“Christopher Smart’s ‘Uncommunicated Letters’: Translation and the Ethics of Literary History”

Citation: “Christopher Smart’s ‘Uncommunicated Letters’: Translation and the Ethics of Literary History.” Boundary 2, 14.1-2 (1985-86): 115-46.

Beginning of essay (page 115)

To read Smart’s work, not just the best-known poems but also the translations and magazine writings, is to become aware of a disparate poetic spirit: humble, vainglorious, scholarly, and humorous. The disturbing discrepancy between humility and vainglory is my immediate, delimited concern–one I will take up by exploring the double “morality” of translation theory in Smart’s Jubilate Agno (c. 1759-63) and Preface to the verse Horace (1767). Traduttore, traditore, goes the refrain. Smart is both saint and traitor to the originary Word. The effort required to imagine a continuity between humility and vainglory–the effort we call “literary history”–is my ultimate, less limited topic. As an “author,” in the professional sense, Smart must sanction the troubled ethics of translation, and, more generally, of writing; and the sanction can only come through the historical imagination of a disguised ethic called literary “value.”

Excerpt from page 123

Literally, Smart’s afflictions in the asylum–“For they work me with their harping irons . . .” (Jubilate, B1.124)–reenact the “thorn in the flesh” of Paul’s conjectured epilepsy. Paul was translator of the logos; Smart now assumes the role and the pain. There is final charity in taking the translator’s station, in stigmatizing one’s own voice with the “thorn” of selfhood, and so by this very act ensuring its infirmity beneath a Pauline text now firmer, now healed of the palsying mark of the mortal self. . . . (p. 131)

Imagine a universe in which everything that exists is a translator. Smart’s cosmos can be pictured in this fashion: the world is a vast collection of voices like empty vessels or jars. Each single jar can only stand as synecdochical metonymy for the logos (as a part of a whole at one remove from the Word). In itself it could never be the logos in the sky, but only a partial echo, splinter image, or crossed-out particle of the sky. Yet it is precisely in the personal sacrifice of both the totality and actuality of the logos that each vessel finds the talent to “give” the essence of the logos to others, and so–because all are translators–to receive indirectly from others such essence. The sum result of all the bright jars of the world casting partial reflections of the sky, and of each other’s reflections of the sky, is a total image of heaven suffused in the world: each jar participates through the universe of its fellows in a whole picture of cosmos. And somehow in the act of totally mutually translation, in which each vessel gives, none takes, and all receive, not only the total image but the actual being of the transcendental logos is regenerated: all the jars fill at once with “precious” coin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *