Archive for April, 2008

Goldberg: Variations

Back in January (was it really that long ago?!) I blogged about Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes. I had prepared another post, but in the end decided I didn’t want to say anything more about it. I had also ordered Goldberg: Variations, which came about month later for some reason.

Everything Passes is apparently simple, but remains elusive in its complexity (and this is its greatest charm, I think). Goldberg: Variations, when viewed one chapter at a time, is easier to “understand”, but the various settings and characters of the book, when viewed as a whole, pose the greatest challenge. They are connected by various metaphors and concerns.

I filled several pages in my notebooks about Everything Passes, but I didn’t find as much that interested me in Goldberg: Variations, despite the fact that it was a fuller book. There is, however, one small detail I’d like to concentrate on, because it represents what I think was an interesting missed opportunity.

There is a story that Count Kaiserling, a Russian ambassador to Saxony, suffered from insomnia and had the musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who lived with him, play music to soothe him at night. Kaiserling mentioned to Bach that he wished he had some soothing but lively music for such occasions, and Bach is said to have given him the piece of music which has come to be known as the Goldberg Variations.

Josipovici’s book is about a writer named Goldberg who is hired to read to an insomniac named Mr Hammond. Logically, a recurrent theme throughout the book, in addition to literature and writing, is sleep. There is a thread in the book that particularly struck me, and it deals with Odysseus.

In chapter 8 (pp 56-61) Hammond asks Goldberg, “What is the reason, do you think, that makes Homer depict Odysseus as an inveterate liar?” (p 56)

Goldberg describes one of the significant differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, he says,

knows that if he kills Hector he himself is doomed to die young, but kill Hector he must, to avenge his beloved Patroclus. If it had been possible it would have happened, as someone has said. If the alternative had been possible he would have chosen it. It was not possible. … It is different with the Odyssey. Odysseus is ready to use all his wiles and all his powers of endurance, even if it means humiliation, in order to ensure his safe return and, once he is home, the routing of the suitors and the cleansing of his house. […] But for Odysseus humiliation is temporary; the end always justifies the means.

Goldberg later adds:

As the Iliad ends with the burial of Hector’s body, so the Odyssey ends with Odysseus and Penelope finding each other through the riddle of the bed, which is an integral part of the house itself. Only then does Odysseus sleep soundly. Until that moment his fate is to lie awake, making plans while all the creatures of the earth sleep the sleep of the just.

Goldberg’s answer to the initial question does not really concern us here, so I’ll pass over it for now. I want to stress the part about sleep, and move on to chapter 24 (pp 165-170). Goldberg is writing to his wife.

We spend a third of our lives asleep, if we are among the lucky ones, and yet, curiously, very little has been made of sleep in the literature of the past. For obvious reasons. It is not interesting. Nothing happens. Only dreams, or the inability to sleep, are interesting. But does that not tell us something about art? It purports to speak of man and all his doings, but in effect it speaks only of those things most amenable to speech. Homer, of course, is the exception in this as in everything else. Indeed sleep could be said to be the secret theme, perhaps even the secret goal, of both his Iliad and Odyssey. In the former Achilles will not sleep until he has been avenged first on his own comrades who, he feels, have inflicted shame upon him, and then on Hector, who has killed dear friend Patroclus. […] And is not the climax of the Odyssey the return of Odysseus to his beloved wife and to his own secret bed? Then at last both he and the poem can fall asleep.

What does this suggest? Why, simply this, that sleep is the goal of art as it is of man. And it can only be the sleep that truly ends if it has in some way been earned by the protagonist and earned by the writer. In that sense it is also the goal of the reader. But only a true work will allow him to sleep well when he has closed the book.

There is a curious part in the middle of the book, beginning on p 107, in the 15th chapter, written by Mrs Goldberg. She is writing of their children, Annabel and Danny. She writes about their son’s shiftiness in argument, and his desire to emulate and impress his father. She gives the following example. In the 19th book of the Odyssey,

where the disguised Odysseus recounts to Penelope that he has seen Odysseus and welcomed him as a guest in his home in Crete, [Danny] pointed out the contiguity of the words Odysseus and I in the line: “There Odysseus I saw and gifts to him gave”, suggesting that for a moment the reader or listener imagines the disguise is about to drop and Odysseus to reveal himself. When you pointed out that this was far-fetched he triumphantly showed that in the that line in the Greek, Odyseia [sic] and ego were followed by the caesura, and that this was an extremely rare example of such a thing, there being only eight examples, he said, of such an “illicit” hiatus in the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey. The implication was thus that one would have to pause after ego and the line would momentarily read “And there I, Odysseus”, before concluding “saw and gave guest gifts to”. Even you had to admit that he had a point there.

But he doesn’t. Nowhere near, in fact. There is, of course, the possibility that Danny is twisting things to convince his father, but I want to point out a significant error in his argument. And to do this I have to say a few things about how the Greek language works.

Greek, like Latin, is an inflected language. What this basically means is that nouns and adjectives have endings which clearly show what grammatical role they are playing in the sentence. Take the word for man, or human, anthropos. When it has the -os ending, it means that the word is the subject of the verb. If the word ends with -on, then it is the direct object of the verb. If it ends with -ou, then it is showing possession, like ‘s in English. These are called cases. The three I’ve mentioned are called nominative, accusative, and genitive. There is another one, the dative (which exists in German too), and the vocative, which is used when addressing the thing or person the noun represents.

The result of all this is that Greek syntax is a great deal more flexible than English. A simple sentence like Dog bites man could be written

Dog bites man.
Man bites dog.
Bites man dog.
Bites dog man.
Man dog bites.
Dog man bites.

and the meaning would not change. Only the emphasis would be different. Names, like all other nouns, follow this rule, so there is no way a Greek would have read or heard the name Odysea in the line Danny discusses and even momentarily think what he says they might be tempted to think. They would know right away that Odysseus was the object of the verb saw, just as they would know that I was the subject of it. This possibility exists only in English, because it is not an inflected language.

There is only one such case of ambiguous contiguity that I can think of in English, (I’m sure there are many) but it comes later than Goldberg’s visit to Hammond — although readers of the book will know that this would not have been a problem for Josipovici. It is the last line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “No worst, there is none.” Hopkins writes “all life death does end”. The contiguity of life and death makes it possible to read it as “death ends all life” or “all life ends death”. It would have been an appropriate choice. The full last line is

all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

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