Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dante Had Two Prussians in Her Brush

People online that I've seen have been wondering about the lyric from the new of Montreal song "Slave Translator": "Dante had two Prussians in her brush, quite a rush."

Yesterday, I wanted to take a nap, but, as you do, I also wanted to delay the nap. I also am quite bored of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and wanted to look at the next two books in my list so as to remind myself that this was not the only book. A friend of mine who left the country to go travel for months gave me all her books as she knew I'd give them a good home, so I've been reading my way through them, in more or less random order. So I pulled out The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Maurice, feeling that I was likely to delay my nap for quite a while looking through them.

Instead, on the very first page of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I found "Dante had two brushes in her press," was deeply amused, and felt pleased enough to just go take my nap. It's a little interesting that Kevin is referencing James Joyce again - he already started talking about Ulysses in "Vegan in Furs."

This is how you go about constructing a system. Truth is obviously irrelevant!

Three Things About _The Hunchback of Notre Dame_

1) My brother had read the chapter "One Shall Destroy the Other" in a class and described it to me, but despite this advance preview it turned out to be quite dull. That having been said, it was a huge relief to me to see Byron towards the end. I don't know why I find it so endlessly pleasing that Byron was such a celebrity in the 19th century. It's not even like I'm so into celebrity culture in the modern world - I would hardly claim to be uninterested in it, but still, there's plenty of people out there who are far more interested than I. But whenever I see some completely random reference to Byron in a seemingly unrelated text by an American or a French person, I find it deeply satisfying. Ah, Byron.

2) Relatedly, later on in the book, a character mentions a "text of Charlemagne, Stryga vel masca (Witch or vampire)." Interested as I am in the history of the Western vampire, this definitely got my attention. Was there actually a Latin word for "vampire"? Was Charlemagne actually writing about vampires? It's a little unclear, but I think I've reassured myself that this wasn't quite what was going on. It's hard to find material about this particular text that isn't directly related to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but this 1820 French text (the link goes to the Google translation) mentions it - Google translates "stryge" as vampire. However, looking on Wiktionary, while masca clearly means "witch," the meaning of stryge is less clear. It comes from the Vulgar Latin "striga," which does have "vampire" as one meaning, but seems to refer ambiguously to witches as well. The Romanian strigoi are clearly vampires, but it's alright because they are the old-fashioned disgusting Germanic type of vampire, not the sexy Byronic type. The Italian strega are of course witches, just like in the Tomie DePaola books. So even if Charlemagne was writing about vampires, I think it's okay and does not dethrone Byron, and he may have just been writing about witches and ghosts anyway.

3) This passage:

"The archdeacon heard him not. 'Oh! fool!' continued he, without taking his eyes off the window. 'And even couldst thou have broken through that formidable web, with thy frail wings, thoughtest thou to have attained the light? Alas! that glass beyond - that transparent obstacle - that wall of crystal harder than brass, which separates all philosophy from the truth - how couldst thou have passed beyond it? Oh! vanity of science! how many sages have come fluttering from afar, to dash their heads against it! How many systems come buzzing to rush pell-mell against this eternal window!'"

At first glance, it looks interesting, because it's talking about people trying to achieve transcendence and inevitably failing. But I think the focal point is in the wrong place for me to empathize. The issue here is that ultimate truth is unattainable. Which, okay, it's true, but is that really so much of a concern for anyone? The scientists I know personally are pragmatists who believe in the scientific method and are happy to admit that all of their theories are models of reality which always can be further refined - while of course their goal is to find more accurate models, I think they appreciate the fact that all they're doing is modelling reality because the gap between model and reality means that there will always be more science to do. As for me, a friend (a musician) recently asked me what truth meant in my discipline, and I pointed out that, while other students of literature would obviously disagree, for me, truth was simply not the significant issue. Literature and literary studies are not trying to find what's true - we're trying to construct our own system, obviously fed by the truth of this world but not beholden to it - and, in fact, surely the attraction for those of us who are attracted to this mode of thought is the fact that it's not beholden to truth. The problem with our system is not that it's untrue - in fact, that's the benefit of the system. The problem with the system is that it's unstable, tends to regress to the abyss. Ultimately, Dom Claude's concern seems to be a medieval one - it's always a bit surprising to me when people today obsess too much about the unattainability of truth, since I tend to feel that we have solutions for that that pretty much work for us!