(This is Part 2 of my interview with Robert Firmage, poet and translator, now retired from teaching philosophy at the University of Utah. Part 1 may be found here.)
S.: I’ve been thinking about the way some poets speak to one when one is young, and other poets very slowly dawn on one, and you only really come to them later in life. I don’t know when you first found Horace for instance, or first found Horace speaking to you, but this interests me, that poets speak to us at different eras of our lives.
R.F.: It’s very true. And there are poets who find their own stride much later in life as well. I like those poets who mature well, who age with us. Yeats. Huchel. Horace did not change so much, though even he did his satires first and only then accomplished the odes. And of course they lived shorter lives by then -- by the age of fifty, you were a mature poet in Augustus’ day, whereas Yeats was in his seventies when he wrote his most powerful work. I think the same is true of Huchel. But as to why it appeals -- isn’t this fairly obvious? When you are young, you are interested in poetry as expression. As you age, you become more interested in whole composition -- you become a classicist, almost naturally. It’s certainly happened to me. I was a definitely a romantic when I was younger.
S.: This is one reason why I wonder about the undertaking of translating Horace now. It seems a very classicist project.
R.F.: Well, I started it in the early '90s. I was still in my forties. He was under-translated then; the shelves were full of Vergil translations of course, and Ovid. And as I read him, I liked him more and more. This is always what happens; I read, and I find something there. What I liked, even then, was the quest for perfection.
S.: Artistic, formal, compositional perfection, I take it.
R.F.: Yes. The Ginsbergs of the world don’t interest me. Or even Rimbaud. I haven't translated him, though he did have a strong native talent.
S.: Clearly. But Rimbaud was also a poet who obviously did not mature as he went along -- at least not into further poetry. I’m not saying that one cannot read Rimbaud with pleasure as one ages, but the relationship between poetry and its abandonment has to loom ever larger as one does. One of the most interesting cases, I think, is Rilke, because Rilke seems to me to appeal very strongly to young readers, and yet to sustain attention as readers grow older. I think this must in some measure have to do wit hhis own slow maturation as a poet. The ten-year gap, for instance, between the beginning of the Duino Elegies and their completion, along with the Sonnets to Orpheus, with which, as you mentioned, you began your own efforts at translation.
R.F.: Rilke was in some ways my poetic father. I started with him very young -- twenty-three or so; I read the Sonnets to Orpheus when I took a German class. I love the sonnet form. I’ve gone through five different stages translating the Sonnets to Orpheus. The second version, for instance, I’ve thought about publishing separately, even though it’s unrhymed. Then I decided that clearly the rhymes do matter, and I went back and did them again. But there are other considerations as well; first, the sound has to be correspondent to Rilke’s sound -- it can’t be the same, English can’t possibly give the same dark sounds that German gives, but the melody has got to come close. Secondly, as a modernist, I insist on the diction being that of spoken language -- something you can or would actually say.
I was reading some translations of Horace, which sacrifice this to metrics -- and you can get the metrics approximately close if you substitute accent for quantity -- but they read like gibberish, like doggerel. So with Horace it’s the same problem -- and this is probably the main reason I was drawn to translating him: the challenge of somehow being true to the flow of the music of Latin. Latin is such a different language from English -- quantitative where English is accentual -- and Latin does without articles as well, which English requires. This gives Horace a tremendous advantage. I want to keep the same basic schemes, though I don’t insist upon absolute mimicry. One of the Sapphic Odes, for instance, I decided to use as a test, it has three eleven-syllable lines and the fourth line is five syllables, which repeat the last part of each of the others. Now when you do Sapphics, the fourth syllable is always long (or in English, accented) -- this is not my discovery, it’s noticed by scholars -- so I decided to use that as the poetic center. It’s quite difficult; you end up not with iambics but dactyls, DUM-da-da DUM-da-da; and trying to do that with articles is challenging. I’ve made many shifts and switches; but I do have eleven-syllable lines with a notable cadence to them, and in speakable English, though even I have run into doggerel sometimes, especially in the Sapphics. Nothing wrong with doggerel, of course, in some traditions -- Faust, for instance is written in knittelvers, which is really just a kind of doggerel basically, but it’s a convention; the ear gets used to it and comes to expect it.
S.: And if you have to sacrifice one of these criteria, which do you let go?
R.F.: Depends. I pay attention to my ear.
S.: I recently watched the film Arrival, a science fiction film that was in theaters lately; it’s based on a short story by Ted Chiang, called “Story of Your Life,” which I also read. In both the film and the story, alien ships arrive on Earth, to the alarm of governments; human beings attempt to establish communication with them. Of course their language is completely unfamiliar, completely other. The story is narrated by a linguist who begins to grasp that their language is essentially tenseless; and as she begins to be able to think in their language, she starts to experience strange flash-forwards, anticipations of future events. Slowly it emerges that the whole narrative structure of the story or the film, is very informed by this. Events you thought occurred in the narrative past turn out to be in the characters’ future. At one point in the film it even references the Sapir-Whorff thesis that the language one speaks and thinks in shapes the reality one inhabits.
R.F.: I believe that as well.
S.: This is my question -- do you think that, for instance, the lack of or presence of articles in a language, its tensedness or lack thereof -- how do these affect us? Do they change what we can think, or what kind of poetry we can write?
R.F.: I think this is why I became a translator. When I learned German, I began to think in a new way. It’s very subtle, though -- people who know you just notice how you start to pronounce Volkswagen differently. But you’re really learning a music that informs your life, your responses to things. And poetry is an attempt to shape responses in your reader. The only way you can even begin to make this “objective” is to note the responses, and then back up and extrapolate from the response to what might be behind it. Being married to a German, I discover this all the time. My wife and I still have these moments when our language goes sideways from one another. You might say, Oh that’s the culture, and of course it is, but you can’t separate culture from language.
S.: This is still the case, after how many years?
R.F.: We were married in 1982. Of course; if you think about things you cannot help but notice these little miscommunications. Things go awry, and you ask, what on earth happened there? And it’s very often -- for us -- that the root is in a mistranslation. I go over it again and realize, Ah, I said this, but she understood that.
S.: Kierkegaard writes -- admittedly, under cover of pseudonym and in a highly ironic key -- “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both.” And you might rejoin: Marry or do not marry, you will misunderstand.
R.F.: Of course. But these things are subtle; if you don’t have your antennae out, you miss them. You get the same things within a single language naturally, but across languages they can sometimes be much more pronounced. I feel very sorry for anyone who marries someone from another culture without knowing the language of that culture.
S.: I have heard the anecdote, which I have no reason to doubt though I came by it second-hand, of a couple who met and despite having no common language at all at first, fell wordlessly but overwhelmingly in love. Alas, the love did not survive the eventual learning of a common language. As long as they didn’t know what the other was saying, they were besotted. It was as though this barrier allowed something to grow up that depended upon this very specific restriction.
R.F.: Love lost in translation.
R.F.: Everything gets lost in translation. This is why translation is not so much an imitation as it is a re-creation of the poem. That’s why I believe -- mystically -- in the poem within the poem. It’s that which I’m trying to render.
Let’s go back to the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis for a moment. What always interested me about it is its assertion that any language singles out specific aspects of reality. I see reality as a plenum, and language is, as I said before, a sort of grid, placed over this plenum, to notice different things. If you take the paradigm case of this, which I think was one of Sapir’s examples -- the numerous Eskimo words for “snow” --
S.: A case that I believe has been mildly debunked or deflated.
R.F.: But the “debunking” is itself a misconception of what is at play here. The counter-claim is, it doesn’t really change their conceptual relationship to the world, but this puts an undue emphasis upon the conceptual register, the rational. In that register, we have a particular model, and we learn to think according to it. And sure -- once you’ve got the formal model, you have input and output and so on, but what I’m interested in is in the perception of the world, one really does -- or can -- make one’s experience richer and with a new language, which singles out different things, which can say different things, or in different ways. There are some things my wife and I may want to say to each other which make it so much easier to go into German; and other things you can’t say in German at all. English is a more supple language, but German has a corresponding deeper register.
S.: Heidegger seems to have thought that for philosophy there were really only two languages, Greek -- ancient Greek -- and German; and he almost implies that without these, one cannot really think -- in the way he means when he speaks of the coming of “Thinking” after the end of philosophy (which of course I don’t believe in) -- if one can’t use one of those. To you I’d ask: as a self-avowed, if idiosyncratic, Taoist (and maybe all Taoists are idiosyncratic, maybe that’s part of the full description), do you feel at all at a disadvantage having no Chinese? Do you feel separated from that tradition?
R.F.: No. The Chinese may have discovered the Tao, but they didn’t invent it. The Dao is independent of language anyway. The Spoken Tao is not the true Tao. Words are signposts -- that’s good taoist doctrine. They point, or push maybe, towards certain kinds of experience which you otherwise can’t -- or can’t easily -- have. And apropos Heidegger -- he’s clearly “the last metaphysician,” in that he believes in Language. My critique of him is a sort of Derridadaism. But I must admit, when he talks about, say, the German word Grund, which means both “ground” and “reason,” that expanse of meaning is profound, and he’s right -- it’s impossible to think this fully in English; you have to keep jumping between languages. But it’s not ultimate reality we’re talking about here -- Grund too is a signpost.
S.: As is “Tao.” But you don’t think, in any case, that “metaphysics” is a dirty word.
R.F.: Not at all. You can’t avoid it.
S.: So being “the last” metaphysician….
R.F.: ...is a myth.
S.: We ain’t never got the last one.
R.F.: No. Now we have a lot of rather bad metaphysicians, who call themselves scientists. Metaphysics is a result of language, or trying to interface reality with a conception thereof. And they’ll never be the same -- that’s the essence of my Taoism. At the same time, as a poet, I try to make elegant and meaningful signs.
S.: Because after all, there can also be very bad signs.
R.F.: There are bad signs. You can have a sign that says, [pointing north] “Provo’s that way.” And of course it is. But it’s a long trip if you go that way.
S.: Yes! It’s not a false sign. But it’s not the most useful for many purposes. So maybe the question, “What time is it on the sun?” can have an answer in certain contexts --
R.F.: Of course, making certain assumptions, and with certain arbitrary starting points, you can come up with an answer. This is what we do anyway. But the question “What time is it now on the sun?” does present real problems. In this case, not only will you have to do a bit of relativistic mathematics, but the question is, is what you are doing with relativity relevant to the issue? Or is it just the case that there is no answer? I tend towards the latter position.
S.: You know, as must be evident, I like to bad-mouth scientism-ists as much as --
R.F.: -- as I do.
S.: -- I was going to say, as much as anybody -- and maybe we do risk being an in-crowd of two, looking down our noses. But isn’t there a pertinence to science we risk missing here? This might not be the most grave danger -- the graver risk might be the spiritual one of self-congratulation -- but while it’s easy to dismiss the over-reach of scientism, it also seems to me that we live in a political climate now in which it’s become all too common to brush science away with a shrug of “That’s your story.” You know -- you’ve got your set of “facts,” and we’ve got ours. And I don’t want to capitulate to that, or be co-opted as an accomplice. Nor do I want to capitulate to scientism, of course.
R.F.: So what do you do? Well, I would say: They’re both wrong. The common language they share is one of “fact,” and the world is not built out of facts.
S.: So you depart from the early Wittgenstein too, inasmuch as he said “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.” Though of course, as soon as I cite this, I realize that he didn't say the world was built out of facts.
R.F.:“Fact” is a post-hoc way we use to speak of something that’s already happened; it has a role in a complex way we have of extrapolating to predictions. Even with something like climate change -- is it natural, is it caused by human actions? -- the truth could obviously be in between; and we can still act responsibly and intelligently against pollution no matter what the scientific consensus is, or isn’t.
S.: But first of all, there’s a suspicion that the anti-science stance on the right is actually wholly unconcerned with science itself. It doesn’t give a damn about science; it’s merely deploying an array of rhetorical moves against its claims to validity, but this rhetoric stems from motives that have to do with something else entirely. It simply has an agenda and it doesn’t want science -- or the rhetoric of science -- getting in the way.
R.F.: It still has to deploy the idea of the “fact” to do this. But my main objection to science -- and I don’t use the word scientism, I use the phrase “church of science” -- is twofold: it’s teaching two things I think are not only wrong, but dangerous. First, the notion that everything is material, that the only aspects of reality that have any meaning are what you can quantify -- which is hopelessly parochial, if you think about it -- and, secondly, the notion of evolution, especially as it applies to morality and spirituality.
S.: Can you say more about what you object to here?
R.F.: This idea that is now in everyone’s head, that life is and reduces to a struggle for survival. And it isn’t -- it never was; but they’re turning it into one, and turning it into Hell as a result.
S.: And thus results precisely the very zero-sum struggle between science and its detractors.
R.F.: We have no moral ground to stand on, as a result -- and thus no justification in our own struggles against those who would do us harm.
S.: Except the Thrasymachan claim that we are -- for the moment -- stronger.
R.F.: Which is no moral ground at all. And this is the fault of the church of science, whether they know it or not. They might say, of course, that it’s just an unfortunate fact, but I don’t believe this. Morality is every bit as much a part, an aspect, of reality as anything else.
S.: Certainly. But it’s unclear to me that the idea of evolution, of natural selection, is the lynchpin of this problem. I want to say that there’s something amiss with the premise of naturalism. Or perhaps you could have naturalism without materialism -- that might be another way.
R.F.: I would say that the problem with both of them is that their apostles try to go too far with them. It’s simply human nature -- you find something that works, and you run with it. Uncritically, at times.
S.: And eventually you wind up like Wile E. Coyote, out spinning his feet in mid-air off the edge of the cliff without realizing there’s nothing under him anymore.
R.F.: And any thinker ought to see this as cautionary. We do that all the time.
S.: You are familiar with Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
R.F.: Of course.
S.: Do you admire it?
R.F.: Not uncritically. What can I say? He chose the wrong vehicle for one thing.
S.: Hinayana rather than Mahayana? So to suit you, it ought to have been a bicycle?
R.F.: [Laughs]. I find what he does to be a decent popularization of a number of things. But he’s not great on Plato.
S.: He’s not strong on the Greeks, nor indeed in my opinion on comparative philosophy generally. But he’s relevant here in a particular way. To my mind, the two great virtues of his novel, aside from the fact that as a novel it succeeds very well, are first, that he raises a number of philosophical issues in a way that provides an accessible gateway into them and the way in which they interconnect; and secondly, that he suggests what he saw -- justifiably, I think -- as a solution with a fair degree of novelty; a solution to a nested tangle of problems that he believed could be answered by seeing as primary something that is usually, today, regarded as derivative. His word for this something is “Quality”. Yours, I take it, is morality -- “as real as anything else,” you said, and Pirsig thinks that in some wise it’s almost more real. And maybe this “more” is another instance of taking a solution and running with it, pressing it too far; but Pirsig thinks that Quality is the beginning of everything; he winds up trying to assimilate it to the Tao.
R.F.: I think that’s what’s quite good about him. I was trying, as you spoke, to recall what struck me about the book, and I kept coming back to the assertion that you can’t repair a motorcycle while listening to rock and roll.
S.: Yes, there’s an episode in the book where that’s exactly the problem.
R.F.: It’s an important lesson: you have to learn how to focus. That’s where Quality comes in --
S.: Or maybe where you can open up to it. But I imagine there are probably mechanics who can use whatever the music as a means of focus --
R.F.: -- of course.
S.: -- but I think Pirsig’s critique is that very often you wind up with scatteredness instead. Of course, anything can be put together in order to in a way that has quality, but in that case, they’ve really become a new, whole, thing. Maybe not unlike a poem moving between two languages. And moving organically rather than a futile quest for one-to-one lexical equivalence.
R.F.: The quest for quality of life, rather than quantification, is certainly what I’m trying to do in my own poetry. To achieve a certain quality of language, for instance, as it relates to certain problems. This is hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not quantifiable -- and this is what our minds do, is quantify.
S.: Which implies that the scientific predilection for the quantifiable is something that at least the human mind comes by honestly. Pirisg of course says explicitly that Quality is precisely undefinable; if you try to define it “something goes haywire.” But you know that it’s real.
R.F.: So you try to show it, rather.
S.: As Wittgenstein would also say.
R.F.: That’s what one does as a poet, or as an artist, or even as a mechanic. “How does this bike run?” “It runs good, now. See?”
S.: And you’d show this by riding it.
S.: We were speaking earlier of nonverbal “conversations,” and this is just such an example. The quality is shown in the interaction. Likewise too, you show the quality of the road in the same way. And even the quality of the destination.
R.F.: Or of the journey. It’s this perception of quality that is missed, however, by all these rationalistic models. So though I’m not exactly a fan of Pirsig, he clearly put his finger on a very real issue, and popularized it exceedingly. That was a very widely-selling book.
S.: Is that an asset or a liability?
R.F.: No doubt if something is widely popular, it cannot be all good; popular taste is too unreliable. But by the same token, it cannot be worthless either.
S.: “The wisdom of crowds.”
R.F.: The problem of course is looking for absolutes here.
S.: Well the way of the Tao might suggest that one looks here, too, for a balance. Popularity has something to be said for it. But then on the other hand, the Taoist sages were not a majority in China; they were -- at least according to the (popular?!) image -- very few, living far away from cities.
R.F.: And who tried to avoid the people and the bustle of court. To take this one step further, there is a mystery surrounding the story of the origin of the Tao Te Ching. Why would a good Taoist write such a book -- committing the unsayable to words? You can just imagine the Buddhist sages shuddering: “bad karma!” But no; part of one’s job is to educate. So you put out signposts.
S.: The philosopher returns to the cave. Of course the story is that Lao Tzu wrote things down only at the behest of the gatekeeper, as he was leaving forever.
R.F.: Apocryphal, naturally; but the point is there was always the mystery of why he did it, so someone felt compelled to come up with such a story.
S.: Which has its own pertinence. It serves as part of the frame for receiving the text, this parable of him doing his best in that moment, bowing to another sort of necessity.
R.F.: And it could have been that. But I tend to think it was the product of a school, which had preserves all these pieces of tradition as part of the training of people in The Way. Someone of course put them into this final form; we call him Lao Tzu, which means, the old dude.
Brecht, interestingly wrote a poem on Lao Tzu, the writing of the Tao Te Ching, and the transmission between teacher and student, which I’ve translated. We share this, Brecht and I -- both Horace and Taoism. I have the advantage, of course; I came later. So I could read all of Brecht as well.
S.: Brecht seems another figure whose life is deeply pertinent to our time. One wonders what he would say.
R.F.: He’d say: More of the same. Brecht was sardonic even from his youth; he began as a cabaret actor. Anti-expressionist -- he liked clarity. He grew up in a well-to-do middle class family, and hated their values. Became a communist early and was one all his life --
S.: -- in that sense, an idealist --
R.F.: -- but he’s amused by human behavior.
S.: And sometimes, in this respect, he strikes me as being cynical -- too cynical.
R.F.: Can you define that? After all, cynicism anciently was an attempt to imitate the life of Socrates.
S.: Yes. The word “cynicism” has mutated. When it comes to “keeping the crowd at bay”, what does one do? The thinker sometimes cannot help but regard hoi polloi as a herd of fools, and yet: if this evaluation becomes too strong, too defining, it winds up screening out something else that’s crucial, and one’s laughter at other human beings becomes disdainful and even at times cruel. I love Chekhov, because he has such a clear perception of human foibles -- no illusions about human beings’ capacity to self-deceive, to regard themselves far more highly than they merit, to edit out inconvenient facts -- but Chekhov is also full of compassion at the same time. I don’t always feel this about Brecht.
R.F.: Well, I think you are wrong about Brecht, but right about cynicism (so defined). What cynicism risks is, to put it simply, losing love. And I find Brecht is full of love. If I didn’t find that, I couldn’t translate him.
S.: Here’s what motivates my reticence. Brecht so strongly resists -- he almost inverts -- the Aristotelian account of tragedy, and almost of theater itself. He wanted to foreground the strangeness of it -- opposed to naturalism, so that you don’t as a viewer ever identify with what you see. This is what I find both very interesting and also extremely problematic. I am wary of the way this sort of identification and “empathy” can be co-opted, turned into a product, put at the service of the status quo. This is what Brecht objects to and probably more than anyone else taught us to suspect. Of course he wants to get us to question ideology -- as you know, for all his love of Horace, as a student he got into trouble for dismissing the line Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori as propaganda. (This was during the first World War.) Clearly he’s right about this. At the same time, I find it almost distressing to produce works of theater that seek to create further alienation. It isn’t that I want plays merely to offer solace in the face of a miserable existence that could be changed if, perhaps, we were not so easily satisfied with these theatrical diversions. But I almost view this aggravation of alienation -- whatever he thought he was accomplishing by it -- as a capitulation more than a resistance.
R.F.: Brecht is a rationalist; and if he’s guilty of anything, I think, it’s the sin of he making his divisions too strongly. As a student of Taoism, he ought not to do that -- and I think he comes to see this later, turning his own critical apparatus against himself. In a famous later poem, “Changing the Tire,” from the Buckow Elegies (as they’re called, though they’re really epigrams), he says:
I sit on the curb.He’s beginning to break down the categories. He was director of the East Berlin Ensemble when he wrote this. But his love was always for the ordinary people; and his disdain was for the parasites. He embraced Marxism as a dogma too strongly, and it was only when he came to Berlin and saw, again, more of the same damn thing, that he began to dismantle that way of thinking. But this was towards the end of his life -- he died not long after.
The driver is changing the tire.
I am not pleased with where I have come from,
I am not pleased with where I am going.
Why do I watch the changing of the tire
As to his theater -- well, he created almost a new form. Beckett relies on it. There are no Cloves or Hamms in the world, but this schematisation, and these stick figures, bring out things that otherwise couldn’t be shown. Mutter Courage is not a real person, but a paradigm.
S.: Loving as you do the French Symbolists, as well as Brecht --
R.F.: you mean to ask, “how in the world…?”
S.: Well, I can imagine Brecht formulating a strong and vociferous critique of Symbolism. Now that’s fine -- we can have friends who aren’t friends with each other -- but speak if you would to what you find lovable in each, and how these loves go together. About this tension -- if in fact you see it as tension.
R.F.: Well, the binding thread here is language. From the very beginning I have been deeply taken with the question of what is possible (and not) in language, with “How to do things with words,” in J.L. Austin’s phrase. And we do all kinds of things with words.
S.: You may only like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but, at least with this inflection on doing, on practice, you are still in the lineage of Wittgenstein, including what follows from the later work.
R.F.: The human spirit, whatever that is, is indefinable, because you have to use words to define -- but it manifests itself in words.
S.: “It shows itself.” And so yes, I see we’re back to early Wittgenstein after all.
R.F.: And if I find love in various guises, this is what appeals to me. What would it have been like to be Brecht? Am I Brecht? No? Could I possibly live the life of Brecht -- no. But I would have liked to have written some of the Hollywood Elegies! He has there such a wit -- a wit that is splendid. And I can love the wit without buying into the entire metaphysics. And the same thing goes with Mallarmé. I mean, talk about a dead end for poetry! But it’s a glorious dead-end. And you want to see how far it’s possible --
S.: -- to run with it, as we were saying. Even if this leads off the cliff.
R.F.: Having tried it, I think it really is a dead end. I think my Mallarmé translations are an uneven success -- they bring out things that are valuable; but this isn’t the way I myself want to write. Un Coup de Des -- this would be a wonderful thing to try to translate, but I’m not sure it can be done.
S.: It has been done, but it’s an open question as to how well.
R.F.: Maybe Pound could have done a kind of jazz improvisation on it in his own way, but that’s not me.
S.: Pound seems to come as close as anyone might in English.
R.F.: Yes. What are the great translations of our age? Well, the Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. And Pound’s Cathay. At least these two.
S.: Funny translations, Cathay. Robert Graves, who really thought very little of Pound as a translator, had to admit that he had no competence in Chinese to evaluate Cathay, but he was very suspicious.
R.F.: But what they do is to bring something into a living English context.
S.: Graves is the poet I know who believed most strongly in the muse -- as we were speaking of a bit ago.
R.F.: Yes. The White Goddess is one of the more influential books in my own education.
S.: Graves wasn’t the only one, of course. There’s a beautiful passage in Merwin’s poem about Berryman --
he suggested I pray to the MuseR.F.: Berryman would indeed have meant it literally.
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally --
S.: Now I think Pound also believes in the Muse. But Graves loathes Pound, thinks his translations make nonsense of the language, says scurrilous and unkind things --
R.F.: Pissing contests.
S.: Ha! Or -- jealous rivals?
R.F.: I think highly of Graves as a thinker, and I regard King Jesus as a great novel; but his poetry doesn’t live, for me. That’s obviously very subjective; I don’t pretend I could justify this. But I’m a Poundophile.
S.: Do you just look past the fascism?
R.F.: No. I see the fascism as misguided but honest. I agree with his critiques of the New Deal -- and of the banks.
R.F.: I’m basically a very conservative guy. The only fascists I’ve admired are Eliot and Pound --
S.: and maybe Orff, who we were mentioning earlier…
R.F.: -- but they’ve got style. They understand -- the point of any government is to make bread that tastes good. And with usura,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags,as Pound says, in a beautiful poem. With Pound you have to pick and choose, though. The whole of the Cantos --
is thy bread dry as paper,
S.: -- very hard to read from beginning to end.
R.F.: But you have these moments that stand out, that shine out. “I have tried to write paradise. Let the wind blow.”
S.: “That is paradise.”
S.: I think it’s also true of Graves -- this need to pick and choose. Graves knew, any poet struggles their whole life to create a handful of poems that might last. And those that wind up reading the whole oeuvre read it because of those few things. I mentioned Dylan Thomas earlier. Few would read Thomas’ poems as a body were it not for “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.”
R.F.: Which is a great poem -- but bad advice.
S.: Well, the Taoist doesn’t tend to rage.
R.F.: And you don’t think A Child’s Christmas in Wales would have secured him lasting readership?
S.: It’s a story with a great deal of charm. It might have done so, in a different way. But the poem “Do Not Go Gently…,” it seems to me, stands out. Among other things, it’s a sestina that manages -- and I don’t think this is just due to over-familiarity -- to have avoided the pitfalls of contrivedness to which the form is almost always prone. But far more significantly, it’s a sestina from which both of the refrains have entered the language. To have given us proverbs is an accomplishment few poets can claim.
R.F.: Yes. Blake and Shakespeare come to mind.
S.: Rarefied company! Even if you consider them mistaken proverbs, or bad advice. I mean, proverbs are always contextual anyway. As Zizek likes to insist, “Look before you leap” runs smack into “He who hesitates is lost.”
R.F.: This question of wisdom brings up the issue of conduct. I mean, if asked the question, What don’t you like about Dylan Thomas, I could answer quite irrelevantly, he was a womanizer, and a drunkard, and he cheated his hosts, and so on. But this still underscores something that is relevant: the moral aspect of art. And Pound as a Fascist does not run afoul of this, for me. Pound’s fascism is a response to the age-old problem of government.
S.: You mean perhaps that Thomas’ flaws are flaws of lack of principle; Pound’s are flaws of principle.
R.F.: How do we get a good government, Pound asks. Democracy obviously doesn’t do this. This is clear in the wake of the last election, if it wasn’t clear before. But when you have an uninformed electorate, you get bad leaders. Monarchy also was no guarantee: you wind up with idiots and bleeders. So what does work? No one has come up with an answer, but some have held that the beneficent tyrant is the answer to that question.
S.: The Enlightened Despot. Or the Philosopher-King! Not that either of us think Plato was suggesting a real regime. But Mussolini was clearly neither.
R.F.: Pound can be faulted for his judgment of Mussolini, but there’s no doubt that he thought Mussolini was that sort of leader. What I think exonerates Pound is his intention. I don’t deny that this is only a partial excuse -- but it really possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason.
S.: Would Brecht buy this?
R.F.: Brecht is trying at all times to speak the truth. And so is Pound. Whereas Thomas is trying to impress his listeners.
S.: Perhaps this is why “Do Not Go Gently…” succeeds -- because it’s an occasional poem addressing the death of a particular individual, and you can’t help but feel the ineluctable urgency of this occasion -- and there’s not the hand-waving and sound-drunk magic, the enchanter’s art, that seems to characterize so much of Thomas’ other work.
R.F.: This brings us back to Horace, interestingly. “Horace the toady”. Horace was very interested, I think, in how to write a poem that would please the emperor, and yet would tell anyone who could actually read poetry what he actually thought. I think this is why his Odes, to Tiberius and to Drusus are so dreadful: he meant them to be. And his centennial ode, too -- actually it was 110 years -- is a choral hymn to an empire he doesn’t entirely believe in; there’s no real feeling in it, he’s just preserving the old forms, and it’s almost impossible for me to translate it. It’s awful. That’s the essence of his control. You know when some people nod, they nod -- they fall asleep; when Horace nods, there’s usually a reason for it.
S.: Do you suppose Heidegger nodded off?
R.F.: You mean with Naziism?
S.: Yes. Or is it different with poets?
R.F.: I think there’s a greater compulsion for poets to speak the truth, if I may say something so paradoxical.
S.: Indeed! I thought the poet “nothing affirmeth, and so never lieth.”
R.F.: I think philosophers tend to get over-programmatic. Even the best of us have our hobby-horses. The contrast between Heidegger and the poet Gottfried Benn, I think illustrates this. Benn was a Nazi for a while, and then, instead of emigrating like Brecht (who despised him), chose what he called “inner emigration,” withdrawing into himself. There’s a certain self-deception going on here, I think -- he was an acerbic man from the beginning, and I suspect he embraced Naziism for bad reasons --
S.: -- as a kind of encouraging the world to get worse since it was getting worse anyway. He was a proto-accelerationist.
R.F.: Of course I wouldn’t want to publish any such analysis, but it seems to me he didn’t really like people, and thought that getting rid of a number of them wasn’t such a poor idea. Heidegger on the other hand, somehow imagined that Naziism was going to give him the chance to bring out the program of Sein und Zeit. This work, by the way, is not what I admire about Heidegger -- it’s full of neologisms and jargon; I like his later work, the material collected in On the Way to Language especially -- he starts getting quite clear then; not trying to invent a new language, but rather poeticize reality. He re-conceives his own being as a philosopher --
S.: -- a “Thinker” --
R.F.: -- and in the course of this he says some very valuable things, to me as a thinker and poet. Had he died in 1933, I would probably think he was just a fascist -- who cares? But he grew beyond that.
S.: So you don’t believe he avoided the seriousness of the matter in later years.
R.F.: I am a Christian, I do believe in forgiveness. And you know -- if you write good poetry, you can be forgiven almost anything.
S.: On a cultural level. It must be said that, when it comes to poetry and the Shoah, that’s about as anti-Adorno as you can get. As Auden put it:
Time that with this strange excuseBut you know, there’s something interesting about that -- Merleau-Ponty, in Adventures of the Dialectic, ventures an apologia for Stalinism in which he says more or less: Although this won’t do the dead any good, if the dictatorship of the proletariat comes about thanks to these obviously bad events -- and their badness isn’t in question -- on some level it is possible that the deaths of the Ukrainians and the show-trials and the gulag will all somehow be justified. Some people were appalled by this end-justifies-the-means argument Voegelin for one); but Merleau-Ponty responded that his contemporaries could not face their own violence, the violence in which they were themselves already complicit. This does remind one of Heidegger saying that the Soviet Union and the United States were “metaphysically the same,” or comparing the Holocaust to the rise of technology. And while it seems a rather mixed success as an argument, there is a way in which one can feel -- particularly with art -- in which you can sometimes feel that some success has been won that eases the way for a kind of forgiveness. Bernard Williams speaks of this as “moral luck.” His example is Gaugin; and he asks about an imaginary (but realistic) colleague, a painter who like Gaugin also abandons family to poverty and neglect and runs off to Tahiti, and like Gaugin continues to paint, but never attains either financial or -- more crucially for Williams’ case -- artistic success, remaining a mediocre painter until death.
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,.
Pardons him for writing well.
R.F.: One can also ask the question: is the success won in spite of, or because of, the moral lapse? I’d venture as one of the true dogmas of moral philosophy that the end never justifies the means. And this, because it confuses the journey for the destination. And the journey is the only reality.
S.: A Taoist defense of moral dogma! But then, a “dogma” of this sort is I guess what you’d call a good sign-post. But I’m not sure. I can forgive Thomas a lot for that one sestina, but what I’m forgiving is aesthetic, not ethical, lapse. I look at the other work, and I think, it’s fascinating, it’s drunk on syntax, and so on...
R.F.: How about, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”?
S.: Well, it’s a great line, but the whole poem ...
R.F.: It’s a convoluted line.
S.: But the point here is that the rest of the work is not as successful, as poetry, as “Do Not Go Gently…” And when I look at the rest, I think, it isn’t as successful. This is what I love. And I forgive the rest, or find moments that I admire and that seem to me to be indices of the greatness that is, in this one poem, in full view. But what occludes it in the other instances? James McAuley, the Australian poet, one of the perpetrators of the Ern Malley hoax and really an under-rated poet on the 20th century, thinks that Thomas was one of the main offenders in what he called the “Magian heresy,” the notion that one could, by force of language itself and language alone, conjure a kind of magic that would invoke trances and in some tangential way which he think sis under-theorized by the culprits actually “work.”
R.F.: Mallarmé would be guilty.
S.: McAuley thinks Mallarmé was perhaps the heresiarch of it all. Now I’m enough in love with poetry to think that sometimes this kind of heresy has given us something beautiful, and yet I can’t help but see McAuley’s point.
R.F.: Beautiful maybe, but meretricious. That’s what one feels with this sort of word-play. I’m attracted to it as well. I knew Poe’s “The Bells” by heart, and it seemed to me that the music that it made was of the essence of poetry. I was sixteen, I can be forgiven for that. But it’s always stayed with me. And you’ll hear some song, and the tintinnabulation, to use the Poe-ism, strikes you -- but it’s meretricious.
S.: A special effect.
R.F.: You can like “Do Not Go Gently,” and admire it for its epigrammatic qualities, but it never has struck me as a great poem -- I don’t go back to it; whereas, to take someone from an earlier generation, what Gerard Manley Hopkins manages to do with language often strikes me as truly wonderful, and unique -- no one else does this. I can imagine someone else writing the Thomas, but I cannot imagine anyone else writing Hopkins.
S.: I guess I want to say that when you go into that alchemist’s laboratory of language, like Mallarmé did, you can sometimes discover truly marvellous phenomena, but to make art of them, you must put them at the service of a vision. And if all you do is put on a light-show, it can be hypnotic, and produce a semblance of being aesthetically moved, but it still feels to me that something is amiss, askew, in this.
R.F.: Take Mallarmé's hair poem, where he imagines his lover -- with whom some people say he never had a sexual relationship, incidentally -- with her hair up -- it’s all verbal display, and while it’s quite wonderful how it does what it does, in the long run, yes, it falls flat. In the long run, this program went nowhere, it was all promise but very little substance. Some of his early sonnets, though, have such light in them.
S.: About promise -- there’s something almost poisonous about it, that can undermine one’s integrity as a poet, as a thinker; if this is all one has -- a program, so to speak -- and one never feels pressed to do anything but write manifestos about the idea of the poetry, this is clearly a problem. And yet I want to sketch a potential defense of at least one facet of this, which I think is legitimate and for which I want to lobby for a moment. Philosophy, too, I want to say, has a sort of promissory character. It gives you an assurance that it ultimately cannot deliver on, at least not in words, and it has to bring you to expect something different from words. The platonist and neo-Platonist vision is practically stipulated to be beyond what can be articulated, and so, as you’ve pointed out, is the Tao. The “poem within the poem…”
R.F.: To be sure. It was Plato who first got me thinking about all of this.
S.: The Blue Flower of Novalis, the “flower absent from all bouquets” we were speaking of before, this MacGuffin, to use the Hitchcock trope, is this notion of something always beyond our grasp, inherently so. It’s what Bonnefoy speaks of in The Arrière-pays -- the country beyond. And this promise, this gesture offstage, is of the essence if, as you insist, the Tao that is named is not the eternal Tao. It is true that you have to have some sort of content, beyond the special effects -- this is why I was underlining the classicist move of translating Horace, for there is a great deal of content in Horace, and you always feel his artistry at at the service of this content. Sometimes you may object to the content, in which case you feel like he’s prostituted his art. But in some sense -- at least in philosophy -- the content still can’t be the main thing. It’s an occasion.
R.F.: Well, even in Horace’s best poems, the content is often truisms. But the effect of the art is to bring these home, to compel one to take them seriously.
S.: Which would suggest that some occasions are better than others, better suited perhaps for these sorts of gestures. This is no doubt why the young Brecht objected to “Dulce et decorum est…” Because one ought not to take such a thing seriously, he thought.
R.F.: But where the truisms are true, Horace forces you to look again, to look deeply -- to see the adages as the fruit of people who knew what they were talking about, giving you the essence of a good life.
S.: So that in the end the “content” too -- these truisms -- turns out itself to “point beyond” themselves -- to be, like the adages we were mentioning earlier, not themselves perfect instances of wisdom, but signs of what wisdom is like -- good sign-posts, pointing “this way.”
R.F.: And read a little more closely, Horace could be giving one a primer -- how to live with a tyrant, and live well. Now you can say there’s something morally wrong with that, but this objection arises from imposing our Christianity on it. And we all do this -- we’re all Christians in this sense.
S.: We’ve inherited a worldview, a culture, which doesn’t easily, intuitively, relate to Horace’s.
R.F.: Now with Mallarmé, what I find most compelling is his ideas. His attempt -- albeit failed -- to clothe them, a la Lucretius (though not the same ideas), to realize them in poetry, in a poem which is pointing beyond itself to the pure Idea. Mallarmé is a Hegelian, and he’s trying to enact, or give us a poem in which is enacted, Spirit’s attempt to realize itself. Thesis: the flower that is in no bouquet. Antithesis: the flower that is in the poem. Did he succeed in the synthesis? Well, my translations are my attempt to find out. Perhaps it is only I who failed. But despite my temptation to be a Mallarméan, I found that in the end I couldn’t. Baudelaire lives for me more. And Verlaine maybe even more; his lyric quality is so fine, so wonderful -- you can’t find it anywhere else.
S.: I think though that of the three of them, Verlaine felt the most disillusioned in the end, about what poetry could do.
R.F.: Yes, though also maybe more at peace. It’s hard to know what Mallarmé felt, because he doesn’t tell you. Baudelaire, it seems clear, was haunted his entire life. Verlaine in the end seems to say, Well here I am, living with this ex-prostitute, who’s taking care of me -- what’s wrong with that?
S.: Some of us make our peace living under a tyrant, some with living after the failed commune.
R.F.: And there are more ways than one to do that. Some of us become gun-runners in Abyssinia.
S.: And here we are, living in what you’ve suggested is the demonstrable failure of democracy, where we too will have to make our peace one way or another. As a philosopher, I try to cultivate a long view, and not capitulate to -- here’s that word again -- cynicism. I feel an alienation from right and left, if those terms mean anything. I’m small-c conservative, never was enticed by the siren-song of progressivism, but also entirely disgusted, almost viscerally, by the mendacious self-serving narcissism of the so-called right. Once upon a time Eliot, and Pound, and also Yeats, could be enamoured of a kind of fascism, but also -- along with many other intellectuals -- could see that the strong-men were not really their kind of people; Mussolini was easy to dismiss as a buffoon even by admirers, but these same admirers never seem to have reflected that the devil might be a buffoon. Now, however, I think we are in a position where there is clearly no question.
R.F.: The banality of evil is there for all to see.
S.: Do you take your solace, then, as a philosopher, as a poet, as a Taoist -- from what vantage do you take your long view?
R.F.: I’m a Christian Taoist. I truly believe in love. I believe love is genuinely possible on earth. It may not be perfect, but as I translated Bonnefoy, “imperfection is the crown.” And the more I read the I Ching, the more I see that the Confucian jen is very close to the Buddhist karuna, and Christian agape. Confucius himself took a view very much like Plato’s -- the only way you can form a good society, is by starting at the bottom.
S.: Another thing you share with Pound: an admiration of Master Kung.
R.F.: Confucius though thought we already had the makings of such a system in emperor-worship; we just needed to train the emperor to really be the father of the country, and things could work out. Well, they never did, perfectly, but sometimes they actually did come close. That’s probably the closest thing to a system I can believe in: a strong ruler who really does take wisdom seriously. But even here you run into the problem of succession. There is always a problem. There is no political solution.
S.: Which perhaps is why politics can be such a good crucible for propelling one beyond system -- on a personal, individual, level -- perhaps this is why the classic philosophers, Plato above all, seem to concentrate upon it. . But on the level of actual policy, these failures can have many casualties.
R.F.: About lack of system -- as a codicil to what we said earlier about poet and philosopher vis-a-vis honesty -- the philosopher has to believe in language. The poet doesn’t have to -- the poet can just play with it.
S.: Believe in it how?
R.F.: In its capacity to represent truth. Insofar as the philosopher is a system-builder. You can be a non-systematic philosopher, like Lao-tzu.
S.: Or Plato?
R.F.: In the long run, yes, Plato too. In the long run.