Yiorgos Chouliaras · Greece

08 Yiorgos Chouliaras_DSC9117 C

Borders & borders

In appreciation

It is a pleasure to be in Tunisia, home of the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, and I wish to thank the Head of the European Union Delegation, Ambassador Laura Baeza, for the invitation as well as thank everyone involved, Tunisians and other partners, including especially PEN International, for the outstanding discussions and hospitality.

Coming from Athens, Greece, I feel at home in Sidi Bou Saïd, a place named after a mystic who moved here in 1207, a place of particular attraction to writers and other artists, a place that impressed Paul Klee by the quality of light during his visit to Tunisia in 1914. “Color and I are one,” he wrote and, returning home, Klee painted his first pure abstract painting, In the Style of Kairouan.

Preconditions of discussion

We are here, perched on a cliff, about twenty kilometers from Tunis, overlooking the archaeological site of Carthage, a place whose culture and records were totally destroyed after the Third Punic War between Romans and Carthaginians, who were not obliterated nevertheless, as they continue to capture our imagination.

We are here, even if our thoughts are also elsewhere in Tunisia, in the Hercules and Dionysus room in the Bardo Museum; in Paris since November 13; in Beirut; over the Sinai; and wherever innocent individuals may have lost their lives. People and countries in the Maghreb are direct victims of attacks trying to turn Diderot’s dream into Goya’s nightmare for whatever excuse.

The refugees risking their lives on land and at sea are direct victims of terror, xenophobia, and racism, and it is a responsibility of writers to counteract these horrors and help sustain the Mediterranean as our common heritage rather than a sea of death. This is a “second” responsibility of writers, as their “first” responsibility remains to write and write as well as they can.

I am speaking and writing in English, while many colleagues here creatively extend an outstanding francophone tradition. So, let me not forget to apologize. As a native Greek speaker, I am not unfamiliar with the notion of a lingua franca, as English is in our age and Greek was in the past. But I am not apologizing for not speaking French. I am apologizing for not speaking Tunisian Arabic.

I apologize for not knowing enough so as not to restrict literary examples to Europe and America and I’m saying this in memory of a New York friend, now gone, who wrote the book on Orientalism, Edward Said. My examples are not drawn from a strictly Greek literary experience either, whether modern and contemporary, as it remains underrepresented, or ancient and classical, renowned but contested. As a prologue to any related reflections you may have, let me just add that Greeks have experienced both sides of the door, being welcomed in and kept out at the same time.

Literary borders, our theme here, are both implicated in and premised on political borders, to the extent “national literatures” (as literature is plural) come up as automatic backdrops for our projections.

Restraining arrangements as well as entrance and exit points, borders may be “factual,” i.e., internationally accepted boundaries between political entities. They may also be “actual,” i.e., demarcated by border enforcement infrastructures and by the more general distribution of public institutions within a state. Reinforced by border representations on maps, they may also be “imagined” borders (in Benedict Anderson’s sense) that correspond to images individuals have of their country or community. Moreover, national borders may reinforce an illusion of sovereignty in globalizing power circumstances.

Nevertheless, as no direction can be one way only, an imagined erasure of borders premised on a borderless critique of nationalism may unintendedly end up on the imperial side of a “post-imperial” attitude, if the liberation potential of cultural nationalism, for example, in Ireland, has been totally ignored.

More than anything else, language, which brings us together as human beings, also represents an ultimate barrier, as we try to envision ourselves in the mirror, blinded though by our reflections, as Homer or Borges brilliantly were.

Literary borders

There are political and geographical, psychological and emotional, sexual and identity, terrestrial and extra-territorialized, individual and compound borders. And they are all implicated as literary borders.

Yet, when we talk about literature and borders we (can or must) speak of at least four borders, as if there were borders on all sides, even if, in fact, there are many more – borders? Sides?

The first border is between what literature is and not-literature is or literature is not, statements which are not necessarily equivalent, despite Aristotle.

The second border is between what is written and what is oral, including the border between the scribe and the reader (or code-breaker) or an oralist and a listener.

The third border involves what we say (or write) and how we say (or write) it, an involvement often turned into a barren dialectic between form and content, which is a pity, to the extent misinterpretation may be the only form of interpretation we are ever fluent in, regardless of what its content may be.

The fourth border is between text and translation.

Text & translation

We are immediately confronted by this text and translation border – as we proceed to consider all four of them briefly in reverse order – when we contrast “littérature et frontières” to “literature and borders,” in the bilingual incarnation of the theme of our discussion, as “frontier(s)” would indeed suggest something quite different from “border(s)” in English.

I imagine most of us have experienced translating literary texts into our primary language as well as having our work translated into other languages, which we may be more or less familiar or completely unfamiliar with. Just before I left Athens, I was enraptured, for instance, with script representing some texts of mine intended for a forthcoming book of selected poems in Japanese translation.

There are two contrary observations. On one hand, translation appears as a very natural process involving, nevertheless, a complex transposition of a literary text from a particular language into a different language, cultural environment, and historical context. On the other hand, there is a lurking question: How does this process ever reach closure? How is this “border of the impossible” ever crossed?

I am someone committed to translation as an extraordinary craft. I am also an appreciative beneficiary of translations of my work, by outstanding practitioners of the craft, not only into English or French, but also Bulgarian, Croatian, Irish, Scots, Turkish and other languages.

Yet, even from this twin perspective, I cannot but agree with the American poet Robert Frost who has said that poetry – and, by extension, literature at large – is that which cannot be translated. I agree with him because his statement restores pride of place to translation as an art, distinguishing translation as re-creation (i.e., a new creation in a different language) from translation as recreation or entertainment or perhaps “infotainment,” to the extent it simply informs us of what more or less goes on in some work written in a language we do not know.

Let me now move in the opposite direction and say that I agree with Frost because I think him wrong. Poetry and literary texts in general can be translated, even if not always, even if not well, precisely because language (which is raw material for literature) is inherently translatable as a communal or common good. Language does not belong to writers; they belong to it as members of a linguistic community. And this issue has engaged students of literature, including George Steiner and Jacques Derrida, who was born not too far from here.

After all, as efficiently summarized by José Saramago, all literature is provincial. Only translation makes it world literature.

There are two things to keep in mind in relation to our overall discussion of borders. Translation of literature is an impossible to cross border, yet it is a border being crossed continuously, every day. Translators come up with ingenious ways to cross this border, as writers also continue to device new twists in the old story.

If it had been possible to build the tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted, Kafka suggests.

What & how

There is no difference in literature, though there is a distinction, between what we say and how we say it – which involves the “third” border cited at the outset. There is no difference, because we cannot recombine at will, changing the arrangement of materials in works of art. We are not to change shapes and colors in visual works; we are not to change the “sound bites” in works of music; we are not to change the words in literary works, even though we riff on them, modulating tonalities in all artistic media, not to mention performance prerogatives.

In literature, what we say is almost an alibi for how we say it, though how we say it is also an excuse for what we say – a conundrum that motivates a distinction without a difference between form and content.

Unlike unliterary statements, which are being constantly rephrased, retold, unremembered, literary statements partake of the ephemeral quality of whatever is final, since nothing is, as we all die.

In literature, there is no form or content. There are (some) words placed in (some) order. Yet, the mind keeps coming back to this insidious border, contesting the words and testing the order. Yes, there seems to be a border between “what” and “how,” but we appear to be on both sides of it.

If literature is etymologically anarchic, as it has no beginning, but coincides with the inception of language, it also is unfinal, until those last words by the last speaker are heard, that is, by that same person who is also the last listener.

Oral & written

That brings us to oralists, i.e., those who perform language, thereby generating literature in a process reminiscent of how theater was derived from poetry, even if speechless theater demands chronological priority. That brings in (literally or functionally “illiterate”) listeners, i.e., those without whom no performance is conceivable except in our mind (to coin an oxymoron).

Writing is the revolution. Please allow me to say this as a descendant of Greek tribes that added vowels, to create their own and future alphabets, to consonants invented on these contiguous Phoenician shores, extending to what is called the Middle East, that also went on to shine as beacons of Islamic civilization, which welcomed the texts of Aristotle and others when no one else would.

Writing is the revolution that separates history from prehistory. Writing is what secures literature as a universal heritage. Writing is the common home of scribes wherever they are, at home or in exile, celebrated, shunned or persecuted.

One can trace various critical moments, various “Copernican revolutions” in the history of writing, with Gutenberg a most significant turning point, imprinted as a precondition of modern literacy and literature, with individuals like Baudelaire, much later, at the head of this litany of saintly sinners.

However, the establishment of a home for literature in writing, specifically through the creation of readers, through copying at first and then by printing and other means of circulation, is premised on a border, that between writing and orality.

After all, even as the world may drown and the oceans may dry up through an onslaught of printed materials, as envisioned by Cortázar, what is written (much of which is printed, in paperless offices no less) represents only a group of islands in the vast archipelago of the spoken word.

Moreover, poetry (& literature in general after the invention of script) as the craft of writing must every so often go back to its oral roots, touch the ground to regain strength, as Antaeus did, because poetry (& literature) is that peculiar and perilous combination of meanings and sounds, if not the other way around, that make the world possible to live in.

This atavistic, if you wish, orality that is inscribed in the “letters” of the DNA of writing also accounts for (the need for) poetry & literary readings and recordings or recurring re-inventions of the (speaking) wheel from rap to slam poetry, whereby the (screen- or page-dominated) “extensive” and visual returns to its (imagined) origins as “sequential” and musical.

Literature & not-literature

Slam bam we’ve reached the final border, which remains the first, that is, the one between literature and its absence or opposition. It is a reasonable assessment that “everything” – every scrap of paper with something written on it, every outbreath of air vibrating from a tongue – cannot be literature. That’s common sense.

But, if common sense, rather than “sense,” was what we asked of writers, we might as well not ask them to be writers in the first place. Perhaps you will join me, therefore, or at least I’ll be excused for such an “imperial” attitude in this matter, if I say that we (can and must) start by considering everything as literature, even if literature is not everything.

After all, there are no sufficient aesthetic grounds on which to separate (texts with) literary qualities from their denial – which affirms complicity – or absence (in unintentionally literary discourses), when such qualities may appear in short supply in intentionally literary works.

Refusal to accept the most defining of all borders in the case of literature can now be seen as the twin operation it is, denying the existence of borders with the intention of passing through or overcoming them, while at the same time recognizing their apparent existence through such denial, as lovers do when they pretend to become one in joining their skin that sets them apart.

Bordering on no borders

There would be no museums, no doctors, no reporters or any other institution or group “without borders,” if no borders existed. To that extent, Régis Debray, controversial as he may be in other respects, is on the mark when, in support of his eulogy of borders, he cites Jacques Bourbon-Busset saying that the banks of a river are the preconditions of a river. By encaging it, they prevent it from turning into a swamp.

As these perceptual borders engage all writers, let me conclude on a different note, bringing our train of thought back to a nearby station.

Flaubert at the station

There is a suburban rail service, TGM (Tunis-Goulette-Marsa, sites of collective poetry exercises), which passes through Sidi Bou Saïd, from Tunis to the beaches. The ruins of Carthage are served by several stations on the way. The first one is Carthage Salammbô. Salammbô is, of course, a character imagined by Flaubert for the purposes of his novel under that title, which was published in 1862, the author having visited Tunisia in 1857. She is presumed to be the daughter of Hamilcar, Hannibal’s father. The area around it and the station apparently acquired that name in 1921, after the discovery of important Carthaginian ruins near there.

Sometimes life seems to erase borders between fiction and reality, as if realism were a project run by Dadaists, a projection I will not dispute.

In James Merrill’s perhaps most anthologized poem, “Mademoiselle does borders” while a child, whose parents seem to be always away, and his nanny are working on putting together a jigsaw puzzle. “But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation,” the poem has already warned us.

Let us not stop saying that poetry has no borders, even if poets often do, as what we “do” is what we “make,” if we go back, that is, to the Greek etymology of the words poiein and poetry. I doubt that there can be literature without borders, but borders are there to be crossed. And poetry or literature is what happens at the borders.

Haunted by ghosts of language empires, grounded at airport terminals by missing passports for animals in transit, let us not forget that writers must all-ways “cross the line” imagining those others who are us, as Aeschylus did with his Persians.