Tag Archives: Essay

Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Essay, Nonfiction, Philosophy

The Tongues of Eros: More Thoughts on George Steiner

There are some intriguing and surprising personal stories and anecdotes that George Steiner weaves into the essays in My Unwritten Books.  In his essay on his political and religious beliefs, for instance, he admits that he has never once in his life voted in any election, local or national.  He is an avid dog lover and the emotion he shows towards his pets, he admits in the essay “On Man and Beasts,”  sometimes runs deeper than that which he feels for his family.  And, perhaps the most intriguing statement in the book, comes in his writing about Eros: “I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages.  Also in the interstices, sometimes inhibiting, sometimes playful, between them.”

Steiner begins with a general discussion of his thoughts on language and moves on to describe how Eros is a unique language in and of itself that has not been studied in any methodical way.

We have no systematic poetic or rhetoric of eros, of how the making of love is a making of words and syntax.  No Aristotle, no Saussure has taken up this pivotal challenge.  More specifically, we have, so far as I am aware, no study, even summary, of how sex is experienced, of how love is made in different languages and different language-sets (ethnic, economic, social, local).  Per se, the polyglot condition at varying levels of immediacy and proficiency is not all that rare.  It features in numerous communities, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Malaysia.  A multitude of men and women dispose of more than one “native” tongue, from very earliest childhood.  Yet we seem to have no valid account, no introspective or socialized record of what must be their metamorphic erotic lives.  How does lovemaking in Basque or Russian differ from that in Flemish or Korean?  What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?

Steiner describes his sexual experiences with a German, Italian and French woman and gives specific details about how making love in each of these three languages was a unique experience.  Sex with a German woman he calls Ch. is described as an encounter in which the interplay of sex and sadism is prominent.  He concludes, “To make love in German can be taxing.”  It was an Italian woman, named A.M., he says that “instructed me in the litany of seduction.”  And he debunks the myth that the French culture is more amorous than any other.  He learns by having sex with a French woman that French erotic exchanges happen with formal language: “Gloriously astride me, my first teacher in the arts of orgasm, praise God, an older woman burnished by irony and compassion, bade me ‘come, come now and deep.’ But did so using the formal vous.”

I have to admit that I was disappointed that Steiner did not give equal time to describing his sexual experiences in English.  He argues that his own observations would not be able to capture any universal experiences because of the global pervasiveness of the English language: “How can any one person register more than an insignificant fraction of a sexual lexicon and grammar which stretch from the syncopations of Afro-Carribean pidgeons to the delicate love lyrics of Anglo-Bengalis, which comprise the creole of English hybrids in Southeast Asia and the worn passwords of the multinational dealer summoning his escort service to an anonymous hotel room in Istanbul or Valparaiso?” I think that at least some general statements about his lovemaking in English versus his experiences with other languages would have made the essay seem more complete.

Steiner’s concluding remarks in the essay, I suspect, are a better explanation for his omission of English sexual encounters: “Perhaps shared orgasm is an act of simultaneous translation.  I sense that I could have made a contribution, even pioneering.  But the hurt is would have done to that which is most precious and indispensable in my private life (this chapter comports risk) made this impossible.  Indiscretion much have its limits.”  Steiner’s wife, Zara, is the American-born, British historian…

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Filed under British Literature, Essay, Nonfiction

Ruins in Motion: My Essay for the 2017-2018 Seagull Books Catalogue

Every year Naveen Kishore and the talented staff at Seagull Books craft and publish a catalogue filled with original pieces of literature, art and translations from around the world.  This year they have truly outdone themselves.  Each of the 1500 catalogues has an different and individual cover.  I have included some photos of my copy, Naveen’s provocation for this publication and my response which is included in the catalogue.

Naveen’s Provocation:

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

A twilight turned yellow.

My Response:

Ruins. From the Latin noun Ruina—meaning a forward, uncontrollable movement, a headlong rush; a headlong fall, a downward plunge; a collapse. Derived from the Latin verb ruo—to move swiftly, to hurry on. Ruins are in motion, moving forward, taking on new shapes and forms. The story of Dido and Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid comes to mind as I think about ruins in motion.

Dido and Aeneas are both refugees—Latin profugus, to have a forward flight, also a word in motion— attempting to escape the ruins of their respective cities and their former lives. My favorite character in Vergil’s Aeneid, even going as far back as my first attempt at translation of this epic in high school, has always been Dido. The love of her life, her husband Sychaeus, was murdered by her brother Pygmalion in order to steal Sychaeus’s fortune. Pygmalion’s greed and violence forces Dido to flee Tyre and abandon her former, happy life. Similar to the boatloads of homeless Syrians we see today also escaping the Levant, Dido travels across the Mediterranean to the shores of North Africa where she attempts to build a new home, a new kingdom in Carthage.

In the midst of trying to put her life and her city back together Aeneas, a refuge himself from Troy, lands on her shores after his fleet encounters a violent storm at sea. Interestingly, Vergil describes this storm as caeli ruina, “the ruin of the sky.” The poet’s first mention of ruina comes at the very moment when fate drives Aeneas towards Dido and the Carthaginian shores. But we know that as soon as the curtain opens on this epic, that the fate of Dido is not a happy one; her encounter with Aeneas, though at first passionate and mutual, will be the source of her final and tragic ruin. Vergil poignantly, repeatedly and sympathetically calls Dido infelix, “unlucky.”

At first, Dido’s story shows us that ruins can be a good thing, an excuse or an impetus for a new start. When Aeneas arrives on the shores of Carthage he witnesses a new city being built under the careful guidance of Dido. Vergil is a master at juxtaposing` the old and the new, destruction and rebuilding, ruins and rebirth. Aeneas eagerly surveys the building of Dido’s new city—the harbor, walls, a theater and a temple are all works in progress that draw the Trojan’s amazement and wonder. Vergil compares the workers, the builders of this city to a hive of bees, filling the cells of their hives with honey and getting the necessary materials for their work. Fervent opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella. “Their work glows; the fragrant honey is scented with thyme.” This is Dido’s second chance, her spring, her twilight. Or is it?

Amidst the construction of her new city, Vergil inserts an opposing image of ruins in the form of a fresco in the temple at Carthage. As Aeneas tours this temple he views some of the most horrific scenes from the fall of Troy: the allotment of the Trojan women, the body of dead Hector being dragged around the walls by Achilles and the murder of Priam in the midst of his own palace. Aeneas weeps openly at the sight of these reminders of his ruined city.

Dido, the very symbol of these opposing themes—ruins and rebuilding– is standing at the center of this temple and it is significant that this is the first place where she encounters Aeneas. The frescoes of Troy become not only a reminder of the ruins Aeneas has fled, but they also serve as a foreshadowing of the destruction that Dido will inevitably suffer as a result of her encounter with Aeneas. Ruins in the Aeneid are always in motion.

In her kindness, compassion and empathy Dido opens up her home as a place of solace. She and Aeneas share the miserable fate of refugees escaping ruins and searching for a better place to put back together their lives: Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco. (Not ignorant myself of misfortune, I know how to help those who are also miserable.) Dido runs to help Aeneas—the verb succurrere in Latin literally translates as “running to help”— thereby setting her ruin in motion; her expeditious offer of succor is paid for with her destruction. Aeneas and Dido engage in a physical relationship and settle into a “marriage” of sorts that is fittingly blessed by the goddess of marriage, Juno, and the goddess of love, Venus.

Jupiter, however, the Paterfamilias of the universe and the god who represents fate sends an urgent reminder to Aeneas of his mission to found and build a new Troy. And so Aeneas readies his men and his fleet to leave Carthange and set sail for Italy which act of utter abandonment has a devastating effect on Dido. Vergil’s description of Aeneas flight from Troy is striking; he hurries the preparations for his journey like a man on fire: Idem omnes simul ardor habet; rapiuntque ruuntque: /Litora deseruere; latet sub classibus aequor. (The same fervor grabbed hold of all the men at the same time; they rushed and they carried themselves away, and they deserted the shores; the sea lie hidden under so many ships setting sail.)As Aeneas is rushing away (ruunt, verb form of ruina) from Carthage, Dido sits atop her own funeral pyre, plunging herself headlong into Aeneas’s sword and into her final destruction.

As early as Book I, Vergil alludes to the difficulty of founding a new city in the wake of the utter destruction of Troy: tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (It was such a monumental task to found Roman.) Molis here is another building word in Latin also meaning “rocks, a pile of materials.” Troy had to fall, many hardships had to be suffered and Dido had to be left behind and abandoned in order for Rome to be built; the ruins of Troy rise again in the form of the greatness and splendor of Rome.

Vergil’s message not only applies to the ruins from which the grandeur of Rome came about, but also to the circumstances under which human life and fate operate. Something bigger and grander and stronger have the potential to emerge out of the ruins that befall us in life; and Vergil reminds us that, yes, there have to be sacrifices, ruina (ruins) like the death of Dido, that are strewn along the roads that lead to something better.

Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed has also written a beautiful and profound response:

A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Joe from Roughghosts has written a deeply personal and poetic response:

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

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Filed under Nonfiction, Seagull Books

Review: Two Lines 25 World Writing in Translation

I received a review copy of this title from the publisher, Two Lines Press.

My Review:
two-linesA few times a year I find a book that I rant and rave about and recommend to everyone I know.  I become rather obnoxious with my comments that gush with praise.  I am giving you fair warning that Two Lines 25 is one of those books.  Literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish are all contained within the pages of this 192-page volume.  I am in awe of the fact that the editors crammed so many fantastic pieces into one slim paperback (there I go gushing again.)  This is the type of book that everyone needs to experience for him or herself; but I will attempt to give an overview of some of my favorite pieces.

The volume begins with a humorous and absurdist short story written by Enrique Vila-Matas and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.  I have to mention that not only is the English translation provided in these brilliantly collected pages, but an excerpt from each text in the original language also appears on the facing page in a colorful light blue that matches the artwork on the cover.  Vila Matas’s begins his story, Sea Swell, on a jarring and depressing note:  “I had a friend once.  Indeed, at the time, I only had one friend.”  This nearly friendless narrator, who is also completely broke, visits his one friend, Andre, who is living in Paris.  The unnamed narrator is an aspiring writer and Andre graciously agrees to introduce the narrator to Marguerite Duras.  The story becomes increasingly absurd when Duras offers the narrator an attic flat to rent for practically nothing.  But the narrator almost ruins the entire encounter because of his edgy demeanor which due to the two or three (he isn’t sure exactly how many) amphetamines he has ingested.    The expectation throughout the first few paragraphs is that the narrator is an absolute emotional mess and his friend Andres will have to come to his rescue.  But after Andre drinks two bottles of wine at a dinner party hosted by Duras, it is the narrator who has to pull Andre out of the Seine.  Vila-Matas, in the span of a few pages, writes a ridiculously funny tale but one that finishes with unexpected and surprising turn of events.

Russian author Dmitry Ivanov’s writing can also be found within the pages of this brilliant book.  His short story, Where Sleep the Gods, which is translated by Arch Tait, revolves around the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Putin’s strategy to sell the Olympics to the people of Sochi.  The main character in the narrative, a self-proclaimed “creative,” is named Anton and lives a comfortable life in Moscow while working for an ad agency.  Anton is used to dealing with wealthy customers who only demand the best that their money can buy.  Anton’s strategy in dealing with his wealthy clients is to adopt an air of aloofness: “He was accustomed to treating these types in a perfunctory, even insolent manner.  This was not risky, but, on the contrary, the surest approach to respect.”  When Anton is escorted in a private jet to meet a particularly important client he prepares to don his mask of insolence;  but when Vladimir Putin enters the room any and all attempts at smugness instantly dissolve.  Anton is quickly given the task of marketing the Olympics to the Sochians and is whisked off to that city to set up his Olympic headquarters.  What Anton discovers about the Sochians is astute and funny.  After spending about an hour in that city he decides that his slogan will be: “Thieves, because poets.”  You must read Ivanov’s humorous and brilliant story to fully get the joke!

Finally, I would like to discuss a piece in the collection that occupies the creative literary space somewhere between poetry and philosophy.   Nude Enumerated, written by Jean-Luc Nancy and translated by Charlotte Mandell, is a lyrical reflection on the different societal and emotional views and reactions that we have to nudity. The writing reminds me of Pascal Quignard whose philosophical poetry has also been written in shorter pieces which manage to be unexpectedly thought-provoking with only a minimal amount of words.  This was my favorite translation from the collection and the purchase of the book is worth it just for this one piece.  Nancy begins his reflection with a series of antonyms:

Nude: conquered, triumphant; undone, reassembled; lost, found;

undressed, costumed; obvious, indiscernible; shameless, virtuous;

sexed, neutralized.

Nancy proceeds to challenge us to look at different types of nudity that occur in different circumstances; his words make us uncomfortable but at the same time they make us think more deeply about the experiences we have with our unclothed human bodies.  Note also in this passage that Nancy’s asyndeton, lack of connectives like “and” or “or”, emphasizes the complexity of nudity:

Always elsewhere the male/female nude; not here, which welcomes

only clothed people, but over there somewhere undecided  at a

distance, within reach of desire of touching flattering hiding staining.

If you buy one book this month, if you only buy one more book for this entire year then I implore you to make Two Lines 25.  I haven’t even mentioned the poetry and essays that this volume also offers.  I am wondering how the editors at Two Lines go about choosing what literature to include in their collections.  I have in my mind an image of them exhaustively scouring the world in search of only the best of the best.  I don’t know how else they could produce such an astonishing collection.

To read the full index of works included in Two Lines 25 please visit: http://twolinespress.com/two-lines-journal/

About the Editor:
cj-evansCJ Evans is the author of A Penance (New Issues Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and The Category of Outcast, selected by Terrance Hayes for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets chapbook series. He edited, with Brenda Shaughnessy, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House, and his work has appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

CJ is the editor of Two Lines Press, the publishing program of the Center for the Art of Translation, which has quickly grown into a premier publisher of international literature, and he has edited translations of the works of authors like Marie NDiaye, Jonathan Littell, and Naja Marie Aidt. He also edits Two Lines: World Writing in Translation, a bi-annual journal of the best international literature in translation and curates Two Voices, an event series in San Francisco. He is a contributing editor for Tin House, and occasionally teaches, most recently in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.

Prior to working at Two Lines Press, CJ was an editor at Tin House for 8 years, and worked at the Academy of American Poets. He received his MFA from Columbia University, and his BA from Reed College, where he wrote a thesis on the poetics of American Hip-Hop. He was the recipient of the 2013 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, and currently lives in San Francisco with his wife, daughter, and son.

For more information visit his website:  cjevans.org

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Poetry, Russian Literature, Short Stories, Spanish Literature