Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joan Acocella

Luther on the couch

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Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther introduced the world to the Ninety-Five Theses. As far as anniversaries go, this is about as big as it gets, but if you find it hard to work up much excitement about it, it might be because Luther himself isn’t read much these days, at least not in English. (He’s notably absent from my beloved set of Great Books of the Western World, which finds room for two gigantic volumes of Thomas Aquinas but nothing from the Protestant Reformation.) As a result, Luther can seem remote to us, when in fact he’s one of the most scandalously vivid of all historical figures. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella refers in passing to his Anfechtungen, or trials, which she lists as “cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists.” Constipation appears here as just one affliction among many, but there are readings of Luther that place his time in the bathroom—a part of all of our lives that goes largely uncovered by biographers—at the center of his career. In Life Against Death, the classicist Norman O. Brown quotes Luther’s own account of a key moment in his religious awakening:

Once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, “the just lives by faith,” “justice of God,” I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.

This is one of the most extraordinary paragraphs ever written, and you can glimpse much of twentieth century literature in its transition to that last, unforgettable sentence. If it isn’t as familiar as it should be, it’s mostly because Luther’s defenders tried to minimize it, his detractors read too much into it, and psychoanalysts seized eagerly on it in ways that have started to seem embarrassing. In the years when the psychoanalytic interpretation of history—not to be confused with other forms of psychohistory—was briefly in vogue, Luther became the case study of choice, in part because he afforded so much material to Freudians. Luther was unusually candid about the bathroom, and excremental images fill his work and conversation. As Brown puts it: “Such historical facts are hard to come by…and historical science should make the most of them.” You could make a strong case that Luther’s openness on the subject encouraged critics to give it an excessive amount of emphasis, just because it’s easier to do this sort of reading on him than on pretty much anybody else. But it’s also hard to claim that these images weren’t somehow central to Luther’s vision. As Brown writes:

Luther records that in one encounter, when Lutheran doctrines had not sufficed to rout the Devil, he had routed him “mit einem Furz”…Other anal weapons employed by Luther in his fight with the Devil—my language here is more refined than Luther’s—are injunctions to “lick (or kiss) my posteriors” or to “defecate in his pants and hang them round his neck,” and threats to “defecate in his face” or to “throw him into my anus, where he belongs.”

And Acocella approvingly quotes Luther’s famous metaphor as he felt death approaching: “I am like a ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to find something comical in Freudian readings of Luther: “Today, psychoanalytic interpretations tend to be tittered at by Luther biographers,” Acocella writes. But perhaps we shouldn’t discourage Freudians from going after the one historical figure whom they might understand better than anybody else. In Life Against Death, after linking Luther’s fascination with excrement with his feelings toward money, usury, and the devil, Brown claims him as one of his own: “Lutheranism can be explicated not only as theology but also as psychoanalysis. Luther, like a psychoanalyst, penetrates beneath the surface of life and finds a hidden reality; religion, like psychoanalysis, must say that things are not what they seem to be.” You could even argue that a psychoanalyst in the first half of the last century would have been uniquely equipped to understand the Reformation from the inside. As Janet Malcolm writes so memorably in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers).

This dual dynamic, which had been enacted within living memory, recalled the Reformation itself, which took Luther’s secret struggle and turned it into a movement that could overthrow kings and empires, with the two tracks running in parallel. And their affinities go even deeper. Luther, like Freud, marked a divide in mankind’s understanding of itself, and their fans and followers don’t shy away from grandiose statements. Acocella quotes a recent biography by Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World: “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.” You could make the same claim—with a different list of values—for Freud. And even their enemies speak of them in analogous terms. In Freud for Historians, Peter Gay writes:

Inevitably, those most hostile to psychoanalysis have been those most alarmed at psychohistory. To them, it is nothing less than a disfiguring, perhaps incurable epidemic that has invaded their craft. The “reckless psychologizing of the “woolly-minded men and women who call themselves psychohistorians,” Kenneth S. Lynn wrote in 1978, has grown into “a cancer that is metastasizing through the whole body of the historical profession.”

The language here is startlingly similar to what Acocella says of Luther’s legacy: “The Reformation wasn’t led, exactly; it just spread, metastasized.” Freud’s revolution may be over, while Luther’s, in some strange way, is just beginning. And if we want to understand one, we can still learn a lot from the other.

The art of translation, part 1

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William Weaver

Here are a few names: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Rabelais, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Proust, Mann, Borges. Here are some others: Allen Mandelbaum, Sir Thomas Urquhart, James Falen, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, John Woods, Andrew Hurley. The names on the second list aren’t nearly as famous as the ones on the first, but their roles are just as indispensable. These are the translators, those crucial intermediaries for readers, like me, who want to read world literature but are only comfortable in one modern language. Ideally, their work is invisible, and in many cases—though not all—their names appear only in small print on the book’s title page. Yet the dance they perform is as intricate, in its own fashion, as that of any other author. Instead of following the language or story wherever it takes them, they’re constrained by the words on the page, and they have to perform a complicated triangulation between fidelity to the text and the author’s intentions and the needs of the reader. A few, like Pevear and Volokhonsky, become something like celebrities in their own right, but for the most part, their contributions don’t receive a fraction of the attention or gratitude they deserve.

I got to thinking about this yesterday, when I heard that William Weaver had died. Weaver is the first translator whose name I came to recognize, thanks primarily to his translations of Umberto Eco’s first two novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. If you count Weaver as a creative force working side by side with Eco, he’s among the authors whose words I’ve read more than any other, and not just through Eco: I’ve encountered him with pleasure in many other works of art that have played important roles in my life, from Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler to the subtitles for Fellini’s late movies. Few great translators are ever translators alone—their lives, not surprisingly, tend to be polyglot, multinational, and full of curiosity—and Weaver was no exception. The interview he once gave to The Paris Review is filled with good stories about life in Italy after the war, his work as a man of letters and music critic, and his creative process, described in the kind of detail that I love:

After having done this very rapid (i.e., in a month or two) first draft, I print it out; then I arm myself with a box of Ebony soft pencils and good erasers, and I go over it painstakingly with a pencil. I fill in the blanks, make the choices and change things. I have a big legal pad beside me and at the top is written, Ask Um [Umberto Eco]; then I write: pg. 35; pg. 10; and the things I want to discuss with him…I solve all the problems with the pencil.

Allen Mandelbaum

And solving problems is what translation is all about. An author like Eco poses particular challenges: his characters tend to be as erudite as he is, moving easily from one language to the next, and they sometimes speak in languages of their own creation. Tackling this kind of author provides a translator with his best chance to subtly show off, but it’s in the ordinary, everyday way people talk that true genius reveals itself. “Literary or writerly language is much easier to translate than dialect and popular speech,” Weaver notes, and it’s easy to see what he means: the high style, with its elegant rhythms and refined vocabulary, is similar in spirit across every language, while rendering slang or casual conversation requires an ear for unwritten nuances on both ends. It’s why there are more great translations of Sophocles than Aristophanes, and why botched attempts by translators to render earthy language can so often stop the reader cold. Scholars like David Tod Roy, whose unexpurgated five-volume translation of the encyclopedic and pornographic The Plum in the Golden Vase is making headlines, are forced to confront these issues on every page, as are the various translators of the Decameron, whom Joan Acocella discusses in an insightful recent piece in The New Yorker.

But the central mystery of translation is the question of what, in the end, we’re really getting. To hear some critics describe it, we’re either being presented with a faithful reflection, imperfect but useful, of the original text, or we’re being fed an illusion, a sort of confidence trick designed to persuade us that we’re reading something like the source when it’s nothing like it at all, or even to console us for our own lazy inability to read these authors in the original. Writers as different as Vladimir Nabokov and Douglas R. Hofstadter have wrestled with these issues, and it’s a problem that any serious reader, especially of poetry, needs to confront sooner or later. Most of us ultimately arrive at a realistic intermediate stance, which is that prose translation, at least, can preserve the core and spirit of a text well enough for a thoughtful reader, and that compromises and judgment calls are an inevitable part of the process—which makes it all the more important to have a translator we can trust, like Allen Mandelbaum, who acted as my Virgil to Dante. Translators, like most good authors, strive to present what seems like a transparent window on the world beyond, but when you examine it more closely, it gets a lot murkier. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk a bit more about the enigma of translation, and what an intelligent reader ought to make of it all.

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November 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

Fooling yourself out of writer’s block

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As I noted yesterday, writer’s block arises from a collision between the two inescapable facts of an author’s life: writing a novel requires inhuman dedication and daily hard work, but it also depends on inspiration, which can’t be forced into a regular schedule. The key to overcoming writer’s block, then, is for the author to fool himself, at least temporarily, into thinking that hard work alone is enough—or that writing is less mysterious an act than it actually is. Because good writing is mysterious and magical. But sometimes it’s useful to pretend that it isn’t—at least until it is again.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because novelists have trouble agreeing on how much writing ought to be like a regular job. If writing is only a job like any other, then lack of inspiration is no excuse for inactivity. Anthony Trollope, whom Joan Acocella quotes in her New Yorker article on writer’s block, takes this point of view to its logical extreme:

Let [writing] be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.

That is, if an author approaches writing as just another job, without relying on the vagaries of inspiration, then the problem of writer’s block simply disappears. Which is probably true. But it doesn’t mean that good writing really is just “common labor”—merely that this is a convenient fiction that writers need to tell themselves. Like most convenient fictions, it’s only partly correct. There are, in fact, times when all the hard work in the world can’t compensate for a lack of inspiration. But sometimes the only way to get inspired in the first place is to pretend that it doesn’t matter.

This is why most writer’s block “cures” treat writing as a form of muscle memory. For example, the writer is advised to retype the final paragraph from the previous day’s work, or to free associate, or even to type a favorite page from another author. The idea, it seems, is that once a writer’s hands start typing, they’ll eventually produce something good. Which sounds ridiculous—and yet it usually works, at least in my experience. It’s as if typing alone is enough to bring the creative faculty to life, or at least to fool it into thinking that something useful is going on. (The same thing is even more true of writing by hand, as I’ve discovered when making mind maps.)

This is why it’s also important to begin each writing day with a plan, even if that plan turns out to be a fiction in itself. As I’ve mentioned before, I write massive outlines for my stories, but these outlines are less about determining the actual plot, which can change radically from one draft to another, as to make writing seem like less of a leap in the dark. When I start each day’s work, I generally have an outline, some notes, and a target word count—as if writing were about nothing more than meeting a quota. It’s the security that this routine provides, even if it’s an illusion, that allows me to discover things that have nothing to do with planning or preparation.

Of course, sometimes writer’s block shades into its more benign counterpart—those periods of inactivity that are essential for any real original thinking. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be talking about the joyous flip side of writer’s block: creative procrastination.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2011 at 9:01 am

The special terror of writer’s block

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In less than a week, if all goes well, I’ll begin writing the first draft of Midrash, the sequel to Kamera, which I’m contracted to deliver to my publisher by the end of September. Finishing the manuscript on time will require a fairly ambitious schedule—basically a chapter a day when I’m writing, alternating with equally intense periods of research, outlining, and revision. I’ve tried to build some leeway into my schedule, in case I hit any unforeseen obstacles, but at this point, there isn’t a lot of wriggle room. If I reach a point where I can’t write for a month or more, this book isn’t going to get done on time. Which is why I’m going to tempt fate and spend the next few days talking about one of the most terrifying subjects in the world: writer’s block.

There are really two kinds of writer’s block. The more dramatic kind, and one I hope never to feel qualified to talk about, is the kind that lasts for years. As Joan Acocella points out in her very good New Yorker article on the subject, this sort of writer’s block—the kind that plagued Samuel Coleridge, Paul Valéry, and others—is less a professional problem than a metaphysical or linguistic predicament: the sense that inspiration or language itself is inadequate to express what the writer wants to say. I can’t dismiss this condition entirely, if only because the advancement of art depends on such struggles by a handful of exceptional authors. That said, for the vast majority of us, conventional language probably works just fine, and while daily drudgery is no substitute for inspiration, it’s often the next best thing.

The other kind of writer’s block, the kind that every author needs to confront at some point or another, comes from the collision of the two intractable facts of a writer’s life: one, that the heart of a novel, like or not, is built on moments of inspiration that can’t be predicted or willed into being; and two, that these moments require hours of tedious work to bring them to fruition. When inspiration and discipline go hand in hand, a writer can easily work for six or more hours a day; if they don’t fall into line, the writer produces nothing. While such dry spells can last for anything from a few hours to months on end, it’s probably impossible to avoid them altogether. And they hurt like hell.

So what’s a writer to do? Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about some of the methods I’ve used in the past to get past writer’s block, whether on account of fear, lack of ideas, or simple exhaustion. And by discussing it so openly, I’ll also ensure, by a kind of anticipatory magic, that it won’t actually happen to me. Right?

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2011 at 9:03 am

The Girl Whose Books Aren’t Very Good

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At first glance, Joan Acocella’s openly contemptuous piece on Stieg Larsson in The New Yorker looks like the comprehensive takedown that the Millennium trilogy has long deserved, but I don’t think she quite pulls it off. Acocella devotes a few paragraphs to the trilogy’s “almost comical faults”—bad writing, poor dialogue, irrelevant detail—but concludes by saying that Larsson is “a very good storyteller.” Which is almost exactly wrong. I’ve only read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I have no plans to read the others, but it seems clear to me that Larsson’s faults—and virtues—are very different from the ones that Acocella describes.

First, the good. I don’t think that Larsson’s writing is nearly as bad as others have said. Although it’s true that almost every paragraph could be revised to be sharper and tighter—as editor June Casagrande has done, to amusing effect—that’s true of virtually all mainstream suspense fiction, and Larsson is no worse an offender than most. If nothing else, his prose was smooth and propulsive enough to keep me reading Dragon Tattoo for what must have been hundreds of pages, even as I slowly realized that nothing of interest was happening, or going to happen. (More about this later.)

What else? Larsson knows how to create an atmospheric setting, even if he rarely follows through. And his two main protagonists are perfectly fine. Blomkvist is something of a Mary Sue, yes, but again, he’s no worse than many other lead characters in suspense fiction. And Lisbeth Salander, at her best, is pretty much as advertised: an intriguing, memorable avenging angel. Her scene of revenge against her abusive guardian is the only really good scene in the entire first novel, and it’s so powerful that it almost provides enough momentum to propel the reader through the ensuing three hundred pages of complete inaction. Almost.

And that’s the problem. Despite what Acocella says, I don’t think that Larsson is a good storyteller at all. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo presents itself as a locked room mystery, but the solution is so banal that I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed anything more interesting. Deductions are made by such farfetched devices as a girl’s facial expression in an old photograph, which, even if it were plausible, just doesn’t work on the page. And the author’s idea of compounding the mystery is to introduce us to dozens of interchangeable uncles, aunts, and cousins, all potential suspects, none of them memorable. As Borges wrote:

The amateurs [of the detective story]…are partial to the story of a jewel placed within the reach of fifteen men—that is, of fifteen names, because we know nothing about their characters—which then disappears into the heavy fist of one of them. They imagine that the act of ascertaining to which name the fist belongs is of considerable interest.

And even these shortcomings wouldn’t matter as much if the novel were at least streamlined and concise, which it isn’t. The ideal thriller should be a perfect machine with no superfluous parts, but Dragon Tattoo is so padded that it resembles another Borges creation, the Book of Sand, in which the reader is always an infinite number of pages from the beginning and the end. It’s no exaggeration to say that, given half an hour and a red pencil, a third of the novel could easily have been cut, especially from its opening and closing sections, with no loss whatsoever.

So why are these novels so popular? Acocella seems to have no idea, aside from the possibility that readers are turned on by the trilogy’s lurid combination of feminism and rape, or, in a particularly lame conjecture, by the books’ “up-to-dateness, particularly of the technological variety.” The real answer, I suspect, is that Larsson’s combination of superficial readability and intense boredom has convinced a lot of readers that they’re reading something good for them. And for those who think I’m being unfair, I have a simple test. Read The Silence of The Lambs. Then read Dragon Tattoo again. And if you still feel like defending Stieg Larsson, then, perhaps, we can talk.

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