Friday, March 27, 2015

The Unshakeable PERHAPS

Here's Robin Fulton's translation of "Brief Pause in the Organ Recital", a poem by Tomas Tranströmer (15 April 1931 - 26 March 2015):


The organ stops playing and it's deathly quiet in the church, but only for a couple of seconds.
And the faint rumbling penetrates from the traffic out there, that greater organ.

For we are surrounded by the murmuring of the traffic, it flows along the cathedral walls.
The outer world glides there like a transparent film and with shadows struggling pianissimo.

And as if it were part of the street noise I hear one of my pulses beating in the silence,
I hear my blood circulating, the cascade that hides inside me, that I walk about with,

and as close as my blood and as far away as a memory from when I was four,
I hear the trailer that rumbles past and makes the six-hundred-year-old walls tremble.

This could hardly be less like a mother's lap, yet at the moment I am like a child,
hearing the grown-ups talking far away, the voices of the winners and the losers mingling.

On the blue benches a sparse congregation. And the pillars rise like strange trees:
no roots (only the common floor) and no crown (only the common roof).

I relive a dream. That I'm standing alone in a churchyard. Everywhere heather glows
as far as the eye can reach. Who I am waiting for? A friend. Why doesn't he come. He's here already.

Slowly death turns up the lights from underneath, from the ground. The heath shines, a stronger and stronger purple —
no, a colour no one has seen ... until the morning's pale light whines in through the eyelids

and I waken to that unshakeable PERHAPS that carries me through the wavering world.
And each abstract picture of the world is as impossible as the blue-print of a storm.

At home stood the all-knowing Encyclopedia, a yard of bookshelf, in it I learnt to read.
But each one of us has his own encyclopedia written, it grows out of each soul,

it's written from birth onwards, the hundreds of thousands of pages stand pressed against each other
and yet with air between them! Like the quivering leaves in a forest. The book of contradictions.

What's there changes by the hour, the pictures retouch themselves, the words flicker.
A wake washes through the whole text, it's followed by the next wave, and then the next ...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Inverting "An Artist of the Floating World"

In his New Yorker review of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel The Buried Giant, James Wood describes the narrators of Ishiguro's earlier novels as follows:
His complacent or muted unreliable narrators, like the painter Ono, in An Artist of the Floating World, or the butler Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, tell stories that mildly and self-servingly repress secrets, shameful compromises, and the wounds of the past. (Both of these narrators have reason to conceal or minimize their involvement with Fascist politics just before the Second World War.).
 While this is an accurate description of Stevens, it gets Ono backwards. I know this, because I misread An Artist of the Floating World the first time I read it. Only a second reading did I notice what makes the novel so distinct and striking: Ono does not "conceal or minimize his involvement" with Fascism. On the contrary, throughout the book, he is trying to acknowledge his guilt – and everyone around him doesn't want to hear about it. They tell him he's exaggerating; they tell him there's no reason for him to feel so guilty. If the novel is a figure of "self-serving repression of secrets", it is the people around Ono who are doing the repression, not Ono himself.

It's time to reread An Artist of the Floating World so I can back up this claim with some evidence!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Using "that" to refer to people

I saw a complaint about the supposedly increasing use of "that" to refer to people (instead of "who").

Since I have a digital copy of Jane Austen's "Emma," it took me only a few minutes to find an example of such a usage by Austen: Mr. Woodhouse "was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind."

But the Corpus of Historical American English also provides some evidence. I searched for the phrase "man who" and the phrase "man that". Amusingly, "the man that" seems to be decreasing in frequency. From the 1830s to the 1930s (by decades), it appears with at least 200 hits per decade, while since then it has been decreasing, with only 94 hits in the 1990s and 116 in the 2000s.

But the complaint was made by someone from Britain. The BYU corpora do not include a corpus of Historical British English like the COHA for American English, but you can use the BYU corpus site to search Google Books. And again, "man that" has decreased considerably since the 19th century: over 20,000 hits per decade from the 1830s to the 1900s (and up over 30,000 sometimes). Oddly enough, there is then a sudden drop in hits between the 1900s and the 1910s, from over 36k hits to about 12,500. And then it's been pretty steady since then.

So whatever is going on here, it is highly unlikely to be a matter of increasing frequency of use of "that" to refer to people (or at least to refer to "man"). This is what's known as "the frequency illusion."