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2. Culture and civilization: original elements and foreign assimilations in the historical progress of languages



a) The question of sources

The utilization of source material is the criterion on which one defines the concept of literature. At the root of it all lies the notion of exoticism. Montesquieu's Persian Letters are based on the idea of the 'other' culture as mirroring one's own. Similarly, the way that Shakespeare reuses a tale by Bandello in his Romeo and Juliet shows how a creative genius can make 'improper' use of cultural models. The genius is not concerned with philological correctness but constructs a text as if it were an orchestration, and in the economy of a musical score what matters is the progression toward the climax. In this light, the translator's knowledge of sources anterior to the creation of a masterpiece is of little advantage. Rather, what will be worth knowing is what happens later, as the work reappears in modern parodies. Joyce's Ulysses tells us much more about the way the Odyssey is received nowadays than we can learn from any philological commentary. In Ulysses, Homer becomes a map on which to find one's bearings in the topography of the modern city. When Walter Benjamin wrote monographs in the nineteen twenties on cities like Paris and Vienna, delineating their nature as places of remembrance for 'canonical' writers, he accomplished something far more useful, for a writer, than any scholarly work of exposition.

So, one has to discover the 'foreign' elements in national cultures in order to learn the rules of the game. The ultimate example is that of Don Quixote: the library full of books about chivalry, on which Cervantes expounds at the start of the novel ¾ one of the many starts ¾ establishes the coordinates by which to distinguish the 'grotesque' from the 'lyrical', representing an impossible synthesis between the dreams of the old hidalgo and the reality against which he finds himself in combat. For a translator, it will be a case of having successfully assimilated the gossamer voicings of Petrarch, without which it would be impossible to render Dulcinea, or captured the sense of caricature used by Horace in the Satires to succeed in distilling the hallowed ground of chivalry into that comical spectacle of the knightly vigil at the inn. But there are many more registers than these in Don Quixote: there is the curial language of the Jesuit preachers, derived from Saint John of the Cross and Saint Dominic, the rowdy tone of the picaresque novel, ideal for the portrayal of good-for-nothing rascals (modelled on Plautus), the parody of Arcadia with its syrupy turns of phrase recalling Achillini and the Marinists, and so forth. In the most drastic of assessments, there is almost nothing 'original' in Don Quixote, just as in Shakespeare's fairy tales it is an invisible Ovid who serenely directs the game of turning men into beasts, and beasts into men...

Any notion of a 'national school' associated with the Republic of Translators must be received with suspicion.

Similarly, relations between the arts mirror different varieties of logic from nation to nation. In Elizabethan England poetry proceeds from music: the Masque, with its blend of rhythm and prosody, is itself the shaper of those ready-made formulae whereby Myth comes down to Earth and the forests of Britain are peopled with nymphs. Blank verse uses an interplay of assonances and homoeoteleutons in which the effect of redundancy is based on variants of the semantic roots. In other words, British poetry ¾ classicist like no other ¾ takes up the latin conception of language as a perpetual semantic variation, rather than organizing the argument employing the artful strategy of burdens and symmetrical reiterations that characterize the Italian poetic tradition. And yet, the origin both of Shakespeare and of, say, Poliziano, is in Virgil and Ovid. In Poliziano however, classic models are mediated by Lorenzo Valla and by the grammatical categories of the humanists, whereas in English the 'monumental'aspect of the latin language, defined by Cicero as its concinnitas ('density') has come through unaffected.