Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Origins of Wednesday xviii: Omnia mutantur, nihil interit

Not long ago, I defended
having weathered another
Summer without Proust, 
as escaping a kind of in-
tellectual nuisance, like
his great translator's
trench fever at the Wes-
tern Front, that threat-
ens never entirely to go
away. I recognize an os-
tentation in renouncing
a notable treasure, and,
yes, I agree with the but-
ler in Sturges' Sullivan's
Travels, that an affecta-
tion of impoverishment is
as low a gesture as a man
can make. But, as I men-
tioned at the time, I do
not welcome lightly the
irritations of a master-

Now I incline suddenly
to relent, as an even
better season for stor-
ies approaches on the
calendar; but now I do
so for a reason which
pretty well goes to the
heart of what I'm doing
here. I'm going to en-
gage M. Proust in some-
one else's restatement.

I've admitted doing this
a fair amount. To me, the
affecting element of a
great translation is its
generous sociabiity, its
fulfillment of an obliga-
tion our schools demanded
of us all, to give our
peers our best contribu-
tion to their understand-
ing. In any case, it is
idle to pretend we read
alone - except possibly
in the gulag of I0S 9.

This explains our weakness
for the experience of the
Classics, which are only
social discourses; and why
it is natural to approach
even Proust from the hands
of a prodigy in Ovid. When
commanded in his entrance
exam for Winchester in 1903, 
to render some lines of Ovid
into serviceable English, the
schoolboy C.K. Scott Moncrieff
proposed the following ~

               Omnia mutantur, nihil interit ..

               Everything is changed but nothing
               perishes. The spirit wanders, going
               hence, thither, coming thence, hith-
               er, and takes possession of any limbs
               it pleases. With equal ease it goes
               from beasts into human bodies and from 
               us into beasts, nor in any length of 
               time does it fail. And as wax is easily 
               moulded in new shapes, nor remains as 
               it had been before, nor keeps the same 
               form, but yet is itself the same; so do 
               I teach that the soul is ever the same, 
               but migrates into different shapes.

I don't distrust precocity on
this scale, intuition so ener-
getic, yet so calm in its respect
for a finished work's composure.
I don't distrust the image of an 
approachable other consciousness.
I don't distrust the gift for af-
fection in a discovery of its dis-
cipline. It refreshes everything.
Is this style, or is it taste?

I can regret an aristocracy all
I want, but it's hopeless to de-
nounce its virtues, rare as their
embodiment may be. Some examiner
at Winchester must have wept to
find his exercise in translation
translated as a manifesto on its
obligations and its promise. In
this prospectus taste is in good
hands. What wax is this, moulded 
to bring nuisance to our Winter?

Jean Findlay
Chasing Lost Time
  The life of CK Scott Moncrieff
  Soldier, Spy and Translator
Chatto & Windus, 2014©

Walter Kaiser
A review of Findlay
The New York Review
June 4, 2015©