Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Approaches to Language, Literature & Insight Practice

An Interview with Robert Bringhurst by Sergio Cohn

Pacific Rim Review of Books is delighted to acknowledge a new pan-American working association with Azougue journal from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Azougue is a socially-engaged Creative Commons magazine, and it is also a publishing house specializing in poetry. In conjunction with the North American publication of acclaimed Canadian poet, essayist and typographical scholar Robert Bringhurst’s new non-fiction collection, Everywhere Being Is Dancing (Gasperau, NB; Counterpoint, USA), we are pleased to bring you this searching interview with him conducted by Azougue’s Sergio Cohn, with questions from his co-editors Pedro Cesarino and Renato Rezende. To our rainforest neighbours we say, Obrigado!

Sergio Cohn: The Pacific Northwest coast has long witnessed an intense interchange among peoples such as the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and others. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist, also perceived striking homologies between Haida and Chinese aesthetics, for example, whose visual representations exhibit a familiar feeling in their symmetries, parallelisms and schematizations. Certain Greek-European philosophical discourse has insisted, however, that a truly cosmopolitan culture can only be a prerogative of Western civilization, supplied by writing and criticism. Within the mandala of approaches to language, literature, and insight practice that you’ve been constructing through your publications, have you any thoughts on the complex nature of ethnocentricity?

Robert Bringhurst: There’s a very distinctive visual language, known as “formline art,” that has flourished for centuries among the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Nisgha peoples on the Northwest Coast of North America. People call it a “style,” but I think it makes more sense to call it a visual language. It isn’t a fully three-dimensional language, but it isn’t confined to two dimensions either. You find it in sculpture as well as painting. There are some very compelling resemblances between this kind of visual art and some of the visual art of early China, the art of the Ainu in northern Japan, Maori art from New Zealand, a lot of Melanesian art, and some early work from sites on the west coast of South America. In other words, this visual language, native to coastal British Columbia and Alaska, seems to belong to a family of visual languages that reaches around and across the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, there are some close and compelling resemblances between certain stories told in the Haida language on the British Columbia coast about a century ago and stories told around the same time, in very different languages, on the north coast of Siberia. In visual art, the resemblances reach one way; in literature, another.

I’m not much interested, myself, in constructing a grand theory to explain all these resemblances. But it is good to be reminded in this way that cultural history is wonderfully deep and complex. The story of human literature and art is much thicker and more widespread than the story of Europe and its colonies, or China and its dynasties, or the Middle East and its monomaniacal religions. The history of the human mind, and the histories of art and literature, are very different from the histories of empires, which preach their own importance through their schools. Art is made by individuals, not by political or commercial or religious institutions, and great art can be made in little villages as well as in big cities. It’s true, as you suggest, that an intensely ethnocentric bias is present in a lot of European thinking. You find it in Plato, Aristotle and Kant as well as in Hegel and Heidegger. You can fight it or you can ignore it; what you mustn’t do is believe it. If you simply ignore Plato’s claims that the Greeks are better and smarter and more human than everyone else, then Plato’s brilliance as a writer of philosophy remains. His racism is actually irrelevant to ninety or ninety-five per cent of his thinking, so you can just set it aside if you’re willing to do so. The problem is that we often don’t. It seems that people really like to be ethnocentric, the way children like to dress up and pretend they’re important. The problem may not be universal, but it is very widespread. There are some viciously ethnocentric Haida and Tsimshian people too! But a little genuine, heart-to-heart experience of other human cultures goes a long way toward countering this petty self-importance.

SC: What are the translation difficulties with an oral tradition like, say, Haida or Navajo? For instance, if we consider the role of authorship and creation in the case of Haida literature, might this by implication suggest the establishment of a canon?

RB: Oral literature is different from written literature. There is no fixed text. If you reread a printed book, you will find things that you didn’t see before, because you, the reader, have changed, though the book has probably not. In an oral culture, the teller changes as well as the listener, so the story itself is constantly being revised. When an oral work is transposed to the written domain, its dynamism decreases but doesn’t altogether disappear. In other respects, print cultures tend to be more dynamic than oral cultures, precisely because in print cultures writing is stored and saved. New writers come to feel imprisoned as well as empowered by this ever-increasing store, and then they go in search of innovation – “ originality,” as it is called. Print also becomes a commodity, which accelerates the search for selfish novelty. In an oral culture, innovation is inescapable, but “originality” is real: the moral pressure runs toward the retention of tradition. Oral and literate cultures also have plenty in common. Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and English written literatures all rest on oral roots; they begin with texts that were transposed from the oral to the written mode. The oral and the written can nourish each other, in fact. Neither is necessarily pure. And one oral culture is not like another. The structures you find in works of oral literature from the west coast of North America, for example, tend to be different from the structures you’ll encounter in European writing, and different from the structures of European oral epic and saga as well. Whether you listen to Native American literature in oral form or read it in transcription or translation, if your preconceptions are European, you have some learning to do. You have to learn a new way of reading. I as a translator cannot do this learning for you. The best I can do is help you see that learning to read another kind of literature might be worth your while.

The question of oral authorship has troubled a lot of people, but I don’ t think it’s so difficult. We just have to abandon the silly assumption that works from oral cultures have no authors, or that they are authored by the community as a whole instead of by individuals. In every culture, the artist or storyteller shares a language, a fund of ideas, and a common store of phrases and images. He shares these things with other artists, and he shares them with the community as a whole. Otherwise, no communication is possible. But every individual artist or storyteller employs these shared resources in an individual way. This is true for a Haida mythteller like Skaay or a Navajo mythteller like Cháálatsoh, just as it is for Shakespeare or Camões, or for Beethoven or Rembrandt.

SC: Non-Western cultures served as inspiration for numerous avant-garde trailblazers, such as Artaud, Tzara, Picasso or Oswald de Andrade. How can a Western reader today usefully approach Indigenous North American aesthetics and poetics?

RB: Perhaps the work of Picasso and Brancusi and other Europeans who were impressed by Native American and African art has made it easier for us, who are their grandchildren, to see that art for ourselves. Or perhaps it has made it more difficult. The importance of non-western art can’t be measured by its impact on western art and culture. It is what it is, and the best way to approach it is surely to try to see it for what it is. We needn’t be in a hurry to swallow it up and put it to work making art of our own. We could take some time to try to understand what kind of art it already is.

SC: Your poetic work is made vivid and is informed by a matrix of diverse sources such as the Egyptian, Indigenous North-American, classical Greek, and Asian. What do you think the role of translation has meant to your poetry and your creative process?

RB: I grew up hearing a lot of different languages, and translation has been important to me for as long as I can remember. I also spent some of my childhood in some very thin and barren environments – impoverished houses in impoverished small towns where the main ways of making a living were industrial mining and logging and ranching. People fed themselves, in other words, by radically simplifying, and frequently destroying, the richness of the world in which they lived. Books from other times and places, mostly written or transcribed in other languages, were vitally important to me then and still are now.

SC: Besides the poetics of “Others," there is in your poetry the incorporation of extra-poetical elements, such as biology, mathematics and religion. In an interview you once stated that “a music that is excessively human is worthless, a music that is exclusively human is not human enough”. Does the same hold true for poetry and your need to be open to new forms of language?

RB: I don’ t think of poetry as something restricted to human beings. I think of it as something present in the forest, in the land, in the light, in the breathing of the world. The reason for composing what we call poetry in the languages spoken and written by human beings is to join in that larger and more various kind of poetry that was here before any human was ever born and will, with luck, be here when all the humans have vanished.

SC: You have an interesting study on “digital revolution” in relation to the printed word. Do you see structural changes in language with new technologies, or only the creation of new media? And how do you perceive the future of the printed word book in this new context?

RB: he digital age is just beginning. It may last for a long time, and I do not know what it will bring. Perhaps the digital revolution, like the industrial revolution, will bring more destruction than it is worth, and perhaps it will not. I have no way of knowing. When books were first printed, the type was cut by hand and set by hand and printed by hand on handmade paper, then the books were folded and sewn and bound by hand, and so the editions were rarely more than a few hundred copies. Now we make books on giant machines, printing ten thousand copies per hour. This is probably much more significant as pollution than as the sharing of information. The forests we destroy to print the books are probably much wiser than any book that has ever been written. People have suggested that the digital revolution will cure this problem, because books will be read on a screen, not printed on paper. But the human appetite for human-centred visions, hallucinations and delusions remains as strong as before. Most humans are much more interested in humans than they are in the larger world. This is preposterous, but it’s true – and what’s more, it’s quite normal: other species do it too. Woodpeckers, squirrels and deer are more interested in each other than in the universe that surrounds them. The tissue of the forest, the ecology of the planet, is woven of vast numbers of ethnocentric lives. But humans, just for the moment, have an unhealthy and unsustainable ration of power which sets them apart from those other species. And so, as we go about our daily business – even the peaceful business of printing books and magazines – we incidentally ruin the world in the process. I don’t suppose the digital revolution is any cure for that. The revolution’s underlying aim, if I’m not mistaken, is to give us even more power, not less, though we already have much more than we can handle.