Better : Jacques Lezra

Nadia Myre / Orison #4 (2014)
Nadia Myre / Orison #4 (2014)


Better : Jacques Lezra

 

I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.
—Donald J. Trump, Dec. 30, 2015 (South Carolina) 1

And Glaucon very ludicrously said, “Heaven save us, hyperbole can no further go.” “The fault is yours,” I said, “for compelling me to utter my thoughts about it.”
—Plato, Republic 509c

 

“Better” words—that’s a claim we could understand; perhaps today we could generally endorse the idea that it’s better to have better words to hand than less-good ones (though we’d be hard-pressed to correlate an education, even or especially at an Ivy League school, with the “knowledge” or “having” of such better words).2 Some words are “better” than others for certain things, and “better” in some hands than in others at those or other things—they designate with greater precision; they persuade some people more readily or more people sooner than other words; they move us more; they serve better to recall words we’ve loved or feared to hear. “Better” reminds us of language’s irreducible practicality: a word’s meaning is its use; words perform, for better or worse. A president may inaugurate, may with a word and a signature scrap a bill and end a dream, declare war, victory, defeat. A leader may exhort, inspire, resign, condemn, and so on. Someone like Donald Trump may provoke, insult, demean, recruit, and do so comparatively better or worse than another. “Better” words are the stuff of politics and of policy: of translation. In the European imaginary, the public struggle over the “better” word makes the city, the polis, what it is. (The famous marketplace of ideas has a peculiar double sense: use and location meet. In the agora the words that express ideas are on display as if they were wares or goods. But the agora is also just where you or I, or Agathon and Alcibiades, might go to see which of our ideas better persuades more of our fellow citizens.)

“I have the best words,” says Donald Trump. The superlative is confounding; the claim to “have” words, whether the “better” or the “best” ones, is at least confusing.

We’re asked to agree to a peculiar syllogism. If, or because, “I went to an Ivy League school,” then “I’m very highly educated.” Since “I’m very highly educated,” then “I know words,” I must “know words.” (To be educated must mean to “know words,” not just in the sense of possessing an ample vocabulary and thus knowing many of them but “knowing” them as one may be said to “know wines” or people, as in the case of the connoisseur or the professional; the user’s knowledge of the best tool or taste.) And if, or because, “I know words,” then I know that these words I have, the ones I’m offering you and you’re hearing, the ones I’m uttering here and now, the words I share with you, are the “best” that you or I or anyone can “have.” This is the fantastic, Escher-like hydraulics of dog-whistle aristocracy: the “best” blood, the blood of the syllogism’s “bestness,” flows from its secret heart, from the institution we all agree is best, and agree so naturally that we need neither spell it out nor make explicit what we all acknowledge. Yes, the “best” blood and the blood of superlative achievement flows quietly from the Ivy League school—and through my veins and into and as my words. I know this, and though my words don’t say it you understand it in and through them because they are, in just this way, the “best” words: they are words that tell you their race, worth and bloodline without having, after all, to say anything. They manifest to you that I have them, and that I say I know that they are indeed the “best words”—and this makes them so. My words are the “best” because they are self-positing, or because they are better than other words are making you believe they are.

Again. “I have the best words.” The superlative remains confounding; the claim to “have” words, whether the “better” or the “best” ones, remains confusing.

First the “best” words, or word. Here we seem to swim in the world of what Trump calls “truthful hyperbole.” These are his words (and those of his co-writer, Tony Schwartz), in The Art of the Deal:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.3

To say one has the “best” word is indeed to play to people’s fantasies. It means something stronger than “the best word to this or that end, at some specific time, in a situation given to us.” The “best” word makes a comparative as well as an absolute claim: it’s “better” than another word, but it’s also different from it in lying outside of the system of relative magnitudes in which merely “better” and “worse” words work. The “best” word is also the last one, the one that ends the series, the one that redeems or buries all the words, the good and bad ones, the better and worse words, in the fire and fury of eternal war. Trump’s superlatives: promoting the fantasy that we—that “people”—can possess “the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular” of ends: to consume the apocalypse in all innocence.

As to “having” words—here we’re on different ground. English allows the rather old-fashioned expression “to have” a language: “Do you have Latin?” one may ask (or Spanish, Quechua, and so on). In Trump’s words, the verb “to have” is ostensibly synonymous with “to know”: to “have” a word is to “know” it, and vice-versa. A little elegant variation is at work; the translation between “knowing” and “having” is transparent and immediate. Once we have the word “have” we have the word “know,” and once we know the verb “to know” we know the verb “to have.” We’d have to say that we cannot know which is better suited to Trump’s intent—not because we aren’t educated in the nuance of their difference, but because his words offer themselves as one: they refuse, reduce, consume the differences of their expression, of their long and distinct histories, of their semantic particularities.

Of course there’s always been a tension, sometimes violent in its expression and consequences, between the politics of the “better” word and the politics of the “best” one. So too between “knowing” and “having” things, even words, even languages. (Although English is the “master’s house,” my knowing either the language or this fact about the language will not mean that the “master’s house” is mine, or that I have it in the way the master does: that, at any rate, is one way to translate Audre Lorde’s famous line.) The Sophist may sometimes break bread with the Platonist, but the two will not share a single language; the “better” word offers what Barbara Cassin characterizes (in a phrase taken from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s preamble to the 2003 report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission) as “enough of the truth for”—for this or that, to this end and not another. She writes in full: “’Enough of the truth for . . .’: it is this expression that stops me in my tracks. It goes against the idea that there is one unique and absolute truth, the truth: rather, there is some truth, a bit, bits of truth. It is a partitive—some bread, some water, some truth.”4 The “better” word is never servant to the One. Not so the sole bearer of the “best” word: of these there is only one, suited to the end and the end suited to it. (So it is improper to say about the “’best’ word,” as I just did, that “of these” there is only one: “these,” suggesting the plural, the class of “best words,” obscures the absolutism of the fantasy. There is in truth only one “best word,” and only one bearer, elect or anointed, of that word.)

Two dogmas of translation face off before us. As long as a word is only “better” than another word, we’re in the workaday world of approximative translation, whether word-for-word or sense-for-sense. We acknowledge the practical limits of our task. Let’s take an example. I set about translating into Spanish, my native tongue, Trump’s recent threat to the North Korean leadership, that further nuclear provocation will lead to “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It’s political speech: a threat; a rallying cry to a base of voters attuned to the ring of end-of-days language; a thumbing-of-the-nose at internationalists whose “world,” Trump is saying, blandly or cravenly overlooks the real threats ignored or appeased by more moderate US administrations. I retain some of Trump’s alliteration, but not all. I take note of the scansion of Trump’s analogy, which offers his English listeners first the apocalypse (a world that’s like “fire and fury:” North Korea will see what the world is, what we all recognize it to be—“fire and fury”) and then, fully unpacked, offers the apocalypse we have not yet seen but may, if North Korea does not attend to our threat: “[F]ire and fury like the world has never seen.” There are better and worse ways of saying this in Spanish—or different ways, at any rate: “Fuego y furia como el mundo no ha visto,” my first thought, works to preserve Trump’s scansion. An alternative, from a Russian Spanish-language site, reads “[E]l fuego y una furia que el mundo nunca ha visto”;5 the pronoun and the article are more correct, a little more formal, more distant, than my version. Huffpost in Spanish reads “fuego y furia nunca vistos.”6 The standard news service Univisión has Trump warning that North Korea “Encontrará un fuego y furia que el mundo jamás ha visto,” or “will find a fire and fury that the world has never seen.”7 A Mexican source underscores the reflexive: North Korea “Se encontrarán con fuego y furia como el mundo nunca ha visto . . .”, which is to say, roughly, that they “Will find themselves facing fire and fury . . .”8 A Spanish-language publication from New York tells its readers that Trump warned, impersonally this time, that if North Korea persists, “se verán fuego y furia como el mundo nunca ha visto,” that “fire and fury will be seen, such as the world has never seen.”9

My world is approximative; each of these translations has something to commend it, and I’ll reach for one or the other translation of Trump’s words when I want to achieve this effect or that, or move and persuade, enrage or inform this or that group of readers. One translation will be better than another—and different criteria and times will furnish me with tools to decide among them. I have no “best” words; know none.

My world and my words end in fire and fury when the “best” word is announced. Only one voice can utter it (only one hand, nervously typing, can tweet it). This dogma of translation calls for the end of translation: to “know” a word is to “have” it, and vice-versa. Any position that does not acquiesce to that aristocracy is heretical, marked by the cosmopolitan shibboleth of division, of Babel, of circumcision. The scenario is theological, or better yet: Platonic in the flattest sense. These lines from the closing pages of Borges’s great parable “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” offer an answer—though in an unacceptably melancholic key, an answer to Trumplatonism, whose “contact and habit,” like “reality’s” contact with the world of Tlön, “have disintegrated this world.” “Ten years ago,” writes Borges, in Irby’s translation, “any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit?” Borges concludes: “I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogué hotel, an uncertain, undecided [una indecisa traducción] Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.”10 Trading, in other words, the “best” words for better or worse ones—uncertain, undecided. Trumplatonism, that avatar of anti-Semitic, dialectical-materialist, Nazi symmetries, is a call to end translation and to end politics, to entrance “the minds of men” with a “resemblance of order” held closely by an aristocracy. To build political concepts in these times does not mean seeking the re-integration of “this world” (it was never one, whole, integrated: indeed the supreme and supremacist fantasy that it was ever so is just what Trumplatonism “has,” “knows,” at its core), but rather re-introducing the partitive indecision of anapocalyptic, better-or-worse language-uses and better-or-worse translations in the fantasy of sovereign knowledge, and thus to keep “knowing” from drifting, or being forced, into synonymy if not identity with “having.”

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Jacques Lezra is Professor of Hispanic Studies at University of California Riverside.

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1. Donald J. Trump, Dec. 30, 2015 (South Carolina), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kn283OjPb1g.

2. A shorter form of this essay appeared as “Trumplatonism” in Translating Trump/Traduire Trump. Contemporary French & Francophone Studies/SITES, 21.5 (New York, London: Routledge, 2017).

3. Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, The Art of the Deal (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), p. 58.

4. In Barbara Cassin, Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 261ff. Cassin goes on to say: “And there is enough of it for it to serve and be useful: it is instrumentalized truth. Instead of our oath in court, ‘truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ here is the [Truth and Reconciliation] commission, a court which is not a court, advocating the efficacy of a sufficient quantum of truth” (262). I accept Cassin’s description to a point, but I do not think there’s “enough” of the truth to go around—any more than there is enough bread, or enough water. Partition—of bread, resources, land, truth—is irreducibly violent.

5. “Trump amenaza con ‘el fuego y una furia que el mundo nunca ha visto,’” RT August 8, 2017.

6. “Trump amenaza a Corea del Norte con “fuego y furia nunca vistos” si desafía a Estados Unidos,” Huffpost, August 08, 2017.

7. “Trump amenaza a Corea del Norte: ‘Encontrará un fuego y furia que el mundo jamás ha visto,’” Univision, August 8, 2017 (video).

8. “Trump advierte a NorCorea: ‘Encontrarán fuego y furia como el mundo nunca ha visto’,” Reporte Indigo, August 8, 2017.

9. “[S]e verán fuego y furia,” from “Trump a Corea del Norte: ‘Tendrá fuego y furia como el mundo nunca ha visto’,” El Diaro, August 8, 2017.

10. Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.Sur (Buenos Aires) 68: 3 (1940), 30-46. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, trans. James Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 18. I’ve had a bit to say about these lines in my “The Indecisive Muse: Ethics in Translation and the Idea of History.” Comparative Literature 60:4 (2008), pp. 301–330.