The end of civilization as we wish we had known it

Berthelot went on with his dispiriting revelations, at the end of which I exclaimed:

“So it’s all over? There’s nothing left for us to do but to rear a new generation to exact vengeance?”

“No, no,” cried  Renan, standing up and going red in the face, “no, not vengeance! Let France perish, let the Nation perish; there is a higher ideal of Duty and Reason!”

“No, no,” howled the whole company. “There is nothing higher than The Nation!”.

Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules Goncourt (tr. Baldick, NYRB 2007),  p.172: September 6, 1870.

The captain remarked that was fighting between the Turkish troops and the Serbians, who are in revolt. The Russians intend to stir up a quarrel and then sit by and reap their reward. Since England, France, and Germany see that it would be to their detriment if Russia were to have full access to the Dardanelles Straits, they have been earnestly deliberating as to how they might protect them…. In their hearts the Russians fear the assistance that the English might render to the Turks, so they do not dare to act presumptuously. Since the Turks have recently agreed to settle the trouble in Turkey, their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war. (January 13, 1877)

Kuo Sung-t’ao, The Record of an Envoy’s Journey to the West, in J.D. Frodsham, The First Chinese Embassy in the West, p. 65, Oxford, 1974

“There is nothing higher than The Nation!”. The invading Germans had just captured Napoleon III with his army, and Paris was surrounded. The Second Empire was overthrown and a provisional government proclaimed, but the military situation remained grim and within five months France would surrender and be forced to accept an unfavorable peace. Very few Frenchmen held to Renan’s humane universal values; the call for vengeance was much more compelling. (As far as that goes  Germany, now become an empire alongside Britain and in place of France, wasn’t satisfied with the outcome either, and would soon enough come back for more.)

Seven years later Kuo Sung-t’ao, the first Chinese ambassador to England, kept a record of the long sea voyage  taking him to his post. During his trip he improved his knowledge of the Western nations and the relationships between them, and as it happened, at the time when he reached the Mediterranean Russia and Turkey were engaged in a dispute about Serbia, with all the other powers hovering on the wings to keep things from getting out of hand.

“Their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war”, wrote the Ambassador.  And he was right for the moment, but he had put his finger on the place where the general war would in fact break out 37 years later. In 1914 it was Russia v. Austria-Hungary instead of Russia v. Turkey, but it was the same game.

The sovereign nation-state is a war machine and the international order is a system for scheduling wars.  Already by 1870 culture was pretty much at the service of the state, and by 1914 most of the left and avant-garde enthusiastically committed themselves to the murderous, pointless Great National Causes of their various homelands, all hell broke loose, and the world was never to be the same again.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Present King of England, Scotland and Ireland

Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria Herzog von Bayern, King of Bavaria, England, Scotland, and Ireland

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm  Comments (25)  

Two questions about Vinicius de Moraes’ poem

Poem here.


When the poet writes

Pedirei gritando
Ao mar que mate e ao vento que violente
As brancas praias de pudor tão fundo.

which I translate

Shouting, I will beseech
The sea to kill, and the winds to profane,
The white beaches so full of bashfulness.

what does he mean? As far as I know my translation is accurate (pudor can be translated a number of ways), but I can’t figure out what sense those lines make in the poem. Why are the white beaches full of bashfulness (or whatever) and why does the poet want them killed and profaned?

2. In a few places I have slid past the word êsse, literally “that, that one”. It seems to function as an intensifier or interjection, for example here:

A Mesa imensa onde, êsse, pode ver

How should that be handled?


First of all, I absent-mindedly translated violar instead of violantar. Their meanings are similar but not the same.

Violantar:  violate, force, coerce, compel, break (promise), force open, alter. (Not = violar).

Next, pudor:

Pudor:  chastity, modesty, bashfulness, shyness, propriety, shamefacedness.

Using the clue that the poet is asking the city to prepare itself for his coming by divesting itself of purity, etc., instead of cluelessly translating from the dictionary word for word, and translating matar metaphorically:

Shouting, I will beseech
The winds to violate and the sea to lay waste
The white beaches of prudishness.

“Prudishness” = thick pudor.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 12:04 am  Comments (9)  

Vinicius de Moraes: The Return of the Prodigal Son

A Volta do Filho Pródigo

(Tentative translation, corrections and suggestions welcome).

I will waken the birds who, for fear of darkness,
Have gone silent in the nighttime branches
And sleeplessly await the break of dawn.
I will rouse the drunkards in the doorways,
The sleepwalking dogs, and the ambient mysteries
Which fill the night. Shouting, I will beseech
The winds to violate and the sea to lay waste
The white beaches thick with prudery.
With laughter and song I will torch
God’s habitual nighttime silence,
So intimidating to man. May the city
Put a lunar shawl over its face
And come out to receive its poet
With jasmine branches and memories.

This hour is for beauty. In every stone,
In every house, in every street, in every
Tree there still lives a kiss made
For me: me, the urban lover,  more than
Urban, superhuman, in the wild nighttime city.
Probably I won’t come mounted
On any horse, nor in armor, since this — Poetry —
Will protect me best of all, with its chain mail
Of silence. Very possibly I’ll arrive drunk,
And if it’s January, wearing a sports coat.

What’s important is the arrival, the unity
Of me and the city, the city and me —
And to hear once more the sea shattering
On rocks, or roaring in the ocean,
Lonely like a god…. Beloved Rio,
Woman petrified into buttocks and breasts
And knees of millennial stone, with green
Pubis and armpits and unbound hair,
Fresh and scented with chlorophyll —
I love you, woman, sleeping
By the sea! I love you in your utter nakedness
In the sun, and your peacefulness in the moonlight.
I feel you next to me — your light
Does not harm my silence, my silence
Is yours. I know that, protected
By the beings moving within your arms
Your eyes have visions of other spaces
Past and future. Just as at times
Above the moonlit Niemeyer street,
Amidst the clamor of the whipped waves
The mountains will ponder. What silence
Can be heard settling there, what solemnity
Of nature! I know, and it’s the truth,
That under the Sun, Rio is completely bright,
All too bright, and without mystery.
I know that in the glare of January
Secrets die the way birds die, gladly.
I know all of this.

Now I see with these my tireless eyes
Ideas exploding like flowers
In the rays of the sun, now I see
Mathematical castles collapsing like cards,
Philosophical systems losing their daytime logic
At night, unfinished works of art getting lost
In fron of a sweaty armpit, in the noise of creation,
And crowds of saints made rabid by
The healthful properties of ultraviolet light.

Whoever has the nighttime habit,
Whoever lives in intimacy with silence,
Whoever is able to hear the music of darkness
When life reproduces itself there —
For them, the city offers itself
As a common zone of eternity
In counterpoint to the movement of the sea
And the millennial metamorphoses of the rock,
In its infinity of infinities….

For them, Dos Irmãos tells an astonishing
Story, a story of forces erupting
From the earth, producing sudden forms:
Viúva! Pão de Açúcar! Corcovado!
Further south is the tomb of the Sun —
The huge mesa, where can be seen
At sunset, should you be able to see,
The silhouette of primitive man
(The same who, even today, transformed,
Crosses the mosaic of the Avenue)
And even, who knows?, fan clubs of Nature
In their rows of seats, watching
Sea serpents in blind struggle
Rouse tidal waves with their duel
In the natural stadium of Guanabara….


Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 8:46 pm  Comments (8)