Monday, November 21, 2011

David Rothenberg

David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

He has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years. His books include Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, and Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales. Other books include Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand’s End, and Always the Mountains.

Rothenberg's new book, on the evolution of beauty, and how art and science can be better intertwined, is Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m always reading too many books at the same time, which keeps me well distracted from writing my own, but I also get ideas in surprising places… Just finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I suppose was written for readers like me, and its author, who went to Ivy League colleges in the early eighties and for some reason we all thought French theory, from deconstruction to Derrida, would help us understand our romantic relationships and everything else—there was nothing outside the text. This book brings it all back; the intense analysis of everything, the yearning for real touch and experience, the sinking feeling that none of our loves would ever amount to anything, the bane of semiotics. His plot is, in the end, the uncertainties of real life, the fact that the true story is not the tidy or epic one.

After reading Tim Parks’ article about it in the New York Review of Books, I was inspired to get Willem Fredrik Hermans’ novel Beyond Sleep, translated from the Dutch, which concerns a geologist's Kafka-like journey to the steppes of Arctic Norway, Finnmark to be precise, to test out his theory that meteorites crashed into the Earth. The tale ends up being about something else entirely, the loneliness of the scientific journey, the struggle to make the thoughts of small countries matter to the large, the desperate hunt for something significant to say and to add to the fabric of human knowledge.

I like both these novels because once you’ve finished them you get a precise but hard to articulate feeling that an exact angle on reality has been achieved, a sense of rightness that couldn’t be conveyed any other way. You must read the books to get there, and such books make reading always worthwhile. I would hope that my books will one day engender such a clarity of result in the readers who finish them.

I often seek out philosophical tales from travelers who come from the very edges of the known world, and then journey to our centers to makes sense of them for us. Yuri Ryktheu’s The Chukchi Bible, Russia’s most celebrated indigenous writer tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a shaman from Siberia who travels all the way to San Francisco and Chicago and then must return back to his Chukchi village, all in the first years when Lenin’s face was spreading to his homeland with the grave conformity for which it stood.

Since I’m writing a book on insect sound and music I must sometimes read nonfiction, especially things in the midst of my odd subjects, and there is a wonderful recent book on singing insects, Cricket Radio by John Himmelman, which presents a real love and attentiveness to the songs of crickets, katydids, and shieldbearers in the browning autumn woods of Connecticut shores. People tend to love these sounds for the melancholy march of the seasons that they convey, but we rarely play close attention to what we’re hearing. My next book will try to connect these resounding overlapping rhythms to the idea of music, and Himmelman sets the stage and gives me the evidence upon which to begin.

Finally, anyone who has spent time in the crisp Northern lands of European literature should be celebrating the award of a Nobel Prize to the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, whose work is full of exact images that have been successfully translated into many languages, proving that poetry can really cross cultural lines. In English, though, I would avoid Robin Fulton’s wooden, academic translation in favor of the the version edited by Robert Hass, with the work of many translators including Robert Bly, Samuel Charters, and May Swenson. I am looking forward to Robin Robertson’s upcoming translation of The Deleted World, but meanwhile I’ll offer my own translation of the final stanza of one of Tranströmer’s greatest works, “After a Long Drought”:

It’s all right to dial up the island mirage.

It’s all right to hear the gray voice.

Iron is honey to thunder.

It’s all right to live by your code.
Visit David Rothenberg's Survival of the Beautiful website.

--Marshal Zeringue