Some readings on Translation, Semiotics, Chaos, and Evolution

Some readings from Frederick Turner on translation, semiotics, chaos, and evolution

FROM THE CULTURE OF HOPE (The Free Press, Fall 1994)

Dissolving the Order-Disorder Dualism: Self-Ordering Chaos

Though the avant garde professes to anathematize all dualisms as leading to the hierarchical privileging of one term of the duality over the other, it is itself just as prone to dualism as any other system of human thought.  One of its most subtly paralyzing dualisms is the apparently harmless one between order and disorder.  The idea of hope as liberation, under which we have labored for so many years, is especially prone to the corruptions of this dualism.  For instance, if order means predictability, and predictability means predetermination, and predetermination means compulsion, and compulsion means unfreedom, the only way we can be free is if we are disordered.  The failed hopes of the last two centuries have been founded upon a deep discomfort with the idea of order, and what are taken to be its close relatives: hierarchy, foundationalism, norms, and essences–even with value itself, if value is conceived of as being anything other than momentary individual preference.

We have found ourselves forced by the logic of the duality to choose the random, the disordered, the arbitrary, the acte gratuite,  the unconditioned, the weightless, the unfurrowed.  What, after all, were the alternatives?  We could submit ourselves to the Transcendental Signified, the old man with the white beard, Nobodaddy Himself, the ancestral authority figure who bars the doors against our franchise, our potential for achievement, our free play of art, our sexuality, our political identity and self-expression.  Or we could accept that the world was a dead machine and we were merely parts of that machine, linear and deterministic.   We would thus be fated to some kind of mechanistic social order determined by our genes, by the physics of our energy economy, by economic necessity or psychological drives.

Indeed, it began to look as if the second alternative was just a new avatar of the first, that the scientists and psychologists and sociologists and businessmen and commissars who preached materialist determinism were really just the old white-bearded patriarchs and racial oppressors in disguise.  The psychic determinism of the nineteenth century, which had proven so convenient when we wanted to argue that we had no choice but to follow the command of desire, could also be used to sanction sexist gender roles.  The social determinism justified oppression, the historical determinism justified war, the biological determinism justified ideas of racial superiority.

The ramifications of this predicament confronted us wherever we turned.  For instance, the most fundamental problem of any natural philosophy is time.  We were faced with three difficult choices in talking about the relationship between the the past and the future: one is that some external and ineffable divine will governs the relationship and makes it partly intelligible and meaningful; one is that the relationship is deterministic, and that the past causes the future in a linear and mechanical way; and the third is that the relationship is essentially random, and that any sense it seems to make is in our perception of it only.

The problem with divine will is that it simply begs the question: how does God  know what to ordain, what is good and valuable?  And can God’s will meaningfully be free, if its future state is only random with respect to its past?  If freedom is simply randomness, is not God’s will, in the absence of a further, superior divine guarantee of its validity (which would be subject to the same objection), simply autocratic whim, arbitrary in the worst sense?  But would it not be worse still if God’s future state were deterministically governed by His past state–how could God be free in any sense if this were so?  And should we obey a God who is less free–less, therefore, of a person–than we are?  This was Socrates’ question: is an act good because the gods will it, or do the gods will it because it is good?

Nobody wants either a random universe or a deterministic one, for freedom and value and meaning appear impossible within them–though great philosophers in the tradition of Nietzsche have struggled to assert them nevertheless.  But given the potential for abuse inherent in the deterministic position, it seemed safest to opt for a more or less random relationship between the past and the future, despite the fact that if this were the case, memory and experience would be completely useless.  At least we could individually perceive  events as meaningful and valuable.  One person’s perception would be as good as another’s, so there could be no political repression.  And then–it began to look promising–we could hold the universe to be unknowable because inherently random, and dismiss all science and all objective knowledge as irrelevant, or simply the means to rationalize the political interests of the powerful.  Did not quantum theory, if we squeezed it a little and did not look too closely at its beautiful mathematics, be made to say something of the same kind?  Were not the white lab-coated ones condemned out of their own mouths?  And this is more or less the present state of deconstruction and discourse analysis, as we have already seen.

But then, the knots and toils we tied ourselves into when we tried to profess views such as these!  We had discovered a new sin: involuntary hypocrisy–hypocrisy when we were most desperately trying to avoid it.  When we opted for simple disorder and randomness, we were faced with the problems of how to mean  the destruction of meaning?  how to publish the discrediting of publication and public?  how to achieve an institutional position, say in the University of Paris, when institutions are the legacy of the past and thus based on sadistic repression?  how to attack hierarchy in a language with a syntactical tree and grammatical subordination?  how to get paid for copyrights where payment must be in the coin of mimetic desire and copyright is the quintessence of commodification?  how, even, to act with a body possessed of an immune system of quite military rigor, and a nervous system strikingly unified under central control?

And can freedom, seriously, be the same as random or disordered behavior?  According to classical physics the universe becomes more disordered over time, that is, less intelligible and less able to do work.  Is freedom just our little contribution to the universal process of increasing entropy?  Is it our job as free beings to assist in the destruction of this beautiful ordered universe about us?  Intention takes a highly organized brain; can the only free intention be that which would tend to disorganize that brain and disable intention itself?  What becomes of responsibility if freedom is randomness?  Can we take credit for what we do that is good, if there is no responsibility?  Can there be such a thing as justice, for instance, if we cannot be held responsible for our actions?

Until recently the best that we could do with the available intellectual tools in cobbling up some kind of reasonable account of the universe, and of our own freedom, was to devise some kind of combination between order and randomness, linear determinism and disordered noise.  The title of Jacques Monod’s book on biological evolution, Chance and Necessity , puts it well.  Perhaps we could describe both the emergence of new species and the originality and freedom of the human brain as a combination of random mutations and relatively deterministic selection, the clinamen  of the random swerve and the ananke  of the survival of the fittest, as mapped onto a genome that would record and reproduce the results.

But even here there were deep and subtle theoretical objections.  Although evolution was clearly a fact, its precise mechanism was under heavy debate.  Several mysteries complicated the picture.  One was that evolution seemed to proceed in sudden jumps, not gradually; a new species did not seem to emerge slowly but rather leap into being as if drawn by a premonition of its eventual stable form.  Another was the odd bootstrap logic of species and their ecological niches; without the right suite of species, the ecological niche wouldn’t exist; but without the ecological niche, the species wouldn’t.  How do new niches emerge?  Again, from a purely intuitive point of view even four billion years didn’t seem nearly enough to produce the staggering variety and originality of form to be found among living species–birds of paradise, and slime molds, and hermaphroditic parasitical orchids, and sperm whales, and all; especially when, as was the case, the huge majority of present species only evolved in the last few tens of millions of years, and most of the major classes and phyla in the last few hundred million.  Other problems, like the fact that RNA, which can be altered by the experience of an individual member of a species, can play the role of DNA in determining heredity, also confused the classical evolutionary picture.  The genome, though for the most part alterable only at the level of the gene pool of the whole species, wasn’t untouched by the life of a particular organism, but part of its reciprocal system.

Most disturbing of all, it became clear that the process of development, by which a fertilized egg or seed multiplied and diversified itself into all the cells in all the correct positions necessary for an adult body, was not a mere following of genetic instructions embedded in the DNA blueprint, but was an original and creative process in itself, which produced a unique individual out of a dynamic and open-ended interplay of cells.  The miracle was that the interplay could produce something in the end remotely resembling its twin siblings, let alone its parents.  It was as if the individual organism were drawn  toward a beckoning form, and that the genes were not so much blueprints specifying  that form, as gates permitting  the developmental process to rush to its conclusion.

Further, chance and necessity, though they were the only permissible inputs to the system of evolution, did not exhaust its description.  Time, for instance, was an essential ingredient, and what was time?  In the case of biological evolution, the essence of time was that it was a medium for iteration,  for going over the same process again and again until the process itself could alter by degrees, and cross critical thresholds into new types of process altogether; even new types of iteration  altogether.  In classical evolutionary theory time was just a sort of space or quantity; but suppose iterative processes had laws of their own. . .?  And why should not time itself be altered by the change in the nature of the iteration, since iteration was its essence?  Why should time be a neutral metric, when all metrics seemed to be slightly pliable according to what they measured?  And those “critical thresholds”–they seemed innocent, and were essential to all scientific theories, including biology: they determined, for instance, how big an animal could get and still walk on land; the ratio of its volume, and thus weight, to surface area and thermal exchange with the environment; how its digestive efficiency, the amount of forage per square mile, and its mobility were related; but where did those thresholds come from?  Were they, before life evolved, waiting  in the timeless wings of eternity to find a concrete expression in an ecosystem?  Was there not a marine airbreather archetype ready to be filled by plesiosaurs, penguins, dolphins, whales and seals according to the available genetic material?

And the same kinds of problems arose if we tried to apply the chance-and-necessity model to the working of the human brain.  Just as with mutation and selection–which are, indeed, the only external  inputs to the biological system–we were clearly on the right track; but even more clearly, there was something hugely missing.  Maybe “nature and nurture” don’t exhaust the inputs.  Can it make sense to speak of internal  inputs, or forms which draw  an appropriately prepared human brain into a specific competence, like language?  We are dangerously close to Plato here; and the great brain scientist Sir John Eccles has found himself compelled by his observation of brain events that seem to anticipate the stimuli that should activate them, to postulate a detachable human Soul.  The first attempts at creating artificial intelligence used purely deterministic programs.  When these failed, researchers tried to “lighten” or free up the system by throwing in random elements.  This didn’t work, either: one ended up with just a less efficient calculator.  Cybernetic neural network models of the human brain, which use iterative and nonlinear feedback processes, and whose operations cannot really be called either deterministic or random, seemed to show more promise; but there seemed to be a huge mass of endogenous laws and principles in such systems that we have hardly begun to understand–and where did they come from, all of a sudden?

The dualism of order and disorder was coming under increasing strain.  But within the humanities the traditional avant-garde hatred of any kind of essentializing, hierarchizing, (biologically-) determinist, transcendentally significant and totalizing Order was so ingrained that the more shaky that dualism became, the more passionately it was asserted.  It may now be obvious that the problem with which we began this chapter, of the order-disorder dualism, is implicated in other dualisms: the dualisms of nature and humanity, of the natural and the artificial, of animals with natures and humans without natures.  The problem the avant garde was honestly trying to solve was that the only alternative to repressive order that seemed to be offered was random disorder, or on the psychological level, whim.

Suppose we were to try to specify what an escape from this predicament might look like philosophically.  We would have to distinguish between two kinds of order, a repressive, deterministic kind, and some other kind that would not have these disadvantages.  We would also have to distinguish between two kinds of chaos, one which was simply random, null, and unintelligible, and another that could bear the seeds of creativity and freedom.  If we were really lucky, the second kind of order might turn out not to be the antithesis of the second kind of chaos; they might even be able to coexist in the same universe; best of all, they might even be the same thing!

The extraordinary thing that has happened–an astonishing stroke of good luck, an earnest of hope for the future–is that there really does seem to be the second kind of order, the second kind of chaos.  And they do seem to be the same thing.

This new kind of order, or chaos, seemed to be at the heart of an extraordinary range of interesting problems that had appeared as philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and cybernetic technologists tried to squeeze the last drops of the imponderable out of their disciplines.  They included the biological and artificial-intelligence problems already alluded to; the problem of how to describe catastrophic changes and singularities by means of a continuous mathematics; the problem of how to predict the future states of positive feedback processes; Godel’s paradox, which detaches the true from the provable; the description of phase-changes in crystallography and electrochemistry; the phenomenon of turbulence; the dynamics of open systems and nonlinear processes; the observer problem in a variety of disciplines; the failure of sociological and economic predictive models because of the rational expectations and second-guessing of real human subjects; the theoretical limitations of Turing machines (in certain circumstances they cannot turn themselves off); the question of how to fit the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot into orthodox mathematics; the classification of quasicrystals and Penrose tilings; the whole issue of self-reflection, bootstrapping and positive feedback in general; and most troubling of all, the question of the nature of time.  I have discussed several of these issues in other books, and would refer the reader to them, to the recent work of Alexander Argyros, Koen dePryck and Katherine Hayles, and to the excellent popular treatments of chaos that have appeared in recent years.  The point here is the overwhelming breadth and consistency of the emerging paradigm.

In choosing the term “chaos” to describe this new imaginative and intellectual arena, the discoverers of it pulled off something of a public-relations coup without perhaps fully intending to.  They could have called it “antichaos,” which would have been just as accurate a term, in fact a better one, as its implied double negative–”not not-order”– suggests something of its iterative depth.  But “antichaos” would have sounded too much like law ‘n order to the humanists, who would have dismissed it as yet another patriarchal Western mystification.  Indeed, some humanists have taken “chaos” to their bosom, as they once did quantum uncertainty, as a confirmation of their pro-random, pro-disorder bias.

Oddly enough, exactly the opposite thing happened in the Nineteenth Century.  Progressive intellectuals and artists of the mid-century were entranced by the notion of determinism, psychic and social; perhaps unkindly, we could say that the Newtonian penny had finally dropped (as the Heisenbergian one has today), and the implications of a mechanistic universe had coincided with certain cultural desires they seemed to substantiate.  Intellectuals and artists wanted to be able to say that because they were in the grip of the great forces of Nature or History, their actions were above morality.  So when the theory of evolution by natural selection came along, it was immediately interpreted in terms of its two least significant provisions.  The first was that human beings might have inherited certain characteristics from their animal ancestors (though the theory’s power was precisely that it showed how inheritance could change  with time and adaptation).  The second was that selection seemed to be a lawlike phenomenon, and though its causality was messier and less exact than the elegant determinism of the laws of planetary motion, it at least showed a way of extending that physical determinism into the realm of the psyche.  But again the problem was that the theory’s real thrust was not that nature was governed by deterministic laws, but rather that the operation of those laws, in combination with time, heredity, and chance mutation, could bring about results that are indistinguishable from originality, creativity, invention, and freedom.  “Chaos” theory, then, like evolution, is the subject of a great misprision.  Evolution was falsely taken to confirm determinism; and “chaos” is falsely taken to confirm the essential randomness of freedom.

In order to understand the deeply liberating point of chaos (or antichaos) theory, we will need to go into the differences between deterministic linear order and chaotic emergent order, and between mere randomness and creative chaos.  Let us do so by considering an odd little thought experiment; I heard it at a scientific conference, but am unable to attribute it to an individual, though Manfred Eigen is a plausible candidate.

Suppose we were trying to arrange a sonnet of Shakespeare in the most thermodynamically ordered way, with the least entropy.  We cannot, for the sake of argument, break up the words into letters or the letters into line segments.  The first thing we would do–which is the only sort of thing a strict thermodynamicist could do–is write the words out in alphabetical order: “a compare day I Shall summer’s thee to ?”.  As far as thermodynamics is concerned, such an arrangement would be more ordered than the arrangement  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? . . . ” as composed by Shakespeare.  Here, in a capsule, is the difference between deterministic linear order and chaotic emergent order.

Although this did not come up at the conference, we could even test the thermodynamic order of the first arrangement by a further Gedankenexperiment.   Suppose we coded the words in terms of gas molecules, arranged in a row, the hottest ones corresponding to the beginning of the alphabet, the coldest ones to the end, and so on in alphabetical order.  If left to themselves in a closed vessel the molecules would, because of the increase of entropy over time, rearrange themselves into random alphabetical order (the hot and cold would get evenly mixed).  Just as in a steam engine, where the energy gradient between hot steam and cold steam, or hot steam and cold air, can be used to do work, one would be able to employ the movement of molecules, as the alphabetized “sonnet” rearranged itself, to perform some (very tiny) mechanical task.  And it would take somewhat more energy to put the molecules back into alphabetical order, because of the second law of thermodynamics.

As arranged in Sonnet 18 those words are already in more or less “random” alphabetical order.  Yet most human beings would rightly assert that the sonnet order is infinitely more ordered than the thermodynamic, linear, alphabetical one.  The information-theory definition of a system with high thermodynamic order (low entropy) is that it takes as few bits of information as possible to specify it, while it takes many bits to specify a high-entropy, low-order system.  Indeed, it would take few bits to specify the alphabetical order, and many to specify the sonnet order: hundreds of books have been written about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and they are not exhausted yet.  But this, for a reader of poetry, is not a sign of the poem’s randomness but of its exquisite order.  And in other respects the poem does seem to exhibit the characteristics of order.  It could, if highly damaged by being rearranged, be almost perfectly reconstituted by a person who knew Shakespeare’s other sonnets, and the rules of grammar, logic, and especially poetic meter; one would need only perhaps a fragment of the lost original, showing its meter and a rhyme, and this, together with a syllable-count of the whole, would be more than enough to reconstruct the sonnet.  The sonnet can “do work:” it has deeply influenced human culture, and has helped to transform the lives of many students and lovers.  It is an active force in the world precisely because it does not have the low-entropy simplicity of the alphabetical order that might enable it to do mechanical work.  Here, in the most primal sense, lies the distinction between “power” in the mechanical, political sense, and the mysterious creative influence of art.

Another way of describing this distinction is in terms of determinism and freedom.  The old avant garde paradigm could distinguish only two alternatives, deterministic order and random freedom.  The extraordinary thing about many nonlinear self-organizing systems, like living organisms or read sonnets, is that though in theory their next state might be exactly computed and thus predicted, there is not enough computing power in the physical universe to do so.  The system thus essentially chooses, or even creates, its own next state, within the parameters of an infinitely rich attractor.  This description is fully coterminous with the fullest possible definition of freedom.  Thus there is deterministic order and free order; and the latter is the way out of the avant garde bottle.

But though we have distinguished between the two kinds of order, it is equally necessary to distinguish between the two kinds of chaos.  Otherwise we would be in the predicament of someone like Stanley Fish, the “reader response” theorist, who has been forced by the “order-disorder” dualism into asserting that any random sequence of words, chosen perhaps by flipping the pages of a dictionary, would possess a richness of interpretive potential equal to that of the sonnet; and thus that the very idea of text is either meaningless or extensible to everything in the universe.

If reader response theorists understood information theory, it would be enough to show that their mistake is to confuse “white noise” with “flicker noise.”  White noise is made up of random amounts of energy at all frequencies.  One could certainly imagine that one was listening to the sea when one heard acoustic white noise; there are even devices that make white noise to soothe people to sleep.  But there is nothing there to understand or interpret.  On the other hand, flicker noise, which does not at first sound very different, is the “sound” that a system makes that is ordered in itself and at the same time highly unstable and going through continuous internal adjustments by means of feedback: a good example is a pile of sand onto whose apex new grains of sand are being dropped one by one.  There are many one-grain avalanches, fewer multi-grain avalanches, fewer still mass avalanches, and only the occasional collapse of a whole slope.  The sequence of these avalanches, though still statistical and probabilistic rather than deterministic, obeys laws and forms an elegant fractal pattern when plotted on a graph.  What one hears when one hears flicker noise is the combination of these events; and if one analysed it carefully, one might be able to work out the size of the grains, the interval of their deposition, and so on.  There is real meaning to be extracted.  Our reader-response theorist refuses to extract it.

But this example is perhaps rather abstract.  Flicker noise is not just the “sound” made by piles of sand.  It is also what we get when we “listen” in a crude way to highly complex organic systems.  For instance, suppose we take the temperature of an animal: that reading is flicker noise.  The temperature is made up of a combination of fantastically organized and intricate metabolic processes; yet it is indistinguishable from the “same” temperature taken of a simple chemical reaction, or of a random mixture of unrelated processes, which would be white noise.  The problem is that a thermometer is a very crude instrument; but it is not enough to do what reader-response theorists would do, that is, to accept its crudity as accuracy, and to make up for it by imagining all kinds of exotic meanings for the animal’s temperature that had no necessary connection with its organic metabolism.  What makes it a crude instrument is precisely that it makes no allowance for the nature of what it is measuring; and this is the problem also with interpretative theories of literature, the arts, or history, which discount the inner personal intentions and meanings of the author, whether the author authorizes a poem, a piece of music, a painting, or an historical act.  By discounting those personal meanings, and perhaps substituting the crude statistical measures (the “temperature”) of gender or race or class interest, we may avoid the bugbear of Authority, but we lose any understanding of what it is we are dealing with: we cannot distinguish a living organism from a stone, and are in grave danger of treating them the same.

Another example of flicker noise is what you would “hear” from a set of electrodes applied to someone’s skull if the electrical signal were translated into sound.  Just because one could imagine that the squeaks and booms and whistles one would hear resembled perhaps the song of humpback whales, this does not mean that the sound “meant” humpback whales, or that the person was not actually thinking something, or that one could never know what he or she was thinking, or that it was meaningless to seek for some absolute meaning, or that it is quite legitimate for us to interpret it as thoughts about humpback whales.

Let us return to the sonnet.  Like the strands of DNA that specify a living animal or plant, it somehow has the power to express itself, repair itself, edit itself, and reproduce itself (in memory or print).  It even feeds, in a curious sort of way, by focussing current linguistic energies through its hot matrix in such a way as to take on renewed relevance.  It is antichaotic, not random; yet it is not a deterministic (for instance, alphabetical) order either.  To deconstruct the sonnet is to break it down to a uniform consistency so that one can then take its “temperature” or hear its white noise; and one is then quite free to interpret that noise in gender or race terms, or however one wishes.  It would be like boiling the DNA of a live animal or plant into a soup of simple organic molecules, and claiming one had thereby got down to the reality of the living organism.  The tragedy is that in the course of its metabolism and reproduction a living creature will briefly “boil” very precisely specified parts of its own structure, for instance the weak hydrogen bonds that hold the DNA zipper together; it is always, in a controlled way, on a kind of continuous light boil.  But there is a cruel literalism in extending the boiling process to the destruction of the whole delicate hierarchical structure.  “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,  Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”

A New Semiotics

What would an evolutionary theory of value and meaning look like?  Value evolved slowly in the universe, increasing with each access of reflexivity and level of feedback, complex entities conferring value upon each other and upon the less complex by sensitively registering their presence, perceiving, eating, mating with, desiring, or loving them; and conferring value upon themselves by their increasingly intentional and planned attempts to survive and reproduce.  More intense and more universal values evolved with increasing ecological interdependence, whether among whole populations of species or in those fantastically complex and swiftly-evolving inner ecologies, the nervous systems of higher animals.  Human beings represent the most elaborated and reflexive stage of this process that we are aware of.

Given this view of the universe, various candidates for a good definition of such terms as meaning, reference, representation, and value emerge without strain.

It is clear that a word occupies the last and most temporally complex milieu in the evolutionary series I have described–the human–and that later and more advanced milieux embrace and include earlier ones, though with all the tragic strains and paradoxes and existential tensions they have accrued in the process.  Thus we could well define the relationship of reference or representation, for the kind of word that refers to a non-human object, as constituting one of containment or inclusion–even if the containment is not entirely successful and the inclusion is procrustean in the ways characteristic of a temporal universe.  The fact that the operation of reference or meaning is not always successful–Priestley’s word “phlogiston” is much less good at including and exemplifying its chemical ancestors than the word “oxygen” that supplanted it–does not mean that the operation itself is intellectually incoherent or so compromised by  internal contradiction as to be infinitely deconstructable.

In this analysis we will find again and again that the claims of the poststructuralists, exciting and apocalyptic as they sound at first, are really rather wild and hysterical–perhaps because they originated in the overheated atmosphere of denied shame, opportunistic ambition, and intellectual and sexual display that was characteristic of postwar Paris.  It is only if utterly unrealistic claims of perfection are attributed to human language that words will fail the test of referring, fairly reliably, to a real world in which they themselves have an existence no less real.   We should not allow ourselves to be confused by the relationship of containment, as humanistic intellectuals often are.  Local indeterminacy can coexist in a perfectly rational way with global coherence; and the fact that an element of something–a discourse, a text, a society, a human body, a world–requires a context should not be cause of astonishment or skepticism about their reality.  They themselves help to create their context, and contexts are the more robust and substantial, the more inclusive they are.  Nor should this idea lead us to conclude that society alone, being the “largest” context, has the exclusive power to construct reality.  For society, as we have seen, only imperfectly contains its individual members; and it is not, in any case, the largest context, since it itself exists, as the environmentalists remind us, within a much larger context of natural history and ecology.  Society will only come to include that context to the extent that we come to understand the universe through science–so that larger parts of nature get the vote, so to speak–and to the extent that scientific knowledge really becomes disseminated through the population, including its scientifically-illiterate cultural critics.

We can picture the relationship of containment that is proposed here for certain kinds of signification, in terms of those remarkable fractal images that are now being generated by the iterative self-including algorithms of the new mathematicians.  A word is like a shape–say, the radiant snowman of the Mandelbrot Set, the flying scud of the logistical equation, the twisted butterfly of the Lorenz attractor–which, when  blown up to show its inner detail, reveals miniature, simpler versions of itself at an infinite variety of scales.  The process of “blowing up” corresponds to our inspection of the world for examples of the meaning of a word. In other words, a word is not just the thing on the page or the sound in the air, but includes, though only with the labor of iteration, part of the physical world as its microstructure.  This description obviously works best for ordinary concrete nouns.  But in fact, since every fractal is really a process of continuous internal articulation, it works for verbs on a much subtler level.  And any study of etymology will show that other parts of speech are derivable by metaphor–itself an iterative process of self-inclusion–from nouns and verbs.  Again, gramatically, this description can be extended beyond the indicative to other moods–it is really just a matter of pulling the camera back a little from the fractal, and seeing what its shapes are the microstructure of.

An even richer way of thinking about the problem of meaning, which we have already glanced at in our examination of chaos theory, is in terms of the relationship of strange attractors to the physical processes they describe.  Any nonlinear dynamical system, when triggered by a stimulus, will generate a sequence of unpredictable events, but those events will nevertheless be limited to their attractor, and further iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail.  The brain itself holds memories in the form of such attractors, the dynamical feedback system in this case being circuits of Hebb cells.  Thus we can picture the relationship of a word to its meaning as the relationship of a given trigger to the attractor that is traced out by the feedback process it initiates.  When the word “refers” to a perceived object–say, a smell or a sight–that object is one which can trigger a subset of the full attractor, as a Julia Set is a subset of the Mandelbrot Set.  Thus a single word can trigger a “meaning-attractor,” sections of whose fine detail can also be triggered by various sensory stimuli.  This description rather nicely matches with our Proustian experience of connotation and poetic evocation, and with the logical form of generalization.  It accords with the results of liguistic experiments concerning the relative strength by which a given example–say, a duck, an ostrich, or a sparrow–is recognized by a  speaker as belonging to the meaning of a word (“bird”).  It also explains the difference between ideas and impressions, that exercised the philosophical imaginations of Locke and Hume: the richly-detailed subset evoked by the sight of an object would certainly make the general sketch of the whole set evoked by the word look somewhat pale by comparison.

Since the trigger–whether the word or the sensory stimulus–is itself part of the feedback system, it is encompassed by its description, which is the attractor proper to it when it is allowed to iterate its effects upon a complex neural network.  Thus the represented, the representation, and the experiencer of the representation are all part of the same physical system. The usual critique of physical descriptions of representation–for instance, John Searle’s Chinese Room analogy for artificial intelligence–is that however a given object is represented inside the physical system, it requires a smaller system inside the system to see it and know it, or, as John Eccles believes, a detachable non-physical soul.  The chaotic-attractor theory of meaning holds out the promise of an intelligible physical description of meaning that does not require an inner homunculus or the intervention of a metaphysical deus ex machina, with further attendant problems of infinite regress–how does the god in the machine perceive and know the representation?–to make it work.  One way of putting this is that the issue of reflexiveness, of self-reference or self-inclusion, has been transferred from the metaphysical level where it can only be interpreted as a barren infinite regress or reductio ad absurdum, to the physical realm where it can be studied as we study turbulences of other kinds, with their own emergent properties and self-generated orderliness. The reflexiveness, we feel intuitively, should be there in any account of meaning; the trick is to keep it from messing up our own thinking about it, and place it where it belongs, in the operation of the brain itself!

It remains to suggest how this “attractor theory” of signification might work itself out in the etymological history of a language, and express itself in terms of phonology, morphology, and metaphor.  Here we may recall our discussion of sacrifice and commutation in chapter four.  I argued that every sacrifice was an expiation of the crime of a previous sacrifice, though with the penalty commuted, refined, and abstracted.  Sacrifice itself is necessary in order to render the shame of our condition as evolved and self-reflexive animals over into the epiphany of beauty.  It is related to the whole history of the universe as a cumulative and nested set of contradictions solved at each higher level at the cost of new, emergent contradictions.  Those existential tensions express themselves at the physical level in the turbulences and bifurcations of nonlinear dynamical systems, and at the psychological level as shame, the fear of death, and beauty. The commutative history of sacrifice recapitulates this recursive and tragic process. In chapter four I suggested that human signification itself might have developed through the commutation of sacrificial cost.

In other words, the social and cultural dimension of language, like the neurosensory dimension, has the form of a nonlinear dynamical system with strange attractors pulling it toward certain “archetypal” forms.  Those forms could be seen in the odd “targetedness” of the great sound-shifts that periodically convulse a language; they can also be observed in the way that metaphorization will take parallel paths in different languages, so that when a colorful idiom from another language is presented to us, we can almost always find an equivalent in our own.  Thus the words “spirit” in English and “Atman” in Sanskrit have identical metaphoric histories, as do the words “kind,” “nature,” and “genus,” all of which came together again in English, having led separate lives in Germanic, Latin, Greek, and other tongues for thousands of years since their original common root in Indo-European. Metaphorization and sound-changes are every new human generation’s way of committing a sacrificial impiety against the tongue of its ancestors, an impiety that commutatively atones for the crime of the ancestors themselves in similarly appropriating the language for themselves from their own mothers and fathers.  And since meaning dies the moment it ceases to cut slightly against all previous usage–another valuable if over-emphasized and not entirely original contribution of Deconstruction–it is constituted by this continual low-level feedback between the language and the world it contains.

Such might be the rudiments of a new, evolutionary poetics and a new nonlinear theory of meaning and representation.  Obviously I have only scratched the surface here; the point is that we do not need to sit helplessly in the morass of late poststructuralist despair and misologism, and that there are still worlds for the literary humanities to conquer.

And there are practical implications of this model of meaning.  (By now such phrases as “model of meaning,” with their invitations to further reflexive iteration, should hold no terrors for us, since we hold a clue to the labyrinth, a clue whose own windings are equal to the windings of that dark place we would discover.)  One implication is that many of the characteristics of the relationship of word and meaning are already present in the relationship between a percept and the experience of it.  If a sense-perception can generate a sort of “Julia Set,” then in a way a sense perception is like a word.  That is, we share with other higher animals the elements of a sensory language which preexisted the more encompassing kind of language that uses words.  Or we could put it the other way around, and say that language is just a larger kind of sensing, using internal triggers to evoke larger attractor-sets than any percept could.  Obviously we have here a further reason for exploring our relationship with our animal friends: it is a way of understanding the fundamentals of our own language, of discovering that ur-language we share with other parts of nature than ourselves.  One huge advantage of that ur-language is that it is not riven by the linguistic boundaries that divide the more fully human languages like English and French from each other; and if we learn to speak it better, we may find more common ground with cultural Others as well as with biological Others.

In one sense, of course, we already possess such ur-languages, in the shared imagery of the visual arts and in the “universal language” of music.  But the theory of meaning proposed here suggests that there is something analogous to music and visual imagery that underlies language itself, obscured by its more recent evolutionary achievements, to be neglected only at the cost of a vitiation and greying of our expression and understanding.  I came to this conclusion by an entirely different route a few years ago, while translating the poetry of Miklos Radnoti with my remarkable colleague Zsuzsanna Ozsvath.  In the following section I shall discuss the discoveries we made together, and in this way give body to the critical and linguistic theory proposed here, especially to the concept of the ur-language.  Suffice it to say here that poetic meter turns out to be a sure road to the ur-language, or to change the metaphor, meter is the lyre or golden bough or magic flute that enables us to enter the underworld of that language and to return with intelligible gifts for the community.  Meter, like music and visual imagery, is an ancient psychic technology by which human nature and human culture are bridged; appropriately, and as we might imagine from our discussion of the fractal harmonics of Hebb-cell circuitry, meter is a rhythmic and harmonic system in itself, a way of inducing the wave functions of the brain.  The lyre through which Rilke traces Orpheus in the Sonnets to Orpheus is the poetic form of the sonnet itself.

If the words of a poet can induce in one brain the same strange attractor that they proceeded from in the poet’s brain, an extraordinary possibility presents itself.  This possibility is that when those harmonics are in our heads we are actually sharing the thoughts, and indeed the subjectivity, of the poet, even if he or she is dead.  The poet lives again when his or her attractors arise in another brain.  Poetry, then, is a kind of artificial intelligence program, that springs into being when booted correctly into any good human meat-computer. Thus poetry is indeed a journey to the land of the dead.  This view of reading is profoundly different from that of deconstruction and reader-response theory, as the reader of this can surely see!   In the next section I shall  give an example of how such an ecopoetics might be applied.

University Press, 1992)

The Journey of Orpheus: On Translation

The cast of the ghostly and beautiful mythic drama in which we, the translators, have become involved, includes as the hero Radnoti himself, his twin brother who died as he was born, his mother who also died in childbirth, his wife, for whom he lived, and ourselves.  Zsuzsanna Ozsvath is a native speaker of Hungarian who, rescued by a series of miracles from the Holocaust in Budapest, shared some of Radnoti’s experiences; I am a English/American poet with no knowledge of Hungarian but with a devotion to the ancient forms and meters of poetry which resembles Radnoti’s.1

In the course of translating Radnoti we have made what we believe to be some valuable discoveries, both about poetry and about the art of translation.

Our actual method of translating is as follows.  Each week Zsuzsanna Ozsvath selects a poem to translate, a selection based partly on its thematic connections to the ongoing discussion of Radnoti which continually accompanies our work together.  At a weekly meeting, between three and four hours long, she and I go over the poem in three stages.  The first stage is constituted by two readings of the poem in Magyar by Zsuzsanna Ozsvath, one as she would read it at a poetry reading, the other giving greater emphasis to the verseform.  From these readings I am able to ascertain the meter, tone, cadence, and often the emotional color of the original.  The rhyme-scheme is established, and any internal rhymes, assonances, alliteration, etcetera, are noted.  If the verseform is a classical one, either in the Hungarian tradition or in some other tradition, such as the German, the Latin, or the French, or is for instance in Magyar folk-ballad meter, the implications for the tone and mood of the poem are discussed.

The second stage is a word by word oral translation of the poem by Dr. Ozsvath, which I write down.  Here the first priority is the word order and idiom of the original, even when they make very strange sentences in English.  Only later does she clarify the grammar, if that is necessary.

The third stage is an exhaustive analysis of the connotations, derivations, cognates, and synonyms of the words of the poem, together with an analysis of its lexical and syntactical peculiarities–archaisms, neologisms, compound words, slang, folk-language, dialect, and foreign words.  Significant facts about references in the poem, its date relative to political and biographical events and to the composition of other Radnoti poems, and other relevant matters, are raised now if they have not been already.  I frequently quote analogues from English, American, Latin, and European poetry, ranging from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton to Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, and Yeats, from Dickinson to Stevens and Eliot, and from Virgil to Baudelaire and Pasternak; and Zsuzsanna responds by pointing out the similarities and differences of tone, and with quotations from her own favorite German, French, or Hungarian poets.  There is a continuous interaction between my own poetic work and the work of translation, so that a poem of mine will sometimes gloss or anticipate a poem of Radnoti’s.  Dr. Ozsvath points out certain special moments in the original and guides me through their feeling; it is like the way Helen Keller’s tutor guided her pupil through the reality of language.  Such moments include the “great cold ferns, that slowly stir and bow” of “Letter To My Wife,” the prune marmalade of “Forced March,” the “somber-gonging tongue” of “Skin and Bone and Pain,” the loony rhymes of “In the Gibbering Palm Tree,” the simplicity of “world is but wormeatenness” in “Root,” the “fuzzy-wuzzy” green stems of the poppies in “Steep Road,” and the cluster of “au” sounds in “October” (in “Calendar”):

All is golden-yellow, where
yellow corn does not yet dare
pawn the cornsilk gonfalon:
so it flaunts its golden awn.

This process is a highly interactive one, and there are often differences of interpretation between the two translators, which must be fully resolved or, better still, incorporated as tensions in the translation.  For instance, in “Root,” “Like Death,” and “Two Fragments,” one of us felt more strongly a flavor of darkness and horror, the other the mysterious power of poetry which flourishes even in those realms of darkness.  The translations reflect this ambivalence.

At this point I work with the several pages of translation and notes to produce by word processor a tentative verse translation, which I read to my co-translator some time during the following week (usually on the phone).  If the tone and music sound right, the result is polished according to her advice and printed up.  Some time during the next few weeks, after both translators have lived with the poem for a while, we take a look at it again and correct any problems that remain.  We correspond with Mrs. Radnoti, the poet’s widow, and her very perceptive suggestions and criticisms also result in changes in the text.

What is significant about this method is, we believe, a combination of three factors.  One is the highly oral nature of the process; the poem never feels like just words on a page, but like a living communication between persons.  This applies even before the translation process begins; Zsuzsanna knows most of the poems by heart, in part or whole.  As for me, I first encounter each poem simply as a set of verbal/musical sounds.  The second factor is related to the first: the process is highly interactive, with a feedback of understanding taking place between the two translators and our dead master.  The third factor is the role of interpretation: we are interpreting the poem from the moment we begin, even before one of us has a literal understanding of it.  This could only occur through the lingua franca  of meter.

Radnoti’s own metaphor for the process of translation was the myth of Orpheus. Though he himself left tacit some of the ramifications of that metaphor, we believe that an exploration of them may be valuable in this time; valuable not only for the reader but also for other translators who may find themselves in the dark wood of the translator’s task and feel the need, as we did, for a guide.

Radnoti died in a strange lonely place, a sort of marshy delta-land where one of the Danube’s tributaries, the Rabca, winds under leaning willows and high circling birds to join the great river.  When we went there, and later when Fanni Radnoti put into our hands the notebook containing her husband’s last poems, exhumed with his body from their mass grave, we felt as many did who knew him: that there must be some reason, some solid historical account, some humanly-comprehensible explanation of his death.  But the more we sought it among his friends and among various literary, religious,  and political survivors, the more it fled away before us, or diverged into contradictory accounts, like a river losing itself in the tangled web of its distributaries.

Yet his own work contains a triumphant and tragic myth of his death, which, if we followed it carefully, pointed to an entirely different kind of meaning than that of the various political and religious worldviews–Hungarian Nationalist, Christian, Communist, Jewish, Modernist, Socialist–that can claim him.  But to follow that myth was to follow him into the land of shades, the underworld of roots and burial where he himself had his great adventure.  A myth is a clue given us by a wise witch to find our way out of a labyrinth; a severe but trustworthy guide; or perhaps also the hope and promise of Mercy Herself, that there is a way back up into the light.

These are not just metaphors.  The problem with translation is that, on the  everyday surface level, there is no equivalent at all in another language for the words of a poem.  The words of another language do not know the words of a Hungarian poem, and they are as incapable of understanding them as is someone who knows no Hungarian, or as rocks and trees and animals are.  If translation is a matter of finding equivalents in a horizontal, one-to-one way–idioms in English that map the Hungarian idioms, grammatical ingenuities that preserve the ambiguities of the original, parallel puns, and so on–then perhaps translation should not even be attempted.  Radnoti would remain dead to us and to the English-speaking world–and the metaphors that Hungarians persistently use to describe the isolation of their language are of being buried, imprisoned, on an island, cut off from the mainstream: the mainstream being English.

But Radnoti believed that translation could not only reproduce the life of the “original,” but even improve on it.   In his memoir Under Gemini–and we will return later to the related myth of the Dioscuri–he tells of a conversation with a scandalized friend in which he makes the deadpan claim that his translation of some lines of Tibullus is better than the Latin.  “Better” can only mean that it is closer to something that both Radnoti and  Tibullus are trying to reach.  If this can be true, then our whole model of the relationship between languages–of language itself–needs to be transformed.  The myth is the alchemical process by which this can be done.

In the myth of Orpheus the poet sang such melodies that the very beasts and trees and rocks listened to his song.  One day his wife Eurydice, a wood-nymph, stepped on a snake and died of its bite.  Orpheus followed her down into the underworld and played so sweetly before king Hades and Queen Persephone that they agreed to release her and let her return with Orpheus to the land of the living, on condition that he not look back at her until they had passed the gates of the underworld.  But he did look back and she was lost forever.  Later, as a priest of Apollo, he censured the orgiastic rites of the Dionysian mysteries, and was torn to pieces by the Maenads, the frenzied female votaries of Dionysus.  Still singing, his head and his lyre drifted down the river Hebrus and came to Lesbos, the island of poets, where the head became an oracle, while Apollo placed the lyre among the stars.  Strangely enough, he was regarded by the devotees of the Orphic mysteries as a true avatar of Dionysus.

Many poets have consciously or unconsciously followed this myth: the poet of Gilgamesh, whose hero seeks his dead friend in the land of the ever-living; Homer, who takes his Odysseus down into the land of shades; Virgil, whose Aeneas follows Odysseus in Book VI of the Aeneid;  Dante, for whom Virgil himself became a guide in the Inferno;  and so on.  A female muse or sibyl or angel often protects the poet in his terrifying journey; for Dante, most eloquently, it is Beatrice.  The land of shades is often imagined as a place of reeds and wandering rivers, and the soul is often imagined as a bird.

In the related myth of the Dioscuri, Castor, the mortal twin, was killed in battle, but Pollux, the immortal, begged to share his brother’s fate.  As a result they live alternately one day in heaven and one day on earth.

Many of these themes can be found again and again in Radnoti’s poetry: the sense of debt to his dead twin in “Twenty-Eight Years” and other poems; the angelic guardian saint almost throughout, variously identified with Radnoti’s dead mother, his living wife, his fate, and the dawning of a new age of freedom (but also, more darkly, with his own debt of death); the strange delta-land of such poems as “Twenty-Nine Years” and “Song;”  the underworld of “Root” and many others; the winged soul and poetic apotheosis in “The Fourth Eclogue,” “Twenty-Nine Years,” and “Hexameters in Late October;”  the sense that death will not stop his song (“In a Troubled Hour,”  “Neither Memory Nor Magic”); perhaps even the persistent sense that the poet brings sentient life to all of the animate and inanimate creation.  We may even find the snake that poisoned Eurydice in such poems as “Twenty-Eight Years” and “While Writing.”  In the second of the “Razglednicas” the tiny shepherdess stepping into the lake catches in one image that peculiar combination of the pastoral and the Hadean that informs this theme of poetic death-transcendence.  And Radnoti’s prophetic fury against the blood-orgies of his persecutors in “Fragment” and “The Eighth Eclogue” recalls the reason for the dismemberment of Orpheus.

For the translator the myth holds special gifts.  In order to recover the life of the dead poet the translator must follow him into the land of the dead, must go underground with him and be reborn with him in his apotheosis.  Our work as translators is, as it were, to find Radnoti’s unburied body and give it fit burial where, like those of the dead helmsmen Baios and Palinurus, he will become a beneficent genius loci.  To translate is to die to one’s own language as the dead poet died to his, and to go back to their common source.  The poet, as in “Root,” lives underground, nourishing the branches of the flowering tree.  Every poem is a flowering branch; to translate is to retrace the source of that branch’s vitality down to where the other language branches off from the common root and to follow it up into a new bough of blossom.  The tree of life is the tree of tongues; and under every poem’s words are an ur-language in which it was spoken before the poet himself translated it into Magyar or Latin or English.  The “original” has never been written down, and every poem is an approximation to that orphic song which comes from the land of the dead, of the ever-living.  Translation is not between leaf and leaf, flower and flower, but a descent through the fractal cascades of the twigs, the forked branches, to the root where the original poem issues, and then, by the power of song, to reascend along another branch.

By the “ur-language” we do not mean some actual prehistoric language, like Indo-European.  One of the emphatic features of Hungarian is that it has no linguistic relationship to the Indo-European languages.  The ur-language is the deep language that we share to some extent with other higher animals, the language of childhood, the words we sometimes speak in dream and which dissolve when, having awoken, we try to remember them.  The world itself speaks a sort of objective poetry, formed out of the harmonious relations of all registerings, sensations, and perceptions of it; and this poetry is the scaffolding of its next leap of growth.  It is that poetry which poets hear, and which is the inner melody of their poems.  The history of the evolution of perception and finally of esthetic perception is the history of the evolution of the universe into concreteness and time, and into that densest and deepest kind of time we call eternity.  The reason the rocks, trees, and beasts come to listen to Orpheus is because they want to hear how their own story comes out; for the ur-language that they speak is unconscious of itself and does not know its own meaning.  The poet is the womb of that meaning, and needs the historical language of his or her culture to embody it.

To translate Radnoti is only possible because he never cut himself off from the living tradition of poets and prophets.  Like Dante and Blake and Rilke and Yeats he conversed on equal terms with the spirits of the dead from the past, and the angels of the unborn future; and the piety that enabled him to do that also renders him available for conversation with other poets, even though the earth of the grave divides us.  In the Eighth Eclogue he speaks with Nahum; and Nahum’s home is not just ancient Israel but the primeval dustcloud out of which the Universe evolved.

To be a part of that tradition is to have mastered, and to have kept the faith with, certain ancient magics, one of the greatest of which is metrical form.  In “O Ancient Prisons,” a perfect sonnet, we see that faith and mastery.  The poet teaches how to know; and he does this only by speaking in measure and in form.  Perhaps the deepest element of the conversation between the translator and the dead poet is mediated by the struggle to resurrect the meter of the original.  In “A la Recherche,” which, as its title implies, is itself an attempt to resurrect the dead poets who were the friends of his youth, Radnoti describes the adjectives as dancing on the froth and comb of the meter; in other words, images come alive only when embedded in a metrical cadence that holds them in the correct, vital position with relation to each other.  Images are like the bases of an enzyme, that are effective in their work of cutting, joining, and catalysing only if the molecular structure–or verse form–of the enzyme presents them at the right angle so as to form an “active site.”  Radnoti can only remember and preserve his dead friends when he remembers the measure of their poetry; and for him the pressure of their hands in their last handclasp is the same thing as their characteristic “hand” or handwriting in meter.  In his great elegy for Mihaly Babits, again it is the Measure (capitalized as in Radnoti’s poem to suggest Babits’ initial) that preserves the inner life of the poet.

The struggle to resurrect Radnoti’s meter in another language results in a terrifying revelation, and demands an absolute faith.  The revelation is of Radnoti’s almost inhuman, his Mozartian virtuosity with meter.  Consider, for instance, the meter of “Twenty-Nine Years”–which even Radnoti himself confesses, in the poem, to have found horribly difficult–with its regular pattern of tetrameters and pentameters, its “nines and twenties” as he punningly puts it, its fiendish system of feminine rhymes.  Every poem he wrote is metrically unique, and he was in his brief time (again like Mozart) divinely prolific.  (Like Mozart too his artistic joy seems to rise to an angelic shriek the grimmer his existence becomes and the closer he gets to death; Radnoti’s friends were scandalized by the fact that he found the activities of Herr Hitler and company of secondary interest to the sweet wrestle with poetic form.  But Radnoti was right.  One day Hitler will be known as a tyrant who lived during the time of the poet Radnoti.)  To render Radnoti’s delicate interference between a meticulous and complex verseform, and an infinitely various cadence, seems simply impossible; a blank wall.

But there is also the faith; for after all the cadence of poetry is already prior to and in common between all languages.  One of the unnoticed peculiarities of the Orpheus myth is that though Orpheus is described as a poet rather than as a musician, it is the sweetness of his song, of his lyre, of his music that persuades the masters of the Underworld to release Eurydice.  We think the problem can be resolved by interpreting music in the myth as poetic meter: Minos and Rhadamanthos might not understand the surface language of a particular national lexicon and syntax, but recognize, as the root recognizes the sap, the ur-language of measure and cadence.  So if the translator has faith in the ur-language–one might almost say, if he does not once look behind to check whether the “literal” sense is following–he may yet lead the redeemed meaning up into the light.  In other words, since English is descended from the same deep root as Magyar, any music of which Magyar is capable exists also in English.  To recover it is like, as Michelangelo put it, cutting away the stone to reveal the statue; the statue is waiting in the stone, if one has faith that it is.

Translating metrically one must be prepared to give up everything, to sacrifice everything to the meter.  Only after that kenosis,  that descent and submission, is everything miraculously restored, not always where it was lost, and sometimes in a form which is not at once recognizable–in the connotation of another word, or in a grammatical ambiguity enforced by the meter–but without loss.  Of course some Radnoti lines simply write themselves in English:

And in the brilliance, bold calligraphy
Is idly, glitteringly, written by
a boastful, diamond-budded dragonfly.
(“Calendar:”  “June”)

But elsewhere, as in the tiny “Ikon” of Mary, the meter will not allow enough room and the pillows on which the doves rest in the original have to be sacrificed.

Look at her hands!  they’re a flower
slain by the snow.  In her hair,
loosening, nestles a dove.

But the pillows return in the word “nestles,” and as the dove now nestles in her hair, it has become her bosom, and so the pillows both of the infant Jesus and of the lover have reappeared in another form, as the doves themselves, but chastened by being in the singular–another shift demanded  by the meter.  In “A Pink Unveils,” faith to the meter demands a straining of the language, so that the cicadas “flirt their hips;” but this usage might well be the discovery of an English or American poet: the poet that Radnoti might have been if his mother tongue were English.  (Radnoti sometimes jokingly referred to himself as the English poet Eaton Darr, a phonetic reversal of his own name.)  The same recovery of the original intensity of the image, through faith in the measure, can be found in the line about the “pales of grey” in “Paris,” and throughout such poems as “Floral Song,”  “In Your Arms,”  and “Dreamscape;” and the Hopkinsian wordleaps that occur in our translation of “Hexameters in Late October” were forced on us by the rigors of the hexameter.

Now these observations about the recovery of the original are not the translatorial self-congratulation that they may appear.  The point is that these things happen through the force of Radnoti’s own genius, given the deep affinities between all languages, and the blind faith of the translators that the original cadence lies buried in English, just as it did in the Hungarian.  This faith is absolutely essential; the translator must reject every  half-way acceptable rhyme or metrical solution, until the right words are found.  Those words are at the same time utterly unforced (though they may sound very strange, expanding the very notion of what is “natural” in English) and utterly in the spirit of the original.  Without that faith one would not know that one had not yet reached the answer, because one would not believe that the answer existed.

This faith requires the translator to jettison many old and new superstitions about what is metrically possible in a given language.  Such superstitions include the belief that English does not take kindly to feet that begin with a strong stress (the dactyl or trochee, for instance); that feet with two light syllables (dactyls, anapests, amphibrachs) necessarily result in an unpleasant gallop in English verse; and that lines longer than the pentameter–especially the hexameter–will not work in English.  All these problems are matters of technique.  Chiefly the answer lies in a consideration of the length as well as the stress of the English syllables.  Few poets who work in English meter pay the conscious attention they should to syllabic length, though if they have good ears they will generally opt unconsciously for a safely pleasant pattern of syllable lengths.  If the heavy and light stresses in the English hexameter are patterned against a harmonious counterpoint of syllables of greater and lesser duration, many of the problems of this long line disappear.  Another recourse is alliteration, which wonderfully ties the line together.  In all of these matters Radnoti was our teacher, as he himself was a faithful servant of the classics whom he translated.  Our experience with Radnoti encourages us to believe that even tonal meters, like those of classical Chinese poetry, could be made to work in English, even though tone is used grammatically in English rather than lexically, as it is in Chinese.  Magyar, we feel, once possessed a systematic lexical/tonal element, which still surfaces sometimes in poetry.

The uniqueness of each of Radnoti’s poems has much to do with the different mood and mindset that is generated by a given meter, and to which the imagery, wordplay, logic, and degrees of grammatical licence and semantic ambiguity are tuned.  In “Hymn to the Nile,” for instance, the short lines and heavy rhymes are tuned to the repetition of words and whole lines to produce an incantatory or invocatory effect.  This in turn contrasts with the exotic subject and the compounded neologisms to create a strange ritual chant, the aural equivalent of Egyptian hieroglyphics; while the light dancing energy of the rhythm makes the poem into a celebration.  Meanwhile the playful paradoxes, expressionistic diction, and grammatical freedom set the poem loosely within the symbolist movement and thus suggest a more immediate relevance.  Take the meter out of this complex system, and the meaning of the poem disappears, like the colors of a tropical fish when it is left to gasp in the bottom of a boat.  “In Your Arms” is an even more telling example.  It would be quite lifeless without the lullaby meter.  More subtly, the epic/pastoral hexameters of the first and eighth eclogues are fundamental to their meanings, recalling the power of Homer, the moral complexity of Virgil, and that strange Hadean combination of the arcadian with the heroic that we associate with the descent to the land of the dead.

The chief superstition that we found we must give up was the superstition that “free verse” is an adequate or acceptable way of translating a metered original.  And our experience with translation confirmed our growing suspicion that by abandoning metered verse the modernists were abandoning the very heart of poetry itself.  In translating Radnoti we hope that his spirit will be released into the English language, released from that marshy delta-land beside the Rabca and into the freedom which Radnoti always envisioned beyond the dreadful foreshortening of his own life and fate.  The poetic stagnation which has occurred since the second world war, partly as a result of the terrible events of that war and partly because of the modernist mistake of giving up poetic meter, may thus give way to a new freshening and opening of poetry, so that the spiritual Nile may once more flow unimpeded:

All hail, thou greenglowing!
O Nilus, sweetsmelling,
thy cisterns thou breakest,
thy pastures sunglowing
thou floodest with growing,
thou, overflowing!


1.  The following poem conveys one dimension of my personal relationship as a poet with Radnoti:

On the Pains of Translating Miklos Radnoti

And now I too must wrestle with a brother
Whose dead limbs cumber me within the womb,
Whose grief I pity, but whose cord of nurture
Glides dreadful and unseen in this blind gloom.

That angel, who is Michael in my language,
Knew how to die, knew how to share a grave;
Sometimes he almost overcrows my spirit,
His great feathered wings beating in the cave–

My elder brother died as I first opened
My lips in speech instead of in a scream;
Now he returns to claim the voice I borrowed,
Now he returns, the hero of my dream.

How can I share the lifeblood of our mother?
How can I let his dead voice steal my breath?
But how indeed could I deny my brother
Who, reckless, bought my birthright with his death?

For all alone among that generation
He kept the faith that I have made my name,
That ancient grace, that hard emancipation,
The love of form that touches us like flame.

What can I do but open to his service
The pulse and wordstream of the mother tongue?
Thus I subdue myself and hear him singing
Out of the land of shades where none have sung.

Could I, the western democrat, professor,
Father, essayist, of middle age,
Be given any greater gift than this is,
To share the passion of his vassalage?

From BEAUTY: THE VALUE OF VALUES (University Press of Virginia, 1991)

The rituals of sacrifice, and their later and more subtle developments as tragedy or eucharist, are the human way of rendering this ancient horror into beauty.  Sacrifice has a peculiar element, which we might call “commutation”: every sacrifice commemorates a previous sacrifice, in which some much more terrible act of bloody violence or costly loss was required.  Abraham is allowed to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, who was due to the Lord; the Greeks can burn the fat and bones and hide of the bull to the gods, and eat the flesh themselves.  Instead of a whole firstborn son, only a shred of flesh from the foreskin need be given.  When the process has been going for a long time, the sacrificed object can become apparently rather trivial.  Cucumbers are sacrificed in some African tribal societies; Catholics and Buddhists burn candles; almost all Christians break bread.  Thus every sacrifice is an act of impurity which pays for a prior act of greater impurity, but pays for it at an advantage, that is, without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor.  The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.

The process of commutation also has much in common with the processes of metaphorization, symbolization, even reference or meaning itself.  The Christian eucharistic sacrifice of bread not only stands in for the sacrifice of Christ (which in turn stands in for the death of the whole human race); it also means, and in sacramental theology is the death of Christ.  The Greek tragic drama both referred to, and was a portion of, the sacrificial rites of Dionysus–both a use and a mention, as the logicians say, or both a metaphor and a synecdoche, in the language of the rhetorician.  The word commutation nicely combines these senses: in general use it means any substitution or exchange, as when money in one currency is changed into another, or into small change, or when payment in one form is permitted to be made in another; in alchemy it can be almost synonymous with transmutation, as of one metal into another; in criminal jurisprudence it refers to the reasoned lightening of a just punishment to one which is less severe, but which is juridically taken as equivalent to it; in electrical engineering it is the reversal of a current or its transformation between direct and alternating current; in mathematical logic it refers to the equivalency of a given operation, such as A multiplied by B, to its reverse, B multiplied by A.

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a profound meditation on the nature of commutation in all these senses: on the commutative relationships between the three thousand ducats, the friendship of Antonio and Bassanio, the pound of flesh, the life of Antonio, the livelihood of Shylock, the wedding-ring of Portia, and the body of Portia in marriage; between the ducats and the daughter, between inanimate metal, dead meat, live flesh, and the living spirit.  The play is most deeply about how sacrifice is the meaning of meaning.  What it implies for our own time is that the death of sacrifice is the death of meaning; that the crisis in modern philosophy over the meaning of the word “reference”–and this is the heart of it–has its roots in the denial of shame and thus the denial of commutativeness; and that for reference and meaning to come back to life, some deep sacrifice is required.