That was three years ago. I’ve just received a box of books from Brazil, amongst which some old friends lurked. Without further ado, here is something that caught my eye in Jonathan Franzen’s essay (quoting from Don DeLillo) on the detachment of the novel from “the times”:

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be the heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

That detachment, then, may be a sign of the times, but it is also the vocation of the writer, just as it always has been. The written word is a reflexive space, a prosthesis for human consciousness that changes its nature, bringing at once Innerlichkeit and outsiderhood. It has also always been a minority pursuit, even though the perspective it offers, objective but partial, “as a painter who steps back”, may be the most humane one as yet available to us.

It has been some time since I have written anything here, bar a couple of more or less off-topic posts (though everything is grist to the mill, really). In the spirit of letting my readers and myself know what to expect, I would like to set the aim of two posts a week. It’s possible the focus of this blog will shift, but I hope its centre of gravity will remain literary and aesthetic. I add the latter term because just as I have written about some recondite topics in a way I hope will make sense to readers even less well acquainted with them than I am myself, I can imagine posting about technical matters that may seem to fall entirely outside the scope of these ruminations, but also in a way intended to convey something of their feeling and interest. The gap between the humanities and the sciences is as lamentable as that between the present and the past, if we do not try and bridge it, and an excuse for different philistinisms on each side. I suppose there’s a feeling that the technocrats have the upper hand, but that’s all the more reason to make peace and foster understanding, in the spirit of the conquest of Rome by Greece.

A friend suggested to me that it is the coherence of the text that allows us access to its feeling at such a remove. Rather than starting from the tone and building on that, the reader — at least, the reader who is obliged by cultural distance to read philologically — works down through the internal logic of the poem to its foundations in actual sound and sensation, whether of lived experience or living language. A shopping list would be much harder to read in this way. I am reminded of a post I wrote some time ago about “getting the jokes” in ancient tongues chiselled or wedged in cuneiform: continue immersion until you do. One can’t help feeling that some of those ancient near eastern peoples (or at least, those individuals in a position to employ scribes) were lacking in sense of humour, but perhaps that was just the impression they wanted to create; so we should look for the Spitting Image of the pyramids, the Monty Python of the Assyrians.

Wang Wei’s poem is as fresh as a daisy after almost thirteen centuries, while raising interesting questions about how feeling and tone are transmitted from so far off. First of all:


The following interpretation draws on Hugh Stimson’s Fifty-five T’ang Poems. First, a crude translation:

Amidst the windy autumn rain
A low waterfall flows over a stone
Jumping waves collide with a splash
A white egret startles and again alights

Here are a few things this crib fails to capture; it is an open question by what means they might be poetically rendered in English, but they would certainly be other means than Wang Wei’s, which is the point I mean to explore here — how we can nonetheless have some sense of what those effects are, even given severely limited knowledge of the language of the period.

Chinese uses reduplication to mollify, to convey repetition or intensity, and for onomatopoeia, amongst other things, effects associated in some European languages with the diminutive; two examples can be seen at the start of the first two lines. In tandem, these lines show parallelism, where the similar grammatical function of the characters at the respective positions in each line draws attention to contrast, repetition, or development. Thus characters three and four in each line are “autumn rain” and “waterfall” (literally, “stone — water current”. If the beginning of line one represents the soughing of the wind, this is implicitly softened by the structural parallel with the diminutive expressing the small scale of the waterfall.

A similar process is seen in the second couplet, where the spontaneous effervescence of the little waves is repeated in the avian acrobatics they provoke. Character three in line three, “of themselves”, partners the verb “startle” in the last line, so that the extra animation of the water is transferred to the bird or birds (singular or plural, though I opted for the former because of the small scale of the scene). That reading of 3.3 (taking it as making a point of its own, rather than subsumed in the “each other” of the following character) is also supported by the structure of line four, where the break in sense falls before the penultimate character.

Considering the shape of the poem as a whole, the first parallel supports the second, in a way the point of the poem, between water and heron. There is also a movement towards greater liveliness, from what could be the movement-in-stasis of rainfall and water flowing over a rock to the startlingly playful waves that bring out a similar quality in the nature of the bird. The text positively splishes and sploshes with zest — this even though current knowledge of the actual sounds, the pronunciation of the characters at the time of composition, is incomplete; it may be worth mentioning that lines two and four rhyme, sealing the sense of coherence. I am not sure whether the species of bird can be precisely identified, but if so, that might add the recognition through the prism of the poem of something characteristic of their actual habits.

I hope these few details obviate the need for a discursive examination of how, in my view, this quatrain triumphantly bridges the gap of the centuries, preserving at least enough of its original feeling to justify the sense of a continuity of understanding.

The Novo Recife development envisages the construction of twelve luxury residential towers forty or fifty storeys high in a prime seafront site. True to their name, they would reshape the skyline of the city. This symbolic aspect is congruent with the specifically urbanistic objections that might be raised against the proposal. On a local level, there is no integration with the existing area, on which the towers will turn their backs, missing an opportunity to bring new life to their run-down surroundings. Mixed use, with shops, bars, restaurants — in short, lively streets — and residential units of various sizes aimed at diverse age and income groups would make a contribution to the city as a whole that uniform luxury cannot. Recife is not currently an attractive or inclusive urban environment, and this project gives paramount expression to the factors that make this so, setting the seal on the arrogant dominion of wealth. On the level of politics, this corresponds to the absence of the state, whose institutions (whose role should be to regulate the market) are bought and sold with campaign donations and through other forms of corruption. Even if governance improves in future, these terrible towers will be the monument to a naked abuse of economic power that has nothing new about it at all, in the tradition of the sugar cane plantation and its slaves. The very architecture alludes to this in the division between “casa grande” and “senzala” — the master’s house and the negro quarters. Those within the walls are separately, privately secure in a comfort achieved by excluding the many without, rejecting the idea of the common good, and therefore the city itself, reduced to a dangerous wilderness to be shut out and put out of mind while contemplating the unpopulated vistas of the ocean.

The concept has been fancifully transferred to other locations to bring home the sheer effrontery of the project:


As the World Cup kicks off, the site is home to an occupy-style encampment in protest. Let us hope the opportunity to build something better here is not lost.

#ocupeestelita #projetonovorecife

The conductor Carlos Kleiber emigrated as a child from Nazi Germany to South America, spending his teenage years there. To judge from Youtube videos of rehearsals, he spoke both English and German fluently but with an accent. Perhaps his Spanish was word-perfect, but what does that mean? Alan Turing proposed the test named after him, that if someone talking to a computer through a link couldn’t tell it from a human being, then it could be considered sentient. Judging a person’s linguistic competence by their ability to “pass” is similarly unreflective about what constitutes the achievement in question, though in either case it’s a tough challenge. I recently met an Englishman — unmistakeably, uncontestably so by that criterion — born and bred in Paris, to English parents. Having lived in Brazil for eight years or so, my own English has had little recent fresh input, and there were a couple of occasions during the conversation when we both stumbled. The accent is so telling because it is part of one’s social and cultural identity, within a language as well as between languages, and it’s surely for that reason it is unusual for adult learners of a new language ever to “pass” for native. But it is a marker of native competence, not its substance. That is made up of tranches of lived experience in the language in question such as having passed through the education system speaking it, as well as reading and writing more generally. The monoculture of the nation-state favours the concentration of identity and experience within a single language for each individual — the melting-pot washes away difference in three generations — but it was not always so and need not always be today. Woodrow Wilson’s criterion of linguistic self-determination to reshape the map of Europe a century ago instituted rather than reflected the sweeping away of the cosmpolitanism of two defunct empires, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, with messy and ugly consequences up to the present.