Words That Go Silent in Transit

Anne Carson, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” A Public Space 7

Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation. […] There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator: physical silence and metaphysical silence. Physical silence happens when you are looking at, say, a poem of Sappho’s inscribed on a papyrus from two thousand years ago that has been torn in half. […] Metaphysical silence happens inside words themselves. And its intentions are harder to define. Every translator knows the point where one language cannot be translated into another. […] But now what if, within this silence, you discover a deeper one — a word that does not intend to be translatable. A word that stops itself.

[…] There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit.

[…] The light comes in the name of the voice is a sentence that stops itself. Its components are simple yet it stays foreign, we cannot own it. Like Homer’s untranslatable MOLY it seems to come from somewhere else and it brings a whiff of immortality with it. We know that in Joan’s case this turned out to be a whiff of herself burning.

The Ruins of Books

Kate Briggs, “Four Questions for Kate Briggs on Roland Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel by Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading ? May 2013

Barthes suggests that the destiny of all books is to end up as ruins, fragmented, remembered in bits and pieces but never in their entirety. I think the image he uses is a piece of lace: in our recollections of them, we turn the books we read into pieces of lace.

The Desire-to-Write

Kate Briggs, “Four Questions for Kate Briggs on Roland Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel” by Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading ? May 2013

Barthes refers to the protagonist of the story he’s telling (the story of someone who has experienced the desire to write and wants to set about writing a novel) as a “hero,” a “hero” who will have to undergo three “tests” or “trials.” So there’s already something mythical about the way this story is presented: writers as heroes who somehow manage to achieve their goals despite the setbacks, the difficulties, the interruptions, the breakdowns. Barthes is interested in the force, the desire-to-write that somehow sustains the writer throughout that process. In terms of the relationship between writing and desire, his point is that it’s a question that has been insufficiently studied in the field of literary theory — and this leads him to ask what for me are some very important, but very difficult questions: How is it that works of literature get written? What are the necessary conditions for writing to happen? Why is it that some readers, in love with certain books, feel compelled to write while others don’t?

Unfinished Symphonies

Joseph Epstein, “Surveying the Surging Immensity of Life,” The Wall Street Journal 4 May 2013

Late in his short life, Gogol found religion and promptly lost art. Once Gogol began to think of himself as a Christian reformer, Nabokov writes, “he lost the magic of creating something out of nothing.” His genius for devising delicious details disappeared; his powers of invention deserted him. Before his death, he burned what he had written of the second volume of his novel. The last 10 years of his life Gogol suffered greatly from writer’s block; he died an excruciating death from anemia of the brain at the age of 43.

“Dead Souls,” meanwhile, is among that small number of uncompleted masterpieces that includes Tchaikovsky’s Unfinished Symphony, and Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities,” but with the important qualification that Nikolai Gogol’s great work is all the better for remaining unfinished.