Thursday, February 11, 2010

Failure, or Why I Blog

My excitements about blogging are: immediacy, risk, invention and community. My worries are superficiality and failure. Especially failure, which I’m obsessed with and actually quite good at, especially on the internet.

Looking back, I find my success as a failure funny and even ironic – for like many great successes, I began my life hoping to pursue a completely different career than the one that has, apparently, become mine. The career I wanted to pursue was success; so, having heard that success is the opposite of failure, I set out to avoid failure at every turn. The resulting contortions – which cost me huge amounts of time and money, not to mention the respect of my peers and the love of those who had the gall to believe that really, failure was not such a terrible thing after all – were ridiculous and, I suspect, a little absurd: like trying to avoid the ground after you’ve jumped out of a plane. But when it comes to failure, I think I can say that I’ve succeeded, up to a point. Meaning of course that I’ve failed, at least at the success that I originally thought was my purpose and m├ętier.

This may sound depressing to you; but the interesting thing is that accepting my failure has opened up many avenues of experience for me – at least as many as my attempts at success have shut down. For example, there is the diary that I have begun keeping ever since I realized that the chances of successfully getting anyone to hear or read about anything I did were slim, at best. At first, of course, I felt a slight twinge at having given up so easily on my dreams – at settling (as it is impossible not to feel that I have) for a less demanding, and therefore less glorious, and interesting medium. But then the truth is that, by keeping this diary of mine, I have really been following in the footsteps of previous failures the world over.

I will make a digression here, if you don’t mind – since I am apparently failing, once again, to keep on track – on the nature of diaries. Diaries have dangled for centuries from the foreheads of certain intense and observant young persons, as they walked down their streets or through their woods. Many times, these persons were simply trying to make themselves feel like less of a failure – but many other times, this attempt to make themselves feel less like a failure went hand in hand with the intuition that, even if they themselves were a failure, the world was not. In this, I find my own attitude in line with the classic diarists – for to me, the world is a success, meaning, so far as I can see, that a walk through the world, on any given day, can yield the kind of great lines and slow bits and effects that make you suck in your breath or grab yourself inappropriately that a successful poem, or novel, or movie does. If the diarist experiences enough of these moments, he or she might, after a while, decide that they are worth holding under other people’s noses. So said diarist might attempt, not to succeed, necessarily, but to report the world’s successes – which effort (the diarist’s, I mean) would look a lot like success, so long as the observer was not standing more than a few feet away from it.

In closing, I will say that of course, in keeping this diary I have also been somewhat of a hypocrite, since I’ve been trying to make a success of it, and so escape my fate as a failure. Will I do it? I pretend despair, but no matter how thoroughly I pretend, there is always hope. I hope, meaning that I think that the world I live in would be interesting to other men. More importantly, I think that the world I live in would be interesting to me – or rather more interesting – if I looked at it, not just as a success, but as a success that requires my participation in order to succeed. This is my hope, anyway, and the reason why, at the end of the day, I have failed even at failure, which I have heard described as “that most exacting of arts”.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tournier in Iraq

"Trois annees passent, et les pirates se manifestent a nouveau. Je recois une lettre de Nazareth avec un exemplaire de Vendredi. Cette fois il doit se livre a l'enevrs, car il est traduit en arabe. Il vient de Bagdad, et est produit par les editions tres officielles du ministere irakien de l'Education et de la Culture. Je me disais bien que Saddam Hussein ne pouvait pas se passer plus longtemps de mon livre. Je suis incapable de virifier la traduction. Mais les illustrations de l'edition francaise ont ete reprises. L'une d'elles figure Vendredi nu et de face. Dans l'edition irakienne, on l'a pudiquement habille d'un bouquet de feuilles."

"Three years pass, and the pirates appear again. I receive a letter from Nazareth with a specimen of Friday. This time it must be delivered backwards, because it is translated into Arabic. It comes from Baghdad, and is produced by the very official editions of the Iraqi ministry of the Education and of the Culture. I said to myself well that Saddam Hussein could not do without my book longer. I am unable of verify the translation. But illustrations of the French edition were taken again. One of them appears naked Friday and of face. In the Iraqi edition, one of them has moderately equips with a bouquet of sheets." (trans: babelfish)

"Three years later the pirates make another appearance. I receive a letter from Nazareth, along with a copy of Friday. This time, I have to read the book backwards, since it has been translated into arabic. It comes from Baghdad and has been produced, in a very official edition, by the Iraqi minister of education and culture. Apparently (I tell myself) Saddam Hussein could not wait any longer for my book. I am incapable of checking the tranlation. But the illustrations have been reprinted from the French edition. In one of the pictures, Friday is shown nude, en face. In the Iraqi edition, his pubic area has been covered by a cluster of leaves." (trans: Billings)

Source: Michel Tournier, Vendredi et les Pirates, in Les Vertes Lectures

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wane Anew

Ronald Johnson, from Songs of the Earth (at the Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fantastic and Wild, Part 2: Fox as Ruth

(Part two in my four part Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are longform. A little late, hopefully not too short. Coming soon: Maurice Sendak as syncopated master-poet!)

Translation is an act of love; but as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, love is not enough.

This goes double for movies. Take the Lord of the Rings films, in which a series of flawed, but narratively masterful books are bear-hugged by a project so bloatedly faithful that the end effect is like having to sit through a piano recital by your best friend's daughter: sure, she's talented, and sure she's cute; but in the end all you want is for Gandalf to stop - talking - so -damned -slowly, and kiss a Hobbit. That he can't, and won't, of course, is one of the limitations of fidelity - for where most works of art are free to follow their own involutions, translations have their hands tied. As such its tricks are limited, so much so that the phrase "the book was better" is as unsurprising to us as saying that so-and-so author is more X (interesting, beautiful, musical) in his original language.

The exceptions to this platitude can tell us a lot about being faithful. When the books version of the fantastic Mr. Fox finds himself and his family trapped by the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, he decides to dig. His wife watches him spring to action:

"Slowly, Mrs. Fox got to her feet. She was suffering more than any of them from the lack of food and water. She was very weak. 'I am so sorry,' she said. 'But I don't think I am going to be much help.'
'You stay right where you are my darling,' said Mr. Fox. 'We can handle this by ourselves.'" (p. 28)

What are we seeing here? A happy family. More specifically, a happy family in a children's book. Mrs. Fox's suffering is like a heavy cold, and her polite attitude to her husband evidence that, even under duress, the family unit will function like a body, with the father as the brainy head, the mother as the beating heart, and the children as the, uh, frantically-digging paws.

Compare this to the same scene in Wes Anderson's movie version of Fox. After asking "to have a word" with him, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she's going to lose her temper. "When?" he asks. "Right now," she says, before slapping him across the face. With the sharp, but gorgeously pointed facets of a mineral deposit glittering behind her, Mrs. Fox asks her question:

"Mrs. Fox: Twelve fox years ago, you made a promise to me, while we were caged inside that fox trap, that if we survived you would never steal another chicken, turkey, goose, duck or squab, whatever they are, and I believed you. Why - why did you lie to me?
Fox: Because I'm a wild animal.
Mrs. Fox: You are also a husband, and a father.
Fox: I'm trying to tell you the truth about myself.
Mrs. Fox: I don't care about the truth about yourself. This story is too predictable.
Fox: Predictable? Really? What happens in the end?
Mrs. Fox: In the end? We all die. Unless you change."

So many things differ between these two scenes that it seems almost pointless to say what, other than the two characters involved, they share - but I think that Anderson is actually sticking closer to the spirit of his text than we think. In his version, Mrs. Fox is harsh and accusatory; Mr. Fox "honest" and self-deceiving. But they are still husband and wife. The scene is, like its original, a picture of a happy family; except that now, the word "happy" has been translated out of the language of childhood in which it originally appeared, and into the language of adulthood. Happy, as derived from the middle english "hap", which denotes a balance that is precarious but also durable, like a stick balanced on the end of your finger. The stick moves, you move; you move, the stick moves. The Fox couple fights without resolution; but they persist. Mrs. Fox's fidelity to her husband includes confrontation, because it is based on an idea of a relationship that goes beyond cordiality and into intimacy, where we give and take the capacity to hurt because it makes the person we give to or take from important, even unique. Because of this, the scene speaks to an adult in a way that the book's version can't.

Think of the many ways that this could have gone wrong. In an over-loving version, Dahl's emotional choreography is repeated step for step, and the movie is at best a good kids' movie, at worst an adults' movie that treats its audience as if they were emotional idiots. On the other hand, the version that replaces the spirit of Dahl's scene with a word of its own is unloving - meaning careless, butterfingered. A translation that thinks too much of itself and too little of its source, or decides that what it is doing is "better for everybody". Neither of them will be rewatched, at least by me. Stay with your man out of nostalgia, stay with your woman because you want to feel like a master of the universe. There are a thousand ways not to fall in love. But fidelity means (strangely enough) being willing to change.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds because of its mix of fidelity and daring. It is a fairy tale, like its original; but the world that it is trying to explain is the adult's universe of consequence, rather than the child's world of courage. In order to do this it has to find common ground: the "master language" of human experience behind both.