November 20, 2016

To be modern: On Contempt (2)

Contempt by Alberto Moravia, tr. Angus Davidson (New York Review Books, 2004)

Riccardo Molteni decided to write down his memories of his wife and their doomed love affair in order that she would be exorcised of him. So he dwelt in his own melancholic recollections, seemingly sustained by a framework of pathological grief, romanticism, and naivete. He could even be considered heroic in his self-imposed funk, preferring to dream of a world in which he felt he was for ever barred, "a world in which people loved without misunderstandings and were loved in return and lived peaceful lives." All this inner emotional acrobatics of Riccardo only served to implicate him in the mess of a narrative bathed in pathos and dreams. The gaps in his memory he could only attribute to "a fainting fit, or ... some kind of collapse or unconsciousness very like a fainting fit."

Contempt represented a kind of trap for readers. The consistency of tone throughout the narrative reinforced an impermeable, blameless quality to the way it was told. Ultimately it proposed certain ideas about the perception of classical art and how it was valued by the present world through interpretations and endless interpretations. The varied interpretation of the Odyssey inside Contempt was a sneaky device. It brought to light the variety of meanings that could be derived from the intersection of the classic and the modern. Specifically, how the Odyssey was interpreted by the characters yielded many openings into the story. The variety of views into the epic poem, and its correspondences with the marriage plot, became the launching pad for dichotomizing modernity and tradition, contemporary and classicism, civilization and savagery. Must we interpret the classics in our own time using our own zeitgeist or should we stick to the classical framework of Ulysses' heroism and nobility? Must the modern (and its attendant philosophical and psychological baggage) intrude so much on the sacrosanct value of the epic?

Riccardo wanted for his screenplay a version of the Odyssey that hewed closely to the supposed original intents of Homer ("made as Homer wrote it"). Rheingold, the movie director hired by Battista the producer, wanted a modern adaptation of it, with a Freudian spin on the relationship between Ulysses and Penelope ("in accordance with the latest discoveries in modern psychology"). The distance of time, the wide gulf between the ages, was very pronounced in this. "Dante is Dante: a man of the Middle Ages," said Rheingold. "You, Molteni, are a modern man." Ostensibly about the breakdown of a marriage, the novel could also be about the interpretation and reinterpretation of art through the ages. We were no longer just reading about one failing marriage but the contextual, literary clues behind it. The characters were now dishing out concepts like heroism and steadfastness, being civilized and being barbaric.

Was Emilia breaking off with Riccardo because he was "civilized", as Rheingold described him? If by "civilized" we mean not stepping on other toes, being politically correct, guided in life mainly by the invisible hand of materialism, prodded on by the selfish gene, then Riccardo must be it. He had a certain deficiency in his character, a certain insensitivity. He must be one of the most insensitive characters in fiction, rivaled to some extent by the intellectual coldness and rationality of Shimamura in Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country.

In Emilia's traditional view of the world, at least as Riccardo interpreted her, "civilized" alone would not cut it. Civilized might be the working of a pure intellect or reason. It is not empathy; one has to care sincerely, genuinely. Though not the literary type, Emilia was perhaps the better interpreter of feelings. Her actions spoke volumes—not in so many words as the wordy Riccardo spouted in his funk-filled memoir—about rejecting the imbalance in her husband's temperament, the "lack" that made him superfluous and less than a man.

Whether I was despicable or not—and I was convinced that I was not—I still retained my intelligence, a quality which even Emilia recognized in me and which was my whole pride and justification. I was bound to think, whatever the object of my thought may be; it was my duty to exercise my intelligence fearlessly in the presence of any kind of mystery.

By Riccardo's own admission, only his intellect could sustain him. Without it he would not be able to fully crystallize his thoughts and conjure the whole story. Emilia, for her part, would be sustained by the powerful feeling of contempt for him. Given the masculine forces vying for her attention, contempt could only be her handhold.

The modern novel, Borges believed, was a narrative devoid of heroes and knights and epic battles. It was filled with superfluous characters bound to degrade themselves by their own telling and bound only to demonstrate their epic psychological breakdown. Modernization was, necessarily, and according to Riccardo, a work "of debasement, of degradation, of profanation", which was how he described James Joyce's Ulysses, an adaptation with which Borges also had several issues.

The modern novel is the novel of literary criticism. How art is or ought to be perceived is already contained in it. Because it is already aware that it is a narrative construction (because its building block is complex memory), its artfulness is detected in this self-awareness. Modernism in novels like Moravia's, realist or otherwise, is already colored by interpretation, by mimicking and then flouting the conventions of literary criticism.

And so the characters in these novels would be intellectual and literary. They would not be typecast as hero or villain, and they would not be tied down by any labels. They would not commit to one neat explanation of their profound or banal situation. Instead they would go on, even after the last page; they would not cease to be the hero-character or the villain-character, to be Ulysses or to be Penelope. They would continue to speak and spin meanings and assert their unfathomable modernness. And the novelist would not allow any of these characters to have the last word.

The contribution of modern novels, imho, was proffering challenge to envision the alternative pathways, many views and perspectives, often the very opposite views of the popular and the commonplace, in fact. And to acknowledge that barbarity plays a role in exploring generous and compassionate ways of transacting with fellow human beings. If by "barbarity" we mean disabusing oneself of the ideal notion of politics, being pragmatic but not ruthless and unfeeling, accounting for savagery and pure appetite (the Battistas of the world), and sometimes wallowing in a funky tedium and emerging with a certainty that everything, the world, was not tidy and will never be.

Rheingold resumed: "And now I should like to explain some of my ideas to you. I presume you can drive and listen at the same time?"

"Of course," I said; but at that same moment, as I turned very slightly towards him, a cart drawn by two oxen appeared out of a side road and I had to swerve suddenly. The car heeled over, zig-zagged violently, and I had considerable difficulty in righting it, just in time to avoid a tree, by a narrow margin. Rheingold started to laugh. "One would say not," he remarked.

"Don't bother about that," I said, rather annoyed. "It was quite impossible for me to have seen those oxen. Go on: I'm listening."

In simple words, modernity was openness to ideas, driving and listening at the same time, trying to avoid freak accidents, trumping a calcified vision of a new world order. Bring in the daring adaptations. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Bring in literary criticism inside novels. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands by Peter Weiss. Perhaps years from now, someone would write or adapt in post-modern fashion a novel in which characters debate about the motivations of the characters in Contempt.

November 13, 2016

The task of the translator

In The Character of Rain, translated by Timothy Bent, Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb had a gifted toddler-age girl already speaking and reading very well in French and Japanese. These talents she intentionally concealed from her family except her nanny, the only one she had had regular conversations with.

"Do you really understand everything I'm saying to you?"
"You learned how to speak Japanese before you learned to speak French?"
"They're the same thing."
And indeed, I hadn't known there were such things as separate languages, only that there was one great big language and that one could choose either the Japanese version of it or the French version, whichever you preferred. I had not yet heard a language I couldn't understand."

The child was given to understand that that there was only one vocabulary from which she could pick out words in French or Japanese. This was a child who taught herself to read just by flipping books. If there was another language she could learn, then she likely would just expand the vocabulary of her single, perfect language.

In a post-Babel, multicultural world, this belief in a single, coherent language was a perfect dream and a child's wish. This belief in a unifying language was evident in the process and function of translation to combine together languages into a perfect harmony. Walter Benjamin thought so in "The Task of the Translator", his famous and widely anthologized essay that was a staple crop in translation studies:

Kayâ nga ang layon ng pagsasalin, sa madalîng salitâ, ay ang pagpapahayag ng pinakamatatalik na ugnayan o relasyon ng mga wika. Hindi maibubunyag o maipakikita ng mismong pagsasalin ang matatalik na relasyong ito; gayunman, maaari nitóng katawanin o bigyang-representasyon ang mga nasabing relasyon kung isasakatuparan sa paraang panimula at intensibo.... Gayunman, ang ipinalalagay na matalik na ugnayang ito ng mga wika ay isang relasyon ng di-pangkaraniwang pagtatagpo. Nakasalig ito sa katotohanang hindi magkakahidwa ang mga wika sa isa't isa, at gaya ng tanggap na paniniwala at taliwas sa lahat ng mga ugnayang pangkasaysayan, may pagkakaugnay-ugnay ang mga wika sa kanilang ibig sabihin. [1]

[Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages to our answer. It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form.... As for the posited innermost kinship of languages, it is marked by a peculiar convergence. This special kinship holds because languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.]

If Benjamin was to be believed, then translation was the ideal, harmonizing medium to filter and express linguistic meanings and effect. The attempt to transfer what was written from one language to another was an attempt to reconcile discrepant thoughts and philosophy, thereby bringing languages closer (in innermost kinship) together. Ideas in one language might be resistant to translation. Put under the legislating mind of a capable translator, these ideas would be carefully considered and transformed and coded in another language. There was an aura of mystery to this transformation, the transformed idea authenticated or validated by how much it retained or emitted the energizing effect, the echo or reverberation (alingawngaw), of the original.

In another section of his essay, Benjamin asserted that translations were capable of hiding the language of truth.

Ano't anuman, kung may isang wika ng katotohanan na panatag at tahimik na kinalalagakan ng pinakamahahalagang lihim na pinagsisikapang matuklas ng lahat ng pagdalumat, ang wikang ito ng katotohanan, kung gayon, ang tunay na wika. At ang wikang ito—na ang lahat ng pagpapalagay at paglalarawan ay inaasahang makamit ng pilosopo—ay masinsinang nakakubli sa salin. [1]

[If there is such a thing as a language of truth, a tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate secrets for which all thought strives, then this language of truth is—the true language. And this very language, in whose divination and description lies the only perfection for which a philosopher can hope, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.]

Benjamin was obviously talking of good translations wherein the true language hides. In his essay, he took great pains to characterize the "unrestrained license of bad translators" [2] who were mainly concerned with the transfer of "inessential content" (di mahalagang nilalaman) and suffering from literalness. Literalness was not entirely evil in design. In fact, Benjamin understood that the desire to be faithful to form (yet another way of being literal) impedes the transfer of meaning. Translation as a balancing act meant a text's fidelity (literalness) to form was considered alongside freedom to diverge from form and content.

But negative formulation to define bad translations could only get one so far. It was only Benjamin's entry toward exploring the issues of translatability, liberation of meaning, and the hidden poetry in languages.

Unity and truth in language (through the translation medium) were concepts leading toward the dream for another language. Here we were given an optical image of translation as facilitating the view of the original through transparent lenses.

Ang pinakamataas na papuring masasabi, lalo na sa panahon ng pagkakaakda ng salin, ay hindi ang "nababása ang salin na para bang orihinal ito sa wikang pinagsalinan." Kataliwas nitó, ang halaga ng katapatan na sineseguro ng literal na salin ay nása pangyayaring sinasalamin ng akda ang marubdob na lunggating maging ganap (kompleto) ang wika. Lagusang-tanaw (transparente) ang tunay na salin: hindi pinalalabo ang orihinal, hindi tinatabingan ang liwanag ng orihinal, at sa halip, hinahayaang makapaglagos ang wikang wagas—na animo pinag-ibayong lakas ng sarili nitóng anyo—upang lubos pang masinagan ang orihinal. Nagagawang posible ito sa pamamagitan ng pagtatawid ng sintaksis nang salitâ-sa-salitâ; at ipinakikita nitó na ang salitâ, hindi ang pangungusap, ang orihinal na elemento ng salin. Sapagkat ang pangungusap ang siyang pader sa harap ng wika ng orihinal, ang salitâ-sa-salitâng paglilipat ang siya namang lagusan.

[It is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.]

It was translation that had the capacity to recall pure language, to build the wordy edifice of an expansive novel, sustained and animated by the power of the original novel, with a renewed and renewable force of imagination. The transparent prose of that great novel was the "arcade" or bridge that conveyed stuff both familiar and mysterious, recognizable and strange.

A language of unity, truth, and purity was a language against intolerance, wars, colonialism, racism, and tyranny. Linguistic translation as a liberating force against misunderstanding: this, for Benjamin, ought to be the translator's duty: Ang palayain sa kaniyang sariling wika ang wikang wagas na naengkanto sa banyagang wika, ang palayain ang wikang napiit sa akda sa pamamagitan ng muling pagsulat dito. (To release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.) [3]. Pierre Menard was turning in his grave.


1. Quoted from "Ang Tungkulin ng Tagasalin" (The Task of the Translator) by Walter Benjamin, translated into Filipino by Michael M. Coroza, in Introduksiyon sa Pagsasalin: Mga Panimulang Babásahín Hinggil sa Teorya at Praktika ng Pagsasalin, edited by Virgilio S. Almario (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015). All subsequent quotations in Filipino were from this source.

Coroza based his Filipino version of the essay on three translations: two in English (by Steven Rendall and Harry Zohn) and one in Spanish. All passages in English translations were from Zohn's translation of the essay, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings.

2. In Coroza's Filipino version: walang habas na kalayaan (loosely: untethered freedom).

3. A literal rendition of the Filipino can be: "To liberate in his own language that pure language which was enchanted within the foreign language, to liberate the language incarcerated inside a work through rewriting of that work."

November 12, 2016

On Contempt

Contempt by Alberto Moravia, tr. Angus Davidson (New York Review Books, 2004)


As I came into the sitting-room I saw Emilia sitting in an armchair, her legs crossed, and Battista standing in one corner in front of a bar on wheels. Battista greeted me gaily: Emilia, on the other hand, asked me, in a plaintive, almost melting tone, where I had been all that time. I answered lightly that I had had an accident, realizing at the same time that I was adopting a tone of evasiveness, as if I had something to conceal: in reality it was simply the tone of one who attributes no importance to what he is saying.

By his own direct (or indirect) and conscious (or unconscious) admission, the narrator of Alberto Moravia's frustrating novel was unreliable. He did, and did not, ascribe truth to what he was saying. In fact he said a lot, and what he said betrayed all his surface feelings, so truthful and sensitively conveyed his whining was almost comical and pitiful. Perhaps it was half-meant to be a comedy, half-meant to be a tragedy.

Riccardo Molteni was the unfaithful narrator, and Contempt was the story of his realization of his wife's contempt of him. Emilia fell out of love for him, gradually and suddenly. She came to detest him. Our puzzled narrator was slowly coming to grips with this reality unfolding in front of him without his full participation at first because of his seeming apathy or lethargy or self-delusion. He would easily come across as a buffoon were it not for the perfectly controlled voice held in suspension, telling of his wife's conjugal disaffection in a roundabout way.

Molteni's profession was on point. He was a movie scriptwriter, and so his dramatic situation needed to be told with a bit of suspense, with a bit of flair, an emphatic withdrawal at first of the full blast of meaning before a marital bomb explodes on his face.

And now, as if my eyes had been at last opened to a fact which was clear and yet, till that moment, invisible, I was conscious that this communion might no longer exist between us, in fact, no longer did exist. And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned, for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.

Our character was helpless on the page: half-dreaming, half-awake, and clueless. To be fair, the initial symptoms of a wife's love lost were not entirely lost on him. He was not completely surprised when his wife finally broke up with him.

What anchored his endless complaints on the page was the fervor of his folly combined with an intellectualized denial of an intellectualized love. His blind adherence to the romantic notion of constancy was meant to be shattered and witnessed in its full, pathetic glory. The reader was a hapless participant in the awkward affair, forced to observe a private struggle against mechanical passions and manipulated emotions.

The labor and capital of the filmmaking business were hardly to blame, but they sure played a part in the dissolution of his marriage. The writer was enslaved to write something commercial so he could earn a lot of money to pay for his finances. In the process, he neglected the essential connections in his life, which likely contributed to Emilia's estrangement with him.

Working together on a script means living together from morning to night, it means the marriage and fusion of one's own intelligence, one's own sensibility, one's own spirit, with those of other collaborators; it means, in short, the creation, during the two or three months that the work lasts, of a fictitious, artificial intimacy whose only purpose is the making of the film, thereby, in a last analysis (as I have already mentioned) the making of money.

Sacrifices had to be made at the altar of the silver screen. Molteni was practical enough not to be entirely dazzled by the trappings of commercial work, and he knew that to be consumed by "the prospect of the cash" and by the routine and repetition of commercial storytelling could constitute a failure of the imagination: "and indeed the mechanical, stereo-typed way in which scripts are fabricated strongly resembles a kind of rape of the intelligence".

Moravia was a connoisseur of narrative suspension: of suspenseful deferment of confrontations, of manufactured escape from reality. Molteni thrived on self-deception, always on the brink of a deferred insight or revelation in order to deny the bitter pill of truth. But once his marriage plot unraveled, and his life turned upside down, we could be sure he had an apt metaphor, something violent, to bring to his condition.

I was, in fact, convinced now that Emilia could no longer love me; but I did not know either why or how this had come about; and in order to be entirely persuaded of it I must have an explanation with her, I must seek out and examine, I must plunge the thin, ruthless blade of investigation into the wound which, hitherto, I had exerted myself to ignore.

He certainly could bring out the dramatic push he needed to investigate (or rather dissect) the plot of his marriage. All the philosophical noise and intellectualized discourse only served to heighten his odyssey into a cog in the wheel of cash economy. 

I was still half-way through the novel and still could not decide whether I need to find out what happened during the island interlude in Capri and whether Molteni's further spiraling out of control is worth all the drama behind it. The reader could not be blamed for being ambivalent towards a forgetful narrator intent on overanalyzing his version of a kollosal divorce. The screenwriter was shrewdly setting up a scene where all lost hopes converge and the light of his life fades to black. Awakening readerly Schadenfreude: maybe it was his writerly strategy to elicit sympathy for belaboring the point of missed connections, missed signals, and conjugal distrust.