“Does World Literature Exist…” (Part 2) by Art Beck

Art Beck


Note: Part 1 of this essay appeared on October 9th and can be read here.

IV. Colonialism, language and love.

For the sake of argument, let’s presume that poetry mutates and germinates as it migrates. And that the translator’s ability to create literature in the target culture is at least equally important as foreign language literacy. Even so there’s still an implicit question Parks didn’t get into that seems worth exploring: Why or how would anyone get interested in translating from a language in which they’re not fluent? Is it a kind of cultural colonialism, akin, say, to mining diamonds?

Exploitation is an obvious factor, but poetry translators aren’t crass commercialists. Rather, I think they’re trying to transplant a heartbeat, to scoop a living fish from one stream and set it free in another.

Might the imperfectly schooled translator’s motivation be better described as “inspired opportunism”? Consider the proverb about lovers: “One kisses, the other offers the cheek.”  The unworthy bumpkin translator receives the barest lip of a kiss on the cheek and wants to explore?

There are, of course, translators who translate out of a deep regard for the source language and its literature. Francophiles, Russophiles, Sinophiles, etc. etc. They’re like lovers who study and absorb the object of their affections. Lovers who labor to make themselves worthy. Because the “one who kisses” is a devotee, sensitive to the nuances of the beloved. Are they the ideal translators? Sometimes it works like heaven on earth. But, alas,  “the one who kisses” is just as often spurned and even more often pained. Conversely in life, that careless ignoramus, who “offers the cheek,” is always rewarded and never suffers.

Until of course, as sometimes happens to the most brazen of cheek-offerers, the trap is quietly sprung and they’re astonished at how quickly they fall and dangle in love. If “world literature” indeed exists, it’s a kind of fertility–so love should be no surprise.


V: Exophonic authors: the opposite of dark, the most attentive kiss

Let’s wander out of the dark for awhile into the ultimate brilliance of fluency: where translation turns inside out and one goes beyond translating a language to translating oneself. Most everyone who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language experiences a quantum degree of difficulty between reading and comprehending and trying to speak, much less write, in that language.

Even so, throughout history, untold millions, maybe billions or more, of immigrants have become fluent in new languages in the process of making new lives. The fluency of immigrants comes in degrees, of course. My grandparents on both sides were minimally educated Poles who emigrated in the teens of the last century. They spoke well enough to get along–work, shop, listen to the radio and, later, watch television in English. But they read only Polish newspapers and their ability to write in English probably never exceeded the most rudimentary post card message.

That’s a far cry from the not-unusual immigrant in the corporate or business world, whose English skills, accented or not, may be several cuts above that of the native born clerical staff. But over the ages, how many of this great migrating horde have written classic literature in their new language? Out of the billions or trillions, are we talking in the thousands? In any case, some number infinitely more infinitesimal than 1%. If World Literature exists anywhere, it’s certainly present here, at the extremes of cosmopolitanism.

There’s a February, 2011, article in the Guardian by Dan Vyleta (who’s described as a “Czech-German-English-Canadian” novelist) listing Vyleta’s pick for the top ten “exophonic” books. For me there’s something too academically trendy about the term “exophonic,” but, lacking a better word, it will have to do. Among Vyleta’s authors is Joseph Conrad who Vyleta characterize as “the patron saint of exophonic authors.”  And, of course, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, Joseph Brodsky (a poet in Russian and essaysist in English). And the non-Eastern Europeans Ha Jin and Samuel Beckett.

Beckett switched to writing primarily in French the second half of his life, to the extent that when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969, the New York Times noted: “It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Beckett should be regarded as an Irish or a French winner.” The subsequent official award presentation speech by Karl Ragnar Gierow doesn’t much clarify the matter:

Mix a powerful imagination with a logic in absurdum, and the result will be either a paradox or an Irishman. If it is an Irishman, you will get the paradox into the bargain. Even the Nobel Prize in Literature is sometimes divided. Paradoxically, this has happened in 1969, a single award being addressed to one man, two languages and a third nation, itself divided…


VI. The divided dynamics of transformation.

One exophonic writer who Vyleta misses is Apuleius whose 2nd century novel Asinus Aureas (“The Golden Ass,” originally entitled “Metamorphoses”) remains an often-translated classic. The rambling story of Lucius who was magically turned into a jackass and after many adventures restored to humanity is still read as much for pleasure as scholarship today. And the last lines of its short prologue seem particularly apropos to this discussion: Iam haec equidem ipsa vocis immutatio desultoriae scientiae stil quem accessimus respondet. Fabulam Graqceanicam incipimus. Lector intende: laetaberis.

Roughly in English:  “But then, for my part, I’d respond that this desultory interchange of language is precisely the literary discipline required. It’s a Greek story we’re commencing: Reader, pay attention. You’ll be glad.”

There’s a practical  translation challenge in these lines that I think is very difficult to solve–an essential image that didn’t come across in my translation above. An image perhaps central to the exophone experience and to that ephemeral concept, “world literature.”

To put the lines in context, we need to back up into the Prologue. The first-person narrator describes himself as a non-native Latin speaker, formally educated in Greece, who later came to practice law in the Roman courts and taught himself workplace Latin with great difficulty. The speaker’s path somewhat resembles Apuleius’s.

You’d expect Apuleius–who before going to Greece grew up as a child in Roman North Africa–to have been exposed to Latin well before he arrived in Rome to practice law. However, Jack Lindsay, a late-Latin scholar and translator of the work, notes in his 1932 introduction that Punic and Greek were also widely spoken in the North African provinces. So no one really knows what language or dialect prevailed in Apuleius’s childhood home and neighborhood. And the first-person narrator who introduces himself in the Prologue might well be taken as somewhat of a proxy for Apuleius, just as the protagonist’s later conversion to the Isis cult is identified with Apuleius’ religious beliefs.

In the Prologue, the narrator apologizes and begs indulgence for mistakes he may make as a foreigner attempting literary Latin. But then he realizes that since it’s a Greek story he’s telling, his Greek accent is just the thing. It’s as if Andre Codrescu declared himself uniquely qualified to write a new version of Dracula.

What’s hard to bring across, however, is the imagery Apuleius uses to describe the switch in languages: vocis immutatio desutloriae.  “Desultory” in English derives from the Latin “desultor.” But it’s forgotten its roots. The English word means to sort of idly wander back and forth. The Latin root denotes an acrobat in the circus (the horse races), a trick rider who vaults back and forth between horses and chariots.

If that image could be conveyed, all kinds of things might come to life. The galloping power of two languages (and their underlying cultures). The discipline and grace of the artist as acrobat–and outsider. The “scientiae” of Greek studied in the academy and Latin learned in the school of hard knocks. The serious play and risk of the work at hand. The ringmaster announcing a spectacle well worth the reader’s attention.

Apuleius knew full well he was a master of Latin. He may have been educated in Greece, but he chose to write in Latin. The enrichment of Latin with Greek was nothing new. Some 200 years earlier, Horace staked his claim to fame on being “the first to bring Greek meter into Latin verse.” Similarly, Apuleius, re-inventing the Greek novel in Latin was, like Horace, creating not an imitation but a new Latin genre.

It’s easier to describe than translate the image. But a description loses the compressed energy of the Latin. The following is no more than a stab. “But then I tell myself that like an acrobat leaping between horses, this is just the accent and experience the story needs. It is, after all, a Greek tale we’re commencing. Reader, pay attention: you’ll be glad.”


VII: A Polish Novelist?And so, no Nobel.

On December 3, 2009 a friend forwarded Garrison Keilor’s Writer’s Almanac  post for the day. It included this note:

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote: “It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone.” That’s the Polish writer Joseph Conrad…born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857). By the time Joseph was twelve, both his parents had died of tuberculosis.

So he went to live with an uncle, got a good education, and then went off to sea with the French merchant navy at age 17, and a few years later, joined the British (mercantile) marines…

I found myself crankily emailing back:

John–I was glad you noted Conrad’s birthday. A chance to think about him again and realize what a giant he was. The anti-Kipling, etc. I think he pretty well defines the underside of colonialism and also – in Nostromo, for instance – sniffs out the fascism lurking in the young century. A hundred years later, he doesn’t seem a bit dated. His world still inhabits ours. But sometimes I find that Garrison Keillor–in his literati pose–annoys me no end. … “The Polish writer, Joseph Conrad…” ??  Someone who’d never heard of Conrad (and we probably both know more than a few people who haven’t) would never realize reading Keillor that Conrad wrote in English. Conrad is about as much of a “Polish writer” as Tom Kryss and I are Polish poets.

I should first of all apologize to Garrison Keillor. Browsing The Writer’s Almanac, I find he’s done other posts on Conrad that both more than clarify the issue and very intelligently comment on Conrad’s work as a master of English prose. Apart from wondering if the “Polish writer” soubriquet wasn’t the work of an intern that slipped past, my response was also driven by the memory of a Conrad biography I’d read some years earlier. Again, I find myself unable to properly cite because I’ve forgotten the name of the work, but stuck in my memory is the biographer’s description of Conrad’s quiet elation at hearing he was shortlisted for the 1907 Nobel Prize which was going to be awarded to a British writer. And his later dejection at the whisper that he’d been ultimately rejected in favor of Kipling because the committee had doubts about whether a foreigner writing in English could be an “English author.”

The official 1907 Nobel presentation included the following:

In the cycle entitled The Seven Seas (1896) Kipling reveals himself as an imperialist, a citizen of a world-wide empire. He has undoubtedly done more than any other writer of pure literature to draw tighter the bonds of union between England and her colonies.

In 1899, Conrad published Heart of Darkness in a three part magazine serial. The novella is a still widely read meditation on the mad underside of colonialism. Early on in the work, Conrad’s recurring alter-ego narrator,  Charlie Marlow, offers: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

In 1899, Kipling published a poem dedicated to “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”  Posterity, obviously, hasn’t viewed Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” kindly. But it’s striking that the 1907 Nobel committee used the term “imperialist” as a compliment not the pejorative it’s become. Reading the Nobel presentation, you get the sense that “The White Man’s Burden” was a reflection of the prevailing culture, and Heart of Darkness an outlier. If Conrad was, indeed, short listed, it would be instructive to read the minority argument.

Although it’s not all that simple. Kipling’s literary scope far exceeded his imperialist jingoism. And Conrad has been notably criticized by the acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who found reading Heart of Darkness to be a painfully racist experience. Achebe’s view has, of course, in turn been criticized. But when I read his response to Heart of Darkness, I find myself empathizing–not that Conrad’s novel is racist, but that its portrayal of Africa is sharply Eurocentric. From what other perspective was Conrad qualified to write? It’s Kurtz, who’s “gone native” and lives among the severed heads of his conquests stuck on poles, who’s the subject of the story. Not the Congolese natives who cherish Kurtz like a demi-god, a “simple people” with a predeliction for cannibalism, who quail at the screech of the steamboat whistle.

From the standpoint of the colonized, this may be a technical quibble. Most of Conrad’s Europeans are real, the Congo is real, but his “natives” today seem no less symbolic than Kurtz, whose darkness we also never really fathom. Like a poet groping for metaphors among the savage myths of antiquity, he appropriates their alienness. Is the dark pulse of his narrative any less vital for this?

And after reading Conrad’s 1912 memoir A Personal Record,  I recently found myself more in sympathy with someone else: Garrison Keillor (or perhaps the intern?) who dubbed Conrad a “Polish writer.”  A Personal Record opens with some literary philosophizing, but it’s not a writing career memoir. From a narrative standpoint, it begins and effectively ends at the point in Conrad’s life when he decides he can become a novelist. Like most of Conrad’s narratives, it circles awhile – before bringing us to his childhood in Eastern Europe and tales of his grandparents, granduncles, parents and other relatives. All “citizens” of a country that hadn’t officially existed for generations before Conrad’s birth. Orphaned at an early age, Conrad’s ancestral and personal early memories seem tangled; interwoven with clotted pain and futility. And the unquestioned need to look elsewhere for any sense of home.

Presumably, as with every human, Conrad’s first years imposed their indelible imprint on his psyche. But with Conrad it’s as if that inescapable inner-child could never risk expression in the language of his broken childhood. Or even in French, a language he was reportedly fluent in since boyhood. He needed workplace, seafaring English, and, ultimately, England to, finally in his 30s, begin to speak from the heart.

James Joyce could only fully flower as an Irish writer in self imposed exile, but he still wrote in his childhood tongue. Conrad seems to have been born an exile. In a 1919 “author’s note” to a re-issued edition of A Personal Record, he again revisits the alienation of his childhood, the death of his parents and “the fact of my not writing in my native language.” Something he himself acknowledges as “freakish.”  After some discussion, he concludes that it wasn’t he who “adopted” English, but that the English language adopted him. And that: “All I can claim after all those years of devoted practice, with the accumulated anguish of its doubts, imperfections and falterings in my heart, is the right to be believed when I say that if I had not written in English, I would not have written at all.”

I believe him. And I also agree with him that the phenomenon is “too mysterious to explain…as impossible as trying to explain love at first sight.” Implicit in Conrad’s description is a sense that language is elusively, but no less powerfully, alive. And that culture is born to travel. Conrad has described what English brought to him. But what did Conrad bring to English? An outsider’s loner sensibility, a refreshment, a slightly strange lilt, the energy of a man suddenly changed by falling in love with a tongue entirely new to him–all those things that translation brings? And like a translated poem coming alive in a new language, his energy seems stirred more by some still-forming future than either English or Polish tradition. The kind of art that wants to go where it’s going, not where it’s been.

Conrad and Apuleius weren’t translators per se, but what they have to say about language dynamics seems to me to bear out my–wholly personal–inclination to dismiss the arguments both for and against “domestication” and “foreignization.” I think the two exophones would consider both to be false choices. Apuleius galloped his Greek tale into Rome in masterful workaday Latin. And Conrad’s rich English–Captain Charlie Marlow’s everyday language painstakingly acquired like a sea bag full of gold–became the ransom that finally released his choked-back, childhood voice.


VIII: Imagine a deep freeze and whirled peas.

But enough theorizing, let’s get to the supernatural and dead poets.  And in case you’re getting tired of all this wandering among the novelists, I’ll play the part of  the  typical poet unwilling to relinquish the stage at a reading and beg your indulgence for just one last “world literature” segment, beginning with yet another novelist.

I find that I most enjoy the prolific Japanese maestro, Haruki Murakami’s intricate novels in audiobook format. There’s something about his quiet wormholes and the hyper-reality of his plot twists in endlessly wandering stories like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore that makes them perfect aural scenery for walks in the Pacific summer fog. His latest, 1Q84 is no exception.

The title has no English equivalent and poses an immediate translation issue. The reference is to 1984, both Orwell’s 1984 and also the year in which Murakami’s book is set. The letter “Q” in Japanese is a sometimes slangily substituted homonym for the number “9.” Something similar might be  “2” for “to” in English. Murakami’s story takes place, not in a dystopian or nostalgic 1984, but an alternate “1Q84” in which time’s shifted onto another track to a world with two moons and strange happenings.

Its heroine is a hip, 30-ish fitness trainer with the unusual surname, “Aomame.” A name the translated text tells us is

…written with exactly the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced with the same four syllables. Ah-oh-mah-meh… Telling people her name was always a bother. As soon as the name left her lips, the other person looked puzzled or confused. “Miss Aomame?” “Yes, just like ‘green peas’” … Some people would get the name of the plant wrong and call her “Edamame” or “Soromame,” whereupon she would gently correct them. “No, I’m not soybeans or fava beans, just green peas…”

I don’t know if any of the above was expanded in translation for non-Japanese readers, but I do know that Murakami, who lived in the United States for a number of  years and who’s translated many American writers into Japanese, is not above playing language games. Miss Aomame, besides being an environmentally conscious young woman, is also a professional assassin in the service of social causes. Not that Greenpeace employs assassins, but if the novel’s title is a Japanese pun, might Murakami be also punning a bit with “Miss Greenpeas” for his American readers? Something similar began to stir at the back of my mind when I reached chapter 25, near the end of the book. A chapter entitled: “Cold or not, God is Present.”

The chapter setting is a vacant Tokyo apartment where a sleazy private investigator, Ushikawa, has been photographing the building’s tenants in the hope they’ll lead him to Aomame. She’s in hiding after assassinating “Leader,”  the charismatic head of a sinister new-age religious cult, at the behest of “The Dowager,” a powerful woman with a safe house for battered women. Leader’s offense was the ritual abuse of pre-pubescent girls in a sort of sacrfifice intended to invoke the “little people.” Engimatic beings who tunnel their way from an alternate reality and who first appear out of the mouth of a dead goat, then later from the mouths of the brutalized children. Before dying, Leader told Aomame that in ancient times the “little people” may have been perceived as the gods.  Now, in 1Q84, they resemble Goldilocks’s dwarves.

The alien indifference of the spirit world will be a familiar theme to Murakami readers. In The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya is thrown into a dried up well by Mongolian soldiers and left to die. The sun passing over once a day at noon suddenly envelops him in “overwhelming light” that, despite his misery, imparts “a marvelous sense of oneoness… of unity…. the true meaning of life resided in that light…” That celestial light reconciled Mamiya to his death, but was also a harbinger of his miraculous survival.

An uncertain blessing, because Mamiya, the only one of his unit who managed to return to Japan, lived out his long postwar life in menial work, without family, lovers or friends, regretting the miracle in the well. “… at a time when I should have died, I had been unable to die. It was not that I would not die: I could not die. Do you understand what I am saying? Whatever heavenly grace I may have enjoyed until that moment was lost forever.”

In Kafka on the Shore, “Johnnie Walker,” a paranormal character come to life from the whiskey label, systematically kills cats in order to make a flute from their tortured souls. Murakami’s mystical imagery can be reminiscent of Conrad’s Charlie Marlow  equating cannibal drums with English church bells in Heart of Darkness. And to stretch the metaphor, Ushikawa–who’s working for Leader’s unholy sect–finds himself suddenly a sort of missionary simmering in the pot.

Tamaru, The Dowager’s security chief, has crept up on Ushikawa in his sleeping bag on the floor of the empty apartment and trussed and blindfolded him before he can stir. He’s left like that for a long time, unable to move, helplessly urinating down his legs. Then Tamaru begins to calmly and professionally interrogate him. Ushikawa is cagey. He is, after all, a former lawyer come down in the world. But it was slippery dealing that brought him down, and Tamaru is up to the task. He slips a plastic freezer bag over Ushikawa’s head, tapes it close under his chin and sends him for a walk on “the bottom the sea.”

Plastic bag suffocation, as described from Ushikawa’s perspective, is quite painful, a sort of dry waterboarding. Tamaru methodically finds out everything he needs to know and in the process becomes somewhat empathetic to his unfortunate captive. Ushikawa, he learns, isn’t a member of the sect or aware of its secret rituals. He’s just an independent contractor trying to eke out a living after a long run of bad luck.

Tamaru understands tough times. He’s a WWII displaced Korean orphan smuggled into Japan as a child from Manchuria. Unwanted anywhere, he lived by his wits in the shadows until The Dowager took him in. He’s also a quirkily erudite auto-didact who, for no particular character or plot reason, happens to be gay. Deadly and intelligent, but not unfeeling, Tamaru might be Jean Genet turned enforcer rather than poet. He sincerely ponders the human thing to do with Ushikawa. He’d like to let him live, but the risk is high and the situation murky. Finally, he asks Ushikawa: “By the way, have you ever heard of Carl Jung?”  Ushikawa “instinctively frowns” under his blindfold and responds “Carl Jung the psychologist?” “Exactly.”

They converse a bit about Jung who Ushikawa has no real interest in. Tamaru leisurely describes Jung’s lakeside villa near Zurich and, then, the stone tower Jung constructed with his own hands at Bollingen and how it grew from its simple conception.  “As time went on, he found it necessary to build partititions and divisions…and a second floor… He created paintings on the wall. These were suggestive of the development and split in individual consciousness. The whole house functioned as sort of a three-dimensional mandala. It took him twelve years. For Jungian researchers, it’s …extremely intriguing. Have you heard of this before?”

Ushikawa, of course, hadn’t. Tamaru goes on to say that “rumor has it …that at the entrance ….is a stone into which Jung carved some words with his own hand. Cold or Not, God is Present. That’s what he carved into the stone himslf.”

After repeating the phrase he asks Ushikawa “Do you know what this means?” Ushikawa doesn’t, and Tamaru confesses…

I’m not sure myself…there’s some kind of deep allusion…something difficult to interpret…I don’t know why but I’ve been drawn to these words for a long time…the difficulty in understanding makes it all the more profound. I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer… If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all that, those words of Jung’s quietly sunk deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them, over and over, and they make me strangely calm. “Cold or Not, God is Present.” Sorry, but could you say that out loud?

Ushikawa does; first “in a weak voice,” and again at Tamaru’s request, more distinctly. Tamaru whispers “I’m sorry about this” and slips the plastic bag over Ushikawa’s head again. Ushikawa’s last living thought as he suffocates is of the scroungy family dog he never liked and who never liked him, in better times before his divorce.


IX: What the hell does it mean, in Japanese or English or somewhere in between?

In a later chapter, the “little people” climb out of Ushikawa’s dead open mouth “over the greenish mossy tongue, clambering over the dirty, irregular teeth.” But that’s just a morbid detail I can’t resist throwing in.  The actual purpose of all my meandering is the enigmatic phrase “Cold or not, God is Present.”  Listening to the audiobook, I kept wondering: Did Jung really say, or rather carve, that? And if so: like Tamaru and Ushikawa, I wondered–what the hell does it mean?

My first thought was whether there might be some disconnect between the original (was it in German?) phrase, and the Japanese translation. The phrase was vaguely familiar. There was a time when I avidly read Jung , why couldn’t I remember it? With the help of Google, it didn’t take long to find that Jung’s phrase was actually in Latin. Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit. A rather well known phrase to any serious Jungian. It’s carved , not in the Bollingen tower, but over the  entrance to his main Zurich home. And also, on his tombstone.

The Latin words can be variously rendered, but a very common translation of Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit is “Called or not, God is present.” A slight mis-translation as it turns out, but we’ll get to that in a bit. My immediate response was that, of course, Murakami is punning and intentionally misquoting. The substitution  of “cold” for “called” is just what the episode needed, and the confusion is well within character for the eclectically self educated Tamaru. But, if so, is Murakami punning in Japanese as well as English? And if so, how serendipitous that the American translator could find such an apt equivalent?

I decided to query the American Literary Translators Association members at the ALTALK chat group. Surely, someone would know Japanese well enough to shed light on the question of what the pun was in Japanese. But there doesn’t seem to be one! Professor Juliet Winters Carpenter, who teaches in a Japanese college researched Murakami’s original text and noted it reads: Tsumetakutemo, tumetakunakutemo, kami wa iru. Which straightforwardly translates to “Cold or not, God is present.”

Conversely, she notes, “called or not” in Japanese would be either: Yondemo, yobanakutemo . Or yobaretemo, yobarenakutemo. As Juliet reports :

There is no play of words comparable to the one in English. You have to suspect Murakami wrote the line in Japanese based on his knowledge of the English quote (also a translation, of course). It would take a mighty astute reader to penetrate all those layers and find it!

But if ALTALK  chat-groupers are anything they’re astute. And curious. It was at this point that Jim Kates, of  Zephyr Press, a venerable publisher of  poetry in translation, noted that the English “God is present” is itself somewhat of a misquote of deus aderit.  Properly, the phrase is either “God will be present” or the god will be present,”  depending on whether or not you infer a mono or poly theistic context. In any case, the saying didn’t originate with Jung and the group began to research its source. (And at this point, I should mention that Jim Kates is himself at work on an essay on this exchange. So some of what follows may or may not appear plagiarized, but is actually simultaneous reportage.)


X: From Thuycidides to Erasmus, to Jung, to Murakami with a detour through Horace

“Cold or not cold” vs. “Called or not” seems to be language-play in the work of an quirkily erudite Japanese author whose novels are set in Japan, but who draws from world culture and who’s been an international best seller almost from the beginning. It’s easy to imagine Murakami, say in his Princeton or Tufts years, hearing the pun at some waggish faculty gathering. Or it may be original English wordplay on Murakami’s part. Given the detail and length of the chapter’s discussion of Jung, the least likely explanation is that the “mistranslation” was unintentional.

For Jung, as for Ushikawa, the deus in question was also not particularly a solace. In 1960, he wrote to his mentee Aniela Jaffe:

It says: yes, the god will be on the spot, but in what form and to what purpose? I have put the inscription there to remind my patients and myself: Timor dei initium sapiente  (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). Here another…road begins, not the approach to “Christianity” but to God himself and this seems to be the ultimate question.

So Jung’s divinity isn’t anthropomorphic–or even necessarily compassionate, except on its own enigmatic terms. Jung found the phrase in Erasmus’s Adagia, a 16th century compilation of old Latin sayings  he acquired in an antique 1563 edition. In the letter, he acknowledged Jaffe’s citation of the earliest known origin of the phrase. There the pertinent god is Apollo. As Jaffe noted: “It is the answer the Delphic Oracle gave the Lacedemonians when they were planning a war against Athens.”

In our ALTALK thread, it was Jim Kates who located the phrase in Thuycidides history of the Peloponesian War. It was also Jim who researched Thuycidides’ original Greek and noted that the repetitiveness of the Latin isn’t present in the Greek. Thuycidides uses two different words where the Latin uses only vocatus. Perhaps, it’s this repetition that preserves it as a Latin, rather than Greek adage. The repetition of vocatus imparts a certain irony that stresses divinity has it’s own agenda, invoked or uninvoked.

And presuming the old adage is more or less accurately noted in Erasmus, Murakami wasn’t the first to bend it. In the 1st century b.c.e., Horace used a variant of vocatus atque non vocatus… as the final image of his Ode #XVIII, Book II. Horace’s ode is a meditation on the vanity of wealthy pride; the misery of impoverishment–and the divine power of death. It begins chattily, as is Horace’s wont:

Non ebur neque aureum
mea renidet in domo lacunar
non trabes Hymettiae
premunt columnas ultima recisas


Neither ivory nor inlaid gold
glisten from the ceiling of my home,
no Greek marble beams
rest on columns quarried in farthest

Reading Horace’s poem, we don’t need Charlie Marlow to remind us that the Romans, too, were colonialists. In the poem, Horace doesn’t particularly begrudge the rich their wealth, but knows he’s not one of them. No long lost relative is going to leave him a palatial villa; enterprising noblewomen won’t come flirting, full of hope. Still, he’s content in his self-respect and his “blessed” little Sabine farm. While acknowledging that his modest contentment relies on the protection of friends in power. And, of course, the forbearance of the gods.

Horace’s poem is addressed, not directly to the reader but to a powerful acquaintance, vaguely a neighbor, obsessed by greed and ostentation.

…truditor dies die,
novaeque pergunt interire lunae,

tu secanda marmore
locas sub ipsum funus et sepulcri
immemor struis domos,
marisque Bais obstrepentis urges…


…tomorrow drives out yesterday.
new moons wax and die,

and you, on the verge
of the sepulcher, quarry
marble for your beach house
on the crowded coast…

This wealth don’t exist in a vacuum. In his greed, Horace’s addressee, tears down the boundary markers of his farm and evicts his client-tenants. In the C.E. Bennett, Loeb Library trot: “Man and wife are driven forth bearing in their arms their household gods and ragged children.” This is how the rich get richer.

It’s in the next lines that we graduate from humble household gods to the divinity invoked by Horace’s vocatus.  In Thuycidides, the god was Apollo, for Jung, The Creator. For Horace–Orcus. Originally a god of the underworld and the dead, similar to Hades or Pluto. But by Horace’s time–death and the underworld personified. As much a dark force and process as a god. But no less a divinity for the abstraction. The Loeb prose translation proceeds:

And yet no hall more certainly awaits the wealthy lord than greedy Orcus’ destined bourne. Why strive for more and more? For all alike doth earth unlock her bosom–for the poor man and the prince’s sons.

For Horace, Orcus is implacable, the great leveler. His uncorruptible attendant, Charon, has never been bribed, even by “crafty Prometheus,” to ferry anyone back.  And then Horace ends the poem with another personification: the image of Tantalus, not only greedy and avaricious in myth, but the founder of the great overweening house of Atreus. (The “he” in the loose translation below is Orcus.)

hic superbum
Tantalum atque Tantali
genus coercet, hic levare functum
pauperem laboribus
vocatus atque non vocatus audit.

 ….He traps the proud and
all their arrogant descendants.
He senses the impoverished
praying for release from their toil.
Called or not called, he hears.

Cold or not, called or uncalled, invoked or uninvoked. Ushikawa down on his luck. The tenant farmers with their shivering kids and helpless good-luck statues. The anxious Spartans and the anxiety doctor, Jung. All pondering an enigmatic divinity. From Greek to Latin, through Rotterdam and Switzerland, to English to Japanese over two millenia “World literature” just won’t stay put. What does it all mean? Tamaru says it well:

…there’s some kind of deep allusion…something difficult to interpret… I don’t know why but I’ve been drawn to these words for a long time…the difficulty in understanding makes it all the more profound.

The phrase began with the Delphic Oracle after all, where the Pythia utters revelations that belong to everyone and no one, in a dark, sinuous tongue.


Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.

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