Sunday, March 15, 2015

Offending Language: On W.S. Graham's "I Leave This at Your Ear"

                 The poet, in W.S. Graham’s I Leave This at Your Ear, is imagined to be consciously sensitive of his every movement — walking towards his lover’s house deliberately late, remaining in there for a while to relish the presence of his sleeping muse, and then departing quickly to capture the entire experience in poetry. 
                    The poem, described as the “creature in its abstract cage asleep”, happens to be in the same sleeping state as his lover, whose dreams are thought to be blindfolding her from reality. Here, being asleep is privileged because it is in this natural state that one’s consciousness of the real world is suspended.
This state, where dreams cover our eyes from reality through “the light they make”, is relished by the poet; so he departs, allowing the poem to hover in his imagination and letting the woman dream. 
As soon however, as the poem is created and the woman is awake, everything around them becomes concrete: the poem is given shape through language; the woman becomes conscious of her physical surrounding. 
Language, for the poet, is thus used in an attempt to concretize his abstract thoughts – about language and poetry; about his unspoken affection for the woman and his deliberate action to let her dream. In other words, poetic language is used in an effort to give our rawest thoughts a form and to provide a place for it within the physical world. 
This is how W.S. Graham treats the language of poetry: it is merely an instrument in an effort to explicate what is abstract and unshaped within our realm of thoughts which, in its purest form, belong to another state of consciousness similar to when we dream. 
Because of this complexly abstract character of our consciousness and thoughts, poetic language is used to free it from its “abstract cage” and let it roam in the physical reality we inhabit.The poem, however, demonstrates the difficulty and complexity of this task; that is to say, it takes a laborious effort to convert our rawest feelings and thoughts readily into language, other than the language of poetry. 
It is at this point that W.S. Graham gravely offends language for the very reason that he suspends it through poetry. This act of suspension is captured by the poet’s dismissal of language at the sight of his sleeping lover.
Instead of readily tapping language, which commonly belongs to the real world, to promptly express his thoughts, the writer suspends the employment of it. He delays the expression of his emotions by completely dismissing the use of everyday language, and then leaving his lover asleep so she could stay in the world of dreams while he molds his “abstract creature” into poetry.
The creation of the poem is a grave offense against language’s basic function as a tool for communication because, as the poet demonstrates, the expression of our rawest thoughts is denied of its spontaneity and familiarity precisely because it is abstract and caged in the barely accessible world of human consciousness. 
In this case, W.H. Graham implies that consciousness of another world – specifically the world of dreams where light is found – can only be accessed through the employment of a specific form of language, which is the poetic language. As we know, the language of poetry is obscure, indirect, laborious, cerebral, and often inaccessible. 
Poetry offends our basic assumptions of language not only because it challenges its communicative function, but because – as the poem reveals – it dismisses language at the crucial and very moment of expression. And so, why do we need to defend this hesitant, delayed, untimed, and obscurantist character of poetry?
We must, in my view, guard poetry because another world – the inner reality where our dreams and inner thoughts reside – exists within us. The reality inside us is as real as the physical world we inhabit. Our inner world unfortunately however, defies the language commonly used in our physical existence. 
Thus poetry has always been, in my view, mankind’s futile attempt to access his inner reality wherein language is nonexistent; hence poems appear to be obscure and sometimes senseless because we attempt, in our dire and futile ways, to understand and concretize this other world devoid of language. 
But then, as experiencing beings, it is important to reside both in the inner and outer reality of existence: to acquire external perception from the physical world to our inner reality; and to take what we have internalized outside to make our existence a reflexive whole. 
With this, the poetic language becomes the necessary bridge that connects the process of externalization and internalization between the world of external experiences in the physical world and the inner reality, which we rarely access except for when we dream.  

[In writing this critique, I had in mind the following sources:]
Adams, Hazard. The Offense of Poetry University of Washington Press, 2007.
Gartenberg, Zachary. Review of Graham's The Offense of Poetry. MLN Vol. 124, No. 5, Comparative Literature Issue (Dec 2009), pp. 1211-1215 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Of Violence and Resistance: Translation as Transference

Outlining the origin and history of translation, in Almario’s "Kasaysayan ng Pagsasalin ng Pilipinas", demonstrates the significance of translation as the foremost activity in the interaction and engagement of cultures around the world. True to its etymology, to translate – from the Greek transferre or translatus – means “to convey” or “to ferry across”. Translation is thus an act of transference; meaning the act of transferring something from one (linguistic/cultural) form to another. Traces of this transference, in ancient civilizations for instance, are manifested and revealed by studying translation activity – the dialogue, exchange, and contact between cultural groups.

With transference of course comes the peripheral interplay of knowledge and power for both the translator and the translated — resulting in either violence in the collective episteme (from Spivak’s “epistemic violence”) or in the collective consciousness and emancipation of a cultural group. The Philippines is a nation that enacts this very idea of translation as transference, both in its (epistemologically) violent and emancipative sense. The relationship between translation and colonialism, in the case of the Philippines, is manifested in the transference, among other things, of Christian religious system to hopefully displace the pre-colonial belief system of the natives.

The publication of Doctrina Christiana (“The Teachings of Christianity”) in 1593 for instance, with its said versions in Spanish (Mexico, 1539), Chinese, Portuguese (Goa, India, 1557), and later in the Visayan language (1610), reveals the extent of the colonial project — deemed to be violent because translation-as-transference here involves the imposition, obliteration, and displacement of an existing knowledge system of a cultural group. Ironically however, this very act of translation is also employed to resist the epistemic violence inherent in colonization.

In the Philippines, translation as transference, particularly of ideas on liberation and freedom from 19th century Europe, furthered the country’s understanding of national consciousness and emancipation. As Almario’s article indicated, the translation of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Ang mga Karampatan ng Tawo, 1891-92) introduced the liberal ideologies of France to Filipino propagandists. Moreover, the translation of Rizal’s works into Tagalog and regional languages promoted the Filipino imagining of the nation. Translation – or in the Greek sense, the “ferrying across” of liberal thoughts and nationalist ideas played a significant role in shaping Philippine history and in imagining the Philippines as a nation. 

(I'd like to comment further that Almario, in his survey, excluded translated works from the region (e.g. visayan version of Doctrina Christiana in 1610, Alonso Tomas' first translation of J. Rizal’s El Filibusterismo in 1911, Vicente Flores's visayan translation of Dumas’ Konde sa Monte Cristo in 1928 etc. etc). A lot of translation works from the regions I found in Resil Mojares' book "Cebuano Literature: A Survey and Bio-Bibliography with Finding List")

Monday, August 19, 2013

Art as Mastering Knowledge and Action: On Yukio Mishima’s "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion"

The birth of an image is propelled in the story by language — by a statement once made by a Zen priest to his stuttering child: “there is nothing on this earth so beautiful, as the golden temple”. From then on, this declaration sprouts an imagination within the young protagonist who, in effect, nurtures the idea of an idealized beauty in the image of the golden temple. At first, his conception of the temple’s image is formless; the temple is initially invisible to him, yet apparent everywhere: like the sea, or the golden shadow cast by the sun. In his inner world, the temple lives and is nurtured real by his imagination; so much so that, even if the mountains block the temple from his view, he can still see it inside himself.

This capacity to imagine, in the most vivid manner, is an effect to the protagonist’s speech deficiency: he was born a stutterer, who masters his inner world but not his external reality, from which he is gravely alienated due to speech barriers. In accessing the outer world, language is needed to make our imaginative thoughts concrete; yet for the young Mizugochi, his stuttering condition divorces him from the external reality – the place where he must live and painfully exist. To compensate for his speech disability, he takes pride of not being understood, inwardly becoming the master of his inner self. He is preoccupied by the absolute beauty of the temple; and his knowledge of it – which lives inside himself – affirms his existence.

This is not, however, what the protagonist initially dreams for himself. In recalling his boyhood ambition, the young Mizugochi divulges how he wants to become both an artist and a stuttering tyrant. Revealed in this ambition, as such, is his aspiration to master both his inner and outer reality — an artist, on one hand, mastering knowledge and imagination; while, being a tyrant on the other, mastering action. In imagining the temple, the protagonist has already accomplished mastering knowledge through understanding beauty; however becoming a man of action remains a far-fetched dream, simply since carrying tyrannical commands necessitates clarity of language. 

This struggle between mastering knowledge and action is, within the protagonist, constantly unveiled during his childhood. The visit of a naval officer, for instance, who made him admit his hope of becoming a priest someday, allows the young Mizoguchi to imagine the exercise of power through his knowledge of death, to officiate perhaps the demise of his foes or the naval student himself. However, at one point, Mizugochi expresses his disappointment on the invisibility of this knowledge, compared to the physical beauty of things separated from the body – such as the navy officer’s shirt and sword, which he later scratches, as a demonstration of the kind of power accomplished by one’s action. 

Since action – initiated through uttering speech – hampers the protagonist’s access to the external world, he devotes his attention to imagine the golden temple, whose physical form and beauty lives within him — and at the same time, encompassing him inside its structure of absorbing darkness.  This deep and living relationship with the temple intensifies during the war, as the structure is surrounded by destruction, looming around it. In his words, “it was quite natural that wars and unrest, piles of corpses and copious blood, should enrich the beauty of the Golden Temple”. Indeed, it is during the war that the Golden Temple, in its actual form, resembles closest to the temple of his inner imagination. 

Similar to the protagonist’s existence however, the Golden Temple must remain vulnerable to destruction. And when the destruction of the temple did not materialize after the war, the protagonist’s relationship with it changes. It appears to Mizuguchi that the temple’s eternal qualities – its indestructibility and its defiance against time – do not correspond with the temporal nature and evanescent qualities of beauty and of life. In other words, for Mizoguchi, beauty adheres to the constant tension of creation and destruction, between knowledge and action, between the mind and the body. The imperishability of the Golden Temple, for the protaganist, should end through his own action, through his exploration of evil as a force of destruction.  

As long as the beauty of the golden temple stands, Mizoguchi’s mastery over the external world is hampered by the temple’s existence. In creating absolute beauty within his imagination, for instance, the golden temple must be destroyed to fulfill his ultimate aspiration: to dominate both knowledge and action, in the respective spheres of his inner and outer existence. The burning of the temple, therefore, is the protagonist’s demonstration of mastering both the creation of beauty in the imagination and the destruction of it through action. Mizugochi has met beauty but must act by “killing” it for deliverance — and so, by reducing the golden temple into its basic substance, he reveals that indeed “nothingness is the very structure of (this) beauty” and this is what all of us must significantly understand. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Life in Nature, Nature in Life: On Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji"

Though unaccustomed to a peculiar literary style — marked by omission of character names, usage of highly patrician language, and depiction of archaic Japanese cultural traditions — the enduring quality which, I believe, fostered my deep appreciation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji lies in the unveiling of poetry as an embodiment of aesthetic sensibilities achieved in particular by the Japanese aristocracy. 

In the novel, poems – either created presumably by the author or quoted from older collections of poetry – are deeply embedded in the narrative; presenting an unparalleled literary style, highly developed for its age. Poetry, enjoyed particularly by the Japanese aristocratic class, is revealed to be the highest form of art in 11th century Japan. Because of this, an examination of the role of poetry – present in the lived realities of Genji and other characters belonging to the nobility – shows trace of the aesthetic consciousness of the Japanese and serves to demystify the fascinating aspects of Japanese culture. 

 Japanese poetry, known as waka, occupies a central position in the imperial court as a revered art form and highly favored activity of the nobility. In Genji’s cultural age, both the emperor and crown prince are known to be “connoisseurs of poetry”. The fifth chapter in particular, titled The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms, demonstrates how princes and high courtiers are adept at composing Chinese poems, thus highlighting the active cultural borrowings and influences of the mainland in Japanese language and literature. 

During this period, producing a Chinese poem is considered a difficult task but, for the author, it is described as “positive torture”, endured and enjoyed by a particularly narrow segment of Japanese society. Because of this, the classification of poetry as an aesthetic form in the Heian period, informs of art’s capacity to isolate the noble class from the rest of the society. With this, we are reminded to view Genji’s world as a narrow picture of the highly cultured life lived by Japan’s nobility, privileged for their literacy and exposure to traditional aesthetics. 

Nevertheless, the incorporation of poetry in the novel reveals more than a division of class; for indeed, in examining the substance of these poems, the interrelation of human emotion and nature is harmoniously depicted in the literary form. In other words, the poems contained in the novel convey the relationship between our feelings and the natural world. For instance: the waves moaning our longings, the winds becoming messengers of our sorrow, the river of tears revealing our grief, the dews miming our tears. 

These references to nature – present in one of their aesthetic concepts such as mono no aware or “sensitivity to things” – reflect the sensibilities of the Japanese in perceiving the natural world as part of the inner self. Nature, for the Japanese, exists in harmony with our thoughts and feeling. Poetry then, becomes an avenue where the natural world and the human life, express its unity and interrelatedness. Genji and other characters in the novel internalize, through poetry, the realities of the natural world and their inner world, consciously mindful of the transitory and evanescent qualities of life in general.  

Another function of poetry, which perhaps contributes to its appeal among the aristocracy, is its capacity to conceal human emotions through highly eloquent and suggestive language. Japanese poetry is carefully tailored to not only express emotions about beauty and life, but also to allow intimate communication between a man and a woman. 

It is through poetry, for instance, that Genji is able to convey his emotions towards his numerous lovers. Poetry is his weapon to initiate amorous affairs. Because of its highly suggestive nature, poems also become an allusion to the worldly desires experienced by Genji, and by his lovers. To demonstrate this, allow me to present a poetic exchange, particularly between Genji and Naishi – an aged but lewd aristocratic woman. 

Their conversation starts with the old Naishi’s aggressive speech, which goes: 
“Sere and withered though these grasses be,
they are ready for your pony, should you come”; 
— to which Genji, known for his carnal nature, liberally replies:
 “Were mine to part the low bamboo of your grove,
 It would fear to be driven away by other ponies”. 
Indeed, the exchange above, classic in its veiling the natural world and our worldly desires, is a testament to the poet’s might in depicting the impermanence of life and the immortality of art. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Queries, More Queries: On Friedrich von Schiller's "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man"

Reading Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man requires dissection of our thoughts concerning “art and beauty”. However, for the mere mortal in me, to arrive at a complete understanding of his thoughts requires undertaking a mental journey towards the land of abstract ideas. For this, I do not fault Schiller’s elaborate language or his tedious explication of aesthetics; after all, launching an inquiry towards the abstract requires further abstraction, not to mention the need for a laboring imagination. Schiller, in dissecting the “phenomenon” called beauty, aims particularly at demystifying and dissolving “the essential amalgam of its elements”. In reading his letters, as such, we are transported towards the realm “beyond the reach of the senses” — and given this, comes an understanding within the reach of my own. Indeed, this paragraph worth explanation is necessary, in my view, to avoid misconceiving his thoughts; which goes this way:

My reading of Schiller’s letters comes with an understanding that it presents how the French Revolution and its violent aftermath affected his thoughts on beauty and the moral dimensions of art. As such, he explores, in his letters, the role of aesthetics in achieving true political freedom. For Schiller, it is only through aesthetic education by which freedom – the mother of all art – is achieved. He starts out by explaining how man, in his natural state, is composed of physical compulsive forces; while in his moral state, he is guided by reason. Here, Schiller introduces the opposition between the law of nature and the law of reason, citing that while the former involves feelings and compulsions; the latter affects the consciousness and thoughts. 

Throughout his letters, this duality between the natural and rational state is present in his exploration of the body – being the temple of the sensual form – versus the mind, where the rational, moral, and hence ideal form resides. In other words, Schiller introduces two fundamental laws of the “sensuo-rational nature” of man consisting of his sensuous drive or his sensual nature, and the formal drive or his rational nature. The challenge for Schiller, it seems, is to reconcile the conflicting and opposing dimensions of these drives through the play drive, which he conceives as “the most perfect possible union and equilibrium of reality and form”. For Schiller, the simultaneous existence and development of the rational and the sensuous through play, allows one to become a fully realized man of aesthetic. 

Beyond this simplified understanding of Schiller’s letters are the pertinent questions and ruminations which, at the very least, challenge his thoughts on aesthetics. First, though Schiller claims that both sensuous and form drives exist in a simultaneously equal and united one plane, it seems that there is privileging of the form to dominate the senses. When Schiller speaks of nature as an expression of plurality and individuality, and reason as an exercise of unity and conformity, how can it be assured that the individual maintains his singularity as opposed to his confirmation of the “moral” laws idealized by the state? In Schiller’s words, the archetype of the ideal man is embodied by the state – and so, how can it be assured that this “moral” state would not suppress man’s individuality by its relative conception of the ideal man? Lastly, because the aim of Schiller’s letters is towards the ultimate achievement of freedom, how can it be assured that this freedom will not be mis-used? When I think of freedom as an end goal, I cannot help but compare it with the type of “freedom” espoused by capitalist ideology that encourages relentless consumption.

These questions above, for all I know, may have already been refuted brilliantly by Schiller and perhaps only misconceived by me, but then these throbbing queries represent the mental journey I undertook to painstakingly understand the great philosopher’s interest to demystify beauty as an idea, which is of course, “beyond the reach of our senses”. 

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