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Archive for August 29th, 2013

Do you master a Second Language? The proper way to be Born Again

The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote in French, talks of the change of language as a catastrophic event in any author’s biography.   “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past. I changed my entire life,” says Cioran. And rightly so.

The world reveals itself in a certain manner to the Japanese writer, and in quite another to the one who writes in Finnish.

Literary virtuosity almost always betrays a sense of deep, comfortable immersion into a familiar soil. As such, if for any reason the writer has to change languages, the experience is nothing short of life-threatening.
Not only do you have to start everything again from scratch, but you also have to undo what you have been doing for almost as long as you have been around. Changing languages is not for the fainthearted, nor for the impatient.
 
 (And I did change writing in 3 languages, 3 times)
 
COSTICA BRADATAN posted this August 4, 2013 in the Opinionated of NYT Born Again in a Second Language

In her exploration of the Catholic religion, “Letter to a Priest,” written the year before her death in 1943, Simone Weil noticed at some point that “for any man a change of religion is as dangerous a thing as a change of language is for a writer. It may turn out a success, but it can also have disastrous consequences.”

When you become a writer, you don’t do so in abstract, but in relation to a certain language. To practice writing is to grow roots into that language; the better writer you become, the deeper the roots.

Painful as it can be at a strictly human level, the experience can also be philosophically fascinating. Rarely do we get the chance to observe a more dramatic re-making of oneself.

For a writer’s language, far from being a mere means of expression, is above all a mode of subjective existence and a way of experiencing the world. She needs the language not just to describe things, but to see them.  A writer’s language is not just something she uses, but a constitutive part of what she is. This is why to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.

When changing languages you descend to a zero-point of your existence. There must be even a moment, however brief, when you cease to be. You’ve just quit the old language and the new one hasn’t received you yet.

You are now in limbo, between worlds, hanging over the abyss. A change of language usually happens when the writer is exiled or self-exiled. Yet the physical exile is doubled in such cases by an ontological one — an exile on the margins of being. It is as though, for a moment, as she passes through the void – the narrow crack between languages, where there are no words to hold on to and nothing can be named – the self of the writer is not any more.

Weil’s comparison to the religious conversion is indeed apt because, just like in the case of the convert, the writer who changes languages undergoes a death-and-rebirth experience. In an important way, that person dies and then comes back as another.

When she starts writing in the new language the world is born anew to the writer. Yet the most spectacular rebirth is her own. For this is a project of total reconstruction of the self, where no stone is left unturned and nothing will look the same again.

Your native language – what you were before – appears as less and less familiar to you.

But that doesn’t bother you at all; in fact, you look forward to a moment when you will use it as just another foreign language.

Not long after adopting French, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, complained of his native English: “Horrible language, which I still know too well.” The ontological promise of complete renewal that comes with the new language is nothing short of intoxicating.

When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.

Asked, in 1954, why he chose to change languages, Beckett answered: out of a “need to be ill equipped”. His response is exceedingly sly because, if you listen more attentively, its boastful tone is deafening. For in French the need “to be ill equipped” (d’être mal armé) doesn’t sound very different from the need to be (another) Mallarmé (d’être Mallarmé). Anything less than a Mallarmé status would not have been enough for a Beckett on his quest for the new self. Eventually, he didn’t become Mallarmé, but Samuel Beckett, the French author of “Molloy,” “Malone Dies,” or “Waiting for Godot,” which is probably just as good. And as if there was not enough alienation in his adoption of a new language, he alienated himself one more time by translating his French work into English.

Elsewhere Beckett claimed that he preferred French because it allowed him to write “without style.” Yet writing “without style” is one of the writing styles most difficult to accomplish; you really need to be well equipped to do it.

Tucker Nichols

There is something “natural” in one’s becoming a writer in one’s native language. Having reached self-consciousness into that language, having assimilated it along with the mother’s milk, so to speak, such a writer finds himself in a somewhat privileged position: he only has to bring to perfection whatever he has received.

Granted, rigorous training, self-discipline and constant practice are necessary; after all, art is the opposite of nature. Yet no matter how you look at it, there is a distinct sense of continuity and organic growing in this writer’s trajectory.

Becoming a writer in a language that is not yours by birth, though, goes against nature; there is nothing organic in this process, only artifice. There are no linguistic “instincts” to guide you on the path and the language’s guardian angels rarely whisper into your ear; you are truly on your own. Says Cioran: “When I wrote in Romanian, words were not independent of me. As soon as I began to write in French I consciously chose each word. I had them before me, outside of me, each in its place. And I chose them: now I’ll take you, then you.”

Many who shift to writing in a second language develop an unusually acute linguistic awareness. In an interview he gave in 1979, some seven years after he moved to the United States from his native Russia, Joseph Brodsky speaks of his ongoing “love affair with the English language.”

Language is such an overwhelming presence for these people that it comes to structure their new biographies. “English is the only interesting thing that’s left in my life,” says Brodsky. The need to find “le mot juste” starts out as a concern, turns into an obsession, and ends up as a way of life. These writers excel at the art of making virtue of necessity: out of a need to understand how the new language works, they turn into linguistic maniacs; out of a concern for correctness, they become compulsive grammarians.

When he moved to France at the age of 26, Cioran’s command of French was barely decent, yet he ended up as one of the greatest stylists of that language. Similarly, Joseph Conrad learned English relatively late in life – which did not prevent him from coming to be one of its most sophisticated representatives.

Vladimir Nabokov is doubtlessly another such representative, even though he started learning English at an early age. The same pattern again and again: everything out of nothing, from halting ignorance to a mode of expression of the first order.

Towards the end of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451” the reader comes across something whose significance exceeds the confines of the story. It is the scene where Montague meets the “book people.” In a world where printed texts are banned, they have dedicated their lives to preserving the “great books” of the humankind; each commits a book to memory and spends the whole life reciting it. They are living texts, these people, language incarnated. Apart from the masterpieces that inhabit them, they don’t mean much.

Their bodies matter as little as the paper on which a book is printed. In a way, a writer who has changed languages is not very different from these people. In the long run, because of their compulsive preoccupation with linguistic precision and stylistic perfection, a colonization of sorts takes place: language penetrates all the details of that writer’s life, it informs and re-shapes it, it proclaims its dominion over her – it takes over. The writer’s self is now under the occupation of an invading power: her own writing in the new language.

In a certain sense, then, it could be said that in the end you don’t really change languages; the language changes you. At a deeper, more personal level, writing literature in another language has a distinctly performative dimension: as you do it something happens to you, the language acts upon you. The book you are writing ends up writing you in turn. The result is a “ghostification” of sorts.

For to change languages,  a writer is to undergo a process of dematerialization: before you know it, you are language more than anything else.

One day, suddenly, a certain intuition starts visiting you, namely that you are not made primarily out of flesh anymore, but out of lines and rhymes, of rhetorical strategies and narrative patterns.

Just like the “book people,” you don’t mean much apart the texts that inhabit you. More than a man or a woman of flesh and blood, you are now rather a fleshing out of the language itself, a literary project, very much like the books you write.

The writer who has changed languages is truly a ghost writer – the only one worthy of the name.

Having done all this, having gone through the pain of changing languages and undergone the death-and-rebirth initiation, you are sometimes given – as a reward, as it were – access to a metaphysical insight of an odd, savage beauty.

It is the notion that the world may be nothing other than a story in the making and that we, who inhabit it, may be nothing more than characters. Characters in search of an author, that is.


Costica Bradatan

Costica Bradatan is an associate professor of honors at Texas Tech University and the religion/comparative studies editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. His most recent book is “Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe.”

Blasts in the Night, a Smell, and a Flood of Syrian Victims

It all began just after 2 a.m.

BEN HUBBARD, and  published this August 26, 2013 
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thousands of sick and dying Syrians had flooded the hospitals in the Damascus suburbs before dawn, hours after the first rockets landed, their bodies convulsing and mouths foaming. Their vision was blurry and many could not breathe.

Multimedia
Areas Affected by the Alleged Chemical Attack in Syria

Shaam News Network, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Overwhelmed doctors worked frantically, jabbing their patients with injections of their only antidote, atropine, hoping to beat back the assault on the nervous system waged by suspected chemical agents. In just a few hours, as the patients poured in, the atropine ran out.

To avoid contamination, medics stripped new arrivals down to their underwear and doused them with water before taking them inside.

New patients kept coming. One doctor from the town of Kafr Batna likened the scene to a horror movie, with cars bringing in entire families — fathers, mothers and children — all of them dead.

The doctors soon faced a new problem: where to put the dead. Some were covered with blocks of ice to fend off the summer heat, others were wrapped in white sheets and lined up in rows so family members could identify the victims.

It would be hours before officials in Washington woke up on Wednesday to learn the extent of the massacre.

President Obama, who had recently returned from a weeklong vacation and planned a quiet day at the White House before departing for a two-day bus tour across New York and Pennsylvania, was told of the attack in the Oval Office that morning during his regular intelligence briefing.

Abo Alnour Alhaji/Reuters. On Monday, United Nations chemical weapons experts viewed some of the victims of last week’s attack near Damascus, Syria.

The White House issued a cautious public statement about the attacks from a deputy spokesman shortly before noon, but behind the scenes the president and his national security team were grappling with the urgency and enormity of the event: the largest mass killing of the Syrian civil war, and most likely the deadliest chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s troops killed thousands of Kurds with sarin gas during the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Interviews with more than two dozen activists, rebels and doctors in areas near the attack sites, as well as an examination of more than 100 videos and photos of the aftermath, back up this assertion.

Not only has the attack brought widespread condemnation on President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, which the United States and its allies are convinced carried out the strike, it is also already shaping up as an inflection point for a war that has been grinding on for more than two years and has claimed more than 100,000 victims.

An American president who has tried desperately to keep the United States out of another war in the Middle East is now weighing a military attack on Syria — cornered by his own statement that a large-scale chemical weapons strike would be a “red line” forcing Washington to respond.

Bashar Assad’s government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, while blaming rebels for reported attacks. But Western nations say they have solid evidence that the Syrian government has used such weapons on at least two occasions before last Wednesday.

And the supplies of atropine on hand in rebel-held areas just outside Syria’s capital testify to the repeated, if limited, use of chemical agents as a tactical weapon in what has become a street-by-street war of attrition, the rebels and doctors said.

If the United States does get involved, it will most likely be because of the scale of what took place in the dead of night last Wednesday, in towns just outside Damascus that the government was determined to retake. The attacks caused such chaos among residents that the death toll is still unknown, and many are still uncertain about the fate of their relatives.

“Those are my cousins,” said one person in a video shot in the city of Hamouriyeh, pointing to the ground where the bodies of a man and his two children lay.

“I’m still looking for the rest,” he said. “Five or six of them.”

By nightfall in Syria, the bodies that were unclaimed had been buried in an archipelago of new mass graves. Before laying them to rest, activists put numbers on their foreheads and snapped photos — in case their families came looking for them later.

Many Trapped at Home

It began just after 2 a.m.

Those who heard the explosions and lived to tell about them were surprised at the sound, saying it was “like a water tank bursting” or “like opening a Pepsi bottle.”

Then came the smell, which burned eyes and throats, like onions or chlorine.

The effects were immediate and devastating.

At the time of the strikes, a few hours before morning prayers, most people were still asleep in their homes. The substance released by the barrage of rockets, which crashed into suburbs on two sides of Damascus, killed many people before they were even able to get out of their beds.

The deadliest of the attacks struck at the heart of a region known as Eastern Ghouta, an area northeast of Damascus whose towns have swelled into cities in recent decades with an influx of mostly poor Sunni Muslims from the countryside, the key constituency of the anti-Assad uprising.

Towns in the area have been held for more than a year by various factions of the rebellion. Unlike in northern and eastern Syria, extremist groups like the Nusra Front are not dominant. The area’s economic isolation made it fertile ground for the rebellion, and it has proved to be a perpetual threat to Mr. Assad’s control over the capital region.

The neighborhoods are dotted with homes that have been damaged — or have collapsed outright — from the persistent government shelling over the past year.

In the months before Wednesday’s attack, according to interviews with rebels, the battle around Eastern Ghouta had reached a stalemate. While both sides frequently carried out guerrilla raids and sniper attacks, the front lines had moved little.

In the meantime, the government had sought to break the stalemate by severing the region’s links to the capital and starving rebel troops in Eastern Ghouta. Shipments of flour, fuel and electricity to the area were stopped, and government troops on the few remaining byways confiscated bread and siphoned fuel from gas tanks to ensure it did not reach the rebels.

Shortly after Wednesday’s rocket barrage began, rebel fighters spread the news of the assault by shouting, “Chemical attack!” into their walkie-talkies while loudspeakers affixed to minarets on the top of mosques blared warnings to residents to flee or to seek fresh air on their rooftops.

As in many rebel areas, residents had grown used to dealing with government attacks, instincts that this time only increased the death toll.

According to local doctors, some people took cover in basements, where the gas settled and suffocated them. Medics and photographers who had become accustomed to rushing to the site of attacks arrived too quickly, succumbing to the gases themselves.

The attacks appeared to fit into a pattern of continued escalation by government forces throughout the war, with large strikes on residential areas that appear to serve no immediate tactical purpose.

Such attacks seem to be aimed not at killing rebel fighters, but at terrifying the rebels’ civilian backers in strategic areas that Mr. Assad’s forces have been unable to subdue.

“They knew that people’s sons were on the front lines, so if you hit their families, they would go back and check on them and it would be easier to invade,” said an activist from Zamalka who gave only his first name, Firas. But he said that the tactic had not worked and had instead rallied rebel fighters to defend their positions.

Some military analysts said that the apparent chemical attack appeared to be part of a broader operation by Mr. Assad’s forces, which have also used tanks, conventionally armed rockets and air power to wrest control of rebel areas around the Syrian capital.

“It appears that they were trying to break resistance in the Damascus area, which they have been trying to do unsuccessfully for some time,” said Jeffrey White, a former Middle East analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Firas, the activist, said he was driving home with some friends when he heard about the attack over his walkie-talkie. He said he was terrified, since no one knew where the attacks had occurred and how far the suspected gas had spread. They used wet pieces of cloth to cover their noses and mouths and sped out of town to a field hospital farther east.

Hospitals Overwhelmed

Whatever the chemicals used, the carnage caused by Wednesday’s attack overwhelmed field hospitals on the outskirts of Damascus. Bodies covered tile floors, stretched down hallways and were laid out on sidewalks and streets.

A doctor from the town of Kafr Batna said he rushed to his clinic soon after the attack and found 100 patients.

“We had men, women and children, all of them choking and having trouble breathing,” said the doctor, Sakhr. “Some of them had foam coming out of their mouths and nostrils and many had lost consciousness.”

The medical charity Doctors Without Borders said Saturday that three clinics it supports in the area recorded 355 deaths.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts inside Syria, said it had confirmed the deaths of 322 people, including 54 children and 82 women.

Some activists have compiled lists of names and say that more than 1,000 people were killed in Wednesday’s predawn attack.

By the end of that day, Dr. Sakhr of Kafr Batna said, 16 of the 160 bodies collected at his clinic had not been claimed. Volunteers took the bodies to a nearby graveyard, photographed their faces one by one, and buried them in a mass grave.

For those who survived, there was a different kind of grim reckoning.

Nearly a week after the attack, Dr. Sakhr said local residents who had not fled the area were flooding him with questions about where to sleep to protect themselves from future attacks.

Others were still searching for lost relatives, including children who had been taken in by strangers after their parents disappeared.

“Some found their relatives, praised God, and sat down next to them,” said Dr. Sakhr.

“Others didn’t find them, and had to look elsewhere.”

A Careful Response

As video images and eyewitness accounts of the assault began to spread through social media, President Obama was easing back into his routine after a week away on Martha’s Vineyard. His only public event last Tuesday, hours before the attack began, was welcoming players from the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins to the White House for a much-belated ceremony.

The president had planned no public events for Wednesday. When he learned of the attack during his intelligence briefing that morning, many hours after it had occurred, American intelligence about the attack was still sketchy. But officials said that if the reports of chemical weapons use proved to be true, the attack was on a far greater scale than chemical attacks earlier this year.

Still, the White House moved carefully, driven in part by its experience with smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks in Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus. In those cases, a senior official said, there was conflicting evidence long afterward.

“In the past, it took weeks to match eyewitness accounts with intelligence,” said a senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations. “This time, there was a consistency in all the information that was coming in for the first 24 to 48 hours.”

In the subsequent statement, which was only two paragraphs, the White House urged the Assad government to allow United Nations investigators to visit the site and put the emphasis on gathering more information. The statement was issued by the White House’s deputy spokesman, Josh Earnest, who declined to speculate about who was culpable for the attack.

Mr. Obama kept his travel plans to upstate New York on Thursday, although as his armored bus rolled from Buffalo to Rochester to Seneca Falls, he was on the phone several times with his national security adviser, Susan E. Rice.

At the White House that morning, Ms. Rice had convened a three-hour meeting of cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A. Military officials from United States Central Command joined the meeting by video.

The debate was robust, officials said. Some officials argued forcefully for military action, while others raised potential dangers about American missile strikes, including fears that they would destabilize the region and set off a vast new refugee flow into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

One question that puzzled intelligence officials was exactly what kind of chemicals were used in the attack.

American spy agencies conferred with allied intelligence services in Europe, Israel and Arab countries to get a clearer picture of what happened.

In Israel, 3 Israeli officials briefed on the attack said they believed the rockets carried a “cocktail” of sarin gas mixed with several other components. Syria’s government is believed to have large quantities of sarin, mustard gas and VX.

One Israeli official even suggested that whoever planned the rocket barrage might have miscalculated.

“It’s quite likely that there was kind of an operational mistake here,” one senior Israeli suggested. “I don’t think they wanted to kill so many people, especially so many children. Maybe they were trying to hit one place or to get one effect and they got a much greater effect than they thought.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry made phone calls to foreign ministers from Europe and the Arab world, hoping to build international support for a potential military strike against Mr. Assad.

On the day of the White House meeting, he called Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, to complain that the Assad government had not allowed United Nations inspectors to quickly visit the sites of the suspected attack.

It was a rare high-level contact between American and Syrian officials in the time since the United States closed its embassy in Damascus last year.

As Thursday wore into Friday, American officials said, it became clear that the Assad government was still thwarting the members of the United Nations team — who had arrived in Damascus days earlier to inspect other possible chemical weapons sites — from visiting the scenes of Wednesday’s attack. Russia, long a supporter of President Assad, was blaming rebel forces.

Russia’s public statements blaming the rebels hardened the views of White House officials. By the time the full National Security Council assembled, with Mr. Obama presiding, on Saturday morning, “the focus had really shifted to how we respond to this event, not whether we respond,” a senior official said.

John Kerry’s Statement on Syria

Close Video

Note: Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler from Washington. Jodi Rudoren contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Michael R. Gordon from Washington and Hwaida Saad and Mohammed Ghannam from Beirut.

A version of this article appears in print on August 27, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Blasts in the Night, a Smell, And a Flood of Syrian Victims.


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