28 February 2009
The Waste Land
The most familiar example of a poem using non-mother tongue words is, of course, T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922), which has, among other non-English lines, the famous "'You! hypocrite lecteur! — mon semblable, — mon frère!'" Eliot, as we all know, did not trust his readers to recognize the allusion and, therefore, provided the source of the quote as "V. Baudelaire, Preface to Fleurs du Mal."
Reams have been written about this line (Google lists more than 6,000, though that includes double entries), including learned dissertations about Baudelaire's influence on Eliot, but not much about whether Eliot could have achieved the same effect had he translated the line into English.
Was Eliot just showing off? Was he trying not to infringe on the intellectual property of Baudelaire by not translating without permission? Or was he doing something that he could not do in English? Do we have to be fluent in French to understand this line, or can a French-English dictionary do (since the French words are pretty close to their English equivalents anyway)? Is it too much for a poet to call us readers hypocrites to our face, or does the use of the French words make the insult a bit easier to take? Is he insulting us not just by the literal meaning of the words but by insinuating that we do not know French? Or is he flattering us by assuming that we know French and Baudelaire and poetic irony? Or is it only Stetson who should care? Questions, questions!
Posted by Isagani R. Cruz at 4:27 AM
Albert B. Casuga said...
Because of his scholarly respect for the nuances of language and the peculiar sound of colloquial banter (as opposed to his disdain for the periphrastic turn of stylized expression -- See "East Coker" in Four Quartets), I would venture that T.S. Eliot embedded the occasional Greek, Italian, Latin, French, German, Hindi lines to preserve the original vigour or textual context of those lines whether borrowed or created. Were they necessary to the context?
His Wasteland being a commentary on his "take" of his Weltanschauung, a private world view, these quotes from disparate sources like the "Inferno" of Dante, the Upanishad, Hermann Hesse's "Blick ins Chaos" require the reader to understand that Eliot embarked on "symbolising" (objectifying, really) his subscription to what F. H. Bradley in his "Appearance and Reality" postulated: "...external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case, my experience falls within my own circle closed on the outside...In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul."
His wasteland in "Wasteland" is his estimate of Babel. The palpable irony of colloquy vis-a-vis oracle pronouncements of a Tiresias, demands the use of these languages in the multiple levels of his disjointed universe of meaning and meaninglessness. ("Shall I at least set up my lands in order?" Eliot concludes in this terrifying exercise of footnoted poetry.
Could T. S. Eliot have succeeded in structuring his Symbol of his "Unreal City" with lines like: "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down..."HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME/Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart./?
Did he need his other languages from Phoenecian times to Medieval Age, through to the modern inferno of the world wars? Why not?
Nevertheless, in quite another poem, "East Coker" (Four Quartets) the Nobel laureate writes:
"That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory:/A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,/Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter./
In my studies, I was tempted to dismiss difficult poetry thus. Then through the years, I, too, "revealed" my reverence for allusions a la Eliot by dotting my poems with "a speaking in Tongues." Ah, but I would explain this later as a manner of objectifying an experience that must lead to a capturing of a universe of attitude and meaning. One must create the "feelings" with all the available tools of language(s). Quotes are shortcuts to this universe of meaning.
Of course, Dr. Cruz raises a good question: Are quotes in original text an infringement of intellectal property by not translating without permission? If it is a valid legal question, brave souls should now file claims against Eliot's estate. Against Ezra Pound. Against every writer that considers himself "resting on the shoulders of giants" when he quotes lines that could not be bested or improved upon because they are the best way of saying them. But poetry wtih footnotes?
(Mon Dieu! Por Dios! Inaku po! "I think I shall never see/ A poem as lovely as a tree." What's wrong with this popular lyric? When a classmate challenged a venerable professor back in our university days by harrumphing: "What a waste of time 'Wasteland' is!" The professor shot back -- "Barbarians don't need to read Eliot; the canto boys don't need Eliot; drug dealers don't need Eliot; cretinous sloths don't need to read Eliot. You, dear sir, don't need to read Eliot, either." The student became one of the best contemporary writers in Philipine Literature in English. Of course, he did not "get" the point of the sainted academic--may her soul rest in peace -- until a classmate who would become a Senator of the Republic told him that the cackling professor just insulted the grumbling student by calling him those names. The senator, by the way, borrowed a copy of T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays from that university's library and never returned it. The grumbling student went on to write poems that "smacked" of Eliot through and through. He also became a doctor of fine arts. -- ALBERT B. CASUGA
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