“SWAEROES ten commandments”

Malavath Poorna, star of the 2015 biopic Poorna: Courage Has No Limit, scaled Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina yesterday, to become the “world’s first tribal woman to scale [the] four highest mountain peaks located in four continents.”

Pedro_and_Aconcagua
Pedro the airplane and Aconcagua, from Saludos Amigos (Disney and RKO Pictures, 1942).

At age 13, Poorna became the youngest woman ever to climb Sagarmatha (also known as Mt. Everest).  Now 19, she credits her success to the “ten commandments” of the Social Welfare AEROES (or “SWAEROES”) movement, following B.R. Ambedkar’s ideas to educate and empower marginalized and scheduled caste children.

The Swaeroes “ten commandments” are listed on the website of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society as follows:

  • I am not inferior to anyone.
  • I shall be the leader wherever I am.
  • I shall do what I love and be different.
  • I shall always think Big and Aim high.
  • I shall be honest, hardworking and punctual.
  • I shall never blame others for my failures.
  • I shall neither beg nor cheat.
  • I shall repay what I borrow.
  • I shall never fear the unknown.
  • I shall never give up.

(Apparently, an alternative route up Aconcagua, the Glaciar de los Polacos, was named after Konstanty Jodko-Narkiewicz, a Polish geophysicist and balloonist who led an expedition there in 1934.  Jodko-Narkiewicz studied cosmic radiation at different altitudes, contributing to what was then the new field of Raman scattering.  The early history of the Raman effect, and the emergence of Raman spectroscopy is a fascinating index of the politics of science in the 1930s.  Indian physicists C.V. Raman and K.S. Krishnan first reported the scattering effect in liquids in 1928, but the Soviet physicists Grigory Landsberg and Leonid Mandelstam had presented a paper on the same effect in crystals the day before Raman and Krishnan reported their first observations.  But the Soviets couldn’t independently verify their work to the Nobel Committee, which awarded   the prize for Physics to Raman in 1930.  Russian secondary literature continues to refer not to the Raman effect but to “combination scattering.”)

“not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil”

Borget European_Factories_at_Canton
Lithograph of Auguste Borget, “European Factories at Canton” (c.1840).

Martha Nussbaum describes how “the structure of the interaction between the text and its imagined reader invites the reader to see how the mutable features of society and circumstance bear on the realization of shared hopes and desires, and, in fact, on their very shape and structure” (199).  As an example, she gives an account of her own engagements with Dickens’s Hard Times:

As reader (a real-life reader, occupying for the present the role of the implied reader), I notice that the lives of factory workers in my own society differ in some ways from the lives of the workers of Coketown; in other ways, however, they do not differ as much as one might wish. I notice that access to divorce in my own society is easier and less class-divided than it was in the time of Stephen Blackpool; but in other respects gender relations and problems connected with marriage and the family have not changed. I notice that Gradgrind economics has an even greater hold over the political and intellectual life of my society than it did over the society known to Dickens’s characters, or to the authorial voice. And I wonder about this change, in connection with my interest in the novel’s criticisms of this norm of rationality. In all these ways and others, I am invited to think what should be, and to see how “men and women more or less like” myself (Dickens’s way, in the novel, of describing the people his characters encounter when they read novels) have lived differently from the way in which I now live […]

(“Reply to Richard Eldridge,”Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 199.)

(The post title quote is from the Penguin edition of Hard Times, edited by Kate Flint, p.71.)

” ‘mid the din of towns and cities, / I have owed to them”

Paraphrasing Wordsworth’s understanding of what it means to attend to ordinary experience, to renew the poet’s own and his readers’ “interest” in it, Richard Eldridge in Literature, Life, and Modernity writes: “The proper work of poetry is not simply the depictive presentation of a subject matter but rather the working through of feeling in relation to a subject so that genuineness of feeling is achieved.”

Ostrovrsnik Daydreaming
Jaka Ostrovršnik, “Daydreaming” (2014).

We worry that our feelings, especially those that fill our daily routines and prompt our ordinary lives, are not fully “apt to the object of attention.”  We miss meaning, fumbling insensibly with what could be our keys.  The worry is that even our most intense experiences are simply sensations, reactions elicited from things, not attentive responses given by human “subjects.”

(Eldridge turns again and again to “subjects” as a contrast to things, partly to contest theories that debunk subjects and subjectivity.  But here it seems like the language of “characters” or, in a Confucian register, “gentlemen,” might work, as long as these were understood as achievements rather than essences.)

“historically inflected philosophy by other means”

Cezanne Still life with Italian earthenware jar c1874
Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with Italian Earthenware Jar” (c.1874).

Is that what Manet and Cézanne are up to?  That’s what Robert Pippin explores in a lecture last year based on his recent book, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).  When the face of Le Dejeuner sur l’herb looks out at us, or when the varying solidity of spheres spilling out of The Basket of Apples seems to weigh on us, what kind of challenge are they presenting?

The pear and jar in “Still Life with Italian Earthenware Jar” both seem to defy a stable height for the beholder.  It’s as if the jar resists tilting toward us if we rise up (on tip-toe?) to see into it from above: it has to be angled toward us, yet looking at the bottom, I can’t escape the feeling that it’s also tilting away from us.  Likewise, the pear seems pointed down, but as if the beholder is floating further up.  The conditions of our beholding a painting are usually understood to be a stable perspective: from a certain height and distance, our gaze moving within a cone from that point to the canvas.  Yet Cezanne (somehow) makes us feel our motion in front of a painting, leaning in or angling ourselves, caught halfway between behaving as if these were real objects (that we could move around and get a better or different view of) and behaving as if they were color patterns of some interest, from which we were entirely detached.

On drips

christus_am_kreuz_detail_by_lucas_cranach

Detail from Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christus am Kreutz (c. 1520-1522),  CC-BY 2.0.

Leaks have been in the news lately (and it might be interesting to think about why “leaks” became a term in English for improper disclosures of information in the 1950s, or how “blowing the whistle on” an activity used to imply also bringing the activity to a sharp conclusion), but, whereas leaks imply loss and injury, drips are more ambiguous.

Stanley Lombardo translates one of Sappho’s fragments (#37 in Campbell’s standard collection, but #64 in Lombardo’s version) as “in my dripping pain.”  Just that.  That’s the entirety of the fragment (although there may be a related piece).  “In my dripping pain.”  What might Sappho have meant?  Where was this verse leading?  Whose pain was being given a voice here?

Anne Carson, with more typographical license, and perhaps more focus on textuality generally, adds parentheses: “in my dripping (pain)” (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 75).  In a wonderful endnote, she points to three significant contexts for thinking about what Sappho might be doing here.  The first is its provenance: we have the fragment because an ancient etymologist was discussing words for pain.  The second is a line from the chorus in Agamemnon, describing their anxieties in the night: “And it drips in sleep before my heart / the grief-remembering pain” (Qtd. 365).  The noun Sappho uses for dripping is, Carson notes, cognate with the verb for dripping Aeschylus uses here.

Richard Lattimore translates the full strophe from which this line was taken as follows:

Zeus, who guided men to think,

who has laid it down that wisdom

comes alone through suffering.

Still there drips in sleep against the heart

grief of memory; against

our will temperance comes.

From the gods who sit in grandeur

grace is somehow violent.

(Aeschylus II, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, 26-27)

And here is Peter Meineck’s version:

He set us mortals on the road to understanding,

and he has laid down his law:

“Man must learn by suffering!”

Not even sleep can relieve the painful memories

that fall upon the heart, drop by drop,

discretion comes even to the unwilling.

The grace is forced upon us

by sacred spirits who reign above.          (Oresteia, 9-10).

I can’t adjudicate the accuracy of any of the translations, but I can see that Meineck’s offers a much clearer line of interpretation than Lattimore’s.  The “road to understanding” is what is laid down in the quoted law.  Suffering is the path to understanding.  Painful experience engraves itself upon the heart in ways that sleep (and by implication even dreams) cannot stop.  In a wonderful inversion, grace is “forced upon us.” (Was Yeats thinking of these lines when he was writing “Leda and the Swan”?).  “Sacred spirits” is a bit distracting to my ignorant ear: even in the plural, it brings “grace” too close to later Christian meanings that any translator is already hard-pressed to avoid, or make strange.

Lattimore’s translation, by contrast, is harder to make sense of, but is much more rhythmically striking and — at least on a first reading — impressively undecided.  That is, it has the sound of the Chorus still thinking things through rather than presenting a report of their conclusions.  The exact relationship between “thinking” and “wisdom” and “suffering” is not at all clear, however tightly linked they become in the mesmerizing prosody of “alone through suffering.”  Whatever its accuracy as a translation of the Greek, beginning the next line with “still” is a masterstroke for performance.  It opens up the possibility that the Chorus is itself here doing what Zeus laid down: thinking, suffering, attempting to bring its concrete experience to painful consciousness.  Likewise, I’m struck by Lattimore’s registering the confused hesitation in the chorus’s realization that grace is violent “somehow,” and his having pain teach not “discretion,” but “temperance.”

The sense of a drip-dripping sequence of pains tempering a body, giving it a particular texture and character, returns us to Carson’s gloss on Sappho’s fragment.  The other significant context she offers for “dripping (pain)” comes from Hamm’s lines in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:

There’s something dripping in my head.

(Pause.)

A heart in my head.

In Aeschylus, a somatically engraved anxiety contorts dreams and brings before the heart — the seat of soul and mindedness for the ancient Greeks — “grief-remembered pain.”  There’s more than a hint in Hamm’s lines of this sense of long-weathered, ill-comprehended experience carving his destiny.

But, of course, in Hamm, any such sense of his own fate is bathetically shrunk.  His line has the sound of the comically literal.  Maybe that’s all consciousness is: something dripping in the head.  All the lyricism of existential confrontation seems to be leached out of Hamm’s statement: it seems to be a bare attempt to describe the phenomenological sensation.  Of course, he doesn’t say it feels as if something’s dripping in his head.  Nor does he declaim it in a way that might give “dripping” a melodramatic, lurid cast, i.e. having the actor leap up onto the battlements, etc.  (In fact, as ever, Beckett’s scenic imagination — including here Hamm’s blindness and restriction to his chair — seems designed to prevent or dismantle such earnest declamations.)  What would it mean to have a heart in your head — and does Hamm mean something like a yearning soul or something like a mere pumping muscle?

 

That claim about 1910

cezanne-medea-after-delacroix

Paul Cézanne, Medea (after Delacroix), c. 1879-1882.

Virginia Woolf gets a lot of grief for having claimed, with some to-be-debated level of irony, that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” (Selected Essays 38).  This is often misquoted as a claim that human “nature” changed, sometimes by folks who should know better, but usually in the context of some self-regarding cocktail party dismissal of Woolf as being herself hopelessly snobbish and self-involved.  Harumph, they say, a few crazy paintings change our biological nature?  Indeed, what silliness.  Of course the fact that Woolf was carefully staging what she called her “intolerable egotism” for the benefit of the Heretics Society at Cambridge in 1924, and that her sense of “character” in this paragraph is a carefully qualified, but nonetheless savage assault on earlier novelists’ practices of characterization, usually goes unremarked.

Yes, for those of you who’ve read the essay (and if you haven’t, you should), she’s probably being gratuitously unfair to Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  And, yes, she’s probably being hasty (but this was 1924!) about lumping together the ungainly assortment of writers like Forster, Strachey, Lawrence, Eliot, and Joyce.  In hindsight, this generational distinction obscures as much as it illuminates.  And paradoxically the rise of Woolf’s own status as a canonical modernist has drawn attention to the women absent from her formulation: Mansfield and Richardson, but also, in different ways, Wharton, Loy, HD, and Stein.  Still, there’s something powerful about Woolf’s claim, and I think it goes well beyond misunderstandings of its seriousness.

In context, she was widening our understanding of what we do when we read “characters” in a novel.  Judging character, she suggests, is one of our most common activities.  It’s part of our everyday life and it ranges in intent and complexity from malicious but delicious gossip to sustained attempts to understand the inner workings of another person.  “It would be impossible,” she said (or writes that she said), “to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art” (38).  Notice how what sounds like a strident assertion at the start–it would be impossible–depends on a series of much more pragmatic-sounding qualifications.  Could you go for a year without trying to interpret someone’s character?  Can you really become a mature adult–whatever that means–without having some skill in guessing people’s motives and tendencies?  But before her assertion entirely dissolves into platitude, she makes what I think is a much more interesting claim that usually gets obscured by what follows:  “Our marriages, our friendships depend on [the art of character-reading]; every day, questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  So what is the sense of character in play here?

We might think that, if our marriages and friendships–and we might want to generalize here to all manner of our serious emotional and cognitive partnerships–if such significant relations depend upon reading it, then “character” might be the essence of another person.  Or, if like the Edwardians we’re entertaining doubts about Romantic claptrap about knowing “essences,” then we might take it to be the sturdy accumulation of sometimes contradictory but eventually conclusive empirical evidence about another person’s habits and proclivities.   “Character” would be the “deep” and consistent personality underlying a person’s ambiguous but ultimately superficial actions.  We might think that, but we would be wrong.  After all, as we are about hear, character can change.

I’m still trying to figure out for myself whether Woolf’s subsequent attempt at, as she says, “abstracting” her claim by looking to the change in the attitude of “one’s cook” is as rankly class-bound as it sounds, but, for the moment, I want to stay with the “character” side of her claim.  That is, I’m not interested in defending what seems to be her argument that because Wells (et al.) don’t pay much attention to middle-class women’s emotional lives, they’ve missed a fundamental shift in “human” character.  Clearly, as Raymond Williams (and many since) have pointed out, there’s a problem with regarding a “fraction” of human relations (i.e. Bloomsbury’s or Oxbridge’s raised eyebrow at their servants’ new uppityness) as somehow standing in for the whole (“The Bloomsbury Fraction,” in Culture and Materialism).  What I am interested in defending, or at least further exploring, is the last part of the sentence.  (I excuse myself for the moment from dealing with Woolf’s entirely subversive inclusion of “our business” as also one of the major forms of human relation that depend on — but this only “largely”!–on the art of reading character.  Thinking about the forms of character read in marriage and friendship versus business, in Britain in the 1920s or generally, would take at least a book to sort out.)  Against both the clichéd romantic ideas of “essential” character or more recent “disenchanted” views of character as an accumulated property, Woolf asserts that the importance of reading character comes from its ordinariness and its dailiness: “every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  What sorts of questions might these be?  How might our ad hoc, impromptu attempts to cope with them amount to a skill?

Woolf ends her talk by demanding that her audience (Heretics, but still, perhaps, deserving of a slap) not expect “just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment” of her famous example, “Mrs. Brown” (54).  “Tolerate,” she says, “the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure” (54).  She is partly alluding to what she calls Eliot’s “obscurity” and Joyce’s “indecency,” but here their methods have been subsumed into a larger call for an explicitly ethical form of attention.  The methods they discover, however distasteful or obsessive they seem to Woolf or her listeners, might open the way to “one of the great ages of English literature”–but only, Woolf says, “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown” (54).  How are the skills of character-reading, skills honed and created in response to different problems every day, connected to this ethical demand?  Would cultivating our ability to, as recent narratology has it, “read minds” really improve us?  Would it make us less likely to desert Mrs. Brown–or would it make us more likely to exploit her, as if she were another “problem” to be solved?

Odysseus Resting (I)

battle_of_quingua

Kurtz & Allison chromolithograph, “The Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.”

Talking about Homer is tricky.  There’s the wonderful story: the spellbinding yarns of old soldiers and lost sailors, spinning out tales of battles that shine with the forces of the gods and cunning escapes with clever lessons for us about how to be at home in the world.  But even in Athens, by the 5th century BCE, there were serious doubts about the ability of narratives to accurately convey the facts.  Even epics as marvelous and apparently comprehensive as the Iliad and the Odyssey might distort our understanding of what happened in the past and how it continues to shape events around us.  Thucydides, in particular, worried about the way that, in a democracy, Homeric poetry and other sinuous forms of persuasive rhetoric, could give rise to a world of “alternative facts.”  The historian of the Peloponnesian War was deeply suspicious about a democracy’s susceptibility to the flowery words of would-be tyrants.  Josiah Ober points out how Thucydides repeatedly distinguishes between mere rhetoric and the foundations of actual power:

[W]e have no need of a Homer to sing our praises, nor of any suchlike whose fine words please only for the moment, since the truth (alētheia) will show that in comparison with the facts (erga), [the verbal depiction] is an underestimate.  (Qtd. in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 85.)

Ober argues that the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, as related to us by Thucydides, is a complex, “self-subversive,” demonstration of the dangers of Athenian exceptionalism.  Pericles makes an elegant defense of democratic knowledge, of the idea “of making policy on the basis of logoi” and “reject[ing] the existence of a hierarchy between logoi and erga,” but, as Thucydides presents him, Pericles undercuts his own logos as manifested in words rather than in more durable monuments of architecture — or verifiable historical narrative (88).  Thucydides, Ober writes, “considers untested and competing logoi to be a dubious basis for understanding reality” (88).

The OED tells me that the earliest instance of “tricky” in English having the colloquial sense of containing “unexpected difficulties” and requiring “cautious action or handling” is surprisingly recent.  Their earliest instance is from Charles Locke Eastwood’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, and Other Details, published in London in 1868:

Chromo-lithography […] accustoms the eye to easily rendered and therefore tricky effects of color which falsify rather than illustrate nature.

Does Homer also “accustom the eye” to false colors?  Does the flash and resonance of the conflict among the gods trick hearers into thinking that an analogous conflict of reasons and frank speech will lead to stable government?

Sojourning settlers

lilien_hebron

E.M. Lilien, Hebron (1922), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

After Sarah died, Abraham went before the Hittites to ask for permission to bury her, an important act not only for the grieving husband, but also for the identity of the nation and the people that the stories of Genesis were meant to bring together.  It isn’t only ancient cultures who believe that burying ancestors in a place gives heirs a sacred claim to it.  But what sort of a claim?  Today, we would want to make a distinction between legal or political claims and moral claims, of the sort that might entail visitation rights but not ownership.  This is a complex issue, and two translations of Genesis suggest how difficult it is for us to understand the underlying grammar (legal? moral? religious?) of the narrated actions.

Abraham begins his speech by declaring himself an immigrant.  In the translation of the Oxford Annotated Bible: “Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites: I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:3-4).  This translation gives Abraham’s claim the sound of a precise legal matter.  He is asserting residency status and requesting a grant of property.  (It’s also easy to read too much into “out of sight” which makes Abraham sound as if he’s making an appeal to the Hittites’ pragmatism or perhaps their disgust, hinting that this whole display of the bodies is somehow theatrical.  But other translations make this much less plausible, so we should probably ignore that aspect of Abraham’s voice here.)  So is this a legal claim?   According to Robert Alter, the “bureaucratic coloration” of the term “resident alien” (and, by extension, the sense of the Oxford translation) “misrepresents the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary 129).

Alter devotes much more attention to the poetry of parataxis and diction.  For Alter, the seemingly excessive “ands” that attach one sentence to the next and one phrase to another are a significant part of the vision of the world underlying the writing of Genesis.  Likewise, subtle shifts in tense and register.  Attempting to catch these modulations of decorum, Alter distinguishes Abraham’s voice from the narrator’s, giving in his translation a much more resonant (and morally complex) beginning: “And Abraham rose from before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you.  Grant me a burial holding with you, and let me bury my dead now before me'” (23:3-4).  The subsequent dialogue with the Hittites, Alter suggests, actually presents an exciting and nuanced negotiation over the definition of Abraham’s status (is he “with” them or “among” them?) and over his claim to a “holding.”

the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

lam visage cubiste-1939

Wilfredo Lam, “Visage cubiste” (1939), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

At what point do Cubism and the various early twentieth-century avant-gardes intersect with “real” history?  In the post-WWII, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq War(s) era, it can seem as if earlier experiments with genre and medium are a luxury the world can no longer afford.  Fredric Jameson, with characteristically two-edged irony, calls modernism “our classicism” — suggesting that our nostalgia for those wilder forms of abstraction and performance is motivated by a bad faith that at once preserves and entombs.  What do we today, multi-national and polyvalent as we are, have to do with attempts to get at the essence of painting, or ethnicity, or embodiment?

I started thinking about this question while reading Aimé Césaire’s “Avis de tirs” (“Gunnery Warning”) from Les armes miraculeuses (1946).  Is this poem surrealist?  Or, like Lam’s face above, cubist?  Some combination of the two or something new?  First of all, I’m struck by the way Césaire knocks all the conventional interpretations of Dalí’s overfamously oozing watches out of my mind:

délacent avant temps

le corsage des versus

et la foudroyante géométrie du trigonocéphale

pour mon rêve aux jambes de montre en retard

pour ma haine de cargison coulée […]

And in Clayton Eschleman and Annette Smith’s translation:

unlace prematurely

the bodice of bolts

and the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

for my dream with the legs of a slow watch

for my sunken cargo hatred.

(The Collected Poetry, 89)

Césaire, somehow suddenly, translates all of surrealism’s infatuations with dream-machine technology and its semi-profound speculations about time into a more historically concrete experience: the material legacies of colonialism in Martinique.  What can sometimes seem to be surrealism’s apolitical associative anarchy or, worse, reactionary escapism, fleeing in all directions away from what is right in front of your nose, here instead constellates, pulling together a set of phenomenologically rich images with a history of “sunken cargo hatred.”

And notice that the speaker is talking about “dream-legs” or a dream “with” the legs of a slow watch, not a dream of a slow watch.  Césaire’s watch is the form, not the content — not the material being worked on, but the practice of working.