December 19, 2008

Relations of Notes

“If you say that in a book the Italians should speak Italian because in the actual world they speak Italian and the Chinese should speak Chinese because Chinese speak Chinese it is a rather naïve way of thinking of a work of art, it’s as if you thought this was the way to make a painting: The sky is blue.  I will paint the sky blue.  The sun is yellow.  I will paint the sun yellow.  A tree is green.  I will paint the tree green.  And what colour is the trunk?  Brown.  So what colour do you use?  Ridiculous.  Even leaving abstract painting out of the question it is closer to the truth that a painter would think of the surface that he wanted in a painting and the kind of light and the lines and the relations of colours and be attracted to painting objects that could be represented in a painting with those properties.  In the same way a composer does not for the most part think that he would like to imitate this or that sound – he thinks that he wants the texture of a piano with a violin, or a piano with a cello, or four stringed instruments or six, or a symphony orchestra; he thinks of relations of notes.

            This was all commonplace and banal to a painter or musician, and yet the languages of the world seemed like little heaps of blue and red and yellow powder which had never been used – but if a book just used them so that the English spoke English & the Italians Italian that would be as stupid as saying use yellow for the sun because the sun is yellow.  It seemed to me reading Schoenberg that what the writers of the future would do was not necessarily say:  I am writing about an Armenian grandfather Czech grandmother a young biker from Kansas (of Czech & Armenian descent), Armenian Czech English OK.  Gradually they would approach the level of the other branches of the arts which are so much further developed.  Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese.

            An idea has only to be something you have not thought of before to take over the mind, and all afternoon I kept hearing in my mind snatches of books which might exist in three or four hundred years.  There was one with the characters Hakkinen, Hintikka and Yu, set provisionally in Helsinki – against a background of snow with a mass of black firs, a black sky & brilliant stars a narrative or perhaps dialogue with nominative genitive partitive essive inessive adessive illative ablative & translative, people would come on saying Hyvää päivää for good day there might be a traffic accident so that the word tieliikenneonnettomuus could make an appearance, and then in the mind of Yu Chinese characters, as it might be Black Fir White Snow, this was absolutely ravishing.”

                                                                                     Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

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