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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Laura Frost on David Foster Wallace and Modernism’s Afterlife in the Age of Prosthetic Pleasure

The following is an excerpt from “Modernism’s Afterlife in the Age of Prosthetic Pleasure,” the final chapter in Laura Frost’s The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents. In the chapter Laura Frost looks at “David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, as it demonstrates how, despite postmodernism’s divergence from many of modernism’s premises, the conception of pleasure as a problem remains strong into our century.” For more on the book, you can also read an interview with Laura Frost

“For Wallace, as for many modernists, the difference between serious and commercial art turned on the distinction between an experience that is learned and earned, and a kind of ‘fun’ that comes all too easily.”—Laura Frost

Laura Frost, The Problem with PleasureOne of the major themes of Infinite Jest is addiction and pleasure disorders. A prominent narrative strand that cuts across the novel’s many plots, and whose importance is indicated by its titular role, is a mysterious film by one James Orin Incandeza, Jr. called Infinite Jest. Known as “the Entertainment” or “the samizdat,” the film is “a recorded pleasure so entertaining and diverting it is lethal” (321). Once people start viewing it, it is so mesmerizing that they obsessively watch until they die. A group of radical Quebeçois separatists want to use Infinite Jest as a terrorist weapon against Americans, who, one character remarks, “would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving” (318).

What makes “the lethal cartridge” so compelling? The brief and possibly fallacious descriptions of the film—for no one who sees it is supposed to survive that viewing—sketch a scenario in which an extraordinarily beautiful woman appears as “some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure of Death, sitting naked, cor­poreally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant . . . explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal” (788). Shot from the perspective of a child in a crib, the film shows the woman bending over the infant and uttering apologies: “I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry. I am so, so sorry” (939). The “ultimate pleasure” here is intimately connected to the maternal body and to infantile regres­sion, drawing not only from psychoanalytic discourse but also from the centuries-old association of the female body with pleasurable pas­sivity and also anxiety. The samizdat calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s asser­tion that mass culture appeals to a “desire to return to the womb.”8

Infinite Jest alludes to other pleasure technologies, such as Reich’s orgone accumulator, the Excessive Machine in Roger Vad­im’s Barbarella (1968), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). Wallace explicitly connects the Entertainment to the historical dis­course and science of pleasure. At one point, some of the characters in Infinite Jest discuss the discovery in the 1970s, by a neuroscientist named Olders, that “firing certain electrodes in certain parts of the lobes gave the brain intense feelings of pleasure” (470). These areas are called “p-terminals” (pleasure-terminals). Building on the data, Canadian scientists implanted electrodes in a rat’s brain and “found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, com­pletely fixated on the lever’s stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue” (471). The artificial stimulation of the p-terminal overrides opportunities for real carnal pleasure (“food and female rats in heat”). Wallace adds a twist to this fictionalized version of James Olds and Peter Milner’s famous rat experiments in the 1950s: when word gets out about the studies, people start lining up to volunteer for pleasure implants. “We would choose dying for this, the total pleasure of a passive goat” (474).

Wallace’s depiction of a society of individuals drowning in but not enjoying pleasure offers a culmination to Rhys’s Sasha and other early twentieth-century pleasure seekers. Rhys, Huxley, Eliot, Lawrence, and other authors merely imagine cinema audiences rendered passive and narcotized. Wallace goes further in creating a vehicle of enter­tainment that literally kills its viewers with pleasure as they neglect everything else and give themselves over to hedonism. The modernist metaphors of intoxication and hypnosis are now a deadly addiction. This is a Freudian version of Plato’s oyster, “merely a body endowed with life,” without the exercise of reason or intellect, and a pure recep­tor of pleasure. It is also the ultimate regressive fantasy, akin to the sort Huxley found so revolting in Al Jolson’s “Mammy” song, and an abandonment of the intellect….


Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Interview with Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure

“It’s a rare work of academic literary criticism that finds a general audience. There is still a kind of snobbery—not unlike the modernists’, actually—that if it’s not ponderous, contorted, and insular, then it’s not serious. God forbid that scholarly work should be fun, stylish, and have a distinctive voice.”—Laura Frost

Laura Frost, The Problem with PleasureThe following is an interview with Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents. For more from Frost, you can also read her post “Of Muscle Cars and Modernism,” (part 1, part 2). We are also offering a FREE copy of the book!

Question: Why focus on pleasure in modernism? What exactly was the problem that modernists’ had with pleasure?

Laura Frost: If you read a lot of modern literature, you appreciate “the fascination of what’s difficult.” It’s tough going: it involves a lot of deciphering, decoding, and interpretation. This is something all scholars in the field acknowledge, but it tends to get lost or naturalized as modernist techniques become familiar to us. When you teach modern lit to undergraduates, for example, it reminds you of how challenging it is. While the students are asking, “Why is this author making things so hard for me?” you are trying to convince them that it’s interesting, consequential, and, well, fantastic. Modern critics and writers constantly invoked the concept of pleasure and difficulty to distinguish their project from other forms of culture.

Q: How would they define or defend difficulty as a pathway to pleasure?

LF: The critic Q. D. Leavis, for example, described popular fiction, cinema, dancing, newspapers, and radio as producing “cheap and easy pleasure,” while she argued that modernist fiction gives rise to pleasure that has to be struggled for and earned: pleasure that almost doesn’t even correspond with conventional definitions of pleasure. Remember, this is the period of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which explores the attractions of contorted, painful, and seemingly unpleasurable pleasure. That’s a great description of modernist readerly pleasure. The usual ways of thinking about modernism, such as the high/low or elite/popular culture divide are actually based on these distinctions about different qualities of pleasure. However, even as modernists set up these distinctions and valorize hard cognitive labor, they clearly recognized the attractions of the culture (popular novels, cinema, and so on) they put down, and they are constantly sneaking in similar techniques. So if you consider modern literature through the lens of pleasure, you get a new reading of old paradigms, a new understanding of interwar culture, and a new understanding of what it means to read and enjoy modernism.

Q: The role of technology plays an important role in your book. How did new technologies and the explosion of popular mass media shape modernists’ views of pleasure?

LF: Mechanized, automatic pleasure is something many modernists criticized as inauthentic and meaningless: “fake pleasure.” Emergent technology was thought to facilitate this effortlessness, in which machines do not so much alienate (like, say, the mechanisms in Chaplin’s Modern Times) as they make simple, somatic pleasure all too accessible.

Cinema was a key example of this ambivalence about technology and pleasure. Authors describe cinema spectatorship as intoxicating, distracting, regressive, hypnotic, and escapist, but also as disorienting, alienating, addictive, boring, or even nauseating. The circumstances of cinema going—sitting passively in the dark and watching–were thought to produce a distinctive mental and physical reaction in the viewer. The addition of sound added a new dimension: many critics of early talkies felt that there was something overwhelming about all this stimulation. The momentous transition from cinematic silence to sound in the interwar period is a recurring reference point for the authors I examine: for example, it underpins the pornographic “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; My book weaves films such as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, The Jazz Singer, the blockbuster Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik, British nature documentaries (The Secrets of Nature), Douglas Fairbanks comedies, and Felix the Cat cartoons throughout the story of modern literature as authors set up cinematic pleasure as a foil for the more deliberate, cognitive pleasures of reading.

Q: Your book ends with a discussion of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Does the modernists’ ambivalent, difficult relationship with pleasure have anything to say about our contemporary era that at times seems awash in entertainment and pleasure?

There’s a scene in the film Before Midnight (2013) where a group of characters sits around a dinner table and the talk turns to pleasure. The Julie Delpy character, Celine, brings up a classic scientific experiment about pleasure, where James Olds and Peter Milner embedded electrodes in the brains of rats, allowing them to stimulate the pleasure-centers of their brains. The rats neglected food, water, and their young in order to keep feeling good. (David Foster Wallace also writes about this experiment in Infinite Jest.) Celine’s husband, Jess (Ethan Hawke), speculates that we have become like the rats, that “we’re pleasure-obsessed, porn-addled materialists, ceding our humanity to technology at the same moment that computers are becoming sentient.” The modernist nightmare of amusement on demand has been realized, at least for those who can afford it. Leaving aside the computers and the electrodes, the discussion about virtual pleasure is not that different from the early twentieth century debates about culture. There was a widespread sense that technologies of mass culture were corrosive because they made simple, base pleasure too accessible, and that people were mindlessly consuming them.


Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Of Modernism and Muscle Cars, Part 2 — Laura Frost

James Joyce

This is second part of Laura Frost’s essay “Of Modernism and Muscle Cars” (you can read part 1 here). Laura Frost is the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents

“Modern literature should be commemorated in all its difficulty and beauty, with all the features that make it a formidable and demanding pleasure.”—Laura Frost

We left off with the USPS “Modern Art in America” Forever™ stamp series. The experimental techniques we see in those images– abstraction, multiple perspectives, and surreal juxtapositions–have equivalents in modern literature’s fragmented language, multiple points of view, obscure allusions, and ambiguity. Both modern literature and art make enormous demands on their audiences, challenging them to embrace difficulty as a cardinal virtue and even a pleasure.

However, while visual art lends itself to mass reproduction like the images on the USPS stamps, it’s difficult to fit, say, the “Time Passes” section from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse onto a stamp. When authors are commemorated, it’s their faces, not their works, that represent them. In 2012, the USPS issued a Twentieth-Century Poets series that did just that; Woolf, Hemingway, Stein, and Joyce all graced the cover of Time while they were alive. But the portrait approach is wrong: modern writers were preoccupied with depth, interiority, and, above all, textuality: the play words on the page. A composed snapshot—say, of Virginia Woolf in a ruffled blouse–just doesn’t begin to capture the quality of her work.

It’s tough to excerpt modern literature for user-friendly purposes. Take, for example, Marks & Spencer’s “Celebrate the Best of British” merchandise this past summer. It included Union Jack-festooned plates and picnic blankets, tins of shortbread trumpeting “good wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the Birth of Their Beautiful Baby,” and a shopping tote emblazoned with a quote from A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” And shopped well? Sure, it’s cute (believe me, I wanted one), but the actual context of the quote is hardly a cheery promotion of picnics: it’s a discussion of the deprivations of women’s education. Really, a more representative quote for Woolf would be, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer”: put that on a coffee mug, M&S!

More egregiously, last April, the Bank of Ireland issued a new ten euro coin showing James Joyce’s face on one side and, on the reverse, an excerpt from the “Proteus” episode in Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach and ruminates on Aristotle, the German theologian Jakob Boehme, and perception: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read.” It was a great quotation to choose—obscure, perplexing–except the Bank got the quote wrong and inserted an extra “that.” Great hilarity ensued (“A Blooming Mistake,” “James Joyce Coin-troversy,” etc.).

Why can’t modern literature be presented as effectively as the USPS “Modern Art” series–or even its “Muscle Cars” series? Surely The Waste Land is as compelling as Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge or the 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda? But let’s not soft-pedal it. Modern literature should be commemorated in all its difficulty and beauty, with all the features that make it a formidable and demanding pleasure.

So why not a series of stamps featuring emblematic phrases from modern literature? Wouldn’t it be nice to pay your next big Visa bill with a stamp proclaiming “The horror! The horror!”? Or to send your next love letter with a sexy line from Tender Buttons, “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot” (or the more obvious, “A rose is a rose is a rose”)? True, many great modernist phrases probably wouldn’t fly with the USPS (“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say” comes to mind). But seriously, each of these fragments would ideally provoke the reader to seek out the original source: a first step toward the active pleasures of modern literature. Wouldn’t you think twice if you received a letter with one of these phrases?

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.”


“like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma”


“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

“in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.”

And of course, the crowd-pleasing “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” But please, USPS, get the punctuation right.

Forever™ modernism!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Of Modernism and Muscle Cars, Part 1 — A Post by Laura Frost

Laura Frost is the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents, our featured book of the week:

“Modernism constantly puts up … resistance and, even more audaciously, it asks its viewers to value, savor, and learn to love that process of interpretive struggle.”—Laura Frost

For the dwindling demographic that still buys stamps in this age of electronic communication, the U.S. Post Office issued two notable series of Forever™ stamps this past spring: Muscle Cars and Modern Art in America (1913-1931). The first shows souped-up hot rods speeding along (“Freedom, Adventure, and Burning Rubber,” painted by Tom Fritz), and the second commemorates the centennial of the Armory Show in New York City, which introduced artists such as Brancusi, Léger, Picasso, and Braque to American audiences. One has to admire the eclecticism: muscle cars and modern art, the Dodge Charger Daytona and Duchamp.

The modern art stamps are kinetic, exuberant, and playful. Each image is a riot of colliding lines and mysterious forms. Even reproduced in miniature, they are by no means “decorative” or straightforward: rather, they present us with a host of questions. What exactly are we looking at? Why did the artist present it this way? And what are we supposed to get out of it?

Mardsen HartleyFor example, one stamp in the series, Marsden Hartley’s Painting, Number 5 (1914-1915), is a colorful conglomeration of crosses, checkerboard forms, circles and lines. Is there a subject encrypted in there? The USPS notes helpfully tell us that this is “a composite portrait” of a German soldier, but it’s presented like a collage or “puzzle pieces.” And indeed, that is exactly how modernism typically presents itself: as a puzzle to be solved by the viewer.

Duchamp, USPSOne of the most important principles of modernism is that it makes you, the viewer, work. Its abstraction, fragmentation, multiple perspectives, and surreal juxtapositions make you constantly aware of form—of how the artist renders the subject—often even more than the subject itself. Sure, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) purportedly depicts a naked body, but the treatment is the real interest, as a robot-like figure is shown moving across the canvas, as if by time-lapse photography with every frame displayed simultaneously. The traditional laws of time, space, and perspective are suspended.

And what is going on in Charles Demuth’s painting of a massive golden number five enclosing two smaller fives over a red geometric mass and a plane of grayscale rays, with the word “BILL” drifting off the upper left part of the frame? The title, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), is not helpful unless we get the reference to a poem by modernist poet William Carlos Williams, “The Great Figure,” an ode to a speeding fire engine. This is typical: modernism expects you to sleuth out its references, jokes, symbols, and meaning.


Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Book Giveaway! The Problem with Pleasure by Laura Frost

The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents

“Fresh, invigorating, witty and profound, her book impresses on every page…. This is criticism at its very best,” so writes Gary Day in his review of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents,

Throughout the week, we will be featuring The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents by Laura Frost. For more on the book, you can also read an excerpt from the chapter The Repudiation of Pleasure.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Problem with Pleasure to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on September 27 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

World Literature Today Interviews Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, Editors of In Translation

Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky

“Translators in the anglophone world are sometimes perceived as being on a ‘lower rung.’ The essays in our book certainly don’t subscribe to that view. Would we say that an actor is on a lower rung than the screenwriter who wrote the lines the actor delivers? Or that the literary critic is on a lower rung than the writers whose works she analyzes?”—Esther Allen

World Literature Today just published the second part of their excellent interview with Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, the editors of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means.

The interview discusses essays in the book from the likes of Haruki Murakami, Eliot Weinberger, Alice Kaplan, Forrest Gander, and David Bellos, and explores some of the issues relating to the status of translation in an increasingly globalized world where English is becoming the dominant language. Allen and Bernofsky also consider a range of issues relating to the technique of translation, including how and whether to preserve the sense of the original language, how to incorporate dialect, and the relationship that develops between author and translator. Susan Bernofsky comments on how some translators become inextricably linked to authors, for better and worse:

It wouldn’t make sense to say we’d only ever want one translator’s version of a given author (imagine if the only Thomas Mann we had was by Helen Lowe Porter and the only Chekhov by Constance Garnett). On the other hand, it can be useful to have the work of an author, particularly a contemporary one, translated consistently by a single translator. Think of William Weaver’s relationship with Italo Calvino—he translated the bulk of Calvino’s work and became his “English voice.” In time, as Calvino becomes a classic author of an earlier age, there might be room for other translations of key works of his, but I know that I for one will probably never want to read the books Weaver translated in any other translation, since I love how Calvino sounds filtered through him. And translators who work for years with an author’s books develop their own specialized vocabulary for that author’s work and particular ways of dealing with certain key stylistic traits, not to mention intertextuality between the books.


Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Kenneth Goldsmith on The Colbert Report

Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, has read at the White House, been the poet laureate at the Museum of Modern Art, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and can now add to his list of accomplishments being a guest on The Colbert Report (video below).

In the interest of full disclosure, he was asked to be on the show to talk about his new book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, published by the great Brooklyn press powerHouse Books. However, the book’s transcription of radio and television accounts of such events as the Kennedy assassination, the shooting of John Lennon, and the attacks of 9/11 exemplify the kind of creative, or “uncreative” techniques, he explores in Uncreative Writing.

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Laura Frost Names the 10 Best Modernist Novels in English

Laura Frost, Problem with PleasurePublishers Weekly recently asked Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents to name The 10 Best Modernist Books (in English).

For the more ambitious readers the list provides a kind of alternate beach-reading list. Frost explains: “It’s going to be a long, hot summer. Why unwind with the latest mystery or light comic novel when you can grapple with some of the most demanding works ever written in English? Think of it as Pilates–or rock climbing–for your brain.” Frost also provides some tips for reading these works:

1. Take your time: you’re not just reading for plot here; you’re reading for the play of the words on the page, the structure, the overall effect. 2. Be curious: if something is daunting or disorienting, ask yourself what makes it so. 3. Play the game: each book has different principles. The more you figure them out, the more you’ll enjoy reading. 4. Don’t get bogged down: when you come across something like the notoriously difficult “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, do your best but keep going until something clicks for you. 5. Finally, re-read. Joyce once claimed, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he [sic] should devote his whole life to reading my works.” That kind of commitment is not required, but it helps.

Here’s the list, arranged chronologically, and you can read the article for Frost’s commentary on each work:

1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
2. Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex
3. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
4. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
5. Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
6. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
7. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
8. Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
9. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
10. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Laura Frost: You probably didn’t read the most telling part of Orwell’s “1984″—the appendix

“[T]he notion that the novel concludes with a brainwashed, broken protagonist, Winston Smith, weeping into his Victory Gin and the bitter sentence: “He loved Big Brother,” are not exactly right. Big Brother does not actually get the last word.” — Laura Frost

The Problem with PleasureAfter news of the Prism program came out a couple of weeks ago, the sales for George Orwell’s worryingly prophetic novel 1984 shot up by several thousand percent. 1984 is a notoriously grim novel, but, in a recent article at Quartz, Laura Frost argues that Orwell’s work is decidedly less grim when one takes into account what she believes is the most telling part of the entire novel: the appendix. Frost is a professor of literature at the New School, and the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents.

In her article, Frost argues that the appendix, despite coming after “THE END,” “changes our whole understanding of the novel”:

After “THE END,” Orwell includes another chapter, an appendix, called “The Principles of Newspeak.” Since it has the trappings of a tedious scholarly treatise, readers often skip the appendix. But it changes our whole understanding of the novel. Written from some unspecified point in the future, it suggests that Big Brother was eventually defeated. The victory is attributed not to individual rebels or to The Brotherhood, an anonymous resistance group, but rather to language itself. The appendix details Oceania’s attempt to replace Oldspeak, or English, with Newspeak, a linguistic shorthand that reduces the world of ideas to a set of simple, stark words. “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.” It will render dissent “literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Rewiring the Real reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Rewiring the Real

This weekend, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review by N. Katherine Hayles of Mark C. Taylor’s Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. Hayles examines the way that Taylor chooses to “construct [his] own audience” rather than write for “other critics,” and after a thorough look at the insights that Taylor offers in linking literature and religion, claims that “even if Taylor would likely disagree, … [Rewiring the Real] is a provocative, engaging, significant, and resistant work of literary criticism.”

Hayle’s review begins by pointing out the differences between most works of literary criticism and Rewiring the Real, notably the fact that Taylor seems to be engaging with philosophers and theologians rather than critics:

The absence of references to literary scholarship in Taylor’s book is all the more striking because of his wide-ranging evocations of difficult works in religion and philosophy. The presumed reader has perhaps heard of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida, Kant, Fichte, and a host of others in these traditions, but may not know their philosophies in depth. Rewiring the Real dares to imagine the creature whose existence seems increasingly imperiled by web surfing, video games, and distracted attention: the general educated book reader. Significantly, Taylor does more than ignore literary criticism; he actively resists it, choosing to locate the payoff for his readings as contributions to a field that does not yet exist — literature and religion, or better still literature as secular theology — but that he strives to bring into being. As if following the mantra, “if you build it, they will come,” he aims to convince his readers not only to believe in, but also to imagine themselves inhabiting, this hypothetical field.


Thursday, May 16th, 2013

James Franco Calls Uncreative Writing “Good”

We were delighted and pleasantly surprised to see that James Franco, the actor, writer, and doctoral candidate (among other things), recently featured a photo of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age by Kenneth Goldsmith on his website. Below the photo he simply wrote “Good,” which we’ll take as an endorsement!

This of course is the second celebrity sighting related to Uncreative Writing:

Cindy Crawford Reads Uncreative Writing

*We make no claims about the veracity or circumstances of this photograph!

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Maureen Freely on Translating Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, Maureen Freely

“[Translators] are witnesses, with tales to tell. We are writers, with our own voices. Whenever we see literary culture distorted for political advantage, it matters very much that we speak.”—Maureen Freely, from “Misreading Orhan Pamuk”

In her essay “Misreading Orhan Pamuk,” from In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Maureen Freely discusses translating the works of Pamuk and how her role as translator changed after Pamuk became embroiled in a political controversy. In this excerpt, Freely considers the importance of the translator in contextualizing as well as defending the work of an author:

When Snow went out into the world, I again revised my job description. A translator did not just need to find the right words, stay in close conversation with the author, and run interference for him as the book made its way through the publication process. She also had to do everything she could to contextualize the book for readers who were not familiar with Turkey—not inside the text but outside it, in journals and newspapers, and at conferences, symposia, literature festivals, and a long sequence of very frustrating dinner parties. As I made the rounds, I was at first encouraged by those who said to me, “I knew nothing about Turkey until I read Snow, you know, but now I can see it’s a really fascinating country so I’d like to know more about it.” I thought the most important thing was that they were interested. Only good could come of that, I thought.

I was wrong.


Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Interview with Susan Bernofsky

In Translation, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

“Translation is, in a sense, the slowest possible reading. You’re watching the great writer build a story arc, and you’re watching sentence by sentence how that arc is being shaped. In that sense it slows down your reading and studying of an author.”—Susan Bernofsky

In a recent interview with Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, coeditor with Esther Allen of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, discussed her own practice as a translator as well as a variety of other issues related to translation. Among other topics, Bernofsky talks about “stealth gloss,” whether or not to “domesticate” translations, whether it is better to translate a text by a dead or a living author, and what book she views as the “holy grail” of translation:

Here’s an excerpt from the interview (Shaun Randol (SR) is the interviewer for Words Without Borders. You can read the full interview here):

SR: Ultimately do you think translating makes one a better writer?

SB: Yes I do, because it makes you think consciously about how sentences are put together, about the actual techniques the writer used to make this sentence have this effect. Translating makes you really conscious of the richness of synonyms out there as well as sentence structure. I constantly hear from students about how translating has changed how they approach their own fiction.

Translation is, in a sense, the slowest possible reading. You’re watching the great writer build a story arc, and you’re watching sentence by sentence how that arc is being shaped. In that sense it slows down your reading and studying of an author.

SR: Would you prefer it if we all spoke one language?

SB: No, because we think differently in different languages. To take away the multiplicity of languages is to take away difference, and difference is interesting. It would be bland and boring if everyone spoke the same language. The literary output that we produce would also be much more monotonous.

SR: Does translation into English enhance English language supremacy or does it preserve language plurality by allowing writers to use their own languages?

SB: The latter. You already have the phenomenon of writers trying to write straight in English so as to have direct access to that global market, but I think that when we translate foreign literature we are creating interest in the foreign culture, thereby also the foreign language.

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

A Culture of Translation — Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

In Translation, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

“To say of translation—as is so often said—that ‘the original meaning is always lost’ is to deny the history of literature and the ability of any text to be enriched by the new meanings that are engendered as it enters new contexts—that is, as it remains alive and is read anew.”—Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

In their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky explore the importance and complexities of translation in a world where English is becoming increasingly dominant. Below in an excerpt from their introduction, “A Culture of Translation”:

Today, the English-language translator occupies a particularly com­plex ethical position. To translate is to negotiate a fraught matrix of in­teractions. As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture. Weltliteratur is no longer (and may never have been) politically, culturally, or ethically neutral. At the same time, the failure to translate into English, the absence of translation, is clearly the most effective way of all to consolidate the global monoculture and exclude those who write and read in other languages from the far-reach­ing global conversation for which English is increasingly the vehicle.

Nevertheless, contemporary discussions of translation’s role— particularly in the English-speaking world—sometimes attest to a stance that barely differs from that of Dante’s Virgil, mourning for a lost prelapsarian oneness and concomitant frustration with the affliction of linguistic diversity. This attitude, as David Bellos observes, portrays translation as little more than “a compensatory strategy designed only to cope with a state of affairs that falls far short of the ideal.” All transla­tion, in this view, is invariably an inadequate substitute for an original text that can only be legitimately apprehended in the purity of its origi­nal language.


Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Haruki Murakami on Translating The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio     Murakami

“To fully grasp its essence, I had to plunge into its heart—then and only then could his writing burst into bloom.”—Haruki Murakami on translating The Great Gatsby

In the Translator’s Afterword, Haruki Murakami’s essay in In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, the novelist discusses the challenges he confronted when translating The Great Gatsby into Japanese. The novel is one of Murakami’s favorite (and apparently it’s being made into a movie….)

To the best of my recollection, I was in my late thirties when I started telling people I was going to translate The Great Gatsby when I turned sixty. Having made that pronouncement, I then conducted my daily af­fairs as if I were moving toward that .xed point, so that much of what I did was pushed along by a kind of reverse calculation. Metaphorically speaking, I had placed Gatsby securely on my kamidana, the high shelf that serves as a household shrine to the Shinto gods, and then lived my life glancing up at it from time to time.

For some strange reason, however, it became harder and harder to wait till my sixtieth birthday. Restlessly, my eyes sought the book in the shrine more and more often until I finally had to give in. So, three years ahead of schedule, I sat down to work on this translation. Initially I told myself that I would just pick away at it in my spare time, but once I got going I found I couldn’t stop, and I finished the whole translation with unanticipated speed, in a single burst of energy. I was like the impatient child who can’t wait until his birthday to open his presents. This ten­dency to jump the gun never seems to change, no matter how old I get….

In the case of The Great Gatsby, I found that none of the translations I looked at satisfied me, regardless of their quality. Inevitably, I would think, This feels a bit (or a lot!) different from the Gatsby I know. I must has­ten to add that this reaction was personal, based on the image I carried in my mind, and had nothing at all to do with objective—or academic— critical assessments of the works at hand, such evaluations being beyond my power anyway. All I could do was scratch my head at how wide the gap was between “my Gatsby” and the impression I received from the translations—this again from a purely subjective perspective. I don’t nor­mally discuss my reactions to others’ work so frankly. But this is The Great Gatsby we are talking about, so I am willing to stick my neck out.


Monday, May 6th, 2013

Book Giveaway! In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means

In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

This week our featured book is In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky.

Throughout the week, we will be featuring the books and their editors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed, and on our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means (For more on the book, you can read Haruki Murakami on translating The Great Gatsby.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on May 10 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

“The essays in In Translation, exploring both the larger, complex questions of translation’s role and function in the world of literature and the more detailed, word by word dilemmas faced by every translator, are consistently stimulating, engaging, and eye-opening, not to speak of eloquent and occasionally even dramatic and/or funny — I came away from reading them with a host of new ideas and insights. This collection is a valuable addition to any library of books on translation or literature in general.” — Lydia Davis

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Interview with Christopher Collins, Author of Paleopoetics

“When we feel powerfully moved by what words do to us, I think it’s because we’ve entered into some deeper, older part of us, a place of wisdom and wholeness that is preverbal, even prehuman.”—Christopher Collins

The following is an interview with Christopher Collins, author of Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination

Paleopoetics, Christopher CollinsQuestion: Let’s start with your title: what do you mean by “Paleopoetics”?

Christopher Collins: All my life I’ve been involved with thinking about, talking about, and writing about literature. But through all those years what most intrigued me were the feelings—the moods and emotions—and the mental images that words can invoke. My deepest responses to poems, dramas, novels—any artwork made up of words—always seemed to come from a level in me that somehow went far back into the past. I don’t mean past lifetimes or anything like that—just a very deep and ancient genetic past, some part of me that wasn’t derived from my personal experience. When we feel powerfully moved by what words do to us, I think it’s because we’ve entered into some deeper, older part of us, a place of wisdom and wholeness that is preverbal, even prehuman. In writing this book I’ve tried to find insight into these intuitions by studying what the sciences of the mind/brain have to say about memory, emotion, perception, and the simulation of perception, imagination.

Q: Is that how you arrived at your subtitle, “the evolution of the preliterate imagination?”

CC: Yes, but by imagination I don’t mean foresight or mental agility, but rather the simulation of perception, auditory, kinetic, and, above all, visual imagery. For me, mental imagery is the prelinguistic content that language was evolved to communicate and that writing was eventually invented to disseminate.

Q: How can anyone know how humans thought before they were able to write down their thoughts?

CC: That’s a fair question. We need to approach this from many angles, for example, primate social behavior, the evolving architecture of the brain from pre-human to human, its consequences for the perceptual systems of vision and hearing, the semiotics of gestures, eye–hand coordination and tool use, and the implication of these for fully human social behavior. We need to look for converging evidence from many disciplines—from paleontology, ethology, anthropology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics, and neuroscience. We need to ponder the implications of our reading, let us take us with it, and not be afraid to revise our basic assumptions. Then, if and when concepts seem to click into place, we need to be ready to draw inferences.


Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

William Logan Poetry Criticism Quiz Answers

Our Savage Art

Columbia University Press has had the privilege of publishing two volumes of critical essays by the poet and critic William Logan, Our Savage Age: Poetry and the Civil Tongue and The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin. As a critic, Logan is perhaps best known for his sharp wit and his willingness to express dissatisfaction with a poet or a volume of poetry.

Last Friday, we posted a twelve-question quiz. We collected twelve quotes by Logan about twelve different poets, removed the poets’ names, and asked readers to guess which poet Logan was talking about in each. Here are the correct answers:

1. Maxine Kumin

2. Sylvia Plath

3. Anne Carson

4. Billy Collins

5. Robert Frost

6. Hart Crane

7. Ted Kooser

8. Robert Hass

9. Geoffrey Hill

10. Sharon Olds

11. Robert Pinsky

12. Elizabeth Spires

Thanks to all those who participated! We had an impressive number of people get all twelve answers! We’ll be randomly selecting our winner from that group and notifying that person via email.

Friday, April 12th, 2013

William Logan Poetry Criticism Quiz

Our Savage Art

Today is the final day of our week-long focus on poetry (today is also the final day of our National Poetry Month book giveaway; be sure to enter by 1 PM today for a chance to win six excellent volumes of poetry!), and we thought we would finish our poetry week with a fun quiz! Columbia University Press has had the privilege of publishing two volumes of critical essays by the poet and critic William Logan, Our Savage Age: Poetry and the Civil Tongue and The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin. As a critic, Logan is perhaps best known for his sharp wit and his willingness to express dissatisfaction with a poet or a volume of poetry.

We’ve collected twelve of Logan’s best one-liners (or, more accurately, several-liners) and removed the names of the poets, poems, and volumes of poetry mentioned there-in. How many names of the poets Logan discusses can you guess? Email your answers to lf2413@columbia.edu by 1 PM, Tuesday, April 16. We’ll grade the responses, and the entry with the most correct answers will win a copy of William Logan’s Our Savage Art and The Undiscovered Country! The contest is now closed.

Update: Check here for the answers to the quiz!

Friday, March 8th, 2013

Colin Dayan on the Role of Dogs in Triomf

Colin Dayan, author of the forthcoming Like a Dog: Animal Law, Human Cruelty, and the Limits of Care, recently reviewed Marlene van Niekerk’s unjustly overlooked 2004 novel, Triomf for Public Books.

The novel explores the lives of a poor white South African family in the immediate months before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The family is haunted by a legacy of sexual abuse and incest as well as the uncertainty of the nation’s future. Throughout the novel, van Niekerk, as Dayan shows, draws on the presence of dogs as reflective of both South Africa’s troubled history and as a way to explore moral questions. Dayan writes:

The dogs and the Benade clan who feed and love them force us to ask: what does conscience look like at the boundaries of humanity, at the edge of a cherished humanism? To read these pages is to experience a perspectival shift, a means of seeing otherwise or crosswise. “So, all in all,” as the narrator tells us, “the Benades haven’t got too much to complain about. That’s just the way things go in this world. In-out, on-off, here-there, dirty-clean, dog-dog.”

Colin Dayan