Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lost at Sea

Joseph E. Corrigan, the city magistrate who presided over the farcical legal proceedings reported in my last post, was a prominent New York City jurist who later rose to be chief magistrate and, in 1931, was named by Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt to be judge of the Court of General Sessions. The nephew of Archbishop of New York Michael Corrigan, he was born in 1874 and seems to have died in 1935. He presided over a number of celebrated cases, including at least one involving birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, waged a public campaign against crime and municipal corruption, and earned a reputation as an amateur athlete. (The New York Times of February 9, 1913, reports, however, that his baseball team, the Strong Arms, received a "drubbing" from Magistrate J. Frederic Kernochan's Wanderers in an indoor game played on a converted tennis court. Corrigan played third base.)

But more about Joseph Corrigan another time, perhaps. When I first looked up his name, one of the things that immediately turned up was a horrifying story involving the death at sea of his wife, Margaret Stone Corrigan, in January 1916. Mrs. Corrigan, aged 34, had been returning to New York on board the SS Rochambeau after an extended sojourn in Europe. Suffering from what the Times called "an attack of melancholia and continued ill health," she flung herself, unseen, into the waters of the Atlantic. A brief note, accompanied by a small sum of money to be divided among the ship's stewards, was found in her cabin; tellingly or not, the note gave instructions to contact, not her husband, but her parents, "if anything happens." Because of wartime regulations the ship had been prohibited from sending a wireless message ahead of its arrival to report the incident, so Margaret's parents were waiting for her on the dock when they learned of her fate.

The Corrigans' only child, a boy, had died a few years earlier, aged three, after an illness of several months. Margaret Corrigan had gone to Europe "to rest for three months," and was in Paris the day war broke out. She quickly volunteered to serve as a nurse (she had taken a course in nursing at Barnard), and later advised her husband "that she preferred to stay on at the hospital instead of returning to New York." The Times quotes Margaret's mother as saying that "Mr. Corrigan consulted [Margaret's] physician in this city, Dr. Finch, and he said that it would be an excellent thing for her to have something to occupy her mind and keep her from brooding over the loss of her boy." She goes on to say, however, that the strain of nursing wounded soldiers "must have broken her down." It's hard to say what else should be read between the lines of this melancholy story, which can be found in its entirety in the New York Times of January 30, 1916.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

An Exterior Disarrangement

My next two posts will revisit two peripherally connected news stories, one comic and one tragic. The first is recorded in The Fourth Estate, a trade periodical devoted to the newspaper business, on February 19, 1921.


Luther Emmanuel Widen of 148 West Fourth street, New York, editor of the Vagabond and a well known figure in the faddistic [sic] circles of Greenwich Village, was before Magistrate Joseph E. Corrigan in the Jefferson Market Court Wednesday and the magistrate said at first he guessed he would have to send the editor to Bellevue Hospital for observation. After reading an issue of Widen's paper, Magistrate Corrigan expressed the opinion that "no sane man would put out work like this."

In behalf of Widen was Dr. Lindley Kasdy, who said the editor was suffering from exterior but not interior disarrangement.

He also said Widen had been in Bellevue before, but that it did him no good. The magazine was said by the doctor to be published without malice to any one. It is filled with bits of village news and gossip, in which initials are used instead of names. The two gems that brought forth Magistrate Corrigan's comment regarding the editor's sanity were: "Mrs. — has married a man from West Virginia, but she still has her friends," and an article about a woman who "still looked pretty without her paint."

"I am going to send you to Bellevue for examination," said the magistrate. "This is an unusual magazine."

"Why should I go to Bellevue when I can go elsewhere?" asked Widen.

"Where will you go?"

"Astoria," said Widen.

"Well," said the magistrate, "if you will promise to leave Greenwich Village and not publish the Vagabond, and do all that in forty-eight hours, you won't be sent to Bellevue."

"I'll go right now," said Widen. He bowed deeply, and looked sadly from the window. "Never, never, shall I return. Farewell, Greenwich Village."
Better known as Lew Ney and often styled (at least by himself) "the Mayor of Greenwich Village," Luther Emanuel Widen (his middle name is spelled incorrectly in the article) was well-known in New York's bohemian circles in the 1920s and '30s as a writer, publisher, journalist, prankster, and publicity-hound. The straight-faced looniness of the article, which is unsigned, makes me half suspect that he had a hand in writing it himself. The New-York Tribune also ran a story on the incident, much of which corresponds closely to the above, though it adds a few other details, including the fact that The Vagabond had all of forty-eight subscribers (which would explain why I've been able to find no other record of it). It also clarifies — if that's the word — the circumstances that brought Widen before a city magistrate:
He was arrested because of the suspicions which his psychological methods aroused in a detective who was trying to find out who had been stealing gowns and jewelry from Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney's studio at 147 West Fourth Street. Luther's "office" is next door, and in a neighborly way he tried to help the detective, and, in fact, told him the name of the thief, which he discovered psychologically.
The Tribune also reported that Widen said that he might, on second thought, go to "sunny California" instead of Astoria. In any case he remained in Greenwich Village and probably never had any thought of leaving.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (I)

At least thirty-five years ago I greedily devoured this 871-page translation of a novel by the 1937 Nobel Prize-winning novelist Roger Martin du Gard, and eventually went on to its even longer continuation, Summer 1914. Both volumes of Stuart Gilbert's translation are long out-of-print, and the author, when he is mentioned at all in the English-speaking world, is generally dismissed (unfairly, I think) as one of those Nobel laureates whose existence proves the utter irrelevance of the prize. He seems to have retained a bit more respect, or at any rate to have stayed in print, in his native France.

Be that as it may, after all these years I'm reading the book in French for the first time, intending to make it at least as far as La mort du père, the sixth of the novel's eight parts. (The final two correspond to Summer 1914.) Because of the book's length and my indifferent French I never had any intention of reading it in the original, but I changed my mind and am now steadily making my way through, dictionary and the translation in hand.

The first six parts of Les Thibault are essentially a family saga, set in the years leading up to the First World War. The paterfamilias is a well-connected Parisian Catholic autocrat, a widower with two sons. The elder, Antoine, is in training to become a physician as the book begins, while the younger, Jacques, a teenager, has just run away to Marseilles in the company of a friend, Daniel, with whom he is suspected (incorrectly, as it happens) of having a relationship of a forbidden nature. Jacques is eventually retrieved by his older brother, then consigned by his father to a reformatory as punishment, which is about where I am now, in Part Two, Le pénitencier.

In re-reading the narrative I'm surprised at how much of it I had either forgotten or misremembered, and mostly this is due, no doubt, to the length of time since I first read it and the immense size of the book, but I'm also getting the feeling, when I do need to refer to the translation to clarify a passage, that part of the problem is that Gilbert's translation is not simply dated but actually quite bad. Some of his readings are all but unrecognizable when compared with Martin du Gard's words. The passage below, which describes part of a conversation between the brothers when Antoine visits Jacques in the reformatory for the first time, provides both an example and, in part, a possible exculpation. First the French text, with Antoine speaking first:
— « Mais non, mon petit, c’est juré, je ne ferai rien contre ta volonté. Seulement, écoute-moi. Cette solitude morale, cette paresse, cette promiscuité ! Moi qui, ce matin, avais cru que tu étais heureux ! »

— « Mais je le suis ! » En un instant, tout ce dont il venait de se plaindre s’effaça: la monotonie des jours, l’oisiveté, l’absence de contrôle, l’éloignement des siens.
And now Stuart Gilbert:
"But of course, old man; I've sworn it! I'll do nothing you don't want me to do. Only, listen. Do you want to go on like this, frittering your life away in idleness, with no one of your own kind to talk to, in these sordid surroundings? And to think that only this morning I imagined you were happy here!"

"But I am happy!" In a moment all he had complained of fled from his mind, and all he now was conscious of was the languid ease of his seclusion, the somnolent routine and absence of control, not to mention his isolation from his family.
Even with my deficient French, I can see that parts of this translation are absurd. Gilbert not only expands a simple list constructed out of seven words — Cette solitude morale, cette paresse, cette promiscuité — into a long-winded rhetorical question, he also arguably butchers the sense of promiscuité, which probably has nothing sordid about it (although there are some sordid aspects to the boy's confinement) and only means "overcrowding" or "lack of privacy." But the interesting thing is in the next paragraph. In the French text, the point of the last sentence is that, a few moments earlier, Jacques had been bitterly bemoaning his life in the reformatory; but now, all of his complaints — the monotony, idleness, the lack of control over his own life, the separation from his family — have apparently been forgotten. Gilbert seemingly turns this around: Jacques forgets his earlier complaints, and reflects on how good he has it in the reformatory: he has a soft life, an easy routine, no one controls him, and he's away from his family (which is apparently a good thing). How could Gilbert have misconstrued the whole thrust of the sentence so badly?

But in this case, the translator is off the hook. As I discovered when I researched this passage online, Gilbert must have used a different version of the final sentence, one that reads, "En un instant, tout ce dont il venait de se plaindre s’effaça: il ne vit plus que les douceurs de sa réclusion, la monotonie des jours, l’oisiveté, l’absence de contrôle, l’éloignement des siens." Gilbert's translation more or less adheres to this version.

The words in bold are not in the edition I own, which bears the Gallimard imprint but which was printed in Canada in 1945. Every online text of the book that I've looked at (I haven't tried to be exhaustive) contains the highlighted words, and it's obvious that the edition Gilbert worked from must have contained them (or something similar) as well. Gilbert's translation was published in 1939, which means there are two possibilities:
1) Martin du Gard made revisions to the original published text (specifically, deleting the words in bold) that are reflected in the Canadian edition, but Gilbert worked from an earlier version.

2) Martin du Gard made revisions to the original published text (specifically, adding the words in bold), and Gilbert worked from that text, but the Canadian edition continued to reprint the earlier version of the text.
The situation is somewhat puzzling, as the longer version of the final sentence seems a complete muddle. But it was apparently the author's muddle, not the translator's. In any case, literary market conditions being what they are, I suspect that it's unlikely that Gilbert's translation of this massive novel will ever be replaced by a better one.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lowry Hamner: American Dreaming

Lowry Hamner's an old friend, but since I hadn't heard that he was working on a new record it was an unexpected treat to find out about it just after the start of the new year. More than thirty years ago, Lowry fronted a band called the Criers that recorded two LPs before falling prey to typical record company screwery. Like many major label refugees, he went out on his own, and eventually released a solo album, Secrets of the Heart, in 1998. American Dreaming is his second CD.

A couple of the cuts here are songs that Lowry's been playing in gigs for a decade or more, and it's nice to see them finally on disc; at least one song ("The Breakdown," which has been covered by Willie Nile) dates back to the time of the Criers. The lyrics of another proudly promise, "I'm gonna wear my heart on my sleeve," and in fact there's nothing coy about Lowry's songs. They're all emotionally exposed in one way or another, though the spectrum of emotional weather runs from the decidedly sunny ("Hope and Love") to about as bleak as it gets. The latter is most evident in "Ballad of Samson," about a killing spree in Alabama. The song, co-written with the poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont, reminds us, even before Newtown, of the hard kernel of nightmare that's all too often wrapped up inside the American Dream:
He was a gun aficionado
But the townsfolk are still packing ammo
With factory jobs lost overseas
everyone feels ill at ease

A hail of bullets breaks the silence
another day of random violence
no reason, no explanation
shots ring out in a grieving nation
Musically the album ranges from hard-edged rock and blues to the tropical lilt of "Thief of Dreams," with maybe a bit of South African-influenced guitar on "Hope and Love." Veteran guitarist Jon Sholle and Clay Barnes (another Criers alumnus) are among the supporting musicians. The CD appears on the Alien Chants label and can be ordered from CD Baby.


Bruno Schulz:
My father never tired of glorifying this extraordinary element — matter.

"There is no dead matter," he taught us, "lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life. The range of these forms is infinite and their shades and nuances limitless. The Demiurge was in possession of important and interesting creative recipes. Thanks to them he created a multiplicity of species, which renew themselves by their own devices. No one knows whether these recipes will ever be reconstructed. But this is unnecessary, because even if the classical methods of creation should prove inaccessible for evermore, there still remain some illegal methods, an infinity of heretical and criminal methods."

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Hinterland

How do you write the history of something whose very nature consists of being unrecorded? How do you describe the pool of the unknown out of which the known is born?

"Once there are names, know that it is time to stop." — Lao Tzu

Every language, every utterance of our ancestors ten thousand years ago has been irretrievably lost. We can't even classify the languages they spoke, except to give them vague, conjectural, labels like "Proto-Nostratic." Nevertheless, every language we speak today is a direct lineal descendent of those lost systems of meaning.

"Mallarmé said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph" (Susan Sontag). In fact, we could equally well now say that everything, including every book and every photograph, exists in order to inhabit cyberspace. (How quickly the phrase "World Wide Web" has come to seem so limiting, so inadequate.) But what happens when signal becomes noise? Or is noise itself now the only signal?

What happens when texture is reduced to surface? Where is the unknown that we don't know is unknown? What sherds are we ploughing under?

According to one theory (Barry B. Powell), the Greek alphabet was invented, or rather adapted from its Semitic ancestor, precisely in order to record the Homeric epics. This is probably a minority view, but if not for that reason, then why? Why go to such trouble to invent something so sophisticated, just in order to scrawl graffiti and settle a few accounts?

The Mycenaeans had already developed at least one writing system (Linear B), but by Homer's time it had been forgotten, left for Ventris and Chadwick to decipher in the twentieth century. Nothing is more perishable than meaning. We congratulate ourselves for recovering the Epic of Gilgamesh from the sands of Mesopotamia, when in fact what we really have, as priceless as it is, is nothing but a husk.

Yet out of husks, strange transmutations are sometimes possible.

"Pienso en esos objetos, esas cajas, esos utensilios que aparecen a veces en graneros, cocinas y escondrijos, y cuyo uso ya nadie es capaz de explicar. Vanidad de creer que comprendemos las obras del tiempo: él entierra sus muertos y guarda las llaves. Sólo en sueños, en la poesía, en el juego ... nos asomamos a veces a lo que fuimos antes de ser esto que vaya a saber si somos." — Julio Cortázar, Rayuela