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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Literary Mythmaking: Reworking Warped Threads

As languages evolve over time, their words they contain change ever so slightly as they are uttered from one person to the next. At first, the words might only slightly change in the manner they are pronounced, yet the interlocutors' accents do not prevent them from being mutually understood. A good example is the difference between different forms of Modern English, such as when Canadian English speakers talk to their distant British friends, or with their Australian mates from the other side of the world; regardless, the forms of the English language spoken between these countries are mutually understandable, all except for certain terms which are certainly more common to each "locality" or country. Evidently, context plays a very important part in language evolution, be it historical, cultural, geophysical or whatever else that contributes to certain innovatory features that appear in a form of English and not the other.

English is the present-day lingua franca in the world today, therefore it is difficult to imagine the evolution of Modern English into so many other tongues - linguistic offshoots - but if history can bear testimony to language change; it is unavoidable. English, too, shall one day cease to exist and out of one main stem, branches will grow in many different directions. We need only to look at what happened to another great lingua franca, Latin, and all that sprouted from it, e.g. French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian... Hard to believe, but  until the end of the 18th century - not too long ago - most books were written in Latin instead of the more common everyday vernaculars. 

So where am I going with all this? No, this article is certainly not going to be about any specific language family's history or whatever else topic that could be classified under the general heading of historical linguistics in general. What I think that I wanna do with this article is just to explore a little bit... I wanna explore how language travels, how it is that through one ear to another when a story is told from one wayward traveler to another, then onwards from that last one listening to a companion and so on and so forth... Or the same goes for text, when the word has been written down. Until in the end, the story has traveled from one place to the next, and the next, and so on - until it has traversed cultures, the story translated from one language group to another. To put it simply, people like to talk and to entertain each other, and so they have always been. Everyday, everywhere, we communicate in communion with each other. Cultures often connect not on any great stage, but rather instead cultures connect when people meet together on a personal level and just talk. In a world where religions, cultures, and languages, are ruled and constantly kept into check by religious leaders, computer spell checks, dictionaries, the 40 Immortals from the French Academy come to mind... In short, there are certain constrains that try to prevent change sometimes, whether this change be found in the way we think, speak, write, or whatever else.

I feel like being creative and to invent a virtual laboratory where I can permit myself to explore how a story travels from one culture and language to another - a sort of machine that can can permit us to look at a story and to see how it changes, how it differs as it travels - as it unravels - across cultures and languages, a process not too dissimilar to how myths are created in the realm of "great" stories with "great" big and important themes. me to look at. Think about how often kids at a birthday party play the telephone game, sitting in a circle and secretly telling a simple strand of story to the boy or girl sitting directly next to them, who retells it to the next kid, then this kid retells again to the next, and then so on it goes, until the story comes back full swing making its way all too often than not a little distorted to the first kid. Then everybody has a good laugh when the original storyteller reveals to the group what the original version of the story was, and the kids all piecemeal their misunderstandings together hysterically as they realize what they had thought they had heard whispered into their ear. Think of this telephone game on a grander scale, let's say the stage of the world's cultures and languages thousands of years ago in a predominantly illiterate existence. Over millennia, seemingly this is how myths are formed, for stories take on many mythic proportions as they get passed on.

However, since we cannot build a time machine to return to any specific ancient epoch to study the "myth making" process - nor can we see it over the centuries it would take for a myth to form-, let us instead use the marvelous technological tools (Google Translate) we have at our disposal in order to set up our, hmm... for simplicity's sake - let's call this virtual lab we're creating the "mythmaker". It has a nice ring to it. To begin our experiment, let's take a simple strand of story to feed through Google Translate and make it "travel" from one ear to the next until we revert it back into the original language it started in - in this case being English. The demonstration will serve to show how the story seems to sound a little bit "odd" as it "travels" through languages and cultures, and that upon it's return the final version is quite different from the original. Then we'll put them side by side just to look at what strange changes have occurred, and that how a simple story becomes and sounds somewhat "mythical" as it traverses "cultural" zones.

In my mythmaking recipe, I'll take some strand of text and make it travel from point A to point B. England will be my Point A - since we're working in English - and point B will be located somewhere in the Punjab. This means that I will feed my "story" into the mythmaker and see what happens as the "story" makes its  way from person to person over many great distances, for many centuries (why not?), onwards until it reaches my point B, somewhere in the Punjab (Pakistan). And what languages does this story get to be recounted in? Well, an English fisherman might've told the story to a Frenchman at a tavern, who then told it to an Italian at the fish market, who then recounted it to an Austrian, who then told it to a Hungarian, and then it got passed on to a Romanian, a Greek, Turk, Iranian, and onwards until it reached my point B speaker in the Punjab in Pakistan. Are you getting the jist of it? It's like the children's telephone game on a grand scale. Look at the map below to reorient yourselves with the Eurasian languages I mentioned in my point A to point B story traveling. 

Our Mythmaking Atlas: The Eurasian Political Map



First, as for the English text that I'll insert into the mythmaker, I'll use something that easily accessible. Let's say a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favourite philosopher's, taken from his Wikipedia bio article. It is a quote from Thus spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, §§3–4):
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?... All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape... The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth... Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss ... what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.

Let's make this text travel from England all the way to the Punjab in our virtual little lab. So, first, we feed this text into our mythmaker machine - Google Translate is our tool for this. The recipe to make our story travel through culture, time, and space is the following: I just copy and paste the above text into Google Translate and translate from English to French, then copy paste results and translate from French to German, then German to Hungarian, Hungarian to Romanian, Romanian to Greek, Greek to Turkish, Turkish to Persian, Persian to Urdu and then finally just translate the final result into English again to see what you get.

Below, is my Point B Urdu version translated back into English. For comparison's sake, look at the mythmaking process and compare it to the above original which left from Point A in English, and see how the text changed as it traveled from culture to culture - not unlike the results one would expect from the familiar kid's telephone game. Here's the somewhat nonsensical text I get when it is retranslated in English from its Point B destination which is in Pakistan where is spoken Urdu:
Superman you. Man is something that must be overcome. You can overcome this? Fratr all by himself and Echo ... darayy cyzy wild animals, even by the Census tuannd at times stormy kaهs elderly men insult and mskrه set mamoon or pain? Shame. And human Übermensch: fun, or a painful embarrassment. Now, you guys, worms, and insects. You were apes, and even now he's a monkey, monkey ... So if Superman Earth. Views: Superman on Earth ... Man with rope between animal and human bone ... What a great man, a bridge or over.
Or, even more fun, even if this lab we've just created isn't a real world situation, it is nevertheless amusing to look at what else you get when you mythmake. Taking the same above recipe, below is the Hungarian version of the text when retranslating it into English:

You the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What did you do to overcome it? ... All beings have created something beyond themselves, and want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the wild animals do not beat people? What is the monkey man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And the man, the Übermensch: a laughing stock or painful embarrassment. Got the path of the worm people, and that is still worm. If you were apes, and even now, the man is more ape than any ape ... Superman is on the ground. Have your say: The Overman is on the ground ... Man is a rope between animal and man, tied a rope to divide the ... what a great man that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Not too distorted that one.

But let's move on now and follow Nietsche's words a little farther down the road - in the same "recipe" - and let's take a look what we get when retranslating into English from the Turkish:
You are Superman. Adam is available on a bad thing. What did you do to overcome it? ... All assets created something beyond themselves and return to the wild animals, even if people can not beat the great flood to decline and would make a mockery of the man is the monkey or pain? shame. And man, Übermensch: ridicule, or painful embarrassment. People and wounded wolf trail is still worm. If you were apes, and even now he's a monkey, a monkey ... If Superman is on the ground. Views: Superman on the ground ... The man is a rope between animal and human rope attached to divide the ... what a great guy is not a bad bridge, an end.
I think this is my favourite one. Or simpler still, just send the text from England to France and back again and see what you get... I even bother to show you the results because it is virtually the same - the cultural distance is not great enough. If anything, the mythmaker process could be just as useful to demonstrate what people have already known for years, that culture and language affects/effects the story being told and the way it is being heard -and retold. And this even if the listener has paid as much close attention to it as possible. In the end, since the birth of human speech, I regret to inform you dear reader that we have all been playing the telephone game, and shall continue to do so forevermore. All of the great religions, cultures, and languages of the world, in sum, have all depended on it in acquiring new knowledge and spinning new tales from old ones - with the storyteller simply reworking the warped thread.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

William S. Burroughs and Cut-Up Writing

I think William S. Burroughs was on to something. Aside from Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was another one of the influential authors of the Beat Generation that in the 1950s and 60s found popularity - if not notoriety in Burroughs' case - in his experimental writing styles. Burroughs was introduced to the cut-up technique of writing, which basically means he would quite literally "cut-up" a strand of linear text into segmented pieces with one or a couple of words a piece, and then simply reorder them in whatever fashion he saw fit.


Burroughs experimented with the cut-up technique at great length and it suited him fine, for he found that by doing so he could somehow alter reality - or even foretell future events. The Nova Trilogy, published in the early 1960s were a series of three experimental novels published by Burroughs in which he made use of the cut-up. The Soft Machine was the first book in the trilogy - published two years after his groundbreaking Naked Lunch- , and it is often considered by many as the definite cut-up work as far as serving as an exemplar of this particular methodology. If you have never heard Burroughs explain his cut-up technique, then you have to watch this video: William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-Up Writing  (I particularly like Burroughs' raspy voice explanation of cutting-up text, like at around 1:10 in the vid when he explains, "When you cut into the present, the future leaks out...")


To give you an idea of what the result is, just read the following passage from Burroughs' The Soft Machine  (p. 7):

Well the traffic builds up and boosters falling in with jacket shirts and ties, kids with a radio torn from the living car trailing tubes and wires, lush-workers flash rings and wrist watches falling in sick all hours.  

William S. Burroughs was not the first to use this cut-up style of writing. Many years earlier, in 1920s the Dadaist writers were using it. In his article, Dan Colman (William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-Up Writing) relates that in his "dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love," Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara, in the late 1920s, included a section called “To Make a Dadaist Poem,” and it gave these instructions (quoting Colman's article):
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

But alas, in this day in age, who has time to get ye olde tyme paper and scissor and actually cut the old fashion way when we can simply direct ourselves to an online article, cut and paste into a virtual cut-up machine and away we go. To this effect, knock yourself out, just go get some text on Google News, Wikipedia or some other online text and then pay a visit to the "cut-up machine" set up on Lake Rain Vajra's website, where the author has replicated a simple tool for you to cut-up text virtually without getting your hands too dirty. (No need to shake the bag filled with words, just click on the Cut It Up button.)

A scene from David Cronenberg's screen adaptation of Burroughs' Naked Lunch

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Kérouac: Joual Royalty

The great American novelist, poet, the so-called King of the beats, Jack Kerouac - or as he was known in his French Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts, by his birth name Jean-Louis Kérouac or simply by his nickname Ti-Jean. His jazzy second novel, On the Road (1957), is an iconoclast literary masterwork, often referred to by critiques as one of the more influential pieces of writing in the postwar era.

Image Source:

But alas, what many people do not know is that Kerouac had initially written On the Road (1957) in French - or quite specifically - the form of Canadian French often referred to as Joual. In fact, Sur le chemin was the title Kérouac gave to the initial and original version of the work which he penned in 1952 while in Mexico. It is Gabriel Anctil, a Canadian journalist, who made this unexpected discovery while gaining access to the author's manuscripts in 2007 (see article interview with Anctil in Le Monde  "Sur le chemin" un inédit de Jack Kérouac écrit en français). Alongside this, there was also found another unpublished French novel, La nuit est ma femme.   

Cover image of the 50th anniversary edition On the Road: The Original Scroll (2007)
Kérouac's Sur le chemin is apparently written in much the same style as its later English parallel version, being all at once innovatory, jazzy, catchy and filled with cool prose and with smoke you can almost smell in between the lines the huffs and puffs as the author pored over it...Sur le chemin (1952), although and oddly even if it remains unpublished, is a literary work which has the particular distinction of being the first literary work to have been written in Joual. In the province of Quebec, Joual literature would only emerge a little later, in the 1960s with authors such as Michel Tremblay.

Here's an extract that appeared in Le Monde (2008/09/08) of Sur le chemin (1952):

"Dans l'mois d'octobre 1935, y'arriva une machine du West, de Denver, sur le chemin pour New York. Dans la machine était Dean Pomeray, un soûlon ; Dean Pomeray Jr. son ti fils de 9 ans et Rolfe Glendiver, son step son, 24. C'était un vieille Model T Ford, toutes les trois avaient leux yeux attachez sur le chemin dans la nuit à travers la windshield."

Kérouac's language is clear, for he wrote in an unbridled language, unrestrained by any artificial language laws, orthographic constraints, or any other fakeries. In short, his was Joual as it was spoken as his native language in New England, not even Joual as it was spoken in Quebec. He had made the language his own by being loyal to the sounds and words of his childhood and his native tongue as he had learnt it.

Sadly though, when he had tried to reconnect with his French Canadian culture and roots by visiting the set of a popular Quebec TV show, Le sel de la semaine, when Kerouac was interviewed in French... Well, essentially at one point he is openly mocked by the Quebecois audience present there. (Watch the vid:

This gives you an idea of his reception in French Canada. Kerouac was somewhat of a curiosity, albeit a sensational American one on the one hand, while on the other he spoke Joual... For many snotty francophones at the top of the social pecking order in French Canada, it just seemed too weird to hear a great American novelist come to Canada and speak in everyday French - and I imagine this is why "Sur le chemin" (1952) remains unpublished, except for some brief extracts that have appeared as a freakshow to this linguistic curiosity. No posthumous recognition in French Canada for Kerouac's literary contribution and innovation. We don't even get to read it. Sur le chemin (1952) will remain in the Kerouac vaults, in New York city, until some brave Francophone publisher goes and rescues these precious pages to make them known to all.