“The Cooked Cat”

Roberto ArltI recently translated one of the Argentine writer Roberto Arlt’s very first short stories: “El gato cocido,” from 1926.  Arlt is hardly known outside of Latin America–indeed, outside of Argentina–and little of his work is translated.  But it’s worth a read, not least (as critic Ricardo Piglia has argued) as the messy face of early twentieth-century modernization, as opposed to Borges’s splendid but often icy lucidity.

Precisely because of its messiness, its localism, its use of slang and (frankly) at times its sheer ungrammaticality, Arlt’s writing is a challenge to translate. Any suggestions for improvements or changes would be most appreciated.

Here’s how it starts:

“I remember.

“Old Pepa Mondelli lived in Las Perdices. She was an aunt of my in-laws, who were the children of Alfonso Mondelli, the terrifying Don Alfonso, who used to beat his wife, María Palombi, in the back office of his General Store business. He exploded, there’s no other way to put it, one night in an attic of the big house jam-packed with merchandise, while in Italy Mrs Palombi spent, on the gum-diggers of Terra Bossa, the money that Don Alfonso was sending to support his children’s schooling.

“Now the seven Mondellis were dark, egotistical, and cruel as death. It was said that one of them once, in front of the train station, used his whip handle to beat out the eyes of a horse that couldn’t pull an over-laden cart out from a pothole.

Thanks to María Palombi, passion raced in their blood, combined with the nerve to stop short suddenly, making their fury at the moment of danger all the more calculating. This they showed later on.”

Read more… (.pdf file)


hope

Nietzsche, Genealogy of MoralsThere’s no doubt that that Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is, as its subtitle announces, “a polemic” (13). Nietzsche rages against Western (so-called) civilization and the palpable sense of claustrophobia, defeat, sickness, and enervation in which we find ourselves: “Enough! Enough! I can’t take any more. Bad air! Bad air! This workshop where ideals are manufactured–it seems to me it stinks of so many lies” (47). Hence he rails also against the various forces that have led up to and keep us in this dire situation: slave morality and its inversion of values such that what was once good is now pronounced evil; ressentiment and its negation of all that is “different” that is “not itself” (36); the cult of guilt and “the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom” (85); the ascetic ideal and its priesthood that, by making us feel that our own sinfulness is to blame for our predicament, seeks “to exploit the bad instincts of all sufferers for the purpose of self-discipline, self-surveillance, and self-overcoming” (128).

No wonder Nietzsche’s style is so impetuous and abrasive. To wake his somnolent readers and alert them to the damage they have been doing themselves for centuries, let alone to carve out a different path, requires “a kind of sublime wickedness, an ultimate, supremely self-confident mischievousness in knowledge that goes with great health” (96).

One can almost feel the ebb and flow of his emotions as Nietzsche writes: disbelief, anger, impatience, frustration, irritation, annoyance, exhaustion… and hope. Yes, hope, not only because his belief in mankind’s potential as great as his dismay at the ingeniousness with which we have perversely tortured and hobbled ourselves, but also because even the ruins themselves have something that can be salvaged.

First, there is the fact that even the immense disasters that afflict us (that we have inflicted on ourselves) have their own value. The sick body, too, has its own perspective and there is no perspective so misguided that it should be summarily eliminated. Or to put this another way: the sick body, too, knows something; we cannot deny the body even in its weakness and its suffering. And all knowledge should be welcome to those who really seek to know. The various “reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness”–note that word again–“and futility, raged against itself for so long” allow us “to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently” (119). They add to the stock of human experience and discovery, and against the poisonous ideal of a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” we should welcome even this hobbled perspective in that “the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing” (119). Even the sick and the weary, the defeated and the self-defeating, have their contribution to make.

(Note by the way that it is this impulse to see value in ruination, this accommodation of impurity and difference, that makes Nietzsche very far from the proto-fascist he is sometimes lazily assumed to be. Nietzsche is engaged in a war, that’s true, but in his view the noble spirit always learns even from his enemies. And ultimately Nietzsche’s goal is more variety, not less; more life and more different kinds of life rather than the death and destruction upon which the Third Reich became fixated.)

Second, the very stubbornness and ingenuity with which we have turned against our better natures is, Nietzsche believes, itself a sign of hope. He concludes the book by noting that mankind’s self-abasement, its “rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life,” indicates our nihilism, our “will to nothingness.” But precisely the fact that we struggle so hard for our own oppression shows that at least we are still struggling: “it is and remains a will!” The final consolation that Nietzsche offers is that “man would rather will nothingness than not will” (163). There is life in the old brute yet, however much that life may be turned against itself. We may be weary, we may be suffering, but the very effort we invest in perpetuating our own degradation shows that we are not dead yet. Now if only we could put the same amount of affective energy into a battle for life, rather than against it. What a wonderful sight that would be!


Frankenstein

Shelley, FrankensteinIt’s easy enough to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a warning against scientific hubris, or what might these days be termed “over-reach.” Indeed, this is the moral drawn for us in Victor Frankenstein’s own death-bed speech: “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even it if be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (220). And Maurice Hindle, the editor of the Penguin edition of the book, expands upon the same theme in somewhat leaden terms:

The “incestuous” violation of life on this planet has reached epidemic proportions, and much of the blame for this state of affairs must surely be laid at the feet of those who find an endless thrill of excitement in scientifically “penetrating” the “secrets of nature,” taking little or no responsible account of the damaging implications “theory” might have for “practice.” (xlvii)

Is this then a Romantic critique of Englightenment hubris, an argument for more feeling and sensibility, against single-minded dedication to abstract goals?

Yet it is surely strange that a book purportedly promoting tranquility and repudiating excitement should be written in such a thrilling manner, with the design (it seems) to perturb even the calmest of souls.

The book reveals a fundamental ambivalence about its own terrifying narrative. The Creature that Frankenstein created suggests (in what is his final speech, following the scientist’s demise) that it is best that the whole story be buried and forgotten: “He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish” (224). But of course Walton, the narrator who conveys us this tale, is keen to record and preserve its memory: he tells his sister, to whom he is notionally addressing his account, that the Creature’s revelations pronounced over the corpse of his maker constitute a “final and wonderful catastrophe” (221). And the book itself sets out to provoke and excite: born of a competition among friends who are bored on a rain-soaked holiday (“’We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron” [7]), and inspired by Shelley’s frightful dream (“My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” [9]), it has been both distracting readers and giving them nightmares ever since its original 1818 publication.

How much in any case can we trust Frankenstein, given that he has just reprimanded Walton’s crew for their faint-heartedness in the face of their “glorious expedition” in the high Arctic: “And wherefore was it glorious? [. . .] Because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome” (217). He and Walton alike have a decidedly Romantic conception of scientific inquiry. Walton ascribes his “passionate enthusiasm for [. . .] the dangerous mysteries of ocean [. . .] to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets” (21-22). For his part, Frankenstein finds inspiration in medieval alchemists and has to be reminded by his university tutors that these are not real scientists: “In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient?” (47). And the Creature himself is surely as much an offspring of the Romantic imagination–as “sublime” in his own way as the “awful majesty” of the Alps in which he thrives where humans struggle and stumble (100, 101)–as he is the product of scientific experimentation and toil in the laboratory.

If anything, Frankenstein is a polemic against neither Romanticism nor Science, but against the mixing of the two. It is not opposed to passion or affect or “unremitting ardour” (55); rather, it censures misplaced affect, the “enthusiasm of success” in domains that should be preserve of desiccated reason and careful consideration. Nature should induce high passions, the “sublime ecstasy” that gives “wings to the soul”; human artifice should not. Romanticism should know and keep to its own preserve; Science should do likewise.

And yet, again, the final irony is that there is no greater instance of the powerful admixture of scientific fascination and the Romantic sensibility, than the memorable and pulsating tale told by Frankenstein itself.


feeling

Rousseau, Discourse on InequalityIn the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets out to turn Thomas Hobbes’s famously pessimistic account of “natural man” on its head. Where for Hobbes life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” as everyone struggles against each other in a “war of all against all,” for Rousseau it is a form of existence characterized by self-sufficiency and relative harmony: “these men’s disputes would seldom have had bloody consequences” (102). We can prove this empirically, indeed, by looking to the New World: “the Caribs, who of all peoples existing today have least departed from the state of nature, are precisely the most peaceful in their loves, and the least subject to jealousy” (103).

This relative tranquility in the state of nature stems less, Rousseau argues, from any innate human goodness (indeed, the opposition between “good” and “evil” scarcely makes sense in such a situation) as from a number of more pragmatic considerations. First, as each of them is effectively self-sufficient, primitive humans have no need (and no desire) to maintain extended contact with each other. Beyond answering the call of sexual desire to mate (a singularly unromantic process, in Rousseau’s account) and reproduce, they keep themselves to themselves. Second, when they do meet, natural inequalities–of size or strength or speed, for example–are relatively minor; there would seldom be any obvious advantage in starting a fight, especially given that one could satisfy one’s needs for food and shelter etc. on one’s own. And third, any aggressive impulses are kept in check by a more fundamental sense of compassion: “It is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (101).

It is then (and this is Rousseau’s main argument) society that will create divisions, by accentuating natural inequality and adding to it the burdens that are artificial inequalities of wealth, rank, honour, and so on. So whereas for Hobbes, we are all equal before the law, because we are all equally lowly in the face of the Leviathan’s supreme power (for this reason, if no other, he is a classical liberal), for Rousseau civilization introduces difference–and, what is more, an awareness of difference (pride)–and therefore discord as we compete for status and to satisfy artificial needs. If there is a “war of all against all,” it is propelled by the fact that “inequality of influence and authority soon becomes inevitable among individuals as soon as, being united in the same society, they are forced to compare themselves with one another and to take into account the differences they discover in the continual dealings they have with one another” (132). This is the hectic social whirl, the “petulant activity of our own pride” (115) that makes social life uncertain and unstable.

By contrast, the life of a savage is also, then, one of singularly low intensity. Indeed, it is a life of “indolence” (115) that is scarcely ruffled by the slightest affect. Where Hobbes sees primitive man in terms of panic and fear, for Rousseau the passions are overwhelmingly artificial. Affect is the product of society and habit: there is nothing particularly natural about either love or hate, happiness or sadness, fear or joy. And even Rousseau (Romantic that he was) had to thank socialization for finally teaching us to feel.


hoard

Beyond the fact that they make for a rather more attractive package, the many illustrations in the Norton edition of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation rightly turn our attention to the poem's obsession with things, with physical objects.

On every other page, facing the text itself, are bowls, ships, goblets, shields, arrows, helmets, jewelry, chainmail and the like, all lovingly photographed for our visual pleasure. The pictures neatly reflect and resonate with the poem's own concern with objects that are sometimes so distinctive that they even earn a name for themselves--such as Hrunting, the weapon lent to Beowulf before his fateful encounter with the monster Grendel's frightful mother. Hrunting is described as "a rare and ancient sword," an "iron blade" whose "ill-boding patterns had been tempered in blood" (1458, 1459-60). It fits well with the warrior's "mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail" and his "glittering helmet [. . .] of beaten gold, / princely headgear hooped and hasped / by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders" (1444, 1448, and 1150-52).

In the gift-exchange economy of Dark Ages Europe, heroic deeds and political alliances lead to the accumulation of still more stuff. Once Beowulf has slain the monster and his mother, a grateful King Hrothgar promises that "for as long as I rule this far-flung land / treasures will change hands and each side will treat / the other with gifts" (1859-61). And good as his word, he showers the young prince and his men with artifacts of the highest quality so that by the time Beowulf heads for home he is "glorious in his gold regalia" and their ship is "cargoed with treasure, horses and war-gear" (1881, 1897).

Beowulf has already himself presented Hrothgar with a thing of considerable value: not merely the service he rendered in ridding the land of its demons, but also the hilt from a sword that he had grabbed during the melée in the mother's watery refuge. If anything this "relic of old times" is even more impressive and fascinating than Hrunting, with its "rare smithwork" and its "rune-marking correctly incised" and its engravings in gold that tell the story of "how war first came into the world / and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants" (1688, 1679, 1695, 1689-90). This is an object that can be read to reveal something of days long gone by. The weapon's adornment is more than mere decoration or ostentatious display; it recounts the history that makes the weapon necessary in the first place.

Likewise the hoard guarded by the dragon in the later sections of the poem also comes from an epoch long before the time when the action the narrative describes takes place. It is buried by the last survivor of a once-great civilization who realizes that, with the community that gives it meaning gone, "his joy / in the treasure would be brief" (2240-41). Interring "all the goods and golden ware / worth preserving" this last survivor consigns them to the earth, from which the raw material had originally been taken: "It was mined from you first / [. . .] I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, / put a sheen on the cup" (2248, 2252-54).

In pre-capitalist societies, treasure is not fully fungible. It doesn't circulate with ease--only as the result of either heroic action or as pillage of war. When the community founders, the meaning it confers wavers and is soon lost. Indeed, when Beowulf in turn dies, he has nobody to whom he can bequeath his armour. With his funeral, his treasure will be consumed as "his royal pyre / will melt no small amount of gold: / heaped there in a hoard" (3010-12).

All that is left is the rather more precarious medium of speech and song, the lament of the woman mourner who cries out in "a wild litany of nightmare and lament" (3152-53). And of course the poem, Beowulf: passed down orally for a couple of centuries before it is transcribed somewhere around 1000AD, whose one manuscript copy is almost itself consumed by fire in 1731, and which now survives, a precious object in its own right, in the British Museum. As the Museum website explains, "the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care."

Fortunately, mass production and the publishing industry ensure that the text and this beautiful book now circulate freely, if at a fairly hefty price. A New York Times bestseller and sumptuously illustrated edition, this is a coffee-table book of distinction. No doubt more displayed and admired than read, it shows that cultural capital and presumed status still adhere to and are conveyed by objects as stubbornly today as in feudal Britain.

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