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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Octavio Paz' "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" part 001

The shame of having hold on to a book for this long without reading it finally took a toll on my emotions this week. Just like Zbigniew Herbert's "Still Life with a Bridle," which took me about 10 years to get to it (and I devoured this little book, a delicious combination of essays and apocryphas), Octavio Paz' book "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" gathered dust on top of my book shelve for nearly 15 years. I've had a series of false starts with it, never going through the first essay as a whole, and putting it down in favor of something more "digestible." Well, sometimes that's all it takes because, as T.S. Eliot indicated early on, "time is an enzyme," and now I am fully enjoying this book.

Paz' ideas of translation strike me as ironic (all of these essays are originally in Spanish... the praised translation comes from Helen Lane). He problematizes translation in literature as paradoxical at best, and, through a series of historical and self-interpretations he devices a theory that begins in Babel and ends within the enclosure of a New Guinea pygmy community listening to a Edith Piaf song on a record player. First, Octavio Paz takes on the diversity of language and its origins. He doesn't just cite the Biblical principle of Babel as an example--he always had a way of commencing with metaphysics and somehow still be able to explain the concrete. But he uses Babel to expose the idea of unity and diversity. The unity of all humanity under one language led to an extravagant God-like and arrogant pursuit. As a result, Paz holds, the Spirit scattered the language into a million traditions. This diversity of language is "an attack on the unity of the mind," and in the same token a challenge to the idea of God as supreme--if humans fail to comprehend unity in language, how then, Paz asserts, would they be able to conceive of a supreme, unified idea of God? All of this, however, is based on an examination of language; this is where Octavio Paz perhaps develop the rank of ideas that led to a Nobel Prize in Literature. "Plurality is universally taken to be a curse and a condemnation: it is the consequence of a transgression against the Spirit," a statement that, for all intent and purposes, has a blend of the metaphysical and modern interpretation of a multiplicity of languages. Being bilingual or even trilingual begins the to reverse this process, for, as Paz states, "To speak a foreign tongue, understand it, and translate it into one's own is to restore the unity of the beginning." No, Paz is not playing with the circular reasoning of the Russian Deconstructionists, but rather taking on translation as a tool of understanding. He does play a back and forth game, but as confusing as it seemingly is, Paz eventually wraps it all up in a way we can understand: some translations work and some others do not. Pushing the argument to the very limit, he uses a word most of those do not know, or perhaps have never encountered before, but we all know what it is once he explains it.

Speaking in tongues, Paz is quick to introduce, "was not exclusive to early Christian communities. It antedates them and appears in a great many Oriental and Mediterranean cults going back to earliest antiquity." It is important to mention that Paz recognizes the paradox: this "speaking in tongues" has been recognized as holy and evil at the same time; the more conventional the Medieval Church became, the more ostracized speakers of this unknown ejaculations became. Their refuge, as an act of subversion and submission at the same time, became the Protestant Reformation. Even to this day, the Catholic Church discourages this kind of practice, while churches of other denominations embrace it as it takes place spontaneously without regard to rank or title (perhaps this is why the Catholics "dislike" this practice--they have been obsessed with rank and file since the very start). But, if the practice has been present since very early on, why the push and pull controversy of it? It is unifying, Paz states, rather than divisive: "The universality of the phenomenon, and its persistence among historical changes and the extreme diversity of cultures, languages, and societies, incline me to think that we are once more in the presence of a human constant." The official term for this manifestation/behavior is "glossolalia."

Glossolalia is not exclusive to religion. As a matter of fact, poets of the Modernist movement (especially in Latin America) played with similar "artistic" tools. Early in the 20th century, there was a movement of "creationist" poetry--Huidobro being the most extensive practitioner of this method--which used "real" language words and mixed them with spontaneous prefixes and suffixes that made them border on glossolalia. For example, (and even though these are in Spanish, I'll include the translation after each word), "unipacio" (one space), "monlutrella" (a combination of the Spanish words mountain, moon and star). Paz includes--to the delight of those who want to keep the argument on this side of the Modern--James Joyce's 101 letter word from Finnegans Wake, (a word I am not going to include here, not because it is not important, but rather because I am of a divided mind when it comes to Joyce). At any rate, the word can be considered glossolalia because it bespeaks of Adam's and Eve's fall from grace, a Spirit manifestation if there was ever one. Unfortunately, this 101 letter word has to be taken with a grain of sand when it comes to meaningfulness. Joyce came out clean and stated in a little known quotation, that, for the sake of disclosure, I have included here: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it [Ulysses] will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." There's much in "Ulysses" that can be considered glossolalia, but a quote such as the one here makes on think about the purposes or legitimacy of literary tricks and games. Could glossolalia then be some sort of physical manifestation, a sort of "you-ate-too-much-chocolate-therefore-you-are-hyper" type of thing? But such an idea would be a social convention, wouldn't it? Octavio Paz, perhaps already predicting such an argument, clarifies this type of interpretation, "If the relationship between the signifier and the signified depends on a convention, how could such convention come home without the consent of the speakers? Who is the author of this convention--language itself? In that case, what was there before language and where did it come from? In a word, if the origin of the so-called linguistic pact does not lie in human will, how does one explain the dual relation between language and society?" This quote, of course, sounds like one of those graduate school discussion one tends to try and forget. However, there is something significant (no pun intended) about this argument. Let me put it in context. If I am to speak to a room full of people--about one third of the audience speaks a variety of languages that are not Romantic or even close to a Western-type language--and they are all standing, would I be able to convey the meaning of chair (signified) by using gesticulations, etc.? Here I am trying to educate them about the functions and benefits of a chair, yet every person in the room is standing. Must I have a chair with me in order to get my point across? In a nation-wide tour of my lectures on the benefits of chairs, must I carry one with me from lecture hall to lecture hall? The object is the signified (chair), the word chair is the signifier. In my lecture, I have replaced the word (signifier) with gesticulations and body movements in order to get the point across to that part of the audience that does not speak English, am I breaking the covenant of subject and object? am I, in some sense, by means of my movements to carry meaning across engaged in some different type of glossolalia? There may never be an answer to this, but it's worthwhile to analyze and see the argument for what it is: the space between object and subject--the hidden kingdom, as Paz puts it, that awaits on the other side of things.

Well, this is a bit too complicated, and I think I might have done a terrible job at explaining it. I am, however, enjoying the book very much. Whatever was there at the start 15 years ago that forced me to put this book down is now officially scratched from my list of excuses. The second part of this posting will deal with the relation of taste and sex/eroticism, craftsmanship vs. art, analogies between political preferences and cultural culinary conventions. Don't ask me, really, if you must ask, ask Octavio Paz himself (he's dead, so you may have to buy the book and read it).

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