Sunday, February 11, 2007


Our movie group watched Capote last night and, in drowsy half-wakefulness early this morning, I found myself thinking about the filmed portrayal of the man as wholly self-absorbed, delighting when he could hold court at Upper West Side parties, pouting at Harper Lee's success when stays of execution conspire, as he says, to keep him from finishing his book.
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Still only half-awake, I began to think about some writers for whom the phrase "it's all about me" doesn't fit. Samuel Beckett for example, whose work Gobbergo brought into my life some years ago. Beckett didn't want to be recognized, he wanted to be read. He wanted an audience for his writings not for himself. He didn't grandstand or jockey for position. As Harold Pinter said, "He hasn’t got his hand over his heart. He leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty."
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Beckett thoughts led to thoughts of Beckett's devoted and eccentric critic, Christopher Ricks also both allusive and elusive, in art and life. Language lover, Ricks gives Beckett full voice and keeps both selves out of the way. This, from a book review on an edition of the Poems, is typical:
Take one of the loveliest of the French poems, of such an entire simplicity as to ask not all that much of the English-speaking world:
imagine si ceci
un jour ceci
un beau jour
si un jour
un beau jour ceci
In 1990 in the magazine Babel , Kevin Perryman did his best, and it is a great deal better than I could do.
just think if all this
one day all this
one fine day
just think
if one day
one fine day all this
just think
The hinge is the turn "ceci / cessait", and Perryman's "all this / stopped" is abrupt and jagged where the original is shady stealth. The American poet and translator Marcia Karp has realised just this metamorphosis of the crux:
imagine yes this this
one day this this
one fine day
yes one day
one fine day this this
The solution is this dissolving. One fine translation. This book would be the better if, imagine, it had said yes to its original intention [of including English translations by other hands].
About this, notice the wit of Ricks in service to greater understanding, a tactic shared with Beckett: A side-long turn of phrase - solution dissolving - to catch the reader's imagination: cessait >>> stopped >>> dissolves >> (metamorphosis >> translation) >> solution - brings a smile to this most serious of serious thoughts.

Ricks, who celebrates Milton, Sterne, Keats, Tennyson, Houseman, Eliot, and Dylan (as in Bob, not Thomas), is no po-mo obscurantist. He loves the English language in all its fullness - the meaning, but also the sound, the rhythm, the connectedness of it. It can be difficult to follow his exploration of extended linkages and often you wonder what he's up to, as when he gave serious consideration to parentheses and footnotes in poetry.
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Thinking of Ricks led to thoughts of a passing reference he once made to the antithetical meaning of primal words. In 1910, Freud theorized about this concept in discussing dreams (Über Den Gegensinn Der Urworte). He got it from the German linguist, Carl Abel (prachwissenschaftliche Abhandungen, 1885). Both considered words that were their own opposites in German and Abel added Latin and Egyptian. Abel rooted his idea on the dual meaning of the Latin word sacer which signifies both sacred and taboo. A bit of searching easily shows that there are many in English as well. Though hardly "primal," the word dust is a good example, since it means both to remove and to add fine particles. Writing in Slate, Jesse Sheidlower has an interesting piece on the word literally which stimulates the accompanying cartoon. The whole business is interesting, but not profound, and Abel's theory hasn't led to any significant linguistic research.
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Not profound, but interesting. Your search for antithetical meaning of primal words will take you to Ben Watson's essay on The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Guitars which challenges the reader much as do Beckett and Ricks. In this review of Sonic Youth and Descension's noise-rock guitarist, Stefan Jaworzyn, Watson says: "Generalisations about the Avantgarde need to be contradictory to be true." He shows true-blood Ricksian density of prose to the point of parody and beyond, exhibiting what Ricks writes about Beckett's early poems: "Clotted, coagulated, corrugated, rhythmically unhearable, they are erudite beyond belief and beyond impingement." So, Watson concludes:
Descension went nude down the star-system staircase and delivered an immanent critique of rebel-rock 'extremism': antithetical dissension in the Temple of Grunge (even their name proved polysemantic). Free Improvisation woke up to its own outrage, its sedimented content exploding into shrapnel; pop's spectacle of indulgence was interrupted by a social exhibition of the self's own wants. The sonic potential was handed to the attendees to do with what they can - and what they will.
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Lindsay Waters tell us why we should read slowly, but -- unlike Beckett, Ricks, and Watson -- his prose doesn't encourage us to linger. So what's good writing? Do we want quickly to absorb what the author has to say with a minimum of doubt about what that person is getting at? That's good communication isn't it?

Most of the time that's my goal. And mostly that's all that the writing deserves.

But not always.

As Suzuki Roshi would say, Not Always So.

He, who spoke and wrote with great clarity, said: "Walk like an elephant. Do true zen practice, one step after another."

This is a story he told about taking time.
Someone was sitting in front of a sunflower, watching the sunflower, a cup of sun, and so I tried it too. It was wonderful; I felt the whole universe in the sunflower. That was my experience. Sunflower meditation. A wonderful confidence appeared. You can see the whole universe in a flower. If you say, 'Oh this is a sunflower which doesn't really exist' [laughing], that is not our zazen practice."

Addendum: My encounter with antitheticism brought me a small gift. I know have something to use when trying out a new search system. When I hear of yet another Google-breaker (like searchmesh -- which I like), I use "antithetical meaning primal words" to try it out. This is something I've mentioned before.

1 comment:

GobberGo said...

Nice post!