Friday, September 16, 2005

Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode

Into the Jaws of Death
Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944

Recently I was sent notice that the eminent translator, Stanley Lombardo, was going to perform selections from his work at the University of Texas in Austin. I shall certainly take the always perilous journey from Little Hope to Austin to attend. Several years ago, a good friend who had just completed a course of study in ancient Greek, excitedly pushed a copy of Lombardo's translation of the Iliad into my hands. "There is no such thing as translation, only rendering," he told me. "And this is the best rendering of Homer so far."

I was immediately struck by the cover photograph, "Into the Jaws of Death", 6 June 1944, of the Marines landing on the beaches of Normandy. I turned to the Translator's Preface and read:

A musician once asked Ezra Pound if there was anywhere one could get all of poetry, in the sense that one could get all of music in Bach. Pound's response was that if a person would take the trouble to really learn Greek, he could get all of it, or nearly all of it, in Homer. If Pound is right, and I think he is, then the real work of the Homeric translator is clear: to produce a version that is responsive not only to meaning and nuance but also to overall poetic effect, a version that has as much poetry as the original text, the translator's talent, and the current literary situation will yield. This requires loyalty to the essential qualities of Homeric poetry - its directness, immediacy, and effortless musicality - more than replication of the verse's technical features (although these must at least be suggested). In the end, it is the greatness and reach of Homer as a poet that the translator must confront. Accuracy and nuance are attainable through scholarship and good writing; technical problems admit various solutions; but what we love is the poet's voice, and finding its tone, rhythm, and power is the heart of Homeric translation.
Lombardo's "rendering" was, as you might imagine from those prefatory remarks, excellent. I had read Robert Fagles translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey not long before and found Lombardo's to be much more immediate - in the sense that, even with its near colloquial modernity, it felt closer to Homer; rather, who I imagined Homer to be.

Down there at the roots of the Western Canon is such a strange beast.

In his essay, Homer in English, George Steiner writes:

To borrow an image from plant genetics: the sequence of translations from Homer provides a unique radioactive tracer. By its luminescent progress, we can follow the development of the language, of its vocabularies, syntax and semantic resources, from root to stem, from its stem to its multiple branches and leaves. Every model of English lexical and grammatical observance is visible in this chain: all the way from the most ornate and experimental, as in Chapman or Joyce, to the 'basic English' purpose in I. A. Richards's narration of the fury of Achilles.....

This vivacity if structural illumination, of dynamic legibility, as in a radioactive tracer coursing through organic tissue, springs from the nature of translation itself. For it is through the process of translation that language is made eminently self-aware. Translation constrains it to formal and diachronic introspection, to an explicit investment and enlargement of its historical, colloquial and metaphorical instruments. Simultaneously, translation puts language under the pressure of its limitation. It will solicit modes of perception and designation which that language had left underdeveloped, or had altogether discarded. An act of translation draws up the balance-sheet, as it were, for the target language.
Which brings Christopher Logue's translations (accountings) to the front and center. In the author's note to War Music: An Account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer's Iliad, he states:

Rather than a translation in the accepted sense of the word, I was writing what I hoped would turn out to be a poem in English dependent upon whatever, through reading and through conversation, I could guess about a small part of the Iliad, a poem whose composition is reckoned to have preceded the beginnings of our own written language by fifteen centuries.

My reading on the subject of translation had produced at least one important opinion: "We must try its effect as an English poem," Boswell reports Johnson as saying; "that is way to judge of the merit of a translation."
Logue's translation is, as Steiner remarks, incandescent. White-hot flashing neon that is not always the best modality for expressing a "loyalty to the essential qualities of Homeric poetry": but still illuminating. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Logue's "balance-sheet" for the language opened up aspects of the inner drama of the text that I had never quite caught before. The immediacy here wasn't so much one of getting close to Homer as it was one of getting close to the core humanity of the poem.

A few comparisons between the Lombardo and Logue translations:

Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage.
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalcuable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.
- Lombardo, Book 1, 1-7

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal fleet.
- Logue, Book 1, 1-4

"This time we will save you, mighty Achilles,
This time- but your hour is near. We
Are not to blame, but a great god and a strong Fate.
Nor was it slowness or slackness on our part
That allowed the Trojans to despoil Patroclus.
No, the best of gods, fair-haired Leto's son,
Killed him in the front lines and gave Hector the glory.
As for us, we could outrun the West Wind,
Which men say is the swiftest, but it is your destiny
To be overpowered by a mortal and a god.

Xanthus said this; then the Furies stopped his voice
And Achilles, greatly troubled, answered him:

"I don't need you to prophesy my death,
Xanthus. I know in my bones I will die here
Far from my father and mother. Still, I won't stop
Until I have made the Trojans sick of war."

And with a cry he drove his horse to the front.
- Lombardo, Book 19, 149-154

And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back
And said:
This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.
And when we leave you, not for dead, but dead,
God will not call us negligent as you have done."

And Achilles, shaken, says:
"I know I will not make old bones."

And laid his scourge against their racing flanks.

Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.
- Logue, Book 19, Pax
A while back. Jim Lewis profiled Christopher Logue in Slate on the occasion of the publication of All Day Permanent Red: An Account of the First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad. Is is an informative and amusing piece. I particularly enjoyed this passage (the line, "a man whose eccentricities border on madness", is perfect):

Certainly, Logue's resume is piebald, at best. Among other things, he wrote the screenplay for Ken Russell's Savage Messiah, a biopic about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; he is credited as playing the role of the "spaghetti-eating fanatic" in Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, and as recently as 2001, he had a bit part in The Affair of the Necklace, a historical drama starring Hilary Swank. Moreover, the flap copy on All Day Permanent Red (whose title comes from a Revlon lipstick ad) mentions the availability of a seven-CD set of Logue's work titled Audiologue, which on closer inspection proves to include 500 minutes of readings, some of them set in the late 1950s to jazz. For better or worse, this is not the sort of activity that helps establish someone as a Major Poet, and you might be excused for dismissing Logue as a dilettante - or, at least, a man whose eccentricities border on madness.

And yet.... He is an extraordinary writer, the books are brilliant, his poetry strong, witty, and intelligent. He is not a charlatan: not at all. To be sure, his Iliad rings in a different key than most contemporary poetry, which often seems dominated by, on the one hand, obscure and inward-looking lyrics, and on the other, by the self-indulgent, tin-eared efforts that emerge from poetry slams. Logue is something else; narrative and frank, but his Homer is as alive as any more modish author.

I'll leave the last words to Stephane Mallarme:

We were the last romantics -- chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever's written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.

Hell mouth, as figured in the Roxburghe Ballads.
University of Victoria Library.

P.S. There never can be a last word can there? I was curious as to see if there was a reference for "into the jaws of death" and, of course, it was Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Monday, September 05, 2005

3 Vectors of The Magical Negro

From Strange Horizons: Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes By Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

[R]ecently, in 2001, during a discussion with students at Washington State University, film director Spike Lee popularized the concept by renaming it the "Super-Duper Magical Negro." He was referring specifically to John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) in The Green Mile and Bagger (played by Will Smith) in The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Both films are about a white man whose moral and emotional growth is made possible by the appearance of an almost angelic mystical black man. In The Green Mile, Coffey eventually dies after effecting great change on the white protagonist and just about everyone else around him. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger (whom the author of the book said was based on the Hindu deity Bhagavan Krishna) leaves as mysteriously as he arrived, once Rannulph Junuh's life is back on track. Both characters, John Coffey and Bagger, are only important in relation to the protagonist of each story.

Black Krishna

Interestingly enough, Krishna means "black" in Sanskrit. The name is often translated as "the black one," and early pictorial representations generally showed him as dark- or black-skinned. By the nineteenth century, he had become the blue-skinned deity most are familiar with.

Here are what I call the Five Points of the Magical Negro; the five most common attributes:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

From Wikipedia:

The "Magical Negro" (sometimes called the "Mystical Negro" or "Magic Negro"), according to some critics and commentators, is a stock character who appears in some films, books, and television programs. The term has been in use since at least the 1950s, but has since been popularized by Spike Lee, who dismissed the archetype of the "super-duper magical negro" while discussing his 2000 film, Bamboozled. The word "negro" in the phrase, despite being now considered offensive, is used intentionally for that very reason by many critics, to emphasize their belief that the archetype is a racist throwback to a less enlightened time.

When he first encounters the (invariably white) protagonist, the Magical Negro often appears as someone uneducated and in a low station of life, such as a janitor or prisoner. The black character is depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the protagonist, and the purpose of the "Magical Negro" in the plot is often to help the protagonist get out of trouble, and to help the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. The black character may literally have special powers, or he may be mysterious in a way that suggests otherworldliness.

Song of the South, 1946
Because of its unrealistic depiction of the post-Civil War "Reconstruction" era,
this film has been quietly retired by the Walt Disney Company in the USA since 1986 (40th Anniversary re-release).

Although it is usually a well-meaning attempt to portray a positive black character, critics like Lee, Ariel Dorfman, and Aaron McGruder believe that the use of this stock character is racist, because it perpetuates the idea that blacks should be subordinate to whites. The racial roles of the archetype are rarely reversed (lower-class white character helps a troubled black character).

The Magical Negro can be considered a form of the "noble savage" or "wise old man" archetype. Variants include the Native American who helps pragmatic whites discover their inner spirituality and brings them back in touch with nature, and the servant (of any non-white race) who sacrifices himself to save his master.

Alleged examples of "Magical Negroes" include:
  • Alexander Levine in Bernard Malamud's short story The Angel Levine
  • Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) in the film The Defiant Ones (1958)
  • Dick Haloran (Scatman Crothers) in the Stephen King novel The Shining (1977), later a 1980 film
  • Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) in the film Crossroads (1986)
  • John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in the serialized Stephen King novel The Green Mile (1996), later a 1999 film
  • Albert Lewis (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in the film What Dreams May Come (1998)
  • Cash (Don Cheadle) in the film The Family Man (2000)
  • Bagger Vance (Will Smith) in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
  • An angel (Gabriel Casseus) in Bedazzled (2000)
  • God (Morgan Freeman) in the film Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • The blind handcar-pumper (Lee Weaver) in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • The old woman seer in the Stephen King novel The Stand
  • The barkeeper Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • The Oracle in The Matrix Reloaded
  • Gabriel (voice of Delroy Lindo) in The Simpsons episode "Brawl in the Family" (DABF01, 2002) (a deliberate parody of the archetype)

Note that black characters with apparent supernatural powers who are portrayed as independent, have a power level roughly equal to that of the others and are not subservient to whites, such as Star Wars' Mace Windu, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the film The Matrix (1999) and Storm in X-Men are not usually considered "Magical Negroes", nor are helpful non-white characters without some magical or fantastical element.
Joel Chandler Harris

From Uncle Remus and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris, Edited with an Introduction by Robert Hemenway:

"Harris was obviously of two minds about his fame – on the one hand he sought it by continuing to write, on the other he felt unworthy of it – and those two minds were seldom very far from the surface. In an extraordinary letter to his daughter, well after he was a national figure, Harris personified the two sided of his personality:"

As for myself - though you could hardly call me a real, sure author- I never have anything but the vaguest ideas of what I am going to write; but when I take my pen in hand, the rust clears away and the “other fellow” takes charge. You know all of us have two entities or personalities. That is the reason you see and hear persons “talking to themselves.” They are talking to the “other fellow.” I have often asked my “other fellow” where he gets all his information, and how he can remember, in the nick of time, things that I have forgotten long ago but he never satisfies my curiosity. He is simply a spectator of my folly until I seize a pen, and then he comes forward and takes charge.

Sometimes I laugh heartily at what he writes… it is not my writing at all; it is my “other fellow” doing the work and I am getting all the credit for it. Now, I’ll admit that I write the editorials for the paper. The “other fellow” has nothing to do with them, and, so far as I am able to get his views on the subject, he regards them with scorn and contempt… He is a creature hard to understand, but, so far as I understand him, he’s a very sour, surly fellow until I give him an opportunity to guide my pen in subjects congenial to him; whereas, I am, as you know, jolly, good-natured and entirely harmless.

Now, my "other fellow," I am convinced, would do some damage if I didn’t give him an opportunity to work off his energy in the way he delights.

Robert Johnson

(Thanks to Matt and Keri for the conversation.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Backwater Blues

Typical Highway Scene
Mississippi River Flood of 1927 Album, Mss 4373069d

Backwater Blues by Bessie Smith

When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night
When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night
There was trouble taking place in the lowlands at night

I woke up this morning, wouldn't even get out of my door
I woke up this morning, wouldn't even get out of my door
Enough trouble to make poor girl wonder where she gonna go

They rowed a little boat, about five miles 'cross the farm
They rowed a little boat, about five miles 'cross the farm
I packed up all my clothing, throwed it in and they rowed me along

It thundered and it lightened and the winds began to blow
It thundered and it lightened and the winds began to blow
There was a thousand women, didn't have no place to go

I went out to the lonesome, high old lonesome hill
I went out to the lonesome, high old lonesome hill
I looked won on the old house, where I used to live

Backwater blues have caused me to pack up my things and go
Backwater blues have caused me to pack up my things and go
'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more

Hmm, I can't live there no more
Hmm, I can't live there no more
And there ain't no place for a poor old girl to go


Note: This was one of her most successful records; it was recorded just before the catastrophic great Mississippi flood of 1927.

Note: backwater, mostly old river beds which are left to take the excess flood water to relieve pressure on the levees (embankments). As the height of the water is excessive, however, breaches in the levee walls are deliberately made at certain points to allow particular areas to flood and thus lessen the pressure of water. These are the "backwaters," which occur in the St. Francis Basin to the west of the river between Memphis and Helena, in the great Yazoo-Mississippi Delta north of Vicksburg, in the Tensas Basin west of Natchez, and at other selected points.

Original reference via Apophenia (may you find all your friends).
Lyrics and notes via Blues Lyrics.