Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Odds and Ends

The big family project this week is cleaning out the sunroom so one of Grandpa's brothers can turn it into a downstairs bathroom. There was a lot of stuff in there, including some books from my first undergrad stint and some writing I'd done back in middle school and  high school.

The biggest lesson I learned from reading a few of the old stories is that, no matter how bad you think some of your writing is now, it was worse when you were 12-14. To be fair, though, I could see the complexity of the subject matter going up in the high-school stuff, even if the writing style was still woefully bad.

Some of the old books from literature classes stirred up some memories. I came across a book containing three plays by Bertolt Brecht. The only one I had read was Life of Galileo, for a class on the depiction of science in literature. I randomly opened the book to Scene 4, in which Galileo debates a bunch of old-school Aristotelian philosophers and mathematicians on standards of evidence and the search for truth. I'd forgotten how brilliant some of the dialogue in the play is. One of the best (or most effectively translated lines) was "Why try to be clever now that we at last have a chance of being just a little less stupid?" If any utterance echoes through the decades (or even centuries, if one believes this line reflected Galileo's thinking to some extent), this is it.

I decided to keep a translation of Friedrich Duerrenmat's The Physicists. It's a great play, but my most vivid recollection of it is a mistranslated line. I had read untranslated scenes from this play in a second-year German class, and then read the full English translation for that science-in-literature class. When I saw the English line, "The world has fallen into the hands of an insane female psychiatrist" (Act Two, p. 92 of the 1991 Grove Weidenfeld edition), I cringed. It's an accurate literal translation of the line, but the literal translation ruins the spirit of the line in English. In German, you can't talk about somebody's occupation without indicating their gender. Every word for an occupation has a masculine and feminine version. Duerrenmat wasn't trying to draw attention to the crazy psychiatrist's gender; the irony is the fact that the insane newly minted dictator of the world is a psychiatrist.

Then there were several books from a class on the modern English novel (meaning the modern period in the first half of the 20th Century). My most vivid memory from that class was how everybody thought the teacher was crazy. He had some eccentric ideas about education, including a tendency to put bizarre minutiae on exams. For example, we all joked that we'd never forget what the captain in Joseph Conrad's Typhoon called his umbrella ("the blessed gamp") because of this guy's obsession with it. The class was no problem for me, since I'm the king of useless, irrelevant information, but it was problematic for some of the other students.

My biggest problem is that I'm not optimally efficient at sifting through this material at this point. Recent developments in my life have made me more likely to reexamine my past in a new light. That slows me down, even though I now have the ability to say "enough is enough" and move on after following a tangent for so long. As opposed to my early undergrad stint, when research papers took me forever because I would read all kinds of off-topic material at the library.

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