Tag Archives: Joyce

Idealizing the real, realizing the ideal

Just some notes from recent reading.

From James Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and ‘re-embody’ it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.

From Ernest de Selincourt’s introduction to Spenser: Poetical Works:

The idealist, starting from the actual world of which he has experience, distils from it what seems to be its essence, and creates another world of spiritual and moral conceptions which becomes as real for him as that from which he created it. This other world is not peopled with dead abstractions. The prosaic analyst may ‘murder to dissect’: the artist does not merely extract and isolate, he recreates. To him ideas depend for their reality upon the vividness with which they kindle his imagination. His mind has, as it were, a centre in two worlds, and it may work with equal freedom upon material drawn from either. That imaginative vision, which gives to the world of fact a higher reality by expressing the soul that informs it, gives to the world of ideas a sensuous incarnation which utters its voice in song.

In the allegory of the Faerie Queene these two worlds meet and fuse. But the fusion is not complete, and the children of each world bear upon their forms traces of their origin. Hence, two types of allegory may often be distinguished. At times the poet starts from the idea, and the process of incarnation follows. Human qualities are then abstracted into the rarefied atmosphere of thought and presented to his imagination for conscious artistic handling. The result is somewhat formal personification, cast in the traditional mould of mediaeval allegory, and executed in the manner of a pageant or a Morality. At its worst it is mechanical in structure and somewhat arbitrary in its symbolism; but it is seldom unrelieved by vivid detail that gives it an independent life, and at its best it turns an abstract conception with triumphant success into concrete living form. The Masque of Cupid (III. 12) embraces the quaintly emblematic figures of Dissemblance twisting her two clewes of silk, and Suspect peeping through his lattis, and along with them the haunting picture of Fear, ‘all armed from top to toe,’ yet taking fright even at the clash and the glitter of his own coat of mail. Of this kind is much of the incidental allegory in the Faerie Queene, and Spenser has used to the full the opportunities it offers to his rich power over colour and form, and his genius for imaginative description. But when his mind is turned rather upon the warm realities of life itself, the process is different. Human qualities, justice, temperance, and the rest, are still realized in their essence, but they are seen to be present in living human beings. Hence he does not present an abstract conception by a human symbol, but accepts under his idealizing vision a human being as the symbol of his conception. Britomart is not the abstract conception of Chastity, but a real woman who expresses in her personality and her conduct, along with many other powers and some human weakness, the essential quality of chastity. Una may be Truth, but she is far more. She is a woman with sufficient individuality to be ‘pre-eminently dear’ to that poet who of all others delighted to find his happiness ‘in this world, which is the world of all of us.’ And such in the main is the structural allegory of the Faerie Queene. The characters, indeed, are seldom presented with the subtle and complex detail of a realist. Spenser’s whole artistic method is that of idealization, and of emphasis on the essential. But for all that he bases it on life. Sometimes, indeed, it is impossible to determine whether the ideal conception or the character which expresses it was his initial inspiration, whether in Sir Calidore he thought first of Courtesy or of Sir Philip Sidney, whether he drew Timias from Ralegh or found himself in his delineation of reckless honour falling back unconsciously upon his knowledge of his daring and impetuous friend. Allegory of this kind can easily be distinguished from the more obvious personification, however vivid; it has all the character of myth, which, apart from its symbolism, has complete artistic life.

Thus Spenser idealizes real persons, and he breathes life into abstractions. He sees Hope not merely as a symbolic figure leaning upon an anchor, but as a living woman, whose face bears signs of the anguish hidden at her heart. He sees Lord Grey not simply as a sagacious and just-minded man, but as the faery knight of Justice. By his side he sets Talus, the iron man, that most powerful embodiment of Justice in the abstract. In Sir Artegal and his remorseless squire the different types of allegory are seen at once in their boldest contrast and in perfect harmony. . . . The real meets the ideal in faery land, and its kinship is acknowledged.

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Strong-pun translations

First a note on how I think about puns:

I classify puns as either “strong” or “weak.” In a strong pun, the phonetic/linguistic connection between two words or phrases is accompanied by a genuinely meaningful semantic connection, and the deeper the meaning, the stronger the pun. In a weak pun, the linguistic connection is all there is, and the pun is enjoyable only because of its sheer improbability and the ingenuity required to construct it. Some weak puns are delightfully clever, and I enjoy them as much as (or more than) the next guy, but in the end a weak pun is just showing off, whereas a strong pun can be poetry.

The same principle applies to such things as anagrams, which I consider to be puns in the larger sense. Whoever first noticed that “H. Ross Perot” is an anagram of “sports hero” was undeniably clever, but it’s still a weak pun. A much stronger one is “Clint Eastwood” as an anagram of “Old West action.” Nicknames can also be pun-like and can be strong or weak. As nicknames for George W. Bush go, Shrub is weak; Dubieux (a Nostradamus reference, punning on “Dubya”) and George III (alluding to the many similarities between the third President George and the third King George) are much stronger.

If Piers Anthony (creator of such characters as the Junk Male and the Ice Queen Clone) is probably the king of the weak pun, the undisputed master of the strong pun would have to be James Joyce. Though nothing can make Finnegans Wake actually worth reading, its profusion of very clever puns, strong and otherwise, certainly rewards the occasional browse. My personal favorite is the Gracehoper, as Aesop’s grasshopper is very appropriately called in Joyce’s retelling, a pun so perfect that it’s a shame it had to be paired with the junk-pun Ondt. When Joyce introduces the fable with a reference to “Jacko and Esaup,” he simultaneously puns on the name Aesop and alludes to the parallel story of grasshopper-like Jacob and ant-like Esau. This is a good example of the power of the punplex, a set of interrelated puns which, aside from being clever in its own right, often provides a context which can turn what would otherwise be a weak pun (such as Esau/Aesop) into a strong one.

In this post I want to look at translations — or, more properly, linguistic borrowings — that are strong puns. When you want to import a foreign word into your language, you have two basic options. Since different languages will have different sound-meaning mappings, you can copy the original sounds without the original meaning, as in kung-fu, or you can preserve the original meaning without the original sound, as in Indian names like Sitting Bull. In English we generally go for the former option, since we can usually do so without any semantic confusion. Spaghetti didn’t mean anything at all in English until we imported it from Italian, so we were free to copy the original Italian word and assign it the original Italian meaning.

In Chinese, though, the situation is different. You can import a foreign string of sounds, but you still have to write it in Chinese characters, and each character is associated with a meaning as well as a sound — most likely a meaning that has nothing to do with the original meaning of the borrowed word. For example, Chinese has borrowed the word bagel as 貝果 (pronounced bei-guo), which literally means “seashell-fruit.” In contrast, when English first borrowed the word bagel from Yiddish, the word didn’t have any “literal” English meaning; it was a semantic blank slate, free to mean bagel and nothing else. Due to this problem of unwanted semantic baggage, Chinese borrowings from other languages more often translate the meaning instead of copying the original sounds. While “hot dog” becomes hot-dog in French, хот-дог in Russian, and so on, in Chinese it’s 熱狗, which literally means “hot dog” but is pronounced ri-gou.

Sometimes, though, Chinese manages to pull off the seemingly impossible — to find Chinese characters that approximate both the original sound and the original meaning of the borrowed term. The result is a pun — a strong pun — which I tend to find very aesthetically satisfying. Here are a few examples:

  • The word llama has entered Chinese as 駱馬, which is pronounced luo-ma and literally means “camel horse.”
  • The English term UFO becomes the Chinese 幽浮, pronounced you-fu and meaning “secret floating” — a good approximation of the idea of an unidentified flying object.
  • Worldwide web is sometimes ingeniously rendered as 萬維網, literally “net of ten thousand links,” which is pronounced wan-wei-wang, thus preserving the abbreviation WWW.

Strong-pun translations seem to be rare even in Chinese, and English doesn’t seem to do them at all, which is just too bad. If I could introduce one into the language, it would be Greased, to replace Christ as the English version of Χριστός. That’s right, Jesus Greased, Greasedmas, the anti-Greased — you get the idea. Not only is /grist/ actually closer to the original Greek pronunciation than /kraɪst/ is — you might say I’ve “Greeced” the word by taking it back to its Hellenic roots — but it also preserves the original meaning of “anointed,” that is, “smeared with oil.” (If you think that’s an almost blasphemously bad translation, don’t blame me. I got the idea from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose version of the Bible routinely uses “grease” for “anoint.” Psalm 23, for example, contains the line “With oil you have greased my head.”) I might also mention that the one who greased Jesus was none other than the Lard God, and that Jesus Greased would fit right in with other religious founders like Gautama Butter, but such decidedly weak puns would just be flies in the ointment.

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