GABBLER RECOMMENDS: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English The classicist Emily Wilson has given Homer’s epic a radically contemporary voice. By WYATT MASON

“If you’re going to admit that stories matter,” Wilson told me, “then it matters how we tell them, and that exists on the level of microscopic word choice, as well as on the level of which story are you going to pick to start off with, and then, what exactly is that story? The whole question of ‘What is that story?’ is going to depend on the language, the words that you use.”

Throughout her translation of the “Odyssey,” Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented — “radical” in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.

The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”

One way of talking about Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is to say that it makes a sustained campaign against that species of scholarly shortsightedness: finding equivalents in English that allow the terms she is choosing to do the same work as the original words, even if the English words are not, according to a Greek lexicon, “correct.”

“What gets us to ‘complicated,’ ” Wilson said, returning to her translation of polytropos, “is both that I think it has some hint of the original ambivalence and ambiguity, such that it’s both ‘Why is he complicated?’ ‘What experiences have formed him?’ which is a very modern kind of question — and hints at ‘There might be a problem with him.’ I wanted to make it a markedly modern term in a way that ‘much turning’ obviously doesn’t feel modern or like English. I wanted it to feel like an idiomatic thing that you might say about somebody: that he is complicated.”

I asked: “What about the commentator who says, ‘It does something that more than modernizes — it subverts the fundamental strangeness of the way Odysseus is characterized.’ I’m sure some classicists are going to say it’s flat out wrong, ‘Interesting, but wrong.’ ”

“You’re quite right,” she replied. “Reviewers will say that.”

How, I asked, would she address such a complaint from someone in her field?

“I struggle with this all the time,” Wilson said. “I struggled with this because there are those classicists. I partly just want to shake them and make them see that all translations are interpretations.” Most of the criticism Wilson expects, she says, will come from “a digging in of the heels: ‘That’s not what it says in the dictionary, and therefore it can’t be right!’ And if you put down anything other than what’s said in the dictionary, then, of course, you have to add a footnote explaining why, which means that pretty much every line has to have a footnote. …” Wilson paused. “That goes to what this translation is aiming to do in terms of an immersive reading experience and conveying a whole narrative. I don’t know what to say to those people, honestly.” Wilson laughed her buoyant laugh. “I need to have a better answer to them, because they will certainly review it, and they will certainly have a loud voice. They just seem to be coming from such a simple and fundamental misunderstanding.”

“Of what?”

“Of what any translation is doing.”

What a translation is doing — and what it should do — has been a source of vigorous debate since there were texts to translate. “I’m not a believer,” Wilson told me, “but I find that there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.”

[Via]

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On Hephaestus’s Pandora: “Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or even a woman, period.”

“Indeed, what is regarded asthe first example of the ekphrasis of an artistic object in Western literature, the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, is a description of an object that did not and could not physically exist…

Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, approaches Hephaestus for new armor
made by the divine craftsman himself. Upon entering Hephaestus’
workshop, Thetis sees him putting handles on a set of twenty automated
tripods on wheels, mechanical servants able to move back and forth to the
Olympian feasts. These automatons give the audience a foretaste
of an even more dramatic set of the god’s creations. As Hephaestus puts
away his work and leaves his forge to speak with Thetis, he is assisted by attendants made of gold who are like living young women in appearance (zo\e\isi nee\nisin eioikuiai). Unlike the tripods, however, the poet says these automatons possess intelligence (noos), sense (phrenes), voice (aude\),
vigor (sthenos), and have been taught skills (erga) by the gods (417–20).
The passage is curious. The only roughly similar instance in Homer is
the gold and silver dogs Hephaestus made to guard the palace of king
Alcinous in Odyssey 7.91, but these are not described as animate…

At the request of Thetis, Hephaestus sets about making Achilles’
new armor. Although he does make a corselet, helmet, and greaves, these
are tersely mentioned in only a few lines at the very end of Book 18. The
principal focus of the poet’s descriptive energy is on the shield, and the
context of the description is not a static appreciation of the completed
work but rather the dynamic process of the god fabricating it. The emphasis
is on the making, yet it is not even so much the making of the shield per se
as it is the god’s creation of the images ornamenting it.24 First mentioned
is Hephaestus’ depiction of the earth, sea, and heavenly bodies (483–89).
Then follow the three dominant scenes: a city at peace (490–508), a city
at war (509–40), and a bucolic harvest scene (541–605). Lastly, two lines
specify that the river Ocean is depicted around the outermost rim of the
shield (606–7). Starting with the city at peace, the description becomes
immediately and intensely detailed, presenting the motivations of individuals
and the sequential action of the stories that would be difficult if
not impossible to convey by solely visual means. In the city at peace,

we know that two men involved in a dispute are arguing over restitution
for someone one of them accidentally killed and that the aggrieved
party refuses compensation. We know that they take turns laying their
cases out before a council of elders and that two talents lying before the
elders are to go to the one among them who gives the best counsel. In
the city at war, an army marches out from the city, takes up its ambush
and attacks. Yet the action is not described as a series of vignettes but as
a continuous moving narrative, as if the shield were running some sort
of movie in animated metal. Hephaestus even depicts the divinities Ares,
Athena, Hate, Confusion, and Death as present in the scene.

The description in these major scenes is not limited to the visual.
In the city at peace, the poet describes the song of a marriage procession
passing by in the scene, the bystanders speaking up in the manslaughter
dispute, the speakers taking turns, and in the harvest scene, singing,
whistling, and the music of the lyre. In one striking image in the harvest
sequence, the absence of sound is described: the king stands behind his
workers in silence—a condition paradoxically easy to describe in words
but difficult to do in mute images. The cast-metal images on the shield
recapitulate the metallic maidens. The images are presented as vigorous
and moving; they can sense, reason, and argue. Like the maidens, they
are endowed with speech. They know the crafts of peace and war. In the
ambush scene, the soldiers “battle like living mortals” (ὡμίλευν δ’ ὥς τε
ζωοὶ βροτοὶ ἠδ’ ἐμάχοντο, 18.539) similar to the way the “golden maidens
scuttered about their master like living women” (ῥώοντο ἄνακτι / χρύσειαι,
ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι, 18.417–18).26 The use of the simile here underscores
both the lifelikeness of these images and their nature as representations.
Both the figures themselves and their poetic descriptions make them both
real and representational at the same time…

Homer’s description is embedded in Hephaestus’
action of laying out the metals and placing the sculpted scenes, while at
the same time Hephaestus’ work of creating images in the visual realm
parallels Homer’s in the verbal realm. This adds further depth to one
aspect of the poem that has been long recognized: the scenes on the
shield are emblematic of the story of the Iliad itself, so that the shield is
a multilayered image of the poem, created by and embedded within the
poem…

Although the god’s skill makes the figures so
realistic they (seem to?) move and speak, and although the poet aims at
vivid realism, the audience is deliberately reminded that these are but
images, representations in metal.32 In the next example, however, we shall
examine an image that actually becomes alive: Hesiod’s Pandora.
Though not often singled out as an example of ekphrasis of art, the
creation of “woman” in the poems of Hesiod, Theogony 570–615 and
Works and Days 60–109, where she is given the name Pandora, echoes
themes and language seen in Homer.33 Like Achilles’ shield, Pandora is
made by Hephaestus, but from clay instead of his usual medium, metal
(Theog. 571; WD 60–61, 70). The god, in effect, makes an archaic terracotta
statue in a form “like that of a modest maiden” (παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, Theog. 572; ἐίσκειν / παρθενικῆς καλὸν εἶδος, WD 63; παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, WD 71).34 In Works and Days, the gods then bring the statue to
life specifically by giving it powers that Homer says were given to Hephaestus’
metallic maids: voice (aude\) and vigor or strength (sthenos, WD
61–62, 77–79; cf. Il. 18.417–20). Just as the maids “were taught their skills
by the gods” (ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν, Il. 18.420), so “Athena
teaches her skills” to Pandora (Ἀθήνην / ἔργα διδασκῆσαι, WD 63–64).
Goddesses bedeck her with glittering raiment, jewels, and flowers.35 Works
and Days then goes on to detail at length the gods’ gifts of Pandora’s
interior character: craftiness, deceit, shamelessness, and irresistible allure.

…Faraone rightly notes that Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or
even a woman, period. He merely states that her shape, vigor, and voice
are like that of a mortal woman and that all women descend from her
(Theog. 590)…

In one sense, Hesiod appears to exalt verbal representation, since his
words can describe Pandora’s true nature and belie her deceptive visual
appeal. But if this is true, then Hesiod’s words are also exposed as weak
and unavailing, for Pandora’s—and hence all women’s—attractions are
insuperable. Aphrodite herself instilled cruel longing within Pandora (WD
65), and no amount of words can prevent men from desiring women.
Moreover, Pandora’s appeal is purely visual. When she is led out in
public for the first time, both gods and men are awestruck as soon as
they lay eyes on her.To emphasize the visual dynamic, Hesiod equates
seeing Pandora with springing Zeus’ trap: θαῦμα δ’ ἔχ’ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς
θνητούς τ’ ἀνθρώπους, / ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν· (“The
immortal gods and mortal men were struck with amazement (thauma)
at this marvel, as soon as they saw this utter snare which men are helpless
against,” Theog. 588–89). Though given speech, she does not speak
in either of Hesiod’s poems. Given that speech is elsewhere a particular
quality of the living, that Pandora has this quality but does not use it
makes her even more of a contradiction and raises further questions as
to what kind of being she is.

…As Hephaestus’ metallicmaids demonstrate, there is no clear line between an image of life and life
itself. What keeps an image in human form, endowed with power, ability,
and speech, from being alive? At the same time, the images portrayed in
these passages are not only looked at, they also look back. Seeing and
being seen are active processes here. The scenes in Homer reach out to
the audience of listeners/readers/viewers and engage them emotionally
and viscerally. Pandora exerts her irresistible power simply by being seen.

…By the nature of his description, Homer invites comparison between the
visual image of the shield and the words he uses to describe it, which
communicate knowledge that the images cannot. Yet both images and
words are the poet’s creations, so that the result is a complex mirroring
not only of the visual and verbal representation of the shield but also of
the making of the shield and the making of the poem itself. In Hesiod,
the powerful reality of the vision of Pandora is actually the counterpart
to the words which describe her character; rather than compete with
one another, both the visual and verbal are necessary to describe her
completely. Artists and poets both create images, and one form of imagemaking
can, or perhaps inherently does, reflect the other. Visuality and
narratology are two sides of the same coin.”

-James A. Francis, “Metal Maidens, Achilles’ Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of ‘Ekphrasis.’

On poets and priests:

“The priest is rarely seen and is never of importance. In the Odyssey when a priest and a poet fall on their knees before Odysseus, praying him to spare their lives, the hero kills the priest without a thought, but saves the poet. Homer says that he felt awe to slay a man who had been taught his divine art by the gods. Not the priest, but the poet, had influence with heaven — and no one was ever afraid of a poet.”

-Edith Hamilton, Mythology. 

Richard Kearney on Catharsis, Hauntings, Trauma:

“Writing can only work through traumas as traces revisited as hauntings. They can never fully retrieve experiences or tell the full story — fill in all the gaps….There is something always lost in translation…It was because it was too much that trauma repeats itself as lack.”

Latin Literature as Meta Literature:

“Latin literature was already self-conscious when Ennius described Homer appearing to him in a dream and declaring that his soul was now in Ennius’ body… And indeed Latin authors produced from their self-awareness some of their most fascinating effects. There is a charm in the sense of belatedness,  the interplay of tradition and the original talent, an author’s exploration of his relationship with the literature of the past. But this laid trap into which some Roman writers, and rather more modern scholars, were to fall: there was a risk of literature becoming more about literature than about life, and even of being pleased when that occurred. We should perhaps be surprised that so many Latin writers succeed in overcoming that danger. ”  – Classical Literature, Richard Jenkyns, 2016.

On Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

“It is hard to be sure how much Ovid is in control of his own effects. Is it that he cannot resist a clever turn of phrase, as some readers already thought in antiquity? Or is it the ethos of the poem that cheerfulness should keep breaking in? But perhaps this uncertainty is part of the tease.

The Metamorphoses was very widely read in the Middle Ages and after, and it thus became for many centuries Europe’s chief source for classical mythology: Ovid’s, essentially, are the gods who crowd those Renaissance canvases and sprawl across those Baroque ceilings. It is easy, therefore, to get the impression that classical mythology was normally like this, but it was no. Ovid’s way of handling the gods was new. We have seen Aristophanes making fun of them, but still with the sense that at the back of it all that they are real and powerful beings. Ovid turns them into counters in a game’ he invites the reader, as a sophisticate like himself, to look down upon them, a little as Theocritus invited his friend to look down on Polyphemus, but with less human sympathy. The game is to suck all the numen out of them. An Olympian god is turned into an awkwardly boastful swain, a goddess into a naive ingenue.

Some of the humour is cheerfully broad. When Daphne is fleeing from Apollo, he suggests to her that if she runs more slowly he will pursue more slowly too; it is as though the pursuit were a game played for the reader’s amusement. (Ovid also notices that she looks even prettier in flight.) Apollo also boasts of the important places where is is worshiped and points out that Jupiter is his father. Jupiter himself, courting the maiden Io, observes that he is not one of your plebeian gods but the one who holds the sceptre and launches the thunderbolts. Sometimes the humour is slyer: when one of the nymphs, ravished by a god, becomes pregnant, the virgin goddess Diana is too innocent to realize what has happened. Ovid adds wryly, ‘The nymphs are said to have noticed.’

His account of Daedalus and Icarus shows his narrative at its most engaging. The tale of the youth who flew too high, so that the wax of his wings melted and he fell to his death, lends itself to either of two morals: on disobedience (his father, Daedalus, had told him not to), or on pride (flying too high). For a moment it seems that Ovid will take the moral path: Daedalus tells his son to take the middle course, for whereas the sun is a danger if he goes too high, if he goes too low over the sea the spray will weigh the wings down. This sounds like a metaphor for the idea of virtue as the mean between two opposite virtues. But Ovid gestures at this possibility only to toss it aside. He makes Icarus a child, an innocent: the picture of him getting in his inventor father’s way as he works on the wings in charmingly done. And Icarus flies high because he is ‘touched with desire for heaven’; that is sheer glorious aspiration, and we can hardly resist it. But as we are preparing to shed a tear Ovid suddenly turns the tale into a just so story (why the partridge flies low to the ground), and Daedalus turns from sympathetic victim into a past murderer. There was a partridge in a bush by the place where he was burying his son; and by strange coincidence it had previously been his nephew, Partridge, whom he had killed from jealousy by throwing him from the Acropolis in Athens, which is why the bird avoids heights. The switch from heroic myth to animal fable, from sentiment to quaintness, is deliberately incongruous. It is easy to think of a smoother way of moving from Icarus to Partridge, but Ovid prefers the comic deflation.” – Classical Literature, Richard Jenkyns, 2016.

GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Radiolab’s Exploration on Why Homer Never Mentions the Color Blue:


Listen here.

‘Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.’

[Via]

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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The EPIC CATALOG Tag – Coming Soon

EpicCatalog

To honor the lists that The Narrator, BLA, is so fond of, we have decided to start an “Epic Catalog” (or, “Catalogue,” for those of you with accents who can’t read American) tag that will showcase EPIC “lists” of eclectic topics in our usual thematic way — a way that might make you interested not only in the many characteristics of Epic Poetry but in our Epic Prose Poem work THE AUTOMATION (complete with lists!). Here’s to Buzzfeed and Epic Poetry for making lists a thing. All credit is due to you, not housewives.*

EpicGif

*all lists are subject to updates and expansion, as lists are wont to do.

** See also: A brief history of the To-do List.

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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“In Homer, Hephaistos is the divine goldsmith. “

‘For the popularity of Athena among the artisans at this time some verses of Sophocles are characteristic: “Come out in the street you, all the people of the handicraftsmen, who venerate the daughter of Zeus, Ergane, with sacrificial baskets and beside the heavy anvil, beaten with hammers.” Evidently, Sophocles hints at some popular festival of Athena celebrated by the artisans in the streets of the town. There was such a festival, the Chalkeia. The word signifies the festival of the coppersmiths. It belonged to Athena, but at a later date another god of the Athenian artisans, Hephaistos, was associated with Athena. These two even had a common temple. In Homer, Hephaistos is the divine goldsmith. He probably came from the island of Lemnos or, perhaps, from Asia Minor. In origin he was a daemon of fire coming up from the earth. Gas which takes fire and burns is considered by many people to be divine. Later a volcano was considered to be his smithy. He had almost no cults in Greece except in Athens. No doubt the Athenian artisans took up his cult and place him at the side of Athena. He seemed, perhaps, to be nearer to them than the great city goddess. But in the early age it was she who was the protectress of the Athenian craftsmen.’ – Greek Folk Religion, Martin P. Nilsson.

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Thug Notes YouTube Channel

Spark Notes can suck it.

 

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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May roundup: Juno the meaning of love?

This Juno.

Well, it’s that time of year again – JUNE. The time for weddings. Just ask Juno, Queen of the gods and goddess of marriage. She knows alllll about marriage. Believe me. Hers has been a roller coaster. Marriage on the rocks? She feels yah.

Anyways.

Dare we ask how many weddings are booked on your calendar this year?

If you’ve been crashing too many and haven’t been paying attention to this CIRCO blog, here’s what you’ve missed:

Not this Juno.

News broke that Homer’s Odyssey is being adapted into a legit film by the Hunger Games directer and we’re super excited.

BLA gave some predictions for Jo Walton’s newest book in her Thessaly series.

We made fun of James Patterson.

And, as always, Gabbler Recommended some things and BLA had some thoughts and be sure to check out our Tweets of the Week.

Farewell, May. Don’t forget your pole on your way out.

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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Homer’s The Odyssey to Be Adapted by The Hunger Games Director:

The Editor and Narrator are pleased.

 

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book III – The Lord of the Western Approaches

On the number 9.

Stuff Jeff Reads

BullSacrifice

This book takes place in Pylos. Telemachus and Athena (disguised as Mentor) arrive and witness a religious ceremony in which 81 bulls are sacrificed to Poseidon. Afterwards, they meet with Nestor who relates what he knows about what happened to Odysseus after the Trojan War.

The number 9 appears several times in this book. First, at the ceremony, there are nine congregations and each one is offering nine bulls, for a total of 81 bulls. It is also worth noting that 81 in some forms of mystical numerology is broken down to 8+1 which again equals 9.

On the shore
black bulls were being offered by the people
to the blue-maned god who makes the islands tremble:
nine congregations, each five hundred strong,
led out nine bulls apiece to sacrifice,
taking the tripes to eat, while on the altars
thighbones of fat lay burning for the god.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p…

View original post 403 more words

Cassandra’s vengance:

As posted on Tumblr.

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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On the prophetic:

“In the last lines of the Metamorphoses, Ovid boldly claims that he too will become immortal through the eternal fame of his poem. After two millennia, in a changed world that even Ovid could not have imagined, his boast turns out to have been prophetic.”

-Sara Myers on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Authur Krystal’s “What We Lose if We Lose the Canon”

“But what made the postmodern charter different was its willingness to discard the very idea of standards. Starting from the premise that aesthetics were just another social construct rather than a product of universal principles, postmodernist thinkers succeeded in toppling hierarchies and nullifying the literary canon. Indeed, they were so good at unearthing the socioeconomic considerations behind canon formation that even unapologetic highbrows had to wonder if they hadn’t been bamboozled by Arnoldian acolytes and eloquent ideologues.

…Not that there was a general consensus about books before postmodernism or the Internet came along. Tolstoy didn’t care for Shakespeare, Mark Twain loathed Jane Austen, Henry James turned up his nose at Poe, Evelyn Waugh thought Proust “mentally defective,” and Vladimir Nabokov disliked both Dostoevsky and Faulkner, not to mention Thomas Mann, André Malraux, and Saul Bellow. It’s not differences of opinion that should concern us; rather it’s the prevailing mood (I hesitate to call it the conventional wisdom) that literature is what anyone wants it to be.

…While there is nothing wrong (and perhaps something even right) in praising those whom previously we shunned, a law of diminishing returns kicks in once we stop making distinctions between the great and the good. It’s one thing to acknowledge the subjective factors of canon-building and another to obfuscate the aesthetic underpinnings of works created by human beings who invest time, skill, talent, and knowledge into making a novel or poem. What ardent defenders of merely good or commercial books find hard to credit is that those of us who stand by the canon (lacunae and all) feel just as ardently. Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books.

Moreover, those writers who feel the pressure of precursors and who successfully take poetry or prose in new directions deserve consideration beyond what we normally extend to writers who produce satisfactory work in various genres. Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.

That said, we live amid a great sprawl of what passes for literature, a diffusion prophesied years ago by Houston Baker, a president of the Modern Language Association who declared that choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck is “no different from choosing between a hoagie and a pizza.” And in this blur of the present, when every book, every critical evaluation, is almost immediately swept aside by another, there seems little of consequence. How different this is compared with the agitation felt by the Elizabethans, Romantics, and moderns who did their best to forge something new. Those first moderns who maintained that their works rivaled in significance, if not skill, those of the Greek and Latin masters started the ball rolling and, in effect, laid the foundations for the canon. But as I look around today I can’t help wondering if the ball hasn’t finally come to a stop. Whom do our poets and novelists seek to supplant, and what aesthetic or philosophical precepts ride on the attempt?

Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.”

Read the rest.

Link now cataloged in our post “Why Literature is No Longer Art.” Along with the rest.

 

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Ben Okri’s “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness”:

“In our times we are blinded by subject because we have lost our sense of the true significance of art. If a novel is about the slave trade we automatically think it is significant, certainly more significant than one about a chap who drinks too much palm wine. Black and African history, with its tragedies, injustices and wars, has led, with some justification, to the writers being treated as spokespeople for such ills. This has made the literature more committed than others. It might also make the literature less varied, less enjoyable and, fatally, less enduring.

It is a mystery that Italy, with its Borgias, black deaths, inquisitions and violence, left as its lasting legacy the Mona Lisa, The School of Athens, the Sistine Chapel, Giorgione’s Tempesta, the Divina Commedia, the Decameron – works, on the whole, noted for their beauty, their constant universal appeal and influence. They leave us mainly with their beauty. The horror of their history is not visible in the work.

You could not guess at the difficult lives of the ordinary people from the works of Shakespeare. Nowhere in his plays would you learn that in his time they emptied their lavatory buckets outside their windows and that the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon reeked with rubbish. Yet the works endure. They continue to illuminate the human spirit and awaken us to the strangeness and magnificence of the human estate.

There is an interesting lesson here. Cervantes knew slavery, the expulsion of the Moors; he lost his arm in the battle of Lepanto, was not ignorant of Spain’s brutal history; and yet he could not have left us a more lasting legacy than Don Quixote, a novel about a man who chooses to live the adventures he has only read.

Homer tells of the fall of Troy through one man’s sulk. Sophocles tells of a king’s culpability, not the horrors of Greek history. Tolstoy had a great subject in War and Peace, but it is his insight and the writing that give the subject nobility. Pushkin was soaked in Russia’s grim and extraordinary history. He knew the violence of the Boyars, the long shadow of Ivan the Terrible, the crushing lives of the peasants. He knew exile. Yet his Eugene Onegin, a fountain of Russian literature, is about a bored aristocrat; and his short story The Queen of Spades, one of the best short stories ever written, is about a gambler.

Great literature is rarely about one thing. It transcends subject. The subject was always the least important element in works that have endured. Sometimes an important work has a significant subject, but it is usually its art, rather than its subject, that makes it constantly relevant to us. If the subject were the most important thing we would not need art, we would not need literature. History would be sufficient. We go to literature for that which speaks to us in time and outside time.”

Read the rest.

[“BLA & GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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Bryan Doerries on “‘Why Homer Matters,’ by Adam Nicolson”

According to Nicolson, “Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.” The purpose of epic “is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.”

…He prefers the view that, instead of being the creation of a single man, let alone of a single time, “Homer reeks of long use.” Try thinking of Homer as a “plural noun,” he suggests, made up of “the frozen and preserved words of an entire culture.”

Read the rest here.

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, and goodreads.]

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‘Gabbler told me to start my story in a more interesting place (where I had started it wasn’t “entertaining enough”).’#FirstLine #Automation

[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, and goodreads.]

Why “The Iliad” Still Matters