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  • George Gissing, G. E. Moore, and the “Good in Itself”

    Posted on October 15th, 2016 Helian 1 comment

    A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior.  However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems.  Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time.  A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today.  George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters.  Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England.  Orwell was generous.  Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.

    According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.”  Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer.  He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past.  Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time.  Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England.  When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.

    Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer.  He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman.  The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community.  Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer.  Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon.  In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off.  The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all.  This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty.  Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere.  It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.

    One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:

    It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.

    Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them.  In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,

    Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.

    The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:

    “Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him?  I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”

    “Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”

    “I wish it were farther.  The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter.  I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”

    “Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”

    “Not he!  Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”

    “My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”

    “By no means; depend upon it.  Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes.  There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled.  And with nature will perish art.  What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”

    Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.

    “I shall not see it.”

    Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly.  Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.”  However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore.  I touched on the subject in an earlier post .  Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object.  Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God.  It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.

    When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge.  It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor.  It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man.  Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality.  In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper.  It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side.  As Moore put it,

    We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

    and,

    By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

    Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd.  Those words were written in 1903.  By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection.  That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906.  Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy.  “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains.  Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.)  The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.

    In retrospect, it didn’t matter.  Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten.  It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.”  It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist.  It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles.  The result was predictable.  They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck.  In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone.  Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.

    The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story.  We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.”  It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist.  The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!

    George Gissing

    George Gissing

  • Notes on “A Clergyman’s Daughter” – George Orwell’s Search for the Meaning of Life

    Posted on September 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    A synopsis of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter may be found in the Wiki entry on the same.  In short, it relates the experiences of Dorothy Hare, only daughter of the Reverend Charles Hare, a “gentleman” clergyman with a chronic habit of living beyond his means.  Dorothy’s life is consumed by a frantic struggle to maintain respectability in spite of a mountain of debt owed to the local tradesmen, a dwindling congregation, and a church gradually decaying to ruin for lack of maintenance.  There’s also a problem so repressed in Dorothy’s mind that she’s hardly conscious of it; she is losing her Christian faith.

    Eventually the pressure becomes unbearable.  At the end of Chapter 1 we leave Dorothy exhausted, working herself beyond endurance late at night to prepare costumes for a children’s play.  At the start of Chapter 2 we find her teleported to the Old Kent Road, south of London, where she wakes up with a bad case of amnesia and only half a crown in her pocket.  A good German might describe this rather remarkable turn of events as an den Haaren herbeigezogen (dragged in by the hair.)  In other words, it’s far fetched, but we can forgive it because Orwell refrains from boring us with explanatory psychobabble, it’s in one of his earliest books, and he needs some such device in order to dish up a fictional version of the autobiographical events described in his Down and Out in Paris and London, published a couple of years earlier.

    Eventually Dorothy is rescued from starvation and squalor by a much older cousin, who sets her up as a school teacher at Ringwood House, which Orwell describes as a fourth rate private school with only 21 female inmates.  At this point the astute reader will discover something that might come as a revelation to those who are only familiar with Animal Farm and 1984.  Orwell was a convinced socialist when he wrote the book, and remained one until the end of his life.  Mrs. Creevy, the woman who runs the school, is a grasping capitalist, interested only in squeezing as much profit out of the enterprise as possible.  The girls “education” consists mainly of a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and handwriting drills.  Dorothy’s attempts at education reform are nipped in the bud, and she is eventually sacked.  In Mrs. Creevy’s words,

    It’s the fees I’m after, not developing the children’s minds.  It’s not to be supposed as anyone’s to go to all the trouble of keeping a school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it.  The fee comes first, and everything else comes afterwards.

    Orwell later elaborates,

    There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England.  Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.  At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is , that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money.

    So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.  The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.

    Recall that the book was published in 1935.  The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought with a socialist unit not affiliated with the Communists, began in 1936.  In that conflict he had his nose rubbed in the reality of totalitarianism, socialism that had dropped the democratic mask.  The experience is described in his Homage to Catalonia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his later work.  There he tells how the Communist legions attacked and destroyed his own division, regardless of the fact that it was fighting on the same side.  Totalitarianism has never recognized more than two sides; the side that it controls, and the side that it doesn’t.  He saw that its real reason for existence was nothing like a worker’s paradise, or any other version of “human flourishing,” but absolute, unconditional power.  The nature of the system and the power it aimed at was what he described in 1984.  When A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, that revelation still lay in the future.  It may be that in 1935 Orwell still thought of the socialists as one big, happy, if occasionally quarrelsome, family.

    Be that as it may, the real interest of the book, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies at the end.  There, more explicitly than in any other of his novels or essays, Orwell takes up the question of the Meaning of Life.  While down and out, Dorothy had lost her faith once and for all.  In spite of that, after Mrs. Creevy sacks her, she finds her way back to the family parsonage, and takes up again where she left off.  She suffers from no illusions.  As Orwell puts it,

    It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future.  She could see it all quite clearly before her… Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women.  “The Old Maids of Old England,” as somebody called them.  She was twenty-eight – just old enough to enter their ranks.

    She was not the same women as before.  She had lost her faith, and yet, she meditated,

    Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.  And given only faith, how can anything else matter?  How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand?  Your whole life is illumined by that sense of purpose.

    Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful.  No use trying to argue it away.  Think of life as it really is, think of the details of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave.  Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?

    Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution.  There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient unto itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of “progress” with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete.  It is all or nothing.  Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful.

    Here we see that, even in 1935, Orwell wasn’t quite convinced that the Soviet version of a Brave New World really represented “progress.”  And while democratic socialism may have later given him something of a sense of purpose, it wasn’t yet filling the void.  Dorothy considers,

    Where had she got to?  She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything.  Well, what then?

    At this point, the true believers chime in.  They know the answer.  Bring back faith, and, voila, the void is filled!  So many of them honestly seem to believe that, because they feel a need, the thing needed will automatically pop into existence.  They need absolute moral standards.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need a purpose in life.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need human existence to have meaning.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They must have unquestionable rights.  Therefore their faith must be true.  And so on, and so on.  Orwell is having none of it.  Dorothy muses on,

    And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of – to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue.

    Orwell provides us with no magic solution to this thorny problem.  Indeed, in the end his answer is singularly unsatisfying.  He suggests that we just get on with it and leave it at that.  As Dorothy glues together strips of paper, forming the boots, armor, and other accoutrements required for the next church play, she has stumbled into the solution without realizing it:

    The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer.  She did not know this.  She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable.  She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them.  Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.

    and, finally,

    Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating.  The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.  It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.

    Orwell didn’t want A Clergyman’s Daughter to be republished, unless, perhaps, in a cheap version to scare up a few pounds for his heirs.  No doubt he considered it too immature.  We can be grateful that his literary executors thought otherwise, else we might never have known of his struggles with the Meaning of Life problem so early in his career.  He didn’t spill much ink over the problem later on, but we must assume that he had found some more inspiring purpose to strive for than just “getting on with it.”  Weak and in pain, he fought to complete 1984 on his death bed with incredible tenacity and dedication.  It was a gift to all of us that didn’t follow him to the grave, but lived long after he was gone as the single most effective literary weapon against a threat that had materialized as Communism in his own day, but will likely always lurk among us in one form or another.

    And what of the Meaning of Life?  That’s a question we must all provide an answer for on our own.  None of the imaginary super-beings we have dreamed up over the years is likely to materialize to trivialize the search.  And just as Orwell wrote, whether we care to deal with the problem or not, there is no objective solution.  It must be subjective and individual.  It need not be any less compelling for all that.

     

     

  • Contra Stendhal and Other Whimsies of Massimo d’Azeglio

    Posted on March 23rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    Massimo d’Azeglio was a 19th century Italian patriot.  He occasionally turns up on the Internet as “Massimo Taparelli” as well.  I happened to run across his memoirs in the random walk that accounts for most of what I read.  Sometimes you get lucky.  So it was with d’Azeglio, who turned out to be a highly original thinker, and whose Recollections are full of all kinds of whimsical bon mots.

    It turns out that there’s a lot about d’Azeglio that reminds me of my favorite novelist, Stendhal.  He had a highly developed sense of personal honor and dignity.  He admired the fine arts, and dabbled in painting himself as a young man, as did Stendhal in acting.  Both were profoundly influenced by their experiences in Milan, and Stendhal, who experienced a love affair there that turned out tragically, at least for a Frenchman, because the lady refused to give in, went so far as to call himself “Milanese” on his gravestone.  Both were dismayed by foreign domination of their native lands.  And finally, both were filled with hope, fear, and anxiety about whether the readers of the future, the people Stendhal dreamed of as “The Happy Few,” would notice them.  All of which makes it all the more interesting that d’Azeglio’s take on Napoleon’s occupation of Italy was exactly the opposite of Stendhal’s.

    Stendhal, of course, worshipped the great man, as anyone who has read The Red and the Black is well aware.  To hear him tell it, the only ones in Italy who opposed the French occupation were a few ultramontane priests and reactionary aristocrats.  For example, from The Charterhouse of Parma,

     On the 15th of May, 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan… A whole people discovered that everything that until then it had respected was supremely ridiculous, if not actually hateful.  People saw that in order to be really happy after centuries of cloying sensations, it was necessary to love one’s country with a real love and to seek out heroic actions… These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long; they were all under 25 years of age, and their Commander in Chief, who had reached twenty-seven, was reckoned the oldest man in his army.  The gaiety, this youthfulness, this irresponsibility, furnished a jocular reply to the furious preachings of the monks, who, for six months, had been announcing from the pulpit that the French were monsters, obliged, upon pain of death, to burn down everything and to cut off everyone’s head… At the most it would have been possible to point to a few families belonging to the higher ranks of the nobility, who had retired to their palaces in the country, as though in a sullen revolt against the prevailing high spirits and the expansion of every heart.

    After the French were temporarily driven out in Napoleon’s absence,

    These gentlemen, quite worthy people when they were not in a state of panic, but who were always trembling, succeeded in getting round the Austrian General:  a good enough man at heart, he let himself be persuaded that severity was the best policy, and ordered the arrest of one hundred and fifty patriots:  quite the best men to be found in Italy at the time.

    Which brings us to some essential differences between the two men.  Whereas d’Azeglio adored his father, Stendhal loathed his, and always blamed him for the loss of his mother, whom he madly adored, at the age of four.  And whereas Stendhal always envied the aristocracy he portrayed with such spite, d’Azeglio actually belonged to it.  His father might easily have passed for one of “these gentlemen,” although by his son’s account he was a brave soldier who wasn’t given to trembling, and was neither harsh nor greedy.  So it was that, though both men were romantic patriots, and both were in some sense products of and profoundly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, d’Azeglio’s recollection of the occupation was not so rosy.  In his words,

     I have already said that to the minds of his contemporaries Napoleon appeared as an irresistible Fate; and this is true.  Imagine, then, the bewilderment of all those who, though crushed under that enormous weight, and without hope of rescue, continued to chafe under injustice and disgrace, when the first ray of a possible redemption gleamed forth, – when came the earliest tidings of the report, borne almost on the wind, Napoleon is vanquished!  Napoleon is retreating!

    At last, one blessed day, came the glad tidings that Napoleon was no longer our master, and that we were, or were about to become, free and independent once more.  He who was not at Turin on that day can form no idea of the delirious joy of a whole population at its utmost height.

    Quite a difference for two men who were fundamentally quite alike.  No doubt a good Marxist would just apply his cookie cutter and come up with a smug class interpretation.  I doubt it’s quite that simple.  Family loyalties and clashing national patriotisms undoubtedly played a role as well.  In any case, d’Azeglio had no illusions about the kind of men who came back to take Napoleon’s place.  He was in full agreement with Stendhal on that score:

    I felt the reaction – I know its effects; and although even it has not made me regret Napoleon and French dominion in Italy, it is none the less true that we lost a government which, sooner or later, would have secured the triumph of those principles which are the life of human society, to revert to a government of ignorant and imbecile men, full of vanity and prejudice.

    Neither the Romans nor Europe could then foresee that the sovereigns, and the ministers representing the re-constituted governments, would be so blind as not to perceive how different were the men of 1814 from those of 1789, and not to know that they would certainly be most unwilling to give up that portion of good to which the great genius of Napoleon and the changes wrought by time had accustomed them.  The princes and their ministers who returned from exile found it convenient to accept the heritage of Napoleon sub conditione; they retained the police and the bureaucracy, the taxes, enormous standing armies, and so forth; but the good system of judicial and civil administration, the impulse given to science and personal merit, equalization of classes, improvement and increase of communication, liberty of conscience, and many other excellent features in the government of the great conqueror, were all ruthlessly flung aside.

    In a word, in spite of his reflexive loathing for Napoleon, not to mention his aristocratic father and a beloved brother who became a fanatical Jesuit cleric, d’Azeglio was much too intelligent to blind himself to the great man’s virtues.  Stendhal would have smiled.

    Here are a few more d’Azeglio-isms for the delectation of my readers:

    War exercises over nations a more salutary influence than a long peace.  Fidelity to a difficult and perilous duty educates men, and makes them fit to perform more peaceful tasks well and worthily… A singular conclusion might be drawn from all this, – viz. that a nation, in order to preserve those virtues which save it from decay, is necessarily obliged to kill a certain number of its neighbors every now and then.  I leave the reader to meditate on this question, and intend to study it myself one day.  Meanwhile, let us proceed.

    It is not in our natures to believe more than the priests themselves; and facts have always shown that the priests of Rome believe very little.  The Italians, therefore, have never considered dogmatic questions very seriously.

    Both parents had too much good sense to fall into the error so common in those parents who undertake the education of their children, viz. that of studying their own vanity or convenience instead of the good of their pupils.  I was never subjected to any of those domestic tortures to which, through maternal vanity, those unhappy children intended to act the laborious part of enfants prodiges are so often condemned… Adulation and incitement to pride and vanity, though they may be a mistaken form of parental affection, are in fact the worst of lessons for the child, and the most baneful in their results.

    But my education was governed by the Jesuit system, and the problem it has always so admirably solved is this – to keep a young man till he is twenty constantly employed in studies which are of little or no value in forming his character, his intelligence, and his judgment.

    In factious times, past and present, we fall into the habit of calling the men of our own party good, and our adversaries bad; as if it were possible that a country should be divided into two distinct bodies; five millions of honest men, for instance, on one side, and five millions of rascals on the other.  Men who profess these ideas are, as is natural, often bamboozled, or worse, by a scoundrel, whom they believe honest for no other reason than that he belongs to their own party.  To avoid this, let us forbear from selecting friends and confidants only on account of their political opinions; and let us remember that, if two different opinion professed by two opposite parties cannot be equally true, logical, and good, two men belonging to the said opposite parties are just as likely to be two arrant knaves as two honest men.

    It would seem the evolutionary psychologists weren’t the first ones to notice the existence of ingroups and outgroups.  The Recollections contain many other interesting and amusing sentiments that you’re not likely to run across on Foxnews or CNN.  As they say, read the whole thing.  D’Azeglio would have been pleased.

     

    Massimo d'Azeglio

    Massimo d’Azeglio

  • Of Kafka, “Metamorphosis,” and “Giant Insects”

    Posted on March 5th, 2014 Helian No comments

    If there’s anything objectively immoral in this world, it’s translating Kafka’s “ungeheures Ungeziefer” in his Die Verwandlung as “giant insect.”  The first time I picked up the English version and found that abomination, I grieved at the weakness of my native tongue.  Now, at long last, I discover that I haven’t been alone.  Others have noticed.  Writing in the New Yorker, translator Susan Bernofsky discusses the problem:

    The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations— virtual nonentities—prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High German ungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.

    Alas, “monstrous insect” is only marginally better than the “giant insect” that I saw in my first English version, but not much, and “some sort of” really doesn’t help.  In the first place, Ungeziefer probably isn’t the biggest problem here.  Ungeheuer is at least as poorly translated as “monstrous” or “huge”.  The noun Ungeheuer means a monster, but the adjective ungeheur does not mean monstrous.  Its root, geheur, is associated with “home,” and has connotations of “familiar,” or “comfortable.”  Thus, ungeheur does not necessarily mean “monstrous” in the sense of “big,”  but something both terrible and outside the normal range of experience.

    As Bernofsky says, Ungeziefer are usually insects or “bugs,” but they are also disgusting and usually parasitic.  “Insect” just doesn’t get it.  I think “vermin” would actually be better, but is also anything but a perfect solution, as Bernofsky points out.  I find all this kind of scary, because my favorite author is Stendhal, and I don’t speak French.  I know I must be missing something.  Probably not as much as readers of Kafka who don’t speak German, though.  He writes in a sort of “chancellery German” that seems to make the world that much more indifferent to the amplified nightmares his heroes live in, and the nightmares that much more terrifying as a result.  As Reiner Stach wrote in a piece on Kafka that turned up in The New Statesman,

    In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme.

    I recognize the nightmares in all of Kafkas novels.  That’s what makes them so compelling.  I think most people have lived through more or less watered down versions.  Kafka just amplifies them, creating worlds of complete hopelessness and despair.  I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, though.

    Kafka