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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

A Rustle or A Fall

Commentary and translation stand in the same relation to the text as style and mimesis to nature: the same phenomenon considered from different aspects. On the tree of the sacred text both are only the eternally rustling leaves; on that of the profane, the seasonally falling fruits.

In the guise of a singular aphorism, Benjamin presents these two divergent assertions, and worse than misleadingly simple condensation, he buries the lead.  The truly unexpected assertion is that style and mimesis are different views of the same natural phenomenon, an assertion which he buries between two less unexpected ones, but two which are more truly aphorisms, pithy sayings whose pith is as important to them as their saying. Even that meatiest of points about the relationship of style and mimesis to nature immediately points back to commentary and translation, illuminating their relation to each other instead of to its own more interesting observation; more interesting because I wonder how exactly mimesis enters into “nature.”  Can we say the butterfly’s faux-owl’s face is mimesis?  If so, then it is certainly clearer how style and mimesis are the same phenomenon, and in turn how translation and commentary are balanced in the same relationship.

I wonder, then, about the unconscious evolutionary motivation for style and mimesis, translation and commentary.  I have been bothered by the recently growing frequency of treating non-sentient objects as “using” us the way humanity has used them.  In Michael Pollan’s otherwise interesting documentary, The Botany of Desire, his repeated pretension—the speciousness of which he acknowledges even while he continues to use it as the key to making his subject interesting—that these plants (tulips, potatoes, apples, and marijuana) have used us as unwitting accomplices to their own secret plans for world domination, is absurd, almost as if it were an unconscious attempt to exculpate ourselves by saying, if only they had their wits about them, tulips would have leveled the rain forests, melted the icecaps, and poured uncountable gallons of oil into the Gulf, too.

And then there is the tangentially related, but no less interesting observation, that translation and commentary, style and mimesis are— but to which pair does “both” refer?  In condensing his subject to a metaphor of nature, the first two assertions are overlaid and made to say much, much more.  Not only is this a thesis about translation and commentary, it is a thesis on the evaluation of literature over time, on, not why, but how literature survives, on literary fame and value— and perhaps a tentative guide to evaluating contemporaneously what will continue rustling and what will wither with its fruit.

Curious, though, that Benjamin’s aphorism minimizes the commentator and translator, the styler and mimer, and says virtually nothing about authors, perhaps only saying anything at all about creating by mentioning style and mimesis.

Perhaps most important is that, rather than vaulting everything into the realm of the artificial, to the realm of the natural everything is returned.  Our avarice is indeed natural, and one could even call it, safely, I think, “tulip-like” in this regard, but progress is not by default good and does not raise us above the natural into some self-sufficient human realm, nor does the tulip transcend its vegetal self and enter, even metaphorically, some ‘separate, human realm.’  I am reminded of the peculiar tension I found in reading “The Storyteller,” where Benjamin so clearly and strongly disagrees with the movement of literature and modern society, its proliferation and speed and constant aversion to the past and death, and yet he struggles so fiercely against any automatic condemnation of it.  One’s own anomie is not a valid reason for condemning that from which one feels disconnected (and that, I would toss off offhandedly, is the failure of most contemporary art).  The present is not worse than the past simply because it comes after the past, however much some aspects of the past may be preferred.  Now is simply, to steal from Roubaud, what will have been.

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Filed under: Writing

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