Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘waiting for Godot

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.”

Exiting Mosques every Friday and scanding Allah wa Akbar: Is NOT my kind of Freedom Revolution

I agree that it is no longer a great sight watching these masses swarming the streets after Friday prayers and shouting “Allah wa Akbar, badna nghawer al nizam“. Civil citizens have to refrain supporting these mindless singing of “Allah wa Akbar” and participate in these frenzied demonstrations that encourage the zealot pseudo leaders behind these activities.

I don’t feel any relief hearing one of these insurgent launching a rocket missile and shouting: “It is Allah’s hand that is guiding the missile…” Or this picture of a youth holding a rocket launcher preparing to activate it and shouting: “Takbir” and these hysteric and emotionally over tired companions chanting: “Allah wa Akbar”

I agree that other waves of mass disobedience movements should reignite against these theocratic movements that replaced dictators in power…

It is no longer acceptable, after the courageous and sustained uprising in the Arab States, to permit islamic fundamentalists harass and molest the liberal thinking citizens on the ground that man destiny is guided by Allah…Liberal citizens, artists, musicians, theater actors, teachers…should react fast to any innuendoes that they are impious people to be arrested if they persist in their professions…

In revolutions, you have morally engaged intelligentsia: They know that their virulent denunciations of the abuse of power in all aspect of the social/political structure are ground to be harassed, imprisoned, but deep down they are confident that the system will refrain from assassinating them…

These morally engaged intelligentsia say: “We are tired of repeating our thesis for reform and change…We have said all we had to say…Things are pretty clear, and all that is needed is to get moving into the act of changing the system…” But these intelligentsia are waiting for Godot to show them the way to participate in mass disobedience uprising.  They are in the dark of “who can ignite any kinds of uprising?”

There is no harm of repeating well thought-out engaged programs for reform and change. There is no harm in repeating the description of how the little people are struggling to survive…

The Algerian author Ali Chibani described the many stages of the successive Algerian uprising since Algeria Independence. From the kabile minority movement demanding that their Berber language be officially recognized, to the extremist Moslem Brotherhood movement who won the municipal election in 1988 and were violently suppressed by the military with the full support of the Western democracies…

The intelligentsia who get “eliminated with utmost prejudice” are those connected with the people, who learned to connect with people, and who managed to disseminate their engagement to the little people.  You don’t see many authors targeted for assassination: People don’t read and don’t swap books. In Algeria, university students are forbidden to get in with books not relevant to their course materials…The climate of culture does not encourage reading, and foreign  books are not entering the borders that easily, books that coaxthe  reflective power on existential questions…

The “enemies” are the roving theater leaders, moving from town to town, erecting their makeshift stage in locations were the little people converge to: They initiate moving fairs of culture and awareness, and circles for discussions

The”‘enemies” are the popular singers and musicians…

The enemies are the popular poets, singing in the dialect of the regions…

The enemies are those leaders who discovered means to connect face to face with the people

The last paragraph of Ali Chibany is disheartening:

“In order to tame the enduring military dictatorship in Algeria, it is imperative to figure out how to get rid of the overwhelming power and ingerance of the military institutions.  No one knows how to go about this objective…”

There is no harm of repeating well thought-out engaged programs for reform and change. There is no harm in repeating the description of how the little people are struggling to survive…

What is badly needed are detailed programs that define and offer operational guiding manuals for the abstract concepts of liberty, freedom, democracy…

What kind of freedom of expressions are mostly wanted, and how to go about establishing institutions and organizations that can sustain the drive and the spirit of freedom of opinions…

What is meant by Liberty? Are we talking of lack of opportunities and choices as we grow in educational programs, in prospect for talents, for working after graduation…?

What are the basic opportunities and choices that associations should focus on at the preliminary stages of a revolution?

Revolutions in the actual developed States had thought out pragmatic programs and project for the equality among the strata of the people and genders in education, health, equal opportunities at work and salaries…years before the mass uprising ignited.

You have the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic cultural periods that set the ground work for reforms and change…

Most of the uprisings failed and were crushed in the short-term, but the programs for reforms were carried out by the successive governments, the programs and policies were executed and applied after the first fire was put down…

What pragmatic programs the “Arab Spring” uprising had discussed prior to the revolution?  The liberal civic movements failed to generate useful day-dreaming detailed projects of what society needs and how to go about establishing institutions to sustain the projects of eliminating the abuses, indignities and humiliating behavior of the power-to-be.

All that we got is the arrival of the theocratic Moslem Brotherhood movements to power, carrying out reductive, ready-made day-to-day prohibition laws and detailed descriptions of corporal punishment…


adonis49

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