Tag Archives: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, Bound and Free

images02r1k9dfThree decades after reading, in the original English, Herman Melville’s famous novel about Captain Ahab’s mad quest for a Great White Whale (and about so much else besides!), I have lately been enjoying the exercise of re-reading it in José María Valverde’s Spanish-language translation. I had chanced on the paperback some time ago at some library book sale or other—who can remember how many years ago? Or perhaps it was in Bloomington at Caveat Emptor, my favorite used-book store? I picked it up, anyway, and said to myself something like, Why not? And much more recently, with no less randomness, casting about for something new to read in my second language and stumbling on this long-neglected treasure, I said something like, Why not NOW?

So here we are. I turn to the English text as retrieved from Wikisource, to an extended passage from chapter 89 of Melville’s classic—a pause in the narrative cycle so that our encyclopedian Ishmael can elaborate on maritime legal concepts regarding the capture and possession of whales or other large, fishy creatures.

The established legal principle was this: “‘a fast-fish belongs to the party fast to it’”; and, “‘a loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.’” The question, then, comes down to the difference of definition between a “fast-fish” and a “loose-fish” (pez sujeto and pez libre, in the Spanish, which might also be rendered captured, bound, or subjugated fish and free, escaped, or fleeing fish). The reader can imagine how interpretation and application might vary in the mind of plaintiff, defendant, or judge—and by means of the socioeconomic and political lenses of the interpreter.

images9w3sincy“First: What is a Fast-Fish?” Ishmael / Melville asks? “Alive or dead,” they answer, “a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,—a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same.” Or, technically speaking, it remains captured or subjugated as long as it bears some “recognized symbol of possession” and the party fishing or pursuing it is in a position and showing intention to take a more permanent hold of it.

Ishmael then relates a judicial case (some fifty years old at the time of telling, he parenthesizes) of aggrieved whalers who, having first succeeded in harpooning their prey, “were at last, through peril of their lives, obliged to forsake not only their lines, but their boat itself”; and of another ship’s crew who took it out from under them and, on top of that, at once taunted them and kept their “line, harpoons, and boat, which had remained attached to the whale at the time of the seizure.”

Which leads to a highly questionable, even regrettable analogy that places a husband in the position of accusing whalers and his divorced wife in that of their escaped fish; and, though the comparison be obnoxious in the highest degree, let’s put aside our twenty-first century moral disgust at the chauvinist’s choice of words and image (and such arguments as Mary Wollstonecraft might have made, at that crossroads between eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in vindication of the insulted woman’s dignity) in order to get at the substance of the argument itself.

images423fso9xIt seems that a “gentleman,” in the defense attorney’s analogy, “after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness” (ungovernableness, perhaps? unruliness or independent-mindedness?) “had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life”; but afterwards, “repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her”; all well and good, the lawyer argued, the gentleman having abandoned her only under great stress and because of her own nastiness, as Candidate Trump might have had in mind when he insulted Candidate Hillary (the two terms, viciousness and nastiness, oddly connected, in etymological terms)—all good and well, the lawyer said, “yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.”

Again, setting aside the unpleasantness of both thought and image, let’s move on to the judge who has clearly taken the point “that the examples of the whale and the lady were reciprocally illustrative of each other.” In which case he felt compelled to lay out these terms: “to wit,—That as for the boat, he awarded it to the plaintiffs, because they had merely abandoned it to save their lives; but that with regard to the controverted whale, harpoons, and line, they belonged to the defendants; the whale, because it was a Loose-Fish at the time of the final capture; and the harpoons and line because when the fish made off with them, it (the fish) acquired a property in those articles; and hence anybody who afterwards took the fish had a right to them. Now the defendants afterwards took the fish; ergo, the aforesaid articles were theirs.”

While a reasonable man might disagree with both sexist analogy and esteemed judge’s ruling, Ishmael contends that in these two laws “will on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence”; and he proceeds from there to the heart of the matter, which is the commentary that justifies the original digression from Melville’s principal fictive narration:

images6“Is it not a saying in everyone’s mouth,” Ishmael asks, verily dripping with Melville’s intentional ironies, that

Possession is half the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish?  […] What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from the poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of 100,000 pounds seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular 100,000 but a Fast-Fish?  […] And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?

But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.

What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of wailing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.

What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish?  And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?


images2gobz36vArriving again at these last and cogent lines—such fitting interrogative and exclamation points at the end of Melville’s chapter—I do so with a strong impression of having just dreamt them. For here we all stand, bewildered and divided citizens and humanity after the first month since the inauguration of an American President whose election I lamented at last writing for this blog. For, while history does not precisely repeat itself, its echoes and reiterated patterns are always present, instructive like the parables of Jesus to those with ears to hear.

I do not want to belabor the issue; you, my readers, can make your own associations between the biting sarcasm of Herman Melville’s literary critique of the predatory nature of human history from whose nightmare James Joyce’s young artist, Stephen Dedalus, so famously was trying to awake.

As for myself, in these times of dark national affliction, I have been unable to pass a day without a piercing and sorrowful consciousness of some of the fast and at least temporarily loose fish within the aim of the new president’s or any one of his harpoonists’ aim. And trying to strike the right balance between political resistance and activism and the more particular labors of my literary profession.

Primarily, I have been writing a monthly column for the new Hoosier newsletter Progressive Indiana; and, more irregularly, my letters or commentary might appear in Evansville, Indiana’s daily Courier & Press or, more frequently, in the twice-weekly local Perry County News. These things, accomplished not without some creative and emotional anguish, are natural enough to my twin vocations of writing and teaching; and, I consider, a part of my civic responsibility. Likewise with these essays and others, as well as my fiction and literary translations which inevitably bear a moral or ethical or social and political texture.

Dust Bowl migrant with children

Dust Bowl migrant with children

Originally I thought of my literary intention as a priestly vocation, though by now only in a metaphorical sense, unbound by creed or doctrine but planted within a common terrestrial soil that contains both the gritty reality of Darwinian evolution and the more transcendent and mysterious realities of humanity’s more religious or spiritual (or philosophical or ethical) aspirations. Perhaps a better word—and more flexible than priestly—might be prophetic, which can be applied as comfortably to fantasy or science fiction that allows us to see true patterns of what has been in the world and what might yet come to be. Sometimes, in fact, the most prophetic work is what has the potential (for those with ears to hear) to reveal what we as a people are, by the reflection of what humanity has already been or might yet become.

This may be true of any artistic form, though I speak here in terms of the written and spoken word. In the realm of political and social resistance, which is also Constitutionally protected speech, certainly the ideal is to meet each other in a state of shared inquiry and dialogue that is at once civil and civic.

Louis Menand, in the excellent historical narrative and analysis in his book The Metaphysical Club, writes about the American Pragmatists (not metaphysicians at all, really, the title deliberately ironic, though William James did write with particular intelligence of religious experience) who, after the horror and bloodshed of the Civil War, sought a philosophy that would help us transcend the dangers of absolute certitude that lend no space to such civic virtues as tolerance and compromise. They had lost confidence in the American Transcendentalism of their most immediate philosophical forebears, most famously Emerson and Thoreau, who were so drawn to the radical abolitionist and religious fervor of John Brown of the bloody rebellion against that “peculiar institution” of Southern slavery. The novelist Marilynne Robinson, particularly in the first two volumes of her Gilead trilogy, deals elegantly and perceptively with that history of Bleeding Kansas and its aftermath in the Civil Rights era of the Fifties and Sixties.

Mediterranean boat refugees

Mediterranean boat refugees

Should the Civil War have not been fought, then? The lessons of history are nothing if not ambiguous and contradictory. “Do I contradict myself?” the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman asks? “Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Emerson himself concurred: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Thoreau himself, for all his praise of John Brown of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, was no friend of war; the Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay his war tax in protest of the United States’s imperialist Mexican War—which led to his essay (“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”) that inspired the Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protests that ended up defeating the British Empire, and which in turn inspired the transcendent campaigns and rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. Melville, too, who in the above-cited passage alludes to that campaign to seize Mexican territory in the name of Manifest Destiny, was heavily influenced by Emerson’s Transcendentalism; and in Moby Dick, with his (or Ishmael’s) investigation of the darkness as well as the light within the human soul, may have arrived closer than Emerson could to the Pragmatists’ loathing of that dark underside of the soul, which has led humanity to the fratricidal bloodshed of un-civil war from ours a century and a half ago to Syria’s today.

Whitman, too, who in the course of his war poems in Drum-Taps (included in the ever-expanding volume Leaves of Grass) loses, over the grinding dreary crush of Lincoln’s war, much of his initially fervent idealism at the great cause. Among the hymns to heroic Lincoln that follow, I have loved “O Captain! My Captain!” and taught it with some success to elucidate the concept of the paradox: the nation’s simultaneous relief at war’s end and grief at the loss of their beloved president.

imagesDE5PBV63Contradiction and ambiguity, then: paradox. To the momentous and haunting question posed above, there are no simple answers; the only thing we know for sure is the weight of the suffering on both sides. It is harder to determine whether the Emancipation was worth the price of so much misery, but then, how does one measure the weight of two centuries of suffering beneath the whips of oppression and four years of travail in order to end that particular evil? And yet, even so, the freedom won was as quickly lost to the tyranny of Jim Crow. The wounds that too many of us thought healed with the signing of the Voting Rights Act—for all the apparent progress made—still lie open, festering beneath the perceived permission of white supremacists both Southern and Northern to rise up again in defense of their racial and historical privilege. Here we are half a century later, re-visiting the same battles.

Whatever imperfection, then, that may exist in the Pragmatists’ philosophy of conciliation and reasoned agreement, they were certainly prophetic in terms of the apocalyptic choices that are thrust on us today by the hawks, both Republican and Democratic, who continue to stir up seemingly endless war—if not with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then with Iran or Russia or China, as if the option of diplomacy and peacemaking were not even remotely (or even humanly) possible. So for every dollar spent for growing the already bloated war machine, we’ll cut two from the arts and humanities; just as two regulations for every new one, for every billion dollars added, two cut—from climate science, from guaranteed healthcare and other social programs, from everything, in short, that might really make the homeland more secure, less paranoid, and even bequeath to our own and future generations a livable planet.

Moors' (North African Muslims') expulsion from 15th-century Spain

Moors’ (North African Muslims’) expulsion from 15th-century Spain

Without belaboring the point and while acknowledging that the present Administration is only the culmination of a process that has been underway for decades, aided by a rising and un-compromising Republican extremism and abetted by a Democratic establishment that has thrown little more than hollow symbolism at their popular base, I cannot escape the nightmare image of all the fast and loose fish at the mercy of a terrifying, merciless, punitive regime that to my mind promises only heartbreak and sorrow. So I am heartened by the continual resistance, which will do all it can to deny the president and his self-acknowledged wrecking crew the chance to disassemble the basic structure of our democratic republic.

What I was coming to, anyway, before drifting into this by no means impertinent digression, was my personal struggle to achieve a workable balance between the urge to be a part of that resistance and the calling that I have always felt is mine: the literary vocation. As the former concern begins to swallow the latter, which if I am not careful seems likely to drown itself in the continually escalating series of political shocks, news, and analysis to be processed and devoured, it occurs to me that my contributions as a writer, literary translator, and occasional editorialist—however obscure and invisible—really are the central task that I must attend to. My enjoyment and production of literature has always been, after all, my strength and my resistance against the madness that I continue to encounter in this world.

First Olympic team of refugees, in Brazil 2016

First Olympic team of refugees, in Brazil 2016

By the way, if anyone reading this is interested in receiving free copies of the monthly Progressive Indiana, let me know or contact the editor at guy@guytownsend.net or at 9609 Wolf Creek Dr., Lexington, IN, 47138. The project exists primarily to facilitate the coming together in the state of the various segments of an already emerging progressivist movement, with the purpose of establishing among us—and, we hope, with honest-minded neighbors of all political orientations—the conversation and collaboration that might end up saving the very fabric of civil society.

Why read work in translation?

978-0-7864-2386-6[1]At the ALTA conference in Bloomington last month I attended a session with translator Anne Fountain, who presented on the Versos Sencillos (or “Simple Verses,” as often translated) of José Martí. More specifically, she addressed the benefits of using multiple English-language versions of a literary text in order to teach students about the complex choices involved in bringing that or any text over from one language to another. Professor Fountain, who directs the Latin American Studies program at San José State University in San José, California, is a native of Argentina whose professional focus has been on Cuban literature. I came away from the conference with her very elegant translation of Martí’s most famous work in McFarland & Company’s 2005 “dual-language edition.”

Even if Martí’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, there is more than a reasonable chance that you have heard at least a portion of his verse – particularly if you are over forty or fifty years old, or if you have ever studied Spanish in high school. If you are familiar with the folk song called “Guantanamera,” then you might know that its verses consist of a more-or-less random (and varied) sampling of stanzas from Martí’s poems. Growing up in the Sixties I heard the Smothers Brothers perform it on their variety show and have since heard it performed by Joan Baez and undoubtedly others. This edition contains a brief foreword by folk icon Pete Seeger who is principally responsible for the song’s diffusion beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While I am now retired from classroom teaching, I taught the song to my high-school Spanish classes for some twenty years (in southern Indiana) and even presented it, during my first year of teaching, to my English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students in Houston, Texas. If I didn’t fully grasp the power of those verses beforehand, I did after I had presented it to those mostly Mexican American students. Teaching in an urban junior high school was a kind of trial by fire for this slow-talking, slow-thinking Midwestern boy and to say that I encountered some discipline problems and youthful resistance would be an understatement. But when I played that song on my guitar, one of the boys who up to that point had tried me the most moved up beside me and listened with a rapt attention. Afterwards he went home and told his parents that, you know, that Mr. Sanders isn’t such a bad fellow after all, that he’s even surprisingly human. I wish I could say that with that gesture I was immediately transformed into another Jaime Escalante (super-teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver), but that would be something of an overstatement. Still, the episode is illustrative of the power of Martí’s poetry to win hearts and move souls.

Here, without the music, are Martí’s verses from the version that I taught, first in the original Spanish and then in Fountain’s excellent translations:

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crece la palma,

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma.

(A sincere man am I

Born where the palm trees grow,

And I long before I die

My soul’s verses to bestow.)

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmín encendido:

Mi verso es un ciervo herido

Que busca en el monte amparo.

(My verse is a gentle green

And is fiery red in part

In the forest refuge seen,

My verse is the wounded hart.)

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar:

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace más que el mar.

(With the poor ones of this earth

I’ll cast my destiny:

The mountain stream is worth

Much more than the mighty sea.)

The very colorful cover illustration shows Martí walking amidst woods and flowers, with a white horse behind and a wounded deer at his side: Donde el verso es un ciervo herido (Where the Verse is a Wounded Deer), 1996, by the artist Adigio Benítez Jimeno. The title is drawn from the second of the verses cited above, in which the generic “deer” is substituted with the rhyming (and synonymous) “hart.”

To touch briefly on the question of Professor Fountain’s topic, it is a popular assumption that if you’ve seen one translation you’ve seen them all. Isn’t it just a matter of taking the precisely corresponding word in the second language and substituting it for the foreign word? To be brief, no. Even when both translators are competent and careful, differences will appear and each may convey a slightly different nuance, sometimes even a different interpretation altogether. The problem is worse when the translation is done hastily or without attention to detail: beware, in particular, translations found on the average Internet site, which may be particularly bad.

That, of course, is a larger topic, and is perhaps best illustrated by other examples from the text, but the crucial educational point is that the translation / translator does / do matter. There are the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the best are objects to be treasured. For a closer look at the topic of literary translation I would recommend Lucina Schell’s excellent site at www.readingintranslation.com. Even if you aren’t a translator, you might learn something. I am a new visitor myself and have particularly enjoyed her essay on the art of the translator’s introduction.

But my topic is more general: why bother to read work in translation at all? I will not cite the ugly statistics, but we English-speakers in the United States are particularly unlikely to read work originally written in other languages. Though there is a lot of effort being made in particular by small presses and literary translators to bring a greater trove of translated work to the public’s attention. (I have myself recently been reading work translated from German and Polish, two languages that I can’t read in the original, though I am of German ancestry.)

images[2]Anyway, as I was reading Martí’s brief prologue, it occurred to me that one important reason is that we need more perspectives on the world than the very limited and even myopic ones that we get from what passes as a national discourse on foreign and even domestic policy (immigration, anyone?). To broaden our perspective is to add to our “equipment for living,” to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase which is by now at least passingly familiar to readers of this blog. A person (or a people; or a nation) with only one perspective is sadly ill-equipped for the complexities of life in an increasingly interdependent world.

And who better to illustrate the principle, it occurred to me, than Martí, who is universally beloved and respected for his humane verses and struggle for freedom – and who, as a journalist who lived several years in the United States, was a perceptive and friendly interpreter of American affairs and life to his Latin American compatriots.

Which is not to say that he was always an approving observer of gringo society and politics. It was with a worried heart over U.S. efforts to purchase Cuba from Spain, thus subverting to our own ends his people’s struggle for their own independence, that he accepted his doctor’s advice to take a vacation to New York’s Catskill Mountains where he wrote these poems full of reverence for his own land and people – this in 1890, five years before his dying in that struggle in an exchange of fire with Spanish troops.

When he wrote those verses, as we read in his prologue, during “that winter of anguish in which because of ignorance, blind faith, fear, or simple courtesy, the Spanish American nations gathered in Washington under the shield of the fearsome eagle” (he alludes to the Pan American Conference of 1889 in Washington D. C.), he was deeply worried about U.S. involvement in Latin America’s affairs. “Who among us,” he continues, “has forgotten that shield, an emblem on which the eagle of Monterrey and Chapultepec … clutched the flags of the nations of the Americas in its talons?”

The allusion to Monterrey and Chapultepec is to the Mexican War which we fought between 1846 and 1848, during the Presidency of James K. Polk who was anxious to annex what are now our Western states by fair means or foul. As the Spanish American War turned out, while we didn’t get Cuba we did Puerto Rico, among other possessions. Certainly Martí had cause to worry, since our motives and interests were clearly not of a wholly altruistic nature.

Now, today we may argue that those Western states are much better off than had they continued belonging to troubled Mexico. Though it should be noted that one of our most fiercely independent-minded American writers of the day, Henry David Thoreau, wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” in protest of that war which he rightly saw as a war of American aggression against a weaker neighbor – and he went proudly to jail for refusing to pay his war tax.

And while we may argue that Cuba would have been better off with us than under the rule, first, of the tyrant Batista, and then of the Communist tyrant Castro, we will never know how the extremes of Castro’s rule might have been moderated if his movement hadn’t from the outset been threatened by the out-sized power and bellicose threats of its neighbor to the north, who even tried to assassinate him.

Regardless of how individually we might feel about those questions, to me it seems inarguably true that we can scarcely have a meaningful and productive dialogue with other nations or people if it has never even occurred to us that they might view things from a different perspective than we do. And that they might not always look kindly on our efforts, whether real or perceived, to enforce our will on them by military or economic fiat. And (gasp!) that they might have a point: that we could even be wrong, now and then.

None of which is to argue that the United States is the Great Satan, but it could certainly do us good to have a better sense of how the rest of the world perceives us – often for good, but sometimes not so much so. And not without reason, more often than many of us care to admit.

Thus, I would argue, one very practical reason for reading in translation. It equips us to live better and more wisely in a world of varying perspectives, no one of them wholly valid in isolation. Not even ours.


Of course, another reason for reading Martí in translation is for the same reason that people have read and loved him throughout the Spanish-speaking world for over a century: for the sheer pleasure of it, which (with the related concept of beauty) is its own kind of equipment for confronting the sometimes cruel vicissitudes of life. Martí himself, for instance, speaks in one of these poems of the “sweet consolation of verse” (dulce consuelo); and in another he writes, as Professor Fountain translates: “You, poem, are the poet’s friend” – and likewise the reader’s, I like to think.

 I must tell you that, if you are looking to explore these verses on your own, the McFarland edition may seem a bit over-priced at just under $40 for the paper edition. This was also the case when some years ago I purchased my friend Julie Sellers’s delightful book Merengue and Dominican Identity: Music as National Unifier. McFarland does have an impressive list and bills itself as “a leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books,” so I suppose their marketing plan is aimed at universities and libraries and that they are thus able to take on projects that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.

1073063[1]If you can’t buy it for yourself, anyway, you might suggest that your local library purchase it. But also there is another edition from the Arte Público Press, by the Cuban American translator Manuel A. Tellechea, that is aimed at young readers and much more modestly priced. I do not have that version available and have not made a comparative study of the translations, though I am familiar with the press and it is extremely reputable.