Pyrite: Why you shouldn’t read Ingo Schulze

Anybody reading this blog will know that I have little love for Ingo Schulze, whom I tend to refer to as the “curly haired hack”. During the past months I have received a couple of emails (~ 10, which is half my readership) inquiring about my frequently communicated dislike for a writer they keep hearing good stuff about. I answered two of these emails personally, but am too lazy to keep it up. Well, here are the goods:

Ingo Schulze must be one of the more famous living German writers. He sells well domestically, has won a wide variety of prizes and every new book is sure to receive broad attention and a nomination for one of the major German literary prizes. Additionally, he’s also widely translated into different languages, and has received positive write-ups in Anglophone and Francophone newspapers. In a climate where many readers and critics are concerned about the lack of attention accorded to translations and translators by major journals and publishers, writers like Schulze are a success story. And he’s the best examples that they shouldn’t always be, because Schulze is a deeply mediocre writer, and the attention he receives arguably takes away time and space from better contemporary writers in German, whose voices should be heard, like Thomas Stangl, or Clemens J. Setz, or Reinhard Jirgl.

While its true, and quite sufficient to point out, that Schulze is quite simply a pretty bad writer, on many levels, it should nevertheless be mentioned that, first and foremost, he fails on the level of the actual writing, his style. This is a failure that isn’t just due to a lack of talent, but part of a broader malaise in Ingo Schulze’s writing. It’s actually quite often true that style cannot be divested from content. Brilliant writers with a careless style like Philip K. Dick (my apologies to fans of Dick’s writing) are the exception. More often, a lack of care, attention or sensibility to the rhythm, music and depth of language is revealing of other defects as far as the structure, thinking or characters of the particular piece of prose are concerned. True, great writers are born with a certain modicum of talent, but I am convinced that everybody, with enough care and effort, can be good. Reading is about encountering minds, good writing isn’t tethered to a specific level of intelligence. Every writer can be decent.

Why bad writing is often so frustrating is that bad writers, I think, in order to be bad writers, need to be less than attentive or careful about their writing, something that you can see in all or most aspects of their work. With a good enough plot, interesting enough characters, sentiment and a subject matter that is either politically pleasing or controversial, one can hide mediocrity well enough. Paolo Giordano’s problematic, but oddly well-received bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers (my review) is a case in point. This lack is least easy to hide in the actual writing, the style. This is why I stress Ingo Schulze’s execrable writing so much. This defect may not be as perceptible to Americans, who get to see him through a distorting lens (though after having spent some time with Helen Lowe-Porter’s crude manhandling of Thomas Mann, I can’t muster the energy to criticize any competent translator, whose work is difficult enough), after all, Portuguese friends assure me that even Coelho is much, much worse in the Brazilian original, and is saved by his translators in other languages.

To best describe Schulze’s stylistic deficiencies, it’s appropriate to say, I think, that there’s a kind of linguistic complacency in his style, it’s more than just bad writing, and what’s more, it had not always been as bad and complacent. Schulze’s best work of fiction, for several reasons, is his 1995 debut, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks, indebted as it is to E.T.A. Hoffmann and even more, I think, to Leo Perutz. In this book, Schulze delights in his writing, like these two role models, he delights in the mechanics of literature, delights in using his own voice. But in his first book, Perutz is the stronger influence, I think. Unlike Hoffmann he is very reluctant to be overtly political; his work is also more open to violent images, and stark contrasts and conflicts than Hoffmann’s subtle prose. There is a youthful power in this book, Schulze constantly playing to his strengths. In an ill-advised move, Schulze will, in the further trajectory of his career, move away from Perutz and toward the Hoffmann of Meister Floh or his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review), without offering as much thought, brilliance or generosity as the Prussian genius.

33 Augenblicke des Glücks, translated by John E. Woods into English as 33 Moments of Happiness, is not great literature, but it’s quite entertaining and not embarrassing, something that is increasingly less true as his work develops. Schulze is and remains competent, but has quickly become complacent and weak. His first book won the Döblin Förderpreis, and if you didn’t know that, I’ll tell you that the Döblin Prize and the Büchner Prize are the two German literary awards most worth monitoring. When he published the book, Schulze was primarily a journalist, writing for and founding several newspapers. There is an energy in that part of his life, and an intelligence that stayed, diluted, with him. After his debut, Schulze was accepted more fully into a literary mainstream, publishing, to date, 5 books, among them two novels, Neue Leben (2005) and Adam und Evelyn (2008). His past, however, never quite left him.

On the plus side, the Döblin prize was, as he himself kept stressing, strangely apt for Schulze’s burgeoning poetic sensibilities. Schulze’s best book in any genre, is his 2009 collection of essays, Was Wollen Wir? (~ What Do We Want?), collecting essays written over the course of several years. It’s not good literary criticism, not good political journalism, Lord knows. What it is is a wonderful memoir in fragments, and Döblin and his work is front and center in it. There is no influence of Döblin on Schulze’s writing or his commitments or the quality of his thinking, but as Schulze continued writing, moving from stories to speeches and novels, it’s clearly Döblin’s specter who was behind the changes, whether it’s Schulze’s increasingly odd characters, the influx of political pathos or the grandiose literary gestures, complete with gargantuan 18th century narratives (Neue Leben), vague mythical underpinnings (Adam und Evelyn) and Hoffmannian satire (Handy, Neue Leben)

The obsession with Döblin, plastered all over Was Wollen Wir?, isn’t flattering for Schulze’s work, since the reference invites comparisons, and apart from his debut book, his work just doesn’t even remotely measure up. So while Döblin has expedited Schulze’s artistic development, this development has actually moved Schulze away from him who was arguably, with Jahnn, the best German novelist of the 20th century. Responsible for this discrepancy is the other remnant from his past, his training as a journalist. A few paragraphs ago, I started into this disparagement of Schulze by citing his stylistic awfulness, calling it ‘complacency’. To be more exact, his style’s weaknesses correspond to a kind of writing that has taken over German journalistic writing sometime in the 1990s, with the advent of women’s and men’s magazines (titles like Amica or the German Men’s Health come to mind), characterized by a curiously assertive use of language, an intense quirkiness, so to say. The point seemed to be to convey an insouciant, slightly erudite, individualism. This kind of writing was instantly recognizable, and eminently mockable.

It developed so quickly and completely, sprung upon German readers like a tasteless Athena, in full, talentless armor. What is annoying, but also entertaining in journalist writing, seems little else but sloppy in fiction and it was there where it stuck and developed into full bloom and convention. In the late 1990s it stopped being ‘journalese’ and started to be a hallmark of mediocre, careless prose. There are certain turns of phrases, narrative structures, stereotypical characters which can be directly traced back to the peculiarities of this journalistic style. In my reading experience with regard to contemporary German fiction, this kind of writing almost never turns up in bits here and there. It’s usually an infestation with it, an either/or situation. This writing is an easy way out, recognizable, and relying on a certain consensus among the reading public. To use this style is to appeal to the lowest common denominator among a vaguely educated readership, and it’s indicative of other sub-par literary decisions. The work of many writers who decided to go down that path bears witness to the inextricably joined level of content and style.

Thankfully, many writers remain who refrain from writing this way. Ilija Trojanow would be one of them. Even in his weaker books, such as his dystopic SF novel Autopol (my review), he stays clear of it, but many others can’t. There is this year’s winner of the Leipzig book fair prize, Georg Klein (although his prize-winning book, Roman unserer Kindheit (~Novel of our childhood) is a departure of sorts), or the author of last year’s sensational surprise hit Paradiso, Thomas Klupp. Schulze, however, is worse, because in his case the stylistic complacency corresponds to an intellectual one. Like Paul Auster, Schulze uses complex narratives without any stylistic or intellectual backbone, but while Auster’s work is like a reader’s digest of postmodern theory, amusing and quite harmless, and mostly not particularly political, Schulze’s purview is larger- he aim for both the political and the historical, which makes him much more insufferable than his competent and incompetent co-hacks. His major topics are the German reunification and its fallout in the private and public lives of Germans.

Schulze writes about these topics as if he were pressed for time, under pressure to produce an anniversary op-ed. The complexities and problems of the situation, raised time and again in countless excellent German novels and novellas, barely make a dent in his lukewarm sentimental hodge-podge of platitudes and truisms. Open any popular news magazine at random, find a story about the particular topic at hand, and there you’ll find Schulze. I’ve talked to young journalists, some of whom have spent time at university with me, and they tell me that you can’t afford to alienate your readers, that you need to write for them. If you challenge them, you also need to flatter them in return. They need to be motivated to buy your paper once a day or once a week and spend a considerable time reading it, so you need to give them a narrative for political events that they can accept. A novelist has more liberties. But Ingo Schulze seems to have decided, at one point in his career, to not use these liberties.

So his work reads tediously unsurprising, like the gloss of a pamphlet. It’s really dull in its own right, as all the magazines and newspapers who perpetuate the same thin narratives, are. But it’s when I remember that he’s a writer of fiction, one who sees himself in the line of Döblin and Hoffmann, that I have least patience with his childishness. His work suffers most when compared to books like Günter Grass’ Far Afield, a novel that draws both on Grass’ heavy polemic streak, on Hans Joachim Schädlich’s acidic and powerful novel Tallhover and on the continuity of the Grotesque in bourgeois realist fiction in Germany. Its politics are odd, but gloriously so, it delights in its literariness and doesn’t shy away from taking risks. Grass, by the way, is one of the most vocal and most able heirs of Döblin in post-war German fiction. An heir of Brecht, and writer of several books that make Schulze look bad by comparison is Volker Braun, especially, with regard to the topic of the German reunification, his collection of stories/novellas Trotzdestonichts (my review). A third book that provides a unique (and masterfully written) account of the complexities of these turbulent years in Germany is Marcel Beyer’s 2008 novel Kaltenburg (my review), which shows that even contemporaries of Schulze can and do rise far above him and that’s just the parts of it that deal with the upheavals and the changes.

There is another aspect to his work, the east/west relationship, i.e. the relationship between the two Germanies. Again, Schulze comes up short, again, he fails to rise to the possibilities, well established by writers such as the great Uwe Johnson, whose books like Das Dritte Buch über Achim (~ The Third Book about Achim, 1962) or Zwei Ansichten (~ Two Points of View, 1965), helped create an interesting and complex discourse about this topic, one further developed by writers such as Reiner Kunze or Günter Kunert. I realize that it might be unfair to compare Schulze to great writers, but the sad truth is that neither Kunze nor Kunert are, in fact, great writers. But both have put a lot of thought into their works and both developed a distinct idea of how these issues work. Schulze hasn’t really. He riffs on sentimentality. His satiric streak took over during the early 00s, and his writing, modeled on Döblin but influenced mainly by Hoffmann, at this stage in his work, never achieves the level of insight, and acidic analysis that most great satire manages. There is a seriousness even to the light late works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a seriousness of purpose that drove him to write satires that endangered his livelihood and even, arguably, his life, in a repressive climate. In a far less repressive climate, meanwhile, Schulze, the former NVA (the army of the GDR) soldier, takes no such risks, politically.

He does, however, feign literary risks by writing Neue Leben (translated by John E. Woods into English as New Lives) an enormous slab of a novel, mimicking in style (partly) and structure the great epistolary novels of the 18th century. I said that good writing is about care and attention. Great writing, however, is about risks. Attacking great writers for diverging from grammatical conventions, for using a style that departs from the norm that we would teach in creative writing workshops or encourage as editors, is utterly beside the point and borderline moronic. This Schulze understands completely and every page of Neue Leben screams out: yes, I indulge, but I am an artiste, I am a great writer. I am Döblin, Hoffmann and Thomas Mann rolled up in one. Only, he isn’t, of course. The followup novel (with a forgettable collection of stories sandwiched in between the two) Adam und Evelyn is dominated by dialogue, and half-hearted references to myth and religion. As a reader, there’s a certain morbid interest in following Schulze’s career, which has turned into a wild romp, drunk on Romanticism and Modernism, without a thought to spare for the history nor the language he is abusing here. His writing has, by now, reached an all-time low; a level that, however, he was effortlessly able to sustain for his last two books. Neither of these are Schulze’s main failings, though. It’s rather the fact that the books bank so much on being perceptive and insightful that the revelation that they aren’t, almost completely destroys them.

The book needs a reader who is comfortable with reading the watered-down, palatable version of his own history, a reader who doesn’t care about style and who is thrilled that he’s reading a writer who writes ‘daringly’ elaborate and cerebral books that suggest Thomas Mann-ian literariness without actually having to read Thomas Mann. He needs a reader who will proudly produce an unread, but creased copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but has a lot to ‘say’ about the book, because he is so educated. This, in a nutshell, is Schulze’s audience, and he’s lucky that German critics (see my rant here) are happy to provide just that for him. He’s the prince of mediocre literary writing. Understand this: Ingo Schulze isn’t really a terrible writer, just a terribly mediocre one. However, there are so many great writers writing in this language (I have mentioned 8 writers in dire need of translation here and here) that it’s quite a shame that his work gets a spot in the limelight (and I’m not happy about Andreas Maier’s being translated, either), especially since his main job is to gently caress the egos of vaguely educated Germans who don’t like their writers or their thinkers to drag them out of their comfort zone, so a weak, derivative and complacent writer like Schulze has snatched a spot near the top of contemporary writers, one he doesn’t deserve, while even we forget writers like Thomas Strittmatter (who’s also been translated into English, see my review), and many others, like Dietmar Dath (excellent thinker, bad stylist) or the great, great Reinhard Jirgl (my review) never get translated.

But the worst thing, by far, about Schulze is that he was able to convince an Anglophone readership, who are naturally less well informed than natives as regards German history, that he is, in fact, the real thing, that there is something to learn or an insight to be gleaned from it, when that isn’t actually the case. Schulze in English borders on misinformation. He has, most recently, started to place himself and his writing at the crossroads between tradition and a new writing. He subtitled Handy, his hardly bearable collection of stories “Dreizehn Geschichten in alter Manier”, an explicit reference to 18th century fiction as well as to Jahnn, his protagonist in Neue Leben is called “Türmer”, an undisguised reference to the tradition of the Bildungsroman in general, specifically to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels. This suggests more substance to his work and thought than there is. History and culture is important, and buffoons like Schulze shouldn’t be relied upon to spread knowledge of it. There is so much unmined gold in German literary fiction. Don’t waste your time with Schulze’s pyrite. (ISBN)

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Herta Müller, Nobel Prize Winner

For many, including many Germans, it was a complete surprise when Herta Müller was announced as another writer in the German language to win the highest international literary award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has increasingly focused on European writers. Did she deserve the honor? Of course she did. Herta Müller is among the best and most important writers in German today, with a work that never shies away from trying new things, a writer who is smart yet not unreadably difficult. On the contrary: her writing, while complex, is frequently buoyed by a pleasurable language, which is warm and is driven by a kind of verbal plasticity that I have not encountered since Günter Grass. One of the defining characteristics of Grass’ style is the surreal quality of his words, his use of nouns is especially interesting and significant in this regard. But where Grass frequently drops off into a surreal plot, opting for a rich stew of a book instead of sharp criticism (which is why his shorter books frequently fall so short of the mark), Herta Müller is always on point, always engaged and worth engaging with.

Herta Müller was born in Romania in August 1953, she fled the country in 1987, with her then-husband, a novelist, as well. Her work is largely concerned with Ceausescu’s dictatorship and the trauma that it left on its citizens. She is a German-Romanian, not because she’s a German citizen now, but because she was a member of Romania’s German community in the region called the Banat. The group she belongs to are the so-called Banater Schwaben (~ the Swabians from the Banat, a region that is part of three different countries, Romania, Serbia and Hungary) and today she’s that community’s most prominent member. She has always, however kept its distance to the Banater Schwaben, mostly because she was always resistant to Nationalism and the community, like many ‘exiled communities’ have engaged in a strongly nationalistic discourse that tended to border on racism (a statement by the community talks about a “deutsches Bauernvolk von hoher Kultur (…) inmitten einer fremdvölkischen Umwelt”). The complexities of being ethnically a Banater Schwabe in Romania are frequently explored in her fiction, as the group has always, on the one hand, enjoyed privileges, especially economic ones, and it also was part of the fringe, the dispossessed, in the context of rising Serbo-Yugoslavian and Romanian nationalism.

This story of ethnicity is frequently combined with a history of being oppressed by and resisting a totalitarian system, a history of violence. As is the case with many of the best German language prose writers of the latter half of the 20th century, among them genii like Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Lenz, violence, as a force, is threaded throughout her work. Violence is always present and Müller is highly adept at constructing situations that are structured by violence or by relationships of power. Recently I have read a few misguided comments comparing her to Jelinek, but Jelinek detects and exposes violence in language and culture, her subject is language, whereas Herta Müller writes about people and cultures. Her awareness of language serves a completely and utterly different purpose: it’s secondary to people but it helps to identify and define situations, contextualize acts and actions within cultural and historical frameworks. What’s more, Herta Müller writes to move people. If her work is so often read autobiographically (which does a disservice to the work), it’s because so much of it feels heart-felt. It’s hard not to see Bossert’s real-life suicide as one of the driving forces in the structure of Herztier (translated, puzzlingly, as The Land of Green Plums by the wonderful Michael Hofmann (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 1996)) which, after the new masterpiece and opus magnum Atemschaukel, is her second-best novel and an extraordinary read all told.

Violence, in turn, is connected to fear and darkness and the progression of her work could be read as an attempt to climb out of it, but it shouldn’t. She herself has said that writing doesn’t help or mitigate the darkness. Instead, her work is the work of a teacher. Writers like Jelinek have been suspicious of teaching, as it can be said to reproduce and execute power inequalities and similar issues, but Müller doesn’t share these misgivings. Like Grass’ oeuvre, Müller’s work is a continuation of traditional storytelling. She, too, is aware of the structure of myth and folk tales but her use of them is constructive. She uses tradition as a tool in constructing and building a story. Memory is important, so are intercultural connections. In this she is, if anything, the antithesis to Jelinek. She teaches us to remember, to look not for repression in words (although we are reminded of its presence) but for the past. The eponymous Herztier (‘Heart Animal’) can be read as a mythical figure in the tradition of Gershom Scholem’s, a mythical symbol of the hidden life, a conflation of the individual (Herz) and the collective (Tier).

I return to this book because, until her latest was published, it represented the fullest artistic statement Müller had published so far. It is a magnificent combination of storytelling and of a poet’s sense of the weight and richness of words and symbols. It’s also the best statement on her stance as far as her Romanian past is concerned. In a speech, Müller differentiated “soziale Angst” (social fear) which is a collective fear, something that is visible in a society’s tendency to, for example expunge and attack foreigners and minorities, and “existentielle Angst”, which is the individual’s fear. Whereas books such as Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (translated as The Appointment (Metropolitan/Picador, 2001), her least great novel so far) concentrate on the latter, her writing is at its best when she combines this with a strong focus on the former. In the protagonists of Herztier and their fears, she’s achieved just that and highlights the connections between that fear and tradition, memory and storytelling. The first sentence of the novel is legendary:

“Wenn wir schweigen, werden wir unan genehm,” sagte Edgar, “wenn wir reden, werden wir lächerlich.”

It can be translated as “’When we’re silent, we become awkward/displeasing’, Edgar said, ‘when we talk, we become ridiculous.’” That awareness is important. To talk is to risk ridicule but how will we provide testimony without talking? Here’s where we return to what I said earlier, about her use of language. Sometimes her criticism is plain and direct, especially if its the easy criticism of dictatorships. Sometimes she evades from harsh language into poetical and mythical, as when she, in an essay, explains why she so frequently uses the word “king” instead of “dictator”: because it’s softer. Soft-spoken, her novel carry big sticks nevertheless. Often, Müller is concerned with the access (der Zugriff) that a repressive system has on the individual. In a very nice appropriation of the feminist discussion of how hair or fashion can demonstrate the access that society has on women in society, she maintains in one of her many great essays that a man’s hair demonstrates the access of the (totalitarian) state on him. Movingly, she recounts how Bossert, a friend and writer who killed himself weeks after having been the target of repressive measures (apartment searched, manuscripts confiscated and he was beaten to a pulp) started to cut random pieces of hair out of his beard and hair, a motif that also comes up in Herztier.

These kinds of topics make many of her books seem bleak, especially ones like Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger or Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet. The harshness of many descriptions in her books, filled with desolation, terror, suicide, with cut-off thumbs and the solace of having a mother-of-pearl button that takes away the fear momentarily, this harshness is not part of a bleak, one-sided attack on a dictatorship, although that is certainly an important and central part of her work. The brilliance of Müller’s work is that her language and her way of structuring, contextualizing situations means that she interrogates the very point of view of her narrators, for example by letting them spout nonsense about history, or by creating situations that are no longer structured by political repression but by other power relationships, as the one between men and women. Repression is something that can be passed down and refocused and Herta Müller is amazingly aware of the intricacies of these relations. And she finds that many of them can be found in the mirror that is language, but her language is not cultural or social language, like Jelinek’s. Her language is the individual’s: “Sprache … lebt immer im Einzelfall.” and “Sprache … läßt sich von dem was Einer mit dem Anderen tat, nicht trennen.” Müller is a dedicated writer, a writer committed to the responsibility that we have as human beings. Hence the remark about teaching.

Before publishing her amazing new novel, which is very different from much that she has previously put out, she started to write poetry. But not just any poetry. Collections such as Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame contain poems that are not written, they are assembled, they are collages. Each page contains an image of a poem assembled of phrases and words (even just letters) cut out of books and newspapers, which is perfectly logical for a woman who is interested not just in language, as an abstract medium, but in language as something that people use. Language as part of actual, printed books and pages, which, in turn are read again by people. By individuals. Another application of this technique can be found in the anthology Vorwärts, ihr Kampfschildkröten, where different poets translate some well-known Ukrainian poets, frequently offering different versions of one and the same poem. Herta Müller’s contribution to that is not a translation or a poem of her own. Instead, she creates collages out of the translated versions, thus creating fascinating new poems. This last is interesting and intriguing, but slight. Her proper poetry, in Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame, however, is actually very good, light, well written, musical. I cannot recommend that book highly enough. Accomplished novelists who are also accomplished poets are very rare and it remains to be seen whether poetry really is a direction she intends to pursue in the future, but that book is an extraordinary accomplishment, on many levels.

And in Atemschaukel, her most recent book, (proper review on this blog forthcoming) her return to fictional prose, she writes about memory. Memory has always been important in her books, which frequently employ flashbacks. It is these flashbacks which are most responsible for the fractured narratives that had people incorrectly complain that she puts style before plot. These are not willfully fractured narratives in the sense of of a postmodern fragment for fragment’s sake. Müller is interesting in that, although clearly postmodern, she doesn’t write in 1970s/1980s traditions of postmodernism, but in 1950s traditions. I mentioned Lenz and Grass, but equally noteworthy are writers like Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann as well as, in a later vein, Walter Kempowski. All of those three are relevant to matters of memory, because the aforementioned flashbacks are but the tip of the iceberg. In her use of words she appears to me to pursue a kind of hunt for the memory that is in words, that hides in the words’ history, cultural and linguistic. This makes for a fascinating language, for a use of words that can appear to be overly poetic, which some German critics have accused her of in the reception of Atemschaukel. It is that aspect of her writing that connects her to writers like Paul Celan whose literary project contained similar attempts.

With, on the other hand, Kempowski (who isn’t likely to be a direct influence), she shares an interest in the power of stories to make or become part of history. That had always been boiling under the surface, but the autobiographical connection had overshadowed it. Her books always appeared to be descriptions of her experiences under Ceausescu and her escape from that. That is a worthy topic and the reasons that I have heard her name in discussions about last year’s Nobel prize as well, but what she did with the new book is amazing. She stepped out of the autobiographical framework and explicitly told other people’s stories. Her mother, as well as many other people from her village were deported after the war and set to work in a USSR labor camp, which happened to my grandmother, coming from a German community in Hungary, as well. Like my grandmother, many of the Romanian survivors of those camps rarely talked about these stories, so, starting in 2001, Herta Müller sat down with some of them and recorded their stories. Her help in this endeavor was the great, recently deceased poet Oskar Pastior, who is himself a survivor of these camps and who contributed most significantly to the stories thus assembled. Together they traveled to the Ukraine to visit locations where once camps were. After Pastior died in 2006, Müller decided to make a novel out of the reams and reams of material they had assembled together, most importantly, his own story.

Without wanting to anticipate my own proper review, let me just say that Atemschaukel is a great achievement that combines many of her strengths outlined in this piece, but applied them to a completely different topic. It can be said to round off her work. I didn’t expect her to win the prize because her work hasn’t had, to my mind, a definite shape yet, which may well be the reason that she did not yet receive the most prestigious German literary prize, The Büchnerpreis, but the longer I think about it the stronger I approve of the Swedish Academy’s decision. I think that this book can be like a capstone to her work, it exemplifies many of her powers and demonstrates that they aren’t just restricted to one topic, that she is not a one-note writer, although her poems should have put that idea to rest a long while ago.

And what is she? Is she a German writer? A Romanian one? German critics have always maintained that writing about Romania is a preliminary step to becoming a real writer, that her worth would only prove itself when she succeeded in ‘arriving’ properly, i.e. writing about Germany. This explains the overwhelming success of her latest novel, since the only subject that Germans more like their authors to write about than Germans, is Germans who are victims. Müller herself never tried to fit into critics’ expectations. Nationality is a thorny subject in her work and she prefers to write about bodies and spaces. Nationalities, ethnicities turn into languages in her work. She sees cultures and nations as webs, as interconnected systems that can’t be looked at on their own. In a statement she once said

Je mehr Augen ich für Deutschland habe, umso mehr verknüft sich das Jetzige mit der Vergangenheit.

Herta Müller is a careful, aware and thoughtful writer, and a gorgeous creator of prose and poetry as well. I’m happy she’ll finally get the attention she deserves. ISBN

Hulkatrice: Ramblings on "The United States of Tara" (TV)

[This is only my second attempt at writing about a TV show, so please excuse my clumsiness and/or stupidity]

The new TV show “The United States of Tara” is a huge success, as far as I am concerned. As I type this short piece, I am watching episode three, delighted by every second of it, as I was delighted by every second in the previous episodes. It is a success in every possible way. The writing is delicious, getting so many pitches just right, as when Kate’s husband talks about the “big diff”, or when having a scene involving both T’s 1970’s hipster jargon and Kate’s 2008’s jargon: Diablo “Juno” Cody’s writing is always clear, always on point, but it would not work as well with actors less great than the cast of this show. The acting is the main selling point. Tony Collette is as good as we’ve come to expect of her, but Keir Gilchrist, who plays Tara’s son, is absolutely astonishing. The premise of the show is easily described: Tara Gregson, who works as a painter of nursery room murals, is a mother of two kids and suffers from D.I.D., dissociative identity disorder: she has multiple personalities which she calls ‘the alters’.

So far we’ve encountered three of them: there’s T, a sixteen year old would-be punk, trapped in this middle-aged woman’s body. She can be rude but she’s actually very friendly and warm. The exact opposite is Buck, a male Vietnam vet, who likes to shoot guns and get into a fight. And then there’s Alice, a 1950’s woman, who appears to be a Super-mom, albeit fitted with 1950s ideas of sex (although she is learning) and morality. Tara is married to Max (played by John Corbett, a.k.a. Aidan from SatC), who is (I think) a gardener, and the weakest character of the whole show, so far. He is little more than a prop in this story: very friendly, very patient. He has trouble resisting the sexual advances of the two female alters, but other than that we don’t get much of him except indulgent smiles and sighs. The Gregsons have two kids: a son, Marshall, and a daughter, Brie. Brie’s your typical teenager, rebelling against her parents (T, of course, is exempt from teenager derision). She is blond, pretty and thoroughly unremarkable. Like her father, she is little but a foil to demonstrate the dynamics of Tara and her alters. Marshall is a closet homosexual 14 year old. He is shy and has just fallen in love with what appears to be a homophobic Christian jock. His character is the only one in the family which is interesting even when not interacting with Tara.

At this early point there is little I can say about the show that is less trite than the previous two paragraphs. I will, however, state what fascinates me about the show, maybe that’s more interesting. I read Tara as a sort of anti-Hulk, or a female Hulk. Now, from our embarrassing comic knowledge we all know about Jennifer Susan Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk. That character, who chose to keep the Hulk shape, is an endless source of discussions about women and power and feminism. You can go to your local MLA archive for more and smarter work on the She-Hulk. Tara is different in many respects. She does not have superpowers, in the sense of super-human powers (yes there are a couple of classic and not so classic characters who share that with her but we’re comparing her to Hulk now) and she does not prefer to stay in her other state(s). She is closer to the original Hulk, the incredible one. Bruce Banner turns into Hulk when he’s angry just as Tara turns into one of her alters when she’s under stress. She cannot control this and she’d rather just be Tara, just as Mr. Banner’d rather stay himself. Her alters, while not equipped with superhuman powers, can be seen as superpowers in the sense that they represent the ‘shortcomings’ of any regular mom.

Alice is a perfect cook, she can talk and soothe mad teachers and suspicious parents and she keep the house in tip-top shape in the most efficient way possible. T covers a different area of trouble: the teenage child. T can effortlessly em- and sympathize with Brie, she knows what the girl is thinking or feeling because she thinks and feels it as well. Buck, finally, represents a third, and largely underrated area of expertise: when a woman ‘needs to be a man’. We encounter Buck for the first time when Tara witnesses Brie’s Goth boyfriend hit her. When Tara tries to confront him, she fails and this triggers Buck’s appearance, who, in the course of this episode, engages the boyfriend in a fistfight, thus ‘defending Brie’s honor’. The alters are also different in appearance from Tara, although just in the way they are dressed and made up. So, having brought up some similarities to the incredible green guy, why’d I call Tara the anti-Hulk?

My reading stems from the standard reading of Hulk, who is generally read as representing the repressed part of the human character, in Freudian terms: the id, yadda, yadda (for smarter comments, again, do consult the MLA). If Hulk is the id, Tara’s alters could be seen as the super-ego. Hulk is a way for Banner to break out of his mold (the genre expression “mild-mannered” has multiple layers, after all), whereas Tara’s alters are a way of breaking into the mold (also, remember Marcuse’s modifications?). They are her way of conforming to the gender expectations, providing three facets of the perfect wife, the roles she is supposed to play; yes, they are clearly essentialist, but then they’re supposed to be, they are, as I said, not fully formed characters, but gender roles, informed by cultural parameters. The way they interact with their environment speaks volumes of the contradictions inherent in such roles.

There is a limit to this, however. Through all the characters and their interaction a simple moral line is threaded, but there is a lot of promise, especially if we look at fields like heteronormativity. Another intriguing tangent of the whole set up is sexuality. There’s not just Freud/Marcuse, as mentioned. Clearly, the extent to which sexuality is foregrounded almost asks for us to include Reich, doesn’t it? Not so far, however, but the potential’s there. All the characters develop a sexual relation of sorts with Max, their bodies, although they all share a body with Tara, appear to have a different sense of body-ness. This includes a wide range, from the different gait of the four characters to Buck’s declaration that his penis had been shot off in ‘Nam. Sadly, there, too, is a limit to the reflection. Health, height, strength and other things are a given. Still, to wrap this pointless blather up: there is a lot of promise in the “United States of Tara”. As it is, it’s enjoyable and fascinating. It could be great but we’ll see about that. It’s worth at least taking a look.

Pu das Bär. An Examination of Gender and Translation in a Cognitive Linguistics Framework


0. Introduction

Gender in Cognitive Linguistics (hereafter referred to as CL) is a largely neglected aspect, as it does not easily fit the “image”-schemas of Cognitive Semantics. CL’s various theories, from Construction Grammar (CxG), with its semantic companion piece Scenes-and-Frames-Semantics (cf. Fillmore 1977)[i] to Cognitive Grammar[ii] (CG), have steered largely clear of gender as a linguistic category.

This neglect is, at least partly, due to the fact that CL is concerned with syntax rather than morphology and complex constructions of varying degrees of schematicity rather than their less complex companions. What’s more, gender markings are usually regarded as a clear case of pure phonology (cf. Taylor 2002:333f.) “contribut[ing] little to the symbolization of conceptual structure” (334).

Yet this view has lately been called into question as the ideological biases in inflectional classes have been revealed (cf. Nesset 2001[iii]). However, gender as a “semantically based” (Langacker 2002:304) grammatical phenomenon has already been analyzed as early as 1991 in CG, as explicated by Langacker (2002).

This will be taken as the starting point for this investigation in the possibilities and impossibilities of translating gender. Approaches by Lakoff (1987) and Tabakowska (1993b) will be used, but central to this paper will be the Cognitive Linguistic view of gender, as the “translation muddle” (Hyde 1993:3) might profit from this perspective. After laying down the foundations for the arguments we will briefly examine the linguistic category of gender and how the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis might be applicable to it. Only then will we introduce the text, which is to be used as corpus: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne[iv] and compare it regarding the character ‘Owl’ with the German standard translation by the esteemed Harry Rowohlt.

How categories of language influence understanding, writing or translation, if there exists something akin to a ‘faithful’ translation or if, ultimately, the Italian proverb that ‘traduttore traditore’[v] is right, these questions will be answered, though tentatively, at the end of this paper.

1. Cognitive Grammar

1.1. The framework (Spanish)

Clearly, CL “is not […] the same as cognitive grammar” (Langacker 2002:ix), but in this section we will not take CxG into account at all, as its description of gender is not as useful as the CG version. Owing to Langacker’s discussion of gender being mostly restricted to Spanish gender[vi], we will subsequently slightly adapt it in order to fit the German inflectional classes as well.

The first thing that has to be noted is that Spanish nouns have a very strict adherence to gender. Whereas in German gender seems to be largely arbitrary (not fully, cf. Köpcke and Zubin 1984), with nouns of different grammatical gender like Feder (female) and Kater (male) providing no clues for the speaker/hearer of German, who will have to consider the articles (die Feder but der Kater) before deciding upon their gender. In Spanish, on the other hand, the noun inflections can be absolutely relied on. The suffixes -o and -a mark male and female gender.

According to Langacker’s theory, they are “noun-forming suffixes, which implies that they are themselves schematic nouns” (Langacker 2002:305). The degree of schematicity they are assigned by the speaker varies according to context. In those cases where they are attached to animate nouns they correlate with semantic gender and mean “male creature” and “female creature” ([MALE CREATURE/-o] and [FEMALE CREATURE/-a] in CG notation) but when attached to inanimate nouns such as mesa (table), they turn into highly schematic nouns whose meaning could roughly be described as “thing” (cf. Langacker 2002:306; [THING/-o] and [THING/-a]).

Thus a Spanish noun such as [FEMALE CAT/gata] is a composite structure, with the components [CAT/gat] and [FEMALE CREATURE/-a][vii]. As “[i]t is usual for the composite structure to inherit its profile from one of the components” (Langacker 2005:169), it is probably [FEMALE CREATURE/-a] which provides said structure in our case, but CG theory is very sketchy in this area. The component providing the structure also usually provides a schematic substructure, matching the profile of the other component, which is called ‘e-site’[viii] (cf. Langacker 2005:169f.). One might suggest that [FEMALE CREATURE/-a] contains a schematic substructure requiring a noun.

However, difficulties may arise, considering that gender may not be computed at all but simply learned[ix], so that the specific units are learned and memorized in an inventory together with “the constructional schemas they instantiate” (Langacker 1991:183).[x] It becomes doubtful whether it is still viable to claim that the suffixes -o and -a are meaningful. Langacker’s changes in schematicity between gata and mesa sound suspiciously like an excuse to preserve his theory’s claims intact, especially as he is keeps the way the change is worked in the mind of the speaker/hearer of Spanish unclear.

Furthermore, and more importantly, he utterly ignores the possibility that even in inanimate nouns such as cerro (hill) the suffix -o may still signify ‘male’, cognitively speaking, as witnessed by a multitude of idioms and poetic uses (cf. Jakobson 1966 on Russian grammatical gender of inanimate nouns). In order for CG to cover this possibility, too, the schematic nouns have to be regarded as polysemous to the extent that -o for example will mean [MALE CREATURE/-o] and [THING/-o] both, even when referring to a table[xi]. The notation we will hereafter use is thus [(MALE) THING/-o][xii]. Whether the ‘masculine’ aspect is processed or not depends on context (cf. Chapter 1.3.).

1.2. The extension (German)

Whereas it might be sufficient for a discussion of Spanish to restrict the analysis to the morphology of nouns, this is not the case with German where close attention needs to be paid to the articles. Although Spanish articles agree in gender with the noun they precede, just as German articles do, in Langacker’s book (2002) articles are not discussed with regard to gender but with regard to grounding. This means “that the profiled entity bears some relationship to the ground in regard to such fundamental issues as reality, […], and speaker/hearer knowledge” (Langacker 2002:321). The la in the nominal expression la gata does not add anything semantically with regard to gender.

In a discussion of German, however, the article is more important as a marker of gender[xiii]. The ending -er, for example, can not be trusted to refer to one gender only, as it can be found both in [FEATHER/Feder] and in [TOMCAT/Kater]. Adding the article, however, solves this problem, making clear that the construction should not be [TOMCAT/Kater] but [TOMCAT/der Kater].[xiv] In this case the components would be [TOMCAT/Kater][xv] and [(MALE) THING/der][xvi]. The parentheses around ‘Male’ in the second component indicate the schematic substructure.

As in Spanish, the schematic noun [(MALE) THING/der] is a noun of varying schematicity, heavily dependent both on memorized meaning and context, as argued above. Also, the articles der (male), die (female) but not das (neuter) can apply to noun inflections such as the genitive in the case of der (cf. (1)) or plural in the case of die (cf.(2))


(1) Der Hund der Nachbarin ist krank.

(2) Die Kekse meiner Oma sind sehr lecker.

Note that the noun will be morphologically changed according to the particular requirements of the inflection in question, so that the composite structures [CATS/die Katzen] and [(FEMALE) CAT[xvii]/die Katze] can be clearly distinguished. In the instance of (2), die might be simply described as [THINGS/die]. Context, obviously, must play a major role in the construal of meaning in the face of such complex networks of constructions. An excellent context theory within the framework of CG is the theory of mental spaces.

1.3. Mental Spaces

1.3.1. Literary Space

The “meaning potential” (Fauconnier 2004:661) of grammatical gender in German is manifold. In this paper, however, we will focus on the two possibilities outlined in the framework: taking grammatical gender as a “cognitively entrenched […], necessarily schematic” (Langacker 1997:236) part of language, as far as inanimate nouns are concerned, or allowing for the cognitive processing of semantic gender, however this might work with words as die Feder.

The trouble with words such as die Feder is that common sense does not allow for the feminity of a feather, because, in the real world, a feather does not have biological gender. Yet, in Fauconnier’s theory linguistic expressions refer not to things “in the ‘real world’, but [to] things in a ‘mental space’, that is [to] a situation as conceived of by a language user.” (Taylor 2002:72). clearly, there are some situations where a language user may conceive of a feather as feminine, mostly in literary contexts.

The entity[xviii] designated by the noun (feather, for instance) is the instantiation of a ‘role’ in a certain ‘mental space’ (for the theory see Fauconnier 1984:63f.). This particular mental space will be called the literary space L, which refers not to any literary text[xix] but to a certain text. The role r1 might be ‘a friend’, ‘a servant’, or somebody else. The value r1(L)[xx], referring to the particular entity which instantiates that role in the particular space L. This space is created locally whenever the text is read and only during that time, r1(L) could, in our example, be Feather[xxi].

Yet there will be at least one other space that could be accessed by the same linguistic expression, which would be the default interpretation of the inanimate noun, it will be called the Thing Space (T). r1, obviously, would not work in this space, ‘feather’ would have to assume another role (r2) and a different value r2(T) of course. This means that depending on which space or role the linguistic expression is evoked in, its meaning is affected in direction of one of these spaces.

1.3.2. Blending Theory

The disparity of the two outlined spaces calls for two different roles and of course produces different values. However, as both sorts of spaces are needed, a slightly different approach has to be taken, such as Blending Theory (cf. Fauconnier 2004:667f.).

(3) “In […] blending theory, […] four mental spaces [are evoked]: two input spaces […]; a generic space, which abstracts the commonalities from the two spaces […] and thereby defines the cross-space mapping between the elements in the two input spaces; and a blended space, which creates a novel expressive effect” (Croft and Cruse 2004, 39; emphasis theirs)

Thus, the two disparate spaces blend in the understanding of the literary text, as both the featheriness of the feather and the gender of the person Feather are bound to be included in the understanding of the text.

2. Translation

Translation as a possible field of application for Cognitive Linguistics has been neglected for many years and even today there has little been published. Even though, as Professor Tabakowska, the foremost expert on this topic, rightly points out, CL has much to add to difficult notions such as translation equivalence[xxii] (cf. Tabakowska 1993b:73 et passim) CL concepts such as ‘imagery’ or ‘mental spaces’ could add a third level of interpretation, between a more abstract ‘meaning’ and the actual words.

The choices a translator has to make can be clarified to him by explaining the imagery that is created by certain grammatical constructions (cf. Tabakowska 1993a:796), for instance the importance of the definite article in a language such as English for a Russian translator, whose native language does not normally use the definite article except for special emphasis[xxiii].

This example is useful in demonstrating why mental spaces cannot simply be transferred, although they seem to be fairly unconnected to grammatical constructions. However, as we stressed above, it is grammatical contsructions that prompt mental spaces. To an English writer there is a difference between “seeing the owl” and “seeing Owl”. In the latter case, ‘owl’ might be a proper name. Whereas “the owl” in the former phrase would, in Fauconnier’s notation, needs only to be described as r2(T), without obvious ambiguities, the “Owl” in the second phrase can be construed both as r1(L)and as r2(T). In Russian, the word would both times be simply CABá, without an article, consequently, the ambiguity would be far more apparent.

Whether this difference in grammar mirrors a difference in construal and, ultimately, in thinking, is contested. The theory of Linguistic Relativism puts forward that very claim and, on top of that, denies the possibility of accurate translation.

3. On Linguistic Relativity

3.1. Gender

3.1.1. Grammatical and natural gender

English and German differ fundamentally in respect to gender, mainly because English does not have grammatical gender: “Gender in English is primarily a semantic category” (Hellinger 2001:107), which means, that for the most part, only those nouns are gendered that refer to a human whose gender is known. Yet this rule is not dependable, as there are not only exceptions such as social gender[xxiv] (cf. Hellinger 1990:61) or psychological gender[xxv] but it also seems that speakers of English “have a ‘folk theory’ of gender[xxvi] that enables them to assign gender to objects that lack natural gender” (Sera, Berge and Pintado 1994:287). Furthermore, it has been frequently remarked that in American discourse, “reference to women […] was much less frequent than reference to males” (Romaine 2001:161).[xxvii]

In German the issue is more straightforward, as every single noun is assigned a grammatical gender. Once assigned, it is usually fixed (cf. Bußmann and Hellinger 2003:145). Gender assignment is often taken to be arbitrary, yet “[f]or approximately 90% of German monosyllabic nouns, gender class membership can be predicted” (143). Moreover, some of the criteria for classification in English ‘folk theory’[xxviii] seem to be at work in grammatical gender assignment, too (cf. Sera, Berge and Pintado 1994:288).

Conceptually, we can describe these different criteria for gender assignment easily with the mental spaces vocabulary, recalling that linguistic expressions do not necessarily refer to ‘the real world’ but to mental spaces. One of the reasons why gender assignment in one’s own language is rarely questioned[xxix], might be that grammatical gender refers to a so-called base space, which is a default space (cf. Taylor 2002:72f.), representing “the mutually known world of the interlocutors” (Croft and Cruse 2004:33). Yet what people ‘know’ about gender, they learn early on, by learning their language (cf. Howard 2001:191).

3.1.2. Learning Gender

The question how gender is processed, especially by children, and the importance of the category of gender for the child’s understanding of the world is vital for the theory of Linguistic Relativity and hence has to be raised in this paper.

Until children are 2 years old, they assign gender randomly. Yet older children show a strong bias towards gender stereotyping (cf. Liben and Signorella 1993). There is strong evidence that children are “invited” (cf. Waxman and Markow 1995) by words to form categories, or at least they are alerted by words or labels to the existence of such categories (cf. Waxman and Gelman 1986; see also Spelke and Tsivkin 2001) early on in their development.

Grammatical gender is learned fairly early, compared to semantic gender (cf. Taylor 1989:247), and it takes children quite some time to form “stable shared conceptual systems” (Lucy and Gaskins 2001:280). During this time children possibly learn by learning language “that objects belong in categories” (Gopnik 2001:60) and as they “assume that giving the same name to two objects means that they share a common nature” (61), they might be predisposed to gender stereotyping by having been exposed to the linguistic category of gender.

In this context, it becomes highly significant that personalization in German children’s literature corresponds not only to grammatical gender but also to gender ‘folk theories’ (cf. Corbett 1991:94f.). If children learn their gender stereotypes through the books they are read as toddlers, it makes sense to compare two versions of one of the most famous children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh.

3.2. Translation

3.2.1. Vertical and Horizontal Translations

The two versions about to be compared are not two drafts of the text but the ‘original’ text and the translated German version of it. This comparison begs the question of translatability. If a text can be translated easily, without losing anything, then any difference between the two versions must be due to bad translating skills. Even though the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, which entailed the impossibility of translation, has not been without influence in philology, within translation studies, there has never been particularly much interest in the hypothesis.

Instead, much effort has been invested into showing what a faithful translation might look like, by concetrating mostly on the idea of ‘vertical’ translation, which views translation “as containing two main processes: full comprehension of the […] text […], followed by production of the constructed meaning” (De Groot 1997:30). The exact phrasing, the grammatical and lexical aspects of the text get lost. Yet, as is often claimed, this technique is necessary for literary translation[xxx].

Yet, in view of the previous discussion of gender, the importance of a horizontal view of translation, which “construes translation as ‘transcoding'” (30) cannot be underestimated, as only in this way can grammatical structures be taken into account.

3.2.2. Translatability

The answers to the question of translatability revolve around the notion of commensurability, which refers mostly to the commensurability of the two conceptual systems (of the two languages at either end of the translation process). Understanding a text in a different language requires only few “correspondences in well structured experiences and a common conceptualizing capacity” (Lakoff 1987:312). Yet even that can theoretically be problematic, as Whorf argues:

(4) “A scientist from another culture that used time and velocity [instead of time and space] would have great difficulty in getting us to understand these concepts.” (Whorf 1956:218)

This is merely about understanding, not yet about translation. For a ‘good’ translation one requires “close correspondences across conceptual systems” (Lakoff 1987:312). Thus, a translation from English into Hopi or Yukatán might be difficult, with much being lost. This, however, need not concern us here, as our two languages are closely related, as they share many aspects, down to covert categories. Nevertheless, whether gender is translatable from English to German remains to be seen.

4. Translating Winnie-the-Pooh

4.1. Gendering Owl (English)

This section of the paper is concerned with The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and the depiction of gender within it, specifically of Owl’s gender. The characters of the book, Piglet, Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Owl and others seem at first glance to be removed from the sphere of human gender concerns. Yet, the book does not only contain a human character, Christopher Robin, there is also an explicit concern with gender, which is made clear in the opening pages:


(5) When I first heard [Winnie-the-Pooh’s] name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But I thought he was a boy?”
“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.
“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”
“I don’t.”
“Butyou said-“
“He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ‘ther’ means?”
(Milne 2002:15)

For this paper, taking the eponymous bear as a focus would not have made much sense, we will later see why. Nevertheless, this passage shows that gender does constitute a concern in this text, or at least the text is not oblivious to it.

Owl is a male character. His gender is marked only by the pronoun ‘he’, which is used but rarely, usually he is called or referred to by his proper name, Owl. Which also is a description of his person, as he is an owl in most respects, there is no textual evidence that he is wearing something similar to human clothes. His human characteristics consist of him living in a tree-apartment, with a proper door and signs and -for a short time, anyway- a doorbell, and, of course of his speaking English.

Linguistically, Owl is an intersting case, as his name also refers to his biological nature. Owls, however, do not normally have a gender in English, so that Owl’s gender is an invention of the author[xxxi]. He could have had a female Owl as well, it seems. Yet, recalling English ‘folk theories’, it is probable that there is an intuition for native speakers of English to categorize owls als male, as they tend to characterize bears and elephants as male (cf. Corbett 1991:95). Linguistically, Owl is only marked by the missing article[xxxii]. A CG description as in Chapter 1.1. is out of the question.

Luckily, we also have the mental spaces theory. As a grammatical prompt for a mental space, the missing article and the gendered pronouns are sufficient to assign Owl to a role r, which could be described as ‘avuncular, wise friend’ in the literary space L[xxxiii]. The value r(L) would then be Owl.

4.2. Translating Owl (German)

In the translated version, the translation of the character Owl seems to have been pretty straightforward. He is called Eule, a proper name and a biological refernce at the same time. However, checking the gender of Eule, one notices that Eule is female.[xxxiv]

At first glance this seems to be simply a bad translation: Harry Rowohlt jumbled the genders. Yet at second glance this judgement is less convincing. In German, the owl, die Eule, has a female grammatical gender. Whereas in English Milne was, at least from a grammatical point of view, free to assign any gender he wanted to without sounding especially odd. Assigning Eule a male gender would have a strange ring to it.

Comparing the two texts linguistically, it will be noticed that as far as mental spaces are concerned, in German a second space is activated, which we will call the Animal Space (A). A female Eule is so much in accordance with its biological companion die Eule, that the role r2, which might be described as ‘flying animal which eats field mice” in space A, where die Eule is the value of r2(A). This unwieldy description can be evaded by creating a blending space. The input spaces would be spaces L and A and the generic space would contain feathers, a home in the trees etc.

If we take a look at the way Eule is linguistically described in the framework put forward in chapter 1.2., we can see why she would prompt this kind of mental space. In view of the fact that [OWL/Eule] is not a self-sufficient noun, that it is a component which needs the other component [(FEMALE) THING/die] in order to form a properly functioning composite structure, it becomes obvious why the Animal Space is triggered by the proper name Eule. However, would Eule have had a male gender, the distancing effect created by that deviation might be sufficient to tone down the nouniness of the word/name Eule.

Would this, then, have been a better translation? This is a hard question to answer, as there is a third aspect to consider, the intuition of the native speaker and ‘folk theories’ concerning gender. As these theories mostly closely follow grammatical gender, the German reader might be put off in a way that the English reader is not. It was said earlier in this paper, that the folk theories resemble each other closely, yet they are not identical.

The question of the right choice has to be, in the end, a pragmatic decision. There are risks both ways.

5. Conclusion

Whorf famously demanded of Western Knowledge “a re-examination of the linguistic background of its thinking” (Whorf 1956:247). What we have attempted to in the present paper, on a very small scale, is to examine the Cognitive Linguistic background of gender and translation, with the Whorfian question of translatability as theoretical backdrop.

What about thought and language? This question has always been difficult to answer and an answer will not be attempted here. However, the influence of language on gender as a category and on translation has been suggested. Especially the latter suggestion recalls a recent reformulation of the Whorfian Hypothesis, i.e. Slobin’s formula of “thinking for speaking” (Slobin 1990:75). We do not know how the mind would work in absence of language, but when ‘thinking for translating’, language almost certainly exerts its influence. A native speaker of Spanish, with possibly different ‘folk theories’ and different grammatical genders, were he called upon to translate the text from English into German, would he have made the same choice as Harry Rowohlt?

What about the children? Does reading Pu der Bär influence children’s stereotyping differently than Winnie-the-Pooh does? There are feminist translators, who certainly believe that, changing as they do sexist gender typings whenever translating a text (cf. Von Flotow 1997:24ff.). The present paper did not look for evidence and so it did not provide any, yet it did show which alleys one might pursue, were one to look for such evidence.

This paper has one big omission, cognitive semantics, because this would have been by far to big a subject for the scope of this paper. The recognition of the importance of inflections for cognitive processes may lead to a reformulation of cognitive semantics which includes inflections[xxxv], and not just gender inflections at that.

Then, maybe, will a truly multidisciplinary gender study be possible, as Pütz, one of the founders of Critical Cognitive Linguistics envisions it (cf. Pütz 2005:155f.).

Lastly, we return to the only question not answered: the question of translatability. True equivalence is hard to attain, if not impossible, that seems clear after trying to translate the simple word ‘Owl’ led to an ambivalent situation. Translation is only ‘possible’ if one takes a highly pragmatic view of translation.

6. Bibliography

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Bickel, Balthasar. 2000. Grammar and social practice: On the role of ‘culture’ in linguistic relativity. Evidence for linguistic relativity, ed. Susanne Niemeier and René Dirven, 161-192. Amsterdam: Benjamins

Bußmann, Hadumot and Marlis Hellinger. 2003. Engendering female visibility in German. Gender across languages: The linguistic representation of women and men, Vol.3, ed. Marlis Hellinger and Hadumot Bußmann, 141-175. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Corbett, Greville. 1991. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Croft, William and D. Alan Cruse. 2004. Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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[i] For a brief but clear discussion of the relationship between CxG and Scenes-and-Frames-Semantics see Leino 2005.

[ii] Cf. Taylor 2002 for an easy but cursory introduction and Langacker 2002 for a more difficult yet more rewarding treatment.

[iii] It has to be stated that Nesset’s paper is very speculative, as he overcrowds his paper with feminist assumptions (drawn mostly from Beauvoir), which tend to muddle the clarity of his analysis. For a clearer (though less spectacular) paper on the same topic with comparable results see Howard 2001.

[iv] An author, who, interestingly, has discussed, as early as 1940, the intricacies of male and female pronouns (cf. Baron 1986:213).

[v] To translate is to betray.

[vi] For a brief survey of Spanish gender see Nissen 2002.

[vii] The components for [TABLE/mesa] would be, of course, [TABLE/mes] and

[THING/-a].

[viii] Short for ‘elaboration site’.

[ix] Although rules and lists do coexist in CG (cf. Langacker 1987:42).

[x] This claim that gender is not computed but memorized and stored in an inventory has since been significantly substantiated by evidence from anomic patients (cf. Van Berkum 1996:186n and Jackendoff 2002:215n).

[xi] Langacker does regard -o and -a as polysemous but only until they are attached to a noun. Then they seem to take on a single meaning (cf. Langacker 1991:185).

[xii] Notice that we did not lose the ‘creature’ part of the description; it is contained in the ‘(MALE)’ part. A difference between creatures or things needs no longer to be entered in the description.

[xiii] However, this does not mean that the definitive article has lost its grounding function, but, compared to Spanish, the function as a gender marker is strongly foregrounded.

[xiv] Cf. also: “By asking what gender a noun like German Tisch ‘table’ has, we may be missing the underlying form in the lexicon. The appropriate question may very well be ‘What is the gender of der Tisch?'” (Schwink 2004:5)

[xv] Of course, this notation of the component parts might be seen as being contradictory, yet it is not. It is just that [TOMCAT/Kater] is the only way to describe this component, you can’t put the ‘TOM’ in parentheses.

[xvi] In analogy to our notation concerning suffixes in the previous section.

[xvii] This example is difficult because cat as well as die Katze refers both to an individual cat of unspecified gender as well as to a female cat.

[xviii] The ontological status of this entity is unclear. It is not ‘in the world’ but it is not’in a mental space’ either.

[xix] “Literary text” does not mean here the material text ‘in the real world’ but the text as it is read and understood by one individual .

[xx] In Fauconnier’s theory this works like a mathematical function.

[xxi] The capital letter indicates that the word ‘feather’ might in this case be used as a proper name.

[xxii] A different angle than in Tabakowskas work is pursued in Scarpa 2002, where the focus is on specialized literature.

[xxiii] That means it is more like a demonstrative than like a definite article.

[xxiv] Gender determination through “Eigenschaften des prototypischen Referenten” (Hellinger 1990, 65).

[xxv] “affective attitudes of the speaker, which accounts for variation as in babyshe vs. babyit” (Hellinger 2001, 107f.).

[xxvi] This is actually reminiscent of an interesting point of Bickel, who claimed that whoever wanted to explain Linguistic Relativity had to take sociocultural practice into account, too (cf. Bickel 200).

[xxvii] Compare Whorf’s fascinating idea that covert grammatical categories such as the English gender system “are more likely to be ‘rational’, […] in accordance with […] nonlinguistic fact” (Lucy 1992:28).

[xxviii] Most importantly the artificial-male/natural-female division (cf. Sera, Berge and Pintado 1994:287).

[xxix] Cf. Whorf 1956:207ff.

[xxx] Many of these strange arguments are provided in Hyde 1993, an attack on the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis.

[xxxi] And one of the human features of Owl.

[xxxii] The capital ‘O’ does not count, as the book has a very sloppy orthography as far as capital letters are concerned.

[xxxiii] Again, it has to be stressed, that these spaces are not ‘there’, they imply someone reading this text at this moment.

[xxxiv] Notice that Pu der Bär is a male character, just as in the original.

[xxxv] One of the most comprehensive works on cognitive semantics, Leonard Talmy’s Towards a Cognitive Semantics mostly ignores inflections.

Common Sense (Blathery Rant)

I have talked to people recently who extolled the virtues of disagreeing with academic opinion, regardless of the soundness of yr arguments against the old position. They appeared to be entirely unfazed by the fact that the argument in these books seems to rely entirely on common sense, not on thinking or careful reasoning (for example this book).

Last night it occurred to me that the funny thing about most of these ‘rebellious’ attacks against the academic establishment is that they only work for a reader who is rather roughly or not at all acquainted with the ‘facts’. While it is true that many of these ‘facts’ are created by academia (and I would be the very last person to defend something like ‘objective historical facts’, indeed I think that to posit the existence of knowable objective historical facts means almost always a shoddy methodological framework) and that there is a strong intolerance against alternative theories, the carefully reasoned book that would actually have an impact on the generally accepted theory is rare. The only thing it actually does is stir up the uneducated masses without educating them first. It’s pure demagoguery, and not in a nice way.

This is anti-intellectualism at its worst. It may not look like this sometimes but take a closer look at the premises and you’ll see it. And Common Sense, as the instrument of such arguments, appears to me sometimes to be downright evil. I am not very firm on English etymology, but the German equivalent, “gesunder Menschenverstand”, which, roughly, awkwardly, translates as “healthy human reasoning”, shows how Common Sense works. It attacks things which are outside of a given societal norm, which, of course, reflects strongly the dominant anti-emancipatory ideas of a given society. Small wonder then that, say, in the realm of philosophy, books, nay, pamphlets abound which are bashing Feminism and any strain of postmodern/poststructuralist thought that is not in agreement with the dominant norm. The sick elements of society, if you will, channeling Agamben and Foucault here.

Thus, Common Sense often surfaces in the most evil of contexts. Antisemitic, racist literature is built on a foundation of ‘common sense’. The whole insidious concept of political correctness is built on ‘common sense’ as well, the idea being that, if we were really honest, we would admit that what is perceived as ‘pc speech’ is really only pc mumbo-jumbo. There is, as to modern antisemitism, an aspect of down-to-earth, almost agrarian, simplicity to the whole thing. Small wonder that both concepts can often be found in nationalistic ‘Blut und Boden’-contexts and in anti-cosmopolitanist arguments. It does not, though, usually make an appearance in islamophobic contexts, as the stereotypes directed at that particular minority are others. Debauchery, decadence, yes, but Islam is so strongly identified with a particular ethnic group that the particular nexus described above is never really activated. Islamophobia is, currently, a rather obvious affair, and so widely and fundamentally accepted, that it has had no need to hide behind a rhetorical veil yet.

The strangest aspect of this, though, is that even intellectuals, and those who are very much in favor of emancipatory movements, tend to view ‘common sense’ and the gesture of rebellion as an acceptable ally in the battle against orthodoxy and then proceed to attack nilly-willy those who work within orthodoxy, who urge others to try to read and understand what you are criticizing before you go off on a 200page commonsensical rant (or at least to be open to arguments from orthodox academia). Happened to me once here and several times in person. And no, this is not about left-wing antisemitism (think anticapitalism, think usury). And no, I have no answer to this, really. It baffles me, honestly. Did I mention that they are all really, really smart, some of them way, way smarter than this blog’s dim-witted excuse for an author? They are. You see me throwing my hands up. I have no answer. Do you have one? I’d love to hear it. A book you can direct me to?

Have a great week, btw., folks.

Vom Lesen

Ich esse Bücher. Wenn Bücher die Missionare der Vernunft und Kreativität sind (Ich gebe zu, “Missionare” und “Vernunft” in ein und demselben Satz beißt sich), dann bin ich der kraushaarige Wilde, der sie auffrisst. Ich verschlinge sie hastig, gierig, während der reichen Mahlzeit die Augen bereits nach dem nächsten auswerfend.

Ich lese viel und mit einer Gier, die dem hehren Medium “Buch”, das eigentlich eine entschleunigende Funktion in der modernen Gesellschaft erfüllen könnte, im Grunde schlecht bekommt. Ich lese mehrere Bücher parallel und trotzdem fällt mein Auge ab und zu auf ein ausgelesenes Buch im Regal und prompt falle ich auch über dieses her. Neue Bücher sind ohnehin sofort dran. Das führt zu der Situation, daß ich, trotz hohen Lesepensums, zu wenigstens einem viertel angelesene Bücher in den Regalen habe. Ich habe keinerlei ungelesene Bücher, aber mehrere dutzend angelesene. Im Moment versuche ich mich zwar von Neukäufen abzuhalten und endlich ein paar Bücher zu Ende zu lesen, aber das ist nicht gerade leicht, meine Freunde.

Ich verschandele Bücher. Gier ist ein schlechter Begleiter behutsamen Lesens. Ich bin zwar bibliophil bis (fast) zum Fetisch, meine Bücher haben kaum äußere Schäden, Knicke zum beispiel, dafür sind sie aber im Inneren gezeichnet durch dutzende Eselsohren. Eine Zeitlang wollte ich dem Beispiel einer guten Bekannten folgen und Zitate herausschreiben und archivieren, aber das dafür notwendige Innehalten im Lesen ist mir unerträglich. Also pflüge ich weiter durch die Bücher wie der ausgehungerte Wilde der ich bin.

Ich fresse Bücher und mit der Zeit entwickelt man einen feinen Gaumen, aber, seien wir ehrlich: ein echter Leser ist immer auch ein Schwein. Er frißt alles. Das heißt nicht, daß er unterschiedslos schlechte und gute Bücher liest, aber durchaus, daß er durcheinander hohe Literatur und das, was sich manchmal abwertend “Trivialliteratur” bezeichnen lassen muß, völlig zu Unrecht, und was ich Genreliteratur nenne. Sicher, auch dieser Begriff, will er hilfreich sein, impliziert eine Abwertung, aber besser wird es nicht. Ich lese nicht nur Kriminalromane, das wohl literarischste Genre, das auch elitäre Handkegenießer (Ich finde Handke fantastisch, aber darum geht es ja nicht) guten Gewissens lesen. Ich verschlinge Berge an Fantasy, historischen Romanen, Science Fiction, Horror. In den letzten Jahren zwar weniger als noch vor 5 Jahren, aber immer noch habe ich im aktuellen Lesestapel mindestens ein Genrebuch (in diesem Augenblick ist es Laura Lippman’s toller Roman “What the Dead know”). Ich finde, daß ‘trivial’ der falsche Begriff dafür ist. Sicher gibt es schlechte Bücher in der Genreliteratur, aber die gibt es auch in sogenannter Hochliteratur. Die wilde Freude am Fabulieren, die herausgeschrieene Lust am Erzählen und Erfinden ist in der Genreliteratur oft frischer und lebendiger, als in der zuweilen etwas müde wirkenden Hochkultur. Jedes Buch, und zwar jedes, kann einem denkenden Menschen, und daß das Denken beim Lesen wichtig ist, daß passives Lesen eine Verschwendung an Zeit und Buch ist, ist ohnehin klar, den Horizont erweitern. Trivial ist nur ein passiv aufgenommenes Buch, und das kann Beckett ebenso wie Stephen King sein.

Ich bin ein allesfressender Vielfraß, aber das ist nicht schlimm. Schlimm ist, daß meine Augen größer sind als mein Magen. So viele saftige Bücher und eine vergleichsweise winzige Menge an Zeit, um sie sich einzuverleiben. Heute habe ich mir die große neue P&V Übersetzung von Krieg und Frieden bestellt und zwei Biographien von Ackroyd, sowie die Tagebücher von Schlesinger, ohne eine Idee davon, wann ich diese 4000+ Seiten lesen will. Je mehr man liest, umso mehr wird einem bewußt, daß es noch unzählbare Mengen an Büchern gibt, die man noch nicht gelesen hat.

Und es kommt einem auch ein bißchen die eigene Meinung abhanden, die ich nur noch rhetorisch formulieren kann, fast alles was ich schreibe, ist dem Vorredner geschuldet, als Reaktion, denn je mehr man liest, umso schneller fällt einem auf, daß alles immer komplizierter ist, als man auf die Schnelle erklären kann. Auf jedes kurze Statement, so gut es auch ist, muß man eigentlich immer antworten: ‘ja, aber…’. Insofern ist eine eigene Meinung, die keine Reaktion ist, immer eine ungeheure Unverfrorenheit, eine wilde Ungeheuerlichkeit, an der man sich nicht versucht, weil sie einen bei den anderen Dampfplauderern immer ärgert und ist doch schon immer ein Dampfplauderer. Also liest man weiter, ohne all das Gelesene angemessen schöpferisch zu verarbeiten, um es ablegen zu können, man liest weiter und frißt sich immer mehr Material an und keine Diät der Welt hilft dem gierigen Leser da weiter.

Und dann sitzt man da, aufgebläht mit Büchern, Worten, Wissen, Figuren und hundertfachem Leben, und weiß doch nur, daß es immer und immer weiter geht, weiter, hinaus in die welt und in die Bücher, ich, die gefräßige Lesesau, der aufgedunsene Wilde mit dem Kraushaar und dem Herz voll Buchstaben.

Pilgrimages: James Merrill and the Poetics of Travel

[This is a summary of my M.A. Thesis which is not finished, but I had to hand in a summary, so I wrote this. If anyone has any ideas or criticism or wants to point me in a direction he or she might think I didn’t think about, he or she is more than welcome. I have forgotten to include Jaynes in the voices part at the end and chronotope in the middle somewhere but that’s not important]

James Merrill’s is, quite explicitly, a poetry concerned with places. An early volume is called The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, which refers to Switzerland, and his last volumes include as transparently named poems as “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia” and “Walks in Rome”. The speaker(s) of Merrill’s poetry travel(s) to Greece, Italy, Turkey and other countries, coming from the United States. Additionally, he meets fellow travelers. Hans Lodeizen, the Netherlands poet, “The Summer People” and, finally, souls of the dead who travel from the afterworld to spend leisurely nights at the Ouija board with JM and his partner DJ.

At first we will be looking at actual travel and its reflection in the poetry, starting off with a look at the different places the speaker(s) in Merrill’s poetry end up in. The first of these places and arguably one of the most important, is Greece, where hellenism’s historic sites provide a colorful background to tales of loss (Tony: Ending the Life) and love (Days of 1964). Greece is mostly a place to visit: the speaker and his friends are guests, and are never shown to be anything other than that, which makes for a curious inbetween state in poems that seem to be about fixed places and which even develop their own sort of family imagery. Not so with the second group, which is New England, especially Boston and Stonington, Connecticut. Merrill’s childhood poems (The Broken Home) are for the most part set against a refined Bostonian backdrop and it’s chiefly in Stonington where he will receive the visiting souls in his Ouija board sessions. New England is both: a place where others visit Merrill and his friends and the place where Merrill’s at home, born and raised.

Both Greece and New England are such an essential part of his poetry that they are rarely introduced. Names and references are enough to put the reader on the right track. Other places such as Rome and Istanbul/Byzantium have to be introduced by name: “Istanbul. 21 march. I woke today / With an absurd complaint.” (The Thousand and Second Night). However, poems such as “Days of 1964” also contain a considerable amount of description that might well enable a local to situate the poem into a specific time and place. Places have left their traces all over James Merrill’s poetry. That said, it should be added that descriptions and explicit reference is not the only or even the most important way in which these places have left their traces. The most important -and most relevant for the purpose of this paper- way is via their cultural context.

Places such as Athens or Boston imply clear-cut cultural contexts. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Merrill’s poetry is filled with references to specific cultural contexts. However, they are almost always blended with other contexts, other travels past and present which have left their mark on his poetry. Greece especially is a treasure trove, informing both Merrill’s ecphrastic poems like “Bronze” and leaving traces of philosophy (“We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong. / We love as well the wicked and the weak.” (Matinées)), myth (“I call up / Graces, Furies, Fates,” (An Urban Convalescence)) and language (“Goods, bads, kaló-kakó, cockatoo-raucous” (To my Greek)) everywhere. Greek cultural references are special in that they mostly appear in poems which are set in places outside of Greece. In this, naturally, Merrill reflects the enormous influence Hellenism has had on western culture and literature. Interestingly, Greece as a culture reverses the guest/visitor relation that we saw when looking at (fixed) places. One could see Hellenism as a visitor, appearing in all kinds of settings, in different guises, clad in Rilke, for example.

The opposite, of course, is true for the New England context, which is evoked almost only in the New England poems. These poems refer to a well documented cultural context which has probably found its best decription in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, depicting New England as a place of meetings, where ships and trade arrive and leave, where a certain jet set levity cannot hide a darker, menacing undercurrent (especially in “Skunk Hour”). A consideration of the New England context is helpful in figuring out deceptively simple poems like the sonnet sequence “A Broken Home” and goes a long way towards explaining the dark note in poems such as “18 West 11th Street”, where genealogy is decribed as ‘hatching’ “another generation / Of strong-jawed, light-besotted saboteurs”. Echoes of the skunk mother who “will not scare” reverberate in poems such as “18 West 11th Street”, promting the speaker, for example, to remark upon “The girl’s / Appearance now among us […] / Naked, frail but fox-eyed.” The religiousness of New England culture has also left its traces in Merrill’s poetry, especially in The Changing Light at Sandover, where he evinces a strong spirituality, if in a mocking spirit and definitely not in a Christian vein.

The third group of places, with cities as Istanbul (The Thousand and Second Night), Rome (Walks in Rome), Venice (Investiture at Cecconi’s) or Alexandria (Tony: Ending the Life), is, interestingly, often portrayed in the past and the present within the same poem. It is obvious that these places are as important for their cultural context, which is inscribed into their very names, as for their reality in a narrative that may take place in modern times. The way that, for instance, Istanbul is sometimes referred to as Istanbul and sometimes as Byzantium, is a giveaway. These places, similar to the New England poems, contain ample reference to Hellenism, for instance, but keep their own cultural contexts to themselves. An exception of sorts is Italy. Neither Rome nor Venice, taken by themselves, do that, but Italy as a whole does provide an important cultural context that the travelling speaker carries with him back to the United States or to Greece. To be more precise, when I write ‘Italy’ I should probably write ‘Tuscany’ because between Dante and Macciavelli and others, these references do not stray outside of that enchanting swathe of Italy. However, as Tuscany is not named, to my knowledge, I have to assume that it is not a category of the poem and the italian refernces refer to the cultural context of ‘Italy’ as a whole.

Now that we have examined places and the other aspect of places, that is to say, cultural contexts, or, as we will refer to them from now on: cultures, we can turn to the, by now, famous theory of “Traveling Cultures” of the eminent anthropologist James Clifford. He claims that for the anthropologist of recent decades, a different sort of travel has arisen as an issue to be dealt with: cultural travel. There are two kinds of cultural travel to be considered. The first one is actual, bodily travel, in the common sense of the word. In this way Merrill’s speaker(s) travel to Rome, Greece, Boston etc. This received idea of travel has informed the commonly used concept of culture quite a lot, the idea being that cultures can be relatively stable concepts, even if they are no longer anchored to a well-defined place or to the local as the person who lives there. Exceeding the scope of a phenomenon such as Hellenism, in the modern age travel has been radically facilitated, so that adherents of a certain culture can travel the world, without, ultimately, being connected by ethnicity nor by nationality to the traditional place associated with that culture. Diaspora and connected concepts are important here. The cultures travel piggyback on a traveler’s figurative shoulders, he or she brings his own cultural contexts. In the case of Merrill it will be a point of interest whether claims made in previous sections (New England culture only in New England poems) can be upheld: doesn’t he carry his contexts with him as well?

The second sort of cultural travel could be called figurative travel. Cultures can travel without the members of the culture moving corporally, for instance through receiving visitors or through being subjected to medial influences, such as television or literature. This time there is a double travelling. Culture travels to the readers/watchers and those on the receiving end are travelling in a sense, too. Reading a book about Greece and visiting Greece might have roughly the same impact in ternms of cultural influence. This is especially relevant for James Merrill’s poetry, as it is swamped in book lore: Byzantium, Dante’s Tuscany, these have, of course, never been visited by Merrill in a literal sense. Yet, as we will see, the impact on his poetry is similar to the impact left by his ‘real’ travels. To not regard these two as two specifictations of the same basic phenomenon is to not understand the importance of travel in the broader sense, as Clifford uses it, to Merrill’s poetry.

These two kinds of cultural influence, which can be viewed as a complex system of visiting and hosting cultures, especially in a writer who travels as extensively and often as Merrill did. The first group of exchanges are the most obvious, between New England and Greece. The wealth of Hellenistic references that populate the New England poems are indisputable and have been remarked upon. A point of interest would be to what extent the New England culture informs the Greece poems. This formulation is crucial. Of course, the New England culture doesn’t influence the Greek culture, as it would in Clifford’s model (Well, it might but we are not interested in anthropology.). The impact of travel will, ultimately, be shown to be something that is part of the poetry, not necessarily of ‘the real world’. As we will see, travel and poetry are intimately connected in Merrill’s oeuvre. A final remark: we will dispense with other cross-references, such as New England/Tuscany, New England/Rome etc., as the most interesting question, whether Merrill could be said to form a sort of tiny New England diaspora would have been answered already and neither Rome nor Tuscany or Istanbul could provide illuminating angles.

The second group of exchanges are between childhood and adulthood poems. Almost all of the childhood poems are situated in New England, whereas, even though a large portion of the adulthood poems are provided with a Greek backdrop, there are many locations in them. Thus it is not possible to juxtapose two distinct locations in comparing these two kinds of poems. I maintain, however, that it still makes sense to talk about child- and adulthood as locations in a figurative sense and to talk about a variant of cultural/fugurative travel taking place between the two. Merrill’s adulthood poetry is so replete with echoes from his past as chronicled in the childhood poems that it’s no wonder so many critics felt justified in scooping with both hands material from the psychoanalytic slop pail. I maintain that to discuss the traces of childhood in the adulthood poems in terms of travel (or, as we will see later: intertextuality) is a cleaner method, and on top of that I will attempt to show that it’s a method that does more justice to the specific requirements of poetry as poetry. To return to the adulthood/childhood travels, we will find that, of course, the travel concept works both ways. The childhood is consistently seen through the lens of the adult speaker, which might seem trivial, but actually contributes to the overall picture in which adulthood emerges as the figurative ‘home’ and childhood as the foreign country visited by the grown-up speaker.

The concept of travel and the importance of this concept for Merrill’s poetry and poetics becomes even clearer once another kind of travel is added. This is the traveling undertaken by the souls of the dead in the Ouija board poems, most notably in The Changing Light at Sandover. This doesn’t fit in the narrow literal/figurative dichotomy established heretofore. Of course, it takes a giant leap of faith to assume the ‘reality’ of the spirits. I would argue that it is a strange idea to take that leap in the context of a poetry where, for instance, the speaker of “The Broken Home” needs assurance of as ‘simple’ a fact as the one “[t]hat you and I are as real / At least as the people upstairs” but this is not an important point anyway. Looking at the poetry the question whether these are real voices or whether these are passages invented by David Jackson or whether this is all just a conceit, is not of interest because the fact of the matter is, within the poem, the visitors from the afterworld are clearly just that: visitors. And this time, too, there is a reciprocal element in all this. As will be shown, contact with JM/DJ does not leave the afterworld unchanged.

After the term ‘travel’ and its connection to Merrill’s poetry has been examined, it is now time to look at the implications of all this for Merrill’s poetics. Clifford’s theory of Traveling Cultures is, at the root, a theory about communication and that term fits Merrill’s poetry like a glove. I’ll show is how that which we leaned about travel can be translated to common literary terms such as intertextuality. First, however, I will expound on the centrality of dialogue to the previous discussions of travel. Encounters with other countries in Merrill’s poetry almost always involves dialogue, foreign languages, etc. This culminates in The Changing Light at Sandover, where dialogue is not only central but basically the only means of travel, as the spirits never appear, their presence is solely signalled by the letters DJ dictates to JM.

The voices speaking, whispering, beseeching, commanding, in The Changing Light at Sandover, are not the only voices. In fact, I will suggest that dialogicity, that well-worn concept of Mikhail Bakhtin’s, is an excellent tool to decribe the poetical implications of travel as we have come to understand that term. There are several elements to this, the first and most obviously being plain intertextuality, which roughly corresponds to what we have called figurative travel early on. The influence of cultures transmitted via books or other media. Another element is translation, which develops from intertextuality, because on the one hand it is a form of intertextuality but it’s a special enough variant of it. Merrill translated poems, used translated phrases (literally translated Greek idioms for instance) and at the same time, translation was always part of the poetics of travel. It is shown to be a facilitator of ‘real’, that is, literal travel, as it is the precondition for communication. Similarly, intertextuality would, without translations, not work as well: Merrill’s poems would teem with German, Greek, Tuscan, French phrases and as such be understandable only to a choice coterie of readers. The best explication of the workings of translation can be found in Lost in Translation. The third element, again, is basically a sort of intertextuality, but, again, it’s special enough to be discussed as a special issue. This is Merrill’s attitude to form and to tradition in general. This wraps up tzhe dialogicity chapter because, of course, using a certain form or genre evokes old and buried voices, Petrarca, Dante, Rilke and many many others. Thus, maybe, The Changing Light at Sandover is a brilliant concretion of this concept, with all these poets, first and foremost of course our dear Wystan, literally speaking to Merrill through David Jackson. I am naturally brief in this part of the summary as this part of the paper relies a lot, and will reference a lot, conclusions drawn in the previous parts.

Travel mediates between contexts: the merging of places -figurative and literal- creates a sort of shared cultural space. Merrill’s poetry can be seen as pursuing just this. I will show that this works on almost every level of his poetry, including form and formulation. His use of metre, pun and metaphor, his descriptions of places and travels, the way he handles autobiographical material, all of this is part of the project of mediation.