joculum: (Default)
2017-03-15 12:32 am

On George Steiner, Lou Reed and Nico, and other cultural diversions of the preceding century

I’m aware that my most recent Facebook posts have been making elementary observations that would elicit pitying smiles among my few academic friends, so possessed are these observations of what academicians regard as “a firm grasp on the obvious.“ But the obvious is exactly what nobody seems to have much of a grasp on in today’s America.

One problem, of course, is that my “obvious” is not your “obvious,” and vice versa. I just realized that 2017 is not only the fiftieth anniversary of the album The Velvet Underground and Nico, it is the fiftieth anniversary of George Steiner’s Language and Silence. The two had a more or less equal impact on me at age twenty-one; the one showing that it was possible to create astonishing songs about heroin and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, the other introducing me to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall McLuhan, Ernst Bloch, and Georg Lukács, all of which was pretty heady stuff for a boy from a little town in Florida who was also absorbing that year’s release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, from which “White Rabbit” became an anthem of the Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Love.

All this comes to mind because yesterday I read the 115 pages of George Steiner’s A Long Saturday: Conversations (with Laure Adler, translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan). In these conversations, Steiner evinces a familiarity with Alain Resnais’ classic films and regrets that he never engaged in systematic study of cinema alongside his magisterial grasp of European philosophy and literature. He also expresses regret that he has never been able to get his head or his emotions around popular music from rock to hip-hop and beyond. (And yet he was one of the first to grasp the implications of the shift in consciousness that accompanied the ubiquity of electronic media that would eventually become the digital revolution, and pretty much had all that figured out by age forty. The fact that he was only five years older than Leonard Cohen left me feeling that I was going to have to run as fast as possible if a kid from Small Town South were to catch up with modern and contemporary culture before age forty. Leonard Cohen’s first album also appeared in 1967.)

Although I didn’t know it at the time, 1967 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Paul Valéry’s epoch-making poem "La Jeune Parque.” I just read that poem in translation for very nearly the first time a few months ago, and was flabbergasted to discover that although it tackles the big issues of love and death, it is also a poem about a young woman trying to figure out how to avoid becoming just a decorative status symbol for a husband. Given that he spent four years writing it while the First World War was going on, it makes me want to go out and read a biography of Valéry, who was even more of a polymath than Steiner.

I dwell on this because the translation in the new book of conversations calls the poem “The Young Park,” and while “Parque” does mean “park,” here it refers to one of the Parcae, the Three Fates. The poem is always cited by its original French title, because “The Young Parca” sounds silly and “The Young Fate” isn’t much better.

I know translators don’t get paid much for their largely unappreciated job (Steiner published an entire book about translation, After Babel, so he would sympathize). But I feel like someone translating a book so steeped in European culture should know a poem that is considered one of the two or three greatest French poems of the twentieth century.

Of course, nobody can know everything, although Steiner has done a good job of giving the appearance that he does. One of the refreshing things about these conversations at almost the age of ninety is the extent to which Steiner admits to the things he doesn’t know. Some of us felt back in the day that George Steiner and Susan Sontag were all we needed, because everything Steiner didn’t know, Sontag did, and vice versa—but both of them gave the impression that of course they knew more than they were writing about, they just couldn’t be bothered to address the topics.

In practice, we needed a number of writers about popular culture as well, because popular culture was already as arcane as, say, the visuals of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, to understand which one has to know both Pipilotti Rist and the orisha Oshun, along with a good deal of African-American and feminist thought and imagery.