Brad J. Murray (halfjack) wrote,
Brad J. Murray

Post-modernism and the classics

So I'm reading Virgil's Aeneid, or more correctly I'm reading the Translator's Note (my favourite part of most classics) to Frederick Ahl's translation, and something struck me about art.

It seems like artists always knew what we discovered only recently. That is, the much-derided (lol) post-modernist criticism would have been obvious to any prior artist above a certain minimum (and low) complexity. Perhaps the genius (and folly) of post-modernism was only in saying it out loud.

First, the work is meant to be performed. Every syllable in the original Latin is crafted to be spoken aloud at a certain time with a certain rhythm and at a certain distance from every other syllable. This attention to the text of the work as the work is clearly a semiotic endeavour. This quality of internal self-reference, it strikes me, is present in practically all art worthy of the name from practically every era. The calligraphers drawing up the Magna Carta work deliberately with cut quill, type of ink, and quality of paper to achieve not just the legible document required as a political artifact, but also to give it moment, gravity, and impact as befits such a profound change in political behaviour. Whether or not they thought explicitly, in fine detail, about these choices is something we can only guess at, but I suspect our instinct to guess that they do not (but rather that they act largely from necessity -- only this ink is available, or from conformity -- this ink is always used for these kinds of documents, or from pure instinct) undersells the thinking of a very real craftsman. A medieval geek who cares deeply about his very narrow niche, he must select his tools deliberately and care deeply about his choice. I suspect he even has the deep-seated urge to communicate his interest and debate it hotly with others, though early on he may have lack the technology to make this discussion something an archaeologist might find.

Well, that wandered. Anyway, other elements that I see Ahl struggling with in translating Virgil that are clearly of interest to any post-modernist critique and equally of interest to Virgil include:

  • Wordplay. Obviously to make any play on words requires a deliberate perspective external to the work. The temptation to multiply that -- to make plays on plays on words -- is equally obvious and carries us further into the abstract space of the text itself (well, abstracted from the content).

  • Interlingual references. It seems Virgil uses words that connote in both Latin and in Greek, sometimes directly, sometimes aurally, but sometimes as anagrams. This layer of detailed reference to letter order across languages would give Derrida (damn I gave it away) an erection.

So maybe the post-modernists didn't so much find something new as give us a language (and maybe not a pretty one) to talk about this layer of an artist's intent. Maybe not even that -- maybe they just made sure that the idea of being conscious of this activity is possible. Now our culture is irrevocably poisoned with this parasite: we are all above the work looking down on it as at once the immersive entertainment it is superficially meant to be, but also as cultural analysts looking for things the author(s) intended us to find but that do not relate to the narrative we are intended to experience. How else to explain the pervasive presence of "easter eggs" in film, games, and (certainly since the beginning of the art-form) oil painting? How else to make sense of the "director's cut" or the "commentary track"?

We are all now reflexively engaged with the media whenever we engage the art. We cannot help it. The post-modernists were not so much "right" or even "insightful" as they were the vectors for a new intellectual disease that makes everything wonderfully more complicated. And thus we evolve, layer by layer, into more interesting animals.
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