Saturday, July 23, 2005

Irresponsible Translations 5: Metaphors of Threat

This edition of Irresponsible Translations is dedicated to Charles Bird, whose emphatic and unapologetic use of metaphor at times approaches Chateaubriand's standard. Charles's most recent post is a fairly straight summary of Saturday morning's bombing in Egypt; it's the title, though, that told me that a revisting of Chateaubriand would not be amiss.* After all! Chateaubriand is a great conservative prose stylist, like Edmund Burke; neither were afraid to go there in the exposition of their views.

So, in the following excerpt, Chateaubriand throws everything but the kitchen sink at the cholera epidemic of 1832 in order to extract meaning out of it. It is taken from the Memoires d'Outre-Tombe, Vol. 4 (Livres de Poche, 1973), 310-12. The irresponsible translation itself is below the fold.

*Charles's recent post's title wouldn't be quite as funny if one didn't know CB's track-record; he also famously coined the unfortunate term "democratsunami," or something like it: it's been a little difficult getting the relevant month's pages to load. The translation and analysis that follows reflects more on Chateaubriand than on Charles, and not just because one is dead and the other quite alive. Chateaubriand is, after all, the apotheosis of pigheadedness, rather, ideological consistancy.

[Post edited for clarity]
Chateaubriand on the 1832 cholera epidemic--the first time the disease had come to the West.

Cholera, which left the delta of the Ganges in 1817, propogated itself over a distance of two thousand, two hundred miles, from North to South, and three thousand, five hundred from West to East; it desolated fourteen hundred cities, cut down forty million individuals.We have a map of this conquerer’s march. It took cholera fifteen years to come from India to Paris--the speed of Bonaparte: he took about the same number of years to go from Cádiz to Moscow, and he only killed two or three million men.

What is cholera? Is it a deadly wind? Is it those insects that we swallow and that devour us? What is this great black death armed with its scythe that, having crossed the mountains and the seas, has come like one of those terrible pagodas adored on the banks of the Ganges, to crush us here on the plains of the Seine under the wheels of its chariot? If this scourge had fallen upon us during a religious era, it would have been aggrandized in moral poetry and popular beliefs; it would have left a striking picture.

Imagine a burial cloth, floating not unlike a flag above the towers of Notre-Dame, a cannon sounding intermittantly, its solitary shots to warn the imprudent traveller to stay away: a blockade of troops surrounding the city et letting nobody leave or enter, churches filled with a trembling crowd, priests psalming prayers, day and night, in a perpetual agony, last rites carried from house to house with candles and bells, church bells incessantly ringing the funereal beat, monks, crucifix in hand, calling people at the crossroads to penitence, preaching the wrath and judgment of God, manifested upon the corpses already blackened by the fire of hell.

But none of that: cholera has come to us in an era of philanthropy, incredulity, newspapers, material administration. This unimaginative scourge met neither old cloisters, nuns, sepuculres, nor gothic tombs: like the terror of 1793, it walked with a mocking air in the bright day, in an entirely new world, accompanied by its bulletin, which tells of the remedies one has employed against it, the number of victims it has had, where it was at, the hope that on had to see it over, the precautions that one should take, what one should eat, how one should dress.And everyone continued to pay attention to their business, and the theaters were full.

Chateaubriand in his grandiloquence throws himself out there as an admitted reactionary. His medieval fantasy of priests and public pietry he himself recognizes as a Romantic projection. The Orientalizing language with which he denounces the disease is in some twisted sense a recognition that his Catholic worldview can no longer explain his present's reality. It doesn't do any favors to the "Orient," of course--instead of Satan, I'll use some Eastern gods, yeah, that's it. It recognizes that its feudal-Catholic worldview has disappeared beneath the modern newspaper-bureaucracy, and all of its meaning-making symbolism seems to be so much nostaglia. Yet still, he goes there: he uses the present catastrophe to mourn a vision of the past.

I've researched this period, and specifically with regard to the cholera epidemic: Chateaubriand's comments are the most eloquent and yet have the least impact on public life at this point. He's an extraordinary stylist, taking chances with the grandest of mixed metaphors, and in large part I'd argue that he's willing to go out on these stylistic limbs because his ideological certainty (or contrariness?) buoys him up.

After all: Chateaubriand, by Vol. 4, was a supporter of the Bourbons after the revolution of 1830, which meant that he had to champion the eight year-old Henri (V?) against a perfectly competent Louis-Phillipe, a royal cousin who happened to be convenient to the mercentilist class arranging compromises with the democrats. Chateaubriand knows very well that his version of history is losing: modernity, the "era of philanthropy, incredulity, newspapers, material administration," will win out. He has committed himself to a reactionary, monarchical position, which he continuously describes in glowing, idealized terms. Ah, the response to incomprehensible terror should bring us trembling to the church! O! we should remember the examples of our martyrs at such times!

I retain a great deal of respect for Chateaubriand, however: he is an extraordinary stylist, and he defended, against even his own reason, an ideal that he knew to be bypassed by history. History, by the way, was a rather new concept in the early nineteenth century. People were still putting their heads around the idea that a revolution meant something new rather than something recovered or recoverable.

We're in a similar state now. We are passing from one stage of history to another, and we are trying to find markers by which to understand this transformation. We are trying to come up with language to describe our new world: one defined by decentralized networks, or, as John Robb would put it, "open source terrorism," without regard for the precarious statist peace we've drawn up over the past sixty years.

What my more public-health version of cholera and John's computer metaphors have in common is a conscious de-dramatization of a threat. It will be persistant, responsible policy that will harden our vulnerability: only a clear understanding of what we're facing can protect us. Even after the
great 19th-century sanitary measures in Western cities, even after John Snow identified the plague-source, people died--and in some parts of the world, continue to die--of this entirely preventable disease. We weep, we make better plans, we bully our officials into responsibility, and we hope for the best.

I for one embrace our materialist overlords.


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