Pausing to Remark

A former associate stumbled upon this blog recently and wrote to me. She had read some older posts in which I challenged certain language practice encountered in published articles.

It’s true I experimented for a time with adopting the persona of grammar nerd here, but moved beyond it. The audience for such matters is vanishingly small, which is okay. I have other passions to natter about.

What lingers with me is my colleague’s remark that she almost didn’t reach out to me from fear that I might be pesky or judgmental. She expressed in so many words a marked aversion to rubbing up against anything resembling an inquisitive or meddling grammarian. It’s pertinent that this person is a brilliant professional writer herself, and a teacher of writing. Any remark of mine about her practice would be otiose and impertinent.

I’m afraid that too much online discourse is rebarbative, leading people (and perhaps my colleague, who referred to my “web log”) to assume that what poses as criticism or critique in the cyber commons will have a belittling aspect to it, if not drip with disdain or worse. I emphatically eschew that course in spirit and, I hope, in practice.

What keeps intriguing me is where language that strays from certain norms can become obscure or cause confusion. A lucid, well-developed article in The Guardian quotes the following statement about retributive punishment:

“What seems to happen is that people come across an action they disapprove of; they have a high desire to blame or punish; so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over their own actions] that would be required to justify blaming them.”

The main clause has a plural subject “people.” The consecutive clause starting “so they attribute” introduces a singular nonspecific object “the perpetrator.” Subsequent references to the object avoid assigning it a gender by making it plural: “over their own actions” and “blaming them.” The reader is put to the extra work of realizing that the antecedent is “perpetrator” and not “people.”

A century ago it would read: “… so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over his own actions] that would be required to justify blaming him.” Choice of the masculine pronoun, of course, was an arbitrary convention.

I don’t contend that the usage in The Guardian article is somehow deplorable; only that, from a clinical perspective, it shows how extra-lingual pressures can move language in directions that are away from, not towards, clarity.

(Oliver Burkeman, “The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion,” theguardian.com, 4-27-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘Art Has Many Mansions’

[New Yorker caption] “Laura Battiferri,” by Bronzino, circa 1560. Art work © Musei Civici Fiorentini / Museo di Palazzo Vecchio.

The NYTimes, as well, has sumptuous reportage on this exhibit of Medici-sponsored artworks. The portraits have a preternatural technical brilliance that’s otherworldly. “Laura Battiferri,” fingering her legible volume of Petrarch, is a creature contrived from mannerist lunacy.

An interesting wrinkle in Peter Schejeldahl’s review is that he concludes by urging the reader to “head just down the hall” to look at the work of “bohemian demiurge” Alice Neel (1900 – 1984). I’ve seen her painting elsewhere, and indeed it’s blessedly rich with oxygen.

It’s remarkable how an artist long classed as an eccentric outlier has come to seem an Old Master for present sensibilities… A frisson of nakedness infuses even her clothed subjects, whose resilience consists in being fully and, therefore, by Neel’s reckoning, lovably human… Now return to the Medici and imagine their fainting fits, were they exposed to Neel’s principled gaucherie. Art has many mansions. Today, the most compelling tend to the tumbledown.

(Peter Schjeldahl, “Power Players: The Medici at the Met,” thenewyorker.com, July 2021)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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The Moncrieff Proust

[New Yorker] Photograph by Ullstein Bild via Getty.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889 – 1930) published the early-twentieth-century English version of Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Adam Gopnik reviews the first full-length biography of Moncrieff by Jean Findlay, “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator.”

Findlay’s book, says Gopnik, “helps us see how someone who was not even particularly expert in the original language managed to make a great French book into a great English one.”

Moncrieff adapted Proust’s unabashed French to English sensibilities, influenced by an appreciation of Henry Jamesian allusiveness — Gopnik draws out certain affinities between the two men’s styles. What comes clear is how Moncrieff’s choices succeeded, to a degree that Joseph Conrad could think Moncrieff “a better translator than Proust was a writer.”

The article concludes with a sprightly summary:

[Moncrieff] had a thoroughly lively time in life, in that British way that is still surprising to our more earnest American minds—he has rough sex on the streets of Venice, spies for the secret service, translates his Proust and Pirandello, goes to Catholic mass, and works for the Tory party, in one big, very British, and happy entanglement of sodomy, spirituality, spying, and sociability. Far from being a Proustian acolyte perfuming the altar, he refused to be remotely pious about the great book he had brought into English literature—if anything, he seems to have generally preferred Pirandello.

(Adam Gopnik, “Why an Imperfect Version of Proust Is a Classic in English,” The New Yorker)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘This Is a Rooster’

Don Quijote’s reference to Orbaneja the Painter stuck with me fondly over the years. It’s as savory now on second reading as it was on first.

… Orbaneja el pintor de Úbeda, al cual preguntándole qué pintaba, respondió: <<Lo que saliere>>. Tal vez [Alguna vez] pintaba un gallo, de tal suerte y tan mal parecido, que era menester que con letras góticas escribiese junto a él: <<Éste es gallo>>.
(“Don Quijote,” ed. Riquer, II-3, p. 602)

My translation:

… Orbaneja, the painter from Ubeda who, upon being asked what he painted, said, “Whatever comes out.” He was once painting a rooster, in such fashion with so poor a resemblance, that he was obliged to write in gothic letters next to it, “This is a rooster.”

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Worse Than God Made Us

… Cada uno meta la mano en su pecho, y no se ponga a juzgar lo blanco por negro y lo negro por blanco; que cada uno es como Dios le hizo, y aun peor muchas veces.
(Sancho Panza, “Don Quijote,” ed. Riquer, II-4, p. 606)

Spirited translation:

… Let each person put hand on heart, and not commence judging white for black and black for white; for we’re all like God made us, and often even worse.
(JMN)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Corn Fusion

“Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”
(Czeslaw Milosz)

I get Ian Mc
Ewan and Ewan
McGregor mixed
up why I ask
myself is it the case
that they are
entertainers should I
know what their claim is
to confounding
me pending is
the impulse
to cede to
the urge to
scratch
the itch to
assuage
the lust to
sort the matter
don’t ask me why
I’ve not had this problem
with Mangosuthu
Buthelezi
and Atahualpa
Yupanqui

transduction:

confundo Ian Mc
Ewan con Ewan
McGregor me
pregunto por
qué es que son
ellos entretenedores
es que debo
saber cuál sea
su derecho a con-
fundirme pendiente
es el impulso de
cederme al
deseo de
rasgar
el picazón que
incita a
aliviar
las ganas de
resolver el tema
no me preguntes
por qué no he
tenido este problema
con Mangosuthu
Buthelezi
y Atahualpa
Yupanqui

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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UK Sculptor: Hard Row to Hoe

[Guardian photo.]

It will be [a shrine], but not for art lovers. Or for anyone who is easily embarrassed. Perhaps not even for Diana’s sincerest believers, for the statue group’s emotive symbolism is undermined by its aesthetic awfulness. In style it breathes the kind of repression and formality which Harry has claimed to reject. Are we sure Charles had no hand here? It looks like his insipid artistic taste. Flat, cautious realism softened by a vague attempt to be intimate make this a spiritless and characterless hunk of nonsense.

(Jonathan Jones, “An awkward, lifeless shrine – the Diana statue is a spiritless hunk of nonsense,” theguardian.com, 7-1-21)

Goodness, these are hard words for a scarcely unveiled sculpture! What good is served by a Grub Street art wonk’s raring-up on his haughty haunches over a new instance of public iconography, preempting an unfiltered look-see by the reader?

Save the berserk opinion-signaling for your Twitter feed, Mr. Jones. Illuminate, inform and guide. Or else, stand down, show some respect for the Guardian reader, and let us have an unobstructed view of your topic.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Write Infrequently, If Possible?

Illustration by Andrea Ventura. [As a student of the painted face I find the faceted rendering by Andrea Ventura worth studying.]

… Unlike many great twentieth-century writers, who saw truth in despair, Milosz’s experiences convinced him that poetry must not darken the world but illuminate it: “Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.” That decision for goodness is what makes Milosz a figure of such rare literary and moral authority. As we enter what looks like our own time of troubles, his poetry and his life offer a reminder of what it meant, and what it took, to survive the twentieth century.

(Adam Kirsch, “Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth,” The New Yorker, 5-29-17)

The stricture on poeticizing comes from a man who wrote prolifically up until dying at age 93. The prescription must mean other and beyond what it purports to say, as poetry will do. And the spirit of either persuasion will choose whom it does, often as not. Surviving such illumination is part of the trick of reading poetry, my evil one tells me.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Travesía (14)

Whitman 1819 – 1892 [Image from www.allenginsberg.org]
Fulton Ferry Boat (Brooklyn, New York), July 1890 via The Library of Congress, Washington DC. [Image from www.allenginsberg.org]

Versión castellana del poema “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856) de Walt Whitman
English text at http://www.poetryfoundation.org
Spanish Interpretation by JMN

[Translator’s note: This is the second segment of the ninth and last part of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Two segments remain.]
(9)
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name!
¡Resonad, voces de jóvenes! ¡Alta y musicalmente llamadme por mi nombre más cercano!
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
¡Vive, vida vieja! ¡Haz el papel que mira en retrospectiva al actor o a la actriz!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small according as one makes it!
¡Haz el papel, el papel que es grande o pequeño según como uno lo interprete!
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Considera, tú que me ojeas, si yo de forma inaudita pudiera estar contemplándote a ti;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Sé firme, barra sobre el río, para soportar a los que que se apoyan ociosamente, aún cuando se apresuran con la corriente presurosa;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
¡Seguid volando, aves marinas! Volad lateralmente, o haced amplios círculos en el aire a gran altura;
Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you!
¡Recibe tú el cielo de verano, agua, y consérvalo fielmente hasta que todo ojo dirigido hacia abajo tenga tiempo de quitártelo!
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sunlit water!
¡Divergid, finos radios de luz, de la figura de mi cabeza, o la cabeza de cualquiera, en el agua soleada!
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!
¡Adelante, buques de la bahía inferior! ¡Pasad arriba o abajo, goletas de vela blanca, balandras, gabarras!
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset!
¡Ostentaos, banderas de todas las naciones! ¡Sed bajadas debidamente al ponerse el sol!
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!
¡Flamead con llamas altísimas, chimeneas fundidoras! ¡Arrojad negras sombras al anochecer! ¡Despedid rayos rojos y amarillos por encima de las casas!

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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How to Act

“You talk and I listen; then I talk and you listen. That’s how it works.”

(90-year-old actor Robert Duvall on the art of acting, interviewed by Stephen Colbert, June 2021)

Duvall’s peer Clint Eastwood is credited with expressing his technique as “Don’t just do something; stand there.”

The deadpan passivity and submissiveness of great acting hinted at by these veterans can be cloaked by the cliché that it’s a gestural, role-flaunting art.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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