Monday, 13 July 2015

Of classics, after all

In a short essay from 1981 (“Why Read the Classics?”), Italo Calvino says this about books: “If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or explanations.”

Source: University of Oxford
Calvino clarifies a couple of things. 1. That the classics are classics not because they’re fixed but because they’re mutable. 2. That a classic text is not only what it is but also (or mostly) what it has been made to be. The latter being due to the fact that a classic is read by many generations. But the fact of their readability across time is caused by being always young and restless. Which goes back under clarification no. 1, as above.
This is just to re-articulate the point in the quote.


Since some of these classics require translations (having been written in a different language or in a time too distant to sustain comprehensibility), let’s briefly bring up translations. There are translations contemporary to the reader, as opposed to translations contemporary to the translator.
Consider the former (the latter will be made clear by contrast). Insofar as they don’t fall for the archaic fallacy according to which a text must sound the way it sounded to its original readers, these texts arrive at the meeting with us vested in the garb of novelty. They’re fresh and crispy, just off the production line, and aimed at a public that speaks the patois. These texts use the exact allusions that make a contemporary tick. Example: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf isn’t impossible to read; it isn’t made difficult by impenetrable allusions. And that’s precisely because he made the poem sound intelligible to late-twentieth century readers.
“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”
Classics in the language of us – is what Heaney’s Beowulf is in the first place. Not that we don’t need explanations every now and then. Far from it. With the passing of time, the world itself has changed and understanding the basics of fifth-century chieftainship or the dynamics of a narrative that mixes fact and fiction rather liberally is not, as they say, as easy as pie. But those explanations aren’t directions; they are illuminations. And what’s more, they don’t try to make the translator sound intelligent. They simply ease the reader’s way into a text that’s bound to be difficult.
Or do I wrongly understand the role of a translator?


But the classics pose yet another aspect: that the readers change their gears too, with or without a translator’s help. The transference of resonances depends, to a certain extent, on the idiosyncrasies of biological ages. Let’s call them generations, for lack of a better word. One of the most apparent distinctions is that between a text read in one’s youth and the same text read at maturity. The constant: the reader; he/she is the same. The variables: a) reading the text once in one’s tender years and once in the years of mature undertakings; b) reading the text once only, when one is young and presumably un-formed, wet behind the ears; c) reading the text once only, but at the age when wines are better sipped than drunk in quaffs. As we move through these categories we get to understand texts in different ways. The battle between generations may very well be just this: a disagreement over readings, an impossibility to sign a pact over the meanings of a text.

Source: Deviant Art
Let me quote some more from Calvino:
“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s ‘instructions for use,’ and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty – all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us.”
It’s the wetness-behind-ears thing. How to get over it, how not to consider it inexperience that needs to be corrected, stupidity that requires to be schooled.
Educating the young in how a text must be read is like a joke that needs to be explained. If you didn’t get the point in the first place, you should be left to figure it out for yourself, and through this figuring out discover the pleasure that was there to be had in the first instance. Explain to someone how to read the joke and you’ve destroyed everything. The classics are, I think, in a similar situation. Let them be encountered at first hand, approached with the uncertainty and the scorn that come with the inevitable, irrefutable distance in time, in mores, in consciousnesses.
Don’t provide introductions, don’t go on with footnotes, don’t turn yourself into an academic reader unless you’re forced by the circumstances of your profession! These things kill a text. And to whose benefit? We peek into the indexes and appendices of books not because we’re stupid; it’s because the one who rendered them anew has made it necessary for us to do so. The mere presence of such apparatuses of understanding draws the readers towards them because the readers believe too much in the power of the printed text. Simple logic: why would an appendix be there if it didn’t mean to be considered?
Translators/editors of this kind try to educate us by placing inside the text clues of their own capabilities. They depart catastrophically from the text, by making us dependent on their skills rather than curious about the text’s qualifications. We read the translator’s curriculum vitae instead of perusing the actual text. We’re given crutches when nothing’s wrong with us, when we can navigate easily the seas that we have never sailed before.

Forgetting well

What one should get from Calvino’s words, therefore, is this realization that a classic text isn’t, as many are tempted to think, a guaranteed memory but precisely the opposite. A classic text is one that forces us to forget. To forget its letters, its words, its semantic juxtapositions. To remember it, however, by means that resemble the intricacies of DNA: a memory that stays in the depths of remembering.

Source: Synonym
A classic text is, therefore, anti-educational.
I grew up at a time and in a place where rote-learning was the only acceptable way. What I did learn from that was how to hate the texts I was supposed to love. Yes, I’ve learned those things. Yes, I still recite them when I find it relevant, because they’ve been fixed between my synapses and refuse, by some chemical miracles that take place in my brain, to let go of me. But that doesn’t mean I have enjoyed them the way they (my teachers) thought I was going to enjoy the incident of the encounter. This, in fact, was the central problem: that the meeting with those texts was not at all an encounter. It had been prepared, premeditated, pre-designed, or as they say about old DVDs they sell in DVD stores, pre-loved.
Calvino again:
“The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”
It’s the influence that matters: an influence that matters. Not just any dictation will make one a good writer, a good reader. Calligraphy classes make you a good calligrapher, but not a good novelist. Rote-learning of a text makes you a good reciter but not a good reader. I’m on Calvino’s side even when he speaks of books that “refuse to be eradicated from the mind.” Provided we’re talking about something that’s been acquired, not given by force (as it were), like a gift pushed into our pockets while we’re screaming that no, we don’t want it.