Sunday, September 18, 2011


All schemes for improving humankind appear to be hopeless. The masses are definitely not kind and, I fear, barely human. Where even quite ordinary individuals manage to rise above ordinary callousness, the moment they merge into a crowd, they become intolerant and intolerable.

Among other seemingly gratuitous pursuits, I have often pondered what could make man and womankind more human. Are there not enough kind humans around even to form an active core of gentility? For, of course, gentility would be the solution.

Gentility or, by its other name, manners. Optimists, if there are any of those, would assume that although intelligence cannot be generated, and stupidity thrives and multiplies even without teaching, manners, at least theoretically, ought to be teachable. Even dogs can be trained to behave as well as cats, which are fastidious by nature.

But what about people? Couldn’t they be taught good manners? To be sure, there have been elegant, seemingly well-behaved persons who, secretly, were criminals. Not for nothing do we have a play entitled “A Woman Killed With Kindness.” It is conceivable that even Dr. Mengele and Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) had good manners. On the other hand, can you imagine an off-the-field football team, let alone  an army, with good manners?

Still, the majority of persons exhibiting mannerly behavior do this not as a cover-up, but because inwardly too they are considerate and gracious. With those people we have no problems. But can anything be achieved with instinctual loudmouths, boors, bullies, laggards, drones, know-nothings, mugwumps, fence sitters, the various kinds of fanatics or phlegmatics?

Probably not much. Nonetheless, what if, unlike what’s usual, we made an effort? Perhaps the real problem is not so much young rowdies as unqualified or nonexisting teachers. Heaven knows schooling of the traditional kind is generally either failing or not in the curriculum. As an intermittent college faculty member, I can vouch for the untutoredness of even elite school graduates, even by the time they are college upperclassmen. The rub is the lack of learning on the secondary-school level, and, no less drastic, in the home.

There have been times within human memory when parents were willing and able to teach their offspring a thing or two at home, or at least encourage them to become creditable autodidacts. As Jacques Barzun has eloquently pointed out, there is not much real teaching and learning in the schools; instead, there is an abstraction called education, windy palaver instead of getting down to brass tacks.

Given ineffectual parents and teachers, how could manners possibly be acquired? Good question, alas. Perhaps some kind of books could help: books on etiquette, if only they were wittily and charmingly written. Could even worthy works of fiction and drama influence mannerly behavior? Perhaps even certain games, in which finesse triumphs over brashness and opportunism.

I would like to think, for instance, that intelligent reading of Bernard Shaw’s plays might make a difference. Or any number of plays by Giraudoux and Anouilh, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, possibly still crying out for adequate translations. All of them are foreign; make of that what you will.

And, while I am fantasizing, just think what could be achieved if important phone calls were taken by courteous human beings rather than impersonal machines. If this makes me a Luddite, so be it. And what if computers and their e-mail spoke not some jarring jargon, but simple, good human language?

As I implied in the beginning, probably impossible. But couldn’t we at least try?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Obituaries should be read by everyone. We already know that life can be stranger than fiction—although contemporary fiction goes a long way toward strangeness—but what we should also know is how fascinating obituaries can be. No wonder many readers of the New York Times begin their reading with them. After all, deaths are in a dead heat with taxes in inevitability and universality, so that every life, tersely summarized in an obituary, should be of commanding  interest and importance to any mortal.

Take the September 4 obit of (to quote the headline) “Rev. Eugene A. Nida, 96; Spurred Bible Translations.” Now I have a modest interest in the Bible as literature, but a greater one in Dr. Nida, who, I read, traversed the globe from pole to pole by plane, train and canoe to oversee the translating of Scripture into more than 200 languages.

Margalit Fox, the obituarist, points out that Nida’s efforts were to make the Bible’s language as accessible as possible in all those languages, including English, where the Good News Bible, possibly at Nida’s instigation, translated “Behold the fowls of the air” as “Look at the birds flying around.” That is certifiably colloquial, but surely less appealing than the King James version. The latter, by the way, owes much of its popularity to its English being archaic enough for exoticism, but not enough so to defeat comprehension.

Yet what is most informative, indeed instructive, about the Nida obit is its last paragraph, which concludes: “’I am sorrowful’ gets a variety of translations for tribes within a small area of central Africa:  ‘My eye is black,’ ‘My heart is rotten,’ ‘My stomach is heavy’ or ‘My liver is sick.’”

This gives us a lot to think about.  If there can be that much difference between adjacent tongues, does that not imply sizable differences between less neighborly ones the world over? To be sure most languages do not—naively or poetically—locate sadness in diverse parts of the anatomy.  Still, even without checking up, I can assume that “sorrowful” resonates differently from what I imagine as its counterpart in German and French Bibles.  It is peculiar even in English, as is “fowls of the air.”

How? Well, “sorrowful” has a literary, or perhaps romantic, aura that the commonplace, expectable “sad” would not have.  It suggests a Byronic hero going about (or flying around) in a showily melancholy state. A modern sports fan, for example, after his team loses, can hardly be described as “sorrowful.”

As for “fowls,” they mean to us chickens or ducks or geese, but certainly not pigeons and sparrows. We are inadvertently nudged to imagine the air around us populated by, say, hens and turkeys, the better to befoul us with bird droppings, but also, conversely, to provide the needy with easily available sustenance.

What this means is that foreign languages may well be more alien, less fathomable, than we realize. The moment another language waxes even moderately poetic like our pre-Nidan biblical English (never mind such difficult poets as Mallarme and Rilke, or, in reverse, Eliot and Pound), we find ourselves more left out than we might imagine.

Still, in Europe and America, thanks to education, travel and dictionaries, these differences have been reduced. But what about other parts of the world, where differences in language may intensify other kinds of difference into hostility and bloody strife?

I have no wish to exaggerate. Even within the same language there can be incomprehension and lack of tolerance. Most Germans read their classical poets—Goethe, Heine, George, Rilke—just as most French people read theirs—Villon, Ronsard, Baudelaire, Verlaine—and such delectable modern ones as the German Erich Kaestner and the French Jacques Prevert, without its making them more tolerant of their neighbor nations, or even of their very own Jews. Did it even keep so many Germans from becoming Nazis that they read, memorized and sang settings of beloved poems by Heine, a converted Jew?

What I really wonder about, though, is those contiguous African tribes. Now that they have, thanks to Rev. Nida, the Bible in their own lingo, does that make them better Christians? Better human beings? Does it stop their slaughtering one another even if they are as neighborly as Sudan and the just recently created South Sudan? It looks as though the confusions of the biblical Babel (which begat the English “babble”), though surely contributive to mutual intolerance in, say, Israel and Palestine, were not the only reasons for the deadly enmity. Does possession of, for all I know, well-translated Bibles in Syria, Libya and Iran make those countries, even intramurally, less murderous?

Alas, poor human nature—plagued by social, political, economic, religious as well as linguistic disparity—whose fault is it that you are so unnatural?