Archive for the Literature Category

A Translator Remains Faithful

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry, translation with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by Louise Steinman

As a tribute to my dear colleague Michael Henry Heim, I post an article I wrote about him for the Los Angeles Times, which appeared 10 years ago to the day of his passing on Sept 30, 2012. Michael was a world-renowned translator, a passionate advocate for literature, an inspired teacher, and a generous friend (he and his wonderful wife Priscilla always brought bags of compost from their garden and gave them to me and Lloyd at our annual Institute for Humanities spring parties.) My deepest condolences to his family. He will be deeply missed. Below, also a link to a video of Michael speaking in 4 languages!

September 30, 2001|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Imagine a world without the benefit of translation–the Bible is available only in Greek, Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” only in Spanish. You could read Dante’s “Inferno” if you knew Italian, or Kafka’s “The Trial” with a sure command of German.

Today, if you wanted to read a recent novel by an Afghan writer, and you didn’t happen to know either Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, itwould be a world without translation. There aren’t any contemporary Afghan novels in our public libraries or bookstores; none listed on Amazon. None have been translated into English, says S. Wally Ahmadi, editor of Critique and Vision, a journal of Afghan culture and history. Nor will any be translated soon, he says.

“All of a sudden we want to know about Afghanistan, and we know precious little. We haven’t prepared enough translators,” says Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation’s most respected literary translators. “It could take 10 years to train proper translators for Pashto and Dari.” Heim fears the quick fix. “The government will send people to language schools. They’ll start with first-year Arabic. We’ll have instant scholars and instant experts. But this is reaction rather than the constant steady flow of knowledge.”

Chairman of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, Heim remembers another time when events in the news piqued the country’s interest in knowing more about foreign cultures. “It was Aug. 21, 1968, and the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Czech literature.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the national curiosity about Slavic languages waned. “As soon as a country goes out of the news, the interest flags,” he says. “Russia is no longer the Evil Empire, just a future Third World country. There are fewer students studying Russian because there are less fellowships available, fewer jobs. The State Department is not as interested in hiring Russian translators.” Heim says with a sigh, “It just seems to me that in a country of 250 million, we’re rich enough to afford to study all these cultures.”

Heim, 58, has been a translator for 30 years. As an undergraduate, he studied at Columbia University with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Heim obtained his PhD in Slavic languages from Harvard. Among his many notable translations are Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the Czech, Vassily Aksyonov’s “In Search of Melancholy Baby” from the Russian; Danilo Kis’ “Encyclopedia of the Dead,” from the Serb; and Gnter Grass’ Nobel Prize-winning novel, “My Century,” from the German.

Heim is fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbo/Croatian), with a reading knowledge of six more. Asked about his very first job, he lights up with pleasure at the recollection: “I began with Chekhov’s letters. I was the most lucky young translator!”

Though Heim has agreed to an interview, he’s skeptical that many will find the subject of translation to be of much interest. “I’m pessimistic about the general mood,” he admits. “As a friend of mine says, there are 3,000 people in any country who are interested in reading ‘good’ books, by which he means difficult books. No matter what size the country, you have the same 3,000. And since my friend is Dutch, the 3,000 people in his country are proportionally a much larger group than ours, but it’s still 3,000 people.”

Heim may be a skeptical host, but he’s a gracious one. He pours coffee and serves up a plate of dark red Romanian tomatoes to his guest, then settles his lanky frame into a chair. Butterflies dart through the luscious tangle of the flower and vegetable garden behind the comfortable Westwood home he shares with his wife, Priscilla, for many years a teacher of high school Latin and Greek.

Most mornings when he’s not teaching, Heim can be found in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration. Within easy reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator’s trade, among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s (“many consider it still unsurpassed,” he comments), the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, the Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, Webster’s Third, the Oxford Concise, the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms and Rodale’s Synonym Finder.

In all probability, you’ll find translated literary works on the bookshelves of many Americans. The Bible is a ubiquitous example. Yet there is little public awareness or understanding of the demanding art of translation. Translation is an art form that takes place “behind the scenes” of the literary life.

In his 1998 polemic, “The Scandals of Translation,” Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, lays it out: “Translation is stigmatized as a form of authorship, discouraged by copyright law, deprecated by the academy, exploited by publishers and corporations, governments and religious organizations.”

It’s not uncommon for a book critic, in reviewing a book, to neglect to mention that the book is a translation, a fact that once prompted novelist Joyce Carol Oates to complain in a letter to the New York Times: “Those who imagine that foreign-language works are transposed into English by a mysterious chemical process, without the efforts of gifted translators, are kin to those who imagine that film actors speak their own lines, without the benefit of screenwriters.”

The traditional view holds that the translator should be “invisible,” merely a conduit for the work. “There’s a new ideological ‘take’ on that nowadays,” Heim comments. “The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work. That’s where I disagree. I believe that the translator is a creator, but I’m not so sure that I’d want to create a new work. I would like to create, as much as possible, the same work.”

Is creating the same work even an option? Heim smiles patiently. “‘As much as possible’ is what I said.” As one might expect from a man whose job is to find the right phrase, Heim chooses his words with care. “It’s possible enough so that a good translation will allow a person who has read the work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it. I think that’s the most that we can hope for.

“The reader must believe he or she is reading a work in French or Japanese and yet be reading it in English. That’s the real paradox. It’s a scam, if you like. A feat of legerdemain. But I think it can be done.”

There are those who argue that there are too many differences among cultures for a translation to ever be “true.” Say “bread” ” to one person, and she’ll conjure up a package of plastic-wrapped white bread. Say “bread” to another and she’ll imagine a crusty baguette. The oft-used pun about translation is tradduttore, traditore, literally, “the translator is a traitor.” The translator is unfaithful.

In a 1985 essay titled “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” Barbara Johnson suggests a more apt metaphor: “The translator ought … to be considered not as a duteous spouse but as a faithful bigamist, with loyalties split between a native language and a foreign tongue.”

What attracts Heim to a particular work is an author’s interesting use of language. “I don’t think I’d translate an incendiary piece that goes against my beliefs, no matter how beautiful the language was. However, I have translated authors with whom I haven’t agreed 100%.” Milan Kundera comes to mind. “Kundera’s language is very pristine, and that’s what attracted me to it. I was also attracted by his ideas, even though I didn’t agree with all of them. And yet Kundera introduced a number of ways of looking at things that were completely new to his audience at the time.”

Heim is diplomatic when discussing Kundera, a writer notorious for stormy relationships with his translators. In an oft-cited essay published in the journal Lingua Franca (October 1999), Caleb Crain chronicles Kundera’s decade-and-a-half crusade against “unfaithful translations.” Some in the literary world have characterized the novelist’s crusade (which has included public condemnation of his translators, including Heim) as an obsession.

In his own defense, Kundera has replied, “An undue obsession? I can’t say. My books lived their lives as translations. As translations they were read, criticized, judged, accepted or rejected. I was unable not to care about translation.”

Gunter Grass provides a quite different example of the kind of relationship an author can have with his translator. For his most recent work, “My Century,” Grass brought together 15 of his translators from all over the world for a seminar in his publisher’s offices in Gottingen, Germany, spending 15 hours a day for three days with them. “Grass told us what he had in mind. He asked us what we had in mind. He asked us our advice, as the novel wasn’t finished when we began work translating it.”

Heim recalls a long debate between the Danish translator and Grass about the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953. “In the end,” Heim chuckles, “Grass won the argument.”

For the last five years, Heim has been translating the diaries of Kornei Chukovski from the Russian. “Chukovski was a children’s book writer, a critic and a translator–which puts the fear of God into me. He translated Mark Twain, among others.”

Chukovski knew most of the great writers of his time–Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak–and his diaries, which run from 1901 to 1969, “are a wonderful testimony to his own attempt to remain honest throughout the period, a period that almost required dishonesty,” says Heim. His long labor nearly done (Yale University Press will publish the diaries in 2002), Heim must soon decide what to take on next. “It’s a real problem. You don’t want to take on the wrong project, because you’re with it for so long.” He pauses a beat. “It makes me anxious.” As if to amplify his sentiment, the phone rings in Heim’s office. It’s the American publisher of an Eastern European novel, eager to know if his book is next on Heim’s agenda. Heim explains that he can’t commit yet and soothes the caller with suggestions of other possible translators.

Heim worries that American readers are afraid of tackling literature in translation. “An editor once told me that he resented the assumption on the part of foreign writers who don’t get translated that Americans are not interested in what goes on outside their borders. He said, ‘Americans are as interested as any other people, but they just don’t trust those damn foreigners to tell them about it.’ So they’re more likely to read James Clavell about Japan, but they won’t read Kenzaburo Oe, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning author.”

Fear of the unfamiliar, and mistrust of the translator, are factors in those choices, Heim says, and he regards teachers and librarians as crucial allies in the struggle to break down barriers. “Teachers because they can show you while you’re still learning–that these barriers don’t need to exist. Librarians–and booksellers–because they can help you at the time when you’re choosing the book.”

Every two years Heim teaches a workshop at UCLA in literary translation. “Out of each workshop has come one or two professional translators,” he says with justifiable pride. He considers it scandalous that American universities (including UCLA) require only one year of a foreign language. “We need people to study languages for our own sophistication as a country, for our own broad-mindedness, for our own awareness of what language per se is. Not for practical purposes–English is the world language. Americans who go abroad will not need to order coffee in Urdu.”

He notes that America is less hungry for works from other cultures than are other countries. English language works are by far the most translated literature into every other foreign language.

By comparison, little foreign literature is translated into English. Increasingly in this country, the publishing of literature in translation falls to academic presses. Among the few major American publishing houses still committed to publishing literature in translation is Farrar Straus & Giroux. When reached for comment in New York, gutsy co-founder Roger Straus said, “You can’t call yourself a proper publisher unless you publish world literature!”

“While it’s true that that Anglo American literature is extremely vibrant,” says Heim, “it doesn’t mean that nothing else of interest is being written. We ignore what else is being written at our own peril. To our detriment. We’re missing a lot.”
http://www.international.ucla.edu/videos/article.asp?parentid=121775

My English Teacher: Lorraine Schulmeister (1918-2012), In Memoriam

Posted in Art and Culture, Life and What about It, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by Louise Steinman

(This piece is part of an ongoing series of writers’ profiles of influential teachers published July 10, 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

An autumn afternoon on the sunny Great Lawn at Westlake School for Girls. Lorraine Schulmeister, my English teacher, and I read aloud from Emily Dickinson: “I dared not meet the Daffodils, / For fear their Yellow Gown / Would pierce me with a fashion / So foreign to my own.” We read aloud from Blake: “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the / spread of my own body, or any part of it.” It’s 1967. I’m in the tenth grade, my first year as a scholarship student at this exclusive school tucked into Beverly Glen canyon north of Sunset Blvd. It sounds idyllic — it was.

I picture her pacing in front of the blackboard: high Nordic cheekbones flushed, excited hands mid-gesture. Like the poet Theodore Roethke, her own mentor, she had mastered the art of appearing to see the work for the first time. She introduced us to the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Ted Berrigan, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, to the possibilities of writer-as-activist. It was a stance with immediate resonance as the Vietnam War raged abroad and protests raged at home.

After school, I’d trade pastel shirtwaist uniform for torn blue jeans and sandals and hike down to the Resistance office in Westwood Village to pick up leaflets to hand out at draft boards. My high school boyfriend, almost 18, refused to register. Instead, he chained himself to the altar of a church in Watts. U.S. Marshals obligingly hauled him away to court, from there to federal prison.
Lorraine taught at Marlborough School (our cross-town rival) before teaching at Westlake, but resigned when the administration there questioned her “Americanism.” There’d been complaints from parents: when she taught Whitman, she actually spoke about “sex” in the classroom.

In her eloquent resignation letter, dated February 29, 1964, she wrote: “I have presented American Literature as a great and living force, as a body of work that is loving and critical at one and the same time. Like Frost, most writers have had a ’lover’s quarrel with the world.’ Literature is most of all concerned with life; sex is an important part of life. I presented Walt Whitman as I have always presented him: as poet of the body as of the soul; as the great revolutionary and innovator that he was.”

She was born Lorraine Breckheimer in 1918, in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the year the Great War ended, as she noted in The Making of a Teacher or The Last of the School Ma’ams, her astute self-published chapbook. Mankato was a small town “far from the currents of the world.” No movie theaters. No television. A quiet, peaceful life—walks, berry-picking, window-shopping, band concerts, school plays, church. A trip to the library was an adventure. “No one we knew had had a divorce. Only teachers traveled to far off places.”

In the crash of 1929, her family fell “from the middle class to no class.” Her father’s farm implement business failed, he lost everything. The family moved to a dairy farm in northern Minnesota classified as “suitable only for subsistence living.” Living in this rural isolation, from age 11 to 17, Lorraine turned inward, books were her companions.

She received a full scholarship to Carleton College, but had no money for room and board. Disappointed, she opted for a state teachers college closer to home. An advisor discouraged her from seeking a PhD to teach at the college level. He told her she’d just be asked to teach remedial courses, not literature. “I recognize the truth of Karl Marx’s economic interpretation of history,” she wrote. “Economics has ruled my life.”

Her career included a stint teaching elementary school in a rural two-room school, where she was successful, for the most part, in awakening her students to the importance of reading and the pleasure of literary study. “Only one parent objected to my reading list. The offensive book was Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”. During World War II she served as a WAC at an air base in Ogden, Utah, and, courtesy of the GI Bill, studied American Literature at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke.

Lorraine and I re-discovered each other in 2001 and remained fast friends until she died this past spring, at age 94. At least twice a year, I’d drive up to San Luis Obispo from L.A. We’d go out for dinner, a glass or two of good wine. She always brought a list of things to discuss; wanting to make good use of our precious time together.

Her home for the last decades was a small studio apartment in an assisted living facility. A painful and economically disastrous divorce (she kept his surname, Schulmeister, which described her chosen profession) in her early fifties severed her from her teaching career. She’d wanted but had no children, though a number of former students stayed in close touch. We were, she said, “the daughters she never had.” She worried about outliving her modest savings, and she almost did.

We stayed in touch by writing letters. Envelopes in Lorraine’s clear cursive arrived at least twice a month, and I wrote back almost as often. We sent each other books. Who else would gift me Henri Troyat’s massive biography of Tolstoy for my birthday? (As good as she said it was, all 800 pages.) She insisted I read President Obama’s memoir; she admired him, worried about him. She loved Hazel Rowley’s bio of Sartre and De Beauvoir and marveled at Yiyun Li’s short stories. Her responses to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, Susan Jacoby’s An Age of Unreason, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (she read it twice) fill pages handwritten front and back. She re-read the classics — Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Her unequivocal vote for greatest American novel was Moby Dick (she loved it more after each of her eight readings).

Of all the books I sent, her favorite was Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. She considered his skillful narrative of those advocating for peace amidst the carnage of World War I to be one of the most significant history books ever written.

I wrote to her about my own writing life, my own struggles and joys. She reminded me of my great good fortune to live in a creative community, to meet great writers, to travel, to observe. She adored my husband.

Among the many books I treasured receiving from Lorraine was Robert D. Richardson’s study of Emerson and the creative process (First We Read, Then We Write). Last year I made a pilgrimage to Concord, Mass to swam in Walden Pond, place pencils on Thoreau’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and visit Emerson’s home. I sent Lorraine a postcard– an image of Emerson’s study– featuring the round oak table where the master read and wrote every day. Emerson’s belief that creative reading was essential to creative writing was one that Lorraine instilled in all her students. She concurred with Emerson’s dictum, “While you are reading, you are the book’s book.”

Reading kept her mind young even as her body failed her. Historian Tony Judt’s final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, thrilled her and she zeroed in on his chapter about American nationalism. “In a global world,” she wrote me, “we are so provincial. Witness our current politics. We are anti-intellectual as a people. More so than others.”

This she found as true in 2012 as when she had resigned from Marlborough nearly fifty years earlier. She ended her resignation letter with a ringing admonition:

“Everyone should read President Kennedy’s speech at Harvard, dedicated to Robert Frost, published in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly called ‘Power and Poetry.’ He expresses better than I the challenge America faces: Can we have poetry and power? Athens did for a brief moment in history. It seems unfair that I should have been asked to remain at home so that a student could attend class without contamination from an accused teacher; why should the teacher be more expendable than the student? I do not at this point know the real charge against me, but I do recognize the forces that are greater than myself. I represent poetry; they represent power.”

On the day Lorraine died, one of her former students, Judy Munzig, was able to spend several hours sitting at her bedside stroking her hand, telling her how much we all loved her. Lorraine’s eyes were closed, but she could still hear.

Judy wrote afterwards: “Her reading glasses were on her nightstand on top of a paperback of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell with a bookmark from Chaucer’s Bookstore. A young man who works at the hospice said that Lorraine had been reading passages aloud to him and when he told her he didn’t understand it, she would explain it to him. ‘Now I’ll have to read it myself,’ he said.”

END

Woke Into Heron

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , on May 19, 2012 by Louise Steinman


(heron dream drawing by Beth Thielen, c. 2012)

Matilija poppies are blooming along the L.A. River… bright yellow and white, like fried eggs. I’m grateful to have an hour to ride my bike in what’s left of the morning overcast, to let my thoughts whir with my wheels while I inhale the unique salvia-sewage tang of the river. I think about Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist and poet, whom I had the honor of interviewing recently at ALOUD.

The title of her new book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, came to Terry in a dream.

There’s a great blue heron on my left, and another. A pair of cormorants, a crow chasing an avocet, stalking egrets, a swallow alighting on a fence railing. The Seventh Day Adventists are strolling adjacent Frogtown, briefcases in hand. A father in a white shirt and tie speaks tenderly to his son. Last night on my way home from downtown, I peered into the open door of the Pentecostal church on Glendale Blvd, where white-scarved women were clapping tambourines and praising the Lord to the beat of an bass guitar. Birds are singers of life, not of death, as naturalist Loren Eisley reminds us, as Terry reminds us “that the world is meant to be celebrated.

Terry Tempest Williams inherited her mother’s journals after her mother died. Or rather, her mother bequeathed those journals to her, after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t open them until after she was gone. Terry’s mother left too soon, even younger than my mother, who left too soon. Cancer claimed both our beautiful mothers.

Terry opened the first journal on the shelf and to her astonishment, found that it was blank. As was the next and the next and the next. What was her mother’s intention in leaving her daughter these empty pages? Terry’s stunning and unclassifiable book is an inquiry into the power of absence. It is the creation story of her own sensibility as an artist, naturalist, activist. It is a dialectic between silence and voice. (The subtitle is: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice). It is about censure and erasure and about daring to speak up.

Birds wing through many pages of the book, through Terry’s family life. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds was the first book Terry took to bed at night. It was her grandmother Mimi who helped her learn the songs of birds. Redtail hawks circled high above my first wedding on the Oregon coast, on a cliff above Cape Foulweather in 1971. Some of the guests wondered at the lack of an officiant, but my Russian grandmother Rebecca, wrapped in a pink blanket, nodded sagely and said, “I understand, the ocean is marrying you.”

Blue heron stalks the shallows of the river, waiting, watching. Was the heron once a woman? Could I join the mockingbird outside my window in song? Might I someday wake into heron like the girl in this Swampy Cree poem?

Woke Into Heron

She was tall, you could see her
in the distance before anyone.

Once, in late summer,
she stood so long at the edge
of the swamp
we thought she was ready
to leave with the herons.

You could see her standing
Very still.

The day the herons left
she stayed. The next day she woke as a girl
all right, but she began being a HERON!
She took long steps, slowly, as if she was
walking in water, hunting in water.
This is true, and she did this
making heron noises.

AND had thin sticks
tied out from her feet
to make heron tracks.

This went away
the next morning. Everyone
was happy she would no longer
go sleep in the water reeds.

This was the first time we saw someone
do this, so we named her
not to forget it.

(from, “Woke Into Heron” published in The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, gathered and translated by Howard A. Norman, Stonehill Publishing, 1976)

Heron Dream Drawing by Beth Thielen, c.2012

blue heron in flight, LA River, May 2012
photo: L. Steinman

Spring on Crete: An Appreciation of James Hillman (1926-2011)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2012 by Louise Steinman


During the seventies and eighties my long-time friend, a painter, lived in Greece, on the island of Crete. In 1981, when spring beckoned after a long dark New York City winter, I scraped together the money to visit her there for the first time.

My friend lived with her Greek husband, a musician from Athens, in an old stone house painted robins egg blue in a village outside the port city of Chania, twenty-five miles from the western edge of the island. None of us was flush, but we ate royally on produce from the garden augmented occasionally by fresh catch from local fishermen and always with excellent cheap local wine decanted into a liter bottle from a barrel at the grocer’s.

My friend’s house had no indoor plumbing, no hot water, no electricity. Mail was rare, phone service was conducted from a pay phone over boxes of brined sardines at the corner store, and email had yet to be invented. Which for me was all for the good. I was relieved to be far away from home and the unrelenting demand to make “life decisions.” Spring on the island— scents of lavender and rosemary, the startling blue Sea of Crete—was ecstatic.

Another joy was that I’d brought just the right book with me. Before leaving New York, my forage through a book bin on upper Broadway yielded a paperback of James Hillman’s Re-visioning Psychology. I’d never heard of Hillman, but there were Greek gods on the cover, which augured well.

Decades later, I’d have the honor of meeting and hosting James Hillman several times at the literary series I curate for the Los Angeles Public LIbrary. But in the wake of Hillman’s death this past fall, at the age of 85, it’s the memory of that first, intense encounter with his work on that trip to Crete that re-asserts itself with such insistence.

What better place than Crete to read about archetypal patterns or, in Hillman’s words, “Gods affecting our styles of consciousness.” Europa swam back to Crete after being mounted by Zeus in the form of a bull; royal dolphins leap blue waves on murals in the royal palace at Knossos, where King Minos threw Theseus into the labyrinth to face the Minotaur. We were all familiar with the bare-breasted Minoan goddess, a wriggling snake held aloft in each of her fists. What interested Hillman was Greek myth not as religion, but as a psychic, imaginal world.

On Crete, I read Hillman and wrestled with his ideas on the patio of the blue house while my friend painted still lifes in her studio. Hillman exhorted the reader to “recall the angel aspect of the word, recognizing words as independent carriers of soul between people.” In each word was the etymon, the hidden truth buried in its root. I was enthralled by Hillman’s bold belief that “words are persons” that have the ability “to burn and become flesh as we speak.” The ideas were rich, complicated, startling; I often had to pause and read one sentence several times.

Hillman’s ideas floated through my mind while my friend and I scouted rugged canyons as sites for her landscape paintings, when we drank fiery raki at 11 a.m. in crumbling monasteries with wry, wrinkled monks. I pondered Hillman at night, listening to the plaintive notes of her husband’s electric bass reverberate through the quiet village.

I remember being particularly struck by Hillman’s explanation of “the pathologized image.” He was referring to those dream images — the psyche’s metaphorical language — that strike us with exceptionally moving power. “Imagination works,” Hillman wrote, “by deforming and forming at one and the same moment.” A pathologized image “touches our sense of life. It both vitiates and vitalizes, a quickening through distortion.”

He expanded on those ideas a few years later, in his book The Dreamer and the Underworld, evoking again the polytheistic Greek world he so admired, where — he pointed out — Hades and Persephone share the same kingdom, Hades and Hermes share the same hat. He compared dream work to alchemy, where one had to deform nature in order to serve nature. The shock of deformation “restores to an image its capacity to perturb the soul,” he wrote. Perturbing the soul was necessary for insight.

Reading Hillman for the first time during that month on Crete, I could not have anticipated how deeply my soul was about to be perturbed. That was before my husband and I divorced, before my Renault Le Car crashed head-on into a two-ton pickup, before my friend’s husband drowned one afternoon in that sparkling sea down the hill from the blue stone house.

……….

James Hillman was a gadfly in the field of psychotherapy, an original thinker who made it his regular practice, as he termed it, “to assault entrenched thought.” He was born in the Breakers Hotel (one of several owned by his father) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was just 18 in 1944 when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. After the war, he attended the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated with honors from Trinity College in Dublin. He moved on to study with Carl Jung in Zurich, and became director of Jung Studies at the Jung Institute there in 1959. Hillman was the author of 28 books, and a great innovator in what is called depth psychology.

The primary tool of this discipline is penetration: one digs below conventional constructs into that layer of the mind that is poetic myth. He arduously applied that methodology to his last book, A Terrible Love of War.

What Hillman most drew on for that subversive study of war’s folly was his experience in the Second World War, when he was assigned as a pharmacist mate second class to a ward of the war-deafened, did night duty with amputees, and worked more than a year as “special assistant to the war-blinded.” He wrote with elegant precision, “What I knew of battle, was only its remnants.” He used to visit a Marine his own age who had lost all four limbs, remarking in the introduction how, “I look at my hands now when I write this.”

He spoke to me about the genesis of that book when he came to Los Angeles in 2004 to speak at the library. We sat in a tranquil hotel garden and he told me how he almost didn’t survive the writing of the book, which warns the reader of its intent: “This book seeks to do what war itself achieves: destabilize, desubjectivize, destroy. The writer comes out of the book a casualty, and the reader too, or at least all shook up.” His aim was to “move our imaginations into the martial state of soul,” exposing how going to war “in the name of peace” was nothing but deceitful rhetoric.

In his talk that evening, he railed against what he saw as our “endemic national disease: the addiction to innocence.” It was three years after the attacks of September 11th and one year since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By nature, Hillman wrote, he considered himself a “child of Mars.” He liked to “sharpen oppositions and set fire to the passions of thought.” That night he lit the fuse.

During the Q&A there were flustered faces and ruffled sensibilities, combustible passions. “The word ‘peace’ is a cover-up,” Hillman told one questioner. “It keeps Americans innocent! We have the most weapons and are the most dedicated to war — our notion of peace is still ‘darkness falling,’” he said, using a phrase from Marguerite Duras. “It’s a way of escaping from the inhumanity that is in the cosmos.”

His interlocutor quavered: “That’s sad!”

“Can we sit with that without going to sleep?” Hillman entreated the audience. “You see, we’re not going to solve the problems until we can stay awake. Vigilantly! That’s the difficulty. That’s what therapy is all about. Waking up! That’s what Socrates says. That’s what Jesus says. Wake up! Wake up! But you don’t wake up unless you can face something — such as the Buddha himself faced. We want to find a solution … we want to go back to sleep.”

That was Hillman in fighting form: combusting the atmosphere, making people squirm, offering paradoxes to consider as a way to further discussion. He wasn’t interested in quick questions or in quick answers. Once, Hillman held a master class with a small group of high school students from Hamilton Humanities Magnet after one of his talks at the library. Afterwards, one of the students pulled me aside to report of Hillman, in astonishment: “You could see him thinking.”

……….

Just months after returning from Crete in 1982, I was a mess of bone fractures and emotional distress from my divorce and the car accident that nearly claimed my life.

Several weeks after the crash, when my broken bones as yet showed no signs of knitting, I awoke alarmed from a hideous dream. A spectator of sure disaster, I watched a woman descend into a deep swimming pool. She was oblivious to the poisonous snake swimming in the depths and I was at too far a distance to warn her.

I watched in horror as the snake wrapped around her body from head to toe. Soon there was nothing left of her but pieces. I could not shake the image. I drew the woman with the snake wrapped around her body.

That same day, staring at the drawing, it occurred to me that the shape made by the snake and the woman’s body was that of the staff of Asclepius, the physician’s wand, the symbol of healing. At the temples of Asclepius, a snake dream was the God himself coming to cure.

With this realization came a shift of perspective. My panic lifted, my body filled with a kind of light, and at that moment I knew that deep in my body tissue and unconscious mind, a process intent on my healing had commenced.

In the marked up copy of Hillman’s masterwork which I read that spring on Crete, I found this sentence boldly underlined: “’Know thyself,’ means also ‘know thy peculiar images.’” According to Hillman, “The soul sees by means of affliction…the wound and the eye are one and the same.”

James Hillman is gone, and the world is much poorer for it. But he leaves behind a life’s worth of original ideas and “angelic words”– to wake us up, to shake us out of our innocence– towards deeper self knowledge.

END

28 Pergamon Altar photo, by Rictor Norton and David Allen, Creative Commons license

Still Life with Quinces, Kriti Scotty Mitchell, all rights reserved

snake dream drawing: Louise Steinman

This post first published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan 29, 2012

Friends in Warsaw, Late Summer 2011

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poland with tags , , , , on August 26, 2011 by Louise Steinman

It is such a pleasure to visit friends in a foreign city, though Warsaw sometimes feels as familiar as New York. I like to touch into my friends’ current preoccupations, catch glimpses of their lives.

Today a visit to Staszek and Monika, took the tram at the stop across from the two mighty atlases at Pod Gigantami (“under the giants”) holding up the balcony of a surviving pre-war tenement on Aleje Ujazdowski.

Staszek and his son Daniel meet me at the door of their building. Daniel, a most charming young man with Downs syndrome has a budding career as an actor. His drama group recently performed a version of Alice in Wonderland, with an autistic girl as Alice. Daniel played the role of the “judge” who interrogated Alice as to why she lived in such a dream world. Staszek said it was powerful beyond belief.

Staszek teaches philosophy at the university and one feels like you can talk to him about anything. He relishes digging into the meaning of things. And Monika, beautiful Monika, arrives a few minutes after I do, wearing a bright red skirt and carrying ice cream from the market. Their flat is full of her art work, delicate paper cuts embodying traditional Jewish themes, storks, fish, outlines of books. She collects bells and dragons and takes exquisite photographs of the engraved stones in Poland’s Jewish cemeteries.

Their older son, G, lives in a squat, off Warsaw’s official grid, in a slower but arguably more dangerous world. They worry about him. Staszek and Monika were rebels in their youth, dissidents against a repressive regime. Their son is rebelling against materialism, against living life by the clock or the wallet.

Strolled back to the hotel through the leafy green Lazienski Gardens. The city is enjoying the last days of summer with ice cream cones and sunbathing, families fanning themselves on the benches near the former emperor’s Orangerie.

The other day I walked in Lazienski with Kostek, a well-respected Warsaw journalist. As we passed the romantic marble statue of Chopin, Kostek admitted he was “Chopin’d out.” I mentioned this friend Wojtek, a conceptual artist, who commented as to how he’d love to perform a double homage to John Cage and Chopin by hosting a silent Chopin concert. Kostek applauds the idea.

And yesterday Gosia, a playwright, took me to see the astonishing gardens on the roof of Warsaw University LIbrary. There are paths named for poets, bridges and arbors, views across the Vistula and above the rooftops of this historic city. She told me about an assignment she once had, creating a film for a Warsaw TV station about a visiting Dutch author– Matthijs Van Boxsel– who calls hmself a morosopher. Morosophy (fool-osophy): means foolish wisdom or wise foolishness.

(as he writes in an interview: “Morosophs operate at the crossroads of science, religion, art and madness. Is the earth flat? Was Dutch spoken in paradise? Are atoms spaceships? Is Delft Delphi? Can the floor plan of the pyramid of Cheops be found in the street plan of ‘s-Hertogenbosch? Is the world entering the Lilac phase? Did abstract thought commence when the clitoris evolved from the inside to the outside?” (attribution to follow)

As we walked paths named for Petrarch and other poets, Gosia told me how she interviewed von Boxell on this very rooftop garden, following him down one path and another as he talked about his attempt– which took many years– to figure out the theory that could explain everything. Then he said, he returned to “the initial page of his theory… and the same intelligence that had got me so far, turned against me and I dived into a deep depression.” He had to take a break from writing and learn to enjoy life again, live in his body and not his mind. Then he could return to stupidity.

This week, as hurricanes brew and insurrections continue and demagogues rail at home in the States, I am walking and feeling my body, enjoying life and dear friends in the late summer sunshine of the fine old city of Warsaw.

Yizkor Bucher (The Glatstein Chronicles)

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[published in the Los Angeles Review of Books]

27th Jun 2011

Louise Steinman

Spring in Gościeradzu by Leon Wyczółkowski

Jacob Glatstein
The Glatstein Chronicles
Translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Edited by Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University Press, November 2010. 432 pp.

On my trip to Poland this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother’s bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet’s travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.

Glatstein (named “Yash” as the book’s narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood,” he writes, “as though we were sailing back in time.” His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, “in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope.” These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash’s encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.

As I picked at bland fare on the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Munich, I savored Glatstein’s Eastern European culinary metaphors: a man “chooses his words as if he were sorting chickpeas, and rejecting the inferior ones,” a head is propped on a man’s neck “like a cabbage,” and a pair of eyes are “cloudy like herring milt.”

One of the ship’s passengers lauds Yash for being such a great listener. “You have golden ears,” he says. “Your ears are worth a million dollars.” I resolved to follow his example. The pale young man with spiky dark hair next to me had asked me to wake him up when dinner was served. After nudging him awake at dinnertime, I listened to his tale and learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return. I was returning as well — if it’s possible to return to a place where one has never lived. I was returning to the little town of Radomsko, Poland, where my grandparents were born. After six visits, I’m practically an honorary citizen of this homely but heimish town in the hinterlands between Częstochowa and Łódź.

On the second or third morning of his ocean crossing, Yash learns of alarming news from the ship’s paper. Hitler has purged his paramilitary force and murdered its leader, Ernst Röhm, along with at least 60 of his associates. It is the Night of Long Knives. Yash’s buoyant mood is shattered. He goes in search of fellow Jews, certain they will understand what Hitler’s grab for power bodes for their brethren.

The first passenger he buttonholes “stops in his tracks like a stunned rooster.” It’s not the news, however, that alarms him: “‘How did you know I was Jewish?’ he asked, as if some misfortune had befallen him.” The stunned rooster then admits that he is indeed Jewish, but “not one of those common Polish Jews. I’m Dutch.” Yash also embarrasses the single Jew among four stalwart young Bolsheviks traveling home to the workers’ motherland, by blurting out the compliment “Yevreyskaya golova, a Jewish head!” As the others smile in discomfort, his new comrade apologizes for Yash’s use of an expression “that was a relic from tsarist days.”

Why have we never heard of Jacob Glatstein, a modernist whose prose is as mordantly humorous as Philip Roth, as eerie as Kafka, as weighty as Bellow? The answer is obvious: Glatstein wrote in Yiddish, and as Ruth Wisse, the editor of this volume, reminds us, “to a writer, language is fate.” Though he published more than six hundred essays in the New York socialist-Zionist weekly Yiddisher Kempfer and won the most prestigious prize for Yiddish literature (for this very work), the fate of Glatstein’s oeuvre was inextricably bound to the dire fate of the speakers of his language.

Over the last several years of research for my own book about Poland’s Jewish past (and present), I’ve been increasingly impressed by the profound consequences of that severed link to the vital language of Glatstein’s poetry and prose, to the language in which my grandparents conversed, joked, and read. I grew up knowing nothing about the Polish town my mother’s family came from, imagining it as some kind of Dogpatch. Before my first trip there, I Googled its name and came up with a 600-page memory book, the Radomsk Yizkor. I was astonished.

The memorial books (yizkor bukher) were all written in the wake of the Shoah, and few of them were translated from the original Yiddish and Hebrew. This is one of the main reasons why descendants of Polish Jews — who, like me, aren’t versed in those languages — have been cut off from our ancestral past, our Polish-Jewish cultural patrimony. Translations from Yiddish to English now make it possible to reconnect with a lost history, both personal and literary. The Radomsk Yizkor offered tantalizing fragments of stories, which I have been fleshing out by using archival research and interviewing Jewish survivors and Polish rescuers.

Now I can at least imagine a prewar evening at the famous meeting hall of the Warsaw Literary Union at Tłomackie 13, where, on any given afternoon, I might have seen the aesthete Yosef Heftman eating marinated herring, the essayist J.M. Neuman drinking tea with challah, or the poet Y. Segalowitch sitting in a corner with a “literary supplement” (as the young women who attached themselves to the writers were called).

MORE

LISTEN to Jacob Glatstein reading his poem, “Goodnight, World” (thank you Kostek Gebert for pointing me here…)

The Song the Poet Sang: Remembering the life and times of Lew Welch

Posted in ALOUD, Literature with tags , , , , on May 26, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[Forty years] have passed since the winter we hosted Reed College‘s poet in residence. We were living then on Southeast Schiller, in a tiny two-story house set back from the street behind three towering European birches. Dan had just graduated from Reed, and I was a sophomore studying American lit. Our friends lived in Reed houses with names like Bedshop or Toad Hall, or out at Mist Mountain Farm: Paul in the shake-roofed geodesic called “The Beehive,” Richard and Vicki in the sod house they called “The Hole,” and Steffi and Meg in what had been the goat shed. Our friend Aron built himself a wooden yurt in the Reed canyon and moved in.

Lew Welch ’50 was chosen as the poet in residence that January, I later learned, because Gary Snyder ’51 had been invited but couldn’t come and he suggested his friend Phil Whalen ’51, and Phil Whalen couldn’t come and he suggested his friend Lew Welch ’50. Lew didn’t know this at the time, of course, which was just as well.

We’d been fans of Lew’s poetry for years. While still in high school, I’d made a pilgrimage to the basement of City Lights Bookstore, where I listened raptly as Dan read aloud “The Song of the Turkey Buzzard” from Lew’s longer poem, “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings.” I’d noticed turkey buzzards on a hike that same afternoon. Scrawny red-necked creatures gorging on road kill. But Lew described the vulture as a “bird of re-birth,” one who could “keep the highways clean, and bother no Being.” Through Lew’s perspective, I changed my opinion of those elegant, lazy soarers, those ultimate recyclers.

When we heard that Lew had been chosen to be poet in residence, we asked the Paideia committee if we might invite him over for dinner some night. Hell yes. In fact, we could have him for the whole week! We would even be provided with a stipend for his food. Euphoric with our good fortune and sobered by this great honor and responsibility, we busily stocked our refrigerator with wholesome foods: seasonal vegetables and ripe fruit from Corno’s Groceries, whole milk with real cream from People’s Food Store, sausages from Otto’s, Italian cheeses from Pieri’s. We mopped the floor of our little house and transformed the downstairs couch into a guest bed. We baked Tibetan barley bread and a blackberry pie.

We waited expectantly for the arrival of our revered poet. Around dinnertime, he appeared at the front door wearing a lumpy overcoat, sporting a stubble of several days, and smelling unmistakably of Jim Beam. He was a handsome man still, with fine features and a mane of reddish hair framing a high forehead. His eyes were roguish, quick and alive; his smile to die for. It was soon clear that our guest feasted on language, not food. He didn’t touch a morsel of the lovingly prepared first night’s dinner, or any other dinner we set on the table in front of him. Orange juice with raw egg in the morning, some hair of the dog. That seemed to be it.

And speaking of dogs . . . we forgot to tell Lew we had one. Our dog, Elwha Pootel, was off on his nocturnal rounds when Lew arrived the first night. Around midnight, Lew crashed on the couch and we went upstairs to bed. In the middle of the night, Elwha scratched at the door and Lew, half asleep, stumbled over and opened it for him. The exuberant pup leapt into the poet’s warm sheets and shook off his wet, snowy coat. Apparently, poet and dog made an accommodation–we didn’t hear about it until the next morning.

Lew was touched and amused at the domesticity of his young hosts, then both aspiring poets. I think he was honestly curious as to how life would treat us–so young and so privileged–in the years to come. We admired him enormously for all the experience we didn’t have. He was one of the original Beats. He’d driven cross-country with Kerouac. He’d written the line RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD during his short stint as a novice advertising copywriter. The road he had chosen–as an authentic poet, a longshoreman, and an alcoholic–was a hard one.

Lew taught us to revel in the rhythm of everyday speech (“My finger on the throttle and my foot upon the pedal of the clutch”) and he exhorted us to read our poetry out loud. “When you write down a poem,” he said, “you are transcribing a voice.” He made us see that poetry didn’t have to be obscure, it could be as real as the red wheelbarrow or the young girl splashing in the surf at Muir Beach with her jeans rolled to mid-thigh. He helped us see the connection between writing poetry and living poetry.

He insisted on taking us everywhere by taxi, even the half-mile to campus, in the rare heavy snow of that January in Portland. Lew had at one time driven taxi for a living (“When I drive cab/ I bring the sailor home from the sea. In the back of/ my car he fingers the pelt of his maiden”). Now that he was poet in residence, and we were his hosts, damnit, we were going to be chauffeured. Our regular route to campus–Southeast 41st, Woodstock Boulevard–looked entirely different viewed from the windows of a Yellow Cab churning its way through the unplowed streets.

Lew was at a pinnacle in his life (soon to crash again). For the moment he had solve one of his big problems. (“Manifesto,” 1964: “Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.”) Lew sang his poetry, nipping on Old Overholt from a silver flask. His young audience listened reverently. He was our own Irish bard and imperfect Zen master, our teacher and our friend.

He came up to the Northwest again, later that spring, to dry out at Bill and Nancy Yardas’s stump farm in Woodland, Washington. Bill and Lew had gone commercial salmon fishing together in the early ’60s; they shared the laughter and the intimacy of old friends. Bill was a burly affable Yugoslav with thick silver hair and a droll sense of humor. A “redneck beatnik,” he called himself. His right arm was withered from a forceps birth. With his good left arm Bill could saddle a horse, chop wood, prime a pump, free a lamb from a blackberry thicket. A pack of Camels was perpetually grasped in the hand of his tiny arm. We’d drive up to Bill’s farm for the night, enthusiastically devour the steak and potatoes that Nancy cooked up on the wood-burning stove, then listen to Bill and Lew rap on into the wee hours of the morning in a haze of tobacco and dope smoke.

That summer, Lew decided to get a fresh start by building his own cabin on land in the Sierra foothills near Snyder’s homestead. We would be the work crew. Lew wrote us letters outlining our duties. I would be the camp cook. (Lew was no student of feminism.) Dan and our friend Steve Nemirow ’71, another Reed poet and then an apprentice stone mason, would help with the heavy construction. We were to show up in early August, when the building materials would have arrived. I remember Lew was worried about the financial outlay, worried about running the show.

When the semester ended, I went down to Los Angeles for a quick visit with my folks. I was exhausted from too many all-nighters. The first day home I slept late, settling down at noon for breakfast. I picked up the L.A. Times lying on the kitchen table. In a little paragraph in regional news, I noticed a bolded headline: SEARCH OFF FOR MISSING BEAT GENERATION POET. My heart lurched. The brief article described how the poet Lew Welch had been missing for a week in the Sierra foothills. On May 23, apparently in a deep depression, the article said, Welch took his revolver and walked away into the forest. His body has never been found.

When August rolled around, instead of working on Lew’s cabin, Dan and I decided to get married at Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast. We assembled our family and friends at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We stood in a circle: our friends from Mist Farm in their tattered best, my father in a suit, my grandmother wrapped in a pink blanket, Elwha Pootel sporting a red yarn on his collar. We read one of Lew’s poems as part of the ceremony:

I for one, am still looking. So many years have passed since Lew left my life and probably this world. Dan and I still write–occasionally poems, mostly nonfiction–though in different cities and in separate lives. I know now what I didn’t know at 20–how difficult it is for a writer to pay her bills entirely by doing her “real job.” At 60, I am older now than Lew was when I first met him.

Whenever I travel, and drive into a new city, say Albuquerque or Pittsburgh or El Paso, it’s become a habit to look carefully at the hard faces of men in bus stations or huddled in soup kitchen lines. I guess I’m still searching for Lew, though I don’t really think Lew would have chosen to disappear into urban America. Maybe he’s off living his hermit life, as he did that one winter on the Little Salmon River (“I saw myself/ a ring of bone/ in the clear stream/ of all of it”). I think about first hearing “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” at City Lights and I remember Lew’s admonition to his friends in that poem:

Let no one grieve,
I shall have used it all up
used up every bit of it.

What an extravagance!
What a relief

There’s one of Lew’s poems I’ve kept taped to my kitchen wall in all the cities I’ve lived in during the last two decades. It’s a poem that never fails to help me put my life into perspective. I recommend it highly:

Small Sentence to Drive Yourself Sane

The next time you are dong something absolutely ordinary, or even better.

The next time you are doing something absolutely necessary, such as pissing or making love,
or shaving or washing the dishes or the baby or yourself or the room, say to yourself:

“So it’s all come to this!”

[originally published as “The Song the Poet Sang: A Friend Remembers the Life and Times of Lew Welch,” REED Magazine, 1999.
this week is the 40th anniversary of Lew’s disappearance.
Tomorrow night at ALOUD, with Gary Snyder, Lewis MacAdams and April Fitzsimmons, we’ll commemorate Lew’s life and work.