Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Between libido and language

Tracy here...

The Guardian (UK) yesterday published a review by Blake Morrison of George Steiner’s new book, My Unwritten Books (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), in which the reviewer remarks that Steiner “has always been interested in the relationship between the libido and language”, and proceeds to give entertaining examples from the work that illustrate this “startling” statement of Steiner’s (pardon alliteration!):

“I believe that an individual man or woman fluent in several tongues seduces, possesses, remembers differently according to his or her use of the relevant language. That the love and lechery of the polyglot differs from that of the monoglot, faithful to one language.”

It’s clear from what follows in the review that Morrison, while intrigued, finds the illustrations de trop – you can read them here and decide for yourself:


but it certainly had me thinking about the quality of difference in experience between languages – and George Steiner is in a position more than most to know about this.

I haven’t read the Steiner book yet but will be looking out for it. There are parts of my other-language vocabulary... much smaller and weaker than his, of course!... that I almost can’t bear to use (or dwell on) because of their too-close association with particular memories, people, physical sensations of the far past – certainly of love if probably not of “lechery”...

Of course it’s also true that particular words, vocabularies within just one language can come to be linked to past experiences in a personal, idiosyncratic way, but I suspect Steiner is meaning something far more differentiated than this. An Australian friend with whom I travelled in France when I was very young said to me, “You become another person when you are only speaking French, your entire personality is different, and you seem much happier.”

I don’t know that I was necessarily happier, but the general distinction was accurate, and I am sure that this is true for many non-monolinguals.

After reading the review, I was driving down to Perth (actually to the south-eastern suburbs, a couple of hours from here) with T (aged 5), listening to Jacques Brel on the way – between us, we always choose two to three CDs to cover the journey, sometimes replaying favourite songs many times over – sometimes – yes, naff/daggy I know, singing along.

T is growing up bilingual – passive French at this stage, because he won’t speak it but can understand it perfectly – used to speak it, but refuses now that he’s immersed in a social environment that only speaks English. So these car-journey listenings – like the watching of French kids’ movies together – are our “other-self” space, a strange bracketing of our normal lives and entering a shared alternative existence.

I know it’s hard for non-native speakers like me really to judge the quality of poetry in a foreign language, but Brel seems to me a true poet – and one hard to share with those who speak only English, because the translations I have heard (e.g. the English If You Go Away, compared to the French Ne me quitte pas) seem to take all the poetry out.

It seems to me too that Brel writes about love and passion – and sometimes even lechery? – in a very French-language way (okay, he was Belgian, but it’s still the French language). Despite having done a fair amount of translation, including of poems, I wouldn’t know how to begin to translate Brel – the lack is already in the words available. Which is not to say the Anglophone can’t love (or lech) just as well as the Francophone, only that there is disparity, a shape that can’t quite be mapped onto the other shape.

There’s a big website on Brel at http://www.jacquesbrel.be/

in four languages (including English) and I’m almost afraid to read it, in case I discover something off-putting, as I did recently about another favourite, Cole Porter, when I heard for the first time an older version of his Let’s Do It which included offensive (racist) lyrics that were missing from my Ella Fitzgerald version... Somehow that makes it harder to enjoy any of his songwriting. Some sources say Porter was racist in actual life too.

Not that I’ve any reason to suspect Brel of similar attitudes, only that it’s often disappointing when you learn about the person behind an artwork (why do we expect artists to be good people anyway?). Reading any poet’s biography (for instance) should disabuse us of that... But that’s another story, and this blog entry is already too long.

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