22 July 2024

Translation: Art by Théophile Gautier

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913

This is Bora Mici's original French to English translation of the poem L'art by the 19th century French poet Théophile Gautier, known for having pronounced that art is created for its own sake, or "L'art pour l'art." This poem is taken from the collection Emaux et Camées, or Enamels and Cameos, in which the poet likens the creative process of a visual artist to that of a poet. Unlike the Romantic poets of his period, Gautier wrote in a much more simplistic, almost naive, manner and relished the sensual nature of words and what they represented. He tried to fashion what he wrote about as if he were applying color and texture to it, like a visual artist. In its original version, this particular poem, which I have translated a bit loosely in certain places, while still trying to retain its rhyme scheme and structure, is more conceptual and abstract than Gautier's other poems and is written in extremely simple verse. French being a language that is more prone to rhyming than English, I had to make a few concessions in my version. 

Art by Théophile Gautier

Yes, prettier is art that comes from
A shape worked with terse
Marble, onyx, enamel, verse.

No feigned constraints upon!
But in order to walk upright
You don,
Oh Muse, a buskin slender and tight.

Away with rhythm and suit
Like a shoe that none fits,
Every foot
tries it on for fashion’s sake and quits!

Sculptor, push and plumb
The clay that molds
Your thumb,
When the mind wanderingly unfolds;

Wrestle with the Carrara stone,
With the Parian marble demure
Rarest alone
Guardians of the pure contour;

Borrow from Syracuse
Its bronze where firmly
The Muse
strikes a bold line charmingly;

With a delicate touch
Seek in the agate you file
Not trying much
Apollo’s profile.

Painter, avoid water based hues,
And fix the color tones
Delicate blues
In the enameler’s oven stones.

Make the blue mermaids,
Which twist their tails
In myriad braids
Into heraldic whales.

In her cloud-like trilobe
The Virgin and Child,
The globe
Let the Cross above it beguile.

Everything fades. — Only art robust
Possesses eternity.
The bust
Survives urbanity.

And the austere medallion
That the farmer unearths
With his scallion
Reveals royal births.

The gods themselves expire,
But the sovereign songs
Forever inspire
Like metals they are strong.

File, chisel, sculpt;
May your wandering dream
Find hold
In the block that redeems!

22 June 2024

Translation: The Canary Prince as told by Italo Calvino, Part 1

Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1872

This is Bora Mici's original translation from Italian into English of the fairytale The Canary Prince, Il Principe canarino, as told by Italo Calvino. It tells a story of treachery, love, bravery and ingenuity that integrates many traditional fairytales, including Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and lesser known ones.

The Canary Prince by Italo Calvino, Part 1

There was a King who had a daughter. Her mother had died and her stepmother was jealous of her and always badmouthed her to the King. The girl desperately tried to clear her name; but the stepmother was always a step ahead and the King, even though he loved his daughter, ended up believing the stepmother: and he told her she was allowed to send her away. However, she had to put her in a comfortable place because he would have never allowed her to be mistreated. “As for that,” said the stepmother, “don’t worry, don’t even think about it,” and she locked up the girl in a castle in the middle of the woods. She gathered a group of Court maidens and locked them up with her to keep her company with the instructions that they ought to neither let her go out nor sit by the window. Of course, she paid them from the coffers of the Royal House. The girl was given a comfortable room and all that she wanted to eat and drink: she just could not go out. The maidens, on the other hand, who were very well paid and had a lot of free time, kept to themselves and did not pay attention to her.

Now and then, the King asked his wife, “And how is our daughter? Is she doing anything interesting?” In order to make it seem like she was involved in her affairs, the Queen went to visit her. At the castle, as soon as she got out of her carriage, the maidens all ran to greet her and to tell her to not worry. The girl was doing very well and was very happy. The Queen climbed up to her room for a few minutes. “So, you are doing well, yes? You have everything you need, yes? I can see from your complexion that you are healthy. The air is good. So keep smiling! Good-bye!” And she left. She told the King that she had never seen his daughter so happy.

However, the Princess who was always alone in that room, with her escort who did not even look at her, spent her days sadly looking out of the window. She sat there with her elbows on the windowsill, and she would have gotten calluses on them if she had not thought to put a pillow underneath. The window looked upon the forest and all day long, the Princess saw nothing but the tops of the trees, the clouds and beneath, the hunters’ path. One day, the son of a King happened upon this path. He was following a wild boar and passing by the castle, which he thought was abandoned many years ago, he was surprised to notice signs of life: clothes drying between the balustrades, smoke in the chimneys, open windows. He was looking up at all this when he saw a beautiful girl sitting by a window and smiled at her. The girl also saw the Prince dressed in yellow hunting pants and carrying a musket, and she also smiled at him. They spent an hour looking and smiling at one another and also curtseying and bowing because the distance that separated them did not allow for other forms of communication.

The next day, the Prince dressed in yellow, showed up again with the excuse that he was going hunting, and they spent two hours looking at each other; and this time, other than exchanging smiles, curtseys and bows, they also put one hand on their hearts and shook their handkerchiefs for a long time. The third day, the Prince stayed for three hours, and they also blew each other a kiss with their fingertips. On the fourth day, he was there as always, when an Old Hag tumbled out from behind a tree and began to snigger: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”

“Who are you? What’s there to laugh about?” said the prince in a lively voice.

“It’s just that I have never seen two lovers who are so stupid as to stand so far away from one another!”

“If only I knew how to reach her Grandma!” said the Prince.

21 June 2024

Reductio Ad Absurdum: Reading Freud on the Subway

The Subway by George Tooker, 1950

This is a little story, or at least the beginning of it, that I wrote for a local writer's competition. It did not get selected so I am publishing it here because I think it makes points worth considering.

Reading Freud on the Subway

In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud writes that he finds no error in the Communist economic plan, but surmises that it would not resolve one fundamental problem: the need to express aggression and direct it inward or outward. An economic system that prioritizes the equal distribution of resources might work, but human nature would still creep in and create inequities elsewhere.

Imagine a subway car with a limited number of car seats. If everything is planned accordingly, there are only as many customers as there are empty seats available at any given time. The flow of passengers into the car is subject to careful monitoring and regulation and unfolds without a hitch; there is no competition in sight because the frequency of the trains adapts to the fluctuating demand. But the train ride is long, longer for some than for others. How will they occupy themselves? Sound planning might alleviate one set of spatial constraints, but the laws of physics dictate that a train travels at an average speed over a given distance, and for lack of inventions to come, the present imposes itself in all its less than predictable vicissitudes.  

There’s a zealous knitter next to an avid reader. Although he tries his best to minimize the elbow room required to stitch his rows, sometimes the end of his thick wooden needle brushes against the flashy neon green and pink book cover on the edge of his peripheral vision. The reader, who is wearing headphones to drown out the chatter of two gregarious friends across the aisle, remains unperturbed. She shifts in her seat, crosses one leg over the other, but does not make a move. The story is engrossing after all, and a slight nudge from the left is a small price to pay for the pleasure of a subway car that is not cramped. The train pulls into a station. The demure couple sitting to her right gets off. Taking its place, in saunters an eccentric pair bundled up against the cold in what seems to be glossy astronaut suits, carrying bunches of flowers with flanking gigantic palm leaves.

Now our reader feels squished. What’s more, the flowers are casting an obstructive shadow over the pages of her book. Where should she turn? Should she reprimand the knitter for occasionally jolting her book or ask the bulky new arrivals to kindly put down their flowers into the aisle? She considers turning to the flower people. As she is about to make her move and takes off her headphones, one of them, the one immediately to her right, makes eye contact, then glances at his bouquet and shakes his head as if saying, “Not going to happen, sister. The flowers are staying put. Otherwise, they’ll roll up and down the aisle as the subway screeches to a stop and starts up again.” She reconsiders and turns to the left.

At this point, the conversation between the gregarious friends is really grating on her. She grabs the end of the needle. Its jaunty movement abruptly comes to a stop. She looks the knitter in the eye as if saying enough is enough — both say they’re sorry.

How can we explain this reaction? Aggression is how the superego, our social monitoring mechanism, copes with a recalcitrant, desirous ego, which in turn negotiates with our basest instincts to present a unified and socially acceptable image to our most immediate interlocutors. Gestures, thoughts, simple eye contact become aggressive acts that lead to painful remorse in conscientious individuals. But what happens between our reader and our knitter? Do they compromise and turn their backs to each other so as to no longer venture into each other's embattled airspace, so to speak, and thus expose themselves to new vagaries of idiosyncratic train behaviors? Do they cease and desist?

Or does one emerge victorious through subtle guilt-tripping or by occupying the moral high ground? Or does it depend on what book the reader is reading and the lessons it can impart in the serendipitous event that she reflect upon them, and perhaps shares them with her nimble fingered neighbor, who in turn offers to knit her a pair of gloves to keep her hands warm while she is reading other works of literature that provide insight into human nature and encourage conversations, thus defusing stressful factors and creating bonds? 

31 May 2024

Translation: George Sand on the Environmental Rescue of the Fontainebleau Forest by Artists outside of Paris - Part 5

Jules Dupré, Fontainebleau Oaks, 1840

This is Bora Mici's original French to English translation of a letter the French 19th century writer George Sand wrote in defense of the Fontainebleau Forest on the outskirts of Paris in order to preserve it from urban and rural development. Sand writes of how important it is as a place for artists, poets, naturalists and all classes of society, where beauty and meaning, as embodied in the natural environment, can provide both a respite from the bustle of urban life, from rectilinear productive agricultural plots and where people of all ages, especially older and younger children, can venture in order to learn about the mystery of life as nature reveals it. 

Letter in support of the Environmental Rescue of the Fontainebleau Forest by George Sand and Barbizon School Artists, Part 5

There’s more. An exclusively artistic education is not an infallible means of developing the sentiment of the beautiful and the truthful in man. It entails too much discussion, too many conventions, too much professional skill; by learning how one should see and how one should express things, it is quite possible that the disciple of so many masters could often lose the gift of seeing through his own eyes and of producing according to a meaning that is his own. Nature does not buckle this way to the professor’s orders; essentially mysterious, she has her own revelation for each individual and possesses him through a process that she does not repeat for someone else. You must see her for yourself and question her with your own tentacles. She is eloquent for everyone, but never fully translatable, because she possesses all the languages, and beneath the profusion of her different expressions, she keeps a last hidden word for herself and which, thank God, man will seek eternally. No painter, no poet, no musician, no naturalist will ever finish this goblet of beauty that always overflows after he has drunk from it at length. After the most splendid drinkers, the smallest little birds will always be able to quench their thirst, and when you will have learned about all of the artists, all of the poets, all of the naturalists, you will still have everything to learn if you have not seen nature in her own home, if you have not personally quizzed the sphinx.

What a conquest to be undertaken by man, and I mean for every man currently alive or to be born! To go into nature, to search for the oracle of the sacred forest and bring back her word, even if just one word that will imbue all of your life with the profound charm of possessing her being! This is well worth conserving the temples from where this benevolent divinity has not been hunted!

Because it’s time to think about it. Nature is disappearing. The great plants are disappearing at the hand of the farmworker, the moors are losing their scents, and you have to go quite far from the city to find silence, to breathe in the odors of the the free-growing plant or to find out the secret of the stream that chatters and flows as it wants. Everything is cut down, razed to the ground, improved, penned in, aligned or made into an obstacle: if in these cultivated rectilinear plots that we pretend to call the countryside, from time to time you see a group of beautiful trees, you can be certain that it will be surrounded by walls and that you are in front of a private property where you don’t have the right to let your child enter so that he can find out what a linden or oak tree is like. Only the wealthy have the right to keep a little corner of nature for their personal enjoyment. On the day that an agricultural law is decreed, not even a tree would be left in France. In Berry, in the winter, they mutilate the elm tree in order to feed the sheep with its leaves and heat the oven with its branches. There are only stumps left, monsters.

Everyone knows the story of the white willow in France; it’s our most beautiful tree, the one that reaches the most imposing stature. There are maybe three left; but certain regions are covered by little bundles of whitish leaves that are supported by a large, shapeless, entirely cracked log. There you have the white willow, the giant of our climate.