The Nature of the Beast

My slow, steady progress through Donald Sassoon’s monumental but unfailingly fascinating The Culture of the Europeans continues to throw up extraordinary snippets of information.

Today, for instance, I learned that at the beginning of the 20th century Tolstoy was published by a Socialist press in Italy, and so was generally regarded as a socialist by Italians. In France, on the other hand, his work had primarily been taken up by conservative Catholic commentators, and so he was generally regarded as conservative and, if not Catholic, at least Christian.

It makes you wonder how much of our view of particular books and authors is guided by things that are extraneous to the text. To take a banal but perhaps instructive example: the program I use for databasing my library pulls down information from a wide variety of sources ranging from the British Library and the Library of Congress to Amazon. More often than not, this can produce some very strange results. I have, for instance, seen novels by Iain Banks categorized as ‘Food and Health’, and novels by Ursula K. Le Guin categorized as ‘Business’. In all probability, these are just slips by somebody bored, though you do wonder what it was about the books per se that led to such curious mistakes.

How much are our own views shaped by things that are nothing to do with the work we’re supposedly thinking about?

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6 thoughts on “The Nature of the Beast

  1. Today, for instance, I learned that at the beginning of the 20th century Tolstoy was published by a Socialist press in Italy, and so was generally regarded as a socialist by Italians. In France, on the other hand, his work had primarily been taken up by conservative Catholic commentators, and so he was generally regarded as conservative and, if not Catholic, at least Christian.

    Socialist and Christian are not necessarily incongruous :)

    I have more to say in response, but might say it over at HG, linking back here.

    • At the beginning of the 20th century they were seen as incongruous. Organised Christian belief, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, were linked with a conservative adherence to the establishment. Socialism was linked with anticlericalism, and hence with opposition to organised religion. Tolstoy’s primitive Christianity was seen by socialists as opposition to the Orthodox church and hence to the Russian regime. French commentators emphasised his Christianity (ignoring the primitive part), and so linked him with conservative values.

  2. Pingback: Reading what’s extraneous | HTMLGIANT

  3. I do think translators, and publishers of translation, give a great deal of thought to “positioning” an author in niches of both marketplace and culture (and with any luck, some canon or an influential dinner table), though to what degree they succeed in their selected placement is another question. Translators pitching books often have to make a case for why the book deserves to be in English. Leaving aside the merit of even asking that, the question does
    As a translator, I often think translation theory would benefit from an infusion of adaptation theory. Adaptation these days has managed to shake the “fidelity complex” that translation still labors under; certainly, reframing translation as an act of adaptation between the different media of two languages, apart from skiving some hipness and legitimacy points from adaptation, would ideally force some broader recognition of language’s more culturally determined affordances. A bad example: English is currently prized for its disseminative power: perhaps not an intrinsic linguistic feature, but certainly unavoidable.

    The degree to which extraneous information colors my reading frankly terrifies me, likely because it opens the floodgates to what AD Jameson called in his companion post (above) the “endless sea of texts,” and alas, like Borges, I find all things endless terrifying. Ten years ago, botching my first lit teaching job, I tried to make my students rip the covers off their books so as to receive information only in the order in which the text itself presented it… an idiotic effort on many levels, not least of which because I lacked Robin Williams’ charisma.
    This is without taking into account the time factor Jameson mentions, the lapse between when a book appears in a foreign language vs. when it enters an English conversation.
    As for categories and “ontologies” of databasing, and how computers, which handle them well, may be affecting our thought habits, David Auerbach has much more to say than I, and more brilliantly:
    “Wikipedia’s categories are so haphazard that no one would use them authoritatively. But what about existing, explicit ontologies? In contrast to the flattened, semantically ignorant world of search, hierarchical, semantic ontologies are ubiquitous in a different internet application: shopping. Library of Congress data for books, feature specifications for electronics, age ranges for children’s toys: these classifications are attached to products, and are effectively their metadata, providing a ready-made ontology for an object. They meet computers more than halfway.”

    http://nplusonemag.com/the-stupidity-of-computers

  4. Pingback: At Home | BIG OTHER

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