Thursday, March 22, 2012

Inherent depths in language

I had read the short story "French Lesson I: Le Muertre" – from Lydia Davis' collection break it down – a few years ago. It was, in fact, the reason why I purchased the collection in the first place, reading it somewhere else. The premise in the short story is that words take on additional contextual meaning based on the language and experiences of the user. Not too great a surprise, perhaps, but it is in the manner of the telling that spoke so deeply to me:
A French arbre is not the elm or maple shading the main street of our New England towns in the infinitely long, hot and listless, vacant summer of our childhoods, which are themselves different from the childhoods of French children, and if you see a Frenchman standing on a street in a small town in America pointing to an elm or a maple and calling it an arbre, you will know this is wrong. An arbe is a plane tree in an ancient town square with lopped, stubby branches and patchy, leprous bark standing in a row of similar plane trees across from the town hall, in front of which a bicycle ridden by a man with thick, reddish skin and an old cap wavers past and turns into a narrow lane. Or an arbre is one of the dense, scrubby live oaks in the blazing dry hills of Provence, through which a similar figure in a blue cloth jacket carrying some sort of net or trap pushes his way. An arbre can also cast a pleasant shade and keep la maison cool in the summer, but remember that la maison is not wood-framed with a widow's walk and a wide front porch but is laid out on a north-south axis, is built of irregular, sand-colored blocks of stone, and has a red tile roof, small square windows with green shutters, and no windows on the north side, which is also protected from the wind by a closely planted line of cypresses, while a pretty mulberry or olive may shade the south. Not that there are not many different sorts of maisons in France, their architecture depending on their climate or the fact that there may be a foreign country nearby, like Germany, but we cannot really have more than one image behind a word we say, like maison. What do you see when you say house? Do you see more than one kind of house?
This passage explores with brilliant imagery the emotive memories that bubble up and bloom with words like arbre and maison. I don't know, for sure, whether Davis is making sly and witty humor, but its something that is important when learning any new language – the differences that make something more real, provide more depth and nuance. It is the partial reason why some phrasing "sounds better" to a native speaker than others. For example:

"St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland" vs. "St. Patrick banished the serpents from Ireland".

The context of the second sentence is far more Biblical than the rather mundane wording of the first. However, "drive out" does have a meaning of "banish" and "snakes" does overlap with "serpent", so why not just substitute the one for the other? This is analogous to the problems that many foreign students face in their writing, and that I face when speaking Spanish. (I once got into a long discussion about which verb for "walk" I should have used to describe by activities of one afternoon: andar, caminar, or pasear. It turns out that I should have used all three to better describe different activities that I had done during the afternoon. I was - quite figuratively - out of my linguistic depths.)

However, languages draw very strongly upon imagery, especially in poetry. Shakespeare's 18th sonnet ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") relies strongly upon inherent imagery of an English summer:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Its imagery might not, for example, translate very well into languages with cultures that don't draw upon positive emotional associations with summer. However, this sonnet remains - in English - in a very central place in the cultural understanding. Even to such an extent that it was the central part of one recent xkcd web comic:

The imagery and emotions that are connected in a culture's lexicon is one of the major means of conveying depth and emotional consonance in the poems of Langston Hughes. To me, particularly, the imagery of water pulls on me, and when the 10th-grade me read "The Negro Speak of Rivers", I felt almost physically drawn in to them:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Many analyses of this poem speak to the deep emotional linkage between the African American identity and the rivers:
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is perhaps the most profound of these poems of heritage and strength. Composed when Hughes was a mere 17 years old, and dedicated to W. E. B. DuBois, it is a sonorous evocation of transcendent essences so ancient as to appear timeless, predating human existence, longer than human memory. The rivers are part of God's body, and participate in his immortality. They are the earthly analogues of eternity: deep, continuous, mysterious. They are named in the order of their association with black history. The black man has drunk of their life-giving essences, and thereby borrowed their immortality.
For me, however, I didn't resonate with the history outlined above, but with the natural flow of water, the evocation of these major rivers and the images that they provided (and still provide) to me. (It's a reason why I decided to work on water issues, in fact.)

With haiku, too (and perhaps especially), the weight of imagery behind the sparse language provides a profundity that is lacking in the mere words of the stanza. To use another famous example, consider Basho's haiku (which is also about water): 
This is perhaps the most famous haiku worldwide. However, trying to understand merely the words of the haiku means that it loses a lot in translation into English. It is for this reason that there are so many explanations on this haiku. A good one that I've found is:
A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.
While this translation fails at holding to the form of the haiku, it does a decent job of explaining the emotional depth of each phrase that makes up the original. For me, having lived seven years in Tokyo and having some emotional connection with Japanese, the original words run deeper than the "mere" translation of their significance, but when I read Pablo Neruda's poem "Oda al vals Sobre las Olas" - also about water - I am left dry:
Viejo vals, estás vivo
no a la manera
de un
corazón enterrado,
sino como el olor
de una planta profunda,
tal vez como el aroma
del olvido.

No conozco
de la música,
ni sus libros sagrados,
soy un
pobre poeta
de las calles
y sólo
vivo y muero
de los sonidos enlutados
emerge sobre un mar de madreselva
la miel
el baile coronado
por un ramo celeste de palmeras.

Oh, por las enramadas,
en la arena
de aquella costa, bajo
aquella luna,
bailar contigo el vals
de las espumas
apretando tu talle
y a la sombra
del cielo y su navío
besar sobre tus párpados tus ojos
el rocío
dormido en el jazmín fosforescente!

Oh, vals de labios puros
al vaivén
de las olas,
oh corazón
en la nave
de la música,
oh vals
de palomas,
de nada,
que vives
sin embargo
como una cuerda fina,
trenzada con
con soledad, con tierra,
con jardines!

Bailar contigo, amor,
a la fragante
de aquella luna,
de aquella antigua
besar, besar tu frente
mientras rueda
sobre las olas!
As much as I read and understand the words, they still remain just disjointed words, lacking in a depth of meaning that I find in the examples above. Of course, if I'm still working out which word for walk I should use to describe an outing around town, the depths of inherent cultural understanding that speaks to a Chilean reading Neruda's words are - unsurprisingly - a challenge that will continue to beckon through to the future.

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