Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost in translation?

A recent list in The Guardian proposed 100 novels that one should read.  They were all in English, and this is surely not right.  Still the question arose of the adequacy of translations.  Here is my response.

How much in fact can one gain from reading a novel in translation, as distinct from the original text? Balzac, for example. wrote at great speed and with little attention to linguistic precision; his novels are important for character. plot, and social analysis. So go ahead and read them in translation: you won't miss much. With Flaubert it is just the opposite. He claimed. a little improbably, to have spent three days on a single sentence. Flaubert's exquisite music only comes through in the original. 

A classic of modern Italian literature, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, presents a different problem because of the writer's extensive use of Roman dialect. Once I could handle it. but no longer. The Trimalchio scene in Petronius' Satyricon similarly characterizes the arriviste by his use of vulgar Latin instead of the literary standard.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Post-Midterm reflections

The results of the election had been predicted. Still, once the returns were in, I would have expected some reexamination on the part of adherents of both parties.
As an independent who is generally skeptical of the way politics is conducted in this country, I can offer some objective (I think) comments. I am not surprised at the Republican gloating: they are not good at introspection in the first place, and judge, not unrealistically, that they did well. Their main problem is to contain the excesses of the Tea Party, while appearing to conciliate them - a tough assignment.
What I keep seeing though is the same-old Democratic Party memes. One is that, after all, Obama is really wonderful, when clearly he is not. Another is the notion that rank-and-file Republican voters are stupid and voted against their own interest. As a number of analysts have shown, these voters are (alas, perhaps) not voting against their own interests, as they (not the punditocracy) perceive them. But are they stupid, we are told. This is a problematic assertion for supposed believers in popular sovereignty to make. Trust the people - except when they are overruled by the bicoastal elites.
Another illusion is the notion that if the qualified nonvoters had voted the results would have been different. A number of academic studies have shown that in the aggregate nonvoters would have voted much the same as voters. If we would end disenfranchisement - especially of ex-offenders - the results might be different. But I am speaking of the electorate as we actually have it.
Then there is the notion that demography will bury the Republicans. That does not seem to be happening now - and may be a pie-in-the-sky vision anyway.
I am far from saying (as some maps seem to suggest) that the US has become a Republican country. It may become so, though, if liberals do not relinquish their tendency to recycle their own tired memes about how superior they are to the yahoos. The "yahoos" are Americans like the rest of us. As people with modest resources they ought to command the sympathy of the liberal elite. But they do not

Monday, November 03, 2014

Goethe and the gay-friendly approach

The term "gay friendly" is commonly used to designate places and institutions that make an effort to welcome gay men and lesbians. Gay friendly, however, are also courageous individuals who without having any personal stake in the matter defend gay rights, sometimes vociferously. A case in point is the NFL player Chris Kluwe, whose energetically stated writings leave no doubt where he stands.
While this enlightened approach is currently prominent, it is not new. Perhaps the first eminent gay-friendly person was the German writer J. W. von Goethe (1749-1832). Basing himself largely on his studies of classical antiquity, Goethe repeatedly stressed the continuity and naturalness of same-sex love. Until recently, there have been efforts to obscure this aspect of the writer's work, especially in Germany, where he is a national institution. Conversely, a few have sought to "out" Goethe, even though it is unlikely that he ever gave physical expression to his perceptions.
The tendency to posit a "gay Goethe" illustrates an uncritical tendency that sometimes occurs in histories of homosexuality - to reason from the work to the life. Once the continuity of the gay-friendly theme is recognized, this mistake should become less common.

A major dichotomy

Today the world hangs in the balanced (I do not think that is an exaggeration) with regard to the legal position of same-sex conduct.
Medieval and early modern Europe had inherited the repressive approach stemming from the Bible and enshrined by Theodosius and his successors in the late Roman Empire: sodomy, so called, must be severely repressed. With unfortunate ramifications, this approach was reinforced by Henry VIII in his anti buggery law of 1537.
In 1791, however, the French National Assembly struck down the feudal sodomy laws in that country, a wise step reaffirmed by the Code Napoleon. French armies secured, in effect, the sodomy exemption in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and French Switzerland. Most of the rest of Europe, including the UK remained unreformed. Still the beneficent effects of the Code spread to Latin America, and also to such distant countries as Ottoman Turkey and Japan.
But the repressive legacy of Britain also spread, notably to the Caribbean and to British India. In the US we have only recently freed ourselves from this malign legacy. Sadly, the repressive torch (if that is the right term) of repression has been taken up by Muslim-majority countries. Colonial French West Africa, once freed of the scourge because of the Code, has been overtaken by it, because of Islamic influence and also the mistaken notion that same-sex love is a "Western imposition."
I wish I could say that a favorable outcome of this Manichaean struggle was assured, but it is not.

Presocratics - Open questions

The two postings following this one are two tentative efforts to understand an ancient conundrum, the Presocratics of Greece.  Here is an introduction to the issues.


1.  What is the best overall term for this current: Presocratic, Preplatonic, or first philosophers?

2.  Was Thales truly the first?  What is the status of Hesiod and the Orphics in this regard?

3.  Was there (as the conventional view has it) a sharp break with the Near East and Egypt, or were there important elements of continuity?

4.  Did science, heralding its later development, start with the Ionians?  Or later with Democritus?

5.  Why was there so much focus on opposites, as seen in the famous table that Aristotle ascribes to the Pythagoreans?

6.  How many of the thinkers were involved in pederastic relationships?

7.  Did the philosophy of Being start with Parmenides?