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9 February 2015 - Translating a German poem

Philip Larkin was no fan of translated poetry:

Almost all transations seem to me condemned to be poetic zombies, assemblages of properties walking around with no informing intelligence or soul, unless the original poem can be digested in the imagination of its translator and used to produce a new poem.

I agree with him. The sound of a poem is as important as its meaning. Trying to preserve, in a translated poem, enough of both the sound and the sense of the original to make a translation worthwhile at all, is all but impossible. It's rare enough to read translated prose that sounds natural, where meaning is self-evidently cardinal. I believe that the only way to read a foreign poem is in the original language, alongside, if necessary, a literal prose translation for reference. Even then, if you're not very familiar with the language, I suppose there will be resonances that escape you... But then, there are resonances in some English poems that escape all but the most erudite of readers. I am with Eliot when he says that "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood". (Ironically, Eliot wrote some of the most obscure poetry in the English language, but its evocativeness in spite of its obscurity illustrates Eliot's very point.)

So translating poetry is pointless... But that's not to say it can't be an interesting exercise for its own sake. If it doesn't benefit anyone else, it can stimulate a writer, especially if they are struggling otherwise for inspiration.

From this very motive, I've just had a go at translating Johann Gottfried Herder's Ein Traum. Insofar as any poem is a good candidate for translation, this one is. It's very short; its vocabulary is simple; it says something interesting.

I'm making no claims for my translation, which has some flaws obvious to me and no doubt other flaws obvious to others. These flaws highlight the struggles I encountered while writing it. I kept as close to the meaning and syntax of the original as possible, while preserving the metre, and half the rhymes (more on that below):

            Ein Traum, ein Traum ist unser Leben
            auf Erden hier.
            Wie Schatten auf den Wogen schweben
            und schwinden wir.

            Und messen unsre trägen Schritte 
            nach Raum und Zeit:
            Und sind (und wissen's nicht) in Mitte
            der Ewigkeit.
            A dream, a dream; yes such our life
            on earth is here.
            Like shadows on the waves we drift
            then disappear.

            In space and time our sluggish footsteps
            measure we:
            Not knowing we are centred in
(Literal translation:
            Our life on Earth here is a dream, a dream.
            Like shadows on the waves we float and fade away.
            And measure our sluggish steps according to space and time:
            And are (and do not know it) in the midst of eternity.)

Here are my observations, in no particular order:

  • From the original ABAB rhyme scheme, I only kept the Bs. I couldn't imagine any way of keeping the original imagery AND the rhyme scheme without the translation sounding entirely contrived. This obstacle highlights a feature of rhymed poetry: words often suggest themselves to the poet by a necessary rhyme that throws certain semantic possibilities into relief, while eclipsing others. For example, I don't know which rhyme in the first stanza occurred to Herder first, "Leben" (life) or "schweben" (float); I'm guessing "Leben" since it's of such importance to the poem's meaning; in which case, it seems quite possible the whole image in the second half of the first stanza was suggested by the single rhyme "schweben".

    (That said, German is fortunate in having many rhymes for that portentous word "Leben"; how many poetically useful English rhymes are there for "life"? The narrow phonic range that limits the possibilities of sonic suggestiveness in German, offers in compensation rich selections of rhymes for words that in English have only three or four.)

  • I wanted to keep the last word as "eternity". This is the key word of the poem, and to end the translation on any other word would diminish the impact of this one. That, in turn, forced the last syllable of line 6 to be "ee". Sticking to my aim of keeping the semantics as close to the original as possible, I chose to move "we" to the end of the sentence. I'm not really happy with the archaic word order. I could justify it by saying that the original poem was written in the 18th Century, when ending an English sentence with a subject pronoun wouldn't have seemed so quaint. Nevertheless, I can't pretend it isn't a compromise. This is what I mean about translating poetry: unlike in free composition in one's own language, one is constrained by the need to let the reader "see" the original poem in the translation, while attempting to make the translation worth reading for its own sake.

  • By far the easiest lines to translate were lines 3 and 4. The English and German words for "shadows" both have two syllables, and the word "disappear" immediately offered itself as a rhyme for "here" in line 2. It's true that "disappear" doesn't have precisely the same meaning as "schwinden" ("fade away"), which is why I replaced the preceding "und" ("and") with "then" - it emphasises the element of time in the process of disappearance, at least that was my intention.

    I replaced the literal translation of "schweben" - "float" - with "drift", so as to replicate the German alliteration of "schweben" and "schwinden".

  • I had problems with the last two lines. It seemed important to avoid ending line 7 with "in the midst of". The "of" at the end of the line would have been weak, but it couldn't be included at the start of the last line because the German word "Ewigkeit" has three syllables, and the only possible English translation, "eternity", has four. A last line "of eternity" would sound spluttered and diminish the impact of the most important word ("eternity") in the poem.

    Eventually it occurred to me that the verbal phrase "centred in" could be used to render the German nominal phrase "in Mitte [+ genitive]". German tends to favour nouns over verbs, but English can utilise its Gallic inheritance to go the opposite way.

    The parenthetical phrase "(und wissen's nicht)" was particularly recalcitrant. It's a frustration to English poets that there is no direct, succinct way of expressing the negative: you always have to insert that superfluous verb "do". I wonder to what extent the emergence of "do" in the negative form in modern English is a reflection of our cultural habit of verbal indirectness, our feeling that negative statements should always be watered down with circumlocution.

    Anyway, the continuous present - "Not knowing" - came to the rescue. It meant abandoning the parentheses but I felt it sounded more natural than any alternative that retained them. It shifts the emphasis of these two lines slightly, from the fact of our being in the midst of eternity, to our ignorance of this fact. But I think it retains the meaning.

  • One last thing. The start of the poem doesn't really have the impact in English that it has in German. The English indefinite article "a" is a hopeless word, impossible to use with emphasis; "a dream" can only be uttered as though it were a single word; "ein Traum" by contrast is a more measured phrase, given weight by the "n" in the indefinite article, the hard, unvoiced "t", and the long diphthong "au" (pronounced like English "ow"). There's no shortage of weighty words in German, and that lends poetry in the language a rhythmic, emphatic quality that I find appealing. Of course things German doesn't "do" so well are lightness, airiness, nuance. Every language has its strengths and weaknesses (I miss "hard" sounds in French), and that brings us back to Larkin's point - that what was written to be expressed as pointedly as possible in one language can't be expressed with the same pointedness in another. The whole essence of poetry is surely that no word is replaceable - least of all by a word from another language.

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14 October 2014 - Cars I Have Known

Volkswagen Golf MK 2, 1.3

This was my first car. I had a limited budget, and wanted something well-built that would get me from A to B.

It suffered more mechanical problems than I expected from a Volkswagen, but it felt solid, and was quite satisfying to drive in a stodgy kind of way: you had to apply some muscle power to both the steering wheel and the gear stick.

The chassis was very much of its time: it rolled a lot on corners, and you had to slow down for the slightest hump if you didn't want to feel yourself hurtling into the ether. With a 0-60 acceleration time of 17 seconds, it was also seriously underpowered. You could forget overtaking anything faster than a tractor.

Nonetheless, it was comfortable on longer journeys. I wasn't particularly sorry to get rid of it, but it did its job for three years.

Ford Ka MK 1, 1.3

This was a great-value car. It handled like a go-kart, with wheels on the very corners and a low centre of gravity. It was cheap, and I liked the distinctive looks. It was also surprisingly well-built. It suffered suspension problems at 40000 miles, but otherwise nothing went wrong.

On the down side, acceleration was poor above 40mph; the seats weren't that comfy; and there was lots of road noise, which was irritating on longer journeys. It didn't get much respect from other drivers, and its diminutive size could make you feel somewhat vulnerable.

But it was a good purchase, and for the price I couldn't fault it.

Mazda MX5 MK 2.5, 1.8

Apart from the mediocre fuel consumption, I have only good things to say about this wonderful machine. The steering was pinpoint-accurate: you could rocket round corners (if you felt so inclined), and you felt that you were "riding" the road rather than travelling on it. On wet and icy roads you had to watch it, but that's all part of the "challenge" of a rear-wheel drive car!

The steering wheel and the gear stick shook about in a way that disconcerted me, until I realised it was deliberate and nothing was going to break. It was designed to feel raw and "alive". Yet it was also comfortable, with well-cushioned leather seats offsetting the hard suspension.

Little went wrong with this car that wasn't my own fault. I got it at a good price, partly because of the unpopular colour (I liked it but it was hardly inconspicuous).

By modern sports car standards, MK 2 MX5s weren't all that powerful, and that fact, along with the unisex looks, got it its reputation as a hairdresser's car. But really, 0-60 in 8.5 seconds is enough to have fun with, and I've driven faster cars that were as dull as ditch water in comparison.

The only criticism I could make of this vehicle is the poor economy. There were many bigger-engined cars that got more miles per gallon. This may have had something to do with the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive setup: there was a lot of metal for the engine to move about.

Mazda MX5 MK 3, 2.0

I'd heard ambivalent reports of the MK 3 MX5, criticising its steering. I'd also heard that these problems were ironed out in the first year or so... and so having loved the MK 2, I took a chance with this.

It felt fine on the short test drive, with the same raw feel as the MK2. Only after buying it did I register that there was something fundamentally different about it. The criticisms of the handling were right, and no in fact they didn't seem to have been rectified (or not by 2007, at any rate). The steering was electronic: in other words, a computer was doing its best to mimic the feeling of driving a car - and failing. The steering wheel slipped this way and that on corners, with no conveyance of grip or centrifugal momentum, so that you had to rely entirely on visual cues for what was going on underneath you.

Not only that, but there was always a slight delay between moving the steering wheel, and the car changing direction. The car was one step behind you, and you didn't feel in full control of it.

It was as appealing to look at as the MK2, in a beefier way; and you felt the extra 0.5 seconds 0-60 acceleration. Despite my general disappointment, it was a pleasure to have the roof down on summer days. But ultimately, this car was trading on the reputation of its predecessors. I knew I didn't want to keep it long when I borrowed a garage's courtesy car, a humble SEAT Ibiza 1.2, and found it more enjoyable to drive.

It's a shame, as I liked the image of the car. But it was style over content; you felt that the engineers had been told to improve on perfection, had become demoralised, and just couldn't put their heart into the newer model.

Ford Focus MK 2.5, 2.0

I've only had this car a couple of weeks at the time of writing, so this write-up is provisional.

I bought ths car because I wanted something more practical than the MK 3 MX5, that was enjoyable to drive, and that had a decent amount of power. So far, I'm not disappointed. Indeed, I enjoy driving this car a lot more than the blue Mazda. The steering is sharp, and it exhibits that old-fashioned quality, feedback. Consequently, despite the softer suspension, you can take corners just as fast as in the roadster, and with considerably more confidence.

This is no sports car, but it's very pleasant to travel in, and with a 0-60 time of 9.1 seconds you can enjoy moments of exhilaration. It also looks nice, in an unexciting kind of way. To be honest, after years of driving MX5s, I rather like the anonymity.

Fords aren't luxury cars, and the interior of this one leaves something to be desired: the plastic feels cheapish, and I need to apply a screwdriver to the central armrest, which has come loose during the previous owner's tenure. But I didn't pay a huge amount for the vehicle and I can't complain.

Another minor irritation is the appalling rear visibility. My model has tinted glass, and that, plus the headrests on the rear seats, means that you really need the parking sensor. Even in broad daylight, you have to squint into the rear view mirror to see what's going on behind you.

This is my second Ford, and like the first (the Ka) it is a fine no-nonsense machine that lacks bells and whistles, but that is engaging to drive and good value for money.

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19 March 2014 - Mahler and Debussy

In my last post, I wrote that no composer has ever expanded on Mahler. Mahler's music represents the apex of Romantic sensibility. The composer's stated aim of "including everything" in his symphonies would seem hubristic if he hadn't succeeded.

Can a musical work "include everything"? Of course, literally and technically speaking, it can't. BUT... I would argue that emotions that Mahler doesn't explicitly express can nevertheless be inferred in between the emotions he does express, because his music's emotional range is so vast. Every fundamental emotion can be found in Mahler's work: innocent joy (the first two movements of the First Symphony; the second movement of the Second Symphony; all but the third movement of the Fourth Symphony); apprehension (the first movements of the Second and Sixth Symphonies); yearning melancholy (most of the slow movements up to the Sixth Symphony); anger (the first two movements of the Sixth Symphony); dismal world-weariness (virtually every movement from the Seventh Symphony onwards).

It's easy, at first, to miss the subtlety of Mahler's music. For example, on first listening, the second and third movements of the Second Symphony seem mere dainty, folksy expressions of low-key earthly contentment. It's only after listening to them a few times, in the transcendent context of the outer movements, that one starts to be moved by them, perceiving the delicate seeds of sadness in pleasure, that make the pleasure all the sweeter. ("Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine", as Keats put it.)

I can't think of any composer after Mahler who really illuminates the human condition in musical terms. No one after Mahler could be original without being consciously different from Mahler; and since Mahler had sought to express "everything", being different from Mahler could only mean expressing less than he did - filling in the details of things that Mahler left unsaid, but never unimplied. Subsequent composers had two routes available: the refinement of technique, or the individualisation of feeling. Those who followed the first route were the Modernists; those who followed the second route what you might term the Post-Romantics.

Debussy was the first Modernist: you can tell he was the first because his music is still, fundamentally, agreeable to listen to. What places him as a Modernist is the primary role in his work of technique. His technique was, in a sense, purely negative: the abandonment of the idea of a home key. Debussy's music drifts, rather than makes statements; one never quite knows where it is going next; the sense of emotional logic that one finds in Mahler is absent. The obvious observeration of Debussy's music is that it has a dreamlike quality: it's fascinating, but there is no sense of development - feelings drift past, but do not acknowledge each other. There is no true sense of personality in his music.

I think the distinction is this: Mahler sought the technique appropriate to realise particular emotional effects. Debussy worked the other way round: he investigated what emotional effects could be achieved by a particular technique.

Debussy's music is intriguing and attractive... but also it is abstract and inhuman. It suggests a disembodied soul regarding the world with enthralled detachment. A sense of time in music depends on expectations set up by "logical" key progressions: expectations that may subsequently be satisfied, denied or deferred, but whose initial placement is essential in setting up the listener's response in terms of progressed time. The Nocturnes and La Mer, by contrast, place the listener outside time. What emotions the music conveys are not really human ones: there is no sense of joy or sadness, and no sense of the human connections or absences that make for intense feeling: there is just the sense of fascination and mystery. So in Debussy, we have variations of one single emotion of the utmost subtlety, but there is not the range of emotions, the sense of human yearning and striving, that Mahler paints. Debussy has great subtlety, but very limited range; and in that sense he is not a great composer in the way that Mahler was. (One might say that, to use a physical analogy, Debussy's music represents the world as pure "wave" or potentiality, whereas Mahler retains a sense of the tension between the specific, the particular, and the potential.)

A composer can be brilliant and original without being great: greatness is the superposition, over brilliance or originality, of depth and breadth of feeling. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler are great, whereas Mendelssohn, Schumann and Debussy are merely brilliant.

Not everyone responds to Mahler, although it pays to give him a fair try; I didn't "get" him at first. Those who do respond to him are usually moved by his music to a degree that I can't imagine anyone being moved by Debussy's.

As for the "Post-Romantics": among these I would class such composers as Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, who generally stuck to tonal musical models (their deviations from these models still refer to them); and who made their mark through a narrowing of expression so that their music is the unmistakable expression of an individual sensibility. Sibelius's music, at its best, has a wonderful and inimitable uplifting quality: but it is somehow local, the expression of an individual mind in an particular place. Whereas, for me at least, Mahler's earlier symphonies have a universal quality; they do not just express Mahler, but the world as understood by Mahler.

So what of Mahler's late works: the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, the Symphony of a Thousand? Though I listen to them occasionally for a change, I'm not a great fan of them on the whole. Mahler aficionados maintain them to be his greatest works, but this seems to me a rationalised (and often snobbish) response to their undeniably "challenging" nature. Yet if "challenging" simply means "challenging to the listener's attention span", then give me his unchallenging earlier works. In fact, the emotional range of later Mahler is much narrower than earlier: little is expressed but apprehension and gloom; and the means of expression are often mere manneristic rehashings of motifs that the composer used when he was younger. Absent are the humanity, the alternations of joy and melancholy, the immediacy of feeling of the early symphonies.

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5 March 2014 - Beethoven and Mahler

This is a comparison of two of my favourite symphonies: Beethoven's 9th and Mahler's 4th. It explains why I think of Mahler as Beethoven's spiritual heir; it surprises me that so few music critics make this connection.

The two works, taken as wholes, are very different in character. Beethoven's 9th traces an arc from grim menace in the first two movements, through spiritual revelation in the third movement, to a roistering celebration of humanity in the final choral movement.

Mahler's 4th is, on the surface, a much more serene work. The arc is from innocent, unselfconscious pleasure in the first two movements (though with interludes of apprehension), through spiritual revelation in the third movement, to a transfigured sense of innocence in the final movement.

The two symphonies share these stuctural features:

  • In both symphonies, the first two movements express a similar mood: apprehension in Beethoven, tranquillity in Mahler.
  • In both symphonies, the slow third movement expresses a state of spiritual insight; in both symphonies, the slow movement is the fulcrum from which the other movements take their meaning, teleologically or retrospectively.
  • Both symphonies end with vocal movements that seek to express in unequivocal terms what has been "learned" from the preceding movements.

What binds these symphonies together, for me, is their slow movements. Both Beethoven and Mahler sought contact with the spiritual realm that lies beyond human experience in time. Both artists knew misfortune and melancholy. Their sensibilities meet most closely in the slow movements of these two symphonies; there are clear echoes in the opening bars of Mahler's of the serene opening bars of Beethoven's.

Yet Mahler's slow movement takes a rather different path from Beethoven's: the blissful mood of the opening bars yields to a sense of melancholy yearning that is altogether more equivocal than what one finds in Beethoven. The melancholy becomes explicit about a quarter of the way through, as the music is pulled gradually towards a crescendo of descending semitones, an eruption of anguish that belies the directive at the start of the movement, "Ruhevoll" ("peaceful"). Remarkably few critics note the mood of ovewhelming sadness and regret comingled with the rapture of this Adagio: I find it the deepest and most haunting movement in Mahler's whole oeuvre. (It was Mahler's favourite of his slow movements.)

The Adagio gradually lightens in mood towards the end, but there is the sense of hard-won rejuvenation of the spirit.

I'm writing less about Beethoven's Adagio in his 9th Symphony, because its mood is less equivocal than Mahler's: it conveys a deep spiritual impulse, but it is quietly rapturous throughout, until the trumpets near the end, that lead into a series of mysterious, quiet string chords that transfigure it into something more subtle than one usually encounters in Beethoven's orchestral music: a foreshadowing of the Mahlerian sensibility.

Above all, though, I can't listen to either of these slow movements without recalling the other, because they are so similar in pace and texture. Beethoven, despite his mostly frustrated and unhappy personal existence, was living at a time of rapid progress and a general feeling of optimism; there is a hint of melancholy mixed in with his rapture, but Mahler seems to be saying, "Yes, and there's also this..." - "this" being a sense of what it is to live in an age of cultural decline and a sense of looming tragedy; with Beethoven, we feel bliss to be perceived close at hand, maybe just round the next corner - and arising from hope; Mahler's concept of this bliss is more subtle: it is a state imagined rather than anticipated, a sense of what could be rather than what will be.

So do I prefer Mahler's Adagio to Beethoven's? I certainly love both - but yes, it's Mahler's that I listen to more often. Perhaps this is partly because we are living in an age with many similarities to that of Mahler's, in which Beethoven's optimism, uplifting though it is, proffers a type of reassurance than not all can believe in. My main point is that Mahler's and Beethoven's musical sensibilities were more similar than is usually acknowledged; they merely lived at different ends of a period of progress. To say that Mahler's sensibility is more subtle than Beethoven's is not to say that it is deeper; but one advantage of the great Victorian cultural acceleration was that many potentialities of orchestration and musical structure had been developed by Mahler's time. Mahler had a richer compositional palette at his disposal; and richness of inherited artistic resources enhances not only what can be expressed but what can be understood in the first place. Time is the revelator. Mahler could not have written Beethoven's work, but he could not have been Mahler without it. Whereas, to state the obvious, there is nothing of Mahler in Beethoven.

Not all composers see their place in the evolution of understanding, as distinct from the evolution of expression. Brahms consciously sought to develop Beethoven's style, but his very idolisation of Beethoven is acknowledgement enough that he could not approach, still less build on, his master's spiritual insight. Mahler makes no attempt to emulate Beethoven: he does what all great artists do, and absorbs his predecessors' world into his own.

One feature Beethoven and Mahler have in common is, I think, their sense of there always being new worlds to explore, or to create; that there is no upper limit on size, subtlety and intricacy of expression, that every state of mind, however fine and intangible, is the springboard for other states of mind ever finer and less tangible. Both Beethoven (in his late period) and Mahler can be very strange composers: one feels a force in their great works that is as disruptive as it is creative - meaning arises from a paradoxical combination of focussed, explicit musical delineation of emotion in conventional harmonic and structural terms - and the chaos of unmediated inspiration. This is, I suppose, the characteristic of Romantic music. Beethoven was the first Romantic composer to be both original and profound; and Mahler was the last. There was originality after Mahler, and profundity; but did any composer expand on Mahler, in the way Mahler expanded on Beethoven? No: after Mahler, the fragmentation began. Mahler's music - at least until the 6th Symphony - describes the very anticipation of this fragmentation, and that's what lends his music its great regretful poignancy.

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23 March 2013 - Bad description

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men contains much convincing dialogue, but a few descriptive passages that fall flat. Fortunately, the dialogue dominates the story and makes it a success. But the weak descriptive passages are textbook cases of getting it slightly wrong, and I was fascinated as to why exactly why they come unstuck. For sure, the description is not terrible, but it certainly falls short of its intended effect. Rather than recreating scenes vividly and immediately in the reader's mind, Steinbeck's sentences demand to be consciously parsed, interpreted, and their words to be fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw, before the reader understands exactly what is being conveyed. It takes a lot of the pleasure out of reading.

The first two pages of the novel contains many good examples. This is how it begins:

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.

Superficially - if you read it before trying to understand it - this sounds like classic poetic description. The sensuousness of the words "deep", "green" "twinkling" and "sunlight" immediately tell us that the scene is a peaceful and attractive one. But they don't give an immediate picture of the scene. Several words are badly chosen. For example, one's immediate assumption on reading the verb "drops" is that it describes downward motion in response to gravity. It's only when you stop and ask yourself how a river can drop into a valley, when it's already at the bottom of it, that you realise that "drops" in fact refers to the meandering of the river that brings it to the side of the valley. Of course, it only takes a few seconds to correct one's mental mistake; but the writer should steer the reader away from mistakes.

"Moves" or (perhaps) "pulls" would have worked fine here. But for Steinbeck those are too obvious, too "unpoetic". The problem is, if you are going to use a non-obvious word, you'd better make sure that it works better than the obvious word. If it doesn't - use the obvious word. You may be disappointing the poet in you, but you will be communicating properly with the reader.

Then there's that jarring use of "twinkling". Why is this wrong? It's a nice word, it's vivid and concise, it describes a quality of this particular river that is not common to all rivers. The problem is that it pulls the reader's attention away from the main point of the sentence, which is that the water is warm. (If this weren't intended as the main point, Steinbeck shouldn't have put it in the main clause.) "Twinkling" is a visual description, and things can twinkle whether they're warm or cold. The reader is momentarily distracted by the unexpected "twinkling", wondering when the explanation for the water's warmth is going to come - which it does in "sunlight", whose effect is weakened rather than strengthened by the momentary confusion that has preceded it.

And why are we only told about "the narrow pool" at the end of the second sentence? What narrow pool is this? Either it's the intended focus of the scene, in which case it should have been mentioned earlier; or it's just some narrow pool or other, in which case Steinbeck should have used the indefinite rather than the definite article.

The prose continues:

On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Galiban mountains...

Ouch: "golden foothill slopes"? Again, the reader's confusion is only momentary; but the disruption it exercises on the rhythm of reading spoils everything. My first thought was that "foothill" was a noun (why would it be anything else?); my second thought was, "Why is he using 'foothill' in the singular?"; and my third thought was that "slopes" was a verb linked to the subject "foothill". Of course, that was nonsense, but only upon reaching "curve", the actual verb, did I realise that I'd completely mis-parsed what had preceded.

All Steinbeck needed to write was "the golden slopes of the foothills" (and add a comma before it). Yes, it doubles the length of the phrase; but a common misconception among writers is that fewer words make for greater clarity. This assumption disregards the rather complex intellectual process of reading, in which grammar and individual words are apprehended simultaneously, and in which an expectation is set up after each part of speech as to what part of speech will follow. Confounding of expectation certainly has its place in writing, but only when it results in greater vividness or clarity, rather than greater confusion. The avoidance of grammatical ambiguity should be a cardinal rule of prose, unless one is writing in a Modernist style where disorientation is part of a deliberate effect.

Later in the same paragraph we have

Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the tracks of 'coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.

The important information here is what animals live in the valley. The precise descriptions of the animals' tracks are distracting, owing to the small but crucial effort we have to expend in picturing them (the phrase "spread pads" is particularly perplexing: both of these words have so many potential meanings that, again, we have consciously to stop and think what is meant). Why not just "... the tracks of 'coons, of dogs from the ranches, and of deer that come to drink in the dark"? Steinbeck seems to want to show us his eye for detail, but we're not interested in his eye for detail, we're interested in what he has to tell us. The reader's imagination is pulled in too many different directions in too short a space, and the writing loses its immediacy.

I won't go on much more... but on the next page is written

On the sand banks the rabbits sat as quietly as little gray, sculptured stones.

The problem here is disruption of the semantic rhythm, and an unnecessary cluster of adjectives. I don't think three of these are needed to describe the putative stones that the rabbits resemble; in fact, are any needed at all? I'm not sure that "On the sand banks the rabbits sat as quietly as stones" wouldn't do the job. It would be a little startling, perhaps, but isn't that what Steinbeck wants? The single important feature of the rabbits is their resemblance to stones. The adjectives are implicit in the comparison: "little" because all rabbits are little; "gray" because all wild rabbits (and most stones) are grey; "sculptured" because a stone that looked like a rabbit couldn't be anything else. If the image of the rabbits being like stones weren't fundamentally a good one, no sugar-coating of adjectives would hide this fact; and since it is a good one, the only effect of the adjectives is to dilute it.


A stilted heron labored up into the air and pounded down river.

I actually like "pounded" here, because it succesfully conveys the bird's forceful wingbeats. But "stilted" is just wrong! When you're describing an object at a particular moment in time, you should portray it as it seems at that moment. Now, it's true that herons have legs like stilts - but only when they're standing still. Steinbeck doesn't draw our attention to this heron until it's in vigorous motion, at which point the stilt-like quality of its legs is surely the last thing that would strike an onlooker. Perhaps Steinbeck is trying to help readers who might not know what a heron looks like: but then why stop at "stilted"? Why not "stilted, grey-feathered, long-beaked, metre-tall"? If you're going to go that far, you should probably be writing a nature book instead of a novel. I think "labored" and "pounded" tell the reader everything they need to know about the heron, and if they want to know more, they can look it up elsewhere.

Dubious "rules" of good writing

As I say, Of Mice and Men is a good novel, mostly because Steinbeck generally sticks to his strength, which is dialogue. Infelicities like those mentioned above are restricted to a few pages. But they struck me as illustrative of the application of writerly "rules" without good judgment.

One such rule is that one should avoid the obvious. Yet: if you can't make a sentence interesting without "avoiding the obvious", is it worth writing? Words can only be as obvious as the point they are making. If this point is subtle, original, or otherwise interesting, the language will never be obvious. It can be straightforward, but that is not the same thing.

Another "rule" of descriptive writing is that adjectives are what make writing vivid and original. Of course, it would be ridiculous to claim that writing can get by without adjectives. But diminishing returns set in more quickly than is often realised. This is particularly true of qualifying adjectives, i.e. those that appear before their noun. Every qualifying adjective defers the moment of revelation of what is being qualified, so that, beyond a certain point, a long string of qualifying adjectives confuses the reader because they don't know what is being qualified.

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12 November 2011 - A bit of metaphysics

Time as a function of the "desire to desire"

Buddhists and, as I understand it, some Hindu texts, maintain that the highest state of consciousness is the experience of unity of space and time. In this state, there is no desire, just formless bliss, and no experience of time as something linear, a simple journey from the past to the future.

Schopenhauer held that all life (and I think, by implication, all material reality) is the expression of a universal "will", this will being the impulse to material existence, to individuality. It is, in a sense, the will to desire itself, the desire to desire. The satisfaction of desire is thrilling, and "the universal mind" has been tempted out of its state of original bliss by the promise of the thrill of desire's satisfaction.

But as Schopenhauer points out, the satisfaction of desire is momentary: it is preceded by frustration, and followed by boredom. Out of this boredom emerges, before too long, further futile desire.

This suggests a basic principle: you can't invoke something you want, without also invoking its opposite. Beauty only makes sense as a concept alongside ugliness; good only alongside evil; desire only alongside frustration and boredom.

So the universal mind desired to experience desire, for the thrill of desire's satisfaction. Now, desire only makes sense in terms of time: it is an attitude to the future. If we surmise that the root state of mind is timeless bliss, we can posit that the emergence of desire and of time itself were two aspects of the same "fundamental act" - the original symmetry breaking of consciousness from something without form, to something with.

The self and the world

To paraphrase Schophauer (I think): if consciousness sought a basis in an independent, consistent self, it needed a context for this self, and that context is the equally independent, consistent material universe that find ourselves in. This an example of the abovementioned principle: the inevitability of invoking the undesired alongside the desired. It is part of the double-bind of our condition: the louder the "human call" of independent consciousness (Camus), the more appalling the "unreasonable silence of the world" (Camus again).

Mystics are aware that the independence and consistency of the material universe can be partially overridden, by means of the partial abandonment of the independence and consistency of the self. The self and the universe are ultimately of the same stuff. (Anyone who thinks this view is incompatible with science should read Erwin Schroedinger, one of the greats of modern physics, and a card-carrying mystic.)

The abandonment of the independence and consistency of the self, and of the world, can be achieved with difficulty through deep meditation, and more easily - but more dangerously - through hypnosis. The experience of this state can induce panic, because the individual mind can only survive through independence and self-consistency: once things start "getting weird", the individual mind finds itself on the path to its own dissolution. Whether this is ultimately such a bad thing, who knows? But it makes sense that as long as we remain on "this side" of dissolution, however closely we approach it, fear will prevail over what lies beyond.

The ability to apprehend the potential convergence of the self and the external world varies from individual to individual, and among those who apprehend it strongly, emotional responses also vary greatly, from fear to transcendent joy. Generally, those who arrive at the state slowly, through many years of meditation, seem to cope better than those who are thrown into it through hypnotic or psychotic episodes. But there also seems an element of luck: people with strong nerves can approach this state without ill effects; the anxious are overwhelmed by it.

"With every wish, there comes a curse"

... as Bruce Springsteen put it. The superstitious monition, "Be careful what you wish for", is nonsense to western rationalist thinking, to the extent that few educated people will admit to taking it seriously. Nevertheless, when we view people's lives empirically, it is a principle that manifests itself with consistent and startling clarity. (Schopenhauer addresses it in his essay "On apparent purposefulness in the fate of the individual".) Wishes made in bad faith, once granted, usually lead to disaster, sooner or later. Often the individual is not fully conscious of his bad faith, but the "something hidden from us" (Philip Larkin) - the intuited subconcious principle that governs the pattern of our lives - has its own agenda, and punishes what it abhors.

I think this principle manifests itself at the level of humanity in general. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, western industrial civilisation finally attained the state of peace, material comfort and above all control of its own fate that it had always sought. But everything calls forth its opposite: control in the present is bought through chaos in the future. With the decline of oil supplies and the collapse of the global financial system, we are now on the threshold of that chaos: the rebound from mastery of fate, to subjection to it.

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15 July 2009 - R S Thomas

Get this:

In the dream
I gave the bird
freedom. In real life
I told it my dream
in its cage. It
sang then notes
of gold hotter
than my tears punishing
itself for my dream.

The first time I read that poem I almost choked. It's hard to say exactly what it means, because (as I think someone said of poetry in general) the only way of expressing the meaning is through the poem's own words. Also, as with many of R S Thomas's poems, it appears to describe an image that came to the poet "in a flash", charged with inherent emotion and not necessarily having a logical context.

Nevertheless, I can't resist performing a little analysis. The poem says, with such extraodinary concision, so much about suffering, love and attachment. The poet loves his bird, but values his attachment to it to it more than he values the bird's own happiness. Meanwhile, the bird empathises so much with the poet's love for it that it feels guilty for being the cause of the poet's guilt. But the bird's pain is double, because simultaneously it feels the yearning for a freedom that, as the poet's dream reminds it, it can never possess. The emotions of the poet and bird become merged in a painful symbiosis of frustration and compassion. Meanwhile, of course, the suffering being described is actually that of the poet: he is describing his own pain at considering what he imagines the bird to be feeling.

Then there is the strange association that the poet makes between the bird's singing and its suffering. Its singing comes over almost as an attempt to inject sweetness into the world in a desperate act of catharsis of guilt and suffering. The phrases "notes / of gold" and "hotter / than my tears" might have sounded clichéd, were their juxtaposition not startling enough to avoid this. How can the bird's song be "hot"?

Many, probably most, poets use simple words in an everyday idiom to express interesting thoughts. Normally the result is banal, and little different, in its emotional impact, from prose. On the face of it, R S Thomas's poems' effectiveness seems mysterious. The words are mostly short, the sentences look constructed in a pretty standard way. This may be true - except that there exist many other possible standard ways of constructing the sentences, none of which would have been as effective. A mediocre poet might have started the poem, "I had a dream in which I let my bird out of its cage." However, Thomas gives the bird freedom: a gift; and an abstract state of being. The succinctness of the sentence, too, enhances its impact. Also consider the reversal of the expected order of "sang" and "then". If "then" had come first, there would have been just that tiny pause before the reader pictured the bird singing - as though the bird had considered for a moment what to do. By placing "sang" first, Thomas emphasises the spontaneity of the bird's response; the reader registers, as one imagines the poet registering, the singing before he even orders it sequentially after the poet's declaration to the bird.

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3 February 2007 - Pedantry round-up

I don't claim never to make errors in my English, but PUR-LEASE, what's going on here??? -

  • "Panorama reveals that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) attempted to show that Seroxat worked for depressed children despite failed clinical trials. [New paragraph] And that GSK-employed ghostwriters influenced 'independent' academics." (BBC News Web site) - Sigh. WHY the full stop? WHY the new paragraph? I just don't understand how you can get this wrong if you've got half a brain cell in your head, let alone if you're employed as a writer by (supposedly) the world's most prestigious news-gathering organisation!!
  • "There's an old adage that suggests one shouldn't fix what ain't broke. Aside from the grammatical inefficiencies of this statement, it isn't true." (Stuff magazine) - I hasten to point out that I don't buy this garbage: the magazine was lying around in our office kitchen. I've no idea what the writer means by "grammatical ineffiencies" - I suspect they're talking about "infelicities" but couldn't be bothered to check a usage that common sense says is utterly meaningless. It's also not clear what they're complaining about - the use of "ain't" or the fact that one can't, logically, fix what isn't broken. If the latter, the error is not grammatical but, as mentioned, logical. And to call this an "infelicity", if that's what the writer means, is of course totally missing the point. Often I feel a little bit of a snot-head about pointing out bad English, but (a) for Heaven's sake, these people write for a living in a more prestigious context than I do and (b) this person at least clearly regards himself as a master of the written word.
  • "The UK is famed as a nation of tea drinkers, but the coffee shop has again spread through our shores." (BBC News Web site) - Now, OK, I know "shores" here is a metonym, but a few microseconds' extra thought would surely have yielded one that doesn't conjure up visual paradoxes.
  • "An estimated 47 percent of Britons drink coffee regularly, they are still in the minority compared to tea drinkers, who make up..." (BBC News Web site) - Barely worth mentioning, this sort of thing, as it's so frequent nowadays. A depressing number of journalists seem incapable of using simple conjunctions to convey relationships between statements. A "but", "although" or "and" after the first comma would help us to understand what point the writer is making regarding the relative numbers of tea and coffee drinkers. And even then, if they really can't handle such subtle concepts as clauses, they could at least have the decency to learn what a full stop is for.

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23 December 2006 - The genre-lisation of the modern world, gobbing oiks and language levels in the Body Shop

  • In a filthy mood while doing last-minute Christmas panic-shopping today, I was agreeably disgusted by the reorganisation of CDs in FOPP. (FOPP is Cambridge's self-consciously hip independent record store, where the staff have been known to sneer at me for being bald and where it is rare to step foot without having one's ears assaulted by snare-drum-backed expletives pumping through the 1000-watt speakers at 5000 decibels. It is, however, the best record store in Cambridge, which is saying very little, and which is only true because it usually has large numbers of back-catalogue CDs at a fiver each.)

    Anyhow, recently FOPP has introduced its own spectacularly arbitrary "cataloguing" system to its store arrangement. If you're looking for a CD of the genre that once subsisted under the quaintly arachaic term "rock/pop", you now have to meditate on the nuances of the terms "Pop", "Alternative/modern rock" and "Classic rock/singer songwriter" before you're in a position to negotiate the ever-shifting organic labyrinth of spotty dreadlocked students and stacked Milan Kundera novels to find the disc of your designs.

    It seems to me there are 2 possible rationales for this scheme:

    • Sheer stupidity on the part of the store management. This is my preferred explanation, and I would hazard that it is compounded by the notion, misguided or otherwise, that "youths" warm to a store that considerately pre-pigeonholes their vapid and blinkered musical taste so as to give them the feeling that they actually have an "identity" or something.
    • Customer manipulation, one of the many scourges of the mature consumer society. This is the technique whereby the management seeks to generate maximum confusion in the visitor's head, forcing him or her to perform multiple tours of the store in the search for the CD they actually came in for, in the hope that by the time they find it they'll have a pile of spot-purchases decided on during their lengthy intramural travels reaching up to their armpit.

    If anyone has any inside information on the "thinking" behind this phenomenon, I would be interested to know.

  • In the lovely Lion Yard, a group of teenage oiks was standing on the balcony, gobbing on people below. It turned out that they were aiming at some of their "chums", but judging by their dubious application of skill and concentration I would be surprised if a large number of their viscous projectiles didn't find their way into the hair and handbags of innocent bystanders and coffee-sippers. Needless to say, nobody even so much as acknowledged the presence of these naughty "scamps", let alone made any attempt to reprimand them. God knows, I didn't. I thought, "I want to move to Switzerland", and shuffled on.
  • Finally, apologies to the assistant in the Body Shop to whom I used the word "denomination" with reference to gift tokens. This was stupid of me, and my hostile impatience at her incomprehension would have befitted Samuel Johnson, wormholed here from the 18th Century, but was poor form for someone who's had 37 years to get used to living in a world where usage of words with more than 2 syllables is liable to lead to brain haemorrhage and possible legal suits.

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9 December 2006 - Impressions of Berlin

  • 1-4/12/06, and my first visit to Berlin in nearly 16 years. Two previous visits: 1988 and 1991, i.e. just before and just after the fall of the Wall.
  • The old centre, including the Ku'damm and Kantstrasse, is now very subdued - a world away from the electric atmosphere it had both before and just after the fall of the Wall.
  • The commercial centre has moved almost entirely to the east. I expected this, but wasn't prepared for the degree to which it would change the feel of the western part of the city - now, the latter has an "out-of-town" feel, like a large but unexciting London suburb.
  • Even in the east, the atmosphere is cheerful but not exciting - Berlin feels less like a capital city than it did when it wasn't one. Friedrichstrasse now seems to be the main shopping street - there's certainly more going on there than in the Ku'damm by both day and night. Even so, you can't get away from the fact that Berlin is now another interesting and stable large European city, and that the forces of history, which used to lend it much of its vibrancy, have moved elsewhere.
  • Another reason for the subduing of Berlin is undoubtedly high unemployment. Naively, I'd expected the new Berlin to be a little pocket of prosperous West Germany in the middle of the former GDR. It isn't: it feels for the most part like an East European capital, a city servicing a large area with severe economic problems. Now that the subsidies have gone, Berlin has had to stand on its own two feet, and its economic and cultural energy seems to have dissipated rather than spread.
  • Our hotel, in Charlottenburg, is run by Russians. It's clean, but the decor is very much Soviet bloc style, and they don't supply new soap and shampoo each day.
  • Seeing us perusing his menu, the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant in Kantstrasse desperately persuades us into eating there, and we are too weak-willed to resist. As it happens the food is excellent. But we can see why he resorts to the hard sell: it's Saturday night, and only three tables are occupied.
  • The Mitte district, where all the reconstructed older buildings are, is now clean, spruce and a very pleasant place to be, busy with tourists and with an agreeable spaciousness about it, especially on the Museuminsel and around the Humboldt University.
  • The new dome on the Reichstag is impressive, though perhaps more so from the inside, with its carefully arranged assemblage of glass and mirrors, than the outside. (In profile it's almost as near a sine-curve as a semicircle.) The mirrors that form the concave central column offer jumbled reflections simultaneously of the city outside and of the visitors below. It very immediately and effectively conveys the message, "This is your country, you are its people, and this is your government". You can step out onto the roof of the building, from which there are superb views across the city.
  • Being older and theoretically wiser, I wondered if visiting Germany afresh after so long would make me see the Germans as so many English seem to and as I sometimes wonder if as they are, i.e. as pushy, officious and unfriendly. I didn't, but found them polite and cheerful. The sense of order in Germany is linked to the idea of social responsibility, and it's a breath of fresh air to encounter this when in Britain any common civic sense died at least a decade ago. Overall, I was reminded of how much I like Germany, and not just because I studied its language at university. I also studied French, but still don't feel the same affinity with France. I think I'm essentially a north European, a Teuton and a Protestant at heart :)
  • The Wall is a distant memory: a generation has grown up since it came down. There's a cobbled line visible in places that marks its route, such as at the site of Checkpoint Clarlie, but for the most part you'd never know it had been there.
  • The biggest disappointment was the mess that's been made of Pariser Platz immediately to the east of the Brandenburg Gate. I'd always thought the Gate was impressive standing on its own away from all buildings, but looking at old photos I see it actually used to have buildings butting right up against it. The Gate now once again is part of a larger architectual ensemble, but the buildings on either side of it are undistinguished, and clash in both colour and style with the Gate. A strange misjudgement, since a lot of money and thought has been lavished on new buildings elsewhere in the city.

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