Foreign Languages

Many of our readers have spent time and effort, a lot of time and effort, in reading foreign language texts, and many will have noticed a certain glass wall.

No matter who the author is, Horace or Tu Fu, there begins to grow a dissatisfaction, a suspicion that the foreigner (that’s us) is missing the color and intensity that the author meant to provide. Kipling is vivid. Shakespeare is vivid. Why isn’t Pindar vivid? Which particular language is at hand is not material—it can be Greek or Hittite. What the poet or rhetorician says may be clear enough, that is you can understand it, but the magic fails. It does not enchant.

It is like marrying a beautiful, virtuous and loving woman from Mars. You don’t get her jokes. What she is thinking is a mystery. So the problem is very frustrating. Still, where there is frustration there may be room for thought.

Now it is likely, of course, that the issue is a single reality, but for analysis we have to consider it from several angles.

There are things in, say, the Socrates’ ode of Horace that are internal to it: the language, the meter, canons of art whose expectations the poet must accommodate. All these might be called internal conjugates (to use a Lonergarian term).

The chief of these is language and it is a great big problem. There is no one out there who grew up speaking Latin, or Greek, or classical Chinese. We do not have the native familiarity that the poet assumes. We do not have conversations in ancient Egyptian. And because we are unfamiliar with the vulgar language of breakfast and work, we cannot appreciate the refined language, the Sanskrit, of literature. Again, we can understand it, there is no doubt in Homer as to who sticks a spear in whom, but the visceral experience escapes us. We have talked about this in other essays.

The External conjugates of a substance, for example a house or a poem, are all those relations the object has with the universe, the sum of its accidents. Internal conjugates make the whatjemaycallit a substance. External conjugates make it intelligible, in the way that what makes a currycomb intelligible is its relation to a horse, and to the man who cares for the horse, and to Kentucky.

Biggest and baddest of these external conjugates is the society that generated the text, whether it is the society of Romans or Apaches. We are all, alas, lot more generic than our pride allows. Understand Hittite society and you will clarify the meaning of most Hittite literature. Understand Canadian society and you will fall asleep.

But understanding . . . there’s the nail that catches the sleeve.

The Current Consensus, as we understand it from our Intelligentsia, is that all societies other than our own, as especially ancient societies, are essentially irredeemably alien. We can’t understand the Romans, we can’t understand the Greeks, and we can’t understand the society of those who would vote for politician X. This may be a modern reaction to the Victorians who felt bone-of-my-bone-and-flesh-of-my-flesh with classical civilization. This error must never happen again, although we can understand the ancients well enough to convict them of sexism, racism, classism, age-ism and whatever else will serve current utility.

There is some justice to this, but not all of justice. We must not be lured into the assumption that half a cup is dead dry and half understood is unknown. This is a philosophy of absolutes and it is designed for machines, which have no prudence. Comparisons and similitudes can be useful and are useful as long as we remember that they are like systems, and that all systems are correct in what they include and incorrect in what they exclude.

That said, suppose you are sitting in your aunt Leone’s parlor in Combray reading Racine. What must go into your experience as a background, what must be true?

  • You are living in a vast hexagonal territory of common sense. On all sides, there are barbarians: warlike barbarians to the north, volatile barbarians south of the Pyrenees, culturally pretentious barbarians south of the Alps,  eccentric barbarians who can’t cook across the channel.
  • In the middle, where you are, tout est lumière. All is rational.
  • You are between two oceans, a bright glittering ocean to the south and a dark stormy ocean to the north.
  • You are the heir to everything in culture worth anything.
  • You must chose between Rome and atheism. There are no other options.
  • That you choose Rome does not mean you need to pay Rome any attention whatsoever.
  • Sex is wonderful, but not nearly as wonderful as family property.
  • The government is a machine, as is entirely rational, and so is the universe.

Suppose you are sitting inside your mud-walled house, perhaps near Memphis, in the cool, reading a copy of the Story of Sinue that belonged to your great-great-grandfather.

  • There are four directions: upstream, downstream, this side of the river and that side of the river.
  • Once long ago, everything was perfect and if we could only act like our remote ancestors we could build some pyramids too, and it’s a damn shame we don’t.
  • Outside Egypt, there are cities of a sort, and ad hoc kingdoms, but only here is a state. We invented the state.
  • The world is binary: hot & bright or cold & dark, flood or not flood.
  • The world is soaked in divinity. No problemo.

You are sitting in Aleppo, reading the Peshitta.

  • You owe nothing, culturally, or philosophically to Greece.
  • “The City” means Damascus, or, more truly, Jerusalem or Babylon. Rome? Get serious.
  • The Mediterranean is behind you. You look east, from your mountainous fringe across the infinite plains of Asia.
  • Jesus spoke Aramaic and so do you. `Nuff said!
  • You hate Jews as a man hates his elder brother of the same father and mother. You understand each other, or think you do.
  • God is not a conclusion. Sit down Aristotle. God is an overwhelming, obvious, fact, and it is the job of Man to accommodate that fact by building it into every syllable of life.
  • Writing always goes from right to left. Who would be silly enough to try any other way?

A few reflections:

This sort of thing is easy enough to do, with a little thought, and fun to boot. But how far can it be carried?

Quite a distance, if you use care, as one would carry a toy theater. You can use it for pleasure or for thought. What you cannot do is sit on it. And what you must not do is use it as a weapon, or a rationale (which is a tool and therefore a weapon). Rather let it be done as a dialogue with the past, undertaken with openness and good will. It can inform but cannot pretend to more reality than it has, rather like a sketch of Greta Garbo.

Let it be a mental room—a French room, an Egyptian room (nice furniture!) or a Syriac room—in which one may sit, still an outsider, but not quite a stranger.

We would like at this point to extend our best wishes to all readers of the VoegelinView for the coming, eventful, year. If we need a resolution, let it be to observe sharply, think thoroughly, judge with courage, and act as the truth and love dictate.

Max Arnott

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Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.