Philosophical Writings: Translators
Philosophical Writings: Translators
(Translated by Duane Larrieu)
The tomb always ends up being right. Quite recently, an opportunity arose to render Shakespeare the highest appraisal and to obliterate the past. It was the glorious birthday of the Stratford poet, April 23rd, which came back around for the 300th time. After 300 years, humankind has something to say to a spirit long dishonored; it seems that Shakespeare showed up at France’s door. Paris rose up, poets, artists, historians extended a hand to this ghost around whom the poets spotted Hamlet, the artists, Prospero and the historians, Julius Caesar; the drunken savage, the barbarian buffoon, William Shakespeare showed up and the only thing noticed was the light; two centuries of mockery ended up as fascination and France said: welcome, you genius! Glory became real.
There has been a feeling in the shadow of something like the concurrence of our esteemed deceased; Moliere was supposedly seen smiling, Corneille, waving; no old detestations, no old injustices at all, not a protest, not a murmur, unanimous enthusiasm; and, at the same time, those who definitely value what underlies things, those who double their aversion for despots out of love for smartness, those who, wanting justice to be done also want justice to be rendered, those who contemplate, thoughtful loners concerned about the ideal, dreamers, all overcome, marvel at the pacification that has occurred regarding this majestic entry.
Shakespeare is the drunk savage. Yes, savage! He lives in the forest primeval. Yes, drunk. He is the imbiber of the ideal. He is the giant under the enormous branches. He is the one who holds the great gold cup and whose eyes are ablaze with all that he has imbibed. Shakespeare, like Aeschylus, like Job, like Isaiah, is one of the almighty ones of thought and of poetry, who, so to speak, can deal with anything mysterious and have the very depth of creation and who, like creation, externally transpose and present that depth through a prodigious profusion of forms and images, tossing out the darkness on flowers, on foliage, and on animate sources. Like Aeschylus, Shakespeare has the prodigality of what can’t be plumbed. What can’t be plumbed is inexhaustible. The more thought, the more animated is expression. Color emerges from blackness. Abyssal life is not unheard of. The fire in the center makes the volcano produce lava, the lava breeds oxide, the oxide looks for, finds and fertilizes the root, the root creates the flower; in this way the rose comes from the flame. The image likewise comes from the idea. Deep-seated work goes on in the brain of a genius. Idea, abstraction in the poet, becomes marvel and reality in the poem. What shadow there is inside the earth. What swarming on the surface. Absent that shadow, you wouldn’t have swarming. That blossoming of images and forms has its roots in all the mysteries. Those flowers prove the depth.
Like all such poets, Shakespeare has an absolute personality. He has a manner of his own for imagining, a manner of his own for creating, a manner of his own for producing; imagination, creation, production, three concentric phenomena mingled together in genius. Genius is the sphere of those bright flashes. Imagination invents, creation organizes, production realizes. Production is when matter is introduced into the idea, giving it solidity, rendering it palpable and visible, giving it shape, sound and color, fashioning for it a mouth to speak, feet to walk and wings to take flight, in a word, externalizing the poet’s idea while it simultaneously remains inside him, clinging through idiosyncrasy, the umbilical cord that links creations with their creator.
Among all the great poets, the phenomenon of inspiration is identical, but the difference of brain faculties varies it infinitely.
The idea springs from the brain: conception; the idea takes form: gestation; the form turns human: infancy; the human turns active and passive: work.
Idea into form, form into human, human into activity, with Shakespeare, as with Aeschylus, as with Plautus, as with Cervantes, this is the phenomenon that is summarized concretely as follows: life into drama.
In a masterpiece, all is an act of will. Shakespeare wills his subject, such a one and no other. Shakespeare wills its development, Shakespeare wills its characters, Shakespeare wills its passions, Shakespeare wills its philosophy, Shakespeare wills its action, Shakespeare wills its style, Shakespeare wills its humanity; he creates it to resemble humanity – and himself. Frontwards, it’s a human being; sideways, it’s Shakespeare. Do a name change, put Aristophanes, put Moliere, put Beaumarchais, the formula remains inviolate.
Such people have originality, meaning the huge gift of a personal starting point, whence their supreme power. Virgil derives from Homer: note the drop-off in reflections; Racine derives from Virgil; Voltaire derives from Racine; Chenier (Marie-Joseph) derives from Voltaire; Luce de Lancival derives from Chenier; zilch derives from Luce de Lancival. The wipeout occurs progressively. Progressive diminution is the most perilous course of action. Whoever engages in it is lost. No rolling mill produces such a flattening out.
For example, take a look at Hector where he takes his start in Homer, and then check him out in Luce de Lancival, his final destination.
The name in France for progressive diminution was classical schooling. The result was a faint-colored literature. Around 1804, poetry was wracked with coughing. At the start of that century, under the empire that came to its end at Waterloo, such literature had its final say. It achieved its perfection at that time. Our parents witnessed its apogee, meaning its agony.
The original spirits, the direct and immediate poets never have such chloroses. The sickly pallor of imitation is out of their ken. They have no one else’s poetry in their veins. Their blood is their own. For them, to produce is a way to be alive. They create because they are. They breathe and what do you know, a masterpiece.
Their style is wholly identical with their selves. For the genuine critic who is a chemist, their totality is compressed into the least detail. This word is Aeschylus; that word is Juvenal; that word is Dante. All of Lady Macbeth is contained in this word: unsex, that is peculiar to Shakespeare. There is not an idea in the poet, just as there isn’t a leaf on the tree, that doesn’t have its root therein. Where it originates isn’t visible, it’s underground, but it does exist. The idea comes out of the brain when it’s expressed, that is, fused with a word, analyzable, but concrete, a blend of the poet and his timeframe; simple in appearance, composite in reality. Issuing like that from a deep source, every idea of the poet, one with the word, sums up in its microcosm, the poet’s entire element. A single drop, it’s all water. So that every detail of style, every term, every word, every expression, everything spoken, every meaning, every extension, every construction, every turn of phrase, often even the punctuation itself is metaphysical. The word, as we’ve said elsewhere, is the embodiment of the idea, but that body is alive. If, like the old school of criticism that separated the substance from the form, you separate the word from the idea, you are bringing about death. As in death, the idea, meaning, the soul, vanishes. Your war on the word is an attack on the idea. Indivisible style is what characterizes the most exalted writer. A writer such as Tacitus, a poet like Shakespeare, puts his organizing, his intuiting, his passion, his gain, his loss, his illusion, his fate, his being, his innateness, in very line of his book, in every sigh of his poem, in every cry of his drama. The domineering role of awareness and no knowing what absolute thing that smacks of need-to-do, show up in the style. To write it is to do; the writer engages in an action. The idea expressed is an accepted responsibility. That’s why the writer holds close to the style. He doesn’t set forth anything haphazardly. Responsibility entails solidarity.
The detail adjusts to the entirety and itself is an entirety. Everything is comprehensive. One word is a tear, another one is a flower, another word is brilliance, yet another is a piece of filth. The tear burns, the flower muses, the brilliance laughs, and the filth enlightens. Muck and sublimeness blend together. One entire poem proves it: Job. Masterpieces are mysterious formations, the infinite squeezes in, here and there; that one expression that astonishes you is, amid all these human emotions, these real heart throbs, and all this living pathos, an abrupt eruption of the unknown. Style has something of the pre-existent. It always retains its species. It springs from every writer, from his hair roots as well as from the depths of his intelligence. All genius, its earthy side as well as its cosmic facet, its humanity as well as its divinity, poet as well as prophet, are in the style. The style is soul and blood; it wells up from that deep human location where the organism harbors love; style is the innards.
There is no contesting that it is fated, while at the same time nothing has greater liberty. That is why it is prodigious. No hindrance, no problem, no constraint. It is impossible not to smile when, for example, there is mention of difficulties with the rhyme; why not also obstructions in the syntax. Such proposed difficulties are the necessary forms of language, whether in verse or in prose, originating on their own and lacking prior combination, they have their counterparts in external facts; an echo is nature’s rhyme. We know a poet who never in his life opened a work of Richelet and who, as a small child, made up verses, first without form, then less and less imprecise, and finally proper, and who, all by himself, step by step, one after another, discovered all the laws, caesura, alternate feminine rhyme, etc,, whence emerged instinctively, fully complete prosody.
Style has a chain, idiosyncrasy, the umbilical cord we mentioned earlier, that keeps it connected to the writer. In the vicinity of this connection, which is the source of its life, it cuts across, with utter freedom, all the alembics of grammar; it is indispensable, its origin which is none other than the author is embodied in it, and in all the filtration gear whence it derives phrase for prose or verse for poetry, it doesn’t lose a single atom of its source. In the very interior of general rhythm, which it accepts, it has its own rhythm which it imposes. Whence, from an absolute point of view, such surprising elasticity of style, able to encompass all, from the chastely subtle to the sublimely obscene, from Petrarch to Rabelais. Occasionally Petrarch and Rabelais are in the same human being. Style’s range extends from Romeo to Falstaff. In the meantime the universe holds humans, angels, fairies; the grave appears with its worker at one end and its occupant at the other, the gravedigger and the ghost; cynical night displays some other thing besides its face, a “buttock of the night”; the witch stands up, Eumenides is rough and ready, a caricature sketched on the vague wall of a dream with a piece of coal from hell, and bent over this world willed by him, contemplating his premeditation, the great poet looks, lists, tallies, sobs, sniggers, loves, muses. Now translate that.
Struggle with that style to express it, with that thought to extract it, with that philosophy to grasp it, with that poetry to embrace it, with that will to comply with it. To comply, that is what manifests the translator’s power. Brumoy, Bitaube, Artaud, Poinsinet de Sivry, Florian are all noncompliant. They know much more than the instructors. They are more mischievous than genius, such imbeciles. The true translator, the overwhelmingly definitive translator, being intelligence itself, subordinates him- or herself to the original and subordinates him/herself with authority. Superiority is clearly shown in such sovereign compliance. The best translator complies with the poet the way the mirror complies with the light, reflecting the light back to you. Being such a living mirror is the rare honor Moliere was looking for when dealing with Plautus and Chateaubriand, when dealing with Milton. Greater faithfulness yields greater brilliance.
Is it appropriate, at the point where we are in the 19th century, to afford Shakespeare such a mirror in France? To condense into a translation all the radiance of such a great hearth, to have such flamboyance converge on our literature alongside the splendors of our homebred poets, to introduce into French light and clarity and, what is more, a fraternal flash of light, is that something doable today? Do current prejudices allow it? Is our rhetoric sufficiently tamped down to consent to it? Has the old classic blindness been cured? Is the French eye wide open? Are Ducis and Le Tourneur done and over with? For translations as for religions a moment appears when absolute truth is possible. Taste begins to improve just as philosophy regains strength. Has such a moment arrived for Shakespeare?
The current translator thought so. We believe he was right.
With all due reservations and to a certain degree, we favor all translations just as we favor all religions. Religions and translations, things that are more similar than one first supposes, are always suited to states of mind. They are all bad and they are all good, until the moment when it is possible to acknowledge definitive truth, on the one hand in art, on the other in philosophy.
Translators, revealers of a sort, provide you with all the just-about-right stuff that you can handle. They do not work on the infinite as does the founder of a religion, but their work is similar. What they ponder, what they study, what they translate, isn’t beyond the pale of humankind, but merely beyond the pale of a people. It isn’t the Spirit, it’s a spirit, it isn’t the Word, it’s an idiom, it’s not heaven, it’s a book. It’s not the universe with its soul, God, it’s the masterpiece with its soul, the poet.
It’s hard work. They do what they can. If they don’t tell you everything, it’s less their fault than your own. It isn’t the public that makes the poet, but it is the public that makes the translator. Translators have an illustrious ancestor, Moses. We accept this contested fact the way we accept all history, it too open to challenge, virtually everywhere. Moses is a revealer of two sorts; on Horeb he is God’s translator. In the Bible he is Job’s translator. And wouldn’t you know it, this powerful translator is not free; although he is Moses and because he is Moses. He can’t provide the Jewish people the entire fearsome stage play of heaven, of God and of Satan, as Job had imagined it. The translator softens, abridges and retrenches, the Arab allowing himself what the Hebrew dares not risk. Job is expurgated by Moses. The translator, in effect, is influenced by his surroundings. The translator’s collaborator is the given moment. He makes semi-translations for minds not yet fully open, just as they require semi-religions. Adult and fully grown minds require the entire text just as in religion they require the whole logos. Isis’ skirt is not lifted for small kids. When you are grown up, when you are real men, when you are people knowing who you are, you will be told everything.
Due to a poor system of education, it is possible for some Herculean nation that is flagrantly uppermost in war, in revolution, in progress, to end up as a literary hokey. As long as that persists, one of its flanks remains undersized. Civilization wins its crown by means of full literary intelligence. A people is formed when taste reigns supreme.
Taste is a stomach. It has weaknesses that it takes for delicacies. It comes to really like sweet things, Julia’s Garland, Little lent, Berenice, sometimes even sweet nothings, Kind Bernard, Moncrif, Florian. There was a time when it puked up Shakespeare. Boileau in the 17th century and in the 18th, Voltaire, so bold alongside Jesus, so timid alongside Racine, had given this lack of taste to literature. In such a lack of appetite, treated as “good taste,” an unadulterated, complete and generous translation, minus siding with and minus undercutting any poet, was not possible in France; not even a translation of Horace or of Virgil. There was something called “refined language” and “noble style” wherein everything was watered down. Such watering down was necessary. Poetry didn’t get through unless it was thinned out in water. For “water,” read paraphrase or circumlocution. Even in our time, there is no doubt but that for the minds of many Homer still has to be downsized.
In Homer, Minerva takes Achilles by the hair. Bitaube’s translation is: “the goddess grabs the hero’s blond hair.”
He does so meaning well. Bitaube is unaware that what is cute turns ugly when applied to Homer.
Pope also livens up Homer. Like the orator (canto III of the Iliad) that is so admirably and so amply translated by Andre Chenier: “His mouth was full of divine words, just as hilltops abound with snow in the winter.” Pope tosses in this pleasant verse: “Melting they fall, and sink into the heart.”
Sensitive translators are uneasy with ancient Greek poetry. It is wavy enough to cause such unease. Aeschylus makes them seasick. Throughout Prometheus or Orestes, translation is constantly nauseous. The retching doubles when dealing with Aristophanes. In the Iliad, Harpaliotes, pierced by Merion’s javelin, coils down to the ground “like a snake”; Mrs. Dacier refuses to translate it and states quite frankly that it goes beyond the limits of our language. Anacreon himself is disgusting. Can you believe that he attributes to the lion “a widely gaping mouth”? Mrs. Dacier translates such a mouth as “courage.” And her grin is noted at the bottom of the page. “I believe,” she says, “that I will be forgiven for not having followed the Greek.” And that kind of note, anyhow, is a constant reoccurrence. It reoccurs nonstop in translations of ancient materials. You constantly read in the margin: “The text contains this, etc.” In other words: I am taking this opportunity to let you know that I am a translator who does not translate. Bitaube goes Mrs. Dacier one better. Mrs. Dacier ventures to write (Iliad, canto XIX): “Agamemnon speaks from his place without getting up. “Without getting up” is down; Bitaube rectifies this: “Without stepping into the midst of the assembly.”
Where Homer says: “Pallas speaks,” Bitaube translates:”She accompanies him with her fearsome voice.” Teucer’s arrow that strikes Clitus “catches him from behind.” Behind is appalling; Bitaube says: “hits him in the head.” Plutarch notes that the hide of a slaughtered bull is firmer than the hide of a dead bull, and that’s why Homer fitted Paris’ helmet with a strap “made from the hide of a slaughtered bull.” Such preciseness is a beautiful thing. But Bitaube doesn’t see it that way and he translates it as: “strong strap.” In canto XXI of the Iliad, Juno, tenderly picking at a sore spot she got from a hug, which Plutarch rightly admires, she calls Vulcan “my gimp.” Bitaube’s translation is “Oh, my son!” Neptune tells Apollo: “Laomedon swore he would cut off our ears.” Bitaube translates this: “that his sword would leave us with a sign of disgrace that can’t be eliminated.” The stone hurled at Hector by Ajax falls, and, in Homer, spins on the ground “like a top.” So, what’s Bitaube going to say? He writes: “spins rapidly.” Homer reveals the double source of the Scamander, hot and cold, where prior to the siege, the women of Troy used to come to wash their clothes; Oof! Bitaube words this as: “…where, during the happy, peaceful days, the Trojan ladies, and their charmingly dressed daughters, would purify their splendid clothing.” Homer says: “Apollo’s untrimmed hair.” Macrobius actually asks with what sort of scissors the sun’s rays could be clipped. It is Bitaube who has such clippers. He gets rid of untrimmed. He shaves Phoebus. A translator is a barber. A translator is a censor. Given this kind of translation, “a sacred fish,” (Iliad, canto XVI) becomes“a mighty inhabitant of the watery empire.”A spindle turns into “a dart”; the thighs become “the parts consecrated to the gods.” Bitaube, nonstop.
Sometimes a waning of taste produces unusual effects. Have a look at Racine’s Iphigenia, which is a translation. The subject matter of Iphigenia is just ferocious. It involves a father who kills his daughter to secure some wind. A leader of Hellas wages war on a leader of Troas; he assembles his fleet of small vessels in a small port, Aulis; there’s no wind to make the crossing. Aeolus isn’t blowing. It’s necessary to get the god to blow. The leader, Calchas, asks a diviner. The diviner’s response to the leader is: the god wants to feast on your daughter. That’s the gist of the tale. It is all literally true; half of the Greek army was tattooed. If you stick with such old Homeric savagery (already somewhat watered down by Euripides), that’s the best there is; the subject and the characters are in tune with one another. The epic is blood-soaked; the cruelly executed splicings of throats are just right for it. A kind of awful harmony issues forth from the poem. We believe we’re hearing the sacred hymn of the old idiotic murder. The entire Orient counters such a bloody Greece. From out of the shadow of Abraham, the sacrificer of his son, comes the echo of Agamemnon, the sacrificer of his daughter. The God strikes a bargain; he simply has to open up a girl’s belly and give the gods her heart, liver and lungs, and to examine her entrails. Do that and the wind will kick up. Iphigenia, stunned but accommodating, goes along with it. In the year 1200 BC a woman had little worth. In the games in canto XXIII of the Iliad, a tripod is the first prize; a woman is the second prize. Iphigenia, overcome with resignation and used to such beastly handling of women according to savage customs, her neck bent, awaits the moment she will be seized “like a goat,” says Aeschylus, by two hands, one holding a blade. Nothing could be more ferocious, nothing more atrocious, nothing more terribly horrifying. As for the rest, it all fits together. A fearsome subject, repugnant characters. It’s a tussle between lions. Now, fashion and serve up a tragedy based on this barbaric subject. In other words, lose your taste. Make those Greek savages speak in a fine courtly style. Substitute elegant poetry for primitive poetry. Instead of, as in Homer, having them insult and call one another “wine bag,” “dog eye,” “hart heart,” they will say “Sir” to each other, Achilles will be a marquis, poor Iphigenia will be addressed as “lady,” and, “adorable princess,” the lack of correspondence grows monstrous, the contrast between action and characters is revolting, interest evaporates along with belief in the subject, and it conjures up something like his majesty Louis XIV having the archbishop of Paris slit the throat of Miss de Blois so that his highness, the count of Toulouse, duke and peer of Anville, acknowledged by the parliament of Paris as an admiral of France, might have a favorable wind; and what was fearsome in Greece turns into an absurdity at Versailles. Why? Quite simply, because the translator altered the tone of the style. Taste varies.
Whose fault is it? Racine’s? Of course not. Excluded from direct view and from today’s poetry, Racine deserves the ranking he holds in the 17th century, and, if it is a matter of plying a kingdom with tragedies, it is undoubtedly the same for those magnificent decorators, Le Notre, Mansard and Lebrun, scaling back their inventiveness and adding feeling, while the style remains the same. The fault pertains to the epoch; some centuries of refinement loathe great things and great works. Hardly grasping what is sublime, they don’t grasp what is bare-boned. Louis XIV, who told de Teniers: “get rid of those maggots,” found Homer despicable, and shouted out the following to Fenelon:”Mister de Cambray, couldn’t you render Homer refined for the duke of Bourgogne?” Fenelon could have answered the way Euclid did in reply to Ptolemy who asked him to simplify Geometry for him: “There’s no special way in for kings.”
We did say: “half the Greek army bore tattoos,” and we are aware that this assertion can be challenged. There is strong backing for it. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Homer postdates by three centuries the matters he relates. He leaves out the tattoo business, although he does very frequently manage to toss in “some local color.” Consider, for instance, the cavalry, a force that existed in Homer’s time, but that didn’t exist in Achilles’ time. Homer makes not the least mention of cavalry in the Iliad; the soldiers wage war on foot, the heroes do so in chariots.
The Iliad is a legend, and Homer is legendary. Still, we are among those who believe in Homer, and in just one Homer. At what time was he alive? Although some say so, we do not think he was a contemporary of the currier Tychius whom he mentions in connection with Ajax’s shield. Herodotus, who followed closely after Homer, had to have known more at length about him than we do. Herodotus states that young Homer knew old Mentor who, when young, had known old Ulysses. Given the century-long lifespan, often cited in those times, that covers the three centuries after Troy that we mentioned. As regards the tattooing of warriors in the Iliad, the Caucons, a nomadic people that wandered from the Peloponnese into Cappadocia, knew for sure about it in the Greek army, and the same holds true about the Trojan army for the Hippomolgues, Scythians who drank mare’s milk. The Thracians bear tattoos. Likewise, the Mysians. As we insist, savagery is rampant in these august poems. Ships’ anchors were large heavy stones as they were for a century on the Sandwich Islands. A wound was bandaged with a sling tied over the injury. That’s how Agenor bandages Helenus’ wound and it’s what the Botocados still do at this time. Try and figure out this type of building: for walls, fir-tree trunks tied together with cords of tree bark, for roofing, a rack of bulrush, surrounded by a narrow strip of land enclosed by a spiky palisade. What is it? It’s the cabin of a Toucouleur chieftain. Yes, and it’s also Achilles’ tent. The palisade enclosure had one closed door consisting of a single beam, a beam that could be lifted only by three men, or by Achilles. In the games the heroes engaged in brutal fighting. Ulysses trips up Ajax. As for Achilles, over a period of 12 days he drags dead Hector by the feet every morning around Patrocles’ tomb. Callimachus says it’s a Thessalian custom. On that same tomb of Patrocles, Achilles decapitates the handsomest of the Trojan captives, selecting the young and the hefty ones, just like a Caribbean sachem. Later, Pyrrhus will lop off Polyxene’s head on the tomb of Achilles. Achilles puts his prisoners up for sale, in particular, several of Priam’s sons whom he sends off to the market in Lemmos. Achilles is on the verge of biting into Hector; Pope says he is quite content to envy that. Hecuba would, in turn, really have liked to eat a bit of Achilles. Check canto XXIV. As for Priam, Achilles softens up but it’s a questionable and rather disturbing softening up. “All at once he calls out to the captives to hide Hector’s body from Priam, since if the old guy did too much weeping Achilles himself would be forced to kill him.” It’s obvious that this Achilles is far removed from the Achilles of Versailles. Perhaps at this point the defenders of the Great Century will let us see that the Great Century too has been atrocious at times. Yes, atrocious, but they’ll have to be satisfied with that concession. I’ll explain myself. Atrocious, yes, ferocious, no. The savage is ferocious, the civilized person is atrocious. We don’t say: an atrocious beast. Atrocity combines mind and refinement. An example will help bring out the difference in meaning between ferocious, which means coarse, and atrocious, meaning cultivated. Atrocity is ferocity that has been refined. It entails being upgraded. In Homer as in the Bible, small children are smashed against a rock . In the Arts Century, under Louis XIV, “they are put on a spit.” Now, that is progress. We just said atrocity is refined. It is so to the point of elegance. Hear what Mrs. De Sevigne has to say: “ At the Rocks, Sunday, 5 January 1678)…’our soldiers would have a lot to gain if there were some friars. They have fun plundering. The other day they put a little kid on a spit. However, there’s no news of any other disorders.’” Small kids put on a spit, “disorders!” What exquisite refinement! Speaking of Russia’s Peter the First, Voltaire says: “…the wheels were covered with broken body parts of his son’s friends, he had his own son-in-law, Count Laprechin’s head cut off, the uncle of Prince Alexis. The prince’s confessor also was decapitated.” If Moscow was civilized, it must be admitted that such refinement cost it dearly. Supporters of the Great Century are insistent. We exaggerate the lack of compatibility between Homer and Racine. The differences between Homeric customs and the customs of the Bull’s Eye are not as obvious as they claim. There’s more than a single similarity. For instance, the bond existing between Menesthes and Anchialus, Sarpedon and Thrasymeles, Polydamas and Clitus, Ajax and Lycophron of Cythera, Diomedes and Sthenelus, Achilles and Patrocles, also exists between the gentleman and the knight of Lorraine. So, where is this huge difference in customs? They are basically the same thing. Sorry. Patrocles doesn’t poison Briseis.
What is more, semi-translators are useful initiators. They gradually accustom the eye. Every slight shift of dawn brings daylight. Bit by bit, such is the rule for translations. Poets of one stock can’t be presented in one fell swoop into the mind of a nation that hasn’t borne them. It’s smart at first to profile their introduction. One transition at a time is the way the public ends up accepting them. Anyone wanting in one fell swoop to heap Boileau’s taste on Aeschylus’ genius would fail. He would strike a blow as brutal as the sun abruptly shining into a room lacking curtains. (“Ah! My knight,” wrote the marquess of Joux to her brother the knight of Breve. “The scary sun rising up! How it unfairly awoke me! That dumb thing!”) The public itself is also the pupil of an eye, sometimes near-sighted, sometimes far-sighted, and quite easily subject to irritation. It has to be made accustomed to the light of superior writers, who are always straightforward and direct, a string of successive interventions that are increasingly transparent. Bit by bit and by degrees what is modeled on translations ends up conforming to the originals. One thing is too far south, another thing is too far north; our temperate zone, our mid-season literary taste does not at all at once admit such whole minds, such overpowering standards of universal poetry. Getting geniuses acclimated calls for attentiveness. For example, in the center of his town of Yahweh-Schamash, Ezechiel erected a temple; he kept the tombs of kings out of it. He calls out: “Get the carcasses of kings out of here. Carcass is a harsh word. The first translator, who belongs to the Great Century and the Beautiful World, translates: spoils. The second translator, from Geneva, ventures to say: bones. A third translator boldly says: skeletons. Now a fourth translator can come along, expound Ezechiel’s entire thought, remove the humanity from those dead kings, lower their esteem by unearthing them and saying: “Get those carcasses out of here!”A skeleton is something human; a carcass belongs to an animal. Ezechiel, a prophet with claws, devours the kings in his cave, and since he’s sunk his teeth into them, he knows what’s what. It can be said about translation itself, what Cicero has to say about a story: “No matter how it’s written, it’s enjoyable.” We do not refuse to put up with any translator, even those who are, unwittingly, virtually parodists. They too have their own justification. A grimace gives shape to the face. Those flat valves will end up forming a speaking mouth. If something ridiculous imposes itself upon something sublime, it mars it, no question about that, but it also makes it known. It’s the start of a revelation. You are made aware that there is someone back of such barely transparent opaqueness. Massieu introduces Pindar, Le Franc de Pompignan does so for Aeschylus, Toureil for Demosthenes, Larcher for Herodotus, Longpierre for Atheocritus, Bergier for Hesiod, Levesque for Thucydides, Desfontaines for Virgil, La Bletterie for Tacitus, Guevin for Titus Livius, Tarteron for Juvenal, Bauvee for Sallust, Du Ryer for Cicero, des Coutures for Lucretius, Amelot de la Houssaye for Machiavelli, Artaud for Dante, Macpherson for Ossian, Dupre de St. Maur for Milton, Filleau de St. Martin for Cervantes, Fueudeville for Plautus, Lemonnier for Terence, Poinsinet de Sivry for Aristophanes, Grou for Plato, Brumoy for Sophocles, Le Tourneur for Shakespeare, almost the way the monkey introduces the human being.
Some give as well as some kindness is due, plus encouragement, via the accumulation of start-ups that gradually take on form; preparations are what lead to the result; these kinds of gestations end up by being delivered; a day comes when the definitive translator appears on the scene.
There is nothing about such early gestations that should cause astonishment. Translation is a tough job. The struggle between the translator and the writer being translated is practically always uneven; it’s a one-on-one between two individuals of unequal rank. Usually, the one is just talented, while the other is often a genius. Such is the case of Delille compared to Virgil. Still, to be all inclusive, Delille is a poet of Virgil’s lineage, on the bastard side. Rhetoric, a fake Muse, encountered Virgil in a corner of a forest, and forced herself upon him, and from him she gave birth to these little ones: Statius, Claudian, Pope, Dryden, Gray, Gessner, St. Lambert, Roucher, Lemierre, Esmenard, Delille. Racine too belongs to the family, but on a better side.
As a matter of course, it is the very core of languages that offers resistance, while in certain cases, it’s the surface meaning. Sometimes the dictionary intervenes to make things difficult. For instance, the dictionary says: “Vafritia is not Latin.” But “vafritia” is in Valerius Maximus. In all the Latin vocabularies, the word “induperator” is flagged as “low Latin.” Open up Lucretius, one of its greatest writers, and you will find there in magnificent verses  this word “induperator.”
What is low Latin for pedants is the beautiful Latin of poets. As for the core of a language, its resistance is serious in a different way. Spanish ser and estar cannot be sharply distinguished in French. Ser signifies essential being, estar, contingent being. We have just a single verb etre for both meanings. Even more untranslatable is mucho as an interjection. ( El rey se ha marchado? – Mucho. Le roi est parti? Beaucoup. Has the king gone off? Indeed he has.) The French word baron does not translate Spanish varon, which has preserved the dual meaning of lord and of hero. Varon relates more closely to vir than to baron. In Perseus’ verse “cum benedicinto, etc. ozyma signifies insults, unless it signifies tripe fricassee. And then consider the wealth of meanings. Meanings are a labyrinth. If you can, translate “Virginibus bacchata lacoenis.” Translate “Uxorius amnis.” In Latin, a father abdicates his son; Suetonius says “Augustus Agrippam abdicavit”; the bay tree that refuses to burn abdicates the fire; Pliny says: “laurus manifesto abdicat ignes crepitu”; A river that breaks off from another river abdicates it: “Amnem Eurotam brevi spatio portatum abdicat.” Other expressions are in some way gathered together; if you sort them out, you weaken them. Virgil says “A vulnere recens.” Florus says “Nuper a silva elephanti.” Strip away the strength and you strip sway the grace. Now and then, to render a single word might require an entire phrase. In the temple of Jupiter and to spend the night there so as to have a dream that contains an oracle. What a complex group of ideas but Plautus uses just one word to express it: “incubare Iovi.” Struggle with that condensation. Translate the conciseness of Paul Jove’s “aridus atque jejunus” based on Calchondylus. What could be more charming than the prose expression “on an empty stomach”! Calchondylus was a sober writer. He pushed temperance all the way to the point of starvation. By virtue of putting his style on a diet he attained the meagerness of the idea. All that is contained in “jejunus.” Translate “reparabilis absonat echo” in Nero’s four unusual verses quoted by Perseus. Translate some ellipses; Sometimes an ellipse is simple, as in Racine’s beautiful verse: “I loved you on and off, should I have done so faithfully?” Complicate an ellipse with a metaphor as in Saint Simon’s “He was bombarded as head of the camp.”
The translator’s relation to the author is typically one of inferiority, as already stated. This is true for the most part. But there are exceptions. Once in a while the translator measures up. Like Moses compared to Job. Like Newton compared to the Apocalypse. Moliere matches the power of Plautus. Chateaubriand is able to compete with Milton. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while totally falling short of Tacitus, does not do him any dishonor. Corneille is David’s inferior, while La Fontaine is superior to Aesop. What is more, Corneille, a translator of the Psalms, even though ridiculously so, remains the great Corneille. As for La Fontaine, he mimics Aesop so well, that he overwhelms him. The rule for such a special exception is: steal but be the only one alive after the theft. In a social setting, killing the person who is robbed is a serious offense. In a literary setting, it blanks out the crime. Amyot neither steals from nor kills Plutarch; he transforms him, changing from subtle to simplistic. Keeping due measure between a person of first rank and one of second rank, La Mennais, a sharp and solid intelligence, even if his translation isn’t the best, is able, without any shortcoming, to approach Dante. Horace, who’s always possessed happiness, has just met up with Jules Janin, who has the same sprite charm as Horace and, over and above Horace, a generous heart.
Translators have a part to play in civilization. They serve as bridges between peoples. They pass along what’s in the mind of human beings from one to another; they provide the transmission of ideas. By means of them one nation’s wisdom gets to mingle with another nation’s wisdom. Productive encounters. Interbreedings are just as necessary for thought as for bloodlines.
Another activity of translators is that they superimpose idioms on top of others and occasionally, by straining hard to transfer and to stretch the meaning of words into meanings in other languages, they enhance the elasticity of language. Provided it doesn’t reach the breaking point such an extension of the idiom helps it evolve and broaden itself.
The human mind outsizes all idioms. Not all languages express the same amount. From such an ocean, each draws what it can. Dialects use their receptacle to draw from it. Great writers are the ones who provide the bulk of such enormity. The upshot is that sometimes something that can’t be grasped often is something untranslatable. “Sunt lachrymae rerum” is one drop of this immense amount. The expression contains utter depth. At the time he voiced it, Virgil equals and maybe even surpasses Dante.
Of all such expressions, this one can’t be rendered for translation. It clings to its concrete sublimity, consisting of a summing up of all ancient fatalism and a glimpse of all modern melancholy. It’s something that appears extraordinary to those who just don’t spend time thinking about such enormous linguistic problems. Translated literally into French, Virgil’s wording makes no sense at all. No woman will understand “they are tears of things,” while every woman does bear within herself “Sunt lachrymae rerum.”
The philological issue is in fact a metaphysical issue. Translators shed a lot of light on it. There is no philosophical study that is more useful and more surprising than such superimposition of languages. Languages do not adjust themselves. They don’t have the same configuration at all; they don’t have the same limits in the human mind. The mind exceeds them in all regards; they are immersed in it with different promontories thrusting more or less forward in different directions. Where one idiom halts, another goes on. What one expresses, another fails to. Beyond all idioms we spot what hasn’t been expressed. And beyond what is not expressed is what can’t be expressed. The translator is forever weighing meanings and equivalents. There is no scale more delicate than the one on which synonyms are balanced. The tight link between word and idea shows up in such comparisons of human languages. The well-known distinction between form and substance that constituted the basis 30 years ago for broad criticism that has collapsed at present shows up here its childishness. Form and substance blend together to such a degree that in many instances the substance dissolves if the form changes. We just saw an example of that in “Sunt lachrymae rerum.” Are we going to say it’s the thought that falls short? There never was a more exalted thought. In other instances, the substance doesn’t dissolve but it does become distorted. The idea, translated by rigorously matching words turns into something else. Make a literal French translation of “plenus rimarum sum hac atque iliac per fiuo,” and the idea undergoes change as it switches to another language; in Latin, it’s your choice, comical indiscretion or lyrical inspiration; in French, it’s the purulent sweat of a leper covered with ulcers. Every language possesses a certain number of meanings. Some it has, others it doesn’t. This deep realization is concealed in the following trite saying: one language is rich, another is poor. Great writers are those who enrich languages. Writers create words; the throng of ordinary folk come up with sayings; the people and the poet work in common. Homer and La Halle fling out metaphors. Shakespeare’s trivial and sublime bravado rivals that of John Bull.
But do what they will, they cannot fully tap the human mind and put it all in language. What is all pertains only to the Word. It is here that the identity of the human mind and of the divine mind shines forth. Thought has no limits. Expressing what has no limits can’t be done. When faced with this inherent enormousness languages falter. One picks up on one thing, another on something else. Such patched together scraps, such combined bits and pieces are what constitute human knowledge and what people think. Living languages follow upon dead languages and they continue the same job, trying to get hold of more and more of the human mind and put it into human speech. Idioms do require an effort.
This explains the inherent difficulty of translations: The idioms of the languages and the idiosyncrasies of the writers. The writer obstructs the translator in every regard. A good translation relies on a full blend of the most cordial understanding and the most relentless struggle. With whom are you dealing? Horace? It’s the very grace of the twist that resists: “O matre pulchra filia pulchrior.” Lucretius? It’s the irresistible breadth of the style: “nihilo fertus minus ad vada leti.” Catullus? It’s a vigor permeating the charm: “Funestet sese suosque. To lose is shorter; to bear unhappiness is more correct. Lucan? It’s the energetically compressed wording: “Si cives, huc usque licet.” Tibullus? It’s the gentility in the reality: “In uno corpore servato, restituisse duos.” Seneca? It’s the wording that is occasionally downsized to greatness: “Aperto aethere innocuus errat. Neither “open sky” nor “open air” render “aperto aethere.” Perseus? It’s transparency in obscurity: Nescio quod certe est, quod me tibi temperat astrum.” Juvenal? It’s the majesty of the verse full of a dissatisfied exalted thought: “Famosos equitum cum dictator magistros.” Add to that the fact that every writer has his or her own enigma; the enigma of his or her own time, his or her own personal enigma. The translator is forced to penetrate that enigma; the price for doing so is intimacy with the original writer; and often enough that enigma bares itself. And then, it’s not at all rare that the translator doesn’t get inside the writer; he can’t open him up, he’s missing the key, and he’s reduced to saying as Terence’s slave belonging to Andrienne said: “Davus sum, non Oedipus.”
Add external difficulties to the inner difficulties; to the obstacles in the language and to the obstacles in the writer, add the complications surrounding the translator; factor in the prejudices of the day, national dislikes, issues infected by rhetoric, scruples, timidities, silly modesties, local taste’s resistance to universally widespread taste. How, translating Plautus, for example, do you get around: “Potavi, atque accubui scortum”? How, translating Horace, do you get around: “Quantum displosa potest vesica, pepedi”? Particularly in France, watch out for yourself. We French are a nation of young ladies. You have to watch your behavior in our boarding school. Cambronne was recently expelled from one.
And I’ll add that he hadn’t stolen anything.
He came up with a way to use the grossest word to express the greatest thing. Such a misuse of language blemished history. He was kicked out. Well done.
Following that, he was provided a translator, mister de Rougemont, to suitably correct his word. De Rougement, who penned: “The guard dies and doesn’t surrender,” continued serving the public and later came up with other terms for princes, including Trocadero’s: “I will be dead in good company.” Bitaube de Cambronne had a large belly and lots of spirit. One astounded passerby said to him: “Ah! Mister de Rougemont, how fat you are. But you well deserve to be so.”
Great writers enrich languages, good translators slow down their impoverishment.
The dying off of tongues is a remarkable metaphysical phenomenon that warrants study.
A language doesn’t take its leave until it has created another one, sometimes a number of others. Its death throes are mingled with giving birth. For certain insects, death consists in the laying of eggs. So it is likewise for languages.
Languages start dying as a result of a thickening of the idiom which takes away their transparency. Words become opaque, matching this, pronunciation turns cumbersome and the way syllables are paired is switched around. Such a thickening of language depends on the amount of elapsed time that turns the language senile, and it does not depend, as frivolously asserted, on the introduction of new ideas. New ideas, being young, are healthy, they impart their freshness to the tongue and far from spoiling it they preserve it. Sometimes they rescue it. Still, if a language is bound to disappear, thickening increases, obscurity overtakes certain areas of language, the logic of the language is altered, analogies vanish, etymologies underlying the words stop showing up, sloppy spelling is applied to long-standing roots of words, shabby usage distorts what’s left of the language’s fine original structure. Then come the death throes. Vowels are the first to perish. The consonants hang in there. Consonants are the skeleton of a word. They will later help uncover its etymology. A word finally loses its consonants the way an animal does its bones. The carcass suffices to come up with the word just as it does to reconstruct the animal.
Gradually, the growing obsolescence of the doomed language brings about an embryonic, barely organized, semi language that inserts itself between the old one that is going to die and the new one slated to be born; the semi-language is a lichen, a parasite, a worm, a disease, that makes a place for itself on the old language and sinks its roots into it. The bottom lining, so to speak, becomes its sore and its leper; it feeds on it and wears it out. It’s miniature, has no form, is misshapen; there’s something of a monster in this dwarf; the little runt’s sucking action wears out the giant. That’s how old Vulgar Latin drew on Latin. Such heavy draining eventually kills even the hardiest language. The parasite language, just being provisional, likewise dies. It can’t live without support. The acorn doesn’t keep living on the oak tree. It’s like the time when Latin breathed its last. Old Vulgar Latin decomposed, and then room was made for new complete and viable languages, daughters of the deceased great grandmother. Then Italian showed up on the same spot. Then, to the south, Spanish, and to the north, French. Human thought, equipped with new organs, could now resume speaking.
It does so without diminution. Dante’s Italian equals Tacitus’ Latin. Shifts from one language to another, from the past to the future, from dusk to dawn, from death to life, are laborious. Translations help there, they extend a helping hand, reducing their toughness, making them easy. Every translation contains an amalgamation. Transformations of languages require a previous mixture. Such a blending of languages’ common basis is a preparation.
The human mind, while essentially one, turns into various minds through corruption. Geographic borders and antipathies truncate and localize the mind. Once a person loses union with others, the human mind loses unity. It could be said there are a number of human minds. The Chinese human mind is not the Greek human mind.
Translations breach the walls, eliminate the confinements and allow dissimilar human minds to intercommunicate.
While needed for this interchange of ideas, they are also of further use, first for preserving and, then, for transforming languages.
I’ve mentioned the enigma contained in every writer. It is this enigma that lures the translator on and shuts him down if he can’t come to terms with it. It is always a tough thing to deal with and requires the translator to be a historian as much as a philologist, a philosopher as much as a grammarian, mind as much as intelligence. So, what is it when the writer is a poet? And what is it when the poet is a prophet?
Check out the Bible where philosophical, chronological, historical, and even religious questions have the power to give rise to the Elohim bit and the Yahweh bit that are so inextricably combined in the Pentateuch. At first God is just the All Powerful one, then he turns into the Eternal one, and the switch from Elohim to Yahweh occurs in the burning bush (See Exodus, ch. III and VI): “I appeared to Abraham as Elohim and I am appearing to you as Yahweh.” This is the point where the Bible takes a turn. Translators have hardly noticed it, giving rise to lots of confusion, fierce arguments, a number of heresies, and some burnings at the stake.
No less than the Bible, Homer, too, is material for controversies. Homer’s translators can be nothing but nerve-wracked. What is the actual text? Where is the real meaning? There is no writer who is more clear. But hear what Horace says: “grammatici certant.”
Initially, Homer was oral. He was recited. He wasn’t written down. Only a century later did a rhapsodist get the idea to write down something of Homer’s. If the legend is to be believed, the first library had already been established by Osymandias who named it “Pharmacy of the Mind.” Preceding Homer, Linus had written his poems in Pelagian characters, and as told by Diodorus of Sicily, Homer did have a teacher, Pronapides, who was familiar with Linus’ alphabet. Pronapides is called Phemius by others. Linus’ alphabet was evidently syllabic, maybe even hieroglyphic. The earliest copies of Homer, just like the Erse and Celt poems and the short epics of Ossian, were written in fragments, with each rhapsodist writing his own fragment, and they were written in that syllabic alphabet that is barely manageable and not as exact as a single-letters alphabet. It also gives rise to double meanings and to contrary meanings. Pisistratus made some adjustments in the fragments and that led to a lot of indecision regarding the actual text. It led to possible choices of meaning in Homer. Pausanias has his own variations. Cynethus has his own touch-ups. The scholiast Pindar alters some passages that Eustathius corrects. Klotz, the 1758 critic, hesitates between Eustathius and the scholiast. On the other hand he does point out Aristarchus’ parings down of the text.
A passage of canto IV of the Iliad presents four meanings, which just delights Mrs. Dacier. Where the scholiast sees a comet, Clarke just sees a flying star. The scholiast scales down the capturing of cranes and of pygmies to the dimensions of just a plain old pillaging of crops. Achilles’ vulnerable heel does not occur in the Iliad just the way we have it today. Was it there prior to the cuts and linkages made by Pisistratus?
Hubert Goltzius says yes; Raimondo Cuiniccio from Ragusa, who translated the Iliad into Latin, says no. Bianchini stipulates that the Iliad is a quarrel over thassalocracy, meaning freedom of the seas, and that it’s not about Helen but about sailing in the Euxine Sea and in the Aegean Sea. For Bianchini, Mars is Armenia, Minerva is Egypt and “white-armed” Juno is White Syria. For Camoens, Mars is Jesus Christ and Venus is the church. Then there is Homer, presented to supporters of orthodoxy as the Song of Songs. For Apollodorus the big deal is that Homer is likely an Ionian, since the Iliad hardly serves any purpose except to point out the hatred of the Ionians for the Carians. Because of the following verse in canto XV of the Iliad: “we are Saturn’s three sons,” Plato, in Gorgias attributes to Homer a sort of invention of a trinity, which Lactantius does not totally reject. Etc., etc., etc. Issues involving linguistics, religion, philosophy, geography, mythology, theogony, legislation, history, legend. What’s to be said in response to all these subjects being asked about? A 10th century manuscript, with notes by 60 scholiasts, and found by Villoison in Venice, doesn’t provide any resolution. Drelincourt’s Homericus Achilles scarcely clears up anything. Those who provide glosses pass along their lantern. Ernesti, a commentator on Homer hands his over to Heyne, a commentator on Virgil. Hesychius’s commentary gets bogged down in the Phrasai of Calchas; he sometimes favors “tu die,” sometimes “tecum expende,” and never gets out of the bog. Some critics use deletions to avoid difficulties. That’s why so many editions are lacking the nine charming and lugubrious verses by Andromachus regarding Astyanax. Wood, an English traveler, takes on Aristotle, Pausanias and Strabo. Appian, a grammarian, is perplexed by the divergent texts and the various meanings and wisely elects to summon Homer’s ghost to find out what he should go with.
And now, one final remark.
A translation is annexation.
It helps to factor in a poet as well as a philosopher. It’s a good neighborly type of advice. Even the freest nations occasionally run into certain moral and intellectual situations where they need a revitalization of philosophy. Theocracy is tricky and slippery. Luther denounced it in Christianity, grabbing hold of it, bringing it into full view, and driving it away. That was the moment when, thanks to Luther who initiated the matter, that theocracy began making its way out of Rome. But theocracy does know how to work its way back in. Luther gets it out of Rome and, so, it gets into Luther. What it loses in Italy, it gets back in England. It was a papal matter, it will become a bishop’s thing; will you wipe out episcopacy? It will become a priestly matter. Will you get rid of the priesthood? It will turn into fanaticism, pure and simple. The Quaker’s hat shades the human head about as much as a Tiara does. The shade isn’t as bad, to be sure, but it is still dangerous.
Setting aside England’s enormous and majestic politics, the country lives a life that is simultaneously material and mystical. In England matter is sovereign; and, let us add, it is sovereign in a useful and splendid way; names by which it is called include: bank, stock market, industry, commerce, production, circulation, exchange, wealth, prosperity; in England matter hampers progress wile goading it on; it is massive and tumultuous; it overwhelms a person and gains the upper hand; it fills him full of lead and covers him with wings; the wings are power, the lead is gold. Engaging in business, that’s the fixed will of the English brain. “Time is money.” Hence the fever. England (and we do praise it) sends out its merchant marine in all directions over the ocean routes. London is all hustle and bustle, getting around is virtually dreadful; the mob on London Bridge is like an endless chain, and the entire mob runs and dashes about; no stopping and looking; that’s what a daydreamer does; no one strolling. A busy throng and matters requiring haste everywhere. The Thames vanishes beneath the swarm of steamboats. London’s carriage horses for public transportation keep at it on average for 21 hours a day. Now, it’s a weird thing to say, but it’s absolutely true, material life is preparation for a fanatical life. The Bible is well situated atop this matter. In a word, we are born and we die. Something obscure is over us. There above our heads is the infinite, blue by day and starlit at night; a mysterious pressure; such an obsession calls for a solution. Virtually eliminating someone’s distress is the way all religions end up successful. Once rid of concern about what’s above, the mind is then more alert in computing and negotiating things. We rather quickly quit believing something once and for all and we are at rest internally. Such is what we see in England. Theocracy requires no more than that. It has a talent for amazingly splicing a person in two. Egoism is a cordial understanding with God; it excels in such good pairings. It leaves business to the outer person and takes hold of the inner person. It’s on the inside that it cleans out the sepulcher. Religion is an outpouring of the infinite that soaks through a person; but religions are a whitewashing. One layer of faith over vices is all that’s needed. It’s obvious among Catholics as well as Protestants. The one insists slightly more on the New Testament, the other on the Old Testament. All cults contain a Jesuitical streak. Theocracy, particularly in England, just so long as it is in control, is a good ruler; it’s happy with causing some stupefaction. On the inside, it plies the person with vain imaginings and prejudices; it gets inside the head to catch hold of every truth passing through, the extensive spider web of false ideas. Now you are free. Deal, contract, sell, buy, dig up, toil, sail, spend, save, arrange, enjoy, take charge of the rest. It is skilled at trapping you inside a circle that it knows how to hide from you. You will believe a lot and you will barely do any thinking. It let’s someone move about freely on the outside but blocks him in his mind; the material man can do what seems good to him, while the conscientious man is blockaded; while freedom of conscience does exist, still, its freedom is being manipulated beyond any doubt and it unwittingly turns upon itself, always on the other side of an invisible obstacle; certain religious habits get ingrained, quite distinct from political habits; an enormous imposition of articles of faith and intolerant beliefs come upon the nation, bigotry really taking shape; the flood of prejudices swells unnoticed and nonstop; fanaticism, with increasing thickening of the sort belonging to fanaticism, gradually obstructs their intelligence, the text gives commands, the undebatable letter gives orders and prohibits reason, denounced and suspect it withdraws a step at a time faced with everybody’s unyielding obedience. When everyone looks askance at him, it perturbs and sometimes intimidates the thinker, and, if needed, there are strange special tribunals, the court of the Arches, and don’t overlook bishop Collengo, and that’s the way the tyranny of a book gets to take over a free people. It’s a formidable tyranny. Puritanism includes some stiffness. A nation that has too many dogmas in its blood ends up having those dogmas in its enactments, bothersome bumps along the way for the nimble strides of progress. A conformist is afflicted with gout. The Bible, like gout, can infect you. Oh, great people, it’s a matter of going forward, not of heading backwards. A theocracy attains that kind of result, a real achievement for it: freezing up thought. Civil liberty itself suffers from it. Thou shalt not open thy shop on Sunday. Thou shalt not go to the museum on Sunday. Thou shalt not go to a show on Sunday. Hey, writer, you who teach and who clarify, thou shalt not teach nor shalt thou clarify on Sunday. No newspaper either on that day. Censorship of the press done by divine right flares up in England one day out of seven. One Sunday in Guernesey a poor woman is caught by surprise pouring a glass of beer on a passerby; she was fined and put in jail. Some other Sunday a steamboat comes in carrying travelers enjoying a trip, when a millenialist preacher publicly casts an anathema upon them from high above the wharf, cursing such nighttime troublemakers. They find all the inns are closed, so they get back on board the ship without having anything to eat or drink. And it’s natural, since there’s logic even in absurdity, such as reproving poetry and poets, birds who always know a way to slip out of their cages. Turkish hatred of art. Iconoclasm. In England the entire Bible becomes a matter of discipline. The Bible has its seat in parliament, and Moses has control of Cobden. There are as many chapels per square measure of land in England as in Spain. England undergoes a sort of obscurantism. Its Puritanism interjects itself between it and liberty the way its fog does between it and the sun. So, keep your eyes open where you are, liberties are sprouting up all over the place, but superstitions as well. Such chaff threatens the wheat. Bramble is vivacious, it turns everything to sap; it is cumbersome, and up to no good. It piles up at the same time as it rubs the wrong way English prejudices are definitely given too warm a welcome; what England needs is a de-weeder. An alert de-weeder, strong, not easily worn out, out and about day and night, good humored, laughing out loud at the bad things growing, a mischief maker when needed, and with claws to tackle thorns. Irony versus weedy. France, placed on a diet, from an artistic perspective, for two centuries more literary than poetic, developed a thirst for poetry. Shakespeare is one of those who largely squelch such a thirst. England also needs something: philosophy; and now that France has a translation of Shakespeare, it’s its neighbor’s turn, and it is important that England have a translation of Voltaire.
1. David threatening Babylon. Priam weeping over Troy (Iliad, ch. XXII)
2. Summa etiam quum vis violerai per mare venti Non divum pacem votis adit, ac prece quaesit Induperatorem classis super aequora verrit, Ventorum pavidus paces animasque secundas? Cum validis pariter legionibus atque elephantis: Nequidquam.