11 June 2009


Luke Palmer, aka AcerOne, wrote yesterday: "...working together is a fundamental graffiti ethos ... Talking thing over ... discussing styles, composition, colours, shading, 3D ... you learn ... produce new art. I think the ‘flow’ of graffiti art is born of people just doing graffiti..."

He's right ... but not, in my opinion, just about graffiti. I don't see a lot of difference between one type of artist and another, nor between artist and scientist or anyone else who feels impelled to do something (anything) by an inner urge.

Unreal Nature recently drew ("The Russian Sense Of Blueness") on one of Nabokov's essay series “The art of translation”, from the archives of The new republic. I haven't read that for many years (so long, in fact, that I had completely forgotten it) so was glad to have it brought back to me. Additionally, it happened by chance that the title of that post pulled at me in a particular way.

I am, and have always been, a complete failure at learning foreign languages; an embarrassment in a family which otherwise shows aptitude in that area, and a definite disadvantage in life. Oh, I can scratch along. I can rapidly accumulate fistfuls of nouns, verbs and adjectives that permit survival level communication; I can decode written expository text, given a good dictionary and a grammar book; but I cannot converse, never mind create. Nabokov, who despite his "thin" English (his word, in the essay) managed to write sublime and luminous prose in his second language which I could never dream of producing in my own native tongue, is a wonder to me – as are my Italian students who display a deep understanding of Alice in Wonderland or Joyce's Ulysses.

So when, at one point in the distant past, I spent a lengthy period of intensive time in close contact with a particular group of Russians, communication was a hard fought business. Their English was the same sort of utilitarian grab bag of essential words as my Russian, and with the same lack of grace. Both they and I had similarly poor (but not necessarily coëxtensive) scratched together collections of French, German, Arabic and Tigrinya words. Every simple exchange of nonessential conversation became a philosophical and linguistic adventure. And one of the things I learned, to my everlasting wonder, was that "blue" meant different things to them and to me. In particular, they saw different blues as at least two different colours and not, as I did, variants on one.

A couple of days after Unreal Nature's post, a Polish friend gave me a copy of Cosmos and Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz.

I say "by Witold Gombrowicz", but of course these are English translations – because I cannot read Polish. My admiration for Stanislav Lem (also Polish) is also based entirely on English translations. I did, as a teenager with dictionaries in hand, battle my way through some Dante, Proust, Chaucer, and so on, in the original; but in some ways (and Nabokov makes clear why), I get closer to the truth of the original when I don't understand the words at all than when I seek to decode them: the rhythms and sounds come through more truly than the content – I listen to the songs of Sevara Nazarkhan in the same spirit.

I knew nothing of Gombrowicz when I started reading (the English translation of) Cosmos. I read it at face value, and was captured by the play with language: not just the language of words, but of gesture, physical juxtaposition, visual symbol, and so on. He reminds me (in translation) of Flan O'Brien's The third policeman.

Whose language am I reading, when I read a translation? The translator's, of course. And yet, discussing Cosmos with Agnieszka who gave it to me and who herself knows it in her native Polish, I find that my impression of that play is the same as hers. I will never know whether the play I am hearing is the same as the play she hears, but I do know that we both hear play.

Over the past few months, Agnieszka has also been discussing T S Eliot (particularly "Gerontion") with me – in English, my language and also Eliot's but not hers. I have learnt a tremendous amount in the process: and have gradually realised that reading in a second language is giving her a new set of insights generated by the process of crossing the language barrier itself.

This may seem irrelevant to visual imagery, but it is not. Different cultures accrue different visual associations. Moreover, the process of crossing into another mind is as radical in its way as (perhaps even more so than) crossing into another language.

When I posted the Today 090607 image (shown here on the left) used as an example by Jim Putnam (see "Catch as catch can"), I received an email response from painter Gayle Reynolds: "I found a whole robin's egg in my new garden two days ago and this looks just like it." Then Unreal nature's Julie Heyward posted an "equivalent": a fractured blue eggshell on grey stone. Both responses taught me a great deal about what I had and had not seen; but together they taught me much more than twice as much.

When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I joined camera clubs. They were, to be honest, inhabited by people I would now find tedious ... but also very kind and generous in sharing with me what they knew. I learned a lot of craft from them, as well as what I did not want to do or be, and I am grateful to them. Now, many years on, what Luke calls "flow" is, though not under that label, vital to my continued growth. The flow is not limited to one area of endeavour, nor to one kind of interaction. Agnieszka, J S Bach, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-le-Brun, Dr C, Gayle, Jim, Julie, Luke, Ray Girvan, Ivor McGillivray, Sevara Nazarkhan, W Eugene Smith, Chris Waller: my interaction with them, and with many others, is in some cases face to face, in others virtual, or both, and in many zones of life from mathematics or science through business to the arts (often all at once). With every book I read or image I see or song I hear, the interaction is only one way – but no less part of the "flow", and no less so if it is either not in the original or not in a language I can read transparently.

The "flow" has not been limited to the local since writing was invented. It has never been limited to one direction or one modality. But, with time, it gets ever richer and more multi threaded.

  • T S Eliot, "Gerontion" in Collected poems, 1909-1962: London : Faber, 1963 (2002 printing). 0571105483 (pbk.)
  • Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos and Pornografia: two novels. (Trans: Eric Mosbacher & Alistair Hamilton)1985, New York: Grove Press. 0802151590.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, "The art of translation" in The new republic,
  • Flann O'Brien, The third policeman. 1967: London, MacGibbon & Kee (hbk).
    Most recent edition (at time of writing) – 2007, London: Harper Perennial. [978]0007247172 (pbk.)


Ray Girvan said...

poor (but not necessarily coëxtensive) scratched together collections

Oh, I know the feeling. I do actually like languages, to the point of not being totally fazed by them, but German's the only one I know to adequate conversational level. Otherwise, I've got pretty good isolated-word vocabularies in French, Italian, Spanish and Latin (and to a lesser extent Russian), but virtually no grammar. So I see where Salvatore in The Name of the Rose is coming from:

"Penitenziagite! Watch out for the draco who cometh in futurum to gnaw your anima! Death is super nos! Pray the santo pater come to liberar nos a malo and all our sin! Ha ha, you like this negromanzia de domini nostri Jesu Christi! Et anco jois m'es dols e plazer m'es dolors... cave el diabolo! Semper lying in wait for me in some angulum to snap at my heels. But Salvatore is not stupidus! Bonum monsasterium, and aqui refectorium and pray to dominum nostrum. And the resto is not worth merda. Amen. No?"

Felix Grant said...

[laughter]I haven't read The name of the rose for a few years, and have obviously forgotten that bit ... thank you for a reason to go back!

As for "I know the feeling" ... sorry, but if you have any sort of conversational level, in even one language, you don't know my feeling of incompetence at all! :-)