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7. Max Weber's "theory of values": a cultural map for the literary translator


c) Modern writers: pagan culture and Christian spirit

A reductio ad absurdum of this constant can be found in those modern writers who are able to overturn such an expressive decline. Herman’s Moby Dick is clearly an entirely ‘pagan’ work. In Billy Budd, which is closer to a dramatic tale than an epic – in whose nature Moby Dick is entirely situated – the disaster leading to the protagonist’s death as the death of beauty is found in that moment when Billy the foretopman is told by a sailor on deck to "slip into the lee forechains", because he senses "something in the wind". A good-natured and handsome man with an innocent soul (and, for the Greeks what is beautiful is also good), Billy can only exist in his isolation; above, amidst the sails. Civilization can only take this as a rebuke, "something strange", and kill him. And in fact, at this point Melville adds that Billy Budd "should have stayed below": in the hold, where his hammock was. The sailor-demigod has his abode in the air, or below the surface of the sea. In the realm of the Sun, or in that of Hyperion. Staying on deck - the ‘intermediate’ place, and therefore ‘dialectic’, of the logos, and of civil conversation - is fatal for him. In the cold or under the scorching sun, Billy breathes; but the night is "tepid", and for him there is no way out.

A rule: Christian civilization has ‘eclipsed’ and enclosed in man’s consciousness that universal Psyche which in the pagan civilization is imbued with the entire cosmos. Hence the two main ‘values’ according to whose opposite orientation a translator must use his own expressive resources, are the writer’s Christianity or his ‘metaphysical’ paganism.

In Real Presences, George Steiner maintains that the anonymity characterizing Homer or, surprisingly, much of Shakespeare’s work, simply does not apply to many other writers. Together with Melville, Shakespeare represents the most striking case of Western neopaganism. On the surface, even Kafka could seem a neopagan. Taken as a whole, The Castle is more the unfolding of a symbol than a narrative structure. Nevertheless, even if Kafka’s rhetorical results may seem related, their ‘value’ is exactly the opposite. Kafka is a cabalist, an esoteric Christian. His characters are sentenced to death because they do not know the correct names of things. Their language lies outside social schemes. His closed places, ‘Chinese walls’, and underground passages, show how, for him, nature is the scenario of a nightmare whose black liturgy is marked by the conscience, with its own obsessions. Shakespeare is very different, as seen in Othello, Act I, Scene III, where the Moor, accused by Desdemona’s father of having lured his daughter with sorcery, tells the Doge the story of his love. On telling of how he charmed the woman, he opens up lunar landscapes on civil Venice: "Antres vast and deserts idle, rough quarries, hills whose heads touch heaven, the Cannibals that each other eat, the Antropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." Shakespeare’s source is Lucano of Farsalia: the epic poem where Gothic grotesqueness makes its appearance on the literary stage. In Lucano, the description of the Libyan desert represents the unspoilt beauty of a world without ethics. In Othello, the moral philosophy is contorted by Iago’s dialectic persuasion, to the point of representing its exact opposite. This distorts the precious proportion of "so high; so low", and thus the language, and culture.

The most striking element in the description of Othello is the absence of colour. Colour is what mediates in the human perception of objects: the mediator between the senses and the mind. Colour is a sensory ‘translation’ of the language. Thus, one of the metaphysical premises Goethe added to all his literary output was The theory of colours.

The passage from Shakespeare is therefore to be translated without seeking continuity of its perception: "Antres vast and deserts idle, rough quarries, hills whose heads touch heaven". Here, "heaven" has nothing to do with "Paradise". It is the immensely undifferentiated, the no longer logical, the not yet human. The fact that in Othello all this connotes the dominion of the Sacred, is the origin of our entire discourse, and is also the biggest obstacle Max Weber’s theory of ‘values’ poses to a literary translator. In fact the theory of values can be translated, in interpretation, only as a theory of the mobile point of view.