Octavio Paz y la crítica

De Octavio Paz nos dice J. Agustín Pastén, en su excelente monografía sobre la labor crítica del poeta mexicano, que el mismo es un “crítico practicante en busca de una poética”. En Pastén resuena, a su vez, la propuesta del crítico uruguayo Emir Rodríguez Monegal quien en otro ensayo — también sobre la labor crítica del poeta mexicano — sugiere que la suya, la de Paz, es un ejemplo de “crítica hecha por el creador”; en otras palabras, de “crítica de practicantes”. Continue reading “Octavio Paz y la crítica”

Criticism and Dvořák

Continuing on my research about the crisis of criticism, I’ve just finished reading an essay by pianist Sarah Rothenberg on criticism in the world of music.[1. “Measuring the Immeasurable,” in Maurice Berger, ed.,The Crisis of Criticism (The New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 147-168.] Rothenberg begins her essay describing a visit of Antonín Dvořák to America in 1892. The event, that included Dvořák’s premier of his “From the New World” Symphony, was reviewed by New York Daily Tribune‘s music critic Henry Krehbiel.[2. See also a commentary on Krehbiel’s article by Michael Beckerman: “Henry Krehbiel, Antonín Dvořák, and the Symphony ‘From the New World’,” Notes 49.2 (Dec., 1992), pp. 447-473.] What stroke Rothenberg the most about the review was the fact that it included “fourteen musical examples, with a total of eighty bars of music” (148). She explains:

The presence of excerpts from an orchestral score quoted freely in a daily sold on streetcorners speaks eloquently of a defined relationship between critic and reader, composer and audience, producer and consumer. While Americans were, for the first time, quite self-consciously attempting to put a distinctly American imprint on the European tradition of concert music (for the issue of American identity was a large part of Dvořák’s project in this country), there was nevertheless, quite unself-consciously, an accepted notion of the relevance of such discussion and an expectation of musical literacy for those who wished to enter into it. (148) [highlights are mine]

Rothenberg goes on explaining some of the reasons why such “musical literacy” was possible. For instance, she observes that up to probably the time of Dvořák’s visit, around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most people only had two ways to enjoy music — either by making it by themselves or by being “in a room where someone else was making it” (149). And this could be said not only of music but of many other art forms. In fact, we don’t need to stretch the idea too much to include painting and, consequently, to connect her assessment with Benjamin’s essay on the lost of aura in industrially reproducible art.

I have always understood Benjamin’s idea of aura as a way to represent the experience of evaluating, of assessing value in artistic goods. Metaphorically Metonymically, the aura is a — somehow mystical, it’s true — way to account for that experience, to understand the economy of desires that connects producers and consumers of artistic goods through ‘use value’. In my view, a consequence of Benjamin’s analysis is the recognition that mechanically reproducible art creates recurrent bubbles that abruptly destabilizes that economy. Eventually, the effect of this loss of aura is an artistic market that is completely fetishized or commoditized.

What Rothenberg describes is a similar process. By introducing mechanically reproducible music, that auratic experience between listeners, performers, composers, and score is, as she describes so well, loss forever. But she goes beyond Benjamin, at least in my view. Why? Because she introduces into her analysis the role of the middlemen.  Critics are the middlemen in the economy of desires that operates in art. And although middlemen are usually associated with unscrupulous car salesmen or shark speculators, Rothenberg’s analysis demonstrates that despite all the bad imagery middlemen play an important role here. Good critics help leveling the  playing field without distorting it.

The function of the middlemen is to help the negotiating parties in understanding each other. In the economy of desires involved in art, it means negotiating between producer’s and consumer’s expectations about each transaction. Critics help both parties in agreeing on a common language to express their needs and wants, on what they bring to the negotiating table. The combination of industrialized art consumption and the disappearing of the critic brings as main consequence that both producers and consumers of art goods lack of a common language to articulate their needs and expectations other than the language of money — therefore the unavoidable fetishism. As Rothenberg remarks, modern consumers of music are incapable of understanding a piece’s score and therefore the only way they can assess value — on their auratic experience — is in terms of money or any of its proxys — such as ratings, sales, popularity, etc.

So, paraphrasing Rothenberg’s title, facing the dilemma of their inability to measure the immeasurable, contemporary art consumers are left with only one option: to measure the only measurable variable we have left, money. In another post I’m going to talk a little bit about this, the relationship between money and criticism.

Some Notes on Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Talking about “The Riddle of Poetry,” as part of his Norton Lectures at Harvard University,  Jorge Luis Borges referred once to a famous sonnet by the great English Romantic John Keats: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” in order to explain the ‘riddle’ hidden behind the language of poetry.

At this point, it might be a good thing to say that, according to Charles Cowden Clarke — who by the way happens to be the one source of the whole story — this sonnet was written one night of October 1816, soon after he and Keats had spent a whole night reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s books. So impressed was Keats with Chapman’s translation that after he and Clarke parted “at day-spring” Keats sent his friend a letter containing the famous verses as a gift.

Borges knew Keats’ poem by heart. During the lecture, he used the last sestet to illustrate one important point — that language is not only a ‘medium’ for communication but also for “passion and pleasure.” Here is Borges’ rendering of Keats’ sestet:

Then felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or’ like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -and all his men
look’d at each other with a wild surmise-
Silent, upon a peak in Darien

I think that Keats’ sonnet and Borges’ reading of it are an excellent way to approach the problem of translation, particularly Walter Benjamin’s take on it. But first let’s talk a little bit about Benjamin.

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

In his introduction to a translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, Benjamin asks whether a translation is meant for readers who do not understand the original — to which he responds that it isn’t. The task of the translator, he explains, is “finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of” the original’s “mode of signification.” Therefore, a translation is no meant for an idealized reader or readers but for the language those readers use — to release in it “that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”

What is this “pure language”? A few people have tried to provide an interpretation to this enigmatic  term.


For instance, translation scholar Susan Bernofsky argues that this ‘pure language’ is some unmediated form of a (still) non existent global language…

For Benjamin, pure language is a form, not an actual active language: it is the intersection of all the world’s individual, human languages – making it, in a sense, post-human. It doesn’t exist yet in actuality, but it will some day, eventually, in the messianically distant future (pace de Man) when the borders separating all the languages of the world from one another have become so blurry that they all merge into one. Translators are the ones doing the blurring, in case you were wondering.

There is an intrinsic impossibility in Bernofsky’s program though. This distillation of a global, all-encompassing messianic  ‘pure language’ requires something that is either outside of history or, at least, at the end of it. Why? Because, as she says, such a language doesn’t “point to the world of things and ideas, which lies outside” it. Basically, it is ‘pure form’, a non-entity in much the same way an abstract point is a non-entity, ‘pure form’, in the realm of mathematics. Can this non-entity really mean anything? What is the relationship between it and the point of its production? On the other hand, can language — written or spoken, visual o textual, etc. — really exist outside of history? Is there any clear relationship between language and history?

Brecht and method

At the end of his book on Brecht’s method, Fredric Jameson adds an epilogue in which he discusses three additional “temporalities.” Jameson’s book is mostly a reflection on Brecht’s praxis and its connection with his “productivity.”

I think here Benjamin is referring to a work’s historicity, in the Jamesonian sense. Each literary work has its own historicity embedded into its language. The fact that translations are part of the afterlife of literary works seems to support this idea. If what a translator wants is to find that echo of the original “mode of signification,” then his/her task is no other than reconstructing the original’s totality.

For Benjamin, the best translation is the literal one or, better yet, the interlinear. The juxtaposition of the literal translation and the original facilitates the turning of the translated words into the original. Rather than trying to convey some concealed meaning, the task of the translator is thus to express the “central reciprocal relationship between languages.”

The Argentinian critic Beatriz Sarlo argues that behind the translator’s task there is the impulse to undo the Babelian project — the drive for mutual misunderstanding. Benjamin doubts the feasibility of such a project, since the task of the translator doesn’t relies on the similarities among languages but on their differences.

Two Digressions about Borges, Wittgenstein and the Aesthetic Experience

I. Borges and Shi Huang Ti

In his tale “Las murallas y los libros,” Borges tells the story of Shi Huang Ti (or Quin Shi Huang), the Chinese emperor who built the first Great Wall, also remembered for ordering the burning of books and the burying of all intellectuals. According to Borges, Shi Huang Ti ordered the burning of all history records in order to delete any incriminating memory of his own birth, since it was believed then that his mother was already pregnant at the time she became his father’s concubine.

Anyhow, in his tale, Borges argues that the attempted burning of history records is only part of the story. The other part is the building of the Wall. So, according to the Argentinean, Shi Huang Ti ordered the construction of the Wall because he also wanted to keep death afar. In a way, by deleting history and keeping everybody isolated from the rest of the world, Shi Huang Ti thought he would be able to achieve immortality by re-creating the world. How? By the the magical powers of naming things. As first emperor and the originator of history, Shi Huang Ti was also the founding father of language, the divine provider of words.

Or, maybe, goes on Borges, Shi Huang Ti thought that by eliminating history and forcing all intellectuals—the keepers of knowledge, of language—to build his Wall, he would force history to repeat itself as well, and according to his own design. Later on in the future, he might have thought, another emperor would come who might destroy Shi Huang Ti’s Great Wall and delete any memories of his Empire, becoming with this act Shi Huang Ti’s mirror image in time.

Or, perhaps, by eliminating history and leaving only his wall—a simple form made out of rocks and mortar—Shi Huang Ti wanted to convey us the sublime aesthetic experience. Borges explains:

…podríamos inferir que todas ls formas tienen su virtud en sí mismas y no en un “contenido” conjetural. Esto concordaría con la tesis de Benedetto Croce [intuition as the basis of aesthetic experience]; ya Pater, en 1877, afirmó que todas las artes aspiran a la condición de la música, que no es otra cosa que forma. La música, los estados de felicidad, la mitología, las caras trabajadas por el tiempo, ciertos crepúsculos y ciertos lugares, quieren decirnos algo, o algo dijeron que no hubiéramos debido perder, o están por decir algo; esta inminencia de una revelación, que no se produce, es, quizá, el hecho estético. [in English]

II. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” So, the Wall’s being is the mystical, its form, not the how it came to be. Similarly, in the same place, Wittgenstein also says that ethics and aesthetics can’t be expressed in words (or propositions), much the same way music—according to Croce and (Walter) Pater—can’t be translated into words. I wonder if both Borges and Witt are talking about the same kind of aesthetic experience?

Estética y Wittgenstein

Un poco en la misma tónica de mi comentario anterior, leía días atrás algunas notas sobre estética del filósofo austriaco Ludwig Wittgenstein. Las notas las recopilaron sus estudiantes de unas charlas que Wittgenstein diera en el verano de 1938. Aquí me refiero a la edición inglesa publicada por la Universidad de California, y editada por el jesuita Cyril Barrett (por cierto, un cura irlandés muy curioso que estudiara en el Instituto Warburg y que escribiera sobre temas tan diversos como la filosofía existencialista y/o el arte de Picasso).

Wittgenstein comienza su discusión elucubrando sobre el uso de ciertas palabras como “belleza”, “bello”, “bueno”, etc. Aquí hay que recordar que su filosofía se basa en la premisa de que todo problema filosófico es esencialmente uno de carácter semántico, y que su solución requiere un análisis detallado de la manera como el lenguaje se utiliza en cierto contexto particular.

Por ejemplo, Wittgestein dice (p. 11): “In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living”. Así, si yo digo “Esto es bello”, decirlo es equivalente a hacer un gesto de aprobación con el rostro. Sólo aquellas personas que están familiarizadas con el significado del gesto pueden comprender lo que quiere decir. Igualmente, sólo quienes compartan un uso común (contexto) de la palabra “bello” con nosotros pueden comprender lo que la palabra significa cuando la utilizo en la frase “Esto es bello”.

Una manera como Wittgenstein demuestra el papel que el contexto juega en todo esto lo vemos cuando él habla de asociaciones (p. 31-36). Por ejemplo, tenemos dos poemas y alguien dice acerca de uno de los poemas: “Este poema es tan bueno como el primero”. Decir algo así es, para Wittgenstein, equivalente a decir que un lápiz es tan largo como otro. Si bien es cierto que el caso de los lápices pareciera más sencillo (sólo hay que ponerlos uno al lado del otro y comparar las longitudes), lo es sencillamente porque asumimos que existe una convención en torno a qué es “longitud”, qué significa “igual”, de qué manera se miden la longitud de los objetos (¿en centímetros o en nanómetros?), etc. etc. Pero supongamos que hablamos con un extraterrestre y que luego de explicarle qué significa “igual” y cuál es el procedimiento para comparar longitudes, descubrimos que el extraterrestre no está de acuerdo porque para él uno de los lápices mide 3 micrometros más que el otro; una medida imposible de percibir a simple vista por los seres humanos. Lo que quiero resaltar es que precisión o exactitud es algo que requiere por igual de un contexto social para poder comprenderse.

Algo similar sucede si decimos que un poema es tan bueno como otro. Ambas expresiones asumen una red compleja de información contextual que es básicamente independiente de los objetos comparados. De nuevo, lo social permea todo el proceso. En esencia, el problema es similar al planteado por Žižek en el caso de Malevich y Duchamp discutido en mi comentario de hace unos días. Claro, Wittgenstein no estaba interesado en el lado metafísico del problema. Para él, lo importante era la validez o consistencia lógica de las proposiciones estéticas. La ideología, como la psicología, no era por supuesto de su interés.

Una última cosa. Hace tiempo leí un excelente libro de Umberto Eco sobre la historia de la belleza en la Edad Media (Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages). Por ejemplo, allí Eco menciona como en la era escolástica la palabra “belleza” se refería a una cualidad con connotaciones morales y psicológicas más que artísticas. Para el escolástico, la belleza era una cualidad divina, así que decir que algo era bello implicaba admitir que ese algo compartía una propiedad o cualidad exclusiva de Dios, lo que por supuesto no era poca cosa dadas sus implicaciones morales. Así, un paisaje natural (no alterado por el hombre) podía ser bello, a cuenta de haber sido creado por Dios. Sin embargo, lo mismo no podía decirse de una sala o un cuadro, a menos que estuviéramos hablando de la casa de Dios o de un retrato o representación de su persona; en ese caso la belleza del objeto era una suerte de exceso o extensión de la divina.

Lo humano, por ejemplo, no podía definitivamente ser bello. ¿Cómo puede una cucaracha pecadora e imperfecta como nosotros tener una propiedad en común con el creador? La belleza humana era una belleza a medias, muchas veces fuente del mal. Por ejemplo, la belleza femenina era algo abominable, prueba infalible de su esencia pecaminosa y diabólica, ya que era una belleza falsa (sí, las mujeres medievales también se maquillaban, perfumaban y adornaban) que solía distraernos de aquello genuinamente bello; es decir, Dios. Lo interesante, y en virtud de su profundo sentido ético y religioso, es que los escolásticos estaban muy claros de la función ideológica de la estética: distraernos de lo que era, según ellos, realmente importante: Dios… Ok, la autoridad de la iglesia.