Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hunching Back: A Couple of Tangents

An online Spanish/English arts and literature magazine called Yareah--a myth-and-legend, cultural-roots sort of thing--is evidently hungry enough for material to Google certain occasional book reviewers and solicit them for contributions. They've asked to reprint my review of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in an upcoming issue (April 1). Their theme will be ugliness in literature, and after all, who's uglier than that deformed little sprout, Quasimodo? I did take the trouble to modify the review a little for their theme, but they're still getting what they paid for it.

Looking back to Hunchback, I was struck again by a couple of thoughts, stuff that didn't get expressed very thoroughly in either the new or old version...

1. The tranlation of Notre-Dame that I read I had really annoyed me with its persistent use of the archaic English "you," filling up the book with thees and thous, which to my jaded ear, reads either like a half-assed effort to recreate the speech of the middle ages, or else a clumsy attempt to recreate the original French word flow. Since I was now submitting my crappy review to a bilingual magazine, I thought I might find something clever to say about the absence of a formal second person in English, which I've never decided is a blessing (given all the people I half-know, I'd hate to wrestle with vous or tu in every single greeting--it's bad enough figuring out who to grandma-hug among the people I know intimately) or a flaw (because after all, it does take away nuance). It's my understanding that the formal second person has been falling out of favor in the Romantic languages too for some years, to the irritation of traditionalists, something on par with how no one in America (not in the decadent North anyway) addresses anyone as sir, and everyone lets kids call adults by their first names. I'd always assumed that the "thee" cognates were the dropped formal forms, abandoned on Albion a few centuries before the continent got around to ditching them. This, it turns out, is flat wrong.

The T-V distinction in English (Wikipedia tells me) originated as a singular/plural distinction, and the weight of formality that it later grew stemmed from the early French habit of turning the king into a pluralized synecdoche for authority. In other words, the respectful use of vous comes from the French royal we,* and the old English plural "ye" took on the same pattern following the Norman injection of 1066. "Thee" is the old singular form, and it came into use as the informal second person for the next 600 years. Cast thee back, varlet!

So in English, the informal/singular form is the one that eventually disappeared. The whole thing is complicated by holding on just barely long enough for Shakespeare to intermittently use it, by later bad authors of archaism, and by persistent religious use (from bible translations which adhered strictly to the singular/plural distinction, and not the informal/formal one--it's interesting that the "thee" got that dignified sense round about the time of the Reformation, reducing God to an informal invisible Buddy maybe, or alternatively enhancing the status of the singular pronoun because, hey, you don't sing how great Thou art to just anyone) which lent the singular a new assumed solemnity. In any case, Victor Hugo's speakers were using their pronouns correctly in the 1482 French sense, and I have to conclude that the nameless translator did a fine job after all.

2. There's a lot of madness lurking around within nineteenth century writing. Mental illness wasn't particularly well understood in those days, but writers tend to be good observers, and a lot of those plausible conditions of human nature can be represented without understanding the mechanics of it very much. Those Dickensian crazies really told us more about the problems of the relatively sane anyway, and what shape sanity took in a heartbreaking time that was filthy with disease, religious injunction, poverty, and death looming around every corner, but still cursed with a modicum of badly enlightened hope. I'm not 100% content with modern descriptions of brain malfunction, either. Diagnosing depression or PTSD or ADD is useful, but absent any real neurochemical understanding, the expertise is less perfect than the guys in the white coats would have you believe. Worse, those sorts of behavioral pathologies seem to get around talking to the basic horrors and absurd beauties of our existence, which, for all their faults, those Romantic-era writers had down in spades.

Putting madness on the same spectrum as physical deformity and moral ugliness fits the Romantic ideas pretty well (and I'll review Frankenstein really soon now, I promise). I'm not sure that it helped their development that these ideas were tied into (if you'll forgive my philosophical naivete) the ideas of innocence and morality that had been recently getting hashed out by the likes of Rousseau and Hobbes, whose philosophies were slowly filtering down to practice for some captive subjects in the middle of the century. Quasimodo is given to us as developmentally disabled (I should stop joking with the word "retarded," but then it's the same thing that happened to "idiot" decades ago), and inhibited cognitively by his physical handicap, which is not a bad portrayal given what limited technical understanding Hugo would have had at his fingertips. The problem is that Hugo was playing with--mostly satirizing--themes of redemption, and even giving Quasimodo a partial transformation through beauty and love seemed a little too credulous to me.

Victor Hugo wrote Notre-Dame at an interesting time in the west's understanding of mental disability. Victor, the famous wild boy of Aveyron, was discovered near Hugo's boyhood home, but the idea that he was a template for Quasimodo is evidently apocryphal. Victor (whether he was really wild or not) was taken as a case study in the Enlightenment notions of mankind's natural state, and it's not surprising that Hugo would entertain similar ideas that his own unsocialized character could graduate to the more touted human qualities through some kind of personal moral Renaissance.

In the mid-1800s, the field of mental health was growing up a little too. The idea that a scientific basis for behavior could be sought led to a greater desire to understand the nature of the handicapped. Previously, and at various times, retarded people had been taken care of in the church, as Quasimodo was, or in the community, or by the public. The thought that idiocy could be understood, categorized, or even cured in some cases, led to a spate of study in Hugo's time, and France, though home of one of the more notorious asylums, was progressive about it in those days. The inmates of Bicêtre were unchained around 1900, and Édouard Séguin, who classified idiocy into four categories based on capability,** was advocating more humane treatment for these people while Victor Hugo was still writing.

Regrettably, early brain science wasn't much up to its hoped-for task, and Séguin's humanitarian notions gave way to awful pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics, and eventually to a return to mere custodial care for "moral degenerates", giving the science a bad name for the better part of the following century. I wonder if the still considerably qualitative nature of some kinds of brain science slows down the more substantive research, or if it damages public perception, as it did in the later nineteenth century. (Not that I'm so very on top of the state of the art. Where the hell is TenaciousK when I need him?)

(Some google finds that informed this: 1, 2, 3)

UPDATE! Study questions for non-idiots.
1. Was Charles Dickens a Romantic-era writer?
[Well, if you concentrate on "era," then I suppose he was writing at the same time as the Romantics. If you stress the "Romantic," I think he may have shared some of the sensibilities, but was not in quite the same mold. I should be more careful.]

2. For that matter, were all those Gothic horror elements (which was closer to my actual train of thought) part of of the Romantic movement?
[I'd argue yes, although maybe it's an argument that needs acknowledging, since I don't really know how serious literature people tend to view the distinction. These handful of writers I've been reading lately were all about (violation of) beauty and nature, and had all of the melodrama. And even their ugly was beautiful, really.]

3. Did Romantic writers find life's beauty an absurd, unlikely sort of beauty?
[Probably not in the way I do, although it's fair to say they were also struggling to incorporate, or just struggling against, a growing scientific understanding of nature. Bad wording, though.]

4. Didn't a revolution in psychoanalysis occur around 1900, which is, in fact, "well into the next century" after ~1850?
[Well, my criticism of psychoanlysis even now is that it's still pretty qualitative, and in the early days, basically unprovable and possibly even in pathological science territory. But there's a lot of prejudice in that statement, and I don't really have the first clue how the Freud boys dealt with the more obviously physiology-based cognitive problems.

I don't feel too bad about more modern classification of behavior patterns based on observation, and I think categorization of them is more or less useful, although it still loosk pretty qualitative. What little I read now of cutting-edge brain science seems like a different world than these earlier twentieth-century views, even from only a couple decades ago, and also a lot more like actual science than all those behaviorist experiments I remember reading about in that one psychology class.]

* I really should have titled that post "The Royal Wii." Dammit.
** Not those four, Dave.


artandsoul said...

I've got the questions in Word - and I'm working on them.

I don't want to sound like an idiot.

But they're terrific conversation starters -- if I can just get over my fear of sounding... you know.... like an idiot.


twif said...

i'd argue we still don't know what the fuck mental illness really is. particularly if you consider crap like this:

Keifus said...

Internet addiction? That's just crazy.

Art: you couldn't do worse than that first guy.

artandsoul said...

I pretty much consider myself a "Romantic" in the literature sense because I like big, bad, massively sensual experiences, people and music.

I love Byron, Wagner and Paul Thomas Anderson movies.

I like Dickens being in that "era" because I like the way his novels sprawl across generations and the plots loop around each other and his characters (though maybe flat to our sophisticated, modern eye) are very well fleshed out, and risk just being bad and nasty as well as cloyingly sweet.

I read somewhere that Mary Shelley was on a holiday with her cronies one spring and it was that terrible worst summer ever in Europe, where it rained like every day for 72 days or something. And because they couldn't hike and go boating like they had planned (I think they were in Switzerland) they all sat around telling ghost stories.

She came home, got sick, and wrote Frankenstein.

So, what if it had been sunny and mild in Switzerland? Would Boris Karlof be a shoe salesman? Would there be no industry of horror films?

To me, this is the essence of Romanticism-- the chance occurrence that gets blown out of all proportion and becomes masterpiece.

Perhaps in our current, sophisticated, modern world we react to this by trying to fit it into the DSMIV.

(h/t Twif)

Keifus said...

Yeah, that's the story in the author's introduction. (Her cronies were her later husband Percy Shelley, and Byron, btw., and the story she worked out also took place in Switzerland, mostly.)

For Romanticism, I get a lot of emphasis on the emotional experience, and heavy naturalism, which I take in some ways as an answer to the scientific (and before long, industrial) views of the times. Also there's a prose style I've come to associate with it. Romantics wouldn't see wrong to revisit the gods, and play them up with new drama. Wagner seems to fit there. Dickens had a gritty streak, which doesn't quite seem to belong, but on the other hand, I have a hard time categorizing him very far from Victor Hugo. So it goes with informal movements, I guess.

(I haven't been educated this way, and I'm not usually on sure ground when I start throwing around well-worn artistic labels.)

artandsoul said...

I've got no academic training to back me up. My whole take on literature, music and art is strictly experiential. What I read, what I love and the way I look at it!

The only kind of education I have is the bit for a Humanities Masters, but it was years ago, and well... I have an aged brain.

Heavy naturalism....I think that is a great way to describe it. And think of how different that is from the Classical ages in Greece and Rome which also emphasized naturalism, but not with the heaviness of Wagner, Byron and the Brontes. (sorry, no umlatts on my 'puter that I know of)

Sure, Wagner used "the gods" and the mythology, but in a much more heavy, humanistic, man-is-the-god way (Romantic) than Sophocles, say. And, as I'm off to see The Ring in a few weeks it is much on my mind.

Wagner seemed to be working through his idea of heroism. He really wanted it to be Siegmund, and then Siegried... I think that was his conscious effort. Create that hero, that man who could do it all - unaided and unshackled by God and religion.

But, in the end, his hero is really Brunnhilde. Her wisdom, her feminine ability to integrate and to endure far outweighed Siegried's adventurous nature.

That's where Dickens comes in, is it not? That grittiness. Endurance. Endurance as heroic. Not a sentimental kind of heroism (the Victorian view of Tiny Tim) but the enduring strength. I think of the Brontes again here.

I believe Wagner was trying so hard to work through his OWN heroism, to be the hero and to write it that way. But he was also dealing in music, and muse, and some kind of other-worldly genius over which he had no control. I think that element leaned more toward Brunnhilde.

And, I think, that's what gives the Romantics so much of their emotional heft.

Do you read Hugo in French? Do you think there is something real lost in the translation? I know that it makes a pretty big difference when studying Wagner's operas that I get a couple of different translations so that I can really get a sense of what he was saying.

Same with Homer.

Good stuff -- and I have to say, I'm very impressed that you can write so much in depth good stuff, work a job and have a family and play video games. I do not seem to be able to do nearly as many things at once. Bravo you!

Keifus said...

Ten or fifteen years ago, I got through a couple Borges stories in Spanish (big, Latinate words translate quite easily), which counts as my last and only independent effort in that regard. I never even got to the level of pidgin french.

I got nothin on some of these guys when it comes to blogging. I tried to do at least an "effort" post a week for a while, but the other things have been picking up. I have a semi-challenging job, but it doesn't justify monomania (not a very good scientist).

I can't say much about wagner. Sounds like a cool thing to do.


artandsoul said...

I had wanted to do a course of study in Art History...but about halfway in I realized I would have to be pretty fluent in French, and my mind just doesn't go there.

I can read some Spanish and Italian (slowly and with a lot of clunk) but never French. And I can't even understand the capitalization in German.

I'd like to learn Greek.

And now I"m 50 and I'll probably never learn any of them. Depressing if I focus on that.

I'm lucky that I can spend time doing things .... such as comparing translations or reading or listening to (attending) operas... and I also had some kids and they are ever time-consuming even as they grow up.

I'm completely new to blogging ... I have a bucket of hard-copy essays and on one laptop somewhere a hard drive of essays.

This interactive stuff is so enticing! Having a conversation with someone who is not inside my head is so fascinating! :)

Okay - I'm going to tackle another thread now.

Take care.