An Interview with Nathanaël
If you aren't careful, you are prone to slip and fall causing all sorts of bodily harm while reading Nathanaël. In the onslaught of words, of language, there is no shame in getting tripped up or falling on your butt a couple of times, but to quit reading could be the worst harm you could do to yourself. Nathanaël's texts are heavy, loaded, and overflowing with history, ideas, and intent. They are personal conversations and battlegrounds, attempts at understanding the current moods and trends while at the same time placing them within a greater historical perspective. True, at times, dense, the reader need only find the rhythm to unlock the text and soon will uncover a rich and ever-rewarding path ahead.
The collection of talks and essays that make up Asclepias: The Milkweeds comes from a variety of events and speaking engagements, but, as the reader moves through the texts, common issues begin to reveal themselves and one begins to link the themes swirling just beneath the surface. I hope the following conversation can further illuminate that journey.
One of the first things that jumped out at me early in Asclepias was how you framed translation. It is described in such a way that it almost appears as a transgressive act. Here I'm specifically talking about reading German translated into French instead of English (despite the fact that English shares closer roots and in some ways might be closer to the original text), because the friction it sparks when comparing the two and their distance from the original.
Your mentality in a way reminds me of Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre, constantly reminding the viewer that they are only watching a representation of reality and not reality itself.
The talk you refer to, which opens Asclepias, is grappling with a kind of complacency evident in some of the more recently enshrined assumptions coddling translation, specifically the self-gratifying idea that translation offers a closest possible reading of a text, when in my experience -- and the talk is explicitly (self-)referential -- it operates something much closer to what I would call a failure of reciprocity.
The juxtaposition of French and English translations of a line from Buber's Ich und Du exposes this discrepancy, and makes impossible the realization of a desire for proximity; in fact, the multiplication of versions produces an intractable rift, further exacerbating the legibility of a so-called original piece of writing.
In this sense, does translation offer a reader the most when read comparatively and/or with an in-depth analysis of word choice? Or can a translation stand alone -- even if recognized as simply the "imagined voice" of a voice that is not there (where the original is not available or beyond the reader's comprehension)?
I'm not sure translation is ever any one thing. It is entirely in relation and that relation is determined in large part by the text in question, and perhaps equally by its foreign administrator -- but it is an ever impossible relation.
As for whether a translation can stand alone, it often does, whatever one thinks about it. And out of this excision are produced some extravagant departures that can shape specific cultural discourses in astonishing ways. I am not sure I wish to sit in total judgment of the itineraries implied by translation; and if I do (which I certainly must do), then it can never be without full and equal condemnation of myself. The transgressions of which you speak can also have pernicious outcomes, particularly when driven by consensus.
This is a great understanding of translation and what should and shouldn't be expected of it. The benefits of the act of translation can quickly be twisted and manipulated if we value the act beyond reproach, without the possibility to check and balance the responsibilities of the translator. It reminds me of a story I'd read about Friedrich Hölderlin whom you also refer to in a later section.
This story comes from Anne Carson's Nay Rather where she relays a moment in his life where he was translating Antigone while at the same time being urged by his family to enter into psychiatric clinic. Something to which you too allude, Carson seems to infer that he might have been overcome by the great chasm between languages or otherwise, similarly, felt this vast responsibility to the original text while translating and understood the impossibility of proximity.
Let me quickly quote the section, Carson writes:
The verb καλχαίνειν (kalkhainein), "to make purple," came to signify profound and troubled emotion: to grow dark with disquiet, to seethe with worries, to harbour dark thoughts, to brood in the deep of one's mind. When German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin undertook to translate Sophokles' Antigone in 1796, he met this problem on the first page. The play opens with a distressed Antigone confronting her sister Ismene. "What is it?" asks Ismene, then she adds the purple verb. "You are obviously growing dark in mind, brooding deeply (καλχαίνουσ' /kalkhainous) over some piece of news." This is a standard rendering of the line. Hölderlin's version: "Du scheinst ein rotes Wort zu färben," would mean something like "You seem to colour reddish purple word, to dye your words red-purple."
The talks assembled in Asclepias are not limited to consideration of translation -- certainly not in isolation, nor as a regimentable mot d'ordre, nor even necessarily as a task -- but collaterally with photographic incident. "Exulant, or The Rain," the text you refer to in which Hölderlin appears seeks cinematic concordance (which is an effective discordance, though the distinction hardly matters) against a polylingual idea of exile that is thrown into question against the German, and specifically Germanic Exulanten, the untranslatability of which inscribes a refutation of the possibility of either origination or exile -- since in a linear logic, one is incumbent upon the other; but also because of the unlikelihood of place, as well as the falsity of nationalism. Ultimately, this entire work's concern, and this, I would say, is true of all of my work, is with the ubiquity of fascism (its degrees) and language's dictatorship -- how this is exposed is often through (murderous) absurdity, as in the occurrence of Campos de Carvalho's imbeciles, or Galina Ustvolskaya's "wooden cube," for example.
The ubiquity of fascism? After reading the text, it felt quite personal. Even through the density of language and layers of references, it felt close as if it were about self-realization or understanding how one existed beyond what could be grasped, translated, taxed, or confined. Although maybe we are talking about the same thing -- the individual in the face of institutions and the established (in all of its abstractions -- language, economic, social, racial, and gender politics)?
And this dictatorship of language is something that seeps into every corner of society and is apparent today in the language being used amongst the Greeks and the Germans. In very obvious ways right now, the debates taking place are attempting to frame the future of Europe with each side carefully developing their particular visions with languages steeped in history. One can even find within the speeches of the Greek Prime Minister a language that bears striking resemblances to that of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War.
I understand your skepticism, and hesitated before resorting to the term fascism for precisely this reason. But I don't think fascism is separable from what is generally considered to be personal. And you are likely right that the text draws from a personal present in order to ask questions of itself; or rather, it doesn't uphold the distinctions expected of it. I'd like to quote from a passage from Ingeborg Bachmann's Der Fall Franza that articulates precisely the unexpectedness of such an assertion:
You say fascism, but that sounds strange, for I've never heard that word used to describe a personal relationship. [...] But that's an interesting idea, for it had to begin somewhere. Why does one only refer to fascism when it has to do with opinions or blatant acts? (tr. Peter Filkins).
Franza goes on to question the erasure by the generalization of psychoanalytic discourse of a notion of "evil" by an absolving idea of "sickness," arriving ultimately at the charge of rationalism's madness -- a charge that is upholdable by the tabulation of reasoned murders committed en masse by the Third Reich, and beyond. How is murder ever not personal, I wonder?
What is particularly confounding to me, and it is something I have been grappling with for a while, at least since Sisyphus, Outdone., but likely before even then, is precisely the human time signature; one's persistent belatedness in relation, not only to oneself, but to one's context, to history. It is present in the photographic capture, that is a present after the fact (which is the case, also of translation); in other words, it can never account for itself. It is a vigil carried out by the dead over the living who are only perceptible in their morbidity.
Returning for a moment to the Brazilian author Campos de Carvalho who is regrettably untranslated in English: "The word was given to man to blaspheme against his destiny, and the written word is the true word, just as the dead is the only true man in his total muteness." (My translation, from the French translation.) When Shostakovitch composes his string quartet #8, it is both in response to Dresden and his own envisioned end -- if he dedicates the quartet to his own memory, ostensibly in the absence of a dedication to come, it is out of a sense of belatedness, and in keeping with the poliomyelitis that is preventing him from performing. Borrowing then from Campos de Carvalho, the dedication itself signifies such muteness, both of the body, and the body politic, the bombed-out city of a country gangrened by fascism, with its complex valence of victims and victimizers. Shostakovitch is to be counted among the victims "of fascism and war" to whom the subsequent symphony is dedicated.
Along these lines, when Sokurov and Aranovich set Altovaya Sonata (Sonata for Viola) against Shostakovitch's last composition, the composition cannot help but be premonitory, such that the commemorative gesture of the film is as much a forensics as it is an elegy. Galina Ustvolskaya literalizes this contradiction by scoring a "wooden cube" -- literally, a coffin -- into her Composition No. 2, "Dies Irae." Whether or not the coffin is empty is, philosophically speaking, immaterial: it functions as a cenotaph, since the dead are always missing. But this indifference is precisely philosophy's fault.
Regarding fascism, I find this to be incredibly true. It seems as if we tend to dissociate from these incredibly large-scale institutions/movements, not realizing or actively refusing to acknowledge that at its root it is completely tied with a personal decision. The choice to engage or to disengage.
And this, too, is related to my frustration with most literature: works that seem to exist in a bubble onto themselves, instead of being written into a world that exists beyond them.
Considering this, do you approach your work in the hopes of making the reader or listener aware of an indifference that exists or is it more of a personal journey trying to understand the ways of indifference and how we dissociate from the bigger picture?
If I am honest with myself (and with you), at one point this was true; I began with a fervent belief in literature's capacity to effect change, even at a most microcosmic level -- and I found confirmation in this when I first read L'étranger (Camus), and then perhaps even more convincingly La chute (The Fall). It was nothing resembling a (displaced) mentorship, even several times removed, as I have no real belief in this idea, and certainly not in its contemporary purchasable form; it is a crass kind of cynicism that conveys the notion that a mentor can be bought (though seemingly, almost everyone seems to have a price).
As for an audience*, and I say this not to be coy, but because I truly have no sense of a reader or audience when I am writing, such an awareness would be pernicious to a work in any case; and at the same time, I view -- or have viewed -- writing, again somewhat paradoxically, as dialogical, and want -- or have wanted -- to believe in its capacity to be reciprocal (even if in failure). At the moment, I am in a period of disappointment, a disappointment that far exceeds the sphere of what might be called personal; and to articulate this disappointment in a precise manner escapes me, though I can certainly conjure any number of complaints. Perhaps it has something to do with being faced with an idea of obsolescence, exactly the kind of obsolescence that makes a conviction of the kind you describe almost laughable (and daily, there is the impression of being mocked by the outcomes of mechanisms set under way long before I arrived, but to which I am nonetheless answerable).
The much under-discussed (and almost completely untranslated -- into English) Austrian philosopher Günther Anders identifies the moment of such obsolescence as coinciding with the realization, through the development of the A- and H-bombs, that humanity is destructible, in its utter entirety (it is at this moment that Anders abandons art history in favor of anti-nuclear activism); this grotesquerie, though not dissociable from it, exceeds even the absurdity of the factory-death-camp installation that is now firmly embedded in the social substrata, if only because there is no possibility of retaliation against it, no possibility, either, of proximity. I think even this brief avowal makes explicit the degree to which my relationship to literature implicates me in it, with the caution nonetheless that the subject is not always the I from which one speaks.
*(There are at least two ways in which this can be refuted: first, the texts in Asclepias, having almost all been intended as talks, acknowledge, in their writing, the eventuality of a listener, however much this remained an abstraction; similarly, much of my work, in one way or another, has taken an epistolary form -- a good portion of The Middle Notebookes, for example, draws from my end of various bodies of correspondence; in this, it is comprised of letters after the fact; their (exhumed) re-contextualization in the book, though, already partakes of a void to which they are inevitably bound, precisely because of their belatedness -- they comprise an address without address, a tendering toward nothing. And this nothing is as much the self, as anything.)
From this fervent belief in literature to the current period of disappointment, how have you seen your artistic process and output develop or change? And considering Günther Anders, where do you think you stand in your current relationship with literature? Asclepias doesn't seem like a collection resigned to its place but very much wrestling with current issues and its historical context. And where do you see Asclepias in your personal bibliography?
I'm not sure I'm able to make these kinds of assessments -- in part because each book ultimately occupies the place, for me, of a memory loss; it stands in the stead of something obliviated by the sheer fact of living, supplanting, and thus prolonging it. It would be misguided, I think, to place fervor and disappointment at two ends of a traceable spectrum; I certainly wouldn't attempt to attribute a global understanding of my life as a writer into anything resembling distinct categories -- in part, out of philosophical conviction, but also because I lack the necessary distance (and am resolutely disinterested in archiving myself: Derrida -- "the first catastrophe, is the ignoble archive that rots everything..."). Disappointment is certainly not a place from which writing can take place; in that sense, it isn't a resignation, but a frustration, which is, or can be, far more activating (what I find most disappointing is disappointment itself; I have always been opposed to it).
It is perhaps along the lines of recognizing, after having imagined oneself to have a fundamentally suicidal nature, to discover that one has outlived the age of suicide; in other words that one is far more alive than one ever wished to be: but there is nothing more vital, I think, than the desire to die. Perhaps in a sense this is literature's vocation. To attend to its own murderousness, which is indissolubly imbricated in the murderousness that determines the shape of the world.
Fervor may be the one thing that has remained consistent (despite and against myself), over time, from the first books until now; it must take the form of a kind of stubbornness because there are such ample, defensible, reasons for discontinuing.
As for what has changed, I hope my mind has improved!... and not at the expense of something unrecognizable... In material terms, the relationship between my languages is much altered, since Je Nathanaël (2003/2006); prior to that moment, there were two distinct bodies of work, one in French and the other in English; it was only with Je Nathanaël that I attempted to place the two languages in direct relationship with one another, and with that decision, I abandoned everything prior to it, which is of no interest to me now (save, perhaps, Underground). Even this narrative is wrong, there was nothing quite so deliberate about it! More recently, I have ventured outside of the enclave of bilingualism, with very rudimentary competence, but with due respect to the languages I encounter and place against one another, attentive to the outcomes of such composites. It seems to me that there is something to learn about history in this persistence, and maybe I mean about time. Now, the time of my work is altered (underneath which altéré in French, is adulterated, but also thirsting) -- its time is more vast, more stratified, more prehistoric, and disconsolate.
In answer to your question regarding Anders, I can only say that whatever I do, literature, for me, remains an imperative, a necessity, with its share of (compromised) urgency. (Compromised of necessity). I made an inverse decision to Anders, though not for dissimilar reasons: I ceased political activism and redirected my entire effort onto writing. But it was also out of disgust, ultimately, at the way activism was choreographed, and the kinds of manipulations exerted against the very people summoned to march. When it became impossible for me to distinguish between the paramilitary tactics of the left and their rightwing corollary, I stepped off. In any case, I have a fundamental distrust of the crowd, whatever guise it takes, whether under the rubric "community" or something more obviously sinister, it seems one is never far from the formation of a fascist rally. I am interested in something more reciprocal, which is admittedly more slow, but perhaps more integral. With all of this, I have deep respect for people who risk themselves in body to improve the lot of the planet and its inhabitants (someone like Pierre Rabhi, for example).
Finally, Asclepias, for me, is a pleasure, especially when set against the much more taxing Middle Notebookes. It comes the closest to existing in a present, and attests very palpably to friendship -- whether through invitation, collaboration, or contestation. There isn't a piece of writing in the book that doesn't arise out of a conversation. And that conversation is its context, the context in which a body risks itself, in speaking, against every evidence of its muteness. Asclepias is very vitally engaged in a kind of apprenticeship, of the cinema most especially, after photography, and in this it is an accompaniment to Sotto l'immagine, which, despite its Italian title, was published last year in French. Perhaps in this sense the truest (auto-)biography would be its bibliographies -- as well as its proximity to water.
Nic Grosso is the founder of Literaturha.us.