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Susan Stewart, Professor of Humanities at Princeton University

Susan Stewart

June 2nd, 2021

Susan Stewart Professor of Humanities at Princeton University

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: It’s a pleasure for me to say that one of the most wonderful poems I ever had the chance of discovering was “A Language.” Having had to be a first-generation immigrant twice, it resonated deeply with my own linguistic journey. As I read about the two inmates, one becoming the other’s language teacher and the learner subsequently having to fare for himself in the free world after his instructor dies, I was moved by these lines: He travels to the country of his new language, fluent, and full of hope. Yet when he arrives he finds that the language he speaks is not the language that is spoken. He has learned a language one other person knew—its inventor, his cell-mate and teacher. Indeed, a great deal surrounding language, and by extension the world we inhabit, encompasses not only what’s out there, but our own internal environment. As the poem develops, we discover the same story in another form—Gombrowicz trying to teach his girlfriend “a Polish that does not and never / did exist.” The poem ends on a most powerful note—two twins speaking a private language, one of total truth and the other of complete lies: The savior getting “mixed up with the traitor, but the traitor / stays as true to himself as a god.” The ending takes somewhat of a pessimistic tone, echoing the diverging yet cynical view of two famous playwrights—the late Pinter who thought individuals spoke to conceal while Mamet, on the other hand, thinks that people communicate because they want something. From your perspective, what’s the role of language and do you take perhaps a more positive view on it, at least in terms of everyday life?

SS: Language works because of our good faith and optimism that it works: we assume we understand each other, that a language has a social world. That assumption suffices for understanding until the point when we discover, by some slip or contradiction, that we don’t understand and then we use language itself to remedy the break or failure. The poem explores, however, breaks or failures that cannot be remedied: deluding someone with a fake language that in truth has no social world beyond the claustrophobic binary of one teacher and one pupil–or, more generally, telling a lie.

Within the poem a husband, sitting at a dinner table with his wife and guests listening, tells the story of how the trickster Gombrowicz taught his own wife, Rita (a French Canadian), an imaginary “Polish” that no one else in the world would understand.

There is another, related and in many ways similarly large, concern and that is the meaning of the word “miscarriage”—the miscarriage of a fetus and the miscarriage of justice. The loss of a desired child, after many months of hopes, expectations, and plans is the destruction of a good intention, as is the breaking of the bonds of truth or the abandonment of an agreement. The pain of such a broken contract is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Hebrew Scriptures tell the stories of one broken and remade covenant after another. Those stories have to do with human failures to live up to obligations to the divinity, but anyone who suffers a miscarriage (or for that matter, a serious illness or approaching death) knows the feeling of being abandoned by divine forces. In the end, at least from my perspective, the poem is about language in light of theodicy.

DG: Let’s shift the discussion from something living—language, that is—to something inanimate, ruins. In your most recent book The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture, you highlight the fascination people have with them, even though, really, as you mention, they don’t symbolize the accomplishment of any specific goals, but rather embody precisely destruction—the inability of anything to stand the test of time. The lives of artists in many ways reflect the fate of ruins—more precisely, those who are no longer alive can offer nothing but the apparent perfection of their work, supposedly a product of their self-destructive madness, as Plato believed, but this perfection itself is always aging and over time being interpreted differently as a result. In your view, does ruin symbolize only destruction or perhaps also something else?

SS: Not all ruins are destroyed: there are ruins that are the result of sudden violence and left without name and location, but there also are ruins that are slowly eroded, returning to nature, and representing sites of significance, even if their import has changed. Plato thought that poets did not exercise their reason or possess any particular skills. He seemed to think that architects, like the composers of hymns, could serve a social purpose and noted that architecture is not an imitative art. That said, he’s also not the only ancient thinker; Aristotle was interested in practices and tools; Pythagoras had an enduring effect on the mathematics of structures, etc.

Renaissance humanists appreciated ruins and learned to name them, even as they often dismantled and reformed their materials. In the Enlightenment ruins were measured with an intention to record and imitate them. The subjective projection of Romantic melancholy, the republican identifications of 19th century nationalism, are yet other approaches to ruins.

DG: If we could ponder a specific passage from the book, it may add further complexity to the issue: “What we can learn of ruins necessarily comes from the legible and visible record of the past, but we might remember that ruins often are both steeped in and surrounded by absence. They invite quiet contemplation as much as response, and they immerse the viewer-listener in association and reverie.” In this respect, do you think it’s plausible that ancients probably saw their own temples and philosophers—at that precise time—in the same way we look at our amazing skyscrapers and poets—impressive, but rarely anything people would venerate, much less pay to see? It seems there were no qualms about killing Socrates back then, something unthinkable today, and, yet, many a Socrates have been threatened and even put to death for their controversial views in our time. Still, is it possible for living artists to be revered with the dignity we now accord to ancients without them having to pay the ultimate price for such reverence?

SS: If there were no qualms about killing Socrates, we wouldn’t know the story of his death and the suffering of his followers. Each person should be afforded the dignity and respect of others. Artists have something to say to us, an intention we are invited to trace to its completion; we do so not out of obligation, but of our own volition, which makes our attention to art all the more valuable for the artist and for ourselves.

DG: One of the most fascinating aspects surrounding any kind of art is aesthetics. Various theories, such as art as a political objective and art for art’s sake, have been proposed. Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, believed that beauty was inherently based on feelings of pleasure rather than speculations on the characteristics of an object, and that any kind of verdict on the nature of something effectively turned the issue into a moral question, not an aesthetic one. Similarly, In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy made the following observation: “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.” As both a scholar and poet, how do you perceive beauty and does it have a moral component?

SS: I don’t think that aesthetics is an aspect of the artwork except, importantly, in the ways the artist is her or his own audience, but of course aesthetics by definition is fundamental to the reception of an art work. I am a Kantian in that I find beauty everywhere, not only in works of art: the experience of beauty is a consequence of being awake and alive to the world without pre-conceiving or preemptively framing experience. Yet I would agree that when we find beauty in the finality of forms, we are in the realm of something just and true (in the metaphysical sense, but also the sense of the plumb and the level)–something that must be what it is and could not be otherwise.

DG: Aside from your work as a poet and scholar, you’ve also made substantial contributions in the field of translation, particularly from Italian into English. In this respect, Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini, for example, was highly praised and very well reviewed. In an addition, you’ve co-translated the poetry of Milo de Angelis and Patrizia Cavalli with Italian scholars Patrizio Ceccagnoli and Brunella Antomarini, respectively. In this sense, how did you become fascinated with the Italian language and which factors influence your decision about the authors you ultimately choose to translate? Additionally, what are the differences in approach, if any, between translating a piece by yourself and doing the same work in a collaborative manner? Do you prefer one over another?

SS: Is there a more beautiful and musical language than Italian and a more important body of literature than Italian literature? I don’t think so. For personal and academic reasons I began traveling to Italy in the late 1970s. I did not learn any Italian until my early middle age and I am not a fluent speaker because of that late start. When I have translated contemporary works I always have been grateful for the help of friends who are native speakers, whether these friends were the poets themselves, or scholars of the texts, or full co-translators (Brunella Antomarini and Patrizio Ceccagnoli, as you mention, and also Sara Teardo with respect to Bonanni’s The Reprisal and the scholar Luca Grillo as I finished the Merini translations). My work also has been sustained by the interest and enthusiasm of my own translator, Maria Cristina Biggio. In every project my role is to think through the range of literal meanings and turn the work into an English poem or novel. I don’t consider myself a professional translator; translation has been an outgrowth of friendships, a desire to communicate, and an aim of helping to make the English-speaking literary world less parochial.

DG: What are you reading and or working on at the moment?

SS: At the moment I am writing a new book of poems.


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