Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Eva Hoffman on language, music and violence

Eva Hoffman's 1989 book, Lost in Translation, about changing languages and cultures, is the classic on the subject. It is, I think, one of the great twentieth century books, combining memoir, clear analysis and poetic precision of metaphor and association.

Some time ago I said a little - too little - about Hoffman's new novel, Illuminations. I should have said more. However, today she writes in The Guardian. In it, she returns to the themes of Lost in Translation:

It was one of the powerful lessons of emigration that language is not only something you use, but something that lives within you, that shapes your perceptions, and constructs your very self. Without it, I lost my conduit to my own subjectivity. And so, I wanted badly to recreate in my second language the relationship I had to my first. In a sense, I wanted English to become a fully expressive instrument; and for that, I needed to learn not only its vocabulary and grammar, but its inflections and rhythms, its specific music.

Absolutely. This is one aspect of the question I want to explore about the Englishness of English poetry. She goes on to compare writing - essentially prose writing, the construction of novels - with music in terms of time.

…most forms of expression rarely attain the felt form, the condensed meaningfulness of music. Writing, especially in the extended medium of prose, almost necessarily deploys the materials of explicit narrative. It talks of specific situations or events, of "what happens", and sometimes what will happen next. Music also unfolds in time, and contains development, reiterations, turns of theme. But it rarely makes an argument, or "tells a story." Its meanings are built through a self-referential, inner logic. Writing is made of discrete particles of perception; music can sometimes say everything at once, can express both grief and joy in the same chord.

And finally she moves to a discussion of the relationship of romanticism to violence.

…But I also wanted to explore the Janus face of romanticism, the way that the quest for transcendent meanings can lead to the drive for violence, as well as for sublimity. In my novel Illuminations, these two polarities meet - and eventually, terribly collide - in an encounter between Isabel Merton, the protagonist, and her increasingly fanatical nationalist lover. Because music adumbrates meanings rather than ideas, it is rarely ideological; but its intensities have appealed to extremist ideologues of all stripes. Lenin apparently loved Beethoven's Appassionata. But in another sense, music is the opposite of extremism, or the simplistic reductiveness of violence; a great composition can include anger and even rage, but it contains these within complex and multi-layered form; and almost always, the music we love works its way through the darker emotions to a more reconciled acceptance.

Yes, 'the Janus face of romanticism', and 'But in another sense...' The issue of containment. In Clockwork Orange Alex is moved and driven by Beethoven's Ninth. Hitler's love of Wagner and Schubert. Romanticism and big numbers. Auden's Numbers and Faces in 1950:

...Lovers of small numbers go benignly potty,
Believe all tales are thirteen chapters long,
Have animal doubles, carry pentagrams,
Are Millerites, Baconians, Flat-Earth Men.

Lovers of big numbers go horribly mad,
Would have the Swiss abolished, all of us
Well purged, somatotyped, baptised, taught baseball:
They empty bars, spoil parties, run for Congress...

There are, of course, moments when romanticism is the only possible state of mind. English is the language of small numbers generally. It may be all those tiny parts of speech and the lack of grand military inflections. Almost all its abstractions are borrowed from Latin. Difficult to go horribly mad on borrowed abstractions.

One way of looking at poetry is as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Another, as someone once said, is as "a shower of fine particulars".*

Boring as this may seem to those who live with it all the time, it was one of the attractions of English for those of us who grew up in constant expectation and fear of big numbers. And I am not thinking only of six million.


*Wrong. Misremembering a passage from Anthony Hecht's marvellous Venetian Vespers, thus:

To give one’s attention to such a sight
Is a sort of blessedness. No room is left
For antecedence, inference, nuance.
One escapes from all the anguish of this world
Into the refuge of the present tense.
The past is mercifully dissolved, and in
Easy obedience to the gospel’s word,
One takes no thought whatever of tomorrow,
The soul being drenched in fine particulars.


Space Bar said...

George, 'a shower of fine particulars' has so much resonance.

It's interesting that you put in in the context of the war; I wonder if it is the thought of a whole new world, of displacement and unbelonging that causes the need for the particular and the manageable? The large gestures come from the world around you but you can make sense of it only in small, exact installments.

George S said...

I think we live in both worlds, big and small numbers, though in most life the numbers are small, which suggests they work on a more human scale.

Auden was writing shortly after the war, of course. I think, for many of those who distrust big numbers and the rhetoric associated with them, the war and all it entailed, remains the touchstone.

On the other hand, when we watch sport or get caught up in a piece of drama, the big numbers come rolling out. We would not be human without them either, but my feeling is that we should be wary of them.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You know, even coming from America to England had something of this effect on me. Lost in Translation made a huge impact on me when it came out; & I felt strangely galled that it had been MY language Eva Hoffman grappled with! It was very moving and very, very interesting.

I really noticed it when I started writing again, and in fact that transplanting could be part of why I didn't write anything for years after coming here. Lots of reasons. But when I did start up again, it quickly became apparent that I was going to have to construct a voice for myself: vocabulary, tone, vantage point. A transatlantic one. It was literally a question of listening inside myself and figuring out what, or who, was in there, and how she could communicate.

And that's coming from an English-speaking country!

As to the numbers. Well. America is a country of big ones.

George S said...

Now, of course, we are all aware that we inhabit a world of Englishes, and that the old England-English version may not be the one most pumped full of life.

This is probably the case for many other languages - the regionality, the class, the social movement, the immigration - but in the case of English there is even more. There is the USA, Canada, Australia, NZ and all the other parts of the old empire, not to mention the post-war cultural Americanisation of World English, Business English etc. I read recently that it is Indian English that is coming out on top now.

I wonder whether that is the same for Spanish too? Or to what degree?

Space Bar said...

With regard to Indian English, Raja Rao articulated it as far back as 1938, in his Foreword to Kanthapura.

And looking for a quote, I came across this: Arthur Cohen on Osim Mandelstam:

"A poet's nation is his language and unless one wills to become of no language or several languages without fixity of place, the poet has no choice but to become the language he speaks and hopefully, if one is great in the use of the language, to change it as profoundly as one is changed. But language itself is not a nation, however much the experience of the people is transmitted through its unfolding, resonation and echo. Language is abstract until it becomes one's own language and then it is possessed, most particularly."

(Arthur A. Cohen. Osip Emilievich Mandelstam: An Essay in Antiphon. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1974.42.)

George S said...

Thank you, space bar. I'll check your link on Indian English, which seems to me - reading The Times of India, or The Hindu, an extraordinary mixture of the past and the future. The turns of phrase, the English colloquialisms, are clearly dated, and as I understand it from conversation the Indian school system resembles that of England in the fifties. And yet there is a wealth of confidence and an adaptation to modernity and even post-modernity that indicates something forward-looking.

Thank you for the Mandelstam too. That's very good. I must think about it a little more - the sense of possession, I mean.