Borges, Lovecraft, and Metaphysical Horror

The more I read Borges’ Labyrinths, the more I appreciate how deeply unsettling and even scary its stories are. These are stories of ideas — “The Library of Babel”, for example, has no obvious plot — and characterization is oftentimes minimal. But the architecture of such stories suits Borges’ purpose just fine, which is not to create a compelling narrative but rather explore a compelling idea.

Ideas which often have unsettling implications.

It’s not an accident that one of Borges’ most unsettling tales, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”, is Labyrinths’ first. In this story, we read of an Illuminati-esque conspiracy, Orbus Tertius, engaged in a holistic, centuries-long worldbuilding exercise with the goal of overwriting our existence with their fictional one. When Borges was writing, he likely had Mormon “archaeology” in mind, and at its most surface level this story seems a parody of archaeological attempts to vindicate the Book of Mormon (usually with questionable methodology).

Yet in recent years, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius” has taken on a keener edge, at least in the United States. The growing realization that American politics are now governed by two oppositional worldviews, neither of which considers the other reality-based at all, hones concepts like Borges’ hrönir. Suddenly we have become aware that a compelling fictional world can overwrite our own … a lesson people under totalitarian regimes have long known. The story becomes more topical in subtly unsettling way, a creeping horror.

Similarly unsettling themes pervade Labyrinths. “Three Versions of Judas” almost prophesied the Gospel of Judas’ unearthing, where the Gnostic community who wrote it argued that Judas’ actions were preordained by the divine Plan and hence could not possibly have been sinful, for sin implies a deviation from divine Will, and it was His will that Jesus be crucified (indeed, there’s a suggestion that Jesus and Judas co-orchestrated his arrest, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly-style). It is a theme, however, that couldn’t have been explored had it not been there at all, and Borges is a master at drawing out the inevitable consequences of thematic ideas.

“The Circular Ruins” turns on hermetic irony: just as the guru inhabiting the fire god’s temple dreams the valley’s hero into being, so too does the fire god dream the guru into being. Are we real, then, or figments of another’s imagination? This is a tale that anticipates postmodern metacommentaries on text, such as the characters’ realization, late in the Illuminatus! Trilogy, that they are, in fact, characters in a book. But “The Circular Ruins” takes it one step further — what if the dreamer himself is dreamt up? What if God is, in fact, a novelist, and we are just His playthings? The suggestion unsettles.

Just so, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is another commentary on writing, this time on the limitations of originality. I’ve seen commentaries on it allude to the idea of writer as “perfect reader”, but it goes further than that. For Pierre Menard to perfectly reproduce passages of Don Quixote — reproductions with greater depth due to the self-consciously literary act of the reproduction itself — calls into question both our claims to originality — perhaps someone else can arrive at the same words but through different methods? — as well as the depth of meaning these words carry, and how important context is in establishing this depth. “Pierre Menard’s” message is couched in humor — “History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding” remains one of the funniest punchlines in all of literature — yet it is there nonetheless, and it is unsettling.

Such themes pervade all of Labyrinths’ tales. “A New Refutation of Time” concatenates Berkeley and Hume, philosophers whose worldviews could not have been more different, to arrive at something that seems like a reductio ad absurdum on the outside yet makes its own kind of queer logical sense inside, especially in light of e.g. general relativity, where time is seen as an extension of (or extra dimension attached to) space. Stranger still, the essay is presented in two separate drafts … an artfully crafted déjà vu.

“Death and the Compass” investigates the idea of a detective who creates the narrative the serial killer follows — an idea Eco’s The Name of the Rose further elaborates on — while “Averroes’ Search” plays with the concept that one’s existence does not matter anymore once they’ve fulfilled their essential cause — in Averroes’ case, translating Aristotle, and in the context of his Poetics, understanding the idea of theater. “The Zahir” (“Zahir,” incidentally, brings to mind the Legend of Korra character “Zaheer”) explores the idea of an idea object imbued with such obsessive power that it inevitably brings those who come into contact with it to ruin. “Funes the Memorius”, which I regard as Labyrinths’ weakest work, is an exploration of hyperthymesia. “The Garden of Forking Paths” plays again with hermetic themes and illusory time. “The Library of Babel” uses its extended conceit to play with themes revolving around the limitations of knowledge, and how knowledge, when pushed to its edge, breaks down into contradictions. And so on.

All of these stories share this same unsettling quality. It is an unsettling-ness that becomes stronger, too, the more you read Borges.

In a way, it’s the exact opposite of Lovecraft’s horror. Lovecraft’s horror is fundamentally a fear of the unknown, which means that if you’ve read “The Rats in the Walls” a few times, say, it ceases to be scary. You can start to critique stories of his like “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for rambling too long for their own good, sometimes, once you’ve gotten used to how Lovecraft develops his themes, while you’re reading the work for the first time. Lovecraft is not a very subtle writer — “The Shadow over Innsmouth’s” biggest problem is that he can’t just let the last horror be inferred, that he has to hit you over the head with what he had already embedded in the text.

Yet, strangely enough, Lovecraft and Borges are allied writers. “The Shadow over Innsmouth’s” last horror — the secret contained within the narrator’s own bloodline — is, as I’ve pointed out, a subtle horror, an embedded horror, a horror of the uncanny. And it is this latter that Borges specializes in. He creates the uncanny. This is why so many of Labyrinths’ stories — even ones that end in heroic exultation like “We drew our heavy revolvers (for suddenly there were revolvers in the dream) and exultantly killed the Gods” (“Ragnarök”) — fill us with a deep sense of unease. This is what I’ve come to think of as metaphysical horror — horror embedded in ideas themselves.

This is why Borges’ stories become stronger the more you read him while Lovecraft’s become weaker. Most of Lovecraft’s dénouements are essentially — gimmicks. And when the horror starts to last, it’s because he’s tapping into concerns which discomfort him (a big obsession of his being tainted bloodlines). So much of Lovecraft’s plots involve confrontation with secrets that ought to be left well enough alone and in so doing drive the the narrator, not infrequently, insane; even in the way he writes you can tell this sense of forbidden knowledge is one of his driving thematic obsessions.

Borges actually explores hidden knowledge — not secret or apocryphal knowledge — but the hidden logical consequences of the everyday and from them mines the uncanny. Borges’ horror is the culmination of Lovecraft’s program. Lovecraft needs to couch his narrators as academics in a decidedly non-academic narration. Borges uses academic narration to establish his (characters’?) academic credentials. And by doing so, Borges manages to tap a horror Lovecraft could never find: the horror lurking within things themselves.

Metaphysical horror.

Merry Christmas.

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Can We Scan Rap Songs?

I’ve been turning over ideas of meter and scansion in my head for some time now, and it occurs to me that one of the places where this knowledge is applicable is … song lyrics. Which makes sense, doesn’t it? Classical meters are derived from musical rhythms — that dun dunn dunnh of the dramatic squirrel is an anapest realized with instrumentation rather than words, and if we check out Kronk’s theme music from The Emperor’s New Groove, we find that it is pure meter (dactyls in 6/4 time, I think), tonality stripped of all semantic context.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to instrumentation. Let’s go clean to the opposite end of the musical spectrum, music built around wordplay, music where the instrumentation is pushed into a subordinate role, the most popular music of our day. I am talking, of course, about rap.

A couple of years ago, Vox released Rapping, Deconstructed: The Best Rhymers of All Time, (above), a twelve-minute video that offers real insight into the technical end of rap music, as understood by rappers themselves. The video itself focuses on rhyming (as one would suspect with that title), and in the example clip from The Notorious B.I.G’s “Hypnotize” we can see a tremendous flow develop from highly assonant rhymes on the beat.

The video opens with Rakim talking about his creative process: “I try to start off with sixteen dots on the paper … If four bars’re this long, I see, like, a graph in between them four bars. I could place so many words with so many syllables. I could take it to the point where there’s no other words you can put in that four bars.”

This should sound familiar. What is a meter but a repetition of feet, and what is a foot but a construct of syllables anchored by a beat? What Rakim is talking about here is the foundation of meter. In fact, if he’s using sixteen dots (i.e. the beats) in four bars, he’s creating in a tetrameter — each bar is a line four beats long, and four-beat lines, as we may recall, are tetrametric.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the meter fits the formal schema of classical poetry, but the beat itself is a powerful anchor on the line. Whether or not the word stresses line up with the beat is the same as the interplay between syllable length and ictus that marked classical hexameter, and if this is true, then the two must resolve to achieve consonance — to achieve flow.

I would like to advance a hypothesis here that we can break down a rap song into poetic meter, and as a test, let us consider the first stanza of a song that will become classical music by the year 3000: Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, better known by its first line …

I like / big butts / and I can– / not lie
You oth– / er bro– / thers can’t / de- ny

We can immediately see that the first two lines are in iambic tetrameter. Every foot, save for the third in the first line, is iambic. This noniambic foot, too, is part of the meter — an anapest can be substituted for an iamb in a stress-timed language. Even Milton did so:

Of Man’s / first dis- / o- be- / di- ence, / and the fruit

The last foot of Paradise Lost’s very first line is an anapest.

This does require some rigging, though. Deny, like most two-syllable words, is naturally a trochee; the rhyme with lie, an iambic beat, however, forces its iambic realization.

In any event, Sir Mix-A-Lot has made a very strong statement with a lead couplet in iambic tetrameter. The question then becomes: can he sustain?

That when / a girl walks in / with an it- / ty bit- ty waist
And a round thing in / your face

The answer is no: the fourth line is metrically defective (at seven syllables, it will never resolve as a quantitative tetrameter, no matter how you may massage the feet). In order to achieve four beats, Sir Mix-A-Lot ends the line with a spondee — two beats in the same foot. This, coupled with the anapest-trochee combination earlier in the line, creates an almost hump-like feeling to the line, that you climb a hill and pass through a col between hilltops. With a dirty mind and a bit of imagination, you can even map this traverse onto the human anatomy.

You get sprung, / wan– na / pull up tough
Cause you / no- tice / that butt / was stuffed

While our hopes of maintaining a quantitative tetrameter might be snuffed, we can now begin to appreciate his beautiful metric play. You get sprung, wanna pull up tough only has three feet, and like the line prior, uses a two-beat foot (here a cretic) to resolve the line; the successive line, with its leading trochees and trailing iambs, creates a caesura effect that also neatly splits the line’s two phrases.

Deep in / the jeans / she’s wear– ing
I’m hooked / and can’t / stop star– ing

Both of these lines resolve the last two beats with a bacchius, extending the sonorous feminine line on the gerunds a beat deeper into the line. Again, we don’t see the strict 1 beat = 1 foot rule that obtained in strict quantitative meter, but what we do see is a clever use of beats to propel the rhymes and lines forward.

Oh ba– / by, I wan– / na get / with you
And take / your pic- ture

This is the first time we’ve found a wholesale defective line. The only way you can argue And take your picture has four beats is that the conjunction is also stressed. Conjunctions don’t like to take metric stress. Again, however, we see that the rhyme forces a trochee (picture) to become an iamb … I rather suspect this will not be the last time we see it.

My home– / boys tried / to warn me
But that butt / you got / makes me / so hor– ny

The three beat syllables in a row — a sense of alarm — sets up the amphibrach that terminates the couplet’s first line. Sir Mix-A-Lot has a noticeable pattern here: his rhymes are always in the same feet, and so the amphibrach to warn me sets up the amphibrach so horny. Where the spondee in the first line builds up tension, as well, the long anapest that begins the second line (which has a subtle but-butt consonance) relieves it.

Ooh, Rump– / o’- smooth- skin,
You say / you wan– / na get / in my Benz?

I rather like that the couplet’s first line only has two beats here. I rather think he’s savoring his punny name. It’s also worth noting that the couplet’s second line is one of the most metrically regular he’s realized so far … perhaps he also senses he’s gone too far and wants to return his mad rhymes to some regularity?

Well, use me, / use me,
Cause you / ain’t that / av– rage / group– ie

He begins with another bacchius here — we’ve already discussed how he routinely uses two-beat feet to resolve quantitatively defective lines, but while the whole poem so far has been broadly iambic, we suddenly find, out of the blue, a line in perfect trochaic tetrameter!

I’ve seen / them dan- cin’
To hell with / ro- man- cin’

There are only four beats in this whole couplet! Three of the four feet are amphibrachs, too, which yields a very relaxed turn of phrase. This is also perhaps the biggest rhyming stretch Sir Mix-A-Lot has made so far: them seems torn as to whether it wants to belong to the first foot or the second; in the end, I resolved it into the second foot because I really, really, really like his subtle ability to sustain rhymes across whole feet. (Although I believe he tries to resolve the tension by realizing the elision r’mancin’?)

She’s sweat, wet,
Got it / goin‘ like / a tur– / bo ‘Vette

An entirely new metric play from Sir Mix-A-Lot. The first line is a naked antibacchius, which continues the previous couplet’s dimetric (i.e. two-beat) rhythm into this one. With our ears attuned to his propensity to rhyme whole feet, we find the rhyme a turbo ‘Vette sprawled across two feet, and indeed, he’s pulled the same trick he did in ‘Cause you notice that butt was stuffed, although the caesura here does not match the phrasal split. The net result is that the introductory particle like dangles for a split second before the rest of the line resolves it.

Also of note: the meter is wanting that goin’ to be a single syllable: go’n’. The consonance with got reinforces this.

I’m tired / of mag– / ga- zines
Say– in’ / flat butts / are the thing

Getting magazines to fit in perfect iambic trimeter was a pretty impressive feat, not gonna lie. However, it feels like Sir Mix-A-Lot got overly proud of his accomplishment as the line is otherwise rhythmically defective: there are only three beats here (hence trimeter), and he’s failed to match the rhyming feet for the first noticeable time in the whole song (that said, are the want to elide: flat butts’re would resolve the metric issue we’ve brought out into the open, as would th’ thing, which gives the beat a slight stutter-step).

Take the / av– rage / black man / and ask / him that
She got– / ta pack / much back

Notice something interesting here: The couplet’s first line overruns the bar by a whole iamb, which Sir Mix-A-Lot resolves by undersizing its realization. The first line is, of course, in pentameter; the second, in trimeter. This is, incidentally, excellent iambic scansion: even in Milton we can find the metrically nearly-identical line

Strength un- / dim– in- / ished, or / et- er– / nal be– ing

(where the line-final amphibrach is an acceptable variation on iambic meter).

(Obviously, if I went through the whole of Paradise Lost with a fine-tooth comb, I’d find a better example still.)

So, fel– / las! (Yeah!) / Fel– lahs! (Yeah!)
Has your girl– / friend got / the butt? / (Hell Yeah!)

Sir Mix-A-Lot’s getting even cheekier with his beats — using a call and response to carry his beats through these lines. He’s also getting away from same-foot rhymes, though using the same beat pattern — an iamb and a half mimics a cretic — hides the deficiency here. Even so, there’s a sense by now his flow’s starting to break down … the stanza is winding down.

Tell ’em / to shake it! / (Shake it!) / Shake it! / (Shake it!)
Shake that / health- y butt!

Ba– by / got back!

At this point, Sir Mix-A-Lot has just abandoned rhyme altogether — the bar too. The first line of this stanza-final tercet is five beats long, with three repeating wholesale and the fourth being an extension of the repetition, and the final couplet being dimetric, with beat stresses occurring on the first and last syllables of the line. He’s exhausted by this point, but he’s able to go out with a bang.

So what have we learned by now? First of all, Sir Mix-A-Lot is a conservative rhymer; he doesn’t really attempt any sort of internal rhyme, and examples of consonance and assonance are rare enough to be worth remarking on. The stanza is propelled on purely on the strength of its couplets.

Secondly, Sir Mix-A-Lot is an excellent couplet rhymer. He doesn’t just rhyme the final beat, he makes his couplets’ line-final feet agree. These are much more difficult rhymes to sustain than e.g. bat / cat, and are not widely found in English poesy (though they are a feature of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and hence any translation of same worth its salt). Of these, to warn me / so horny is perhaps his best individual rhyme, though use me / groupie is an excellent pair as well.

Thirdly, we are dealing with a vaguely iambic-ish but more qualitative tetrameter here, something more like old Germanic meter without the alliteration. Heaney’s

So. The Shield-Danes in days gone by

would feel well and truly at home here.

And finally, yes, it can scan! And it scans excellently! In fact, the scansion reveals subtlety and secrets in the meter, such as the three beats all in a row in My homeboys tried to warn me.

Of course, we may not be surprised that we can subject rap to prosodic analysis. Rap is poetry, after all; of course we can subject it to prosodic analysis.

This was a fun evening’s project … Let me know if there are any other stanzas you want me to take apart in this way!

A Very Gothic Poem

roman_de_la_rose_28f-_15r-b29_the_godess_of_love_locks_the_lover27s_heartSometimes the oddest things can catch your eye. While I was in the library the other day, looking for a halfway decent copy of The Song of Roland, I saw this oddity and decided to read it on a whim. Flicking through it, as someone jaundiced to challenging texts like the Aeneid and Fanshawe’s translation of the Lusiads, it didn’t even seem all that long!

I … seriously underestimated the text. It took me a week to read.

The Romance of the Rose is, along with Piers Plowman and Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the major vernacular-language texts of the later Middle Ages, and an important development in the rise of vernacular literatures (much like the somewhat later Dante, Plutarch, and Chaucer). But it’s stranger than that: It has more than one author.

The Romance was started by one Guillaume de Lorris, an elegant descriptive poet who excelled at painting pictures in verse and who set up the garden, as well as the Lover’s infatuation with his Rose, his early success, and the setback Jealousy reared, before he rather conveniently kicked the bucket. M. de Lorris was writing at courtly love’s height, and the text he was intending is rather obviously a pretty but rather blasé allegory of the idea. Some disciple of his wrote a quick and wholly unsatisfactory ending, a sort of roof over Lorris’ house’s walls.

Then, nearly half a century later, one Jean de Meun, who seems to have been associated with the University of Paris, wrote a monstrous continuation of de Lorris’ text. Where de Lorris had written marginally north of 4,000 lines, de Meun’s continuation just shy of 22,000 lines. M. de Meun is also an entirely different type of writer than de Lorris — where the latter was skilled at setting lush scenes, suggesting an almost painterly view of the world, the former was, more than anything else, a skilled rhetorician, and developed his characters in long monologuic arguments, which, combined with a plot — a war Cupid wages on the tower of Jealousy — that moves rather sedately, leaves one with the sense they’re reading nothing so much as a verse novel.

(Indeed, de Meun’s Romance is satirical where de Lorris’ was earnest, and most early novels, from the Satyricon to the Golden Ass to Don Quixote to Gulliver’s Travels where satirical in nature; one can well argue that the spirit of satirical skepticism has never left the novel format.)

It is much like reading the poetic equivalent of constructing a Gothic cathedral. M. de Lorris began the effort in a heavy and almost Romanesque way; it was briefly roofed over; and then M. de Meun expanded and completed the project with daring new and reborn techniques that seemed to almost defy Nature … who is, by the way, a character in all this hot mess.

Characterization is the main thing that defines the Romance. Not of the Rose, of course … even in courtly love, this was very much an era when men tended to objectify women they were sexually attracted to. The Rose comes across more as a thing than anything else. But it’s in all the other characters — in Reason, in the Friend, the Duenna, in Nature and the Genius, that M. de Meun finds his voice and his strength. And, as a text driven primarily by monologue, it should hardly be surprising that his characters reveal surprising quirks about themselves.

Reason is an essentially tragic figure; over her monologue, where she tries to win the Lover over with, well, logic and reasoning, she slowly reveals that she, too, is very much in love with the Lover … but it’s an emotion she doesn’t understand and therefore can’t articulate. In the end the almost base way she begs for the Lover’s love drives him away … People with an analytical temperament can well recall such snubs.

The Friend, then, is an intriguing character, whose advice is clearly awful: he suggests the Lover peruse the road of Mad Largesse, whose entrance is guarded by Wealth and whose exit is guarded by Poverty (does this suggest anything to you?). Mad Largesse in fact rather recalls nothing quite so much as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and much like the painting one suspects a poison tree lies hidden within that paradise. Then, in one of the most adroit — read “how did he do it?” — transitions in all of literature, the Friend gets to talking about a loveless marriage, one that shows a keen psychological understanding of what it’s like to be victimized by physical and emotional abuse. For some reason, then, our recklessly naïve Lover tries to gain entrance to Mad Largesse, only to be rebuffed by Wealth.

The Duenna (the word is an archaic term for “chaperone”), which Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is probably derived from, then expounds a worldly, cynical view of love. The more I read the Duenna the more I was reminded of Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg, though in truth Nanny Ogg seems never to lost her youth’s boundless optimism whereas de Meun’s Duenna clearly has.

The last major character introduced to us — and one the Introduction points out is meant to be Reason’s counterpoint in all this discussion — is, without a doubt, the most loathsome of all: Genius, who preaches to Dame Nature’s face — in a passage that does nothing but arouse our sympathy for her — how women are subservient to men. This idiotic chauvinist in priest’s robes clearly has won not one whit of the respect he commands (does this remind you of anybody?) and is where the extreme sexism of de Meun’s time becomes apparent.

It comes across as a sour note right near the end to the wonderful mental symphony de Meun weaves for us, and I would argue that it is precisely this blemish that keeps the Romance from being truly timeless, and M. de Meun from being considered the first great master of French literature. (Yet at the same time “Genius” disillusions us of the Romance’s utility as M. de Lorris conceived it, no?)

That said, just as in life one moves from naïveté to disillusionment to cynicism to ultimately — maybe — tempered wisdom — I reckon the Romance of the Rose’s time has come around again. It is amazingly, and amazingly naïvely, postmodernist. Not only does it become self-aware and self-referential at times but M. de Meun even mounts an apology (a rhetorical defense) of himself! In the text!

If we recall David Foster Wallace, and the sense that literature needs to move beyond Postmodernism and find a new earnestness — move beyond the point of cynical despair into enlightenment* — then perhaps M. de Meun’s naïveté, at the very outset of modern European literature, would show us the way. For, despite its faults, or perhaps because of them, the Romance of the Rose is a ringingly earnest work, and one that, strangely enough, sews up much of the classical tradition and ushers in a new era and new literature.

If you read: Harry Robbins, a professor at Bucknell, spent most of his life translating the Romance into blank verse; the text was discovered among his papers after his death and eventually published by one Charles Dunn. This is probably the best available edition, despite having a lack of explanatory notes. For the notes, you’ll probably want Frances Hodge’s Oxford prose translation — and you all know how I feel about prose translations of poetic works.

I am vaguely aware of two other translations — Charles Dahlberg did one released by the Princeton University Press, and a Pre-Raphaelite Brit, F.S. Ellis, released a translation c. 1900. I want to hazard Ellis’ is probably in verse, but I don’t know the status of either of these.


* Regardless of how postmodernist his major works are. Infinite Jest is a classic of the genre.

Literal Translation in Poetics

“If a translation cannot be true word for word to the original,” Borges notes at the beginning of his lecture on literal translation in This Craft of Verse, “it can still be less true letter for letter” (pg. 65). This is, if anything, more so in verse. In prose, one has the advantage of being able to translate “thought for thought”, that is, idiom for idiom, needing only light editing for readability; in poetry, where the flow of sounds is stricter, this is often rendered an impossibility.

Yet to read a prose translation of a poem is deeply unsettling. Why? Because when we seek to read a work, we seek, if we cannot have the creator’s original work in front of us, at least a reflection of his work. One can well think of the work of translation in a Platonic mode, then: the original is a sort of Form that all translations try to produce mirrors of. Translating a poem as prose loses much of the original’s sensibility: we know poetry lurks somewhere, but try hard as we might, we can’t find it. It’s an uncanny valley.

This problem only gets worse for more foundational poems. Translating Dante is no mean feat, nor Goethe, nor Chaucer nor Shakespeare. And as the poem becomes formally more stringent, the difficulty of the translator’s task ramps up significantly. A poem in a “default” form in its source language — as the great classical hexameter poems are — can easily be rendered in a similarly “default” form in its target language (blank verse, say, or heroic couplets) with the sense of meaning between the two left intact.

But what about a poem like Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (where you may recall I recently wrote my own unlettered ruminations about Douglas Hofstadter’s version)? This is a task indeed for a verse translator, for much of the poem’s charm is in Pushkin’s virtuoso use of iambic tetrameter and interplay of interlocking “masculine” and “feminine” (multisyllabic) rhymes, the latter being rarely found in English despite being much more common in a language like Spanish, where single-syllable rhyming is a dime a dozen while rhyming on word stresses (the penultimate syllable, usually) is a much more technically challenging feat.

A translator like Hofstadter answers the call by achieving his own Pushkin sonnets. English, as it turns out, is relatively well suited to this task — much more so than languages like French or Spanish, whose prosody tends to emphasize syllabics over stresses, because its traditional poetry, like Onegin’s, is largely iambic. This is not unlike the translator’s challenge for most of history, such as the one facing Dryden and Pope, St. Jerome, or Homer’s anonymous Latin translator — a challenge that, as Borges puts it — of “want[ing] to prove that the vernacular was as capable of a great poem as the original” (ibid. 71). Of course, nowadays, we don’t have a classical language, as Greek was in Rome and Latin was in post-Roman Europe hanging over our heads, but rather a motley of vernaculars, some with armies and navies and hence able to command greater status than others. But though the name has changed, the game has stayed the same.

A translator like James Falen or Douglas Hofstadter is out to prove that English is just as capable at delivering Pushkin as Russian was, and to think otherwise would have seemed, to them, a crime (Borges 71 paraphrase, italics in original). But there’s another school of translation to consider here: that of literal translation.

Borges argues that literal translation is not a product of scholarship but one of theology, to wit, Bible translation. “If we think,” he says, “of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then we are not allowed to think of any chance elements … in his work” (ibid. 72). Of course, as one may well point out here, the Bible (or at any rate, the New Testament) itself condones translation (recall Acts here), and that sacred literature in several other world traditions — I am thinking of the Qu’ran and Rigvedas here — is believed to lose its sacredness in translation. (The Pali Canon provides a contrast, as the Buddhists, like the early Christians, believed in translating into the vernacular and translating widely.) Be that as it may, though, how can you change the inspired (if not necessarily literal) Word of God?

Literal translations are necessarily full of strangeness and oddity (Borges 68 paraphrase). How can they but be? No two languages have the same idioms, and word-for-word translations unmake the source language’s idiom (creating the oddness and strange beauty Borges, after one Matthew Arnold, is talking about) while creating entirely new idioms in the target language.

Take the Song of Songs, for example; in Semitic languages genitive reduplication (Šîr Ha-Šîrîm in Hebrew) yields the superlative, which Martin Luther translates more precisely as Das hohe Lied (“The High Song” … interestingly enough, interjecting a sense of the sacred where none was before)*. Thus a phrase like king of kings actually means something more akin to “high king” or “emperor” than the phrase’s English connotations. Nor is overly literal translation missing the point — or perhaps creating new points — anything new here. The Septuagint realizes the title as Âisma Āismátōn, an obvious calque of the Hebrew into Greek rather than the “the greatest song” the name actually means. (This example is not plucked at random; it is the one Borges expounds on in ibid. 68.)

However, despite the necessity and usefulness of cribs in the translator’s work — every other verse translator since, as Hofstadter points out, has had need to consult Nabokov at some point or another (Eugene Onegin xxxii)** — literal translations of verse lose something important. This is what Nabokov fails to understand in his egocentric screed, and why Hofstadter, after Briggs, feels comfortable labeling him “the high priest of Pushkinolatry” (ibid. xxv).

It’s important here to remember this is not making claims about literal translation in and of itself. Cribs exist for a reason. Rather, it points out that claims of literal translation being the only possible translation of any work — claims of the sort Hofstadter cites Nabokov making (ibid. xxiii-vi incl.) — are akin to claiming sacredness for a secular work, for as we have already observed Borges pointing out, the whole project of literal translation is theological in motivation. Crib aggrandizement, such as Nabokov’s, is therefore either a form of blasphemy — treating a secular work with the reverence due the Holy Spirit — or idolatry (hence “Pushkinolatry”) — treating a graven image (i.e. Pushkin’s masterpiece) with the sacredness accorded only to Abraham’s iconoclastic God. In either event, it treats a work with undue sacredness.

It’s a pity, too. If anybody was up to the task of creating an authoritative verse translation of Eugene Oneginit was Nabokov. This is a man who was raised from the birth speaking English, French, and Russian, and who wrote compelling literature in English (e.g. Pale Fire) and Russian (e.g. The Gift),*** and whose Lolita demonstrates a deft touch and propensity for wordplay, especially of the multilingual kind.

Take, for example, Eugene Onegin’s Stanza 1.2, which ends with the line

No vréden séver dlyá menyá

and literally means something like “But harmful is the North to me” (Hofstadter’s Eugene Onegin xxxv). Hofstadter translates with the bilingual pun

The North was, shall we say, ‘severe’

(“sever” means “north” in Russian and conjures up connotations of, well, severity in English). As Hofstadter himself points out, “this flippancy of mine would come across as so irreverent to Pushkin” — here he undoubtedly has Nabokov in mind — “that they would exile me to Bessarabia if they had the chance” (ibid. xxxv, italics in original).

Yet this is precisely the kind of deft punning Nabokov was so well known for. In this one line we can read what Nabokov would have been capable of had he not fallen prey to his own hubris — and it is amazing. More than any other writer, Nabokov could — and should — have given Pushkin his due.

What Nabokov did when he declared any verse translation of Eugene Onegin as “mathematically impossible” (cf. Hofstadter xxv, which he, a cognitive scientist by trade, of course sneers at) was nothing short of a complete abdication of responsibility in handling Eugene Onegin, one wrapped in the kind of gratuitous hubris that one finds oneself thinking of Salmoneus and wondering how he didn’t get zapped, Caddyshack-style, in the end.****


Das größte Lied or “the greatest song” would probably be the best translation, therefore. But it’s kind of ugly.

** Technically, Nabokov calls his crib a “pony” (Hofstadter’s Eugene Onegin xxiii). That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crib and everybody else calls it as such. Witness Hofstadter’s pun where, “once in a blue moon,” he too “[had] to resort to napping briefly in Nabokov’s crib” (ibid. xxxii).

*** Contrary to my original thought, Pnin is actually written in English.

**** That said, literal translation does have its place. One of the charms of Nabokov’s literal translation of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign is its very strangeness (cf. Borges 68), where the “uncouthness and oddity” and “strangeness and beauty” (ibid.) strangely gets across how the old Novgorodian (or Kievan?) reads in modern Russian (says somebody whose command of Russian is currently one word strong).

The Translator’s Dilemma

Verse translation — translating poems as poems — is perhaps the most difficult and underappreciated task any writer can be tasked with. Doing so usually requires fluent command (though, as Douglas Hofstadter proves, there are exceptions) of both the original language and the target one, command that extends beyond just communication standards but knowledge of poetic norms. For example: Is reproduction of a rhyme scheme viable? a metrical structure? If it is not, how does one go about reproducing the “flavor” of the thing?

Naturally, despite the difficulty of the work, verse translators often labor in obscurity, with their names invoked only after the originator. So one might say, for example, “Hofstadter’s Pushkin” or “Falen’s Pushkin” when referring to different translations of Eugene Onegin, or “Fitzgerald’s Aeneid vs. Fagles’ Aeneid vs. Lombardo’s Aeneid, and so on (though in this case the name of the work has become inseparable from its originator, i.e. Virgil).

Yet verse translation, despite its thanklessness, is necessary. Prose can only go so far in translating a work of literature — indeed, it turns everything into novels. You lose some sense of the epic in Graves’ execrable translation of Pharsalia — or his prose renditions of Homer and Virgil which I vaguely recall reading in middle school — and a prose translation of Eugene Onegin loses its sense of verse-ness and hence the bulk of Pushkin’s punch.

In This Craft of Verse, Borges points out that “the translator’s work is always supposed to be inferior — or what is worse, is felt to be inferior” (“Word-Music and Translation”, pg. 65) despite the fact that he holds Campbell’s translation “When all the house was hushed” to be superior to San Juan de la Cruz’s original “estando ya mi casa sosegada” (pgs 60-65 ff). Why should this be?

Perhaps Borges has tripped himself up by his own choice of language here (recall Wittgenstein). It isn’t necessarily “inferiority”, which implies the original’s superiority; it’s that we feel the translator is somehow a broker, a go-between allowing us access to the original despite the fact that we cannot read the language. Thus, for example, unless they have name their names elsewhere, as Nabokov or Hofstadter e.g. have, we tend to ignore the translator’s efforts in allowing us access to this or that famous work. How many of us, for example, know that William Weaver translated Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for our reading pleasure?

Seen from this perspective, translation is little more than ghostwriting with a byline.

Tellingly, perhaps, Borges never translated his own texts, despite being bilingual more-or-less from birth in English and Spanish and achieving fluency in at least German and probably French too (the former he tells us as much; the latter because he went to a Francophone college in Geneva). Translating one’s own work can be thought of as an act of interpretation — you’re re-interpreting yourself for a whole new audience — and can anything be more arrogant than that?* **


* Lots of things, to be honest. I can think of a few off the top of my head.

** It’s worth pointing out here that the fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “Death by Water”, which runs like this:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
And the profit and loss. A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

is in fact a translation into English of the end of his earlier French poem Dans le restaurant (“In the Restaurant”), which runs like this:

Phlébas, le Phénicien, pendant quinze jours noyé,
Oubliait les cris des mouettes et la houle de Cornouaille,
Et les profits et les pertes, et la cargaison d’etain:
Un courant de sous-mer l’emporta tres loin,
Le repassant aux étapes de sa vie antérieure.
Figurez-vous donc, c’etait un sort penible;
Cependant, ce fut jadis un bel homme, de haute taille.

“Death by Water” has always been my favorite part of The Waste Land, incidentally.

The Tale of Igor’s Campaign

1024px-igorsvyatNow here’s an interesting one. In my pursuit of the medieval epic, I ran down a vague reference or two to a Russian poem of the period called variously The Song of Igor’s Campaign or The Tale of Igor’s Campaign (Nabokov uses “song” so naturally I use “tale”).

Medieval epics have aroused my curiosity and interest from an early age, but I’ve only recently gotten around to reading any of them not named Beowulf. (Seriously, check out the Seamus Heaney translation — it’s great.) So it was with some interest that I found some references to this poem, said to be one of the first in Russian literature.

Like most medieval epics, it is a legendary treatment of actual events: Song of my Cid is of course a legendary treatment of his conquest of Valencia; The Song of Roland of the Battle of Ronceveaux / Roncevalles (I’ve seen it spelled both ways) Pass; Beowulf apparently comes from an incident or two also narrated in the (conveniently) lost Skjöldunga saga (that is, “Saga of the Shieldings”). So too the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which tells of a disastrous raid by the Kievan prince, Igor, on their eastern neighbors, the Kumans, in (roughly) the Donbass region.

It is a brief read — only about 860 (very short!) lines in Nabokov, and 15 or so pages in the Indiana University edition — and can be read in less than an hour. That said, though, its brevity belies a deep sonic resonance that not even a pest like Volodechka can expunge from his pages, a sense of rapid-fire action that keeps the reader glued to the screen (or page), as the raid sets out and goes south, leading to Kuman subjugation of the Kievan Rus’, Igor’s father eulogizes him, and eventually Igor himself escapes from thralldom to the kagans. Supernatural occurrences are mentioned: a solar eclipse bodes ill at the raid’s start; two suns are mentioned during the battle, both shrouded; and one of the princes turns out to be a werewolf … It’s that kind of read.

It well and truly feels like a Norse saga, just with Russian instead of Germanic names.

I’m struggling to find things to say about it other than it’s a pretty typical text of its genre … and it is. Most of the Tale of Igor’s Campaign’s analysis has historically focused on its authenticity, with arguments made that it was a forgery, à la the Songs of Ossian, made by the Czech scholar Jozef Dobrovský around the turn of the 19th century. (Dobrovský is also associated with another “medieval” forgery — the Kraledvorsky Manuscript — though here as a scholar questioning its authenticity.)

These arguments also claim that the Tale is self-consciously nationalistic in a way that wouldn’t have occurred during the time period it was purportedly written in. This is silly: the text itself is no more or less nationalistic than the (clearly authentic) Song of Roland, Song of my Cid, or Beowulf; claims that the Kumans are Muslims seem to be later interpolations that are entirely unsupported by the text — Mohammed, for example, is mentioned (in a rather silly passage) as an idol worshipped by the Saracens of Saragossa in The Song of Roland, but the only mention of the Kumans’ religion is that they are “pagan” (leaving it up to the reader to fill in further details).

Linguistic evidence shows, however, that this is not the case; the Tale uses several words and turns of phrase that only occur otherwise in Novgorodian birch-bark texts — the oldest documentation of written Russian — and texts that were unknown in Dobrovský’s day, and applies a very different grammatical system than the one he favored. This controversy is much akin to arguing over whether e.g. Piers Plowman is a forgery or not because our knowledge of the text’s linguistic history is woefully incomplete … that is, it’s silly.

So read it for what it is. A fast-paced, easily-read tale, perhaps the only significant work of literature that survived from the old Kievan Rus’, a tale of a campaign that goes bad with hope for redemption in the future. It’s kind of fun that way.

If you read: There are two reasonably-decent verse translations available, both freely available on line. Nabokov’s is here — though unfortunately without his introduction and notes — while Haney and Dahl’s 1992 version is available from the University of Indiana here. I have to admit, though, that (other than that unbelievably ugly word “vatic”) I actually slightly prefer the rhythm of Nabokov’s.

Eugene Onegin

41phy69137l-_sx284_bo1204203200_When most people think of “great Russian literature”, they think of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. These are great novels (that I have yet to read), mind you, but when you ask a Russian what the greatest work of Russian literature is — much as a Spanish-speaker is apt to say Don Quixote or an Italian the Divine Comedy — they’re more like than not to say that the greatest work of their own literature is instead Alexander Pushkin’s slim volume — Eugene Onegin

There’s something else that’s stranger still about Eugene Onegin: it’s written entirely in sonnets. Pushkin was a master of the iambic tetrameter, and his sonnets are a virtuoso display of both rhythm and rhyme, employing a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet that gives each individual internal quatrain its own rhyme scheme and alternating “masculine” and “feminine” rhymes (English poetry rarely attempts “feminine” rhyming, which is in fact what rappers call “multi-syllable rhymes”, but in a language like Spanish, where there are only a small handful of masculine rhymes, rhyming can be characteristically thought of as being feminine).

But its being written entirely in sonnets is not — not by a long shot — the strangest thing Eugene Onegin has to offer. That honor lies in its thoroughly postmodern plot. Eugene Onegin, you see, is a love story, and being a love story of the early 19th century, one might expect it to have a happy ending. Tales from this period like Romeo and Juliet were rare, and Shakespeare no doubt wrote its plot with an eye towards shock value.

But Eugene Onegin’s love story does not have a happy ending — nor does it have a tear-jerker ending — it, in fact, is a classic literary example of a work with no clear ending, in the sense of a stable and long-lasting resolution between our heroes. They sort of … leave us on a cliffhanger …

Or maybe the sense of a cliffhanger is because the plot is pulling our heroes in a direction we don’t want them to head? Romances are meant to be stories of how men and women win their loves, and Pushkin’s genius, the irony and subversion of Eugene Onegin, is that it does not allow this to happen …

The other way of reading it, however, is that we’re not just looking at plot; it’s meant as (among other things) a satire on period life and a vehicle for Pushkin’s own observations and wit. Which is true in its own way — Pushkin frequently interjects himself into his work, and the first chapter’s second stanza is directed specifically at his readers, ending in the quote (my favorite from the Hofstader translation):

The North was, shall we say, ‘severe’,

referring to his long internal exile from St. Petersburg and Moscow for writing some mildly subversive verses.

I personally don’t find much joy in Pushkin’s gratuitous sexism, however, but the best parts of Eugene Onegin are his satirical narration of various public events, the way Eugene himself is very much a hermit by inclination (I can relate to that!), the subtle irony of his letters — first from Tatyana to Eugene in the middle of the book and then from Eugene to Tatyana at its end — and, best of all, the dramatic irony of Chapter VI’s duel (Pushkin himself was killed in a duel).

He is very much a witty, lively writer, though, and can pull you through rough patches with his oozing charm. Plus, at only 400-ish stanzas or 134-some-odd pages, Eugene Onegin is appealingly short. It’s much more of a novella, like The Great Gatsby or The Old Man and the Sea, than the Russians’ usual doorstopper classics. And because of that, it’s a great introduction to the Russian literary world.

If you read: Go with Douglas Hofstader’s (one of us!) or James Falen’s translations. Falen’s is considered by Russians to be the best on the market — that is, he creates a Pushkin that reads like Pushkin — but I find Hofstader’s translation’s jazzy feel to be more irresistible. Plus there’s the sense of camaraderie implicit in the fact that Hofstader (author, recall, of Gödel, Escher, Bach, among others) is hardly a Russian specialist and did his translation purely as a labor of love.

Avoid Nabokov’s translation like the plague, unless you like literal cribs with a side of gratuitous hubris. A shame, too, because if anyone could have made a good Pushkin translation — he could. I’ll probably be detailing more of the problems with Nabokov’s translation theory in a later post.