Category Archives: Literature in Translation

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben

Macrobius was a Roman grammarian, philosopher and author who lived and produced his most important work, the Saturnalia, in the early part of the 5th century A.D. The Saturnalia is a symposium, a conversation among friends, that takes place on the day before and three days during the Saturnalia, the festival dedicated to celebrating the harvest and the Roman god Saturn. The conversation encompasses a wide range of topics that include religion, literature, philosophy and rhetoric. In Book 1, a dinner guest describes the Egyptian belief that four important deities preside over the birth of every human (this translation is my own):

The Egyptians explain the significance of the Caduceus at the begetting of all humans, which is called genesis, by saying that there are four gods present at the birth of each person: Daimon (Spirit), Tyche (Chance), Eros (Love), Ananke (Necessity). The first two they wish to be understood as the sun and the moon, because the sun is the source of spirit, heat and light and both the procreator of human life and its guardian, and thus it is the Daimon or the deity of a person being born; the moon, however, is Tyche, because she is the guardian of bodies which are thrown about by the varieties of fortune. Love is signified by a kiss; nesessity is signified by a nod.

Giorgio Agamben, in his latest short philosophical work entitled The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa), borrows these four gods from Macrobius to build his discussion and definition of the word “adventure.” And following the example of Goethe, who, in his Urworte, adds Elpis (hope), Agamben translates these deities as Demon, Event, Love, Necessity and Hope. He writes, “Every human is caught up in the adventure; for this reason, every human deals with Daimon, Eros, Ananke, and Elpis. They are the faces—or masks—that adventure—tyche—presents us with at each turn.” Agamben argues against the modern definition of adventure, which is seen as an event that is strange and out-of-the-ordinary, and wants to replace it with a more universal term that corresponds to our everyday Being and experience in the world. “The idea that adventure is something external—and therefore eccentric and bizarre—with respect to ordinary life defines its modern conception,” he asserts.

Agamben begins, as usual, with the history and etymology of the word “adventure”; previous authors have argued that the term comes from the Latin advenio as the neuter, plural, future, active participle—adventura. But, Agamben points out, there is no proof of its use in Classical Latin. He concludes, “Whether it derives from the classical and Christian Latin adventus (the advent of a prince or a messiah), as is likely, or from eventus, as the late Du Cange suggested, the term designates something mysterious or marvelous that happens to a given man, which could be equally positive or negative.” And in the love poetry of the troubadours, adventure is used to describe not only the event but also the story that is told about the event:

The aventure (or aventiure) may be marvelous or fortuitous (in which case it means “chance”), beneficial or malefic (one will then call it bonne or male aventure; the term seems to be equivalent to “fate” or “fortune”), or more or less perilous (it will thus stand as a challenge to the knight’s courage); however, it is not always easy to distinguish between the event and its transposition into words.

It is this medieval idea of adventure towards which we ought to return, Agamben argues. In the next two chapters he elaborates on the influence that Eros (Love) and Tyche (Event) have on the concept of adventure. Eros is the very thing that gives life to the demon, it is Eros that drives us to abandon ourselves to the adventure and the event without reservations. Eros and adventure are intertwined “..not because love gives meaning and legitimacy to adventure, but, on the contrary because only a life that has the form of adventure can truly find love.” And, as far as the event is concerned, “Not only are the event and speech given together in the adventure but—as we saw—the latter always demands a subject to whom it must be told.” A refreshing, hopeful, even playful definition of adventure emerges from Agamben’s essay. In the concluding chapter, Elpis (Hope), is the concept that links all of the other ideas together. But this is not the modern concept of hope from silly Internet memes or self-help gurus; it is more immediate, in the here and now, the hope that affects the essence of our Being daily: “Just as hope overcomes its satisfaction, so too does it surpass salvation (and love).”

I have read this delightful book a few times since last week and one thing that has bothered me about it is the translation of the Ancient Greek word daimon as “demon.” Although it can be used as an alternative for “daemon” (a spirit or numen), demon, in the monotheistic, Christian sense, has a decidedly negative connotation as something evil. In Ancient Greek daimon is used to denote a spirit in relation to a deity, and can also be translated as “power” or “fate”. Macrobius’ description, cited above, of the Egyptians belief that it is the source of heat, light and a guardian for humans at birth is very similar to the Ancient Greek understanding of it. (I’ve discussed the word daimon more thoroughly elsewhere in the context of Ancient Greek tragedy in a review of Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides Bakkhai.) Agamben is arguing that this spirit, this Being, present at birth is the every day, driving force behind adventure. Maybe I am mistaken, but it seems that an English speaking audience would automatically assume that demon is used in the negative, Christian context. I don’t have access to the Italian text, but I wonder what the word for daimon is in Italian and if it is closer to the original Ancient Greek meaning? Perhaps it would have been more beneficial for the sake of his argument if the translator used the Latin word daemon or, better yet, left it untranslated as daimon?

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Philosophy

The Vital Force of the Kore: The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando

The Ancient Greek goddess Demeter (Ceres to the Romans) was associated with the harvest and agriculture and was worshipped at her temple in Eleusis.  The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells us that the goddess has a daughter, Persephone or Kore, fathered by Zeus, who was abducted by Hades and forced to live in the underworld with her husband for part of the year.  The story of Demeter and Persephone can be viewed as a nature myth—Persephone represents the seed, planted under the ground and fertilized by Zeus, that grows in the spring as the harvest and whose maturity is represented by Demeter herself.  The story can also be viewed as an etiological myth whereby the seasons are explained—the months in which Persephone spends with her husband in Hades Demeter does not let anything grow and thus it is winter.  Finally, the story of Demeter can be viewed as a charter myth that explains the origins for the rituals that take place during the Eleusinian Mysteries at the temple of Demeter.

During the autumnal celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were organized by the Athenian polis, there were rituals that involved fasting, a procession with sacrificial pigs, purification in the sea, and the consumption of a sacred drink.  The nocturnal procession went from Athens to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis where initiates would gather in the Hall of Initiations, the Telesterion, where the hierophant (sacred revealer) revealed the “holy things.”  It was said that Demeter bestowed two gifts to her initiates: a stalk of grain and the mysteries that were said to hold a promise to a happier afterlife.  The mysteries that took place at the annual celebration were kept secret by all participants.

In his essay, The Unspeakable Girl,  published in English by Seagull Books and translated by Leland De La Durantaye and Annie Julia Wyman, Italian philosopher and author Giorgio Agamben begins with a discussion of the Ancient Greek word Kore.  Agamben’s writing is challenging but of the few things I read so far, he begins with the etymology of important words, which makes his narrative, for me, more accessible.  He writes:

The Greek term kore (masculine form: koros) does not refer to a precise chronological age.  Derived from a root meaning ‘vital force’, it refers to the principle that makes both plants and animals grow (koros also means ‘offshoot’ in the botanical sense.)  A kore, can thus be old, like the Phorcydes, called denaiai korai, the ‘long-lived girls’ and the graiai, ‘those with white hair.’ Aeschylus calls the terrifying avengers of blood crime Erinyes (or Furies), korai, as well as graiai palaiai pades (ancient children with white hair.)

Agamben concludes that “Kore is life in so much as it does not allow itself to be ‘spoken’, in so much as it cannot be defined by age, family, sexual identity or social role.”  The philosopher uses this idea of Kore as the unspeakable for a further discussion of the mysteries involving Demeter and Kore that take place during the Eleusinian rituals.  His thesis is that the mystery is not so much a sacred object that is revealed or an event that happens during the ritual, but a mystical transformation which the initiates experience that is unspeakable—not unspeakable in the sense that it is prohibited to be spoken about but in the sense that there is no language that adequately expresses the experience.  Agamben cites and discusses key passages from Aristotle and Plato who describe the acquisition of philosophical knowledge as a mystic experience or initiation.  Agamben concludes, “When she was abducted by Hades, Kore was ‘playing (paizousan) with the girls of Ocean’ (kouresi syn Okeanou; Homeri Hymnus in Cecerem 5.5).  That a girl at play became the ideal figure for the supreme initiation and the completion of philosophy, the figure for something that is at once thought and initiation and thus unspeakable—this is the ‘mystery.'”

And why should the modern reader care about initiation into ancient mystery cults.  This is, perhaps, my favorite part of Agamben’s argument; he makes this ancient thought and practice relevant to a 21st century audience: “Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion to which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.”

“The goddess threw herself like a maenad down the woody mountainside.” Pastel on recycled paper. Monica Ferrando.

This Seagull edition also includes gorgeous paintings by artist Monica Ferrando as well as her translations of Ancient Greek and Latin text sources for Demeter, Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

 

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A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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On the Necessity of Doors: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

In Bergeners, Tomas Espedal describes his various travels which include sojourns at places like New York and Berlin.  At the center of the book is an extended description of his hometown, Bergen, Norway, which city, as a fifty-year-old man, he is drawn back to settle in.  I read the book in two evenings over the weekend and part of what draws me into Espedal’s writing is the way in which he varies his style; reading his books are like unpacking a treasure chest, one never knows what beautiful short story, poem, or anecdote one will find on the next page.

I’ve underlined, copied and marked up so many passages it would be impossible to share them all here.  But one feeling which stood out to me in his writing is his deep sense of loneliness, so my focus of this post will be on this idea.  When the book opens, Espedal is in New York with his girlfriend, Janne, who announces to him that she is leaving him.  Even though he was married before this relationship, this break-up seems to have disturbed his equanimity.  His interpretation of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne myth alludes to his state of mind and the loneliness he feels with the loss of this relationship:

Daphne runs and Apollo runs after her.  They run. We run.  You run and I run after you.  Apollo runs after Daphne.  They run through the forest, along the river, we run through the city, I run after you.  Almost grab your hair, that long hair which you lose.  You run without hair and increase speed, how fast you run, don’t you know who I am/  I’m Apollo, I’m running after you.  You’re running so fast, I increase speed.  Almost grab your arm, your hand which you lose.  You’re running and weeping.  I run, we run through the city, out of the city, over the bridge, over the river, I can hear your breathing becoming labored, it will run out, you’ll lose your breath.  You lose your hair, lose your arm.  You’re breathing so heavily, so deeply, you’re nothing but breath.

Espedal writes what appears to be a short story entitled “The Guest,” about a man who celebrates his birthday alone; but as is common in his writing, the lines between fiction and autobiography are blurred.  Is this how he imagines his life now that Janne is gone and his daughter has moved away?:

Today is his birthday. His fiftieth. He’s put on his best suit and is celebrating the occasion alone.

The black velvet suit is tailor-made. A white, newly ironed shirt. Silver cufflinks. He smokes a cigarette.

He has a good dinner. Drinks and expensive wine. The living room is adorned with flowers, white lilies, a present to himself.

The lines in the lilies’ leaves are like the veins beneath the skin of the hands holding the cutlery. He cuts his meat.

He takes a mouthful of wine. He looks at his hands, long and carefully, as if they are guests at the birthday celebration.

There is a very brief mention of his wife in the section entitled “On the Necessity of a Door.”  They move to Nicaraqua when she gets a job there and he is thrown off by the open floor plan of their new house that doesn’t have any doors: “An architectural idea: rooms flowing into one another, a short flight of steps up to the kitchen which was open to the living room, a hole in the wall leading to the bedroom, another hole to the guestroom and a longer staircase to a workroom on the first floor.”   He sets up this workroom as an office in which to write and one day when his wife is out of the house he hires a contractor to install a door.  The door is, he feels, a necessary for him but it is not well-received by his wife: “…I was sitting locked in my room working, I was writing.  I heard my wife enter the house, she walked around downstairs for a while, then came up to the first floor, and I heard her halt and give a sigh.  A deep sigh.  Had she foreseen and expected this door?  She took a step forward, put her hand on the door handle, turned it suddenly and tugged as hard as she could at the door.”  They divorced soon after.  Could the various doors he erects in his life be the cause, even now, of his loneliness?

The passage that affected me the most as far as his loneliness is concerned was that which concerned his daughter:

My daughter’s move was one of the hardest things I’ve had to bear.  I don’t know whether all parents feel the same way, maybe some are relieved that their child, the young adult, is on the move at last, has left the house, but for me it was a shock and I haven’t got over it yet.  Why a shock?  Wasn’t it expected?  Yes, it was expected, it’s natural that children leave home, it’s necessary, but when it happens, it feels so brutal.

This experience, combined with his girlfriend moving out at about the same time, is too much for him to bear.  He doesn’t find comfort in his quotidian activities and his routines make him feel even lonelier.  He asks, “How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house?  How can you deal with your own loneliness, what can you fill it with?  How can you live?”  And the only answer he comes up with is simply, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

 

 

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Duller than a Dull Hick: City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

The stereotypes of country dwellers being crass and uncouth and city dwellers being urbane and sophisticated is one that reaches all the way back to Ancient Rome.  In Carmen 22, Catullus describes his good friend Suffenus whom he admires for being venustus et dicax et urbanus (charming, well-spoken and sophisticated).  The Latin word urbanus, from which the English word urban is derived, literally means a person from the city who is sophisticated.  But Catullus sadly notes that Suffenus is an awful poet and when one reads his compositions he appears to be caprimulgus aut fossor (a goat herder or a ditch digger) and he is infaceto est infacetior rure (duller than a dull hick).  Rus, ruris becomes in English the word rural which is associated with someone who lives in the countryside and is decidedly unsophisticated.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a nineteenth century Russian author who wrote and published her works under a male pseudonym, uses the stereotype of city folk and country folk to satirize the landed gentry in the time period immediately following the emancipation of the serfs in her country.  Her main character, Erast Sergeyovich Ovcharov, is an urbane and worldly man who is used to living in Moscow and traveling to the most famous cities across Europe.  He is proud of his elegance and refinement and thinks that exposure to his good qualities will elevate the manners of his country neighbors.

Ovcharov’s country estate in Snetki has fallen into ruins and he has not come to any agreement with his serfs who have just been freed so he is forced to spend a summer among the country bumpkins.  Ovcharov is a humorous caricature of the Russian nobility who views himself as a perfect example of charm and wit for the poor country folk who do not regularly visit the city.  He is haughty, condescending and patronizing to his neighbors in the country and he writes political pamphlets that fully display his self-righteous personality.  He comments about the rural gentry women he encounters:

The old rural gentry-woman type has barely changed: moral and physical clumsiness.  On the other hand, the old despotism has disappeared, and the younger generation is spreading its wings.  It spreads them clumsily, crudely, gracelessly, but spread them it does.  It raises its own voice and acts, to some extent, according to its own will.  The second-rate shrinking violet of the past, oppressed by the parental right hand, is also being transformed into a second-rate dahlia.  Still it is a beautiful flower, bright and attractive in a flower bed.  Yes, it’s true: the younger generation of women in the countryside and provincial towns in freer than it was twenty years ago.  Now is the time to show that who deserves thanks for this freedom.

Ovcharov rents a bath house from his neighbor, Natasyha, who is a kind-hearted widow that has successfully managed her own farms and workers for many years.  Natasyha’s daughter, Olenka, is smart and witty and when she rejects Ovcharov’s advances the irony of the situation is hilarious.  It is Olenka, the seemingly country hick, that rejects the urbane, supposedly sophisticated, Ovcharov.  Olenka is smart enough to see Ovcharov for the ridiculous man he truly is.  The author’s wit is subtle yet affective in providing a glimpse into the lives of the Russian upper classes in the 19th century.

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