Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grave Situation

Above: Frost Cemetery, New Castle, New Hampshire
Below: Point of Graves Cemetery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Library of Babel, Exeter

I'm not sure that the photos really capture how labyrinthine the Phillips Exeter library feels in reality. Click any one to enlarge.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language

For a book on translation out of Arabic, the irony of Abdelfattah Kilito's Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language is that the English translation distracts and detracts from the work.

I'm not crazy about the work itself: The discussion of Jahiz is useful if unoriginal and uninspired. Much of the framework appears to draw heavily upon an odd couple of the author's making: Schoeler and Derrida. The book simply doesn't add any line of inquiry or analysis that is new to anyone already well-read in the history and theory of Arabic translation. Even as he reports on Jahiz's criticism of the translation of philosophy as inherently poor because the translator can never understand the idea as well as the philosopher, the voice of Kilito the narrator reads as an inexpert guide through the material though Kilito the author and critic surely is not.

From his wonder at the writings of Hrsowitha to the concept directed to uneducated European audiences for his work, self-regard is the unifying element to these chapters in Arabic literature in translation. It is this perspective that accounts for the thoughtless and pervasive littering of the book with intentionalist fallacies of every scale. Kilito, in his authorial voice, is convinced of the importance of his own intentions; and so the intentions of other authors are also up for discussion and validation.

The sense that one gets of this being a book in which the author is addressing himself, writing himself, and spinning out his own internal monologue is reinforced throughout. For example, the discussion of al-Hariri's maqamat is lacking where it tries to ground itself historically. The discussion of Ibn Battuta hints at a variety of issues that might have been very interesting had they been drawn out and developed. The final two chapters, which present themselves as the heart of the matter, give the impression of being a pale imprint of the ideas being presented: they are probably very interesting, but Kilito does not deign to take us all the way through them, instead leaving us with lengths of description and the hint an argument made largely by juxtaposition. Again, the central importance of the author is reified. Surely he knows what he is talking about. Why don't we?

An evocative passage at the beginning of the final chapter ought to have been the starting point, not the ending one.

For a work that announces itself as an heir to Said's criticism ("I have learned from bitter experience that the other does not care about me unless I reached out to him" (7)), Kilito easily adopts a variety of Orientalist fallacies. Rather than giving voice to all that we have learned in the intervening century since Ernest Renan about the performance of poetry in dramatic settings and even authors we might call playwrights, such as Ibn Rushd's near-if-younger contemporary, Ibn Daniyal, Kilito instead reads completely with Renan. It is as if he recognizes what he is doing — with an explicit nod to Borges he writes: "I feel embarrassed as I write these lines, for despite myself I speak of Ibn Rushd with a certain amount of condescension. I am embarrassed because I know what he did not!" (44-5) — but despite this self-consciousness, he seems powerless to do otherwise.

And then there is the matter of the translation: The translator is irritatingly interventionist, adding a litany of footnotes defining basic terms and offering recourse to introductory readings. Some of this may have been moderated by a different typographical decision; in other words, endnotes would have been less distracting in this instance than footnotes, available to the uninitiated but unobtrusive. The overall effect is to remind the reader that this is a translated book, to remind her that it is transmitted through many hands. In reading, I wanted to shout: This is not your book! Restrain yourself! An apparatus or a bibliographic essay or a critical article should have been a separate undertaking. I suppose it serves me right: I could have read it in the original Arabic and I should have. Or, perhaps a book that adopts slices of a Derridian monolingualism, resists the idea of translation and speculates about the extent to which authors appreciated that their works might be translated should never have appeared in translation, and serves us all right for asking it to try.

More gravely, a book that largely deals with medieval Arabic translation, even in a postcolonial mode, needed to have been edited and translated by a medievalist. If the translator is overbearing in adding footnotes to explain basic concepts and introduce basic bibliography, he is also frustratingly incomplete; where he cites Roger Allen, he glaringly neglects to cite James Monroe, perhaps because he did not recognize a key idea from one of Monroe's early books which Kilito cites quite completely but (in good medieval mode) without attribution, a reference that a specialist in the field would have recognized. The makers of this book appear to have conceived of the translator's role as coterminal with that of the editor of the text and the creator of the critical apparatus, and in those duties, Wail Hassan has fallen down.

Even though it is an essayistic work of criticism, both author and translator are far too present.

Ultimately, book is a nice if unnecessary reminder of that passage from Jahiz, but otherwise is one of those texts that tragically makes its point by being the exception and the counterpoint to all of its own rules.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Week in Links (Another Dairy-Based Edition)

It cannot be in compliance with the health code to put Beatles in the meat balls.


This is bad news for academic publishing, which is already not nearly as streamlined or good at its gatekeeping function as it would like to think itself to be. And frankly, I'd think that T&F might embrace the editors' suggestion of adopting an iTunes-type model for academic articles. 

If academic publishing smells bad, at least books still smell good. Here is a chemical explanation of why:

The back-and-forth about whether the binding of Harvard Houghton FC8.H8177.879dc (could they use a more inscrutable system for their shelfmarks?) does, in fact, represent an example of anthropodermic bibliopegy appears to have swung back:

And a lovely tribute to independent bookstores of New York.

Literary prescriptivists are just about as bad as linguistic ones. While I agree with a premise that adults should be reading a wide variety of sophisticated books (and even this is not a hard and fast rule — ultimately, people should read what they like), I cannot abide an article that includes the sentences "Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this" and "Books like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life. I have no urge to go back and re-read them, but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader." I reread the Westing Game a few years ago for the same reason I periodically reread the apparently more respectable Tender is the Night, and for the same reason that this author gives for not rereading young adult lit: because those are the books that made me the reader I am now. When I reread The Phantom Tollbooth as an adult, I realized how much of its raucous humor went straight over my head as a kid. Condemning adults reading children's literature doesn't only make you sound snobbish, joyless, and old; it makes you sound like a dreadful, unimaginative reader.

Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children's Books


In Finland, PhD graduands receive a top hat and a cane. (Of course, what this means is that beyond just being a snappy dresser, Moomin Papa has a PhD!)

Eight reasons why medievalists should use Twitter. I disagree pretty strongly with #2. On the tweeter's end, I've live-tweeted a couple of talks, and I find it to be a very distracting form of note-taking. When you're trying to edit down your tweet to 140 characters or figure out where to break a longer thought into two or three tweets, the talk keeps going on and you're not giving it your full attention. On the reader's end, I've only ever seen one live-tweeted talk that I thought was helpful. The person basically gave a topic sentence for each paragraph and didn't use a lot of abbreviations and jargon. Most live-tweeting, I find, is too stream-of-consciousness, too much like the tweeter's personal notes, to be useful to others; and it's awful clutter in a timeline. I've started muting or temporarily unfollowing people as they live tweet conferences. On the other hand, I'm completely on board with #5. That's my primary motivation for being a medievalist on Twitter.


< political rant >

This is about politics, but it's also about the culture of monolingualism in the US that treats anyone who seems foreign, broadly defined, as suspect: It's clear that the GOP machine is working the trade of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl hard for political points. It's also clear that there's a lot of unhappiness in the ranks over how the whole situation was handled from the beginning. (One retired officer, on the other hand, retorted by saying that even if he had wandered off alone when he was captured, it doesn't matter: "We rescue guys who have done stupid stuff all the time.") But somehow, getting other soldiers from his platoon to say that he was strange and didn't deserve to be rescued because he was studying critical languages doesn't strike me as being the right move. Really? You're trying to sell this as not being a monolingual, xenophobic, imperial war on Islam and you're going with: God, what a weirdo, trying to learn the local languages. He must have been a communist Muslim terrorist traitor?

“'He wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds,' Cody Full, another member of Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday also arranged by Republican strategists. 'He was always in his bunk. He ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there, learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto.'”

Bergdahl's Vanishing Before His Capture Angered His Unit

< / political rant >

The blogger-train wreck I regularly read as though I needed some regular dose of aesthetic and cultural disgust — now that, and not the Chronicles of Narnia, is a reading choice to be ashamed of! — has finally written a post that gives some psychological insight into why the punchline of so many of her anecdotes is some variant on: "It's like an old Jew!" I still wish she would lay off it, though. A choice to become as offensive and artlessly bigoted as an oppressor makes the victim the same thing and to do so under the rhetorical guise of academic authority is gross:


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Professor of Symbology

I have to assume that if, upon reading the first sentence of a proper academic article, one's first thought is: "Huh. Maybe Dan Brown was on to something," somebody has done something horribly wrong; I'm just not sure if it's the author or the reader.

When the DaVinci Code first came out, there were all kinds of discussions in the popular press about whether Brown's fictional Professor Langdon really could hold a professorial chair in symbology at Harvard. General consensus was no:

Harvard: No Symbology Here

Can You Really Be a Professor of Symbology?

Apparently this is one more instance of the popular press misunderstanding the lengths to which we academics sometimes go to make sure we are very precise in our distinctions between terms and fields of study. To wit, while reading Michael Camille's Image on the Edge, I came across a reference to the following article:
Turner, Victor. "Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology." Rice University Studies 60:3 (1974). 53-92.

Turner is (was?), the biographical information in the article explains, a professor of social thought and anthropology at the University of Chicago. So in keeping with the need to be very precise about this sort of thing, no, one cannot be a professor of Symbology. But that certainly shouldn't stop anyone from writing about it.