“For Wittgenstein”

Found this recording of David Rakowski’s setting of my poem “For Wittgenstein” on You Tube. I received a copy of the CD when it came out, but I’m happy to see it out on the web. It would be nice if whoever posted it had given credit to the author of the text: “For Wittgenstein” is the final poem in my book Magical Thinking (2001), an over-determined triolet written specifically for Rakowski.

Days are like grass the wind moves over:
first the wind & then the silence–
what cannot be said we must pass over
in silence, or play some music over
in our heads. Silently, a wind goes over
(we know from the motion of the grass).
Days are like grass; the wind goes over:
first the wind & then the silence.

There are a lot of performances of Rakowski’s music–mostly for piano–on You Tube. I loved his etude “Fists of Fury,” especially the middle section played at the high end of the piano that sounds like the first message arriving from an alien civilization.

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century

Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in  the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Music & Speech

Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.

The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.


Learning Vietnamese

There are people who retain the ability to learn languages with relative ease into adulthood. I’m not one of them. In fact, I was a lousy language learner even as a kid taking Spanish and then French in school. I wonder if this has anything to do with musical ability. The young Rousseau, he tells us in the Confessions, went to Turin & picked up Italian in a few months; he was also a good enough musician that he could take small solo parts in a church choir. Some people have an innate ability to grasp the logic of musical sequences that exhibits itself, often, when they are very young. Again, not me. Piano lessons were a dismal failure. I played the snare drum for a while in the elementary school orchestra, but never progressed beyond that point. I do have a strong sense of rhythm & meter, I think, especially when applied to my native language. I didn’t start trying to learn Vietnamese until I was fifty & it has been something of a struggle. I do pretty well with the written language & can makes sounds that sufficiently resemble Vietnamese to be understood by (sympathetic) native speakers, but I still have a very difficult time with auditory comprehension.

When the Jesuit missionary Alexander de Rhodes–already fluent in French, Portuguese, Latin, & Chinese–came to central Vietnam in 1624, he said that spoken Vietnamese sounded like “the twittering of birds” & despaired of ever being able to learn the language. Nevertheless, with the help of a twelve year old Vietnamese boy & another Jesuit who had arrived earlier, he was fluently speaking the language in less than a year. He went on to invent a phonetic writing system for Vietnamese, using the Roman alphabet, that over the next couple of centuries slowly–& then in the 20th century, quickly–replaced the old system based on Chinese characters. I would never have attempted Vietnamese if I had been required to learn ideographs. As it is, the myriad vowels marked by diacritical marks and the six tones, indicated by another set of marks, give me plenty of work to do. For some reason I’m not entirely clear about myself, I have made more progress with the spoken language on this trip than on all my previous trips, even when they were longer & when I studied formally with a teacher. Maybe it is because I continued to practice in the US using Rosetta Stone. For simple interactions on the street & in the hotel, etc. I am living in Vietnamese now.


Rosanne Cash, Bodhisattva

Master Dogen Zenji writes, in the Genjokoan, that many fully actualized Buddhas have no idea that they are Buddhas:

When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

Rosanne Cash says she is not a Buddhist because she “kills ants and eats meat,” but what does she know? (Some of the most rigorous Buddhists I know eat meat from time to time.)