Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.                                                                                                                   
Theseus, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare had a keen appreciation of the value of imagination, as that quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests. But what is imagination? Is it a luxury -a chance evolutionary exaptation of some otherwise less essential neural circuit- or a purpose-made system to analyse novel features in the environment? A mechanism for evaluating counterfactuals -the what-ifs?

A quirkier question, perhaps, would be to ask if it might predate language itself -be the framework, the scaffolding upon which words and thoughts are draped. Or is that merely another chicken versus egg conundrum drummed up by an overactive imagination?

I suppose what I’m really asking is why it exists at all. Does poetry or its ilk serve an evolutionary purpose? Do dreams? Does one’s Muse…? All interesting questions for sure, but perhaps the wrong ones with which to begin the quest to understand.

I doubt that there is a specific gene for imagination; it seems to me it may be far more global than could be encompassed by one set of genetic instructions. In what we would consider proto-humans it may have involved more primitive components: such non-linguistic features as emotion -fear, elation, confusion- but also encompassed bodily responses to external stimuli: a moving tickle in that interregnum between sleep and wakefulness might have been interpreted as spider and generated a muscular reaction whether or not there was an actual creature crawling on the skin.

Imagination, in other words, may not be an all-or-nothing feature unique to Homo sapiens. It may be a series of  adaptations to the exigencies of life that eventuated in what we would currently recognize as our human creativity.

I have to say, it’s interesting what you can find if you keep your mind, as well as your eyes, open. I wasn’t actively searching for an essay on imagination -although perhaps on some level, I was… At any rate, on whatever level, I happened upon an essay by Stephen T Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and his approach fascinated me. https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-is-such-an-ancient-ability-it-might-precede-language

‘Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become… We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance.’

Interestingly, many archaeologists seem to conflate the emergence of imagination with the appearance of artistic endeavours –‘premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago)… [and] that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work.’

Asma, sees the sequence rather differently, however: ‘Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.’

Further, Asma supposes that ‘Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be.’ I love his idea of a ‘cognitive gap’. It imagines (sorry) a cognitive area where something novel could be developed and improved over time.

I’m not sure that I totally understand all of the evidence he cites to bolster his contention, though- for example, the view of philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon that there are ‘deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).’ Although, ‘Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images.’ But at any rate, Asma summarizes his own thoughts more concisely, I think: ‘The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.’

In other words, you don’t need to have language for imagination. But the discipline of biosemantics tries to envisage how it might have developed in other animals. ‘[Primates] have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding [sic] sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.’ So, as a result, ‘The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning.’

Imagination has been lauded as a generator of progress, and derided as idle speculation throughout our tumultuous history, but there’s no denying its power: ‘The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge.’

Without imagination, we cannot hope to appreciate the Shakespeare who also wrote, in his play Richard III:

Princes have but their titles for their glories,                                                                                                      An outward honor for an inward toil,                                                                                                                And, for unfelt imaginations,                                                                                                                                They often feel a world of restless cares.

Personally, I cannot even imagine a world where imagination doesn’t play such a crucial role… Or can I…?

 

Is the thing translated still the thing?

When I was a student at University, translated Japanese Haiku poetry was all the rage; it seemed to capture the Zeitgeist of the generation to which I had been assigned. I was swept along with others by the simple nature images, but -much like the sonnet, I suppose- I failed to realize how highly structured it was. In fact, I can’t really remember all of its complex requirements -but maybe that’s the beauty of its seeming simplicity in English. However, the contracted translation of the Japanese word –haikai no ku, meaning ‘light verse’- belies the difficulty in translating the poetry into a foreign language while still conserving its structure, its meaning, and also its beauty.

It seems to me that the ability to preserve these things in translation while still engaging the interest of the reader requires no less genius than that of its original creator. While, both in poetry as well as in the narrative of story, the ideas of the authors, and their images, plots and metaphors are an intrinsic part of the whole, sometimes the concepts are difficult to convey to a foreign culture. So, what to do with them to maintain the thrust of the original while not altering the charm? And when does the translation actually become a different work of art and suggest the need for a different attribution?

Given my longstanding  love for poetry and literature, I have often wondered whether I could truly understand the poetry of, say, Rumi who wrote mainly in Persian but also in Turkish, Greek and Arabic; or maybe, the more contemporary Rilke’s German language poetry. I speak none of those languages, nor do I pretend to understand the Umwelten of their times, so how do I know what it is that attracts me, apart from the beauty of their translations? Is it merely the universality of their themes, and perhaps my mistaken interpretations of the images and metaphors, or is there something else that seeps through, thanks to -or perhaps in spite of- the necessary rewording?

Since those heady days in university, I have read many attempts to explain, and even to justify, various methods of translation, and they all seem to adhere to one or both of the only two available procedures: paraphrasing, or metaphrasing (translating word for word). And no matter which is used, I have to wonder if the product is always the poor cousin of the original.

In one of the seminars from university, I remember learning that as far back as St. Augustine and St. Jerome, there was disagreement about how to translate the Bible -Augustine favoured metaphrasis, whereas Jerome felt that there was ‘a grace of something well said’. Jerome’s appealing phrase has stayed with me all these years. Evidently, the problem of translation goes even further back in history though, and yet the best method of preserving the author’s intention is still no closer to being resolved.

In my abiding hope for answers, I still continue to search. One such more recent forage led me to an essay in the online publication Aeon by the American translator and author Mark Polizzotti (who, among other honours, is a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature, and a publisher and editor-in-chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). https://aeon.co/essays/is-the-translator-a-servant-of-the-text-or-an-original-artist

He writes, ‘as the need for global communication grows by proverbial leaps, the efficiency of machine-based translation starts looking rather attractive. In this regard, a ‘good’ translation might simply be one that conveys the requisite bytes of information in the shortest time. But translation is about more than data transmission, and its success is not always easy to quantify. This becomes particularly true in the literary sphere: concerned with delivering artistic effect more than facts simple and straight.’

So, ‘We might think that the very indeterminacy of literary translation would earn it more leeway, or more acceptance.’ And yet, ‘many sophisticated readers view translation as no more than a stopgap… it would be disingenuous to claim that the reader of a translation is truly experiencing, in all its aspects, the foreign-language work it represents, or that in reading any text transposed from one language into another there isn’t a degree of difference (which is not the same as loss). The heart of the matter lies in whether we conceive of a translation as a practical outcome, with qualities of its own that complement or even enhance the original, or as an unattainable ideal, whose best chance for relative legitimacy is to trace that original as closely as possible.’

Polizzotti goes on to catalogue various approaches and views of translation and then suggests what I, at least, would consider the best way to think of translation and the obvious need it attempts to fulfil: ‘If instead we take translators as artists in their own right, in partnership with (rather than servitude to) their source authors; if we think of translation as a dynamic process, a privileged form of reading that can illuminate the original and transfer its energy into a new context, then the act of representing a literary work in another language and culture becomes something altogether more meaningful. It provides a new way of looking at a text, and through that text, a world. In the best of cases, it allows for the emergence of an entirely new literary work, at once dependent on and independent of the one that prompted it – a work that neither subserviently follows the original nor competes with it, but rather that adds something of worth and of its own to the sum total of global literatures. This does not mean taking undue liberties with the original; rather, it means honouring that original by marshalling all of one’s talent and all of one’s inventiveness to render it felicitously in another language.

‘To present a work as aptly as possible, to recreate it in all its beauty and ugliness, grandeur and pettiness, takes sensitivity, empathy, flexibility, knowledge, attention, caring and tact. And, perhaps most of all, it takes respect for one’s own work, the belief that one’s translation is worth judging on its own merits (or flaws), and that, if done well, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the original that inspired it.’

Polizzotti has nailed it. There’s a spirit inherent in good translation -one that inspires a confidence that the original intent of the author is appropriately, and befittingly displayed.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Polizzotti’s essay was a recent book I read (in translation): The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated from the original French by Alison Anderson. So seamless was the narrative, and so apt were the translated dialogues, I have to confess that I had difficulty believing the book had not originally been written in English. And as it stands, it is one of the most rewarding books I have experienced in years. I’m sure that Ms Barbery is well content with Anderson’s translation, not the least because their efforts earned it accolades from various critics, including a posting on the New York Times best-seller list.

It seems to me that one could not expect more from a translator than that.

Lying down in green pastures

I suppose I should admit something from the start: I’m not particularly religious, and I certainly do not have anything but the most superficial knowledge of Biblical writing. Still, I have come to appreciate the glory of metaphor and how it is able to transmute otherwise ineffable concepts into words. Feelings. Poetry, of course, aspires to that, but so do many of the texts in the Bible -especially the in ‘Old Testament’, apparently.

And yet, except for a very few of the more memorable lines I was taught in Sunday school as a child -parts of Psalm 23 spring to mind- I can’t say I was ever able to differentiate the poetry from the -what?- commands: the instructive reverence with which I was intended to regard the message. But, it seems to me that by its very nature, poetry, through metaphor, simile, and even word play would be particularly helpful for some of the ideas the Bible is trying to describe -things like lamentations, or hymns of praise where it would make sense to draw on the emotive powers of poetry to make a point.

In my adult years, on those rare occasions when the subject of biblical poetry has arisen, I have usually attributed my wonted tone-deafness to translational problems. Cross cultural, not to mention cross-temporal issues mean that some figures of speech, or clever puns in the original language do not have much chance of making the same impact on us as they would have on the recipients when and where they were originally composed.

Even nowadays, the European poems of Schiller (German), or Baudelaire (French), for example, are difficult to translate into English and preserve their same emotional intensity -and they were written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. Imagine the difficulty of attempting to render the writings of people living more than 2000 years ago into meaningful word-pictures that would resonate in today’s modern world. And, given the sacred nature of the Bible, any attempt to change the wording, or render the sentences into something like their original poetry, risks immediate condemnation.

The very idea that someone was willing to take the risk intrigued me. It would require impeccable credentials in ancient Hebrew with an equivalent temporal knowledge of the customs and literary devices used so long ago -and an ability to maintain the intended meaning without trivializing the message.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how well any translational skills succeeded in walking that  obviously difficult path, but some of the word-play involved in the effort was explained in an article in Aeon by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-translation-obscured-the-music-and-wordplay-of-the-bible

‘An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.’ True, the Hebrew Bible is basically a religious text, and yet, ‘If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.’

So how, after millennia, can one ever hope to express this language from the depths of time into relevant, let alone evocative English phrases? The accuracy of the message is one thing, of course, but conveying it in anything like the clever style of the original so the reader can still appreciate the poetry is another. ‘One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play.’ However, ‘translation… entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option.’

For example, ‘The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning… The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker.’

The article offers a few examples of Alter’s clever compromises to restore the music of the text, but I suspect it is intended more as a kind of a proof-of-concept than as a detailed slog through each Biblical book and chapter; it was both tantalizing and yet mercifully short. Still, it was enough to alert me to the things I never appreciated in my Protestant Sunday school. In fact, I don’t recall them ever mentioning anything about Biblical writing styles -it was the message they were trying desperately to inculcate in our young minds, I suppose.

But lest readers of my humble feuilleton suspect that in these penultimate years I am finally succumbing to Pascal’s wager and conceding that even though the existence of God may be unlikely -and at any rate unprovable-  and that the potential benefits of belief far outweigh shuffling off unshriven, let me assure them that any quest for hidden beauty need not involve ulterior motives. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

Sometimes it’s enough to know what one’s education may have missed without having to read the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, Alter stirred my interest enough to allow me to finish his essay, but, sadly, not enough to make me want to retrain as a biblical scholar. I’m happy the Bible is poetic, but not, well, overjoyed, or anything…

The Serpent’s Egg

We all see the world through our own experiences, paint it with our own colours, fly our own flags. They seem real to us –unique and even necessary to our identities. As if it’s enough to be simply what we wear; as if we are only what we’ve been taught to show. But sometimes we need distance to understand that there are other equally compelling ways of defining ourselves. Other less travelled roads.

I say this, of course, as an unwitting member of a large club in which I was enrolled without being required to read the rules. But I guess most of us say that, don’t we? Male privilege –it’s something that’s hard to see if it’s all you’ve known. Easy to deny –and certainly easier to excuse- if you’re the privileged one. Especially if you can’t even understand the claim; to a sock, everything is a foot. It’s why we have them…

I worry that it is a learned attitude, however –like assuming all girls want to play with dolls, and all boys want to play with cars. A self-fulfilling prophecy if it’s taught early enough –valid only because we know it’s how it should be. Harmless, perhaps, if it does not disadvantage either side, but untenable unless dispassionately assessed. Unfortunately, we all tend to bring our own agendas to the analysis. Our own talking-points. Our own pasts…

A state in Australia is making a brave attempt to bring some historical context to the issue, and create some early awareness of the challenges of gender perspective and gender stereotypes: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-37640353 ‘Students will explore issues around social inequality, gender-based violence and male privilege.’ This is not to suggest that Australia is any different in its treatment of women, but it is a welcome departure from many countries that don’t even acknowledge the problem. ‘Primary school students will be exposed to images of both boys and girls doing household chores, playing sport and working as firefighters and receptionists. The material includes statements including “girls can play football, can be doctors and can be strong” and “boys can cry when they are hurt, can be gentle, can be nurses and can mind babies”.’ And it doesn’t stop with primary school education. ‘A guide for the Year 7 and 8 curriculum states: “Being born a male, you have advantages – such as being overly represented in the public sphere – and this will be true whether you personally approve or think you are entitled to this privilege.” It describes privilege as “automatic, unearned benefits bestowed upon dominant groups” based on “gender, sexuality, race or socio-economic class”.’ Good on them!

But I think we have to be careful to walk the middle path. Accusations are seldom neutral; they often engender anger and even retaliation from those accused. So, perhaps predictably, in Australia ‘a report on a 2015 pilot trial accused it of presenting all men as “bad” and all women as “victims”.’ It’s one thing to illuminate the entire stage for a play, but still another to spotlight only one particular area. Decontextualize it…

*

Jeannette seemed like a fairly typical young woman as she sat relaxed in her seat and talking to several other women in the waiting room. Her long auburn hair danced lightly on her shoulders when she laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she leaned over to accept a toy from a little boy who had toddled over to her on a whim. Dressed in a loose grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, she wore a fresh, newly-pregnant smile that every woman in the room could see. And even the older ones followed her with their eyes –memories of bygone years. Her joy, theirs to enjoy -if only vicariously, and for too brief a time.

But her smile faded as soon as she sat across the desk from me in my office. Her eyes were predators shackled for the moment, the cage doors open nonetheless.

“I understand congratulations are in order, Jeanette,” I said, looking at my computer screen, and missing the change in her face. “Your family doctor says this is your first pregnancy…”

“The father doesn’t want me to keep the pregnancy,” she said tersely, her lips thin and tight, and as I looked up, she sent her eyes to savage my smile, and her forehead seemed to pucker as they left.

I had never met Jeannette before, although I had apparently seen her mother as a patient several years ago. That was all the GP said  -maybe it was why he had sent her to me for her pregnancy. I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair. These are always difficult conversations. “And how do you feel about that, Jeannette…?”

I could see her face relax a bit, as if my response had caught her by surprise. “I… I don’t think it’s fair!” She searched in her pockets for something, and then grabbed a tissue from my desk and dabbed her cheek. “I mean he’s blaming me for getting pregnant…” She took a deep, stertorous breath and sat back on her chair. “He refused to wear a condom –he said it would show I didn’t trust him…” I could see her squeezing her hands. “I didn’t, actually… I mean we’d never slept together before, but we were good friends… and…” Her eyes had softened with tears so she dropped them onto her lap and grabbed a handful of tissues. “Well, we were both drinking –he kept filling up my wine glass and…”

I remained silent and waited for her to continue.

“And he doesn’t even believe it’s his anyway… I was too easy he said!” Her face hardened again and her eyes dared me to agree. “I got really angry. ‘You were pretty easy, yourself’, I told him. And that’s when he punched me in the stomach and left…”

I have to admit that my mouth fell open. “Did you report him, Jeannette?”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “He’d just deny hitting me, doctor!” she said through gritted teeth as if it were obvious. “And he’s already telling my friends it was consensual sex…”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my expression neutral. “Did you tell your GP all this?”

She shook her head. “He wouldn’t understand. I just said I was pregnant…”

I sat quietly for a moment, wondering how to proceed, when she suddenly smiled warmly at me. “Can I ask you something, doctor?”

I nodded with a smile –sometimes it’s all you can do.

“If I were your daughter, what would you say to me?”

I thought about it for a bit, then looked at her and sighed. “When you do dance, I wish you
a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that.”

Her face brightened even more and her eyes sparkled in the sunlight from the window behind me. “That’s from Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ isn’t it?”

I nodded, surprised both that I quoted that line of all things, but also that she knew what I meant.

“Better start filling in that antenatal form on your screen, don’t you think?” she said, barely able to contain her face.

And we both laughed. Sometimes poetry has the privilege, I realized –not gender…