I took a break from difficult reading to read Eluard’s “Last Love Poems” as translated by Marilyn Kallet. Alas that I am mono-lingual and cannot read poetry in any language other than English. I have to take the translator’s word for it (literally and figuratively) that the beauty in the lines can be nearly portrayed in English. The struggle translators must have to go through to transform such a studied thing of language as a poem is into a different tongue amazes me. Inevitably there is some loss of connotation, wordplay, music, rhythm, cultural freight; the careful reader understands that there may be lacunae of some kind, and a mono-lingual reader recognizes that she will not be able to track down where those subtle gaps occur. A good translation, however, manages to maintain the beauty.
“Beauty”—now, there’s a moving target. Quine devotes a few pages to the discussion of the concept in his “intermittently philosophical dictionary.” He writes: “The aesthetic pole is the focus of belle lettres, music, art for art’s sake. But it is a matter of emphasis, not boundaries. Scientists in pursuing truth also seek beauty of an austere kind in the elegance of a theory, and happily some of them seek literary grace in their expository writing.” Quine ends his brief entry on Beauty by suggesting that truth and beauty are not a binary system, that we need not see them as poles apart; yet he does not quite agree with Keats’ conflation of the two. We need ethics and rhetoric in addition to truth and beauty, says the philosopher.
Peter de Bolla, writing two decades or so later, inclines toward a less binary way of looking at beauty and truth when he writes that, since the art of music is an “articulation of the temporal,” there is a “philosophical argument music makes about relationships between time and being.” And that argument results in beauty, when it is a well-composed argument, I suppose.
Suddenly the welcome earth
Was a rose of luck
Visible with fair mirrors
Where everything sang to open rose
(“Seasons,” Paul Eluard, tr. Marilyn Kallet)
de Bolla asks: What does the poem know? This poem knows music, and beauty “in the gentle desert of the street” and “beneath life overpowering and good.”