What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
–Vladimir Nabokov, “On Translating ‘Eugene Onegin'”
Another school of thought declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process. Another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous details of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon. Another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid . . .
–Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
In regard to Nature, it is agreed that philosophy ought to know her as she is, that if the philosophers’ stone (der Stein der Weisen) is hidden anywhere, it must at any rate be within nature herself, that she contains her own reason within her. . . . the ethical world (die sittliche Welt), on the other hand, the State. . .
Innocence, therefore, is merely nonaction, like the mere being of a stone (das Sein eines Steines), not even that of a child.
. . . Gullibility whipped up with blasphemy, this worldly black magic spreads, indeed, to literature, an object of study and criticism.
A certain deference, better, toward the extinct laboratory of the philosophers’ elixer, would consist of taking up again, without the furnace, the manipulations, poisons, cooled down into something other than precious stones, so as to continue simply through intelligence. Since there are only, in all, two pathways open to mental research, into which our need bifurcates — namely, esthetics on the one hand and political economy on the other — it is principally of the latter that alchemy was the glorious, hasty, and troubling precursor. Everything that once stood out, pure, for lack of meaning, prior to the current apparition of the crowd, should be restored to the social realm. The null stone, dreaming of gold, once called philosophal: but it foreshadows, in financial terms, the future credit, preceding capital or reducing it to the humility of small change! With what disorder are such things pursued around us, and how little understood! It is almost embarrassing to profer this truths, which imply neat, prodigious dream transfers, thus, cursively and at a loss.
“It isn’t playing the game to turn on the uncanny. All one’s energy goes to facing it, to tracking it. One wants, confound it, don’t you see?” he confessed with a queer face, “one wants to enjoy anything so rare. Call it then life,” he puzzled it out, “call it poor dear old life simply that springs the surprise. Nothing alters the fact that the surprise is paralyzing, or at any rate engrossing — all, practically, hang it, that one sees, that one can see.”
–Henry James, The Ambassadors
Style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision: it is the revelation, which by direct and conscious methods would be impossible, of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us. . . . And it is perhaps as much by the quality of his language as by the species of . . . theory which he advances that one may judge of the level to which a writer has attained in the moral and intellectual part of his work. Quality of language, however is something that theorists think they can do without, and those who admire them are easily persuaded that it is no proof of intellectual merit.
–Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
You may know a truth, but if it’s at all complicated you have to be an artist not to utter it as a lie.
–Iris Murdoch, An Accidental Man
He shook his head sadly.
“i glanced over it,” said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”
“But the romance was there,” I remonstrated. “I could not tamper with the facts.”
“Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.”
–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
I said to him: “I am one who, when Love breathes
in me, takes note. And in whatever way
he dictates within, that way I signify.”
–Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XXIV
He chose to include the things
That in each other are included, the whole,
The complicate, the amassing harmony.
–Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”
It is no chance matter we are discussing, but how one should live.
Here, as in all other cases, we must set down the appearances and, first working through the puzzles, in this way go on to show, if possible, the truth of all the deeply held beliefs about these experiences; and, if this is not possible, the truth of the greatest number and the most authoritative.
–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
The exposition of the letter is nothing other than the development of the form.
–Dante, Letter to Can Grande
Our craving for generality has another main source: our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book
. . . I spoke of the novel as an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and best instructs us in our human variety and contradiction.
–Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination
And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
–Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”
What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules.
What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words.
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, II.xi
Of these States the poet is the equable man . . .
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more
nor less . . .
He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling round a
helpless thing . . .
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and
women as dreams or dots.
–Walt Whitman, from By Blue Ontario’s Shore
At the centre, the bed of crystalline Love was dedicated to her name most fittingly. The man who had cut the crystal for her couch and her observance had divined her nature unerringly: Love should be crystal — transparent and translucent. . . . Its roundness inside betokens Love’s Simplicity: Simplicity is most fitting for love, which must have no corners, that is, no cunning or Treachery.
–Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan
No dogs, bicycles, or tricycles allowed in this garden at any time by order. The gardeners are required to conduct from the garden anyone infringing these rules.
–Sign in the garden of Cadogan Square, London, 1980
We’ll let Teisias and Gorgias continue sleeping. For they noticed that plausible stories win more public honor than the truth. And so they make trivial things seem important and important things trivial through the power of their discourse, and they dress up new views in old language and old views in new language, and they have discovered how to speak about any subject both concisely and at interminable length.
–Plato, Phaedrus 267a6
And if a cataleptic impression does not exist, neither will there be any assent to it, and thus there will not be any certainty either. And if there is no certainty, neither will there be a system of certainties, that is to say a science. From which it follows that there will be no science of life either.
–Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos vii, 182
As we examine this view closely, it looks to us more like a prayer than like a truth.
–Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos xi, 401
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say–
What manner of man art thou?”
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
The heart within me burns.
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
And as he spoke, I was thinking, the kind of stories that people turn life into, the kind of lives that people turn stories into.
–Philip Roth, The Counterlife
Someone said, “Our right hand is in the book. But the left has the privilege of opening and closing. Thus both hands preside over the morrow of the book.”
–Edmond Jabès, The Book of Dialogue
You read. You tie yourself to what comes untied — to what unties you within your ties. You are a knot of correspondence . . . a knot of innocence, craftiness, of things likely and unlikely, of infinite faithfulness.
–Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions
A book is interrupted discourse catching up with its own breaks. But books have their fate; they belong to a world they do not include, but recognize by being printed, and by being prefaced and getting themselves preceded with forwards. They are interrupted, and call for other books and in the end are interpreted in a saying distinct from the said.
–Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
Evasions of the existence of others may take the form of smothering a person, or a text, with seemingly scrupulous questions.
–Michael Fischer, “Stanley Cavell’s Wittgenstein”
Kafka wanted to know at which moments and how often, with eight people sitting within the horizon of a conversation, you have to speak up in order not to pass for taciturn.
–Maurice Blanchot, “Interruptions”
[A dream:] This is my sister here, with some identifiable friends and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling: the whistle of three notes, the hard bed, the neighbor whom I would like to move, but whom I am afraid to wake because he is stronger than me. I also speak diffusely of our hunger and of the lice-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent; they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up, and goes away without a word. . . . My dream stands in front of me, still warm, and although awake I am still full of its anguish: and then I remember that it is not a haphazard dream, but that I dreamed it not once but many times since I arrived here, with hardly any variations of environment or details. I am now quite awake and I remember that I have recounted it to Alberto and that he confided to me, to my amazement, that it is also his dream and the dream of many others, perhaps of everyone. Why is the pain of every day translated so constantly into our dreams, in the ever-repeated scene of the unlistened-to story?
–Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
Are not our lives too short for that full utterance which through all our stammerings is of course our only abiding intention? I have given up expecting those last words, whose ring, if they could only be pronounced, would shake both heaven and earth. There is never time to say our last word — the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submission, revolt.
–Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
We die in a last word.
–Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions
THE HOUSE WAS QUIET AND THE WORLD WAS CALM
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; the summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned over the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
God made man because he loves stories.
How shall we know all the friends whom we meet on
–Ezra Pound, “Cathay”
Poetry is capable of saving us.
–I. A. Richards
To the aesthetic temperament nothing seems ugly. There are degrees of beauty — that is all.
It is a deadly error to expect poetry to provide the supersubstantial nourishment of men.
A book [of prose fiction] at the time [it is written] is a good or bad action.
One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. . . . The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is seperable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.
“What takes place” in a narrative is from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; “what happens” is in language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.
Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. . . . The “greatness” of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.
–T. S. Eliot
A work of art is . . . a bridge, however tenuous, between one mind and another.
[Art] is civilization’s single most significant device for learning what must be affirmed and what must be denied.
Reading is the easiest thing in the world, it is freedom without work, a pure Yes blossoming in the immediate.
–Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus
. . . . . . . . . .
Initials of titles from which the above epigraphs are taken:
CWK . . . . . . . . . . Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988)
D . . . . . . . . . . Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (translated by Barbara Johnson) (1981)
LN . . . . . . . . . . Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990)
NE . . . . . . . . . . Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics (1995)
PR . . . . . . . . . . Denis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading (1998)