Ricardo Blanco's Blog

More thoughts on translation

Mixed Peasant? Greek with Cheese?

I began translating, in a very amateur sort of way, when I first discovered the poetry of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only was my Greek inadequate to the task and I lacked any kind of self-discipline, but I was up against the superb existing translations of Edmund Keeley. I became easily disheartened by my feeble efforts and never stuck with it. It was much more fun to decode the English on restaurant menus, as many a traveller to Greece has discovered. Among the culinary delights I have encountered, both seen and unseen, are:

Giant Beams

The Baked Thing

Greek with cheese

Bowel stuffed with spleen

Bait smooth hound

Mixed Peasant

and

Custard of the Aunt.

All of these items of food have suffered the indignity of an over-literal translation by a scribe with faulty understanding of the target language (English), and while their entertainment value might be high, you are never sure what it is you are likely to be eating, unless of course you can read the Greek.

Some years later, I started a translation of Jean Giono’s novel Les Grands Chemins (which as far as I know has still not appeared in English) but was put off both by my frail grasp of French grammar and by the quantities of argot and slang. As with most of my endeavours at that period of my life, I had an unrealistic grasp of my own abilities.

However, I am nothing if not persistent, and having tried Greek and French and been found wanting, like a serial re-offender I thought I should try my hand at Spanish. When I had acquired enough of the language to read poetry without constant referral to the dictionary, I set about translating (or should I say despoiling) Antonio Machado – a bad choice, not only because he had been a challenge to far better translators than myself, but because his Spanish is, well, utterly embedded in the thought and landscape of Spanish – and I did not really appreciate or understand this at the time and thought that I was just not very good at translating poetry. However Machado really is more untranslatable than most, and perhaps this is the reason Don Paterson opted to go for much looser versions or interpretation in his collection The Eyes.

But with another Spanish poet, Jaime Gil de Biedma, I felt my translations begin to ‘work’ and moreover I could

Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-90)

sense an affinity with this writer that extended beyond the act of translation. There were English translations of his poems available but they seemed weak to me, and I wanted to make something better, do justice to his work in a way that his American translator had not: such is the arrogance of the beginner. So I worked on a few, sent them to a magazine, and they were accepted.

Later I was asked by the editor of the same magazine to work on skeleton or ‘crib’ versions of poems from Lithuanian and Slovakian, and make English poems of them. I agreed to do it, but it seemed a very risky affair, and nothing much to do with translation, more like playing darts with the lights off. I didn’t much enjoy the experience, but I have since taken part in workshops, working with poets who write in a language I do not speak, and if their English is good enough, it is possible to hammer out a good poem using an intermediary version – this is what the organization Literature across Frontiers manages to such good effect: in addition practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who speak distinct languages but share a third language in common (English, German, Spanish) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very rewarding (as well as a tiring) process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they happen to gel as a team.

But the kind of work done by Literature across Frontiers is at a far remove from the sort of translation done by individuals who work directly from a language which they know well into a language in which they are fluent, which is the daily round of the professional translator. I do not claim to be any such animal, but three years ago I became so interested in the act of translation that I put myself through the ordeal of preparing for and sitting the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, the gold standard qualification for translators in the UK, and one with an astonishingly high failure rate (which I suppose keeps the Institute’s coffers topped up). I passed, so am now legitimately able to call myself a translator, although like nearly all the achievements I have realised over the years, all the hurdles I have overcome, there is always a sheen of scepticism about my own status, and I never quite manage to believe that the person with all the qualifications (and the nice suit and the office), the one called ‘Dr Blanco’, is actually me, but rather, he is an illusion.

What I am trying to say is that, like many people who do not admit it publicly, I think of myself as an impostor, a person impersonator, for many hours of the working day, and for this reason, ‘translator’ seems a very appropriate occupation. And why is this?  Is there an association with the trickster, the coyote figure, or the dissembler? I think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking this – that there is something intrinsically fraudulent in the act of translation. You are trying to pretend that something is what it is not. So the trick is to make it sound as though it were not something that it is not, otherwise you end up writing translator-speak, with which we are all familiar from the study of Greek menus and garden furniture assembly kits.

The idea of translating into English is to make the words sound as though they were composed in English, which of course they were not, in the first instance. So we pretend, and share the pretence. If the translation is any good then we forget we are pretending. Simples.

But more than that, there is the profound satisfaction for the translator – something akin to the breaking of a code or the unravelling of a puzzle – when the correct phrase or expression slots into place, which makes translation, when it is going well, such a rewarding occupation. In Tim Parks’ absorbing essay ‘Prajapati’ (to be found in the collection Adultery and Other Diversions) he describes the pleasures and torments of translating Roberto Calasso’s Ka, on a very hot day. And at one point, as he kicks off his sandals to feel the cool of the tiled floor, he begins to spin off into the kind of meandering meditation that the act of writing often incites:

“I realise I am fascinated by models of the mind. By consciousness and representations of consciousness. Prajpati’s, Mahidasa Aitareya’s, Calasso’s, they are all hugely different minds from each other and from mine. I was never convinced by Leopold Bloom. And I sense that translation has something to do with this, this constant attempt to grasp difference, to overcome it, if only for a few moments, if only in the slippery surface of a text, to appropriate, but also to expand, to be there in Calasso’s study, understanding Calasso understanding Mahidasa Aitareya understanding the Rg Veda understanding Prajpati. Did they all find flies as irritating as I do?”

Norman di Giovanni, in his essay ‘A Translator’s Guide’ quotes Borges as saying “The translator is a very close reader; there is not much difference between translating and reading.” Di Giovanni finds this simple, clear approach to be in stark contrast to much of the talk, and theorizing about translation, which takes place, he says, on a “dizzyingly rarefied plane.”

The most helpful advice I have read on the craft of translation always keeps it simple, like Borges’ thing about being a close reader: understand the source text (decode it) and put it into language as clearly as possible (encode it). Working from these simplest of principles, and with the minimum of self-deception, are the kinds of rules even an inveterate self-doubter should find easy enough to follow.

And yet there is more, there is a twinge of excitement, almost a sense of vertigo, closely related to the type of exhilaration experienced when one’s own writing is going well (it is practically the same thing after all) which makes translation such a worthwhile occupation. Tim Parks finds this grappling with meaning to be like a constant exchange between the inchoate and the specific, between the undefined and the defined:

“Translation too is this, leaving the definition, the apparent definition, of the original, going through a state of indefinition, perhaps more original, in the Prajpati sense, than the original, where ideas are somehow held wordless, or almost, in my mind (I wish I could decide whether those ideas actually do become wordless) thence to reappear, gradually recompose themselves, from fuzz to clarity, or almost, in my own language.”

So much is contained by that ‘or almost’. Returning to Borges and simplicity, returning to the idea of an approximation. Perhaps that is the crux of all translation: it is an expression of the almost.

 

 

 

On Translation

The torero Julio Aparicio gored by bull, May 2010

An email from my Chinese translator in quite extraordinary English reminded me of the following article, brought to my attention by my friend Hugo Pooley last year. It is the report of a corrida that appeared in the Spanish newspaper El País on 22 May 2010. I had not realized computerized translation from google could offer such pleasures. Readers with a knowledge of Spanish will probably understand how some of the errors took place (e.g. cogida, from the verb ‘coger’ (to get, catch, gore etc) is ‘a fuck’ in South American usage, but not in European Spanish, and after all El País is a European newspaper). The odd thing, as Hugo pointed out at the time, was that the machine should have latched on to that usage, as machines are usually quite prudish:

“The severity of the goring not perceived in the plaza at the time of the fuck. Gestures of pain were the bullfighter, who ran to the burladero for help, those who betrayed it seemed, in principle, a blow to the face, was, in fact, something more serious. Moments later, while still unaware of the extent of the wound, the horrifying photo published by the website of this newspaper ran like wildfire through the stands, and reassurances from the infirmary.”

La gravedad de la cornada no se percibió en la plaza en el momento de la cogida. Fueron los gestos de dolor del torero, que corrió hacia el burladero en busca de ayuda, los que delataron que lo que pareció, en principio, un golpe en la cara, era, en realidad, algo más serio. Momentos después, cuando aún se desconocía el alcance de la herida, la espeluznante foto publicada por la web de este periódico corrió como la pólvora por los tendidos, y también noticias tranquilizadoras desde la enfermería.

Then the subheading:

“Julio Aparicio is “conscious and stable” after he suffered serious fuck in Sales goring”

Julio Aparicio está “consciente y estable” tras la grave cogida que sufrió en Las Ventas

(‘Las Ventas’, the stadium in Madrid can also mean ‘The sales’ (as in shopping), which accounts for the anomaly in the last line of the English.)

Having now received three emails from China (of which more anon, gentle reader, if you can still bear to read Blanco’s blog after the shock of that horrifying photo), which have left me fearing the worst for the eventual outcome of one of my books in the world’s most populous country, I have been left wondering about the relative advantages of an automated translation, and whether it might not do a better job with my novel in Chinese than the current translators. Although inaccurate, it could actually be as effective in gaining the reader’s attention, and certainly more amusing, than the text it claims to translate.

I simply love the passage below, translated as: “hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces”. Found poetry.

For those interested in reading on, the automated google translation of the El País article continues below. For those able to read the Spanish, the original article can be found here:

The right-hander Julio Aparicio Seville has received this evening in a serious goring sales when faced with the first bull of your lot. The bullfighter has encountered and the bull rammed him with the horn right on the chin Toros de Juan Pedro Domecq, fourth-and fifth-back, well presented, disabled and very noble. Hats, Gavira, the second back and replaced by another of Camacho, outcast. Julio Aparicio: caught by his first bull. Morante de la Puebla: half cocked and perpendicular (silent) media (silent), two punctures and almost entire perpendicular. El Cid: two punctures and a half (applause), almost entirely fall (applause), thrust (ear). Plaza de Las Ventas. Friday, May 21. Sixteenth run of the fair of San Isidro. Full.

Everything happened seen and unseen. Actually, it was an unexpected event under the condition of the bull, named Sumptuoso, 530 kilos in weight, hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces. Aparicio drew out two splendid veronicas topped with half bursting with aroma. The animal showed their disability in the horse, where it was stung, came in the third of gay flags, and came to the crutch with the strength very fair. The right-hander in the media began its work with a faint first round of right hands, and continued at that hand with a lower weight. He left, and in the first stake, ran into the hindquarters of the bull, which made him lose verticality. Once on the ground instead of running away from the face of the bull, the bullfighter tried to get up pretending to wipe away the crutch. It was at that moment when the bull is found Aparicio’s face, with such bad luck that drove the peg over his chin and pulled him by the mouth. That moment that appears in the photos are not perceived in the ring, because, fortunately, the bull dropped its prey quickly. Thank goodness.

The bullfighter can tell which is the big news of the day. And it was also clear that the danger is always present in a square, but the bull has, as Sumptuoso, odor of sanctity.

It was not the only time grief. Minutes later, when El Cid crutches with his left hand to another good-natured, was hooked and tossed to the point it seemed that the horn had penetrated the right thigh up to the groin. It did not, and needed a satchel broken only under emergency sewing.

The returns that can give a bullfight … Perhaps this unknown file your exciting mystery. Who could imagine that a festival so nice on paper was about to end in tragedy. But this big-game life and death, is this party.

Haunted by the image of the python’s mouth out by Julio Aparicio, but with the quiet encouragement, continued a celebration featuring bulls Juan Pedro invalid Domecq, which, unfortunately, is no longer news. This farmer has found true, the sweetness the highest degree, to the same extent that it has lost power and greed. Two were returned, but could be more. All, yes, kind, loving, kind and affectionate. But that is a substitute for the bull. In the end, triumphed Manuel Jesus El Cid with the best of the afternoon, the sixth, but first, bullfighting was the high school veronica, great gift of the proposed lists, so many times drought hood.

She excelled, that is, Aparicio, then Morante received his first with a sweetest veronicas, pregnant packing, and, again, returned to infuriate the square with the second hat made fifth, which forced him to charge in a cape fans who knew a holy glory. And also starred in El Cid veronicas remove two extraordinary in its first, and returned to show off at the exit of the sixth.

The rest of the celebration just had the story of Manuel Jesus with the latter, which rammed and fixity length, and which understood by the right side with muletazos deep and emotional, in a work hardening and chaired by the connection. He missed the greed of the bull by the left side for the victory would have been great.

Anyway, the big winner yesterday Julio Aparicio, and with it, we win them all because the party is glad his good fortune.

 

 

 

Into the Mystic

 

The motif of the ouroboros appears in the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, Greece and Mexico, and was of particular interest to European alchemists in the early modern era. Conventionally it depicts a serpent or a dragon eating its own tail, from the Greek oura/voros = tail-eater.  To the alchemists the symbol came to signify cyclicity, and thus, in a human context, self-reflexivity. In my beginning is my end. The idea of eternal return and intrinsic self-renewal. I am not quite a mystic, but many of my favourite poets were.

Now, the other day I wrote about labyrinths, another favourite topic, and quoted myself (although, ironically, I had forgotten from where): “an exit to the labyrinth marked entrance to the labyrinth”. Moreover, in the

catalogue to an exhibition on labyrinths that I attended in Barcelona last year, there is a short essay by Umberto Eco, in which, after discussing the difference between the uni-cursal labyrinth (in which there is only one route in and out, as in the illustration above) and the multi-cursal labyrinth or maze or Irrweg (in which there are alternative paths, all leading to dead ends: you can make mistakes, and may have to retrace your steps, but you will always be able to get out) he proposes a third type of labyrinth, the network, in which each point can be connected to any other point, which makes it possible to travel around for ever. And you never get out of the network: you keep going round and round inside.

This is all good, because leafing, as I am, through Marie-Louise von Franz’s excellent  Alchemy, I come across the following:

“One must remember the Ouroboros, the tail eater, where the opposites are one: the head is at one end and the tail at the other. They are one but have an opposite aspect and when the head and the tail, the opposites, meet, a flow is born, which is what the alchemists meant by the mystical or divine water, which is described as the meaningful flux of life.”

 

 

So, both the ouroboros and the labyrinth have served as representations of energy, of flow, and of the questing human soul, or at the very least as symbols of regeneration. They are linked in profound and deeply sympathetic ways.

And then, as if to confirm the last happy thought, I come across this fabulous video, titled Ouroboros. It seems a good place to leave these thoughts hanging.

 

 

 

 

 

The day my hard drive died

This is a question mark

 

Worse things happen, obviously, certainly. But it was the suddenness of the event that most surprised me, after having the damn thing switched on for around five years and using it around the clock. One moment it was there doing my bidding, the next it is casting grey questions marks at me through a grey mist in a singularly humourless way.

I probably shouldn’t have spent so much time on the roof with it. It must have had a touch of the sun. But then again, I have heard that the generation of macbooks late 2006 to mid 2007, such as mine, suffered a design fault, but Apple, not wishing to lose their impeccable image, did not do a general recall but simply put a notice on their website saying if anyone wanted a change they could have one. Bunch of bastards.

And now I have lost some not inconsiderable notes on a half-written novel,  a couple of stories, who knows what else. As well as millions of photos and lots of music. I am going to have to send the machine to one of those specialist forensic outfits that you see on programmes like ‘Spooks’ and await their decision. But I reckon Apple should pay, since it now appears that whole generation of macbooks had dodgy hard drives.

All this talk is sending me to sleep. Still not recovered from a couple of very late nights followed by early mornings.

I knew a man called Question Marco once, a skinny rodent-faced Spanish beggar, in San Sebastian. A haunted-looking fellow with a bent spine, hence the sobriquet. This was in the days before people started thinking nicknames were cruel and heartless. I was hanging out with a big German called Kurt who was always falling over and consequently his face was covered in bruises and welts and scratches. He told me a joke once that went on for ages and ended with the line ‘so why don’t you cement your garden?’ followed by this manic obscene laugh, hyeugh hyeugh hyeugh, which, like Pig Bodine’s, ‘was formed by putting the tonguetip under the top central incisors and squeezing guttural sounds out of the throat.’

Question Marco was shaped like a question mark, and his heart was a question mark, and everything he said ended in a question mark. With such a man there is never anything to be gained by a direct approach. For such a man the world begins and ends with a question to which there is never a reliable answer.

 

 

Casting Ashes

 

The three of them think they are carrying this fish somewhere and the fourth one, the blue man, he knows better. In my mind the blue man is the artist, Lluís Peñaranda, and this is one of my favourite paintings. Lluís died last December, having contracted liver cancer from a viral hepatitis infection contracted many years before.

Lluís was my first and closest friend in this part of the world. He picked me up when I was hitchhiking, soaked to the skin and two-thirds drunk, during a June thunderstorm on the Portbou-Llança road, sometime in the early 80s. It was a risk, on his part. But despite the strange circumstances of our meeting, we recognised something in each another, an affinity of sorts, maybe even an attraction of opposites. Sometimes it just happens like that.

 

 

Last Sunday his son Davíd, his partner Ramona, myself, Mrs Blanco, Joan Castelló and Juliette Murphy – his close family and friends – made an excursion into the Albera mountains to cast his ashes to the wind. We did so at Puig Neulós, the advantage of this peak being that it is visible from all over Alt Empordà, this magical zone which Lluís so magically reflected in his work.

 

 

The first painting Lluís ever gave me was this picture of a suprised-looking tiger flying above a mountain ridge (representing the Collsdecabra mountains, where I was doing very weird rehab in a small village in 1988). The rehab didn’t work, but the message implicit in the painting did, and I became a soaring, startled tiger. Well, okay, I made that bit up.

 

 

I once wrote: “Landscapes appear to rise out of water in Lluís’ work. The ubiquitous cypresses, and especially those moons, poised in the night sky, emanating a numinous light that illuminates the somnolent wanderings of the principal characters. The landscape of Empordà is the subliminal topic or perpetual subtext of Lluís’ work. It provides the mirror for an interior landscape which is essentially dreamlike, and, at times submarine, but the artist surfaces too, gasping, drawing in air in great thirsty gulps, and when he strides onto dry land he carries over his shoulder a bulging net of treasures found scattered on the sea-bed: old trumpets, olive oil cruets, rusting film spools, trowels, deckchairs and an old accordion, which, when beached and squeezed, releases a symphony of pilchards, starfish and seaweed. His is an elemental iconography: we are never far from sea, birds, beasts and the accumulated force of these creatures in the imaginative repertoire. Lluís is a collector of materials, and of symbols.”  Being in Water”: Lluís Peñaranda, Iwan Bala – Notes for an Exhibition bu Richard Gwyn (Cranc, 2001).

 

High above the castle of Requessens and the villages of Alt Empordà, straddling the border with France (actually marked by the broken fence) a young cow swishes away the flies.

 

 

We stand against the lowering sun and the shadows of the six of us are cast upon a giant rock. Only Lluís is absent. I write that, although in the shadows it is always hard to tell who exactly is whom.

Next to the halter of cow dung, secured by a rock, is the empty box that contained Lluís’s ashes. I have no idea how long it will stay there. Lluís insisted that his earthly ashes be kept in a biscuit tin until their dispersal, for reasons that will, like so much else, remain forever a mystery. Knowing Lluís, a shaman and artist of true originality and vision, it was perhaps his last joke, although I would not be surprised if some day I find others planted along my pathway.

It was a very strange day, that began weird and then found its own measure, there in the mountains. By the time we walked down, on the French side, everything felt right, and as it should be. Apart from him not being with us, that is.

 

Ricardo Blanco and Lluís Peñaranda, Cistella, June 1995

 

 

 

 

Miscellaneous sightings

This car was parked on the road near a pool in the river Muga where I like to swim. Who said the Germans have no sense of humour? It certainly wasn’t me. I might however begin an occasional series on this blog titled ‘Exploring National Stereotypes’ or ‘Exploding National Stereotypes’. This would be #147.

 

Beware of reading? This book contains a bloody funny joke? Other possible interpretations to Blanco please.

This parakeet now lives in The Sad Giraffe Café, in Sant Llorenç de la Muga. I am uncertain why the sad giraffe had to go, but when I asked the new owner of the café she looked at me as though I were an imbecile. Sometimes I don’t know whether to keep my mouth shut or just come out with stuff. And the sad giraffe has left. The parakeet is quite nice, but I preferred the giraffe, who sang.

As ever on Blanco’s Blog, one thing leads irrevocably to another. I photographed this spider’s web on Friday, and over the weekend, reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I come across a passage in which the observation of spider webs is said to have influenced early engineers in bridge design:

‘At old days’ says Miss Aibagawa, ‘long ago, before great bridges built over wide rivers, travellers often drowned. People said,”Die because river god angry.” People not said, “Die because big bridges not yet invented.” People not say, “People die because we have ignoration too much.” But one day, clever ancestors observe spider’ webs, weave bridge of vines. Or see trees, fallen over fast rivers, and make stone islands in wider rivers, and lay from islands to islands. They build such bridges. People no longer drown in same dangerous river, or many less people . . .’

However, spider silk is interesting of itself. An article in Interface, the Journal of the Royal Society, entitled  High-performance spider webs: integrating biomechanics, ecology and behaviour offers the following enticement:

“An integrative, mechanistic approach to understanding silk and web function, as well as the selective pressures driving their evolution, will help uncover the potential impacts of environmental change and species invasions (of both spiders and prey) on spider success.” If this interests you as much as it does me, read on here.

 

 

 

Post-canícula promenade

 

The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.

So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.

We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.

Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).

It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.

I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?

 

Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.

A brief illustrated history of the praying mantis

 

This praying mantis appeared on the table in our back yard yesterday. The praying mantis or mantid (sometimes misspelled as ‘preying mantis’, as it is a hunter as well as seeming to adopt a position of prayer) is from the family of mantodea, a term for the species devised by the German entomologist Hermann Burmeister in 1838 from the Greek mantis, meaning ‘prophet’, and eidos, meaning ‘shape’. Prophet-shaped. Burmeister obviously had a sense of humour. More exactly Burmeister determined that it belonged under the Phylum of Arthropoda, the Class of Insecta, the Subclass of Pterygota, the Infraclass Neoptera,  the Superorder of Dictyoptera  and the Order of Mantodea. And, as my daughter pointed out, ‘mantodea’ sounds quite Welsh, though that is neither here nor there.

Mantises have two grasping, spiked forelegs in which prey – and sexual partners – are caught and held securely. According to the Wikipedia entry “Sexual cannibalism is common among mantises in captivity, and under some circumstances may also be observed in the field. The female may start feeding by biting off the male’s head (as they do with regular prey), and if mating had begun, the male’s movements may become even more vigorous in its delivery of sperm. Early researchers thought that because copulatory movement is controlled by a ganglion in the abdomen, not the head, removal of the male’s head was a reproductive strategy by females to enhance fertilisation while obtaining sustenance.”  The second half of the clip is particularly revealing:

 

 

 

Hmmm.

 

But wait, there’s more:

 

“The reason for sexual cannibalism has been debated, with some considering submissive males to be achieving a selective advantage in their ability to produce offspring. This theory is supported by a quantifiable increase in the duration of copulation among males who are cannibalized, in some cases doubling both the duration and the chance of fertilization. This is further supported in a study where males were seen to approach hungry females with more caution, and were shown to remain mounted on hungry females for a longer time, indicating that males actively avoiding cannibalism may mate with multiple females. The act of dismounting is one of the most dangerous times for males during copulation, for it is at this time that females most frequently cannibalize their mates. This increase in mounting duration was thought to indicate that males would be more prone to wait for an opportune time to dismount from a hungry female rather than from a satiated female that would be less likely to cannibalize her mate. Some consider this to be an indication that male submissiveness does not inherently increase male reproductive success, rather that more fit males are likely to approach a female with caution and escape.”

Close up, the mantis head looks very much like a classic representation of an alien:

 

 

 

In a 1957 B Movie, titled The Deadly Mantis, polar ice begins to shift southward following a volcanic eruption. But below the melting ice a praying mantis, 60 metres in length, lies trapped. The melted ice frees it and off it flies, wreaking havoc on a number of North American cities. My favourite line: “In all the kingdom of the living there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the praying mantis.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Classic?

A flat major (As-dur) fugue from the second pa...

Image via Wikipedia

A couple of days ago I blogged about John Franklin’s moment of clarity while listening to a late Beethoven sonata in 1845, less than twenty years after it was composed. The music had – according to Sten Narodny’s account in The Discovery of Slowness – an epiphanic effect on the explorer, and in the novel he is made to endure a sublime moment of self-realisation.

Then yesterday, reading J.M. Coetzee’s essays, I come across an autobiographical anecdote of how Coetzee, at fifteen years of age, heard harpsichord music drifting across the garden fence from a neighbour’s open window in his Cape Town suburb, and the effect this had on his life. The music was from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and, writes Coetzee: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to as music had never spoken to me before.” This despite the fact that his family home was bereft of music, that he received no instruction in music, that classical music above all was “sissy” and regarded by Coetzee in a “somewhat suspicious and hostile teenage manner”.

But somehow Bach’s music breaks through to the boy, “speaks to” him, as Coetzee puts it. And in his essay ‘What is a Classic’ the adult author wonders whether his adolescent response to the music back in 1955 was “truly a response to some inherent quality in the music rather than a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end.” Since the essay’s title marks it out as a response to T.S. Eliot, and Coetzee is concerned about the emergence of the term Bach as a touchstone, and a classic as being, in at least one sense, ‘that which survives’, we end up depending (argues Coetzee) on criticism to define and sustain notions of the classical.

Which is all true, but by resorting to an argument about the nature of the classic (and for perfectly valid reasons) Coetzee rather avoids answering the question that he originally posed, about whether Bach ‘spoke to him across the ages’ or whether he, Coetzee, was (unwittingly perhaps) choosing high European culture and the codes of that culture in order to escape his class position in white South African society, and the historical dead-end represented by his immediate environment.

But despite the excellence of Coetzee’s writing and argumentation, I remain puzzled.

Somewhere in his writings, possibly The Curtain – I am away from my library right now and cannot check – Milan Kundera speculates on the kind of reception that would be given to a work of Beethoven’s were it written by a contemporary composer and performed as though it were a new composition. Kundera asserts that such a piece of music would be subject to ridicule. No one would take the music or its composer seriously. Since all cultural artefacts are a product of their historical and cultural moment, a ‘contemporary’ writing of the opus 111 piano sonata by a modern composer would fail to have the effect on a latter-day John Franklin, or by extension, on you or me.

How does this play out in relation to Coetzee’s adolescent experience? What if The Well-Tempered Clavier was the work of a brilliant but geeky composer of the 1950s who despised the tendencies of Romanticism and Modernism and elected to write ‘like’ J.S. Bach? The sequence of sounds would be identical, but would the effect be the same? Does this mean that young Coetzee’s response to Bach’s quintessentially classical music had its profound effect– even though he did not know what he was listening to?

How can this come about? Are our responses to music entirely subject to cultural and historic provenance? Is a particular arrangement of sounds only a cipher, a means by which a listener measures him or herself as a participant-observer in cultural experience?

This raises many other questions, including obvious ones such as the way we ditch and discard some music – even find it unlistenable – over the course of years, while other music we can listen to almost any time. But for the moment, Kundera’s question and Coetzee’s musical awakening in 1955 present a paradox that I am struggling to reconcile.

Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

Restless Geography

Cretan labyrinth

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The blog is founded on the idea that Blanco never spends too much time writing a post, unless it is an article, review or poem that has already been prepared or published elsewhere (i.e. recycled work, of which there is an irregular smattering). In other words the motivating principle is of spontaneity, of always allowing myself, in my writing, to move where the mood takes me, so I do not necessarily end up in a place where I thought I was going: I would go so far as to say that was the whole point of the blog – to begin a thought process and see where it takes me. This will sometimes mean that the title of the piece only makes sense in terms of something that appears towards the end, or is a fleeting thought that arises as a consequence of something in the blog that is not fully explored.

So what we have is a kind of diary, alongside a series of reflections – precisely as the subtitle proclaims – on the mutable universe. Like most things concerning the genesis of the blog, the words came without conscious forethought: but ‘mutable’ is key here: I want the blog to act as an archive – very much in the spirit of the work of my friend, the painter Lluís Peñaranda – of mutability, of fleetingness, of transience. The transience of those things that we explore, and the transience of ourselves.

Actually, the most apt description of what we have is labyrinth. A labyrinth is not only a metaphor for the questing self, and a means of self-transcendence: it is also a way of getting purposefully lost, of going up blind alleys, of plunging deeper into one’s own lack of knowledge and coming back with something unknown, of finding surprising routes to places we never intended going. Of noting that the exit to the labyrinth is sometimes marked Entrance to the Labyrinth.

And of observing what goes on inside the labyrinth when the geography will not stay still.

To be continued.

 

 

I set out on a journey, but the geography would not stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended going.

 

‘Restless Geography’ from Sad Giraffe Café (2010)

 

 

 

A State of Wonder

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827

In Sten Nadolny’s fine novel The Discovery of Slowness, the polar explorer John Franklin attends a recital of Beethoven sonatas on 9th May 1845. During the performance of the opus 111 sonata, “John felt he was actually meeting the fine skeleton of all thought, the elements, and the ephemeral nature of all structures, the duration and slippage of all ideas. He was imbued with insight and optimism. A few moments after the final note sounded he suddenly knew, There is no victory and no defeat. These are arbitrary notions that float about in concepts of time invented by man.”

While it might not be a realistic objective for most of us to achieve this state of immaculate insight very often – supermarket shopping, tax statements, the MOT, and for some of us the basic dignity of finding work, all this stuff gets in the way – we are all gifted these moments of clarity, we all catch the occasional glimpse, and if we are lucky we build up a store of such experiences, an archive of rare encounters with the transcendent. Normally such moments are not instructive to others, nor in fact are they easy to elucidate or express. But cumulatively they create a cluster, form a chain reaction, each epiphany linked mysteriously to all those that have come before, in a steady act of making. I am reminded of the words of the pianist Glenn Gould that I quoted in The Vagabond’s Breakfast: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

Sometimes it swings this way, and sometimes the world has other plans.

The Great Maw

Don’t go in there, kiddo. To climb in there would just be wrong. There’s a whole world out here waiting to be explored without having to resort to Deep Throat here. Its ravening scarlet depths offer no safe haven, and while vagina dentata is almost certainly a paranoid delusion of the male psyche I know that for once I am right – both as a role model and as a caring individual – when I say that going back in there is simply not an option.

If this were simply a dare – the kind of challenge we set ourselves as children: “would you rather have your face eaten off by ants or your bum chewed up by a crocodile” – I might, if I were in your shoes, even be tempted to climb inside the Great Maw, especially after considering the alternative, squarely enclosed beneath the paraphernalia of the State and the chilling motto TODO POR LA PATRIA: EVERYTHING FOR THE FATHERLAND.

I am caught in a dread panic: the all-consuming maternal maw or the brutalising paternal state? Help me please, Western Psychotherapy, help me Father Freud and Professor Lacan, for caught between the twin realities of the Civil Guard and the Great Shark-Mother, I have lost all inclination to make choices, and for this have (a) lost the will to carry on, (b) become an addict and fallen into hopeless ways, (c) joined a paramilitary outfit, or something official-sounding that promises travel and a good pension,

These, my lad, are the choices we have to take before beginning the definitive journey. So think a little, before climbing into that thing. And remember to wear a hat in the sun.