Thursday, 29 May 2014

Eroticism - lost in translation?

Histoire de l'erotisme, by Pierre-Marc de Biasi (Gallimard, 2007)

Translating that  French title  L’histoire de l’érotisme, word-for-word makes you realise what a challenge such a title presents. The English don’t really do “eroticism” – they have pornography, but there isn’t much call for the word “eroticism” in English.  Only in France could such a book be done tastefully, as part of the Gallimard Découvertes series, which means an integrated four-colour layout with two narratives on each page, one for the text, and the other for the pictures. Of course, the limited space in the book means that many of the pictures are too small and the text (by the impressive Pierre-Marc de Biasi) has a breathless feel to it, since the author does not have space to develop his arguments.

But was it any good? Yes, it had some genuine insights. The text ranged widely (although there was not as much about the East and about Japan as I would have wished), and the author cleverly comments on changes in contemporary attitudes by pointing out the date when a term was introduced. The word “flirter” appears in French with Emma Bovary, for example. The word “pornography” appears almost in the same year as the word “photography”. The word “sexy” appears in France in 1928. In the same year were published classic erotic works, which are in themselves enough to suggest the gulf in attitudes to the erotic between Britain and France:

-          Bataille, Histoire de l’œil
-          Aragon, Le con d’Irène
-          Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Some might say that Lawrence's novel is erotic; I wouldn't. More like an embarassing moral tract, for me, but that's another subject. 

As for the book’s major themes, I noted:

1.       The baleful role of the Church in determining erotic attitudes.  While in the Ancient World sex was polymorphous and celebrated, by the third century CE Clement of Alexandria was already identifying the Fall as a sin of passion, not due to curiosity or the desire for knowledge. By the time of Alexander, sex had become linked with original sin: “Procreation would be nobler if it could be achieved without sexual relations.” The Christian West created a single sexual sin, including within marriage, under the title of “concupiscence”. And the Church was very clear just how sinful sex was. According to Gerson, around 1400, incest was a lesser sin than masturbation.

2.       A common theme through book is the contrast between consensual eroticism, as represented by Casanova, and a feudal, dominant eroticism, as represented by Don Juan, de Sade, and in the 20th century by Georges Bataille. Don Juan seduces for the sake of it, without any compassion for his victims. In his 1957 book L’Erotisme, Bataille describes eroticism as “a painful, Sadean concept, criminal and nihilist” [une conception douloureuse et sadienne, criminelle et nihiliste].  For de Sade, libertinage was a tool for destruction ; there is no concept of shared pleasure with him. While the erotic could be about unrestrained pleasure, a dominant theme in 20th-century eroticism has been this aggressive, tyrannical, dominating attitude to sex.

3.       So what’s the author’s view? He is a life-affirmer. In his initial definition of eroticism he describes it as “sexual pleasure for its own end, without any biological injunction. But its object is spiritual.” It is an achievement of the author that while praising the erotic, as he is more or less obliged to do in a book of this title, he makes it clear the erotic can have a spiritual element, and need not be dominating. He describes the public recognition of homosexuality as the greatest achievement of eroticism in the last 30 years, and ends the book with a tantalising (because unexplored) yet fascinating defintion of modern eroticism: the art of loving and of living together that will make all of us artists [un art d’aimer et du vivre ensemble qui fera de nous tous des artistes.]

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Dickens and Parochialism

There is an unfortunate strand in English letters of placid acceptance of a kind of status quo. There is a  number of  great writers (of whom Dickens is one) and every conceivable aspect of their works is comfortably (and not very questioningly) celebrated. The TLS of April 11 2014 contained a fine example of such complacency.

Two pages are devoted to a review of the two-volume collection of essays, The Reception of Charles Dickens in Europe. This book, we are told, offers “much for English-speakers to learn through dialogues with their European colleagues”. But it is clear throughout the review that what is meant is less “dialogue” than sermon – that Dickens should be enlightening the European reader, and the European reader is expected to respond with unquestioning admiration. The book, for example

offers a number of engaging facts about Dickens’s European legacy. For instance, no single novel by Dickens has ever been translated into Icelandic, but he is still, asserts Astradur Eysteinsson, an important figure in the development of the Icelandic novel … In excessive contrast to the apparent Icelandic neglect, more than 1,000 editions of Dickens were published in Russia between 1838 and 1960.

Perhaps the population of Iceland is so tiny that there was no business case for translating Dickens? Perhaps the level of English was (and is) so high in Iceland that Icelanders read him in the original English? It seems a very bland comment to make by the reviewer.  If Dickens was “neglected”, how can he have been an important figure?  It would be more valuable to explore if the number of editions is indicative of a novelist’s worth.

More fundamental, the review seems to accept without question some of Dickens’s most dubious national stereotypes. Despite Dickens spending “lengthy spells” in France and his French apparently becoming fluent, and despite the way that Dickens’s work “frequently undercut British pretensions to global mastery”,  there is not a hint that his novel A Tale of Two Cities is guilty of the worst stereotyping of France and the French.  Indeed, the reviewer blithely states “while we might imagine that A Tale of Two Cities would be popular in France”, an astonishing statement given the novel’s slanted and one-sided depiction of the French. In Dickens’s novel, the only good Frenchmen and women are those who have spent some time in England. Dickens’s view of the Revolution seems to be wholly in agreement with that of Thomas Carlyle, in his reactionary The French Revolution. Perhaps that is the reason why for the French “it never was to become one of their favourite novels, even after Mrs Thatcher gave it as a state gift to Francois Mitterand [sic] in 1989 as a state gift.”

Did Mrs Thatcher ever read A Tale of Two Cities? If she had, she would never have given it to the French president. Is it not supremely ironic that a not very cultured English head of state gives an insulting depiction of the French to the French head of state, and the reviewer seems to be surprised the book is not more popular. Is would appear perhaps to this reviewer that any work by Dickens, however insulting to the recipient, should be beneficial to them. Such a supine attitude to things cultural (that they are always somehow “good”, if the author has a sufficiently high status) is the parochialism I referred to. For this reviewer, Dickens is de facto a great writer, and the Europeans should be engaged in appreciating him (even if they have inexplicably failed to translate him with sufficient enthusiasm. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A Tale of Two Dickens

I’ve just finished A Tale of Two Cities, and my reaction is pure astonishment.  I confess that I like Dickens. I read and greatly enjoyed Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol, and yet I am astonished that Dickens could write such good novels set in London, and yet how his touch deserts him when he attempts to write about France. Is this the same novelist?