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Fragment With Minds

As instruments improved beyond the impossible and became unthinkably sensitive, reality, when examined with infinite precision, proved infinitely indistinct and absolutely malleable. Between the moment and the instant, the world was found to reflect not one mind, but every mind, every mind’s every passing thought; infinities of dreamers were seen each continuously remaking the world, their dreams overlapping and resonating or striking discords, flowing turbulently together, only canceling out in sum and aggregate to earthly matter and energy. Acts of imagination were caught remaking the universe: the Sun moving instantly to circle the earth as a mind struggles with Ptolemaic astronomy, the moon dropping down to meet an infant’s reaching, an old body becoming with infinite transience blithe and youthful as an old mind turns over a memory, stars and galaxies re-arranging themselves into cells, tissues, organs as the mystic feels the world in himself and himself as the world. And for the first time certain sensations of unease, certain shivers and starts of the mind, were traced to their sources, to the passing of cold fierce worlds reflecting minds not human and not kind.

1943

My father died yesterday, twenty-one months after his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. We all knew what was coming: impossibly, both of his parents died of the same disease.

I did not want to write about this. What needed saying has been said. But there will be no marker for his scattered ashes. As I am a writer I owe him the service of an epitaph, to say: Look stranger, there lived a man, his name was Anthony Peter Rodriguez, Junior, he served his country, he had three children, two grandchildren, he never lost a friend.

Around the time I was born my father built a tower. He was tower-minded, he knew Jung’s tower, Yeats’, Montaigne’s, he stood once on the tower in Jericho, ten thousand years old. He mixed concrete and lay rebar and bonded block until his tower stood three stories tall and bomb shelter strong. Our names and our handprints in the concrete. A few years later, we moved away. I wasn’t with him when he missed it, but I went with him to check that it was gone. Diamond saws had cut it apart to open a new owner’s view. He had hoped to revisit it when he was ninety. He had hoped it would be a legacy for him. Maybe here I can give him a monument more lasting.

Anticipation

I refuse the game of choosing favorites, but under compulsion I might choose for my favorite book a volume of typographer’s specimens – my favorite because it implies all the others. This is not a witticism. Beautiful typography pleases me more than beautiful calligraphy, not only because good typographers are more rare than good calligraphers, but because I feel something from beautiful typography that I do not feel in beautiful calligraphy.

A beautifully typeset book is for reading; but what is a book of beautiful typesetting for? The pleasure it gives me is not disinterested or abstract; it leads onto something, demands something. Above all things I love and seek and delight in understanding. How can I find pleasure in something whose purpose is to not be understood, that mocks understanding with the riddle of a quartz sphinx?

But this is backwards. This pleasure is that of anticipation; and anticipation precedes understanding. In particular cases it is the pleasure that catches and sustains attention, or that moves attention on after understanding. In the general case, it is the habit of indulging the pleasure that anticipation is, that forms the habit of seeking understanding. Anticipation is not a lapse in understanding; understanding is a lapse in anticipation. They intermit one another in an alternation that describes not a circle, but a spiral.

The apparent limit of that spiral would be to understand the world; and even if it is impossible to understand the world, it would still be possible to believe that one understood it. We read that near the end of his life Thomas Aquinas, that great understander, experienced something that made him judge his life’s work sicut palea – all straw.

As the story is told this sounds like despair; but I imagine it as ecstasy. In an instant he broke through the false limit of complete understanding to the true limit of pure anticipation. Understanding follows anticipation, anticipation follows understanding, but not forever; complete understanding is followed by pure anticipation. Nothing follows that. The mystics judge light higher than truth; is this what they mean by something higher than truth, yet not false? May I be so illuminated.

Translation

Anything can be translated. But how can languages differ in what they can express, in what kinds of thoughts they encourage or permit, if thoughts born and raised in one can live as well is another? If translation is always possible it may still be hard. For simple phrases addressing familiar, everyday things, there may be only one correct translation. But as the subject moves to remoter things, things less common, translation becomes art and language becomes medium.

This is not news. Anyone can feel how difficult it is to recreate the dictionary denotations, let alone the literary connotations, of one language in another. But this is only the beginning of the art of translation, its scales and studies. The real art is not in deciding how to repeat, but how to fill in.

Abstraction is constructive omission; an abstract word is both a something that is named and the index of a number of somethings, themselves omitted, that together instantiate or imply it. Every language omits differently; and it is by this difference, I think, that language influences thought: the discrepancies of their abstractions mean that certain thoughts are harder to think in some languages than others, because in one they can be alluded to, and in another they must be constructed on the spot. The thoughts may be the same yet the attitude of the thinker towards them may be different. Compare computer languages: it is of little difference to an interpreter whether a function is called by name, or defined on the spot anonymously, but it makes a difference to the programmer.

Written languages have two genealogies: linguistic and literary. The linguist who pops up to declare that language has no effect on thought is right in respect of linguistic traits. I do not see that it makes any difference to thought whether the language is gendered or genderless, analytic or agglutinative, nominative-accusative or ergative-absolutive. Thinking is so hard in itself that the general difficulty eclipses the particular difficulties or conveniences of certain languages.

But languages also have literary genealogies, and these do shape thought. It matters that English apprenticed to Latin and Greek, not Sanskrit or Chinese. Few languages have civilized – have literized – themselves. The Old World has Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian. (The New World has Nahuatl, but alas, it has no disciples.) All other languages had to serve an apprenticeship. Afterwards some, like the Romance languages, inherit the family business; some, like English or Japanese, buy out the stock; some, like German or Arabic, steal the plans and build their own versions.

To analyze this phenomenon as a form of domination, a side effect of economic and political power, is not wrong – witness Norman French and English, or Arabic and Persian – but it misses the point. The conquered reshape their languages by translation from their conquerors; but conquerors also reshape their languages by translation from the conquered. Greek came to Rome in the mouths of slaves. One generation of Mongols heard Arabic and Chinese only in cries for mercy; the next whispered them in their bedrooms and gardens. Translation is certainly a convenience, is certainly a political act, but it also a transmission, an inheritance, a maturation. The old language passes on to the young language something that it must work to contain – simply put, power: power to know, power to understand, power to think.

Literary descent has two vectors: borrowing and poetry. Borrowing is the easier, the most common, and usually the first method. Poetry is the harder but better method, becaused borrowing always leaves something behind.

When languages are young, fast, and hungry, they take words and ideas as they need them, in whichever sense comes easiest; often the wrong one. In studying classical philosophy, for example, the hardest step is to get rid of English definitions. Stoics were not stoic; Epicureans were not epicurean; apatheia isn’t apathy, a daimon isn’t a demon, kosmos isn’t the cosmos, and demokrateia isn’t democracy.

The diction of poetry is remote and patient enough, far enough from application, that it can take the time to compass an idea. Still, the transfer is not always perfect; sometimes the idea retains an inappropriate exoticism. An Athenian might agree that beauty is truth, but he would not have learned the lesson from his kitchenware.

Language’s limits are unresisting but real. No language is without limits, but the limits of my language are the limits of my world, not as a wall limits my movement, but as the horizon limits my vision: I cannot see past it, yet I can never run into it.