We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

This is the first English translation, expertly and smoothly rendered from the French by Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons,  of Marquis de Sade’s epistolary novel.  Written in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille, this book is very different from Sade’s later, more pornographic, writings.  Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes—easier to carry and nicely displayed on one’s shelves.  My impressions of the first volume are ones of astonishment—at the riveting adventure story, the slowly unraveling mystery, and a philosophical statement on Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy.

Aline and Valcour are young lovers kept apart by Aline’s vicious and depraved father, President Blamont,  who wants to pawn her off to his equally sadistic friend, Monsieur Dolbourg.  Blamont and Dolbourg take extreme pleasure in keeping young women as sex slaves and doing unspeakable things to them—although, as I mentioned, Sade’s descriptions of these debaucheries is minimal compared to his later writing.   The mental and physical pain that Blamont causes for his wife, daughter, and victims is a theme that occurs constantly in the letters and his choice of epistolary style allows Sade to struggle with the concepts of pain and pleasure on a philosophical level.  Madame Blamont writes to Valcour :

Can I justly pretend to some perfect happiness?  Does it exist anywhere beneath the heavens above? To be put on earth to suffer is the simplest thing in the world.  Are we not here as gamblers around the table? Does Dame Fortune favor everybody seated there? By what right dare they accuse her of squandering their gold instead of winning it?  The hand of the Eternal One suspends above our heads good and evil in equal portions and they spill indifferently upon us.  I might have been happy just as, so it happens, I’m miserable—a question of chance.  And the greatest fault of all is to complain.  Moreover, can’t we imagine taking pleasure even in extreme unhappiness? But dint of sharpening our soul, unhappiness intensifies sensitivity; its impressions, by developing in a more vigorous way all manner of feeling, bring about pleasure unknown to those who are cold-hearted and unfortunate enough to have experience only tranquility and prosperity.

Sade’s vision of a deity is Epicurean in the sense that this being is indifferent to our fmisortunes.  Pain and pleasure for Sade are very closely related and one cannot experience happiness without first being exposed to extreme forms of pain.  Does Sade see his novel as didactic, as a way of teaching us this lesson?  Is he trying to dispel our fears of pain and death?  The epigram that Sade writes at the beginning of Aline & Valcour in which he quotes Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2.55-61 gives us a a small clue (this translation is my own; in the Contra Mundum version, the authors use R.C. Trevelyan’s 1937 translation):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

 

Lucretius sees poetry as a way of tricking people into dispelling their fear of pain and death.  In his most famous metaphor, poetry is the honey we rub on the edge of a bowl in order to coax a child into  taking his bitter medicine.  One other, quite obvious allusion, to Lucretius in Aline & Valcour also gives us a clue as to Sade’s philosophical motivations with his writings.  Once again, it is Madame Blamont that writes to Valcour on behalf of herself and her daughter:

I ought not to have allowed you to come to know Aline or her unfortunate mother; today, we would certainly all have less pain; and for the pain we inflict upon others we can never be consoled.  But all is not lost—no, Valcour, not all. My barbaric husband, who torments you so, might yet reconsider, so too the ridiculous monster who trails his every step. It might dawn on him that he’ll reap non of the hoped-for pleasure from she who hates him so. That much, at least, I can only hope and believe, though I know illusion is to unhappiness as honey rubbed round the rim of a glass of absinthe, offered to a child in pain: we mislead, but sweetly.

Sade, however, has a more sinister view of this deception.  How much is an author or philosopher really fooling anyone with this “honey?”

Will the lovers eventually be together?  Will Blamont’s victims escape his torments?  And who are the mysterious house guests that appear at Madame Blamont’s at the end of Volume I?  These plot considerations as well as Sade’s philosophical threads have me eagerly reading Volume II.

 

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There is no Wealth But Life: Ruskin at the Yale Center for British Art

Proust’s translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilles.

In a letter to his English friend, Marie Nordlinger, dated January 1900 Proust writes (trans. Mina Curtiss):

On learning of Ruskin’s death, I cannot keep from thinking of you so poignantly that I must write to you. Not that it needed this to make me think of you. Having been ill for several days, unable to write easily and unwilling to dictate a letter to you, all mo most friendly and grateful thoughts of you, of your letter, of the book [Queen of the Air, by John Ruskin] you sent with its even more precious annotations, are lodged in the very forefront of my being, not in that secluded part of oneself that one visits only rarely, but in that intimacy of the heart where we meet each other several times a day. But when I learned of Ruskin’s death, I wanted to express to you before anyone else, my sadness, a healthy sadness, however, and indeed full of consolations, for I know how little death matters when I see how powerfully this dean man lives on, how much I admire him, listen to him, try to understand him, to follow him more than I do man of the living.

Proust began reading Ruskin in 1897 and translated two of his texts: The Bible of Amiens in 1904 and Sesame and Lilles in 1906 and also contributed prefaces to each book. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, while visiting family in the New Haven area, I was able to see the Ruskin exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art which is on until December 8th. I was eager to see what Proust admired in this author, artist and critic and came away with a much greater appreciation for Ruskin.

The exhibit begins with one of Turner’s paintings of Venice (the museum also has quite a nice collection of Turner in its main gallery) which inspired Ruskin not only to defend Turner’s work but also to write a three volume history of the city, The Stones of Venice.

Turner. Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute. 1835. Oil on Canvas.

Ruskin. The south side of the Basilica of St. Mark’s from the Loggia of the Doge’s Palace, Venice. 1850-52. Watercolor over pencil, heightened with gouache.

My favorite parts of the exhibit were, no surprise, the books and notebooks on display. The collection of Ruskin’s first edition books was impressive, many of them borrowed from the nearby Beinecke Rare Books library. Here are few of Ruskin’s personal notebooks with drawings and sketches:

Ruskin. Manuscript notebook with watercolors, sketches and drawings. 1842

Ruskin Notebook containing a partial manuscript of The Ethics of Dust. 1865

I also enjoyed Ruskin’s attempts to replicate 5th century Ancient Greek red figure paintings:

Ruskin. Owl after and Attic Kantharos. 1870. Pen and black ink and watercolor on paper.

The Ruskin exhibit is absolutely worth a trip if you are anywhere near the New Haven area. The gallery also has a fabulous collection of British Art from various eras. I lingered for a while on the upper floors looking at their Turners and the few Blakes that they have. One can easily spend half a day looking at this gem of a gallery in the heart of New Haven. The Yale Art Gallery is also across the street and the Beinecke Rare Books library is a short walk. And New Haven abounds with fantastic cuisine. New Haven is the place of my birth and where I lived until the age of 18. It’s interesting to think about how a city evolves in one’s memories and impressions.

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Grief and Love: The Notebooks of Camus 1935-1937

In the entry for his notebooks of March, 1936 (no specific date is recorded), Camus writes:

My joy is endless.

Dolorem exprimit quia movit amorem.

There are so many ways to translate this. Exprimit, present tense, literally means “to shake out.” It is a compound of primo, primere, (which becomes “to press” in English) and the preposition ex meaning “out of.” It is a verb of extreme action, almost violence: to shake off dolorem (grief or pain).

And that quia, which is the centerpiece of the phrase, is so important: “because.”

Movit is from the Latin verb moveo, movere (which in English becomes the verb “to move”) but it is the perfect tense. Movit can mean many things, but here I like the translation “to undertake” or “to cause.” Both of these translations imply that he has himself been moved by love (amorem) but has also inspired this feeling in someone else. The change in verb tense, from the present exprimit, to the perfect movit is striking to me as well. He shakes off pain because he has inspired love?

Finally, the chiasmus he uses to compose this sentence is significant. Dolorem (pain, grief) and Amorem (love) frame the sentiment. The verbs are placed close together and, as I mentioned, that quia (because) stands out as the center, the most important part of the phrase.

So I have, for now anyway, decided I like this translation: “He expels pain because he has inspired love.”

But this really raises more questions: Does love, in any form, expunge grief? Can a new love expel the hurt and grief of a previous one? Or is it really easier to shake off grief because we have loved? Is it his love for someone else or the fact that someone else loves him that eases his pain?

Or is it both?

I will be immersed in Camus’s notebooks for some time to come with this phrase lingering in the back of my mind.

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The Various Stages of a Voyage: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

It took me about fifty pages of Kundera’s book (in Aaron Asher’s translation from the French) before I was drawn in and absorbed with it. The seven chapters of the book are more like short stories which are loosely tied together by theme. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has been described as a novel and, at times, autobiographical. But, like many great authors who invent their own genres of writing (Musil, Proust, Kafka, etc.) Kundera instructs us on how to read him:

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a them, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror.

It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels.

Like the author himself, Tamina lives in exile in another country in the west after she escapes political persecution by the Communist government in Prague. Shortly after their escape, Tamina’s husband dies and she leads a very lonely, monotonous, and silent existence. As the years slip by she is worried that her memories of her life with her husband are fading as well. She is desperate to somehow retrieve her notebooks and diaries which she left in Prague.

For Tamina is adrift on a raft and looking back, looking only back. Her entire being contains only what she sees there, far behind her. Just as her pas contracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours.

She wants to have her notebooks so that the flimsy framework of events, as she has constructed them in her school notebook, will be provided with walls and become a house she can live in. Because if the tottering structure of her memories collapses like a clumsily pitched tent, all Tamina will be left with is the present, that invisible point, that nothingness moving slowly toward death.

Throughout the book I kept thinking about memory and how our minds choose what to keep and what to discard. Even with important or traumatic events our memories can’t possibly retain every detail. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the Supreme Court nominee comes to mind: “indelible in the hippocamus is the laughter” is the horrifying detail she remembers when Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to assault her. Tamina doesn’t have the opportunity to get her diaries back but she learns that there are some parts of her memory, even though they are fragments—good or bad, that she will always have with her.

One final word about Kundera’s astonishing piece of writing is the eroticism that pervades every chapter. Orgies, menage a trois, assault, casual sex, etc. are among the acts that are described in the narrative. It was an odd theme that stands out among the others for me. But I don’t know enough about Kundera’s style and other writings to make any intelligent comments about it. So I will simply mention that it’s there and keep processing it as I read more of his fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a favorite Kundera? Please do let me know!

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Shattered by War and Repulsed by Fate: The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum

The collection of papyri, sculpture, pottery, paintings and literature on display at The British Museum’s Troy Exhibit is, to say the least, mesmerizing.   A large part of the exhibit is devoted to telling the story of the Trojan Saga through black and red figure vase painting from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.  It was a special treat for me to go to the museum with @flowerville since, as a skilled potter herself, she helped me appreciate even more the creative process of making these delicate vessels.

Black figure amphora by Execkias. Achilles and Ajax playing a game. c. 540-530 BCE.

 

The marble sculpture of The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini was also something we lingered over for a long time.  It is placed in such a way in the center of the exhibit that it is easily viewed from all sides.

The Wounded Achilles. Filippo Albacini. 1825. Marble with restored gilded arrow.

 

Another view of The Wounded Achilles.

 

The objects that I think we were the most fond of, and certainly most excited to view, were the books.  The displays of literature included Dryden’s 1697 translation of the Aeneid as well as Pope’s handwritten draft of the Iliad which includes his drawing of the Shield of Achilles.

Dryden’s 1697 translation of Vergil’s Aeneid

 

Handwritten draft of Pope’s translation of the Iliad with a drawing of the Shield of Achilles. 1712-24

 

I really could go on and on about the exhibit but these are just a few of the highlights.  One additional piece I would like to mention, which was built as a set especially for the exhibit, is an enormous wooden skeleton of the Trojan Horse as if it were in the process of being constructed by the Greeks.  It immediately brought to mind these lines of Vergil’s Aeneid 2.13-17 (translation is my own):

Fracti bello fatisque repulsi
ductores Danaum tot iam labentibus annis
instar montis equum divina Palladis arte
aedificant, sectaque intexunt abiete costas;
votum pro reditu similant; ea fama vagatur.

Shattered by war, repulsed by fate, and
with so many years now having slipped by,
the leaders of the Greeks, with divine
inspiration from Athena, built a horse
that was as big as a mountain. They covered
up the skeleton and ribs they constructed
with felled trees. They pretended to
pray for a safe return; this rumor
of their departure was spread around.

 

A skeleton of the Trojan Horse suspended from the exhibit ceiling.

 

This was really a once in a lifetime experience for me and sharing it with flowerville made it even more of a special occasion.  Our only real complaint was that there wasn’t enough Latin and Ancient Greek text included with the English translations.  But viewing these artifacts has inspired us both to look at and translate the ancient texts, especially The Aeneid.

 

 

 

 

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