The light comes in the name of the voice is a sentence that stops itself. Its components are simple yet it stays foreign, we cannot own it. Like Homer’s untranslatable MOLY it seems to come from somewhere else and it brings a whiff of immortality with it. We know that in Joan’s case this turned out to be a whiff of herself burning. Let’s pass on to a less dire example of the escapade of translation, but one that is equally driven by the rage against cliché—or, as the translator himself in this case puts it—”I want to paint the scream not the horror.”(3) This you may recognize as a statement of the painter Francis Bacon in reference to his well-known series of portraits of the pope screaming (which are variations on a portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez). Now, Francis Bacon is someone who subjected himself to inquisition repeatedly throughout his career, most notably in a series of interviews with art critic David Sylvester, which are published in a volume called The Brutality of Fact. “The brutality of fact” is Bacon’s own phrase for what he is after in a painting. He is a representational painter. His subjects are people, birds, dogs, grass, sand, water, himself and what he wants to capture of these subjects is (he says) their reality or (once he used the term) essence or (often) the facts. By facts he doesn’t mean to make a copy of the subject as a photograph would but rather to create a sensible form that will translate directly to your nervous system the same sensation as the subject. He wants to paint the sensation of a jet of water, that very jar on the nerves. Everything else is cliché. Everything else is the same old story of how Saint Michael and Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine came in the door with a thousand angels around them and a sweet smell filled the room. He hates all that storytelling, all that illustration, he will do anything to deflect or disrupt the boredom of storytelling, including smudge the canvas with sponges or throw paint at it.
When I say Francis Bacon wants to translate sensation to your nerves by means of paint I’m using the verb translate metaphorically. In our usual usage, to translateis an operation of language, not paint. Silence also is something proper to language and Bacon does at times evoke it literally, as in interviews when he says (more than once), “You see this is the point at which one absolutely cannot talk about painting. It’s in the process.”(4) In this statement he is making a territorial claim, as Joan of Arc did when she said to her judges, “That does not touch your process.” Two different senses of process but the same exasperated shrug toward an authority whose demands are unjust. One can sense this exasperation shaping most of the public actions of Joan’s life—her military recklessness, her choice of men’s clothing, her abjuration of heresy, her relapse into heresy, her legendary final words to the judges: “Light your fires!” Had silence been a possibility for her, Joan would not have ended up in the fires. But the inquisitors’ method was to reduce everything she had said to twelve charges in their own wording, that is to say, their story of her solidified as the fact of the matter.(5) The charges were read out to her. She had to answer each with “I believe it” or “I believe it not.” A yes or no question forbids a word to stop itself. Untranslatability is illegal.
Stops and silence of various kinds, however, seem to be available to Francis Bacon within the process of his painting. For instance in his subject matter, when he chooses to depict people screaming in a medium that cannot transmit sound. Or in his use of color, which is a complex matter, but let’s look at one aspect of it, namely the edges of the color. His aim as a painter, as we have seen, is to grant sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. He wants to defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise, which is pretty much everywhere since humans are creatures who crave a story. There is a tendency for story to slip into the space between any two figures or any two marks on a canvas. Bacon uses color to silence this tendency. He pulls color right up to the edge of his figures—a color so hard, flat, bright, motionless, it is impossible to enter into it or wonder about it. There is a desolation of curiosity in it. He once said he’d like to “put a Sahara desert or the distances of a Sahara” in between parts of a painting.(6) His color has an excluding and accelerating effect, it makes your eye move on. It’s a way of saying, Don’t linger here and start thinking up stories, just stick to the facts. Sometimes he puts a white arrow on top of the color to speed your eye and denounce storytelling even more. To look at this arrow is to feel an extinguishing of narrative. He says he got the idea for the arrows from a golf manual.(7) To know this makes me feel even more hopeless about understanding the story of this picture. Bacon has no interest in encouraging such hope; nor did Joan of Arc when her inquisitors asked, “What do your voices smell like?” and she answered, “Ask me next Saturday.” Bacon extinguishes the usual relation of figure to ground, the usual passage of information at that place, as Joan extinguishes the usual relation of question to answer. There is instead a catastrophizing of communication.
Bacon has another term for this catastrophizing: he calls it “destroying clarity with clarity.”(8) Not just in his use of color but in the whole strategy of his compositions, he wants to make us see something we don’t yet have eyes for. He goes inside clarity to a place of deeper refreshment, where clarity is the same and yet differs from itself, which may be analogous to the place inside a word where it falls silent in its own presence. And it is noteworthy that for Bacon this is a place of violence. He talks a lot about violence in his interviews. He gets asked a lot about violence in his interviews. He and his interviewers do not mean the same thing by this word. Their question is about images of crucifixion, slaughtered meat, twisting, mangling, bullfights, glass cages, suicide, half-animals and unidentifiable flesh. His answer is about reality. He is not interested in illustrating violent situations and disparages his own works that do so as “sensational.” He wants to convey the sensation, not the sensational, to paint the scream, not the horror. And he understands the scream in its reality to lie somewhere inside the surface of a screaming person or a scream-worthy situation. If we consider his study of the pope screaming alongside the painting that inspired it, Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, we can see what Bacon has done is to plunge his arms into Velazquez’s image of this profoundly disquieted man and to pull out a scream that is already going on there deep inside. He has made a painting of silence in which silence silently rips, as black holes are said to do in deep space when no one is looking. Here is Bacon speaking to David Sylvester:
When talking about the violence of paint it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself … and the violence also of the suggestions within the image itself which can only be conveyed through paint. When I look at you across the table I don’t only see you, I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else …. the living quality … all the pulsations of a person … the energy within the appearance …. And to put that over in a painting means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And I sometimes think when people say my work is violent that from time to time I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.(9)
Bacon says we live through screens. What are these screens? They are part of our normal way of looking at the world, or rather our normal way of seeing the world without looking at it, for Bacon’s claim is that a real seer who looked at the world would notice it to be fairly violent—not violent as narrative surface but somehow violently composed underneath the surface, having violence as its essence. I could say that Bacon “translates” the violence to paint, but I want to stop talking about translation metaphorically and take up the actual struggle of rendering a text from one language to another. So can we please shift our historical gaze to Germany at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century and give our attention to some words for the color purple. Our English word purple comes from Latin purpureus, which comes from Greek porphyra, a noun denoting the purplefish. This sea mollusk, properly the purple limpet or murex, was the source from which all purple and red dyes were obtained in antiquity. But the purplefish had another name in ancient Greek, namely kalche, and from this word was derived a verb and a metaphor and a problem for translators. The verb kalchainein, “to search for the purplefish,” came to signify profound and troubled emotion: to grow dark with disquiet, to seethe with worries, to search in the deep of one’s mind, to harbor dark thoughts, to brood darkly. When the German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin undertook to translate Sophokles’ Antigone in 1796, he met this problem on the first page. The play opens with a distressed Antigone confronting her sister Ismene. “What is it?” asks Ismene, then she adds the purple verb. “You are obviously growing dark in mind (kalchainous) over some piece of news.” This is a standard reading of the line. Hölderlin’s version: “Du seheinst ein rotes Wort zu färben,” would mean something like “You seem to color a red word, to dye your words red.” The deadly literalism of the line is typical of him. His translating method was to take hold of every item of the original diction and wrench it across into German exactly as it stood in its syntax, word order and lexical sense. The result was versions of Sophokles that made Goethe and Schiller laugh aloud when they heard them. Learned reviewers itemized more than a thousand mistakes and called the translations disfigured, unreadable, the work of a madman. Indeed by 1806 Hölderlin was certified insane. His family committed him to a psychiatric clinic, from which after a year he was released as incurable. He spent the remaining thirty-seven years of his life in a tower overlooking the river Neckar, in varying states of indifference or ecstasy, walking up and down his room, playing the piano, writing on scraps of paper, receiving the odd visitor. He died still insane in 1843. It is a cliché to say Hölderlin’s Sophokles translations show him on the verge of breakdown and derive their luminous, gnarled, unpronounceable weirdness from his mental condition. Still I wonder what exactly is the relation of madness to translation? Where does translation happen in the mind? And if there is a silence that falls inside certain words, when, how, with what violence does that take place, and what difference does it make to who you are?