overly familiar braincase, an opportunity to have an experience that can’t be got on one’s own.”

It’s not surprising that a book that encourages, through its own example, a plural poetics of listening, mutability, and openness, comes to a close by directly engaging the reader with “Questionnaire in January,” a series of end-stopped questions and writing prompt-like statements. I conclude with a few examples:

Collette said writing leads only to writing. Where does it lead you. And what led you here.

Into what forms do you see poetry poring, morphing, shuddering.

Emily Dickinson said poetry was her letter to the world. Write me.

A Horde of Destructions: Orides Fontela’s Poetics of Silence

Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?

—Wallace Stevens

I recently picked up the exhibition catalog for destroy the picture: painting the void, 1949–1962, exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The book/exhibition considers post-WWII artists who “staged a literal assault on the picture plane.” These artists employed “techniques such as puncturing, ripping, cutting and burning to break through the two-dimensional support” in order to “figure the void.”

Looking at the catalog, I’m struck by how visually stunning paintings seemingly bent on their own destruction can be. For instance, here’s the work displayed on the cover, by Alberto Burri:

image

The exhibition also features widely recognized artists such as Lucio Fontana:

Lucio-Fontana-Concetto-spaziale-–-Attese-1959-Milano-Fondazione-Lucio-Fontana-©-Fondazione-Lucio-Fontana-Milano.jpg

I found myself thinking about poetry: what poets have turned poetry against itself in the service of portraying “the void”: emptiness, nothing, silence, and other sorts of privation? What poets—driven by the need to go “beyond”—have brutalized their own medium? What does the verbal equivalent of these paintings look like?

One poet who came to mind was Brazilian poet Orides Fontela** (1940-1996). Her work is not well known to the English speaking world, and it’s a shame. Her spare, elemental poems are like shards of what was once an immense vessel. But her concern is less with the vessel than the emptiness it encompasses. Her favorite words—silence, white, water and space—suggest she’s more interested in what she can’t say than what she can. Even song cannot contain the vastness she seeks:

River II

Waters don’t
sing:
they flow gentle
they flee.

II

Fresh silence:
the flower does not
speak.

III

No noise. Just
white petals
of the flower which navigates
the splendid
waters.

It’s been said that language can be as much barrier as bridge, that words, instead of bringing us closer to things, push things away. Fontela recognizes this, and suggests that true intimacy with the world comes from silence: “wise rose in its / ripe silence.” But it seems impossible to summon silence with words:

To know the silence by heart
— and desecrate it. Dissolve it
in words.

What’s called for is a more active dismantling, taking the words we have away: “One step / From the bird / I in / Hale.”:

PENELOPE

What I do I un
do
what I live I un
live
what I love I un
love
(my “yes” brings a “no”
in the breast.)

But words always return—or maybe we always return to words. Thus the poet has an essential but impossible task. The effort to flee language must be continually renewed with each poem, each line:

Leap

I

Form’s
ungrasped moment
leap seeking
moment’s
beyond.

II

To devitalize form
to dis – member
to dis – make
and – beyond structure –
to live the pure un
inhabitable act.

 

+++++++++++

This is the first in series of posts on poets who aim “to destroy poetry” in some way. I hope to write a new one each week or so. At the moment I have 5 or so poets in the hopper, but please feel free to send suggestions. 

—————————–

**For the sake of simplicity/readability, I use only English translations of Fontela’s poems in this post. To read the originals alongside their translations, visit this helpful webpage.

Our / Vertical / Miseries / & / Joys: A Fantasia on Noelle Kocot’s ‘Phantom Pains of Madness’

Typically, I write on a legal size notebook, turned long-side horizontal, treating the page more like a blackboard. But in honor of today’s topic, Noelle Kocot’s new book of poems, Phantom Pains of Madness, I’ve gone vertical, since her entire book consists of poems with one-word lines, like this:

I
Am
Not
An
Ogre
And
Without
All
Of
This
Propelling
Me
To
Write
Poems
What
Is
Left  
Only
The  
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life
(from “Life is Beautiful”)

All / Of / This / Propelling / Me: the writing does propel, in that it feels incomplete, straining after an impossible wholeness:

I
Am
Telling
You
The
Truth
That
The
Limitations
Were
All
Pure
Lies
(from “Limitations”)

You’d think, and I know you’re expecting me to say, that Kocot’s lineation emphasizes each word. But that’s not quite right. The stress—that is, the emphasis and the tension—is on the following word, a relentless sense of anticipation, of endless nextness. As the false endings accumulate, the reader is put on edge:

Edges
Over
Your
Visual
Cliff
(from “The Gone World”)

I
Don’t
Know
The
Future
But
Exile
And
Mitosis
Are
The
Commas
That
Lurch
Us
Into
A
Galaxy
Of
Forever
(from “The Future”)

This format is perfect for expressing anxiety as well as creating it in the reader. It’s unsettling: you could say that Kocot’s lines are paratactic, a jolt from word to word. Or you could say they’re enjambed. I’d argue that it’s always both, and that it’s up to you, dear reader, to decide at each turn how to read it. The word verse—etym. Latin, “to turn”— was never more appropriate: each word/line is a turn.

———–

Why do they call it longing, that aching sense of yearning/grief/desire? Kocot’s line scheme makes these poems long. In fact, you could say that Phantom Pains of Madness is a phenomenology of longing:

I
Expend
A
Ball
Of
Yarn
Out
In
The
Yard
Yearning
(from ”Yarn”)

I
Find
I
Want
Ceaselelessly

(from “Pills”)

A yearning for

A
Future
Full
Of
Holes
(from “(____)”)

Or an irrecoverable past:

Life
Of
The
Things
That
Pass
(from “Stains”)

In “Sunstorm,”  Kocot mentions “Salad / Days,” a phrase that finds its origin in Antony and Cleopatra. It’s Shakespeare’s most enjambed play—its lines, like its characters, always overspilling their bounds—and appropriately enough, it’s a play of longing: “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me.”

Or as Kocot puts it:

The
God-
Hunger
(from “Addict”)

A
Hereafter
Where
Infinite
Hope
The
Most
Profound
Kind
Lays
Itself
Out
(from “On Paul V’s Birthday”)

To Go Close Means Forgetting: John Berger’s Art Criticism

Many gallery and museum goers are guilty of what I’ll call the identification fallacy, that is, confusing the name of the artwork/artist with the experience of the work. For many viewers, that moment of identification—usually accomplished with the help of a wall label—marks the end of seeing. As a result, a rich, intricate artwork that has the potential to occupy our eyes and minds for hours is reduced instead to “a Picasso” or “a Martin.” But for the critic who wants to encourage viewers’ deep engagement with the work, the question becomes, how to help viewers resist this birder-like tendency to treat artworks as names to be collected/checked off a list?

I’ve been dipping into John Berger’s essays on art, and I’m fascinated by how he solves this problem. Here’s the opening of the appropriately named essay, “A Gratitude Hard to Name”:

Is it still possible to write more words about him? I think of those already written, mine included, and the answer is “No.” If I look at his paintings, the answer is again—for a different reason—“No”; the canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made—not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.

Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will try with words.

In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the obvious question: why did this man become the most popular painter in the world?

You’ll find the full essay here.

When it comes to art criticism, we’ve been trained to expect to be told the name of the artist somewhere in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Here, only in the 3rd paragraph do we begin to have a guess as to who the artist might be, and even then, Berger does not name him, but only mentions his status as “the most popular painter in the world.”

In fact, Berger never mentions the artist’s full name, giving us only his first name, 2 lines away from the end of the essay. I’ll quote the final 2 paragraphs so you have a full sense of the effect. Berger imagines the artist working on the drawing of the ruined abbey:

As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He recognizes the sensation—he has often experienced it, indoors, outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this pressing—which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in his lifetime—he responds with incredible speed and the utmost attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his feet—on one of which (on the paper) he will write Vincent.

Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?

Berger employs this delayed naming in many of his essays on art (to varying degrees: sometimes it’s just a paragraph), as well as in his profile pieces. For instance, in his essay “A Girl Like Antigone” he does not name his subject, Simone Weil, until the very last sentence. But the effect is the same: we engage particulars instead of generalizations; our preconceptions are suspended, and line by line a new understanding emerges, with Berger as our guide. Our relationship to Berger’s writing as well as to his subject becomes more intimate. As Berger says elsewhere, regarding the artistic process in general, “To go close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self.“ Berger helps us forget so we can go close.

***

A note regarding the new anthology Portraits: John Berger on Artists, edited by Tom Overton. The “delayed naming” technique is clearly important to Berger’s “project” (a word that Berger himself would probably find too grandiose), as he has employed it in essays from the ‘60s to the present. For this reason, I’m dismayed at what I imagine was Overton’s editorial decision to remove the original titles of the essays, and replace them with the name of the artist they discuss. So now “A Gratitude Hard to Name” is bluntly called, “Vincent Van Gogh.” Of course 500+ pages of Berger’s incredible writing gathered in a handsome volume is to be celebrated, but it’s unfortunate that Overton compromised the integrity of the titles.

——-

This essay is a follow-up to my piece posted on Essay Daily last week: Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness

The Feeling of Of: The Unappreciated Preposition

Prepositions can seem to be adjuncts to a vocabulary, more grammatical devices than words. But they, too, mean. —Robert Graves and Laura Riding

The recent/ongoing debate about adverbs betrays a bias, so deeply held that we fail to recognize it as such. It’s assumed that nouns and verbs are essential. So are adjectives and even adverbs, we allow, despite the occasional kerfuffle over their relative importance. But prepositions? They’re unworthy of either praise or condemnation. They’re just there, and barely so.

Yet that easy-to-miss quality is what makes them the most important part of language. Prepositions work almost invisibly, while the more salient nouns and verbs and their modifiers hog all the credit. They truck in relations, which is a trickier—and frankly more essential—business than naming things or designating actions. They are the duct tape of language, jerry-rigging words and phrases into sentences.

It’s no accident they’re called “function words”: they do the real work of language. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are just fingers pointing at the moon—or fingers pointing at the fingers pointing at… .

Other words are replaceable, but you can’t thesaurus a preposition. As the result of centuries of make-do use, rushing in where other words fear to tread, each preposition has acquired a complex range of meanings, so subtle that it’s almost impossible to define, that is, to put into other words. If you don’t believe me, look up of or about or at.

They are also the most flexible/adaptable word type, embracing all other functions of language. According to Laura Riding and Robert Graves, “Of, as a possessive force, is very verbal.” But sometimes, they add, of can be “nominal, quasi-appositional,” for example, “a case of mistaken identity.”

This grammatical shapeshifting is much more subtle than, say, than classic anthimeria, using one part of speech for another, such as verbing nouns, as I did a couple paragraphs back with “thesaurus.” Anthimeria is self-conscious, show-offy, and calls attention to itself like a crack in the mirror. It makes readers stumble. But prepositions silently and effortlessly adapt to the needs of the situation.

Their nuance enables their neglect. Let’s face it. Most of us are linguistic Yahoos, oohing and ahing over glittery substantives. But as William James warned:

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.

Yet the importance of prepositions has not been lost on everyone, especially poets. For example, Gertrude Stein (who studied with William James at Radcliffe) said that

Prepositions can live one long life being really being nothing but absolutely nothing but mistaken and that makes them irritating if you feel that way about mistakes but certainly something that you can be continuously using and everlastingly enjoying. I like prepositions the best of all.

Most prepositions are modest monosyllables, so we can understand why Stein had a thing for possibly the most ostentatious preposition, notwithstanding, using it five times in the final paragraph of Tender Buttons.

In this excerpt from Stanzas in Meditation, Stein uses prepositions—by, for, with, of, and in—to finesse our understanding of an antecedentless “it.”

By it by which by it
As not which not which by it
For it it is in an accessible with it
But which will but which will not it
Come to be not made not made one of it
By that all can tell all call for in it
That they can better call add
Can in add none add it.
—From “Stanza VII”

Stein’s use of a cypher-pronoun compels us to seek meaning elsewhere: we lean into the prepositions, and the meaning becomes kaleidoscopic. “Meaning,” I admit, is a clumsy and flat-footed term to designate what this poem says—really, does—but that only proves my point: prepositions take us to a place where our metalanguage gives out, where we need the linguistic equivalent to quantum physics to account for what’s going on.

But not all pro-preposition poets are experimentalists. Robert Frost, for instance, seemed almost obsessed with “in” and “out”: “All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him” (“An Old Man’s Winter’s Night”); “What I was walling in or walling out” (”Mending Wall”); “Back out of all this now too much for us / Back in a time made simple by the loss / of detail” (”Directive”). His “Spring Pools” is a study in prepositions:

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will the flowers beside them soon be gone
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foilage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

They say you should never end a sentence in a preposition, but we know that’s just more anti-prep propaganda, denying this amazing word-group the most prominent place in the sentence. So, as a corrective, allow me to break another marmism—”Never end with a quote!”—and conclude with two preposition-heavy quotes from contemporary poets. First this brief but brain-bending excerpt from Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Experience In Groups,” from April’s Boston Review:

                      The sun
Has gone out in the poem
In both senses of out, all senses
Of in.

And finally this poem by Rosmarie Waldrop, from her poem sequence Pre + Con or Positions + Junctions, reprinted in Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, just published by New Directions:

Of bodies
of various
sizes of

vibrations
of blue excite
of never except

in his early
in childhood has he touched
of the space of

between of
to allow
of for impact

now of that color
has slowed
its pitch

or of skin
of but light
no deep foundation

nor of leans into
the blue

Margin of Error: Notes, Failure, and the Reader’s Proximity

Proximity is not a state, a repose, but a restlessness… . Never close enough, proximity does not congeal into a structure… .—Emmanuel Levinas

Dwelling at the bottom of the page or in the back of the book, appended to the main text by tiny superscript numbers, notes (be they foot- or end-) are often considered to be the site of obscurity and pedantry. Yet in the past century or so, notes have moved conceptually if not literally from the margin to the center of certain works of literature. For instance, many have argued that the notes to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) should be regarded as part of the poem. For Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the notes are the novel. David Foster Wallace’s marginal shenanigans are well-known. More recently, Tyrone Williams and Jenny Boully have each written essays consisting entirely of footnotes.

Two works published this April put notes to innovative and compelling use: Jen Hofer’s essay on translation, “Proximate Shadowing: Translation as Radical Transparency and Excess” (published on the Poetry Foundation website) and Brian Blanchfield’s collection of essays, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Interestingly, both writers draw our attention to their notes by explicitly discussing them.

Hofer discusses how translation is so often thought of in terms of access and assimilation, providing readers with something they can completely comprehend. Hofer counters that the true aim of translation should be “empathetic not-understanding.” She explains:

For years I’ve been thinking and writing through ideas around the ways translation can generate empathetic not-understanding as an alternative to simplistic and often essentializing or assimilationist ideas around the way texts in translation can provide a “window” into other cultures, as opposed to being tools for unlearning the dominance of English and of USAmerican frameworks for conceiving and categorizing complex interrelated phenomena like race, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic culture, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and all kinds of other constellations that make people people.

Hofer points out that no translation wholly ‘gets’ its source text. But most translations work hard to cover up these inevitable shortcomings. Hofer thinks the translator should instead highlight the source text’s resistances, and acknowledge—even emphasize—the translation’s failures:

My approach constitutes interventionist translation … goes a little too far, while not getting near enough. It’s not quite right, as translation never gets things quite “right”—it’s not about rightness or fixity or one-to-one correlation, not about digesting the source or hitting the target, but about the always-in-process-of-failing attempt to recognize the substance and context of something from somewhere else, and bring that recognition here, while remaining wondrously aware of the processes of transfer, and of what resists transfer.

Here’s where notes become so important. A note in a translation is an acknowledgement of a failure: if the translation proper is “good enough,” no note needed. Even in traditional translations, the note, in its attempt to explain away a translation’s deficiency, only draws our attention to it—and to the essential otherness of the source text:

The notes come directly from and into the translation process itself—they are not afterthought or afterward, but interruption, excess, interjection, extraneous needful commentaries that leave the imprint of where I was or imagined or wished myself to be as I was in the moment of not-understanding that builds, question by question, impossibility by impossibility, the particularly political kind of not-understanding-but-coexisting-in-proximity translation can spark.

Proximity: much of Hofer’s essay is taken with an analysis of the spatial metaphors we use to talk about translation. We translate something “into” our language. We digest the text; translators hit the target. So described, the original of a translation becomes the quarry, something to be shot and consumed. Proximity offers an alternative to the violent paradigms of translation. It replaces knowledge with acknowledgement, silent assimilation with noisy interruption. Proximity is an uneasy coexisting, sustained and embodied by the notes.

—–

Brain Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing has garnered significant critical attention in part because of its intriguing premise: this entire collection of essays—on everything from owls to Br’er Rabbit to frottage—was written with a constraint: “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.” Blanchfield adds a second and related constraint: “to stay with [each essay’s] subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.” Each essay begins with an “invocation of sorts” that recommits Blanchfield to his project: “Permitting shame, error and guilt. Myself the single source.”

This commitment to vulnerability, error and shame is underscored by what Blanchfield calls a “rolling endnote”:

At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called “Correction.” It sets right much—almost certainly not at all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs twenty-one pages. It may still be running.

Like Hofer, Blanchfield associates notes with failure. Notes are indices of weakness, error, or incompletion. He connects the “imprecision” that his notes seem to stress with his book’s title:

In the sciences… proxy… expressess a kind of concession to imprecision. A failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.

Proximity haunts Proxies: the subtitle of the book is “Essays Near Knowing” (my emphasis) and it concludes with an essay “The Near Term.” There’s an entire essay on “peripersonal space.” Blanchfield explains:

Peripersonal space … is the entire volume of space within a person’s reach, or within a single conceivable momentary extension of his person. Think da Vinci, and the geometry of his jumping jack in extremis sketch. All that. It includes everything at arm’s length and a bit more… .

Both Blanchfield and Hofer believe that the “failures” foregrounded by notes are essential. For Hofer, notes are an indication of/respect for a source text’s foreignness. For Blanchfield, they’re a necessary concession to not only the imprecision of memory/personal knowledge, but also the complexity of human relationships. For instance, the essay on peripersonal space is about his vexed relationship with his mother. And both writers are concerned in their own way with the proximate, the close-but-not-identified-with.

This leads me to a final “proximity”: the reader. Notes are an acknowledgement of the reader. Jacques Derrida has written of the “double-bind” of notes: that they attempt to close off a text, to make it self-sufficient, while simultaneously demonstrating that it is not, as notes are there for the benefit of readers who may need additional explanation. Notes are the site of vulnerability, a hemorrhage, where the boundary of the writing becomes porous. Blanchfield emphasizes this vulnerable aspect of notes. Combined with his ritualistic “invocations,” the notes become a serial confession. And the reader is his witness.

As Hofer would have it, notes create a double bind that’s significantly different from Derrida’s (or Blanchfield’s) understanding. For her, the note acknowledges the reader while emphasizing the foreignness of the text. The note brings us close without letting us in: proximity. These noted resistances of the source text aren’t difficulties to be surmounted; they are instead “opportunities for us as readers to become translated.” Hofer admits she’s not completely clear on what that means in practical terms, but I find the idea compelling. The translation becomes not a window into another culture, nor a tool of assimilation, but a means of exposing readers’ native conceptual limitations, and making us strangers to ourselves.