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ReneeFlemingblog
Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ‘em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

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On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), Sunset from the Forest of Fontainbeau (the Dyke Collection).

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Walter Howell Deverell (1827-54), Twelfth Night (with Elizabeth Siddal) (Pre-Raphaelites first room)

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Susan Herbert, “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid after Edward Burne-Jones”

Dear friends and readers,

Though we hadn’t a good leg or knee between us, and it had rained as in a monsoon in the morning, yesterday afternoon Jim and I set forth to the National Gallery around a quarter to two because we had promised ourselves we would see the much advertised new “blockbuster” show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It was sunny by then and warm, and by the time we left although I was limping super-slowly, letting myself down the stairs one at a time, and Jim not much better, the experience had been well worth it, though as sometimes happened as much for the “lesser” show, Color, Light and Line, that had not been heralded, trumpeted, advertised, several rooms of quietly brilliant beautiful, unusual 19th & early 20th century French drawings and watercolors (mostly) from the Dyke Collection:

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Gustave Dore (1832-83), A River Gorge in a mountain landscape,

tucked away on the first floor, just before the side entrance of the museum (well after and apart from the ever-expanding Museum shop), as for the Pre-Raphaelites, which despite the large size, unexpected Shakespeare and narrative delights, the delicacy of these, and stunning use of color of other of the paintings, where the colors still sparkled on the canvas

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John Everett Millais (1829-96), Marianna

and originality of still others,

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William Dyce (1806-64), Pegwell Bay

did not teach us anything new about the Pre-Raphaelites as a group.

We learned more about them or their art as a whole a couple of Christmases ago in one of these small unadvertised shows where it was contended the paintings came far more from an interaction of natural landscape, photography, science studies than literary and medieval longings. That it’s easy to make fun of this exhibit, precisely this kind of picture in a group by substituting cats for the people suggests the solemn absurdity of some of the pictures, and the lack of an adequate perspective.

There seemed nothing set before us to make sense of the pictures in the way of an exhibit a couple of years ago. The individual paintings were therefore what one could enjoy, with each of the rooms having a theme. One of the most interesting for me was the one with wallpaper, furniture, tapestries, screens, but nothing was said about Morris or the Pre-Raphaelites politics. Ford Madox Brown’s Work. I put the lack of discourse down to the way just about any decent political talk is simply erased in popular American media. But nothing on religion much either: the Middle Eastern landscapes of Hunt are not presented as landscape natural art but religious iconography (The Scapegoat). Rossetti’s Found (1854, unfinished) was presented as about modern life (!?): how so? were these 19th century Italian outfits? to me, most of all what was the attitude towards sex here.

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(The colors are all blended so that it’s unfinished is part of its charm)

While the paintings often seem to worship female sexuality and reject simple macho-male images, they can equally be seen to proscribe sex altogether. But there was no feminist discourse either. There were some Julia Cameron photos scattered here and there. But no sense of women’s development of an idiom of Pre-Raphaelitism of which there was one (see Deborah Cherry’s book). No Evelyn de Morgan. Nothing to comment on how these girlfriends were used, no comment on a room filled with huge pictures of so-called “beauties” — to me these are grotesque because of the masculine nature of the faces and huge size of the women’s bodies which seem to encompass one.

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This Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is less grotesque than the others, but the face is the same and the allusion to women as dangerous (the apple).

Could the room be about fear? In life certainly these men seemed to be in charge — they had the high status, the money, lived much much longer.

And what is the relationship of this Proserpine to this woman, Jane Morris said to be its model? The photo itself by Wm Morris is a perspective on her so she is endlessly constructed for us:

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The exhibit says nothing

This Elizabeth Siddal, A Lady AFixing a Pennant was there, but no explanation. Gentle reader it’s very small with a modest (very inexpensive) frame:

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So, how easy for Susan Herbert to poke fun:

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Susan Herbert’s “The Awakening after Wm Holman Hunt”

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Susan Herbert’s “Pysche after John William Waterhouse”

One consequence was Susan Herbert’s books — two of them in the shop — seemed appropriate without however as I said ruining any enjoyment of the pictures, and the exhibit downstairs feeling superior. Perhaps perversely, but also because I own reproductions of so many of the famous pictures included in the exhibit instead of buying the catalogue, I bought ($40 cheaper), Susan Herbert’s parody, Pre-Raphaelite Cats.

I recommend seeing the exhibit nevertheless. where and when else will you see these astonishing paintings brought together in one place again? Or ever see any of them? The Pre-Raphaelite paintings project, many of them, complex real psychological states, original, beautiful, make statements worth thinking about on sex, religion, social life, and in one room are made from unusual materials too (tapestries, painted chairs, stain glass windows). Although some painters were unaccountably missing (no John Waterhouse), see it also for the lesser known painters, pictures, sculptors, and the striking famous landscapes. e.g., Dyce’s Pegwell Bay. A favorite for me was Ford Madox Brown’s picture from his window: An English Autumn Afternoon — Hampstead — Scenery (1853).

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There was this exquisite small marble scultpure by Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca (remember “that day they read no longer” from Dante?):

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There are many photographs of the company and the women who served them and painted themselves (Siddal, Jane Morris, Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth, about whom we were told nothing, suddenly she was just there and painted as as “Mouth to be Kissed”). The exhibit ends with some series paintings, one on Perseus: The Rock of Doom, The Doom Fulfilled, and the strangely compelling The Baleful Head, the latter (frozen dead images in a fountain looked down at by Perseus and the maiden) influenced George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.

What seemed to unite the whole show — one sought for something — was finally it literary content, Shakespeare, Scott, a medievalism which became a rationale or cover.

John Anderson’s review of the Pre-Raphaelites (much of it came from the Tate) is not enthusiastic, but Kayleigh Bryant does the movement justice and gives you a slideshow. The exhibition book catalogue expensive but it might come down in price soon.

The shop for the Pre-Raphaelites had the most exquisitely beautiful scarves, sewn exquisitely delicately with strips of velvet. It was all I could do to stop myself from buying one: $60 each so I didn’t. Perhaps they were intended to be there as examples of Pre-Raphaelite kind of craftsmanship or an artistic ideal? If so, no explanation. One was wrapped around a dummy knight.

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I write this blog, then, also to tell of the other exhibit. Color, light, and line.which does not lend itself to cat parodies.

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This George Lemmen was not there, but it represents the quality of the sort of thing by him that was —

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Lemmen was featured as a pointillist and someone who like Vuillard did paintings of the people he lived with doing ordinary domestic tasks — women sewing

Strange these museums and their curators. Not only was the show not advertised (showing a lack of faith in museum-goers), but the catalogue has been printed only as hard-cover and there were few of them in the museum and at high price (over $60). I did buy the catalogue when I came home, on the Net for less than half that price so can’t share many of the pictures and lack the names of the painters and illustrators, several of them relatively unknown.

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Paul Huet, A Meadow at Sunset, pastel

There was a wall of Paul Signacs, Vuillards, Dores, Monets, George Lemmen, Pissaro, Morisot; watercolor, gouache, pen and ink, charcoal, pastel and mixed medium. The periods of art represented include romanticism, realism, impressionism, postimpressionism, pointillism (neo-impressionism), symbolism, the Dykes looked for quality, not coverage, and were delighted to find great work among unknown artists (so were not looking necessarily to make money). Some of my favorites where I can remember the artists’ names were Eugene Isabey, Alexandre Calame, Maxime Lalanne: here’s a selection of small reproductions.

I’ve found a large version of one where you can gather the quality of the paint: Henri-Joseph Harpingies, Autumn Landscape, Washerwoman.

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blog size version

It’s the unexpected that delights us, the unassuming. Many of these were unashamedly romantic: cliffs at twilight, tiny people in forests, near streams. Old people who were nobody. I liked the highly romantic drawings of landscape where there were no people. So often landscapes will have one or two tiny people. Not here.

The Examiner goes over why these colors, light washes, lines should so absorb us, and the nature of the Dyke Collection. The exhibition book catalogue, looks chock-a-block with pictures and has contributions by six people.

There was an informative plaque in tribute to the Dykes who apparently intend to leave most of their collection to the musuem.

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Both shows eshewed painting the rich, famous, the military and the powerful.

Three more pictures:

Arthur Hughes’s April (click for large size which does justice to the purple coloration) is there:

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(blog size version);

this Maxime Lalanne:

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As to the cats, I recommend at least looking at Herbert’s irreverent fond mockery. Apparently she’s done several such books of art with pussycats, often of Victorian pictures. Herbert’s pictures are here on line if you are so unlucky as not to have a live pussycat with you in your home. Looking at them did lead me to some good books on the history of the cat and the pictures we have of them over the centuries, Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 Years of Cats in Art.

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Susan Herbert, “Ecce Ancilla Domini after Dante Gabriel Rossetti” (making the expression and stance of the women’s scared eyes in the original — rightly terrified of pregnancy?)

Ellen

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… it is the words into which she is translating, not those from which she is taking her leave, that create her problems … [she] must keep the receiving language even more in mind than the original one …Horace is one of my favorite poets, though I frankly prefer to read him in translation — Burton Raffel, How to read [and write] a translation,” The Forked Tongue

‘Speech,’ she said, ‘is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken — George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

A translation is an acceptable match for an utterance made in another tongue — [but then what is a match, acceptable, & what must the text crucially match] — Bellos

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A pre-Internet multilingual translation dictonary — useless because it contains too few words from particular languages, sold to bargain-hunting people not serious translators, who don’t understand the art of translating for real

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My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, which I’ve owned since age 13, recovered twice, and is the one book I have I could not do without; words are grouped into terrains

Dear friends and readers,

As the year draws to a close, I know there have been several books I read important to me, that helped change the way I think about reading, writing and life too, but I’ve not blogged about them because often it’s precisely such books whose significant matter is hardest to convey. One such is Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel (it enabled me to write a proposal for a paper on Trollope’s imagined maps); another egan to be John Desmond’s Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. Meant for students, this one had directions for essays that enabled me to push students into comparing films and books on a concrete literal basis, no impressionism and I was beginning myself to learn and teach before I was cut off from teaching.

I hope Bellos’s has a happier fulfilled conclusion. It’s a third. David Bellos’s Is that a Fish In Your Ear? is not just brilliant but fun (fun to read). In a way he doesn’t say much beyond what I intuitively would agree with and might even get to think myself, but he explains why most talk and expectation about translation is still so wrong. (We are improving on our understanding of film adaptations of books.) I’ve been wanting to write a blog on his book because many of his insights are these sudden utterances with accompanying paragraphs that I’d like to keep in mind and refer to. The book is there but not in my mind in a state that’s useful to me, only on my desk physically. And to go through the book this way is to make nonsense of it, asking to looking for sparkling needles in a haystack

David Bellos’s Is That A Fish In Your Ear is thus hard to grasp — like his title, apparently an allusion to a line in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe which include a Babelfish: if you put a babelfish into your ear, it instantly translates all languages into whichever one you want. When I bought it, partly attracted by the witty title, I thought he was referring to how when you machine translate a phrase you can come up with utter nonsense since the context of an utterance is central to how we understand its meaning, both literally and suggestively, how we use it to.

An outline of the book’s story or argument moves through the topics of general areas of prevailing misunderstandings of what translations are, how they function, what is a good translation, how one goes about translating, laws and customs governing publishing translations. He begins with the idea that we can’t avoid translations most days of our lives and that we don’t most of us know what a translation is, nor why it is that a given utterance can have many different translations (use different words using the same receiving language) and yet all be valid as translations. There are at least 7000 languages in the world; in practice many of these small groups of people also know one of 80 vehicular languages, a language learned by a larger group of people which enables them all to communicate with one another. Nine of these are spoken by a large majority of people; add 4 more to get to 13 and you’ve covered most of the people of the world.

Learn 13! One of these is English, the second most common French and after that German — the three most translated-into languages in the world.

He then goes on to make the obvious observation (but important) that different kinds translation are appropriate for different texts and situation (say a legal report versus a poem; or a subtitle in a movie versus a novel). At the end of this section he offers a translation of a poem and asks us why we call it a translation since if you look carefully most of the words have been changed into words of another language that have a different literal content — so the above dictionary would not have gotten you to them. A thesaurus would be much more helpful. Groups of words occupying the same terrain of meaning. And the book has barely begun.

His highway (main argument) offers information on why the particular languages most texts have been into and when, why these choices. Not only are translations influential (and still invisible — we pretend we have read Tolstoi when we read Constance Garnet) and can change the language translated into a (target or receiving language) but the language which has been translated (source language). “Continuing waves of translated works in particular fields leave the receiving language … in a different shape” (p. 187). Consider the impact of the translated Bible on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.

It matters whether you are translating a text into a dominant language (up) or less prestigious language (down). Translations into prestigious languages (up) erase the source’s foreignness; translations into less prestigious languages (the less widely disseminated vehicular) try to keep a residue of the source.

More important to me — who can only translate into English and only from French and Italian anyway — are the paths that move away from and return to the road. In these he drops remarks and demonstrates important truths not paid sufficient attention to. What I want to do is go through the book typing out the brilliant convincing passages or utterances (as he might call them). Partly it would be good for me to have these nuggets before me as I study, evaluate or write about translations. Bellos gives me courage and helps me know my views are valid even if in most places I read contradicted by what others assert, including (especially perhaps) academic circles where the crib is still what’s wanted and thought to be the aim of a translation. He offers me insight into how to go about it too. Look at translation as a equivalent, a replacement text, originally creative in its own right with its own language’s arts. …

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Film adaptation a particular kind of translation

To offer a few:

How should the foreignness of a text best be represented in the receiving language? (p. 41). This depends on the nature of the languages you are translating from and into. If it’s from English to French, w/o being perceptively anomalous, give a sense of the French phrases in the source by some literalness P. 50)

Our first learned language is the one we begin to speak when very young; it’s conveyed by the people who surround us intimately when very little. Our operative language is the language we speak when we go to school, read, learn to write to be comprehended by others.

An adequate translation reproduces the meaning of an utterance made in the foreign language (p. 67) it should contain not just the information you need to grasp not so much what is actually or literally said but what is going on in the saying of it (p. 69). Meaning does not inhere solely in specific words. (My paraphrase: you relive the utterance in the receiving tongue at its strongest even if that does not literally correspond to the source tongue; indeed differences in language means you often cannot or should not try to literally correspond.) What is literally said is only a fragment of what is going on (p. 72)

How can you tell if an utterance is meaningful. Chomsky said you can make grammatical sentences which are not meaningful: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” but students wrote paragraphs which explicated the phrase. Bellos: you can see whether an utterance has a meaning by testing whether it can be translated into another language (p. 80).

The lack of exactly matching words is not a problem for a translator because words are not at bottom names for things or ideas. The idea that words are names of things or ideas comes from dictionary making. Yes he fingers the 18th century as a century which produced dictionaries which solidified the idea that words are names for things (despite Swift’s satire). We use words to stand for classes of things and ideas (like the word “head”), and there are many things, ideas, groups that have no specific name. We often use one word for another to explain it; translators are finding the other word in another language (pp. 8589). It’s hard to say what a word is. They are not just units in social practice. He suggest that “to know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words [with ease]” (p. 102, my addition)

There is no such thing as a literal translation. None can be that. You can word a text, word for word as they come but it will appear gobbledy-gok except for those who know the source language (that’s my paraphrasing Bellos (p. 117) Nabokov’s famous demand is him dissing translation.

Translations can be scary: when induced by powerful people to genuflect (pp. 131-32) However, we must adapt to circumstances and context and what the translation is for (this is called adaptive translation). No language is an island (p. 203). This is the business of translating from an intermediary translation and yet producing a readable living text (Marco Polo) (p. 204)

For a few more insights and elaboration, see comments.

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He has charts: I have a hard time understanding charts. One on books translated between 7 dominating languages (p. 210): Swedish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, English. Top four source languages: English, French, Russian, German (p. 216)

All very puzzling so let me say just that English is the medium as source or target for 75.12% of all translation acts (p. 217) and culture of translation (and publishers) are concentrated in France, Germany, Britain and US.

Important realities: French has been the most widely taught foreign language in the English speaking world. France has tradition of openness to foreign cultures (will translate). Germany a cross-raods for little studied languages. Middle Ages the lingua franca was Latin, and Arabic pivotal for Greek and Hebrew; while Japanese a relay language for translations of Russian into Chinese (a prestigious language). (pp. 218-20)

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It’s not a coincidence that I found a French thesaurus some years ago but can find no Italian one: Le Robert has no section from English to French (which is such a waste), it’s all in French & as in Roget’s English Thesaurus it’s families of words, words inside a terrain. It’s become an important book for me.

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Example study: “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”.

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Detail from Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), The Wool-Winder’s [touching] Cat (1759): her poor ear isn’t in good shape and her body frail, wispy

What I’ve loved to do best is translate Italian poetry by women with a French intermediary text. Part of the joy is this vehicular text (Italian is not one of the world’s 13 vehicular texts) because know French better and love it more. A while back I found on the Net Elsa Morante’s Italian poem, “Minna la Siamese”. I also found an English translation which presented itself as the whole poem but left off the final stanza and was somewhat inaccurate. I did put it on my old life-writing blog because my cats are comforting creatures when trouble arises and bought a book said to contain this poem. When it came I discovered it had several poems on cats, and the language facing the Italian texts was French. Well with an intermediary text in French by Jean-Noel Schifano I produced my own translation, using my cat’s name:

Clary

I’ve a small beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, l name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

It needs improvement but Bellos’s book has made me feel my translation is finer poetry than the one on the Net and not because mine is more accurate and includes the last stanza. I’ve made a vow to myself I shall translate all her cat poems.

CarefulWriting
Bellos doesn’t mention it but I know that when western men were taught Latin, western women were taught French (and in the 19th century Italian); that women began to publish through translation as masks

Ellen

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NODDING

Tizdal my beautiful cat
Lies on the old rag mat
In front of the kitchen fire.
Outside the night is black.

The great fat cat
Lies with his paws under him
His whiskers twitch in a dream,
He is slumbering.

The clock on the mantlepiece
Ticks unevenly, tic toe, tic-toe,
Good heavens what is the matter
With the kitchen clock?

Outside an owl hunts,
Hee hee hee hee,
Hunting in the Old Park
From his snowy tree.
What on earth can he find in the park tonight,
It is so wintry?

Now the fire burns suddenly too hot
Tizdal gels up to move,
Why should such an animal
Provoke our love?

The twigs from the elder bush
Are tapping on the window pane
As the wind sets them tapping,
Now the tapping begins again.

One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight half dark
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth,
And the twigs tapping quick,
And the owl in an absolute fit
One laughs supposing creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to)his-
Cat, night, fire-and a girl nodding.


Drawing by Stevie Smith for her poem, Nodding

Dear friends and readers,

This is at least my fifth blog on a text about or with cats. Marge Piercy’s memoir, Sleeping with Cats, Doris Lessing’s On Cats, Boswell and Piozzi on Dr Johnson and Hodge, not to omit Temple Grandin who reminded me how much animals love to eat, how happy it makes them (Animals in Translation) and various poems (Elsa Morante’s “Minna the Siamese” comes to mind).

They’ve been multiplying since I adopted two cats, Clary (green-eyed tortoiseshell) and Ian (yellow-eyed male ginger tabby). I’ve learned that one knows nothing about why people like cats until one owns one. Cats are private creatures, showing their selves only to their “persons” or special friend and family. You can’t get to know a cat unless you live with him or her, and then it takes time. They do not perform for strangers. Stevie says we have made them nervous. I know they do not like changes in routine; we should do precisely the same things each day at the same time. If we deviate, they marginalize themselves, watching suspiciously until we all return to our routs again.

I told a friend about the 1978 movie, Stevie, with Glenda Jackson, how quiet and truthful it is about a writing life. My friend had noticed my Lessing and Hodge blogs and told me about a review Stevie Smith had written about a book intended to make as permanent as photos and books can a beauty contest among cats, Cats in Colour. It’s in her Uncollected Writings, Me Again, made up of poems, short prose, pictures by herself. Smith’s several-page review’s delightful, intriguing, melancholy, like her writing, has so many moods all at once, and (most unusual for a review) includes drawings and poems. It’s very hard to do justice to this prose, it’s genius-level, the points of view so much at variance and yet the perspectives all coming together to focus again and again on how there are two worlds here: “the Human Creatuere and the Animal” and how we do not respect “the Animal World.”

This descriptive section will have to do:

It is not only the cats of antiquity that seem so peculiar (3,000 years may allow some difference in form) but … scaled to the size of a thin mouse, as we observe an Egyptian puss, couched beneath his master’s chair? The Grecian cats, though better scaled, seem dull and the cats of our Christian era not much better. There is a horrible cat drawing in Topsell’s The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, dated 1607; there he sits, this cat, with a buboe on his hip, frozen and elaborate. In every line of this drawing, except for the cold sad eyes, the artist wrongs cathood. Quick sketchers do better, by luck perhaps. We all know Lear’s drawings of his fat cat Foss. There is true cathood here, though much, too, of course, of Mr Lear, so ‘pleasant to know’. Quick sketchers too can catch the cat in movement, and, though much addicted to, and fitted for, reclining, the cat moves-gallops, leaps, climbs and plays-with such elegance, one must have it so. Yet only this morning, I saw a cat quite motionless that looked so fine I could not have disturbed it. Hindways on, on top of a gray stone wall, its great haunches spred out beyond the wall’s narrow ledge,this animal was a ball of animate ginger fur; no shape but a ball’s, no head, no tail that was visible, had this old cat, but he caught all there was of winter sunshine and held it.

She leaves the book of glossy photographs, the excuse for her reverie, way behind. It does seem as if this review was actually intended to be printed as the introduction to said book.

She opens by saying cats reflect the egoism and ambition of their owners, even those not engineered into breeds and made expensive because rarer. She just wished this book had had photos of ashcan and ordinary poor and feral and wild cats “alongside” the beauties. Not that misery reveals cat-nature any more than beauty. Its cat-nature, cat-facts, cat-intransigence she’s on about in her review — as these impinge on and affect us. She concentrates and repeatedly returns to cat’s eyes: “blank and shining,” enigmatic, in themselves the eyeball expressionless. Finally or ultimately we can’t reach them nor they us, no matter how hard either side tries. She finds embarrassing and distressing how the cat does try so hard to reach us — it’s yearning gestures, its needs, and she’s more comfortable with its savage ruthless behaviors, predatory, play-bites.

As she launches into her descriptions of cat-lives, she inhabits the same territories as Lessing. She thinks we do cats a disservice by “fixing” them. We are depriving them of a real experience of cat-life — maternal duties, sexual prowess. She does know many live tragic lives, die helplessly. Nervous creatures they are, “like all tamed animals” given reason to be by us, our love as well as easy cruelty, power over them.

The last portion of the review provides what we know of cats in history, from the earliest figures to today, and writes with real plangency when she talks of how cats were burnt with women as witches — their helpers you see (an aspect of misogyny though she does not use such terms since cats are associated with women living alone). Our cruelties to cats:

witchcraft is too grim a story for here and its rites too cruel for our pampered pets. Yet I remembered the witch legends of history, as when the Scottish witches were accused of attempting the death of the King and Queen on their sea-passage home to Scotland. The witches swam a cat off the coast of North Berwick, having first christened it ‘Margaret’, they cast it into the sea to drown and thus-they said-raise a storm-wind to sink the King’s ship. For this they were convicted and burnt, for the Scots law was crueller than ours and sent witches to the stake, while we only hanged them. But in both countries the poor cat that belonged to the witch, if he was ‘apprehended’, might also suffer death by burning or hanging.

She also tells stories of individual cats she has known — like Lessing again. She describes one costuming of a cat as an angel which is really a debased bridal picture and rightly calls it “depraved.” She liked to see galloping cats (and has a poem in her the Collected Poems on “Galloping Cats”). To watch them in movement, streaking, hunting. Apparently she enjoyed teasing her cat. I can’t do that. At the very end there are stories of “good cats” and a poem reminding me of Dr Johnson and Hodge, about “Major” “a very fine cat.”

The Story of a Good Cat. This was the cat who came to the cruel cold prison in which Richard III had cast Sir Henry Wyatt when young. Because of his Lancastrian sympathies Henry had already beenimprisoned several times, and even put to the torture. The cat saved his life by drawing pigeons into the cell which the gaoler agreed to cook and dress for the poor prisoner, though for fear of his own life he dared not by other means increase his diet. There is a picture of Sir Henry as an old man sitting in a portrait with the prison cell for background and the cat, a peculiar sad-looking little cat, drawing a pigeon through the prison bars. Underneath is
written, but so faintly it is difficult to read, ‘This Knight with
hunger, cold and care neere starved, pyncht, pynde away, The sillie
Beast did fee de, heat, cheere with dyett, warmth and playe.

Remember how Christopher Smart’s cat, Geoffrey comforted him?

We have cat fables and fairy stories where all the characters are cats. And she skilfully recreates the atmosphere of an Algernon Blackwood gothic story whose center is a feel for the presence of cats:

there is a young man of French descent who is travelling in France on holiday. Suddenly the train he is on pulls up at a little station and he feels he must get down at this station. The inn he goes to is sleepy and comfortable,the proprietress is also sleepy and comfortable, a large fat lady who moves silently on little fat feet. Everybody in this inn treads silently, and all the people in the town are like this too, sleepy, heavy and treading softly. After a few days the young man begins to wonder; and at night, waking to look out over the ancient roof-tops, he wonders still more. For there is a sense of soft movement in the air, of doors opening softly, of soft thuds as soft bodies drop to the ground from wall or window; and he sees the shadows moving too. It was the shadow of a human being that dropped from the wall, but the shadow moved on the ground as a cat runs, and now it was not a human being but a cat. So in the end of course the young man is invited by the cat-girl, who is the plump inn owner’s daughter and serves by day in the inn, to join ‘the dance’ that is the witch’s sabbath. For this old French town is a mediaeval witch-town and bears the past alive within it. Being highminded, as most ghost-writers are, Blackwood makes the young man refuse the invitation and so come safe off with his soul, which had been for a moment much imperilled.

Me I like to watch them looking happy and also when they play with one another games which show them capable of semi-planning and tricking one another. I enjoy how they have favorite toys they carry about in their mouths. Ian has a string, Clary a furry looking object once meant for a mouse. Poor pussycats when they get themselves in trouble. I enjoy when they vocalize at me. I say “miaow” back and “I know” and “just so” and “I agree.” They are talking. Smith in Collected Poems has this love lyric to cats, the “eth” verbs turning it into a hymn:

The Singing Cat

It was a little captive cat
    Upon a crowded train
His mistress takes him from his box
    To ease his fretful pain.

She holds him tight upon her knee
    The graceful animal
And all the people look at him
    He is so beautiful.

But oh he pricks and oh he prods
    And turns upon her knee
Then lifteth up his innocent voice
    In plaintive melody.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And to each human countenance
    A smile of grace he bringeth.

He lifteth up his innocent paw
    Upon her breast he clingeth
And everybody cries, Behold
    The cat, the cat that singeth.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And all the people warm themselves
    In the love his beauty bringeth.

Someone said to me when I praised Lessing’s book as non-sentimental, nonsense, it’s all sentiment. Quite right. So too Smith’s essay. We try not to be but do not succeed.

Here’s my free translation of Morante’s poem, applying it to Clary. I told myself I liked the non-sentimental ending but probably I found appealing Morante’s attempt to capture cat-behavior.

Clary the tortie

I’ve a tiny beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, I name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

(from Elsa Morante, Alibi, Poèmes, Édition bilingue, French translations by Jean-Noel Schifano)

****************

A New Yorker cartoon from a couple of weeks ago

I will though end on some unsentimental poetry and warn my reader these demand a strong stomach. They are not by any of the above writers. First up, an post-WW1 & 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74). This Rufus (I allude to Lessing’s Rufus), like some of us when so badly hurt, enraged, could not be brought back:

Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

Smith says it’s better to love your cat to the point of folly than not to love them at all. And she has a passage that takes into account the same insight as Kaschnitz:

We were now swimming above a sandbank some half mile or so out from the shore. Presently the sandbank broke surface and we
climbed out and stood up on it. All around us was nothing but the sea and the sand and the hot still air. Look, I said, what is this coming? (It was a piece of wreckage that was turning round in the current by the sandbank and coming towards us.) Why, I said, it is a cat. And there sure enough, standing spitting upon the wooden spar was a young cat. We must get it in, said Caz, and stretched out to get it. But I saw that the cat was not spitting for the thought of its plight — so far from land, so likely to be drowned-but for a large sea-beetle that was marooned upon the spar with the cat, and that the cat was stalking and spitting at. First it backed from the beetle with its body arched and its tail stiff, then, lowering its belly to the spar, it crawled slowly towards the beetle, placing its paws carefully and with the claws well out. Why look, said Caz, its jaws are chattering. The chatter of the teeth of the hunting cat could now be heard as the spar came swinging in to the sandbank. Caz made a grab for the spar, but the young cat, its eyes dark with anger, pounced upon his hand and tore it right across. Caz let go with a start and the piece of wreckage swung off at right angles and was already far away upon the current. We could not have taken it with us, I said, that cat is fighting mad, he does not wish to be rescued, with his baleful eye and his angry teeth chattering at
the hunt, he does not wish for security.

And second, Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

This is to urge everyone who reads this blog to rent, buy, or go to see in theaters or watch on TV Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee. A friend on WWTTA told me about it last week:

I just saw it and recommend it to everyone. It’s a remarkable look at corporate power and the attempt (more successful than you likely realize) to deprive American citizens access to our civic justice system.

The director, Susan Saladoff, does a superb job of presenting the reality behind the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit–it was really shocking to learn the truth not only about that case but about the right-wing/corporate effort to limit constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Netflix has it for rental. My local library has it–check yours, too.

I rented it from Netflix within the next couple of days, and when we returned from Vermont, watched it and was just thunderstruck. It’s a startling eye-opener. Saladoff explains how wealthy corporations, powerful institutions and organizations in our society are successfully cutting off from the average person the US civil criminal justice system in the US intended to help individuals get redress or help when they have been hurt or harmed by these bodies of people.

Saladoff shows us first of all that the judiciary across the US is nowadays filled with mostly reactionary judges put there through well-funded campaigns for Republicans and conservative Democrats. When they lose a campaign against a fair judge as in Oliver Diaz’s case, they then pursue the judge as they hounded Diaz) by indicting him for accepting bribes, corruption, whatever will stick. From a detailed review of Hot Coffee by Kenneth R. Morefield:

The third story is that Oliver Diaz and it frames the issue of judicial elections. The film illustrates how judicial elections on the state level are particularly susceptible to vast spending discrepancies, and political action committees (PACs) funded by the Chamber of Commerce spend huge amounts of money to blanket electorates with negative attack ads. (In Diaz’s case the ads were even repudiated by his opponent yet continued to run by the Chamber of Commerce.)

I did not begin to know the extent of the reach of these corporations, their lobbyists and the political people they have bought.

The film shows that many cases of individuals seeking redress are consequently today just obliterated by a judge reversing a jury’s findings (so that no settlement or a very limited one of money can come to aid the person), how relentless and successful the corporations have been in convincing the US public most lawsuits brought by individuals are frivolous and cost the taxpayer money. Ironically, it’s the failure of these individual to find redress and help from those with deep pockets who caused the harm that leads them to come to the public for what help they can.

When the number of winning cases goes down, and when the amount of money award goes down, the insurance companies do not lower their rates. And you cannot get people to change their behavior unless you force them through fear of monetary damages.

Three stories are told Stella Leibeck who was the lady who spilt searingly hot coffee on her lap spent literally years trying to cope with severe burns. The price was outrageously high (our medical non-system is another story). Here is a photo of her legs some time after she had had some treatment:

Macdonalds keeps the temperature of their coffee so high because it saves them money. They waste less coffee that way.

We are told the story of a Colin Courley’s parents where the wife was unaware that one of a pair of twins was being radically damaged in her uterus. Her boy is severely crippled. The couple do not begin to have the money to offer him adequate treatment and schooling. They are worried sick what will happen to him after they die. They were originally awarded a large enough amount to enable them to cope. The judge put on the case lowered it to an amount that is wholly inadequate. Consequently they have to come to the taxpayer and public agencies (underfunded) for help:

The case of Colin Gourley, a Nebraska boy who requires a lifetime of care and physical therapy after suffering brain damage due to medical malpractice but was unfortunate enough to be conceived in a state (Nebraska) with a hard cap on damages, illustrates the dangers of liability caps. Two especially strong points made in this segment are that states that enact liability caps do not experience reductions in the cost of malpractice insurance nor medical costs and that costs incurred by victims of malpractice and not covered by damage awards are most often absorbed by Medicaid, meaning any “savings” created by lower judgments are essentially in the form of liability subsidies paid by tax payers. The second point is particularly ironic because a linchpin of tort reform arguments is the claim that frivolous lawsuits (supposedly eliminated by hard caps) are what are driving costs up and making things more expensive for everyone.

.


Colin, his family — his twin brother stands next to Saladoff

Far from people going to court lightly, it takes money and courage to go to court, time, energy and the willingness to undergo personal attacks. Jamie Leigh Jones was promised a good job by Halliburton with reasonable living quarters. She found herself in a set of rooms filled with males where she was the only female. That first night she was brutally raped, beaten, sodomized; when she tried to complain, she found herself imprisoned in a crate. Only by reaching her father and his instant action in going to his senator was she released and sent home. She has spent years trying to expose this company. Her problem is she signed a mandatory arbitration contract which removes her right to go to court; she is by law required to appeal to an abritrator hired by Halliburton. How much redress do you think she would get?

The story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who was brutally raped after KBR/Halliburton ignored her pleas that she was being sexually harassed on the job (and forced to live in coed trailers rather than, as she was promised, with other women) frames the film’s final issue, that of mandatory binding arbitration clauses in contracts. In these contracts employees and, increasingly, consumers are required to waive their right to pursue civil relief for any problems that might result in the future and accept instead binding arbitration from an arbiter selected by the company.


Jamie Leigh Jones

Everything has been done that can be to smear her: the story is one that exposes our pro-rape culture. She lost her case ultimately because at each round the conservative judge voted against her.

What was chilling here was how many lawyers and academics line up in support of these mandatory arbitration contracts. They shamelessly justify these in court as for the public interest. People will say anything.

Tort reform is not a boring subject. We have Orwellian language here: what’s happening is not reform, but destruction of rights that ought to be inalienable from our constitution and bill of rights.

It’s so well done too, the explanations so clear. It made me remember all the contracts and fine print I’ve signed and of the cases of individual judges and others destroyed by the ruthlessness, relentless and bottomless pocketbook corporations and their lawyers (Karl Rove). I am aware from my personal experience of how high and powerfully placed and ordinary academics too support these people. The idea the university is a bastion of leftism is a bleak joke.

We need to know that mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts are ways of depriving us and most people of their right to sue when hurt or cheated. How many contracts I’ve signed where I can barely read the small print.

We need to know that the US chamber of commerce is a front for corporations.

The pro-choice forces in the US have found themselves crippled, outdistanced and now repressed and increasingly without anywhere for a woman to get an abortion. Why? They have let the Catholics and those who would make women submit to repression, exploitation, take over the dialogue. Pro-choice people are put on the defensive because of the ceaseless presentation of women as turned neurotic if they don’t have a child or have an abortion. Nonsense. Some are upset; some are relieved, some are empowered.

I did puzzle over why the rhetoric of family scenes of happiness trumps even these scenes. I did wonder why the liberal democrats have so much trouble winning cases and elections.

My friend offered this explanation: The wish to not have to face responsibility for causing the suffering of others is at the root of the “tort reform” movement, on which the film focuses.

Tort reform not a dull bore. “Reform” here means depriving you and me of access to the courts for redress and help when we’ve been hurt, taken advantage of, need monetary help and want to prevent the same cruel acts from being perpetrated on someone else. See Hot Coffee by Saladoff and then tell others to see it.

Ellen

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Colin, my fiber optic penguin

Dear friends and readers,

Some people my age have grandchildren, others have great-nieces and nephews: I have two cats and a fiber optic penguin which lights up in a glittery way when I plug him in. I gave him the name I would have given a son had I had one. Colin glitters when plugged in but this does not appear on photographs.

On the other side of endurance tonight. I just gave of myself as a teacher for 3 sets of 2 hours and 45 minutes, 13 hours alogether at GMU.

We are doing Christmas in a small way. As I wrote on Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Izzy and I went to a party for The Birthday (Jane Austen’s of course — coming up on the 15th) where we danced the afternoon away doing patterned 18th century figure dances, up and down the line, in groups of twos and threes. For Snow Reveries (more general) go to Reveries under Austen.

We dare not have a tree again this year. Three years ago the cats attacked what we had (balls, lights, branches) so steadily the tree was wretched looking before New Year’s and they are still so lively. But we did put our white and colored lights out on our bushes in front of our house. We sat them in patterns on top of the bushes so the light seem to come out of the greenery: tasteful and pretty. (At long last we have a safe method: heavy white cord meant for outside, leading through the porch to inside the window and a switch on a panel inside the house.)

I did take Colin down from the attic. At first I thought I’d put him in the screened porch but then I would not see him, and he’d be cold so I have him in my workroom. Outside I fear he’d be stolen and that would upset me.

When my neighbor, Michelle, first gave him to me as a present I sang spontaneously: … Colin, the sledding penguin had a very shiny nose and if you ever saw him, you would even say it glows. All of the other penguins used to laugh and call him names, they never let poor Colin join in any penguin games. Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, Colin, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide our sled tonight …


Clary-Marianne not too long ago

Whenever the girl cat, Clarissa-Marianne darts into my workroom she is startled by the lit penguin. She runs away or sits and looks. She doesn’t get to stay in the room long enough to get used to him and begin to investigate.

On the 15th (the Birthday) I will make out my 10 to 12 cards — if I can think of that many snail-mail card friends to send to. I have one cousin and so does Jim to send to.

We have very little to buy and I got it all online. I can’t announce it yet as two of the gifts are surprises for Jim and Izzy. I know Mr Knightley is against surprises, but just this once. For myself I got the DVDs of the Poldark series for the 2 seasons; also Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery.


Ian-Little Snuffy recently

The cold season shows us our cats sitting by the grates. (We have forced heat through grates). In our bedroom the grate is behind a door, and they love to sit in the triangular space between grate and door. Izzy keeps her Italian electric radiator on all the time so her room is cosy warm. Ian snuggles behind her computer and in front of her window on her desk in the sun. Clarissa sinks down amid the blankets near where Izzy sits.

Winter passes.

For The Day we’ll have our token exchange of presents, go to see The King’s Speech (with Colin Firth), eat a yummy meal at Mark’s [non-pretentious] Duck House, and in the evening I’ll watch one Christmas movie — possibly the film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead (beautiful moving film). Boxing Day we’ll go to a museum (our tradition) and this year it’s a Victorian exhibit: vast, photography at the National Gallery. And for New Year’s we’ve tickets for a Woolly Mammoth show: Neo-Futurists Girl Guides (?), Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, with post-show drinks and snacks afterwards.

The hope is to return to the atmosphere and expectations we had in the years 2001 and 2002. We had gone to Paris in 2000 to erase so many previous Xmases (and had had one of our wondrous times — all three of us in Paris, that last day Izzy stood there intensely looking about trying hard to remember the spot where we stood below where we lived), and in 2001 it worked. I remember 2001 happy in a lovely Chinese restaurant after a good movie, the three of us over a duck (had been fired in front of us). We were at peace last year but not back where we had been.

Still just now we are all set: nothing to dread, it will be just as we expect, nothing to surprise, hurt or upset us …


A lovely late 19th century early 20th century December scene: Luigi Loiri: Paris under Snow

I continue this in a more meditative general vein on Reveries under the Sign of Austen: Snow Reveries

Ellen

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To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to
what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept
your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson


Our house, 1984 (Jim’s mother, me, two daughters): it has not changed all that much


Our backyard: you see Izzy’s windows last summer

Dear Friends and Readers,

Over on facebook, someone told of a long day’s struggle to order, throw away, pack, and generally empty out his parents’ home (possible so as to sell it). What exhausting work emotionally and physically. Well his words reminded me of a moving diary entry in the LRB by August Kleinzhaler where he told of his experience of selling his childhood home. Rooting up your memories, and throwing them away.

How much our houses can mean to us. I will never comprehend the lack of feeling so many people display towards their environment, their house. They fix it in accordance with “market values!” Yes, when we did renovate the above, for we did, a little (new windows, installed new appliances in the kitchen, put in airconditioning, a new heater, painted), the man doing the kitchen wanted me to have certain kinds of woodwork along the kitchen cabinets because without that it won’t resell at a higher price. I’ve repeatedly come across people who make their houses into magazine-imitative places, with rooms set up for show (thus the need for a so-called family room). They are careful to make the show rooms impersonal: keep out signs of their real loves and occupations. Rooms are carefully distinguished as to purpose. We do all things in all rooms each of us likes; the rooms are partly distinguished by which of the three of us basically dwells there.

On his last visit to our house (1987 or so) my father remarked:

“It’s getting to look like Seaman Avenue” to which Jim replied, “These things take time, Willie.”

How important memories we have and how they are made concrete and perpetual for us by their local habitation. Do others not value their memories? To understand how a house can mean explicates why the gothic uses houses to signify terror, horror, deep perversion for in these spaces the memories are anguish, sorrow, corrosive. I actually don’t have such memories here, or they are minor, didn’t dominate even when we had a bad spirit here at times, and have now been contained and I can live in these spaces at peace.

How women are taught to hate themselves: it is so common for little girls to have dollhouses. Like dolls, this kind of toy is sometimes despised, and even by mothers of daughters. I’ve known women to take away a daughter’s doll at 11. To me this is scorning one’s gender. It is partly circumstance, partly the construction of women’s lives, but also temperamentally female, to value the intangible, the inward, memory, why women are good at ghost stories. I built three dollhouses with my two daughters; we still have one large Edwardian one in Izzy’s room, shoved in a corner, gathering dust now.

I put pictures on the walls which have symbolic value for me. Scotch-tape them up. Here is my library table seen at an angle:

I’ve changed those pictures again. Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood still has pride of place though.

Much as I long to move to NYC, to sell where we live now would be erasing a 30 yr existence, and probably we’d have to sell our house as a tear-down. No one but us would value it. The thought of what I’m told I would have to do to “prepare” it for a buyer, make it attractive to a typical one is what I can’t bear to do. I hesitate to picture what would replace it even so (for this would just be the veneer) given the soulless McMansions and magaziny-looking houses that have gone up or are wrapped around other houses in my neighborhood. (One good effect of the depression is this kind of obscenity has stopped for a time.)

“Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (Carol Shields, Swann).


A corner of the room I mostly live in, where I work and read and write.

On wompo someone asked where we literally read and write messages from and where we read them in cyberspace: I sit in my “workroom” or study in my house; it’s filled with my desk, two library tables, my husband’s desk (he sits in the living room), favorite pictures on the walls, lamps, bookcases, a closet with clothes and some of my stuff for writing or teaching. All the rooms in our house but the bathrooms and halls have two outer walls with a large window in each. So too here and I look out on a pretty old fashioned suburban scene (neighborhood built in 1949-51). The bookcases are my Austen and Trollope collections. I change the pictures on my wall as I feel like it. Pictures of friends and cats are on another wall. Poscards. On my computer Canaletto, [In front of] Northumberland House, London, a fresh fair morning, mid-century, peaceful, orderly.

Close to hand, near to heart.

THE ROOMS OF OTHER WOMEN POETS

By Eavan Boland (from Object Lessons in Outside History, pages 20-21, Norton, 1990)

I wonder about you: whether the blue abrasions
of daylight, falling as dusk across your page,

make you reach for the lamp. I sometimes think
I see that gesture in the way you use language.

And whether you think, as I do, that wild flowers
dried and fired on the ironstone rim of

the saucer underneath your cup are a sign of
a savage, old calligraphy: you will not have it.

The chair you use, for instance, may be cane
soaked and curled in spirals, painted white

and eloquent, or iron mesh and the table
a horizon of its own on plain, deal trestles,

bearing up unmarked, steel-cut foolscap
a whole quire of it; when you leave I know

you look at them and you love their air of
unaggressive silence as you close the door.

The early summer, its covenant, its grace,
is everywhere: even shadows have leaves.

Somewhere you are writing or have written in
a room you came to as I come to this

room with honeyed corners, the interior sunless,
the windows shut but clear so I can see

the bay windbreak, the laburnum hang fire, feel
the ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early

I read messages mostly as emails using the gmail board, as emails on Yahoo sites, and nowadays on blogs, and facebook; once in a long while I check archives of lists online. I let the messages come in separately for four lists (my three at Yahoo ’cause I’m listowner, and Austen-l & wom-po since those listservs wreak havoc on messages). And because of all this my life is rich with friends. What matters in life is soul activity.

Hitherto, I have made it a policy to write autobiographically only on Reveries under the Sign of Austen; today I yield to temptation and begin to make my life apart from reading, movies, the arts part of this blog too, and link the two together. So last week at Reveries I wrote of The Return to Queens College: Autumn Entry and for two other examples, Christmas, 2009 into 2010 and Halloween 2009.


Our pussycat, Clarissa, aged 4 months (she is now over 2 years) sitting on Richardson’s Clarissa in our library house

Ellen

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