A Review of Brian Lennon's In Babel's Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States

A Review of Brian Lennon's In Babel's Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States

2011-10-24
In Babel's Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States
Brian Lennon
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

Literature joins the living dead. A critic illuminates Brian Lennon’s “scene” of literature today: both suspended and emergent in the world system.

Brian Lennon’s In Babel’s Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States sets its sights, albeit not squarely, on the commercial book-publishing industry, largely embedded now in a few transnational multimedia conglomerates. The charge is that this comparatively recent development for publishing, interlocking in non-conspiratorial fashion with, interestingly, post-WW2 developments in computerized or machine translation, has condemned literary works to a kind of living death. Announced thus baldly, this seems hyperbolic if not paranoid - and will turn out, in fact, to be much more complexly nuanced. Still, nowhere in Lennon’s book is it asserted with any of the fanfare attending a thesis statement. Rather, there seems for most of a first reading to reign an uncertainly calculated ambivalence as to whether what is being offered here is a book with an accumulating argument or a series of only loosely related essays; and the text throughout is replete with mere suggestions, different proposals for our consideration. We are thus nudged toward the thesis through its concretization in the topic of the subtitle: the plight, in the hands of publishers assuming monolingual readers, of literary works which for one reason or another wish to include more than one language. Chapter 1 duly pays homage to significant recent scholars, notably Bassnett and Venuti, in the field of translation studies; the Preface, to others (Moretti, Casanova, Damrosch, Apter, etc.) who, seeking in the wake of 9/11 to reimagine the idea of ‘world literature,’ have turned to Wallerstein’s ‘world-system.’ Lennon’s point here is to stress that he is dealing with an “emerging,” not a finished canon (9), by setting against literature as already-existing system, literature as “scene,” in which new relationships are generated in ever-dynamic exchanges between “writers, critics, scholars, and other professional readers” (xvii).

Between 1999 and 2010, my wife taught world and especially Asian theater at Queens College-CUNY, said to be the USA’s most culturally diverse campus: 130-odd cultures, speaking between them some 80 languages. There’s a piquant context for Lennon’s early point that even comparative lit (not to mention comparative theater) courses at American universities are “translatively monolingual” (6); he follows up by acknowledging the unease of two editorial pairings bent on challenging assumptions of an Anglophone essence to American writing - Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr in the tenth issue of Chain and Marc Shell and Werner Sollors in The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature - at having to include facing-page English translations, truncating the linguistic rainbow even in its presence. Lennon correctly insists that anticipation of what an intended publisher can go with informs, if it doesn’t entirely determine manuscript preparation; and he uses the first in a series of brief but incisive close readings - here of a conversation between Ilan Stavans and Richard Rodriguez as imagined in Stavans’s On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language - to introduce a couple of notions important for his critique. The first is “kitsch,” Stavans’s own term for the memoir that he feels should be written in several different languages, Yiddish as well as Spanish among them, but instead is overwhelmingly in one. “Kitsch” signals the severance of his public (written) self from the private, plurilinguistically contoured world that supposedly funds it; but in making public that “nonrelation” (xvii), Lennon argues, and in that, choosing “kitsch over silence,” Stavans “meaningfully counterweights” the “concession” he has felt forced to make to his publisher (14). Still, when coupled with Between by Christine Brooke-Rose, a novel which deliberately, even deliriously disregards “the standard editorial conventions for writing in multiple languages” (15), the second notion that his book supplies is a distinction between “weak” and “strong plurilingualism” (17) - the latter largely eschewing appositive translation. Which is not to say that the principal languages (English, German, and French) of Between do not in practice form “a core to which other languages [Lennon lists 13 alphabetically from Bulgarian to Turkish] are clearly peripheral” (17), or that Turkey itself is not figured as Europe’s “continental outside” (88). But this merely underscores the need to register the larger assemblages that give a political as well as aesthetic dimension to all these literary-language decisions. In particular, “globalization” is not simply a field of exchanges, ubiquitous trans-cultural ‘translations,’ in that sense; as often, it is “a mode of … the incommensurable difference of languages, cultures, and forms of knowledge” (8). And overwhelmingly, the language to whose procrustean mercies ‘foreign-language’ books need apply for access to visibility in the West (too easily conflated with global visibility) is U.S. English - precisely, accessible U.S. English.

In Chapter 1, “Language as [Symbolic] Capital,” Lennon ties the international prestige of English to its facilitating preeminence in “recent historic centers of global economic and military power” (32). The wedding of economic power to consumerism here is what most obviously makes for the premium set by commercial publishers on ‘accessibility,’ a point that artists have been making since, let’s say, Baudelaire proposed the typical “lecteur” as an opiated sadist “rêv[ant] d’échafauds.” But fascinating to me is how in his second chapter Lennon links this commercial premium on accessibility to hopes invested in machine translation (MT) on the brink of the Cold War. In their utopianism, these aims went back at least to the 1790s, when Robert Fulton was hawking to a succession of governments his blueprints for steamships and submarines (complete with torpedoes), on the premise that these superweapons would make war so terrible to wage that it would rapidly become unthinkable (a key critical account here is H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars). In like fashion, Warren Weaver in 1947 pitched MT (Lennon’s breakdown of the dovetailing of technical means and fantasy here is not the least fascinating aspect of the story) as a means to “the constructive and peaceful future of the planet” - but the fatal chauvinism was already there: “When I look at an article in Russian, I say, ‘This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode” (qtd. 65). And indeed, through most of the Cold War, MT energies and resources were funneled into translating (nominally, at any rate) more Soviet data than the human component of U.S. intelligence agencies could possibly process, even as the agents themselves were thereby absolved from any need to actually learn Russian (96–97). Lennon bends this in two directions: toward “the drive to optimize” (qtd. 63), on the one hand, that Christopher Newfield takes as across-the-board defining of Lyotard’s ‘postmodern condition’; and on the other, toward the aggressive acting-out “of human language’s difference from code” (63) that characterizes the ‘avant-garde’ - whose practitioners (he seems to have in mind here the so-called ‘Language poets’) launch an major challenge to accessibility, but in a spirit of “secession, of disappearance and self-erasure from” the history “schematized by literary authority,” becoming thus “unavailable to scholarship” (21–22). That Lennon will thereby allow the commercial publishing industry to dictate his possible research objects (not least in response to university demands for the production of such objects) is fair enough, and not uninteresting - but as one long associated, as a poet as well as a critic, with what he calls (and I haven’t called for over twenty years) the ‘avant-garde,’ I can’t help but notice the too-muchness with which he protests that “in undertaking scholarship one has already, in a sense, made one’s choice” (22). Even setting aside numerous poets with academic positions, one can point to Marjorie Perloff (Stanford), Al Filreis (U Penn), Alan Golding (U Louisville), Jerome McGann (U Virginia), and Michael Golston (Columbia) as non-poet scholars who have made viable careers as critics of linguistically innovative poetry. The topic might also have offered (Electronic Poetry Center, Penn Sound, ubuweb, and directories of electronic literature in many languages) a way into the “electronic literature, as an archive and engine of forms of textual culture that book culture really does block” (xviii), that Lennon in the end only gestures toward in the Afterword, “Unicode and Totality” (167–73).

Lennon’s structural choice for In Babel’s Shadow is to set up each chapter/essay as an implicit dialogue between an investigative meditation (on language as symbolic capital, for example, or on various ramifications of translation, or [Chapter 3] on aspects of ‘containment,’ George Kennan’s term for the policy he recommended the USA adopt with respect to Soviet Russia) and the close readings that follow of pertinent literary texts, on the premise that material conditions and literary space “are interdependent and mutually constitutive,” rather than “unilaterally determining and determined” (38). In particular, he argues, literature has a degree of creative play because it is defined by antinomies, “useful paradoxes and problems” insofar as they are definitively “insoluble”; thus clashes whose details cannot be fixed in advance are played out between private experience and conditions of its going public in print, the need to verbalize and the temptation not to write at all, the local and some larger regional field it is being ushered into, and so on (xvii). Arguably, all the books (and I should note it is important to Lennon to distinguish ‘book,’ which carries peculiar baggage, from ‘text,’ which too easily can be thought of as uncompromised by conditions of publication) - all the books of which he offers close readings are informed by massive political conflicts for which the authors seek some marginal resolution through focus on national languages. Let me begin here with “Das Fremde aus der Dose,” a “story-essay” (Lennon’s term) by Yoko Tawada, whose narrator’s “position as a nonnative speaker of German makes her profoundly, physically wary of fluency in any language, of the exclusionary exuberance of monolingualism, its inherent self-celebration” (20–21). Actually, it’s hard to imagine Lennon not having taken pleasure in the vigor and precision of this sentence just (partially) quoted, nor would I wish to begrudge it to him - which again, is in one sense only to underscore the multiple factors at play here, the complexities which preclude the innocence of any turn-on. Arguably the main literary villain of Lennon’s piece is Joyce, whose Finnegans Wake (he’s following David Damrosch in What is World Literature? here, and particularizing Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the Joycean “fascicular”), “by any right a stupendous example of cultural and linguistic cosmopolitanism, becomes a national or regional curiosity in its resistance to translation, to amplified circulation” (23) - rather than a dispersal into world languages, a centripetal touting of the incorporative punning power of English. Which I would grant, on condition of recalling the political aggression, at the time, of Joyce’s commandeering in Ulysses of not only English but also the supposedly foundational, to the Briton, “glory that was Greece,” and even (in the Latin version of the name) “grandeur that was Rome” for his own seamy and, outrageously, epic purposes - sidelining the myths feeding the Gaelic Revival which the British could pigeonhole if not respect, going for the prideful jugular.

So important is it when we read, when we write. Chapter 1 probes two introductions to reprints of All about H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani - an Indian writer born in Kenya in 1909, raised in what would become Pakistan, and by his mid-20s a correspondent for the London Times and international news agencies in India. The first introduction, by Anthony Burgess in 1970, groups Desani with Shakespeare, Kipling, and Joyce as writers of English that is “gloriously impure” (qtd. 42); thus he is reclaimed as not merely an exponent but a very revitalizer of “the British rhetorical tradition” (qtd. 41). By contrast, Salman Rushdie in “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance” (1982) hails in Hatterr “the first great stroke of the decolonizing pen” (qtd. 43), a reclaiming that Lennon argues also needs some qualifying: the novel, he finds, mutes its critique of the master language of empire by rendering its “comic inversion of the hierarchy of cultural knowledge” in terms recognizable to a British audience as Indian-grotesque, even as it takes a range of steps, including appositive translations of words from multiple languages, to keep English in its commanding place (44–45).

Let me quickly note here that Burgess is revisited in Chapter 3, “Containment,” where his A Clockwork Orange and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress are discussed as novels that in different ways wreak some violence on English by importations of Russian. Here I learned something I hadn’t known, having little interest in Burgess: that Nadsat, the invented language of his novel, is overwhelmingly made up of transliterated/anglicized Russian words (plus neologisms, puns, circumlocutions, etc.) (101–2). Heinlein’s approach is less ‘Joycean,’ consisting mainly of a few familiar terms (nyet, tovarishch, etc.) inserted into, and a dogged subtraction of definite and indefinite articles from, the narrator’s discourse. Yet both authors, Lennon shows, produce ‘weak plurilingual’ books that operate a ‘containment’ of Russian in ways harking to the founding dreams of MT: that knowledge of some words of a language substitutes for acquaintance with the cultural contexts in which those words are natively used. Still, these authors’ ideological agendas are relatively clear, as is what Lennon needs to do to locate them in dialogue with the history. But the corrective to Rushdie on Hatterr was trickier, and seemed indeed symptomatic of the book/series of essays to date. Specifically, Lennon seemed to keep implying but never stating some ideal that Hatterr, Between, On Borrowed Words, etc., fell short of, couldn’t help falling short of, but what was he asking them to achieve? - a fully-fledged ‘strong plurilingualism,’ translations be damned? But repeatedly he says that isn’t possible in a commercially published book. Guiding In Babel’s Shadow, in other words, there increasingly seemed to be not so much an absent thesis as (more troubling!) an obscure one.

It’s a risky strategy, adopted, I suspect, because he wanted to substantiate the particular before moving to the more contentious general in Chapter 4, “Language Memoir and Language Death.” Even this is not straightforward, alternating the oblique and tentative - “From here the way lies more open, I think, to permutational modes of questioning, which neither stand nor fall, as so many of us do these days, on either the autopoietic self-evidence of irreducible difference or the necessarily forced provenance of communicative reasoning” 123–24) - with, abruptly, extreme assertions: “language memoir is language death” (123, 132), or even “all of literature starts to seem like a ‘language memoir’ ” (qtd. 128 from Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons: A memoir, but endorsed by Lennon two pages later). The scenario can perhaps be briefly laid out. A “language memoir” (Kaplan’s term) is a hybrid of scholarship and autobiography detailing the experience of learning - of having one’s world turned upside down by - a new language; it conceivably names a new genre (Lennon’s remarks on genre [129–30] are subtle); and it meets “language death” because - of course - to be published in English, it has to largely exclude the language whose effects are its topic. But already De Man in 1979 had pointed the deconstructive way to a broadening of the yet-unnamed “language death,” in arguing that autobiography is “not a genre at all but ‘a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts” (qtd. 130). Every text, that is, enacts an interpretive agon of one sort or another with other texts, and these may all the time proliferate “within all elements of the system, exceeding and opening it again” (130); every text maintains a hopeful front against its already leaking or (especially today) flat evacuated necessary supports: we murder to publish.

But at work here, as I suggested at the outset, is a thesis more nuanced and complex - not least because of the research object’s emergent status, its “living-death” subsistence on “a structural border” within “a long-sanctioned ignorance,” where the (consequently) obligatorily self-reflexive critic may find “moments of the radically unexpected and unknown, as well as (or instead of) moments of acquisition, in a way that the material ‘impossibility’ of a radically plurilingual literature illuminates for us” (153). In the end, I think, this is where the interest and importance of In Babel’s Shadow lie, where the analytic perspicacity of its close readings, and its closely informed sketchings of context, matter. Chapter 5, “The Other Other Literature,” is informed by Lennon’s recalling (163) the 1987 “challenge to North American Anglos” by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza that he referred to much earlier, “to ‘meet her halfway’ in Spanish” (2). 24 years later, in a ‘globalized’ world shot through with, but not consumed by paranoias, the need to move toward allowance of other cultures presses upon all of us immeasurably more insistently. Rather than itemize Lennon’s (successful) search in his last chapter for the variants of “kitsch” that nonetheless constitute “moments of the radically unexpected,” let me close with something I don’t think I would have noticed in the same way before reading his book. Joe Wright’s recent action movie Hanna has a cheesecloth plot and a near-pathological insouciance regarding implications of the moral morass it celebrates: “kitsch” in the absolutely worst sense. But two scenes, that are probably shorter than they seem, are conducted in foreign languages without subtitles: the first in Arabic, the second in German. In terms of plot (such as it is), these scenes are not trivial; the film thus insists that we register our inhabitation of a world in which important things happen in languages that are not our own and perhaps (in part because the contexts are at best fragmentary to us) not fully translatable; yet the scenes tug us toward trying to read the clues. Do take note of the joint production companies, given below.

Works Cited and Mentioned

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. Between. 1968. The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four novels. Manchester: Carcanet, 1986.

Burgess, Anthony. Intro. to Desani, G.V. All About H. Hatterr. 1948. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970.

—-. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

Franklin, H. Bruce. War Stars: The superweapon and the American imagination. 1988. Rev. and expanded ed. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2008.

Hanna. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana. Screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr. Holleran Company and Studio Babelsberg, 2011.

Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1966.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. 1939. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

—-. Ulysses. 1922. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Kaplan, Alice. French Lessons: A memoir. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Osman, Jena, and Juliana Spahr, eds. “Translucinación,” special issue, Chain 10 (Summer 2003).

Rushdie, Salman. “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance.” Times of London 3 July 1982: 8.

Shell, Marc, and Werner Sollers, eds. The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature: A reader of original texts with English translations. New York: NYU P, 2000.

Stavans, Ilan. On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language. New York: Viking, 2001.