Tuesday, August 23, 2011

“Pale Blue Eyes” (Prague, 1972)

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind

Wallace Stevens, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”

Some are frustrated by the language barrier. They feel it is irrational. They equate immediate access to very single bit of information as liberating. They do not understand that even in a world of immediate access, cultural artifacts such as texts are always mediated by myriad cultural and economic institutions. True, these mediations are often negative and distorting. But is that necessarily the case?

Linguistic meaning is always mediated. It has become fashionable to insist on a hard distinction between “translator” and “interpreter”, where the former works on written documents and the latter on verbal communication. Personally, I would propose that the term “interpreter” be extended to the entire translation profession, because a good translator interprets in the sense that he or she makes apparent meanings that are hidden beneath the literal meanings or implicit in the context.

Censorship is one example of such mediations. The Soviet bloc suppressed access to rock and roll, sometimes overtly, sometimes more indirectly by trying to co-opt pop music. But even in pre-Internet totalitarian societies, the musical revolution of the sixties managed to pierce the Iron Curtain, albeit with a slight lag of a couple of years. And so it came to happen that (incredibly) The Velvet Underground became the object of a cult following in the dissident circles of Czechoslovakia in the mid-1970s. In a period when Lou Reed had already left Warhol’s Factory and was experimenting with glam rock and freaky sex in Germany, Czech youths and middle-aged intellectuals were passing around home-made tapes of White Light/White Heat, recorded in the late sixties, like early Christians smuggling copies of the Gospel. This is really quite remarkable, considering that none of the band’s albums made it into the top 100 charts in the U.S. and the Underground never had a single commercial hit during its relatively brief existence.

A similar story is the development of a small but devoted band of British admirers of Southern American blues by black artists. When Keith Richards and Paul McCartney discuss their boyhood adoration of Muddy Waters and Lead Belly, a recurrent comment is how difficult it was to find blues records. These obscure African-American artists were not famous in their own country and many of their recordings were scarce due to tiny original printings or the gradual attrition of time. Add to that the fact that these records were (for obvious reasons) even rarer in Great Britain. People would congregate in groups to hear the latest rare finding by one of these connoisseurs. Can you imagine the attention with which some of the creators of rock and roll listened to these scratchy records?

Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is credited with tending a bridge between the researchers who recorded rural artists in the 1930s and the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, the anthology itself was very rare and must have been treated like a relic by both the possessor of a copy and his envious friends. My favorite story about the anthology is how Bob Dylan stole one from friends with whom he was staying in Minnesota. If ever theft is justified, this is certainly one of the few cases.

Today, in contrast, any cultural object that is digitized is just a mouse click away. And not only in free societies, but almost in any country, with the possible exception of North Korea. Centuries of music, from ancestral African folk music to the latest avant-garde creation, are available immediately. As in many fields of human endeavor, this immediate availability of humanity’s cultural patrimony will no doubt fuel unexpected and fascinating blends of influences from all over the word and all different centuries. That should be welcomed and celebrated.

However, perhaps we will come to miss the particular resonance of a work of art in a world marked by the infinite availability of the long tail. Many literary critics believe that context partially determines the meaning of some works of art. However, no art historian has ever considered that perhaps part of that context was an absence: The power of art was fueled by the fact that individual works managed to stand out from the mass of human creation and shine with a brighter light. Walter Benjamin’s “aura” might be diminished somewhat in a world of infinite abundance of cheap cultural objects.

Czechoslovakian Communism is fortunately dead and buried, never to be seen again. And it is unlikely that any future regime will exert the same degree of control over the flow of cultural influences from one country to another. But imagine a group of dissident college students and a couple of middle-aged professors getting together in Prague in 1972 to listen to The Velvet Underground. Aside from the emotions expressed in a song like “Pale Blue Eyes,” the listeners couldn’t help but think about the immense cost of transporting the shiny and beautiful vinyl disc from the United States to Prague. They couldn’t help but think about the maze of little transactions that went into securing that simple record, from finding someone who could travel abroad, to securing the rare dollars at the black market rate to reimburse the purchaser, to the ruses and little lies and deceptions required to smuggle the record back in a suitcase. And, last but not least, the small act of rebellion implicit in playing the record. Is it conceivable that all of this didn’t color the experience of sitting in a friend’s apartment to listen to his latest treasure? Under such circumstances, a Velvet Underground song must have been like listening to a giant bell tolling inside your soul.

Is rock and roll really subversive? Can a Velvet Underground song have contributed to a political transformation? What sort of anti-authoritarian message (if any) can you read into this music? (Consider the sheer banality of the lyrics of “Pale Blue Eyes”: “Sometimes I feel so happy / Sometimes I feel so sad / Sometimes I feel so happy / But most times you just make me mad.” It is as banal as some of the raw material used for Pop Art.) What did these people read into this music? Beats me. That is part of the mystery of human culture.

A Czech teenager who listens to The Velvet Underground now hears a different song, one that is free from the shackles of censorship. That is worth celebrating. On the other hand,Pale Blue Eyes” will never have the same reverberating intensity as it did at that precise time and place in history. And that is a pity.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, several small-and-medium-sized brokerages, asset management institutions based in Spain, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network or follow him on Twitter.

1 comment:

patenttranslator said...

"Is rock and roll really subversive?"

You bet. Communism was not destroyed by a mighty army. Instead, it was destroyed little by little by Beatles and Madonna.

But that is history now.

Incidentally, the creepy similarities between communism and corporate fascism is a fascinating subject that nobody has the courage to explore and describe in a public forum, including myself.