DEATH AND AFTERLIFE OF THE PLOT IN TRANSLATION OF CULTURE

_ Dalia Staponkute




I have long put life and death in quotation marks,
like fabrications known to be empty.
Marina Tsvetaeva, “New Year’s Eve”

The plot has not been executed but in translation of culture it became a convert who changed its character: the same and other Lazarus, the earthly Saint, who gets prayers and mockery equally. Translation of culture is translation wrapped up in richer historical and philosophical meanings. It is a luxury rope, which time manufactured to the modest term of translation. Under translations of culture I mean contemporary routes used by my generation. I envision in translation of culture a task of a text, and also life in intermediate spaces (if such are really possible). Translation of culture as a task of a text is known to us from the time immemorial, but as a meaningful category which illuminates contemporary processes it appeared in the world of theory only along with my generation. It is not my intention to give a conceptual speech, but to share some thoughts about globalization, my generation, a plot and signs of its death as well as afterlife. The idea of translation of culture allows me to see into the problematics of a plot historically.

Not so long ago Bakhtin suggested:
-The history of literature can be very helpful to us;
-Let’s value it more scientifically;
-Let‘s see whether we have laws by which literary forms change;
-Let‘s find out how new epochs translate into themselves the contents of the previous ones;
-Let‘s study why almost plotless epistolary of the seventeenth century gave birth to rich plots of romanticism; how romanticism gave its positions to liberal symbolist plots, and how the latter sought for a refuge in clear-cut lines of modernism…and once more liberated itself in an epoch which we label postmodernism.

In postmodernism I easily find features of multiculturalism. Other culture today is generously and dangerously close as never before. The proximity creates tension, the tension encourages translation. When translation enters my space, I experience gentle violence and interventionist behaviour of another culture. When another culture, even a few foreign words, settle into my private space, my feeling of language, my mental and bodily expressions, even daily habits, everyday and creative life is transformed: I write wondering why do I constantly write in a different manner, where does anxiety of difference come from and why do I need to write differently. I feel a need of a plot and wonder why it slips out of my hands. I feel the invisible existence of the plot but it is not with me. The plot today is short of fidelity. So, I cannot swear on my fidelity to him. It is impossible to shoot the plot because it is impossible to catch him. Perhaps he has been globalized without me noticing it? Perhaps it became totally unreachable? If it is not the case, then may be it would be reasonable to globalize it and stick it to the wall? In contemporary translation theory I find insights on globalization of the canon as an irreversible process. The theory raises questions on trans-cultural plots and their translatability. Kundera, Soyinka, Marquez, Desai, Morrison, Rushdie, Makhfouz... etc... Why their plots easily grow into various linguistic-cultural and social contexts and are suitable for classifications such as international, postcolonial, minority, multicultural, etc.? 

On the occasion of Japanese-European cooperation this year I will bring up one interesting case regarding Japanese literature and globalization. A contemporary Japanese thinker Masao Miyoshi drew a close relation between globalization of the canon and historical colonization. The novel with clear cut plot begun in the West nearly simultaneously with the commencement of colonialism. It was fit to distribution over great distances and thus particularly suitable for the writer to send it out, to far away places. Novel and plot, therefore, were inescapably colonialist—even with an anticolonialist theme. In the mid of the 19th century along with westernization and modernization of Japan, there appeared modern form of narrative shosetsu. Instead of trying to resemble the western novel shosetsu preserved the elements of traditional oral culture and remained in tension with the novel concerning the plot. The narrative sequence of the shosetsu tends to be coeval rather than consequential, discouraging the causal linking of narrative elements. This is so partly because of the temporal grammatical category of the Japanese language, where the perfect and imperfect are used rather than past, present and future tenses. In shosetsu, the historical past tense (the ideal instrument for every construction of the world), the „unreal time of cosmogonies, myths, History and Novel,“ as Barthes put it, is not available. The shosetsu thus is more paratactic than syntactic, resulting in weakened or freer and open-ended plotting. The rejection of clear ending or resolution in Japanese prose narratives also has to do with absence of genesis and apocalypse myths in Japanese culture. These narratives of shosetsu may often continue on and on, at times refusing the possibility of closure altogether. 

In my view, this is an enlightening example of how translation or perception of one culture by another in an epoch of globalization might cause revolutionary changes and drastic differences of literary forms... Miyoshi challenges literary and translation theory, then, to classify what the global canon is. In fact, he raises the question: can we really speak of transcultural translatable plot and norms of internationalized aesthetics? With new questions on aesthetic agenda, the challenge hits the positions of postmodern philosophy as well.

The latter might argue that the plot as an art, as a kind of superstructure does not appear out of nothing, and does not disappear into nothingness.  It is intertwined with the complex system of intercultural relations and even if the plot is dying, there is always something at hand to replace it.  An Italian scenario, under the name of Gianni Vattimo, perhaps would suggest three versions of the death of the plot—utopia, kitsch and silence. Maybe the interplay of all three could guarantee the afterlife of the plot.  If we look at a contemporary literary agenda more carefully, we could see not death but decline of the plot:  it is some sort of disease that could be healed, Vattimo holds, only by culturally relevant translation of tradition.

Just how relevant is tradition to the plots born within contemporary global culture? Along with Japanese example, I want to mention another two. First is Italo Calvino. It is my feeling that plots of Calvino act as if they are dead, to see how the world gets along without them. Death is often a metaphor for detachment, but detachment here is not the same as irresponsibility. The writer states that he doesn‘t seek to kill the plot but to replace it with such a framework which can contain stories without restricting them.  Arabian Nights, Decameron and Cervantes works give to Calvino the thread of Ariadne.  In his case this means a return not only to the ontology of the novel, but also beyond the boundaries of his cultural tradition into another culture and another epoch. To my delight, it supports the idea of translation of culture. All authors, after all, are translated people.

I take a beautiful edition of the publishing house with a liberal name Everyman‘s Library. Italo Calvino: If on a Winter‘s Night a Traveler... The book begins as every book devoted for every-man should begin—from the section „Chronology“.  The latter is divided in sub-sections: author‘s life; literary context; historical events. In „Literary context,“ along with Italian contemporaries of Calvino, there are names of other authors and thinkers placed in chronological order: Hemingway, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Bulgakov, Kafka, Faulkner, Nabokov, Hesse, Freud, Jung, Beckett, Sartre, Blanchot, Borges, Auerbach, de Beauvoir, Orwell, Barthes, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss, Ginzburg, Marquez...  Perhaps they did not study and did not translate each other, but it is those and not other names that are highlighted side by side with Calvino.  And it is not an accidental list. It is a translation of Calvino.  Each name and meaning coded in them finds their equivalent in plots of Calvino.

Another example: Jorge Luis Borges, the admirer and destroyer of lists, catalogues historical documents and perhaps any literary structures in general. I find lots of irony directed to the drama of the plot in his Fictions. Fictions suggest the following metaphor for a plot, misleading garden with forking paths.  The best plot is the one which creates to a reader an illusion that he invented it himself. Since readers are a breed that already vanished, and each European with a sense of self-respect is a potential writer, then the most valuable pleasure given by literature is an ability to invent.  It is tempting to think that nobody today needs plots except of the writer him/herself.  Even if a plot shows his face, Borges devilishly whispers to an author to destroy it on purpose or even better:  to take old plots, translate them and claim an authorship of it. That is what one Borges characters Pierre Menard did:  he rewrote Don Quixote into another language. The texts of Cervantes and Menard coincide almost word for word, says Borges, but the second one is much richer...  Moreover, Borges even gives the formula of rewriting: anachronism on purpose and misleading attributions. And moreover, the writer just hits with his frightening prognosis, that in the future every man will be able to produce and reproduce any idea... „That it is exactly what is going to happen, “and that it is what is waiting for us, says the ironist.

Me...I started writing without thinking of a plot. But I knew well about the idea that obsesses and demands production. I also suspected what the structure of the text is: I bring it to the empty screen as a cup of boiling coffee, which gets cold while writing looses its refreshing qualities and remains unused.

As a reader of Borges and Calvino I see how they invent the plot that invents the reader... The process of postmodern invention reminds Japanese narratives without closure. But European culture to the contrary of Japanese, leaves some things in the past tense thus cutting them from afterlife (that goes on and on without closure). And in the past lived Heraclitus who deposited his book in the temple of Artemis, and some say that he deliberately wrote it in obscure language and plot, so the one who is capable of understanding would take and read it.




Dalia Staponkute